Friday, June 22, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog Classic Series Reviews: Part 2

Well, everyone, it's finally June 23rd: Sonic's actual birthday. So, how about I finish what I started last week by reviewing what may very well be the two greatest Sonic games of all time while Sonic has his first really legal keg party. Let the continuation of the reviewing extravaganza begin.


Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles

Let’s move on to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Actually, as you may have noticed, this is not one game, but two. See, Sonic 3 & Knuckles was originally going to be released as a single game, titled simply “Sonic the Hedgehog 3”. However, the game grew so large that it had to be split into two games, thanks to the cost of manufacturing such a massive cartridge as well as time constraints. To make up for this, Sonic & Knuckles was made into a special cartridge that allowed for “lock-on technology”; basically, you could stick another Sonic game’s cartridge on top of it and see what happens. For Sonic 1, you would be able to play the Special Stage of S3&K over and over again. For Sonic 2, you would get to play through the entire game as Knuckles the Echidna, the games’ featured new character. Finally, for Sonic 3, you would get to play the game as it was originally meant to be experienced: as a single, gigantic adventure. The game flows better this way and both games are basically the same in terms of gameplay. Not to mention that, should you get downloadable versions of the two games, you will still be able to play it – or, at least, I think you will, and most game anthologies that feature the classics allow for this feature as well. Of course, both games are good enough on their own, so if, for whatever reason, you can’t play the full version of the game, that’s fine too. Well, I suppose we should move on now.

The story of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a bit more important than it was in its older brothers. There’s no dialogue or anything like that, but you will see a simplistic, but nonetheless actually kind of compelling storyline play out as you go through the game. As you should have already been able to tell, this game marks the introduction of Knuckles to the franchise. He’s a red echidna that is rougher than the rest of them and unlike Sonic, he doesn’t chuckle.
It legitimately bothers me that someone approved of these lyrics.

Now, at the beginning, you may not be quite sure what’s going on, since who reads instruction manuals anymore? See, Knuckles – the last of his kind - lives on Angel Island, an island that literally floats in the sky. The only thing that keeps it afloat is the Master Emerald, a very powerful gem with heavy connections to the Chaos Emeralds – which this island also has its own set of, apparently - that Knuckles must guard with his life in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of evil. Well, after the events of Sonic 2, Dr. Eggman’s – yeah, I’m done - beautiful Death Egg has come crashing down, and where else would it land but Angel Island. This, of course, brings said mad doctor to the place, and also brings along Sonic and Tails. Before the two make it there, Dr. Eggman convinces Knuckles that they intend to steal the Chaos Emeralds. Being ever-so-gullible, Knuckles confronts the two as soon as they enter the island and steals the Chaos Emeralds that they had already acquired in Sonic 2, drifts out of character by chuckling and runs off, and thus the two have to deal with Knuckles constantly along the way. Fortunately, he only proves a minor hindrance and the two confront the mad doctor just as he is about to re-launch his Death Egg. Eggman’s plans successfully thwarted, they…fall crashing down to the surface. Eggman isn’t about to give up, though; now aware of the Master Emerald’s existence, he intends to use its power to once again send the Death Egg into space, and it all builds up to an intense and legitimately exciting climax at the end. It really is kind of interesting to watch it play out, especially at the end, and I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive feat that the developers were able to tell this story very well without using any dialogue.

Visually, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is even more impressive than Sonic 2. By Genesis standards, this game looks simply incredible, and the detail given to the environments is kind of surprising. The soundtrack isn’t quite as good as that of Sonic 2 and has a few miss tracks – I’m not much of a fan of Marble Garden Zone or Carnival Night Zone myself – but is still pretty awesome and sounds like it’s going for a different style than that of the previous two games. Actually, I have to say, the Eggman boss theme of this game is probably my favorite out of all of the 2-D games, and the final boss theme just feels epic. I remember that, as a kid, I would use the cheat to unlock the sound test just to listen to it. It’s that good. As far as Zones go, it’s worth mentioning that different tracks were composed for both Acts of each Zone this time around. I’d say the best tracks are the ones for Hydrocity Zone Act 2, both Ice Cap Zone Acts, Flying Battery Zone Act 2, Lava Reef Zone Act 1, Sky Sanctuary Zone and both Death Egg Zone Acts.

Moving on now, Sonic 3 & Knuckles retains the two-Act structure that Sonic 2 introduced, and there are twelve – well, technically fourteen – Zones in the entire game. The difference here is that bosses are not only encountered in Act 2. Though Act 2 is where you’ll face Dr. Eggman, you’ll always have to face off with one of his many creations in Act 1. And I have to say, the boss design of this game is…actually quite good. I would say that it has probably the best bosses out of all of the 2-D games. A lot of them are very creative and some of them can actually be quite challenging, at least as you keep going on in the game.

So Sonic 2 improved upon Sonic 1’s core concepts and design in several ways. Naturally, one would think that Sonic 3 & Knuckles should continue to do so. Sonic 3 & Knuckles does this and more. First of all, let’s talk about our three playable characters. Yes, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the first main Sonic game to introduce playable characters with legitimate differences from each other. Though you could play as Tails in Sonic 2, he was basically a second skin for Sonic. In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, he’s a bit slower than Sonic, but in return you are allowed the ability to use his two tails to fly, or, when underwater, swim. This is very helpful for getting around as well as finding secrets and different paths through levels. Sonic himself is even faster than he was in Sonic 2 and now has an Insta-Shield move, which very briefly creates a shield around Sonic when you press the jump button in midair. It requires exceptional timing to use effectively and may take some practice, but once you get skilled with it, it becomes very useful for taking out enemies and bosses quickly. And then we have the new guy, Knuckles the Echidna. While he has the lowest jump of all of the characters, in return he has a variety of abilities at his disposal. He can glide great distances and even hook onto and climb up walls with his…spiked knuckles. And, being a powerhouse, he can break through walls that Sonic and Tails can’t even hope to pass by with his face. Amazing.

I don’t think I can quite say the levels are specialized for each character, as they might be in the 3-D games; the general layout of each Zone is the same no matter who you’re playing as, aside from perhaps a few subtle differences here and there. However, the level design does offer plenty of opportunities to use Tails’ or Knuckles’ abilities to reach secrets or take paths and shortcuts that Sonic can’t. In fact, Knuckles’ limitation of having a low jump will require you to take completely different routes than Sonic or Tails in several places that will completely change your experience. These areas are actually optimized for Knuckles’ unique attributes; one segment in Ice Cap, for instance, requires you to use Knuckles’ abilities to glide and climb to maneuver around spiked ice balls, lest you experience great pain.

And on the subject of level design, that has improved significantly, and I already thought that Sonic 2 had some really fantastic level designs. Really, I’d hate to sound redundant, but the size of these levels is quite frankly amazing. Sonic 1 and 2 already had pretty huge stages, but the ones here are simply gargantuan. The amount of exploration this game offers is simply ridiculous and the stages are actually a lot longer than those of the first two games. Most of the levels in the first two only took two or three minutes to complete at the longest. In S3&K, even if you don’t dawdle and are playing well, some of them can last up to five minutes. At the same time, levels never at any point feel like they’re dragging on or getting old. The Zones of this game are probably some of the most diverse, creatively designed and fun that you will find in the entire franchise; each Zone has its own very unique attributes and gimmicks and expertly crafted platforming. Of course, the speed is still very much here. It’s just as satisfying and balanced out just as well with the platforming as in Sonic 2. In fact, the game proves to be even faster than Sonic 2. Honestly, I am legitimately amazed that they were able to make a game like  this on the Genesis way back in 1994.

Of course, even the levels of Sonic 2 weren’t perfect. Many of Sonic 2’s levels had some pretty bad enemy placement that slightly cheapened what were otherwise very fun Zones. Fortunately, Sonic 3 & Knuckles successfully averts this flaw. In fact, I can’t really think of any significant problems I had with the levels of this game. I remembered disliking Sandopolis Zone, but playing through the game again, I even enjoyed it. I suppose the one element I will have to admit is badly designed is the infamous barrel in Carnival Night Zone Act 2. See, there’s this one segment of that stage where you’re locked in a room with no apparent means of escape. On the room’s other side, there is a multicolored, spinning barrel that moves up and down when you get on top of it. However, said barrel hates you and won’t let you down to the room below easily. How do you get past this obstacle? Well, you press up and down on the D-Pad, corresponding with the motion of the barrel, until you can get out. Unfortunately, this isn’t explained in-game at all and, as such, this segment has confused many a player. Once you figure out what you’re supposed to do, it isn’t hard, but I do have to admit that it’s a bit of a flaw.
Pictured above: The bane of many a Sonic fan's existence.

Back on the subject of exploration…eh…sort of, the game encourages it somewhat more than previous games by actually hiding the entrances to the Special Stages within the levels themselves. So, now, let’s talk about those. In S3&K’s Special Stages, you are dropped into a 3-D plane and must collect all of the Blue Spheres in the stage while avoiding the red ones. Collect all of them and you will receive the obvious prize: a Chaos Emerald. Things start out pretty slow, but the longer you take, the more things speed up, which, combined with the bumpers everywhere, makes for a much greater risk that you could touch a red sphere. These Special Stages are easily my favorite in the entire series, and if SEGA is so intent on reimagining old Special Stages for the Sonic 4 games, I hope to see these reimagined for Episode 3. Well, provided they make an Episode 3, anyway.

As for the reward for getting all of the Chaos Emeralds, well, just like in Sonic 2, you will be able to play as Super Sonic. Or, if you’re playing as Knuckles, Super Knuckles, who is exactly like Super Sonic except…it’s Knuckles. Of course, this game doesn’t just give you seven Emeralds to collect. If you collect all of the Chaos Emeralds in the Sonic 3 half of the game and enter a Special Stage, you will have the opportunity to play seven more Special Stages for “Super Emeralds”. And if you collect all of those, you get even better super forms. Super Sonic becomes the seizure-inducing Hyper Sonic, who is even faster than Super Sonic and can do a boost dash that kills all on-screen enemies. Super Knuckles becomes Hyper Knuckles, who is also a bit faster and can kill all on-screen enemies by gliding onto a wall with enough force. It’s also by collecting all of the Super Emeralds that you can unlock Tails’ super form, Super Tails. While you do have to put more work towards getting it, Tails’ super form is probably the most broken in the game. He is surrounded by four birds of death that attack all on-screen enemies. Heck, you can just sit still during boss fights and let them do the work for you. Once again, all these super forms are really freaking cool. They’re completely broken, but that’s what makes them fun to use. However, it is worth noting that getting to and completing the Special Stages in this game is much easier than it was in Sonic 2, and these super forms will basically trivialize the entire game. Thus, it’s recommended that you play through the game at least once without them.

Oh, but that’s not the only reward you get for collecting all of the Emeralds in the game. While it will also get you a better ending, as always, if you’re playing as Sonic, you will also get to play an extra level called The Doomsday Zone as Super or Hyper Sonic containing a true final boss. Yes, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is actually the game that started that trend in Sonic games, and I have to say, I approve, both of the idea and of the boss itself and it also further adds to what was already a pretty thrilling climax.

Really, the only thing I have to complain about aside from the barrel is that this game is still, unfortunately, a bit unpolished. Glitches aren’t as frequent as in Sonic 2, and are, in fact, pretty freaking rare, but when they do hit, they hit a bit harder. For instance, there’s a certain wall in Launch Base Zone that I ended up getting stuck in a few times with no way of getting out and there was also one time in Hydrocity Zone Act 2 where the camera actually locked in place for some reason, preventing me from progressing. I’d really hate to knock this game’s grade down, but unfortunately, this did prove to be a significant enough issue.

Even with that said, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is by any standards a simply superb game. I’d say that it’s the game that Sonic 1 and 2 were building up to; the culmination of everything that would make the classics such great, influential games. However, it’s not quite the last stop on our journey; there was one more game released during this time that, though highly acclaimed, never quite received the recognition of the Genesis games due to the add-on required to play it. This is it, folks. Following this breakdown of S3&K’s positive and negative points, we shall be entering the realm of Sonic CD.

The Good:

+ Surprisingly good story
+ Fantastic visuals
+ Great soundtrack
+ Three different playable characters
+ Superb level design
+ Great bosses
+ Great Special Stage
+ Super forms are cool
+ Awesome secret final level

The Bad:

- The barrel
- Still a bit unpolished

Grade: A

Sonic CD

And so we have reached the final stop on our journey. Behold Sonic CD, one of the few really notable games for the SEGA CD. See, the SEGA CD was an add-on for the SEGA Genesis that played games on CD-ROM’s and used the advantages that came with said CD-ROM’s. Unfortunately, it was a massive flop, but it did get a very notable Sonic game on it. Sonic CD actually came out in 1993, a year before Sonic 3 & Knuckles. However, Sonic CD is a very different beast from the numbered Genesis games in many ways, so, for pacing reasons, I decided to review Sonic 3 & Knuckles first. Sonic CD is actually one of the more unique Sonic games in general…

...Well, one of the GOOD more unique Sonic games. In fact, Sonic CD is considered by some to be the absolute best game in the series…and is also considered by some to be a terribly designed train wreck. I can tell you right now that I most certainly do not fall into the latter category, and about the former…well, I’m not entirely sure. But before we get into why, let’s talk story.

Sonic CD’s plot is about as important to it as it is to Sonic 1 and 2. That is to say, not at all. However, like Sonic 2 and 3, it does introduce a new character – actually, two. First, there’s Amy Rose, Sonic’s pink-haired fangirl who is obsessively fascinated with him and is determined to follow him wherever he goes. Amy would end up becoming a more prominent character starting with Sonic Adventure, but as of now, she’s just a damsel in distress. Shortly into the game, she gets captured by Sonic’s new rival, built by Dr. Eggman himself: a robotic twin known simply as “Metal Sonic”. Metal Sonic wouldn’t appear much in the series outside of cameo appearances and extras, but when he did make legitimate appearances, he’d generally have a pretty big role. He was actually the final boss of Sonic Heroes and was a very prominent character in the 1996 Sonic OVA, better known in America as Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie. Oh, and he’s freaking awesome.

Sonic CD also takes place in a different location than the other classics; this would be Little Planet – very creative name indeed – which passes by Mobius every year. It just so happens that it has seven Time Stones on it, and whosoever gains those gets a lot of power or something like that. So, Eggman chains Little Planet to a mountain and begins ruining everything. Naturally, Sonic has to stop him. We kind of see this scenario play out in the game’s intro movie, set to a vocal song called “Sonic Boom” – one of the first of many that we would see in the franchise. See, one of the most widely-used advantages of CD-ROM technology at the time was its ability to play FMV’s. Sonic CD has three of them: the intro and a good and bad ending. They don’t look quite so good on the SEGA CD and PC versions, but they are remastered on the Gems Collection version and probably the XBLA version and are quite nice to watch. Oh, and I don’t care what anyone else says: Sonic Boom is an awesome song – both versions of it.
Trouble keeps you running faster...

Which brings me to the soundtrack – or, well, the two different soundtracks. Sonic CD is rather infamous for the fact that the soundtrack was completely changed, aside from some tracks, when it came over to the U.S. This was changed to this, this was changed to this, this was changed to this, this was changed to this, etc. Basically, the more quirky J-Pop-esque soundtrack was replaced with much more U.S.-friendly electronic rock, and Americans wouldn’t be able to play the game with its original soundtrack until last year’s XBLA port. Honestly, though? A few tracks aside, I much prefer the U.S. version. Maybe it’s just because it’s what I’m used to, but I feel like it suits the game a lot more, it sounds awesome and, although it isn’t as quirky, it still has its own unique feel and style to it. Really, most of the Japanese soundtrack doesn’t appeal to me. I have no inherent problem with quirky soundtracks – in fact, I love Sonic Rush’s soundtrack – but some of Sonic CD’s original tracks are just…far too weird for me, and a lot of the others, I just don't like quite as much. Oh, and really, there’s a fine line between “fun” cheesy - like Sonic Boom - and “I’d be horribly embarrassed to be caught listening to this” cheesy.

The chorus says "Toot Toot Sonic Warrior". You have been warned.

Sound design aside from the soundtrack, I can’t say fares very well, at least in the Gems Collection version, which this review is based off of. In fact, the Gems Collection version is a port of the PC version, which had the same issues, as I recall. I can’t comment on the XBLA port or the original SEGA CD version, but all of the sound effects, from jumping to getting Rings to bouncing off of enemies, sound like they’re being put through some sort of filter. It’s far from a big issue and you will get used to it, but it really shouldn’t be there. Visually, though, this game is simply gorgeous. The developers utilized the new CD-ROM technology – or, at least, I assume that’s what allowed them to do it - to create environments far more colorful and surreal than might have been seen in an average Genesis game. Seriously, these Zones look like something out of an acid trip, and there’s always so much going on. It’s really beautiful, and, like Sonic 2 and 3, the visual appeal is still there to this very day.

So now let’s move on to how the game plays. In terms of base mechanics and physics, the gameplay is similar to that of the other classics. Sonic runs really fast, momentum, inertia, bouncing, springs, Rings, etcetera, etcetera. However, there are some very significant things, even outside of the aesthetic design, that make this game really unique and separate it from Sonic 1-3&K. First of all, let’s talk about the game’s big gimmick: time travel. This is where you can really tell that the developers really wanted to go crazy with the CD-ROM technology. See, in every level, there are a number of signs with “Future” and “Past” written on them. If you touch one and then maintain speed for a long enough time, you will travel to said time period. This completely changes the stage’s aesthetics; music and visuals will both be completely different depending on the time period. Actually, there are two potential futures: a grim and dark bad future, in which Dr. Eggman has taken over and ruined everything, and a bright and happy good future, where we see nature and technology working together peacefully. We’ll discuss how to change the future in a bit. While completely changing the aesthetics would have been impressive enough in 1993, that’s not all that changes when you travel through time. The layout of each stage will be significantly different. Some new areas will open and some others will be closed off, and there may be some new items to get and some that aren’t there anymore. Even the platforming of a stage and the challenges that it poses to you can completely change depending on the time period.

This, of course, leads to the style of stage design being very different from what we saw in the other classic games. The speed and platforming are both as abundant and as fun as ever, and the platforming is still very interesting and creative. Stages in general have a great deal of very original and interesting challenges and gimmicks; Stardust Speedway, in particular, has panels that, when jumped into, will change whether Sonic is taking a path in the foreground or background and Wacky Workbench has a glowing floor that, when touched, sends you to ludicrous heights as well as wired mechanisms throughout the stage that electrify at regular intervals. However, what makes Sonic CD’s level design so much different is just how ridiculously complex and labyrinthine it is. Sonic 1-3&K had some very large levels that offered a lot of potential for exploration, but many of Sonic CD’s stages are downright convoluted. Some actually don’t like the game for this, but you know what? I think this really works. In, say, S3&K, I do like to experiment, but in general, I adhere to whichever paths I end up on. In Sonic CD, I find myself backtracking and messing around a lot just to see what sorts of secrets or platforming joys await me around every corner, and the time travel mechanic, due to changing the layout of the stage, only adds to this. 

Actually, Sonic CD encourages and at times even requires exploration more than the other classic games did. The way the time travel mechanic changes the layouts may cause you to need to experiment more to find your way through the stage, and there is also a robot generator hidden in each level. Destroying it will cause you to get a good future for that stage. Alternately, you could simply get all of the Time Stones from the Special Stages, which allows you to have a Good Future in every Zone following your acquisition of them and, consequently, you will get to see the game’s good ending. Accessing Special Stages is done like it was in Sonic 1: you hold onto 50 Rings until the end of the stage and then jump into the giant ring. In Sonic CD, if you’re unlucky enough to lose your Rings at any point or don’t have enough at the end, it is possible to backtrack through and explore the stage to find any Rings you might have missed. Of course, this is not to say that I think that the level design style of such games as Sonic 2 and 3&K are necessarily worse than that of Sonic CD; in fact, I think that style works better for Sonic and I do find that 3&K’s level design is generally a bit more interesting. However, as a one-time deal, I feel like the level designs come together with the time travel mechanic to create a really fantastic and unique experience.

So, I suppose that I should talk about the Special Stage now. This is another aspect of the game that tends to get flack, but honestly, I think the Special Stage is…okay. Basically, it has a 3-D behind-the-back perspective, similar to the Sonic 3 & Knuckles Special Stage. However, instead of collecting Blue Spheres, you’re destroying a certain number of purple UFO’s, scattered across the Special Stage’s map. To help you or potentially hurt you are fans that cause Sonic to float for a while and springs that send you high into the air. There are also choppers that take away some Rings and slow you down, walls that you bounce off of and pools of water that take away a chunk of your time whenever you step in them. Oh, yeah, time is ticking down the whole time, by the way. Fortunately, though, whenever your allotted time dips below twenty seconds, a blue UFO appears. Destroy it, and you will gain thirty seconds back. The last couple of Special Stages can be a bit tedious, but really, it’s not bad; I’d rather play it than the Sonic 1 Special Stages any day, at least.

As for flaws, aside from the minor sound effect problem, bosses in this game are just too easy. Yes, I’ve already made it clear that, S3&K aside, Sonic bosses were always easy, and some CD’s bosses are a bit creative. However, even by Sonic standards, the difficulty is a bit ridiculous; the boss of Quartz Quadrant actually kind of kills itself, and the final boss is completely anticlimactic, literally only taking four hits to defeat. The only boss that’s even remotely challenging is the race against Metal Sonic in Stardust Speedway, which is completely awesome. And *sigh*, just like Sonic 2 and 3&K, it’s a wee bit unpolished. There are some weird physics oddities that happen occasionally and also some strange collision detection issues. While these issues are certainly nothing big, they, once again, really shouldn’t be there. Though I’ve never played it myself, the XBLA version supposedly fixes these issues. Also, you can play as Tails in it and you’re given the choice of which soundtrack you want to hear when you play the game. If you don’t already own this game, it’s probably the version to get.

The Good:

+ FMV’s are nice
+ Great soundtrack (I prefer U.S.)
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Time travel mechanic is unique and adds much depth
+ Fantastic, creative level design that compliments gimmick

The Bad:

- Oddly low-quality sound effects
- Very easy bosses
- Still slightly unpolished

Grade: A

Well, this is finally the end of our little excursion through the four original Sonic the Hedgehog games. These games would highly influence many platformers that would come afterwards and, in fact, could be considered to have defined an entire generation of gaming. Really, it’s not hard to see why, as all of these games have held up very well and have been surpassed by very few recent platformers, in the Sonic series or otherwise. I’d actually put Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic CD up there with modern greats like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman Origins as some of the very best games the 2-D platforming genre has to offer. Heck, the only recent Sonic game I would really argue to surpass any of them (except for maybe Sonic 1) is Sonic Generations. The classics are absolutely excellent games and, if you haven’t played them yet, you really should. They have all been ported and rereleased a great number of times, and, in fact, you will find literally all of them on the Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. Happy 21st birthday, Sonic. Enjoy that beer. You’ve earned it.

Just try not to puke all over the floor.

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