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AlexArtsHere

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About AlexArtsHere

  • Birthday 10/09/1998

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    Can bench press at least two Sonic the Hedgehogs

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    He/Him
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    Art, analysis, perpetually moving mammals
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    Fates: Conquest

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  1. Previous instalment: Sonic Spinball (SEGA Mega Drive, Master System & Game Gear, 1993) 1993 was a busy year for Sonic the Hedgehog, what with the simultaneous North American release of three new entries into his gameography in mid-late November, alongside the syndication of two cartoon series that would each provide their own contributions to the Sonic mythos which have been sustained in the years since. All this without even mentioning the two comic series that had also been launched – Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog in America and Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic in the UK. Indeed, the Sonic franchise empire had really spread its wings this year, but it still had just a bit more to give before 1994 rolled in. Taking the blue blur’s cultural dominance out of the home and onto the streets is the final game of 1993, SegaSonic the Hedgehog. I’m anticipating a few rhetorically blank faces in my audience, and not without good reason. Developed by SEGA AM3, SegaSonic the Hedgehog made its debut at some point in late 1993 (Sonic Retro lists October, citing the Famitsu-published SEGA Arcade History book) in arcades across Japan…and nowhere else. Well, this isn’t strictly true, but reading on the game indicates that it’s not even known for sure whether the English localisation data left within the game’s ROM (including a redesigned sprite sheet for Eggman based on his SatAM cartoon design) was even used in an official capacity, such was the paucity of this arcade cabinet overseas. The reasons for this have never been revealed, but it certainly makes SegaSonic an interesting talking point within this series. In fact, intrigue surrounding the game in general is higher than most other entries in the series, as very little has been revealed about its development in the 31 years since its release. If nothing else, it keeps the word count nice and low for this writeup… SegaSonic’s identity can ultimately be summed up by three things, the first of these being its almost non-existent release outside of Japan. The second defining aspect of the game is its introduction of series newcomers and once two of the most obscure characters among Sonic’s cast of friends: Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. Both conceived of by designer Manabu Kusunoki, Mighty and Ray’s roles are effectively to be second- and third-player copies of Sonic, designed to be of an identical body type to our leading hedgehog, likely to simplify gameplay (Tails and Amy Rose both being noticeably smaller than Sonic). There’s not a whole lot more to say about them here, honestly. The characters garnered a cult following in the years since, but I’d chalk that up less to the obscurity of SegaSonic and more to the duo’s presence in the Archie Sonic comic, which developed personalities and backstories for the characters basically from the ground up, and had them putting in appearances right up until the series was officially discontinued in 2017, owing to way too many factors to explain in this post. Outside of this expanded media, it would be another 24 years until Mighty and Ray showed up again, excepting a single game appearance by Mighty alone in 1995 (in addition to a recurring role in Sonic the Comic), with Ray left entirely neglected following his debut. Similarly little fanfare is given to the two within the game itself. Rather than giving any kind of explanation as to how they came to meet Sonic, Mighty and Ray are simply shown as two unfortunate souls captured by Eggman alongside Sonic within the game’s opening before being dropped into a cell on the good doctor’s very own island, home to a series of increasingly elaborate death traps. And it’s this hook that informs every ensuing moment of gameplay, unfolding across seven distinct stages in a faux-3D isometric platforming format. From the moment the player assumes control of their chosen character, right up until the end of the game, there is almost always some form of ever-advancing threat that pushes them forwards, ranging from creeping walls of flame and myriad icy stalactites falling from the ceiling to large, harrying automatons and walkways that collapse underfoot just behind the heroes. No such frivolities as branching paths, special stages or momentum are to be found here, just the constant, frantic flight from an untimely end, either alone or with up to two friends. While the decision to eschew the standard format of Sonic gameplay in its entirety seems perhaps ill-advised on the face of it, it instead reveals a keen shrewdness on the part of director Tomosuke Tsuda and his team. Although the groundbreaking and sophisticated physics of the console Sonic platformers of the day married with a sublimely simple one-button control scheme to provide exactly the kind of deep yet readily digestible experience that would have been well-received by arcade-goers, Sonic 2 had already laid bare just how unsuited that format was for a multiplayer audience, given that the second player of that game was forced to surrender any real agency and follow player one’s path through the level, or else be doomed to a loop of being left behind by the Sonic-focused camera, only to respawn a few seconds later. With the only viable alternative being to deny player-one the opportunity to move forward without their sidekick, there was never going to be a satisfying option that allowed both players to experience the full extent of that gameplay format. Instead, SegaSonic’s singular, straightforward obstacle courses with threatening, diegetic countdown clocks effectively convey the spectacle of Sonic’s pace while keeping the fun accessible to all players rather than the most competent or the one who bagged the first player spot. This is in addition to allowing the game to stand apart from its console brethren as an entirely unique experience rather than an imitation of what already is, preventing either of SEGA’s arcade or home console pillars from being shortchanged. This novelty is further emphasised by SegaSonic’s control scheme and the final part of its identity trifecta: the trackball. Rather being controlled by a traditional eight-directional joystick, Sonic, Mighty and Ray are given locomotion by corresponding trackballs, allowing for (close enough to) full 360-degree movement with extremely precise acceleration control. While such controllers did have precedent on home consoles, such as the Sports Pad for SEGA’s own Master System, the Mega Drive itself never had an officially licensed trackball to call its own and, in an age before the proliferation of the analog stick, Sonic’s acceleration had, up until now, been dictated by a meeting of how long the player held down the d-pad and the terrain the hedgehog had to contend with. This was a fine system, to be sure, but offered only a facsimile of true control. As such, I can see the appeal that SegaSonic’s control scheme would’ve held for 1993 audiences, really providing an experience that just couldn’t be found on the Mega Drive. Granted, I don’t own a trackball, and have only been able to experience this game through a combination of Steam Input gimmickry on a Nintendo Switch pro controller to have MAME recognise the left analog stick as mouse input to emulate a trackball, so it’d be best to take my thoughts regarding this with a grain of salt. With that said, I think the execution is mostly pretty solid. There is indeed a very fine degree of control over Sonic’s speed here and radial movement is satisfyingly smooth but, even after adjusting to the controls, I found that the direction the playable character moves in rarely seems to perfectly correspond to the direction I’m trying to move them in. I’m unsure whether this is due to lacking sufficient gradation to represent fully circular movement, or an issue of visual communication due to the inability of a static sprite set being unable to provide such a fidelity of feedback in comparison to a 3D model. Nevertheless, this results in the necessity to make frequent micro-adjustments to input direction to avoid falling off the side of the level. There is a generous coyote time mechanic in place to alleviate such a risk, but this has its own problem in that, while suspended in the air above the abyss, the only way to prevent a fall seems to be to return in the direct opposite of the direction you ran off of the stage. The window of time afforded in which to execute this manoeuvre is usually substantial enough to remember this, but it’s frustrating to lose health in trying to return to the stage at angles wider than what the game allows, even when it looks as though this should be doable. Neither of these issues make SegaSonic unplayable by any stretch of the imagination, but they are frequent enough inconveniences to prevent me from being able to recognise the control scheme as fully and perfectly realised. However, all this fine control doesn’t count for much if there’s no reason to use it, but here’s where the game’s final mechanic comes into play in the form of the ring system. Much like the mainline platformers, rings in SegaSonic are to be collected for a boost to vitality and scoring, but the former is recontextualised while the latter is given much more significance than in those games. Scattered around each stage, both out in the open and within destructible objects, rings can be collected for the immediate benefit of refilling or extending your character’s health bar (which sits at less than half of its maximum capacity at the start of the game), but also in aid of an end-of-stage tally. Should the player gather at least 50% of all available rings in a stage, they are awarded a significant bonus to their total score (persistent between stages) and a further boost to their health bar. In multiplayer, this bonus is conferred only upon the player who collected the most rings, engendering an atmosphere of cooperative competition as each player works with others to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for rings while simultaneously trying to ensure that they are the level’s MVP. If all that wasn’t enough, there is one more wrinkle in that each level’s chaser elements abide by a degree of kayfabe. If you slow down, they will also slow down to an extent in response, but they never stop. And it is with this knowledge that SegaSonic’s hand is finally played. Rather than being a mad dash headlong to each stage’s goal, SegaSonic is a game predicated on knowing when is the best time to cut loose and pull ahead at top speed, and when it is safe to slow down and scour the area for the rings that will not only boost your score, but increase your odds of clearing the game in its entirety. In effect, it’s an ongoing game of chicken, with the highest scorers being those with the nerve to hang back the longest as they brush up against the jaws of death. It’s a brilliant metagame that gives that much more engagement to what might otherwise have been a fairly one-note experience, even if it is a bit on the easy side. The control scheme doesn’t take a huge amount of getting used to, and the 50% ring requirement needed for bonus health is a fairly comfortable ask once you realise how accommodating the chasing hazards can be, in turn making it very easy to accumulate quite a sizeable health bar. I was pretty trivially blowing through the game on three credits by my third playthrough, and single-credit playthroughs are surely entirely possible with not a lot of practice, so long as you have mastery over some particular examples of tricky level design. That design isn’t always the most reasonable either, with the field of view afforded to the player sometimes obscuring oncoming obstacles, particularly when the player character is running forward away from the screen. Additionally, certain segments of the game are designed in such a way that it becomes very difficult to recover if you slip up, leading to getting stuck between a stage hazard and the chaser in a damage loop that usually results in a lost life. As with my control gripes, however, these are minor enough that their effect on my enjoyment of the game isn’t drastic. While SegaSonic’s gameplay is certainly commendable in its achievement of a multiplayer Sonic experience that is both accessible yet belying the depth needed to be truly engaging, I think the game’s graphical presentation is what really steals the show. This game takes advantage of SEGA’s System 32 - a 32-bit arcade board that, to my limited technical knowledge, seems to most closely resemble a souped-up Mega Drive, in reference to its technical specs. In particular, the video capabilities of this machine benefit from a considerable bump relative to its 16-bit home console counterpart, and this absolutely shines through in SegaSonic’s visuals. Environments are rich and detailed, making use of alpha blending techniques not available on the Mega Drive to enhance an already expanded colour display capacity that results in the impression of a game largely unburdened by technical limitations. The design of these environments is the most grounded yet seen in the series, foregoing the stylised and surreal geometry and patterns seen in previous entries in favour of more conventional materials, but I can hardly complain when every aspect of each level is so lovingly detailed and rendered in such vibrant colours. Perhaps the most impressive showpiece in the game is the second stage, Icy Isle, which intelligently combines alpha blending and sprite layering to convey thick slabs of ice above a tiled floor, reflecting each character as they move between the spear traps embedded within that ice. Yet more impressive is the character art. Sonic, Mighty, Ray and Eggman are all depicted in a pleasingly rounded style, with our heroes looking downright adorable as a result. What makes SegaSonic’s visual presentation really stand out, however, is its animations, which are absolutely gorgeous in their fluidity. Though Mighty and Ray are designed to have silhouettes similar to Sonic, each of the three are wonderfully characterised by how they move and emote. While the basic locomotion cycles are all shared, personality and attention to detail just ooze through in the way each character handles specific behaviours. When falling from a stage, Sonic’s eyes cartoonishly stay in place for a moment before following him down into the abyss. Meanwhile, Ray loses his shoes in a similar fashion and Mighty, rather disturbingly, becomes detached from his shell. When sliding on ice, Sonic seems to be having the time of his life, mouth wide open and screaming, while Mighty is stone-faced and unsure of how to react, with Ray being similarly nonplussed, but looking much clumsier, spread-eagled on his belly as he spins around. By far my favourite animation is Ray’s movement across monkey bars. While Sonic and Mighty move as you’d expect, one hand in front of the other, Ray instead traverses these bars by alternating between gripping with both hands and with his tail. It’s a delightfully endearing approach to such an obstacle and a wonderfully imaginative use of his character design. That said, I’d be remiss not to detail the few blemishes on the game’s visual design. Prime among these is that I don’t feel enough design consideration is given to communicating the position of the player character within the isometric space. This is particularly egregious in Landslide Limbo’s boss, as well as the sections with falling mines in Wild Water Way. In both these instances, lateral spacing is hugely important for avoiding damage, yet it’s too often difficult to parse precisely where Sonic, Mighty or Ray is in relation to incoming threats which in most cases end up blindsiding the player and feeling cheap as a result. What’s most frustrating about this is that the solution was already ripe for the taking by referencing existing Sonic material. The iconic checkboards of Green Hill Zone would have provided ample indication of positioning if used across the game’s walkable surfaces, which could’ve been done with sufficient subtlety thanks to the System 32’s alpha blending capabilities. As it is, the best SegaSonic offers is drop shadows on the player characters and certain objects (such as the aforementioned falling mines), but it’s all too easy to lose track of these in the frenzy of gameplay. Otherwise, shortcomings in the game’s visuals are confined to individual examples of amateur-looking artwork, which is more of an aesthetic failing than a functional one. Thankfully such cases only appear in brief moments, but this does not make them any less jarring, in particular the laughably bad portraits for Sonic, Mighty and Ray that are displayed during the game’s closing credits. Still, these are very minor demerits against a broadly gorgeous art style. Unfortunately, I cannot lavish such high praise on SegaSonic’s aural presentation. Don’t get me wrong, the game’s soundtrack is every bit as pleasant as its art style: Taking advantage of two YM2612 variant chips and over twice the number of sound channels available on the Mega Drive, series newcomer Hiroshi Kawaguchi provides a soundtrack for SegaSonic that, while modest in breadth, with just four themes shared between the game’s seven stages, three more full-length tracks and a smattering of jingles besides, is luscious to the ears thanks to its wonderfully layered compositions and crisp instrument voices. Of particular note is the System 32’s drum samples, so much more lifelike than the Mega Drive’s that they make the console’s efforts sound muffled by comparison. Naturally, I wouldn’t be bringing this up if SegaSonic didn’t put those drums to work in a notable manner. In this soundtrack, the drums are the informing element, with each level’s distinctive drumbeat forming the foundation upon which all other melodies are layered. In most levels, these beats set the pace with upbeat, punchy toms that cut through all the other instruments in such a way that you can always hear them, but without being so overpowering as to drown out the rest of the composition. It’s a really smart choice to complement the mood of a game that wants the player to always be on the move and, combined with some stunning arpeggiations, makes SegaSonic’s music unmistakable to anything else the series has offered up to now. My highlights here are the tracks for Icy Isle/Wild Water Way, Trap Tower and Eggman’s Tower, which exemplify every glowing compliment I’ve afforded to the soundtrack (bar an electric shred that’s just a mite overaggressive in Eggman’s Tower). The problem, then, is that you never get to hear the music clearly enough to enjoy it. This is partially due to certain sound effects (the sound for collecting rings is far less subtle than in the Mega Drive games), but mostly due to the latest in series firsts (if we disregard SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter, Waku Waku Patrol Car and Popcorn Shop – again, mall rides): Voice acting. Unsurprisingly, every spoken line here is in Japanese, with voices provided by Takeshi Kusao (Sonic), Yusuke Numata (Mighty), Hinata Kanamaru (Ray) and Masaharu Sato (Eggman), but my inability to understand the dialogue is not the cause of my frustration. These barks are loud, exaggerated and, most importantly, seriously lacking in variety. In almost all cases, your chosen character will react to any given situation the same way every time that situation occurs, and this becomes very repetitive very quickly. While there is some charm to the voices themselves (with Ray in particular being just precious), this is far from sufficient in overcoming just how grating is to hear these clips play out in response to almost every action a player will end up taking over the course of the game, both good and bad. Perhaps this is a product of the game’s context as an arcade machine. In such social spaces, lined up against numerous competitors for players’ credits, there’s wisdom in leveraging the System 32’s capacity to play relatively high-fidelity voice clips but, if ever I visited an arcade with such a machine tucked away somewhere, I’d much more likely be drawn in by the strong hooks of SegaSonic’s unique soundtrack. And I really wish I did have such a chance to encounter a SegaSonic the Hedgehog cabinet in the wild. Despite initially fearing the game to be shallow, my time with it has been a blast. While a title like this is never going to be as deeply replayable as the Mega Drive offerings, score attacking SegaSonic is a fun time that doesn’t ask too much of you thanks to the game’s brisk pace and brief length, and there’s joy to be had in booting up the game just to behold its superb presentation. I absolutely recommend you seek out this game however you can to give it a try, especially if you know of an arcade housing within your area and have a couple of friends to bring along for the ride. I can only hope we get an official rerelease someday…
  2. Just read the first issue - fantastically novel concept, will be interesting to see how the format adapts to the increasingly extraordinary events that occur over the course of the year!
  3. Previous instalment: Sonic Chaos (SEGA Master System & Game Gear, 1993) And so we come to the third and final game of 1993’s Sonic Mania Day. To recap, the centrepiece of the show was Sonic CD, the gaiden-esque sequel to the original game that was headed by the half of the Sonic the Hedgehog duo that hasn’t been convicted of insider trading, while Sonic Chaos offered yet another middling attempt to bring the Sonic formula to SEGA’s 8-bit systems (and the second outing developed by Aspect). So, what of the third game? With the 16- and 8-bit systems each receiving a fully-featured platformer of their own, surely SEGA wouldn’t cannibalise their own market by doubling up with another Naka-headed entry to the franchise? Well, no. Yuji Naka and co. were, at this time, beavering away on their own project, so this third entry would logically have to be something new by someone new. Or not quite someone new, as the case may be. In a two-fer for firsts, November 1993 brings us SEGA Technical Institute’s Sonic Spinball, the first game in the series developed by a Western team, and its first spinoff. I mean, if you want to really get into the weeds, this game is predated by Sonic Eraser, SegaSonic Waku Waku Patrol Car and SegaSonic Cosmo Fighter Galaxy Patrol, but the former of these is Puyo Puyo clone released to a long defunct, Japan-exclusive download service, while the latter two are mall rides and hardly count as games in the first place. So yeah, Sonic’s first spin-off. “Hey, what gives?!” I hear you specifically, dear reader, exclaim, “I thought the first American to work on Sonic was that one guy from MTV Cribs, and that game only came out in 2010!” Despite what certain characters would have you believe, the American side of SEGA has had a hand in Sonic almost since the nascency of the Naka and Ohshima’s brainchild. In particular, three names stand out as instrumental in shaping not just Sonic’s international image, but Sonic’s image, period. The first of these, Madeline Schroeder, then product manager at SEGA of America, made crucial tweaks to Sonic’s very world and cast, reportedly pushing for the removal of Sonic’s human girlfriend Madonna, along with a band comprised of other animal friends that would have featured in the original game’s sound test feature – both changes made allegedly to make Sonic better appeal to American audiences as well as those in Japan. Second is Al Nilsen, whose approach of a guerilla marketing campaign for Sonic and the SEGA Genesis undoubtedly had an indelible effect in defining the particulars of Sonic’s 90s edge and “get-it-done attitude” (which, in the words of Ohshima, was in fact inspired by presidential sex pest Bill Clinton – as far as we know, Sonic most definitely did not have sexual relations with that woman). Finally, there’s Greg Martin, the member of this trio least in need of introduction. The odds are you’ve seen his art long before you started reading this thread, famous for its depiction of Sonic with a three-quill mohawk and a prominent crease in the middle of his brow (colloquially referred to as assface Sonic – whether that’s affectionate depends on who you ask). While I’ve little love for this particular design, Martin’s work is nevertheless iconic, and among the greater galleries of video game box art for its vibrant details and lovingly rendered shading, particularly on the metallic surfaces of Eggman’s badniks. When Sonic was introduced to the world and instantly became a cultural icon, the western influence reverberated and was amplified in the franchise’s early extended media in the west. The most prominent examples of such extended media from this team are the two 1993 animated series produced by DiC. The first of these, Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, skewed towards a younger demographic and arguably represented a relatively more faithful depiction of the source material, presenting the, well, adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog in a stylised world alongside his buddy Tails as they thwart the bumbling Doctor Ivo Robotnik’s many schemes-of-the-week in a zany episodic format. I’d argue this series has had less of an impact on the canon of Sonic (other than originating his love of chilli dogs), but it is nevertheless fondly remembered, thanks in large part to Long John Baldry’s iconic performance as Robotnik, which inspired an entire genre of YTP in the infancy of YouTube that remains strong to this day. As an aside, this cartoon would inspire its own spin-off game, Doctor Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, but I won’t be covering that in this series, given that it’s just another Puyo Puyo reskin, a la Sonic Eraser. The second series, simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog (but better known as Sonic SatAM, in reference to its original Saturday morning air slot), ended up having much more of an impact on the Sonic mythos. Although it retained Adventures of’s casting of Jaleel White as Sonic (still considered the definitive voice of the character by a not-insignificant portion of the community), pretty much everything else about this series was about as far away from AoStH as you could get. Instead of focusing on the light-hearted mishaps of Sonic and Tails as they terrorised a largely incompetent and childish Robotnik, SatAM placed Sonic within a group of freedom fighters broadly based on the small animal friends from the first game, alongside a few original characters, fighting to restore the deposed monarchy of the Kingdom of Acorn in an industrial dystopia against the regime that overthrew it, led by a far more cunning and ruthless Doctor Julian Robotnik, portrayed here by the equally brilliant Jim Cummings. While the specific elements that this series codified haven’t exactly stuck around in the main Sonic canon (such as roboticization, a much darker take on the game’s process of sticking animals inside robots as batteries, here instead comprising the physical conversion of flesh and blood into steel and oil), it is very much an encapsulation of everything Sonic was in the west of the 90s and can be credited with expanding the world and characters of the franchise far beyond what was present in the games, as well as arguably being the first piece of media to offer a truly menacing depiction of the Eggman. And all of this very much comes through within Sonic Spinball. While not strictly set within the world of the cartoon, this game does borrow many elements from it, the plot tasking Sonic with travelling through Robotnik’s Veg-O-Fortress, built atop Mount Mobius, in order to trigger a volcanic eruption that will obliterate the massive roboticizer built into the heart of the fortress. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Sonic platformer. As the title has already made apparent, Sonic Spinball is a pinball spin-off (try saying that five times fast). Gameplay occurs across four themed pinball tables – Toxic Caves, Lava Powerhouse, The Machine and Showdown. The objective in each of these is to activate various features of the table in order to make accessible and collect the Chaos Emeralds within the stage (between three and five in each – please do not ponder how this squares with the established lore of there being seven emeralds), thereby granting access to the level’s boss. In terms of game feel, Sonic Spinball is generally pretty solid. I should note that I’m not really a pinball connoisseur, so maybe I can’t speak with much authority, but the core physics generally behave as I expected them to, in spite of a feeling of slowdown that was persistent enough to be noticeable but otherwise seems to have been accounted for within the game’s design such that it never became detrimental to my performance, nor grating in its frequency. Sonic (the ball, by the way, in case that wasn’t obvious) can be influenced with the d-pad while airborne, with a satisfying degree of control afforded to this mechanic, so players aren’t reliant solely on their skill with the flippers in order to get Sonic where they want him to go – a much appreciated feature for novices like myself. The only other point of note in game feel is that the game’s various on-foot sections feel fairly sluggish, but this isn’t a huge deal given their brevity and infrequency, as well as the fact that some measure of snappiness can be achieved with Sonic’s spindash, performed as it is in other games, though understandably with nowhere near as much potency. Unfortunately, such reserved compliments do not extend to Sonic Spinball’s design, credited to Peter Morawiec and Hoyt Ng. To the game’s credit, the levels are all quite creative in concept, featuring characterful table elements that aspire to do more than would be possible were the ball not a living character. Even in just the first stage, Sonic can be seen riding a minecart down a shaft in the middle of the table, or dropping under a set of flippers into what would normally be a dead zone in order to hitch a ride on an oil drum through toxic waste. However, the technical execution of these levels is a complete mess, so much so that it’s difficult to really figure out where to begin in picking them apart. The tables themselves are all huge, and the screen real estate only allows for around a tenth of the table’s height and a sixth of its width to be shown at any given time. Naturally, this radically diminishes the breadth of information that can be gleaned from what’s onscreen compared to traditional pinball games which show much more of the table at once, even when considering the game’s attempt to accommodate such limitations by delineating the playable area into several smaller tables. Despite this limited field of view, the layout of the tables themselves, in conjunction with the tasks to be carried out on each of them, often require a pretty high degree of precision in getting the ball to specific areas of the table, most frequently into narrow tubes or crevices. This is made even more of a hassle by frequent enemy spawns, which often hover just off the top of the screen when the ball is being held in the table’s flippers, so the number of times I fired off what would’ve been a well-placed shot, only to be sent careening back towards the bottom of the table by an enemy I couldn’t have accounted for happened more times than I care to count. If you’re able to overcome all this and get to the top of the table with all the level’s Chaos Emeralds in tow, you then get to fight its boss. I wouldn’t say the bosses are the best part of the game necessarily, but they’re pretty solid in both concept and execution. As with standard Sonic bosses up to this point, there’s no waiting time involved in these bosses, as there’s always something you can do in service of landing hits on the boss, even if you’re not whaling on the boss itself, which has a much beefier health bar than bosses in the platformers to counterbalance the game’s mechanics and movement allowing for multiple hits to be racked up much more easily. Additionally, every hit you score is remembered even upon falling out of the boss area so, while having to make your way back up the table to the boss (usually from the very bottom), that’s your only punishment for failure in this instance. Unfortunately, these bosses are also quite negatively impacted by the screen crunch that afflicts the rest of the game. Each boss has specific defences that must be navigated in order to score hits, but the trouble is that you most often won’t see these until you’ve already committed to launching the ball, and being ejected from the boss arena as a result of failing to bypass such defences isn’t an infrequent occurrence. This is particularly egregious on the game’s final table, where Sonic can only land hits on Eggman by first repeatedly hitting a button on the underside of his capsule in order to remove his defences, a grabbing claw and windsock on each side of the capsule, both very capable of sending Sonic back to the main table. Since the button and the defences generally aren’t onscreen simultaneously, feedback on when it’s safe to make an effort to hit Eggman is virtually non-existent, made even worse by the fact that hitting the button too much will subsequently reinstate his defences. As bad as all these design issues seem, they’re ultimately secondary to a much more fundamental problem, that being the format of the game itself. While the marriage of platformer and pinball games is a novel one, the resulting hybrid ends up being the worst of each genre. With four stages to trek through in a linear order, each offering only a smattering of objectives relative to actual pinball tables, the game doesn’t have a wealth of content to speak of, yet the linear nature of the game is one that keeps pushing the player forward. This, combined with the narrow field of view and relatively sparse (though unfortunately nonetheless convoluted) table layouts, really discourages score attacking. Even worse is how this format affects progression and difficulty. While the game is constructed as a linear experience, difficulty seems to be balanced around the moment-to-moment pinball gameplay. What I mean by this is that you start each play session with three lives and, with no saving functionality to speak of (at least within the game itself, I allowed myself savestates between each level in the Steam release, as well as in specific points in each level depending on how fed up I was with the game’s shenanigans), success entails a straight shot through the four levels right to the final boss with no game overs, your only reprieve being that a new live is granted every 20 million cumulative points (score is persistent through all levels rather than being reset between each). As a result, Sonic Spinball is a markedly punishing game to newcomers, with several of my runs dying at the first and second levels as I became acquainted with the game’s controls and design. The best place to try and recoup lost lives or gain extra is the game’s bonus levels. These take the form of small and more traditional pinball tables, with everything playing out on a single screen. The goal in each of this mini game’s three variants is to hit some form of table element a certain number of times. The first of these takes the form of several capsules which contain Tails and cameo appearances from Sonic SatAM’s freedom fighters, who must be freed while also contending with a miniature Robotnik drives back and forth in the foreground region of the table; the second is a moving dome modelled after Eggman’s head, the teeth of which must all be knocked out to win; while the last is an egg prison (the large animal container at the end of Sonic 1 and 2’s boss acts) surrounded by a ring of clucks (themselves modelled after Scratch from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog). These tables are largely inoffensive but for two things: First, the table is shown in a perspective view, stretching away from the player, rather than orthographic one, making aiming a lot harder than it needs to be. Second, the gap between the table’s flippers is just big enough that the ball will sometimes come back down the table in such a way that there’s absolutely no way to stop it from just falling into the dead zone. So while these sections of the game are supposed to ease the pressure of the game’s stinginess with lives, they really just end up introducing their own frustrations. While I think there’s perhaps a valid debate to be had on the value that lives and game overs bring to games, I don’t think Sonic Spinball is a good advocate for their existence - frankly, this is the most I’ve wanted to give up on a game so far in this series (though I did use savestates much more liberally in the 8-bit platformers, which likely wouldn’t have been so easy to swallow otherwise). Thing is, even mastery has brought me little joy. A week or so after starting the game, I put it down again as I travelled abroad for two weeks, during which time I didn’t play it at all. Upon my return, I had apparently internalised the learning from all my early failures and blew through the first two levels with speed and ease. And yet the gratification rewarded for this proficiency was minimal. And perhaps this is unfair – maybe I just don’t gel with pinball games, but it was nevertheless my gameplay experience, and at the end of the day that’s all I can speak to in these writeups. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve hoped to impress upon the audience of this thread, it’s that there’s value in Sonic games well beyond the technical gameplay experience, and Sonic Spinball certainly presents an interesting case in this regard. The reason why I spent three paragraphs near the top of the post on the American perspective of Sonic’s development is because the presentation of Sonic Spinball very much epitomises that vision of the property. Environmental aesthetics have much more of an edge to them, with a focus on grungy industrial areas, evoking the same kind of vibes as the environmental paintings of Sonic SatAM. Meanwhile, Sonic and his enemies sport designs that are very much in line with Greg Martin’s cover artworks. This time around, art duties have been handled by Tom Payne, Craig Stitt, Brenda Ross, Katsuhiko Sato and Kurt Peterson – if those first three names are stirring memories, that’s because they constitute the STI artists that worked alongside Yuji Naka’s team on Sonic 2. Of note in this regard are various level terrain tiles in Toxic Caves and Lava Powerhouse which display Stitt’s triangular shading style, most prolific in Sonic 2’s scrapped Hidden Palace Zone, as well as tiles for The Machine, which were repurposed from Tom Payne’s unused art for Sonic 2’s scrapped Cyber City level – this video, released by The Video Game History Foundation while I was writing the Sonic CD post, goes into detail on this topic and more. Cards on the table, I’ve never had much love for this conception of Sonic and his world. Although I did grow up with the entirety of Sonic SatAM available to me on a 2-DVD collection, this was during the early-mid 00s, about a decade after that series was first running and a few years removed from the watershed year of 1998, which was responsible for a lot of consolidation of the two canons of Sonic into something that was more cohesive. As such, my perception of the Sonic setting has always largely been that presented by the Japanese side of the franchise, otherwise known as SegaSonic, so I’m already a little bit predisposed to some negativity towards the presentation of Sonic Spinball. With that said, I think the game’s art puts up a pretty good showing in a lot of ways. The environments of the Veg-O Fortress are intricately detailed, and every bit as stylised as the locales of the Mega Drive platformers developed by Sonic Team, though the increased use of tiling and asset flipping in comparison to those games does leave Spinball’s levels feeling more video game-y, as opposed to the living yet fantastical locations of South Island and Westside Island, which boast a large variety of terrain shapes to break up such repetition. I also feel that Lava Powerhouse and The Machine suffer from oversaturation in their foreground colours, which makes them a little much for the eyes, especially when also adorned by various eclectic pinball lights and signage, but the technicals of Sonic Spinball’s environment art are otherwise pretty solid, even if that art doesn’t quite fit alongside what we’ve seen up until now. Character art perhaps comes off a little worse for wear. Sonic himself, while very expressive and fairly fluidly animated, is drawn in such a way that his head is rendered as a ball with thin, noodly spines protruding from it, rather than the spines organically flowing out of the head to create a single, cohesive shape. It’s a small change on paper (and admittedly a decision that is present within some very specific sprites in Sonic 2), but nevertheless one that inhibits the appeal of Sonic’s design and looks rather amateurish when animations call for the back of his head to be visible. Likewise, the enemy designs here are all fairly bland and unappealing compared to the altogether cuter badniks of Sonic Team’s games, while also not benefitting Sonic’s abundance of animation frames. Of this cast of ne’er-do-wells, I’d say the lowlights are Ferron, a nondescript rotund hazmat suit carrying what seems to be some kind of hook, and Buster, a monkey in a spacesuit with a propellor attached to his helmet. These, along with most other enemies, I think display a lack of understanding of the design philosophy that produced great badniks to begin with, specifically in how to keep the shapes simple, and when it’s most appropriate to substitute an organic feature with a robotic approximation (such as the six legs of a ladybug being replaced by a singular tyre in the design of the Motobug). At any rate, all the art here is still technically competent, and even the weak points fail to offend my eyes in any meaningful way. As with the art, the music of Sonic Spinball, composed by series newcomer Howard Drossin evokes a rough and oppressive atmosphere. Within the wider Genesis pantheon, Drossin is a bit of a rockstar. While Spinball marks his SEGA debut, he’s perhaps best known for his work on Comix Zone, another STI production. That game is scored by compositions reminiscent of 90s rock artists such as Nirvana, and, while I wouldn’t say I hear the beginnings of such a style in Spinball, there’s undeniably an edge to things. Gone are Sonic 2’s approximations of acoustic instruments, swapped out for compositions which much more heavily feature synths and heavy, booming percussion. On the one hand, I think the music feels very much like an extension of the levels themselves in a way that even Masato Nakamura’s scores don’t for Sonic 1 and 2. If the music of those games sounds as if Sonic is being followed by a band, the music in Spinball sounds as if it’s being played by the levels themselves in a way that’s a little indescribable. On the other hand, the instrumentation is largely quite rough. It seems that Drossin composed this project with the aid of GEMS, a tool created by Jon Miller to make the Genesis music production pipeline as smooth as possible for composers who, for various reasons, weren’t making their music by coding it in hex, nor had members of the team dedicated to make those compositions shine on the YM2612 sound chip. You can get a fuller explanation of the tool from this video, but the relevance to my critique of Sonic Spinball’s music is that it seems that Drossin didn’t make a whole lot of changes to GEMS’ default soundbank patches, so the end product is very much undeveloped compared to his later works, not to mention very harsh on the ears. This is best heard in the game’s options and scoreboard music, its sawtooth lead emulating charge running through a tesla coil that drowns out the surrounding instruments to a comedic degree as it deafens the listener. Even looking past the instrumentation, I can only remember around half of the game’s compositions, only two of which I actually enjoy, being the aforementioned options music (yes, I’m deranged) and the theme for Lava Powerhouse. Still a better batting average than Sonic Chaos, at least. Otherwise, general sound design is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game does have some really kickass pinball table noises, my favourite being low-pitched boops of the warp tunnels that transport you between areas of the table. On the other, many sounds, like the game’s music, are just way too harsh on the ears. By far the worst offender here is the sound effect for hitting a boss – a piercing, static-filled shriek that assaults the ears. It’s a thematically cool choice, but it’s just downright unpleasant. Even outside the most extreme examples, the problem with Sonic Spinball’s sound direction writ large is that it’s trying too hard to be distinct. While the traditional Sonic platformers indeed benefit from their iconic sound effects and catchy music, Spinball is a game that has you repeating a lot of actions in succession, which means repeating a lot of sound effects, and the harsh synths that score your gameplay generally don’t last more than two minutes before looping. Meanwhile, you’ll likely be spending somewhere in the region of 10-20 minutes on each table on a successful run – plenty of time for things to get stale. I wonder if the auditory experience of the game might be improved by replacing the soundtrack with that of Sonic CD’s US score, which can definitely provide the appropriate level of edge and gravitas, but is much more subtle and atmospheric, and thus less prone to noticeable repetition. Despite everything, I find it difficult to resent Sonic Spinball. Don’t get me wrong, I very much did not enjoy my time with the game, and placing it at any higher than a low-C tier would be overly charitable of me, but it was also made under conditions that were far from ideal, for reasons that will be explained in a future instalment of this thread. According to Peter Morawiec in an interview with Sega-16, the team only had a paltry nine months to bring the game to fruition, with drastic changes being visible between each of Spinball’s pre-release tradeshow demos. Even the addition of talented contractor programmers like Denis Kobel and Lee Actor, who coded the game in C at a time when assembly was the norm, did little in the face of the reality that Spinball needed more time to cook. With that in mind, a lot of Spinball’s flaws and lack of polish become a lot more understandable – the team had to commit to a vision and they needed to do so very early on. And with that in mind, it’s a miracle that this game exists at all - just temper your expectations if you plan to give it a spin…ball. But what about the 8-bit version? Yes, it’s a two-fer this instalment! Like Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 before it, Sonic Spinball also got an 8-bit companion piece for the Master System and Game Gear. Thankfully this wasn’t developed by STI on top of the 16-bit version’s tight production deadline, but by the catchily-named SEGA Interactive Development Division, releasing a few months after the main event in…well, nobody cared enough to make record of the release, apparently. Sonic Retro, the most accurate source for information surrounding these games, places the Game Gear version as a September 1994 release, with the Master System version following a little after that in January 1995, but even searching for magazine ads for this version to glean a proper release date from doesn’t turn up anything conclusive. Apparently 8-bit Sonic Spinball just showed up on store shelves one day and nobody thought to question it. Still, it’s more of a presence than this version got in Japan, which only ever received the 16-bit version of the game. So I’m fudging the numbers on this, up until now, chronological retrospective, but it’s with good reason that I’m doing so. Unlike with Sonic 1 and 2, the 8-bit rendition this time around is very much an imitation of its console big brother, recreating the level design and graphics of the original game to a lower spec. Granted, it’s not a perfect translation – the more intricate table elements of the original are nowhere to be seen, and the game’s music is almost entirely different, along with a suite of new bonus stages to replace the traditional pinball tables of the Mega Drive version, but the intent is clearly there. And ultimately there’s not enough that is new to justify me giving this version of the game its own distinct writeup. So far as I can recall, I’ve heard more in fan communities over the years about this version of the game than the “true” version (though not much of either, admittedly), and not for the right reasons. I can’t really remember specific complaints, I think outside from the physics being off, but there was certainly trepidation going into this one, not helped by my experiences with the 8-bit Sonics thus far. Imagine my surprise, then, when I breezed through this game within the space of an hour, and devoid of any of the feelings of frustration that 16-bit Sonic Spinball worked up in me. First thing’s first: Yes, the physics are absolutely off. The game is extremely floaty and there’s noticeably less nuance and variance in the directions Sonic will travel when hit by any given object one way or another. There’s not really much justifying this, given that Hal Laboratory released the much more sophisticated Revenge of the Gator for the less capable Game Boy a full five years before this game, not to mention there’s even a dedicated physics consultant listed in the game’s credits – one Dr Scott Gould! Besides the specific pinball physics, 8-bit Sonic Spinball is generally pretty sluggish, seeming to chug along in the same kind of way that the 16-bit version does, with Sonic’s on-foot movement being particularly lethargic, although he’s only in this state for about the same amount of time as in the Mega Drive version, give or take, so this isn’t a huge deal. Level designs are about as 1:1 with their original counterparts as can reasonably expected, even considering the adjustments. In particular, Toxic Pools removes the minecart section found in Toxic Caves and replaces it with a more traditional pinball table in the upper middle section of the level, Lava Powerhouse is almost a perfect recreation but for the fact that clucks don’t spawn in the steam vent area, The Machine is lacking the elevator gimmick that could be activated by performing a flipper hold on a couple of specific flippers, and The Final Showdown no longer features pulleys that need to be engaged to bring out additional flippers. Otherwise, the core shapes of each table are captured, with all emeralds being found in the same locations as on Mega Drive and the processes needed to acquire each being more or less identical. However, there is one specific point of difference that makes the 8-bit versions of these tables a far more pleasant time, that being that the field of view is greatly expanded. Being able to see so much more of the playfield at once allows for shots to be much better planned here and it’s frankly an embarrassment to the Mega Drive iteration of Spinball that it fumbled this aspect of gameplay while the Master System and Game Gear didn’t. As a bonus, the weaker hardware considerably inhibits the rate and quantity at which enemies can spawn, so there’s much less to get in your way, keeping the random elements persistent rather than intermittent. This kind of consideration by concession extends to 8-bit Spinball’s bosses too, in that the intricacies that make the 16-bit bosses as tricky as they are just can’t be replicated here. While Lava Powerhouse and The Machine retain the Roboiler and Veg-O Machine respectively, the latter is ridiculously easy in the Mega Drive game to begin with (hell, it might be slightly harder here, since it’s difficult to rack up consecutive hits inside the machine before falling out of the bottom) and the former’s upper platforms don’t seem to collapse at any point, making it much easier to wait for the best time to hop into Roboiler’s urn to attack. Furthermore, Roboiler’s only got two faces rather than the four of 16-bit Spinball, and the remaining face doesn’t become intangible when the first one is destroyed, making this a trivial boss to single-cycle. In Toxic Pools and The Final Showdown, different bosses do appear, seemingly due to sprite limitations, but both are extremely ineffectual. The first, an unnamed, flying mechanical Robotnik head…does nothing that I can remember. I honestly think all it can do is fly around. The final boss against Robotnik doesn’t fare any better, with the boss’ most effective defences being the grating sound effect of the electric coils on either side of the arena that indicate that the Eggman is inaccessible until you jump on four valves, and the aggressive sprite flickering that Robotnik exhibits while flying around upon being robbed of his barriers. The biggest obstacle here is flubbing a jump and falling out of the boss area, but this is entirely avoidable, given that there is ample space in the valve areas at the side of the arena for Sonic to remain in, stationary and on-foot, waiting for Robotnik to come to him. There is one aspect in which 8-bit Sonic Spinball is more miserly than the original, namely that the bosses do not retain scored hits if Sonic falls out of the boss arena. This is likely due to hardware restrictions, much like the fact that each boss exists on a separate screen to the rest of their table, but it’s more than accommodated for by the fact that falling out of the arena places Sonic in a position that’s practically right at the boss room’s entrance, rather than dropping him to the bottom of the table. It characterises this set of bosses perfectly – completely toothless, with any potential for threat or upset being completely filed away due to a combination of a wider field of view, more predictable ball movement, and perhaps necessary concessions on the game’s part that render any attempt at punishment for poor play basically inconsequential. Given the character of 8-bit Sonic so far, not to mention the reputation of 8-bit games in general, it’s all a bit bizarre. Also a bit bizarre are the game’s bonus stages. Rather than taking the form of miniature, traditional tables, these are instead a set of three rooms each, filled with rings and breakable containers, themselves containing more rings in addition to points and additional time. The goal here seems to be to grab as much as possible and getting out before the 90-second timer hits zero. I say “seems to be”, because the only real feedback I got from these was the one time I failed to reach the exit (more through lack of effort than anything else), upon which the game told me I had earned no score. Otherwise, there seems to be no minimum passing grade here. As long as you can unlock each room’s door by breaking just one container and get out before time’s up, whatever you grabbed in the stage gets added to your overall score tally, just as it does in the Mega Drive version. Truth be told, I didn’t make any effort to master these bonus stages because there was absolutely no need to. On top of everything else that makes playing this game like sliding a hot knife through butter, Sonic Spinball on the Master System and Game Gear is shockingly generous with its lives, very much unlike its console brethren. By default, you start with five lives and five continues, for a total of thirty lives from the off. Those five continues were completely unnecessary as it turns out – not once did I see the game over screen. Having had something of an ordeal with 16-bit Spinball, I really shouldn’t be complaining about the companion piece taking only a fraction of that amount of time to beat, but it’s all just so devoid of friction, and thus feeling. Every step the demake takes to make Sonic Spinball a more pleasant experience also robs the game of anything to make it stand out. It’s a poor pinball sim wearing Sonic Spinball’s clothing, a pale imitation with next to nothing of its own to offer. This is further evidenced in the game’s presentation. The graphics, produced by Sandy Christensen, Larry Flores, Kevin Lee and Michael Tamura, under the direction of Michael Chung and Maureen Kringen, are extremely faithful translations of the original 16-bit art. The reduced palette here forces economisation of colour usage in a way that does make everything a little more pleasant on the eyes, particularly in Lava Powerhouse, but it’s still just a lower grade version of something already seen. Likewise, the music, while original and distinct, stirs nothing in the cockles of my heart. Brought to us by Paul Gadbois, Dave Delia and Brad Scott Gish in addition to Howard Drossin, it sounds much less grating than the Mega Drives’ hard, scratchy synths, and the loops aren’t nearly as noticeable, but it’s even less memorable than the original sound track and, unlike that score, there’s no variety in the mood of each piece. Everything is the same genre of upbeat, arpeggiating square waves, with nothing interesting done using the available hardware at all, despite plenty of 8-bit games before this one showing that such mystique is absolutely possible on these systems, even within Sonic’s own catalogue. And that’s the Sonic Spinballs two. One, a game that belies a profound microcosm of Sonic’s western brand image of the time, but marred by frustrating design choices that are likely the marks of a poor development environment; the other, an attempt to cram the original vision onto systems that were perhaps not apt to handle it, removing all the claws but also all the character in the process. Despite the 8-bit version being far less aggravating to play, I do recommend that you opt for the 16-bit version if you’re interested in either, as the Mega Drive iteration at least warrants that interest, besides being a much more refined approximation of pinball physics. All that said, next time I’ll be looking at the final Sonic game for 1993 – hopefully the blue blur can end the year on a high. Next instalment: SegaSonic the Hedgehog (Arcade, 1993)
  4. Might have to pull the trigger on gifting you Superstars a after all, if only to get this off the bottom of your list…of course, there’s also the possibility that you end up thinking that game is peak, causing me to tear my hair out before abandoning civilisation to live as a hermit with only a painted blue coconut for company. All joking aside…of course, I’ve expressed similar sentiments on the Discord server, but it absolutely breaks my heart that this is what your time with one of my favourite games ever ended up being, perhaps in part because I’m as incapable of understanding your feelings on Mania as you are of understanding the love for it. I don’t want to undercut my own review of Mania in however many years from now, nor try to debate somebody else’s individual experience with a piece of media, but now that you’ve delivered the final post, I would like to briefly lay out my own stall on why I love the game (and Sonic games in general) so much: I think the design of Sonic games, and the classics in particular, is a uniquely and deeply fascinating subject (shocking, I know). When dissecting the design of Mario, for example, I feel like there’s a very methodical structure to things, to the point that the discussion of 2D Mario’s teaching by serial escalation borders on cliche in YouTube videos on the topic by now. Mario can, I think, largely be characterised by everything but Mario himself. Not that the handling of Mario is unimportant, but the meat of his level design is in how challenged are permutated upon. You learn a gimmick and then go through a series of subversions and escalations. There’s, in the vast majority of scenarios, between one and a small handful of correct ways to approach any given challenge. And I don’t think that’s bad in the slightest, it’s not without good reason that Mario, to this day, remains the face of gaming. He’s pure, utilitarian quality. Meanwhile, I think 2D Sonic (specifically the classics and Advance games) has a well of depth and nuance in their design that’s born out of the fact that levels are more focused on being courses that facilitate exploration of the gameplay avatar itself. Gameplay is a relationship between Sonic’s ability and handling and the levels to be overcome by the leveraging of those intrinsic assets, particularly to take advantage of sophisticated and nuanced terrain, and I find that a lot more liberating personally. With that, there are different design considerations to be taken into account, chief among those being how to introduce challenges and conflict into levels. Sonic needs to be slowed down organically so as not to blindside players when an enemy appears, yet that must also be balanced with level design that facilitates largely unchecked use of Sonic’s speed, where the challenge is instead to be able to perceive and react to divergent routes, assuming you want to stay on particular paths, either to set a record or seek out particular goodies (though going with the flow is an equally valid choice). To get to the point, I think Mania does this the best the series ever has, working with the benefit of 25 years of analysis and refinement both within official releases and a multitude of fan projects (which is how much of the Mania team got to where they are today). There’s a keen awareness of when to go and when to stop, pumping the brakes with leading level design to subtly alert players to danger ahead. Beyond that, I think levels are built in such a way that flow is built and maintained not only in the moment, but between a multitude of intricate paths that provide frequent opportunities for switching. All this in a one of the best presented games in the pantheon with absolutely gorgeous pixel art and animation, visual design and theming that doesn’t miss a beat and a phenomenal soundtrack that’s bangers from start to finish. There are flaws, as with every game, and I will talk about them when my time with the game comes, but in fairness you didn’t mention the one thing from Mania that you enjoyed, being the special stages! Anyway, while I respect your opinion, I nevertheless hope that someday, with a few years of distance and a different perspective via my own writings-to-come on the game, you’ll be able to appreciate Mania, even if you never fully resonate with it.
  5. Still catching up on the thread but I think this is the most philosophical thing I’ve seen you post here or on Discord.
  6. You know the balancing issues are completely circumvented if you upgrade Steal to Insider Trading? Idiot. Joking aside, there’s certainly a bitterness to watching the scope of missable content creep ever wider in each of these write ups. Maybe it’s my perfectionism speaking but, given that nobody’s just going to know this stuff, it seems like a mechanism to pad playtime at best and a scheme to hawk guides at worst. While your tonguebathing of FF5 piqued my interest in that game, I think my enthusiasm towards the prospect of playing The Good Final Fantasy has been a little dampened. Anyway, I can’t wait until FF9 (presumably, given that’s meant to be the inevitable early-mid-00s “return to the roots” game) when ATB gets shot and left in a ditch.
  7. I can’t say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Mega Man stan, but I was rather hoping you’d like this one, so I’m glad to see such a glowing review on it. I think the gear system is a pretty terrific way to leave difficulty up to the player in a way that is both dynamic and organic, with the timer-based recharge preventing the ability from becoming abusable without screwing over bad players like me who rely on it a lot by making it possible to run out of uses for a stage. That said, I only ever did the one run of Mega Man 11 (on normal difficulty, I believe) and don’t even remember all that much of it in hindsight, so the rest of the suite of difficulty options seems really interesting. Will need to replay at some point.
  8. But it is all Rose Boys! Or is that one of the other games? Everything I know about Final Fantasy can be traced back to PCP University's 4.5 hour video on the series delivered by BestGuyEver. Anyway, your notes on FFV's job system give me vibes of one of the best parts of Granblue Fantasy, that being the high tier classes which, as opposed to having three innate skills like the lower tiered classes, get one innate skill off the bat, equip any two learned skills from other classes and get to choose one more skill from a pool of three unique to the equipped class upon mastering it. This is all to say that, after reading your post, my strength of my desire to play FFV has gone from "interest" to "appeal".
  9. I don't think it's so much that as it is that Aspect is trying to iterate on their previous work with 8-bit Sonic 2 to try and bring their releases closer to the console versions, despite the Master System and Game Gear not being able to achieve that. That might seem like splitting hairs a bit, but I think it's very different in character compared to attempts to reinvent the wheel in games like Heroes, Unleashed, Lost World and Frontiers.
  10. Previous instalment: Sonic CD (SEGA Mega CD, 1993) Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In November 1993, a new Sonic game hit store shelves – one that represented something of a departure from the previous two entries, but would go on to be largely overlooked in the eyes of wider audiences compared to its earlier and later brethren. No, this isn’t a repeat of the Sonic CD writeup – this time, we’re looking at Sonic Chaos. When Sonic CD first released on 23 November 1993 (at least in North America – and coincidentally the 30th anniversary of my other hyperfixation, Doctor Who), it didn’t do so alone. It, along with Sonic Chaos and the next, as yet undisclosed, game in this series dropped simultaneously to form a marketing push that was branded “Sonic Mania Day” (which is giving me the oddest sense of premonition…), clearly an attempt to strike once more with the lightning that was Sonic 2sday the previous year. Sonic was now a proven cash cow in the west, so it’s unsurprising that serialisation quickly turned to franchise expansion, with several titles releasing per year from 1993 onwards (with a couple of exceptions here and there). Such a trend isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and could be argued to have caused ripples that are still felt in Sonic games today, but that’s getting way ahead of things. Developed by Aspect, the studio behind 8-bit Sonic 2, Sonic Chaos (released as Sonic & Tails in Japan) is our third Sonic title for the SEGA Master System and Game Gear. Beyond that, I find it difficult to really ascribe an identity to the game. Within the Sonic community, 8-bit Sonic 1 is viewed as the companion piece with a handful of alternate level settings, 8-bit Sonic 2 is pretty much universally known as “the really difficult one” and the fourth 8-bit Sonic platformer seems to have garnered the reputation of being where these games came into their own (an assessment that I’ll put under the microscope in due time), as well as debuting its own cult classic character to the franchise. So where does that leave Sonic Chaos? During my research on the game’s development via the Sonic Retro wiki, I saw the game referred to as being the 8-bit games’ answer to Sonic 2, given that the actual 8-bit Sonic 2, certainly in aesthetics and mechanics, continued very much in the vein of its predecessor. I think such a statement on Sonic Chaos is somewhat valid – not only is this the first 8-bit game to feature Sonic’s now-iconic spindash (as well as a version of his peelout from Sonic CD with startup invincibility, here named as the Strike Dash, a move so devoid of use case within the game that I had completely forgotten it exists until the realisation that led to this post-publishing edit), it has the understated distinction of being the first game ever to feature Tails’ ability to fly in a playable form, where the Mega Drive version of Sonic 2 had only deigned to use it as a means to contextualise Tails respawning after getting lost offscreen or taking too many hits. Otherwise, I can’t really credit Sonic Chaos with anything near as weighty as 16-bit Sonic 2’s revolutionary legacy. To start with, the gameplay. Where 16-bit Sonic 2 honed in on the strengths of the series’ venerable first entry, emphasising and expanding upon them to create an altogether sleeker and more refined package that I credit with cementing a platonic ideal for Sonic games, Sonic Chaos, in spite of its headline additions, largely feels like more of the same to me as far as the 8-bit games go. Game feel is still considerably clunky, with the same rudimentary facsimile of physics that pales in comparison to the Mega Drive hits. Levels, designed by the enigmatic M. Shimamura, pseudonymous Ray and Tadashi Ihoroi (originally credited as 500ZO), are still broadly flat and mostly empty affairs, albeit with a commendable effort made to incorporate a wider variety of level gimmicks, such as speed boosters and springy shoes that allow Sonic to scale heights that would be insurmountable with his basic jump. Further, these levels make a notably more concerted effort to emulate the level design of Sonic 2’s multiple tiers of branching pathways, with Turquoise Hill Act 1 in particular doing its best impression of a Happy Meal version of Emerald Hill Act 1. Even so, they’re mostly over in a minute or less, with little threat from the game’s decidedly passive cast of enemies. Or at least they are if you aren’t hoping to visit the game’s special stages. That’s right, the Sonic series’ variety act is back once again. Unlike the previous two 8-bit games, where the Chaos Emeralds were located in the regular levels and only needed to be found in order to be acquired (a task often easier said than done, admittedly), Sonic Chaos opts to follow suit of its console big brothers and place the gemstones in another dimension, kept out of Sonic’s reach until he’s able to overcome the challenges he encounters there. Well, five of them are, anyway. Doctor Eggman is keeping a hold of the sixth emerald, serving as the impetus for the game’s gratuitous backstory, and the dev team evidently weren’t informed that we now live in a post-Sonic 2 world, with a whole seven emeralds and a super form to go with the complete set. This time, accessing a special stage requires that 100 rings be collected within any level, turning the game’s pacing into a decidedly Sonic CD-like affair, with the gameplay loop now focusing on the exploration of the levels in order accumulate the necessary rings, extending playtime by about 60 – 90 seconds a piece. Upon collection of the 100th ring, that level ends and Sonic is warped to the special stage, regardless of progress within the level. There’s little to complain about here – rings are pretty plentiful in most levels and the docility of the game’s enemies means that there’s little danger of losing them to a stray potshot. Ending the level to enter the special stage is an unconventional choice in theory, but ends up having little real impact outside of being the slightest of conveniences, given that levels are neither interesting enough for me to protest at being whisked away prematurely (as I would if this were 16-bit Sonic 2), nor brutal enough for skipping whatever’s left to feel like any kind of reprieve or reward (as I would if this were 8-bit Sonic 2). The stages themselves are less of a format change compared to the Mega Drive games, instead taking a form best described as bonus levels, five obstacle courses to be completed within a time limit, each having a specific theme. The first one focuses on the free-flying rocket boots powerup, which effectively amounts to staying in the middle of the screen and holding right until you come into contact with the emerald (rings can be grabbed along the way, with 50 granting a continue, but this is entirely optional and offers no progress towards the emerald itself); the second one requires Sonic use the spring shoes to climb a series of floating platforms; the third one is a series of tubes that just requires you hold right until the gotcha moment where you have to instead hold up, all while you’re inexplicably being peppered with invincibility monitors; the fourth one is most like a standard level, with the “difficulty” coming from navigating a stairwell of springs aiming to send you careening back the way you came at around the three-quarter mark of the level; and the fifth one is another series of tubes, this one more labyrinthine in nature. These stages are entirely unremarkable. They’re barely interesting and don’t even begin to explore their mechanics to the fullest degree, even within the limited depth of an 8-bit Sonic game. If not for their grab bag nature, the only memorable thing about them would be their difficulty curve. The first three stages put up all the fight of a sedate kitten with next to no requirement for engagement on the player’s part, but the fourth stage represents a sharp spike in difficulty due to the precision and speed with which it must be navigated (with the aforementioned spring stairway being a particular hassle), and the fifth stage pretty much can’t be beaten without some combination of several attempts, a guide and a copious amount of luck. Even if you manage to correctly navigate the tubes, you’d better be ready to jump as soon as you enter the room containing the Chaos Emerald, lest you hit the cruelly placed spring that would you bounce back into that tube, forcing you back to the start of the level with a 20-second penalty, all but killing that attempt at the emerald. And it’s in this we find the throughline of Sonic Chaos, ugly as it may be. As with the special stages, the game’s standard levels start out laughably easy before a jarring difficulty spike kicks in. The first three levels provide next to no challenge whatsoever, before the fourth zone starts peppering in bottomless pits and slanted walkways above those pits that’ll send you careening downwards if you lose too much speed on them, while the sixth zone features invincible enemies rooted into the ground along Song’s path, just waiting to be run into (which happens frustratingly often, given the Game Gear’s screen crunch – frankly, I couldn’t imagine trying to play this on real hardware with the screen ghosting that entails). It’s still no 8-bit Sonic 2 in this regard, especially with the Chaos Emeralds moved to special stages rather than being left in difficult to reach spots within the levels themselves, but at least Sonic 2 was enough of a pain in the neck to be memorable for it. This approach to difficulty permeates the bosses also. The first boss doesn’t even directly attack Sonic, instead just trundling back and forth ineffectually, the only way to lose a life being to run into the poor thing without curling into a ball first. However, the third boss begins to up the ante with a downward arc of fire that makes rebounding off of it after a hit a potentially lethal proposition, while the fifth boss even gets a second phase involving a barrage of tough to dodge missiles. Even the addition of rings to boss stages (though only on one path, making it entirely feasible to end up fighting the boss without them – I don’t even know how to reach the rings in the fifth zone’s boss act without using Tails) only takes the edge off somewhat, but I find it hard to muster any real ire for this. By the time the bosses start presenting a challenge, they can all be cheesed by jumping in such a way that Sonic lands directly on top of them and can continue to score hits with consecutive bounces until the boss folds. The developers must have known about this, as the fifth boss leaves from the top of the screen once its second phase begins, but even this can be abused, as the boss will carry a bouncing Sonic with it, making its normally difficult missile attack a complete non-issue. Even the final boss, a laser-firing bipedal mech piloted by Eggman, is cursed with the inability to turn around. To the doctor’s credit, he does fire a fast-moving energy shot that covers the area above and behind him by careening off the screen’s boundaries, making the usual cheese strat infeasible, but this too is barely an inconvenience, simply requiring players to retreat to the corner of the screen behind Robotnik to wait out the attack before continuing to scramble the Eggman. If you think that sounds disappointing, then wait until you hear about Tails. Up until now, I’ve been framing gameplay pretty much exclusively as a Sonic affair, and that’s not by accident. Upon starting Sonic Chaos, you’re presented with the option to play the game as Sonic or Tails, with no chance to switch once the journey has begun. Given that he’s the template from which all other playstyles stem in the 2D space, I of course picked Sonic for my first playthrough. I subsequently got the bad ending due to figuring out how to access special stages only halfway through the game. “No biggie,” I thought “this seems like the perfect reason to go back through the game and play as Tails, using his flight to make accessing special stages much quicker and easier”. My first experience with Tails was that I couldn’t even figure out how to make him fly, to the point that I thought I’d tricked myself into believing that this was the debut of his ability to fly. In more or less every other 2D appearance, Tails’ flight is activated by additional, consistent presses of the jump button after an initial jump, evoking the same tactile game feel as revving up Sonic’s spindash. In Sonic Chaos, Tails’ flight is activated by pressing up and jump simultaneously, but only when on the ground and standing still. It feels a little unfair to hold it against the devs of this game for not hitting up on the now-accepted solution for Tails’ flight before the mechanic became mainstream, but the whole affair is just weird and clunky, given that intuition dictates that you’d want as much height as possible before beginning to fly to extend your air time, making the choice to only have it be activated while grounded and motionless a little jarring and rather a pace-killer. Even once he’s in the air, Tails’ control is unimpressive, being unable to move with anywhere near the grace and fluidity of his console self, his rigidity instead evoking something you’d expect to see on the Atari of the early 80s rather than a full colour display a decade later. All of this, however, is secondary to Tails’ biggest shortcoming in Sonic Chaos, that of being entirely unable to enter the special stages and collect the Chaos Emeralds. This, in some part, makes sense, given that two of the special stages feature the Sonic-exclusive rocket boots power-up (almost certainly conceived as a way to allow the blue blur to match his fennec friend by taking to air himself for a limited time), but concessions could certainly have been made to rectify this issue, especially given that the stage which outright requires the use of the power-up is the least interesting in a set of terribly boring special stages. Granted, perhaps I’m overstating things, as the inability to collect emeralds has absolutely no bearing on gameplay, with their collection simply changing the game’s ending (in the bad ending, Sonic stacks it and face plants in his attempt to chase down Eggman for the sixth, red emerald, the idiot), but it’s just not a good look to have a co-titling character be unable to participate in the game’s full breadth of content, however banal that content may be. In point of fact, the only screenshot of Tails I bothered taking was the one above, before promptly resetting the game at the realisation that there was no worth in this playthrough – the game is easy enough already, and the areas of difficulty that do exist wouldn’t be alleviated by the ability to fly anyway. At least the presentation values are good, right? Well, they’re fine, I guess. Indeed, perhaps the most memorable aspect of Sonic Chaos is its introduction of a new art style. Gone are 8-bit Sonic 1 and 2’s flat-coloured sprites and uniform outlines in favour of something a little more evocative of the Mega Drive stylings, with an emphasis on detail and shading, courtesy of Hisato Fukumoto, Gen Adachi, Nobuhiko Honda and Shinichi Higashi. Credit where it’s due, the game does project an appearance of something technically superior to the previous Master System/Game Gear outings, and character sprites in particular, heroes and villains alike, all benefit from a sense of depth and volume that was lacking in those games but, on balance, I’m still inclined to say it’s a downgrade. In the 8-bit Sonic 1 review, I was really rather impressed with the strength of the art style, highlighting the clever use of system colour limitations to sell the illusion of deep and intricate backgrounds that really help level aesthetics pop. In Sonic Chaos, colour and detail is frontloaded into the elements within the playable area, reducing backgrounds to being single-colour fills with sparse tiling of mostly indistinct decorations of little permutation, failing to really suggest a wider locale in the distance and leaving stages looking as though they exist in barren voids, with the level aesthetics themselves failing to evoke anything so fanciful as their names would suggest (someone please tell me what the hell Sleeping Egg Zone is meant to be). I think things do look a little better on the Master System, given its more pastel palette compared to the Game Gear’s darker hues, but choice of system is no factor in the content of Sonic Chaos’ art style. In the console wars arms race of the 90s, it would seem that SEGA and Aspect allowed ambition to get the better of them on 8-bit systems and traded in the strengths of a simpler art style for a façade of technical superiority over the NES and Game Boy. “But what of the music?” I hear you cry. “This is a Sonic game! For the love of chilli dogs and all that is fast, surely we’ve been treated to a round of 8-bit bangers as only this series can give them!” Sorry to say, its’s another miss here. Scored seemingly entirely by series newcomer Kojiro Mikusa (I say “seemingly” as Masayuki Nagao, also credited for the game’s sound, looks to be more involved with sound effect production, judging by their body of work listed on Moby Games), Sonic Chaos gives us, by some margin, the single most forgettable soundtrack yet heard in this series. It’s not particularly bad, mind, but doesn’t aspire to be anything greater than wholly standard video game fare, which is a bit of a damning statement within the context of the Sonic series, so revered for its tunes as it is. While I’m usually in the habit of queuing up each game’s soundtrack in order to evoke mood and memories of my time with it as I write these posts, this time I took one or two listens as a formality before switching over to other Sonic soundtracks. About the only track I’m left with any affection for is the Game Gear rendition of Aqua Planet Zone, though even this isn’t something I’d be able to listen to on loop the same way I can 8-bit Sonic 1’s tunes. All in all, I think it’s pretty evident why Sonic Chaos doesn’t have much renown or identity, even within the deepest depths of the Sonic fan community. It’s a wholly uninspired experience that seems to be going through the motions, neither good enough to be fun nor bad enough to be memorable. Even its jerky difficulty curve seems to be more of an accident of sloppy design rather than some planned sucker punch to wall out inexperienced players and light the fire of spite to goad them into seeing the thing through for their own satisfaction. Truth be told, the most profound thing that Sonic Chaos does is lend further validation to something I’ve been feeling since reviewing 8-bit Sonic 1: Sonic games just don’t work on 8-bit systems that aren’t computationally powerful to simulate the physics that made the series fun in the first place. Already I find myself forgetting much of my time with a game I beat within just a couple of hours three days ago. Go, girl, give us nothing! Next instalment: Sonic Spinball (SEGA Mega Drive, Master System & Game Gear, 1993)
  11. Yeah, that pretty much hits the nail on the head for me as far as why I don't like ATB. Even if it's the illusion of pressure, the pressure is still felt and I don't want that kind of pressure in an RPG, it stresses me out. I don't even mind RPG fights being slow and perhaps unflashy, because I think the itch it scratches for me is something approximating resource management. I'd much rather have a slower experience that lets me get stuck into the weeds of planning than something with the facade of speed, but no depth as a result.
  12. Actually I'm powered by the small animals trapped inside my metal shell against their will.
  13. The speedrun from “it’s cool and I really like it” to “please just stop” happened a lot sooner than I expected.
  14. Previous instalment: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Master System, 1992) Divergent evolution is a funny old thing. It’s not unsurprising that it happens as far as design is concerned, but it’s interesting to see what exists in the space between an idea being birthed and the definitive iteration of that idea seeing mass adoption, superseding the original and becoming the new default. Two parties can work independently to improve the same base, only for the results to be altogether distinct from each other. Such was the case with Sonic the Hedgehog during its primordial phase in the early 90s. As I touched on in my writeup of the first game, while a lot of the fundamentals of classic Sonic gameplay didn’t change much from the inception of the franchise in 1991 through to Sonic 3 & Knuckles in 1994, things didn’t come out fully formed the first time, and those two years in between can be looked back upon as a time when the cement hadn’t quite finished drying and the ideas of the series were a little more malleable. I’ve already written about Yuji Naka and co.’s accomplished sequel that really solidified the template of what Sonic was to be, and still is for many, all these years later. This time, I’m writing about a very different sequel that resulted from the vision of the other essential figure in the Sonic creation myth, Naoto Ohshima. Released in Autumn 1993, Sonic CD was positioned as the killer app for the SEGA Mega Drive’s Mega CD add-on. While Naka et al upped sticks to California to work on Sonic 2 at the behest of Mark Cerny and SEGA of America, Ohshima remained in Japan and formed his own team to bring about his own Sonic sequel that would take advantage of the Mega CD’s unique features in an attempt to make the peripheral a success, per the direction of SEGA. Ohshima is generally deflective towards the idea of Sonic CD being a true sequel to the original (even suggesting that his team had more fun working without the pressure that the American team was under to deliver the sequel to one of the early 90s’ seminal hits), and I’m inclined to agree with him, but the parallels between these two games really can’t be overstated. Where Sonic 2 zigs, Sonic CD zags - this is by design, as Ohshima deliberately maintained communication with Naka as the two worked on their respective projects so the former could ensure that CD would stand independently of 2, rather than just being an enhanced version of it. While Sonic 2 delivered one of the most iconic sidekicks in all of media with Miles “Tails” Prower, Sonic CD instead chose to give Sonic a(n unrequited) love interest in the form of Amy Rose Hedgehog and his first true rival in Metal Sonic, a robotic dark mirror of our hero that himself contrasts the bulky and industrial design of Sonic 2’s Mecha Sonic Mk. I with a much sleeker, cobalt blue frame that more accurately mimicks the real Sonic. As Sonic 2 introduced the spindash, providing speed and protection through a revving action, Sonic CD instead breaks this concept down into two moves, the Super Peelout and its own version of the spindash – both of these performed by continuously holding either up or down respectively and the jump button, with the former providing a huge burst of speed while the latter offered a slightly slower but safer manoeuvre (though the Sonic 2 styled spindash would be officially introduced to Sonic CD with the game’s 2011 remake by Christian “Taxman” Whitehead and has since supplanted the CD-original version as the default option in subsequent rereleases of said remake). The most fundamental of these contrasts, however, is time travel. As I briefly outlined in the addendum of Sonic 2’s writeup, that game was at one point going to feature time travel as a major point of focus. As best as can be gleaned from the publicly available concept art, I believe this would’ve mostly been a presentational element rather than a fully-fledged game mechanic, with Sonic and Tails chasing Eggman on a journey through time in a set, linear order. Meanwhile, not only did Sonic CD’s take on time travel make it into the final game, I personally think it was executed in a much more interesting way than what seems to have been proposed by the Sonic 2 team. The mechanics of time travel in Sonic CD are as follows: by making contact with time warp plates placed throughout each level before reaching and maintaining a certain speed for a few seconds (approximately five in the 2011 remake, a little shorter in the 1993 original), Sonic will then warp to the past, present or future, depending on what time period he’s in when initiating the warp. But what’s the point to all this? Well, if you only ever stayed in the present and blasted through this game as though it were any other Sonic title, Sonic CD would end up a brief experience, and ultimately no progress would truly be made in stopping Doctor Eggman, who has abused/is abusing/will abuse the mercurial space-time laws of Little Planet, the game’s setting, to transform it into a synthetic wonderland in his own image. While Sonic may be able to travel between past, present and future, that future is not set in stone and can be good or bad depending on actions taken over the course of each level and the game as a whole. As such, the true goal of Sonic CD’s gameplay loop is to save the planet and conquer time by shutting down Eggman’s robot generators in the past or grabbing the seven Time Stones (Ersatz Chaos Emeralds, honestly) to keep them out of the bad doctor’s clutches. In effect, this allows for Sonic CD to played in two ways (assuming you want to save Little Planet and see the game’s good ending). The first of these (and the approach I would hazard is Ohshima’s preferred way for us to play the game) is to focus on the generators in the past, while the second is to play with a mindset of getting to the goal, taking time travel as it comes rather than seeking it out and trying to harness it. To best understand how these two gameplay experiences differ, we first need to discuss the level design of the game. Frankly, it’s rather messy. Off the bat, the basic geometry of the level design is generally pretty blocky and places a big emphasis on verticality, which makes it more difficult to maintain speed in the same way as when playing Sonic 1 or 2. Those games focused on organic slopes for the level designs of its natural locales, allowing players to reach new paths with the use of Sonic’s speed rather than asking them to sacrifice it. Meanwhile, level design in Sonic CD frequently forces Sonic to stop or severely slow down to maintain forward progress, making it unnecessarily difficult and tedious to maintain the speed needed to time travel. This kind of design is at its worst in the fifth zone, Wacky Workbench, which has an intermittently bouncy floor on its bottommost layer and a lot of walls in the upper areas, making the viable real estate for time travel practically nil. On the other side of the coin, Sonic CD absolutely loves to just throw Sonic onto all sorts of wild rides with springs and bumpers. This is bad enough in a vacuum in that it stalls forward progress in a different way, but becomes even worse with time travel thrown into the mix, as these segments of level design can provide the speed needed for time travel but in a way that isn’t practically reliable to use as a strategy for time travel and can often be unwanted. This kind of design isn’t particularly frequent but is no less egregious than the first flaw. In practical terms, this makes going for the good ending via destroying all generators pretty awkward. First of all, there’s one in every first and second act of each zone, and missing even a single one means you can no longer get the good ending that way, already setting an exacting standard for success. Unfortunately, it only gets worse when you bring the flaws of the game’s level design into the mix. Since travelling into the past ends up being rather a task a lot of the time, particularly in the game’s later levels, it’s not great that you have to do it in two thirds of the game’s levels and then scour those levels on top of that to find the generators. Unintentional time travel is so much more frustrating here, though. Given that all your objectives are in the past, travelling to the future becomes nothing but detrimental in a generators-focused run of the game, yet that’s how most unintentional time travel happens, since future time warp plates are considerably more common than those leading to the past. This ended up happening to me a considerable amount in one of my playthroughs and the consequence of this happening is having to then find two more past warp plates to get back to the present and then go to the past to actually start looking for the generator. The saving grace of this is that you can find the (now defunct) generators in the present of each level, so you don’t necessarily need to get to the past as soon as possible just to find the generator, but this doesn’t do much to reduce the tedium of the whole thing. On the other hand, going for the Time Stones is a much less aggravating experience. As in Sonic 1, special stages are accessed by collecting 50 rings jumping into the large warp ring that appears at the end of the level. This generally isn’t as much of a hassle as in that game, since the biggest challenge of Sonic CD being navigation of the environment itself means that there’s not actually a whole lot that’s going to take away your rings (which themselves are plentiful). But the real improvement here is in the special stages themselves - once again, it’s all change. This time, Sonic is dropped into a Mode-7 styled racetrack-like area and is tasked with destroying all of the UFOs flying around the area before time runs out. Most of these UFOs give rings, but some give Sonic a temporary speed boost that can be used to navigate the map more quickly. Making contact with the water around the stage costs ten seconds each time it happens, but a special UFO spawns every time the clock drops below 20 seconds, with its destruction granting an additional 20 seconds to work with. This may be my favourite special stage format in the classic quadrilogy, honestly. The UFOs can seem fairly erratic, but they follow set patterns every time you play, and clearing each one of these on the first attempt is entirely feasible, unlike the special stages of Sonic 2. You can’t halt Sonic’s movement once the stage starts, so you always need to have your next manoeuvre in mind, but Sonic can be slowed down as long as you’re holding backwards on the d-pad. The freedom of control for Sonic, combined with non-linear nature of these stages, results in obstacle courses that don’t require internalised knowledge of their cycles, but do become massively rewarding with this as you begin to be able to route your runs on repeat playthroughs to clear them in very little time and look cool while doing it. There’s a nice flow state that can be achieved here and it makes a huge difference that these stages can be hastened with experience and good performance, unlike the auto-scrollers of Sonic 2 and…whatever the hell Sonic 1’s special stages are. They’re not without flaw, however. The letdown here is in the low graphical fidelity of the stages, which can make it difficult to tell where smaller bodies of water lie and generally screws over depth perception, which can become frustrating in the later special stages as you miss hits on the more slippery UFOs that by all accounts should have landed. Even so, I far prefer these special stages to the two attempts prior. In terms of actually playing the game this way, however…it’s a bit boring. By ditching the impetus to explore and instead making things more or less a straight shot to the goal, Sonic CD’s levels become fairly bland in their construction and very short, and there isn’t a lot of engagement to be had, not helped by the fact that there’s no real reason to time travel other than for sightseeing. To be utilitarian about it, the point of going to the past is to destroy generators. The point of going to the good future accessible upon destroying the generators or collecting all the Time Stones is for an easier ride, since there are no enemies there (though this game is already so easy that this isn’t a particularly compelling sell – if you’re going to struggle, it won’t be due to the enemies). The bad futures, which you’ll be seeing until Quartz Quadrant Act 2 at the very earliest if you’re only going for Time Stones, have the same level design as the good futures, but with enemies added into the mix, simply offering a different flavour from the present and having no utility of their own. The layouts themselves are just about different enough between eras to give consequence to time travel, but don’t do much to invoke the desire to time travel. This becomes even more baffling in the 2011 remake, which adds Metal Sonic holograms in every first and second act that can be destroyed for an achievement…in the past…where the generators already provide an incentive for exploration. All of this is to say that going for the Time Stones instead of the generators, while a less tedious and frustrating experience, is still one that leads to you ignoring the crux of what the game’s about. In keeping with the theme of tedium is Sonic CD’s boss fights, which have a deliberated pace compared to Sonic 1 and 2 – unfortunately, that’s not a compliment. In theory, most of Sonic CD’s bosses operate in the same way as the prior two games, being vulnerable at all times, but requiring you to reach them to land hits. The trouble is, the game very much dictates when you’re allowed to reach the bosses, which are otherwise protected from damage. Dishonourable mentions here include the final boss in Metallic Madness, which is protected by its spinning blades and is very stingy with its vulnerability windows, and Quartz Quadrant’s, which is functionally invincible and must be ground into submission by running on a conveyor belt in the boss arena while avoiding attacks, effectively turning the boss into an autoscroller. The worst offender, however, has to be the second boss, found in Collision Chaos. This is even less of a boss fight than Quartz Quadrant’s, instead taking the form of a pinball table that Sonic must reached the top of in order to smash Eggman, who all the while is firing small explosives downwards towards Sonic, pushing him backwards on contact but only being able to hurt him by forcing him into spike traps, which rarely happens. It’s a truly miserable experience and succeeding is largely down to luck of being able to avoid the explosives while bouncing from flipper to flipper. In short, pretty much all of CD’s bosses can be boiled down to gameplay experiences that aren’t difficult, but simply monotonous. In my opinion, even the fan favourite Metal Sonic race that serves as Stardust Speedway’s boss doesn’t escape this curse, though it does have the saving grace of being cleared more quickly with skilful play. This pretty much just plays out as a third stage for the zone, with the gimmick being that you have to beat Metal Sonic to the end of the level while Eggman chases you with a laser that kills instantly on contact. Metal Sonic himself has two attacks that occur entirely based on his position to you when triggered. If he’s lagging behind, he’ll burst forward in an energised tackle, the V. Maximum Overdrive Attack. When leading, he’ll slow right down while electrifying his entire body in the hopes that Sonic’ll just run into him. You never directly engage with Metal Sonic and, once again, your main obstacle is the environment itself, being littered with spike traps and constructed in such a way that can kill momentum if you don’t react and jump in time to avoid the numerous quarter pipes on your path. Overall, Metal Sonic’s debut face-off is about as rote as the rest of the game’s bosses. Instead, it’s memorable for being a change in format to every other boss in the series up to this point and on the strength of Metal’s character design and presence itself, which is just as well, given this is the second of his paltry two appearances within gameplay, the first being to show up and kidnap Amy Rose at the start of Collision Chaos (you get to free her after besting Metal Sonic) – a bit baffling, given how he’s front and centre in all of the game’s promotional materials and on its box art. It's in Metal Sonic’s race, however, that we find the explanation for why Sonic CD has gone on to become rather a cult classic within the Sonic zeitgeist, which reminds us of why Naoto Ohshima is so important within the creation of Sonic in the first place. In the conception of Sonic, Yuji Naka was the engineer who coded and calculated the physics of momentum and acceleration that made Sonic the Hedgehog, the game, a landmark title in the gameplay department. Meanwhile, I believe the credit that belongs entirely to Ohshima is that of creating Sonic the Hedgehog, the hedgehog, and this really bears out in the presentation of Sonic CD. When starting a new playthrough, Sonic CD swings for the fences pretty much immediately in terms of making an impression, with a series first for Sonic: a 90-second-long animated intro, courtesy of Studio Junio (subcontracted by Toei Animation, credited as the animation’s producer) and spearheaded by chief animator Hisashi Eguchi, who has also worked on the likes of Lupin III, Evangelion Neon Genesis and Naruto. You can read more about the history behind the intro and Eguchi’s work here, because a lot of it is way outside of the scope of what I’m writing about in this post, but what’s important for our purposes is that this intro’s really just rather fantastic. Showing Sonic’s journey to Never Lake (above which Eggman has chained Little Planet to a mountain bearing his own image, Rushmore style), the whole piece just oozes style, effortlessly demonstrating Sonic’s cool personality in both design and movement in a manner that’s codified how Sonic should be portrayed more than anything that has come before. All of this is happening while elevated by a vocal arrangement of 8-bit Sonic 2’s Green Hills Zone music titled “Sonic – You Can Do Anything”, produced by Masafumi Ogata, Casey Rankin and Keiko Utoku. “Nothing can survive the will to stay alive” is one of the hardest lyrics of all time and it comes from a goddamn Sonic game. And this energy keeps up all the way through the game. Where Sonic 2’s zig was to refine the art style of Sonic 1 into something softer and slightly more grounded, Sonic CD’s zag instead sprints headlong in the other direction to embrace those 90s eccentricities that would later go on to influence vapourwave aesthetics. Each and every environment to be found on Little Planet is bursting with eclectic style, from Palmtree Panic’s polygonal palm leaves and terrain patterns to the upside-down rivers and canopies found in Collision Chaos and yet beyond to the titanic and incomprehensible machinery that looms large in the distance of Metallic Madness. But Sonic CD’s environmental design (brought to vibrant life by Hiroyuki Kawaguchi, Takumi Miyake, Masahiro Sanpei, Masato Nishimura and Hideaki Kurata) runs far deeper than the surface level in its brilliance – it takes the game’s time travel aspect and uses it as a stage upon which it blows up Sonic 1’s fairly subtle environmentalist themes to epic proportions. In that first game, an understated narrative played out as Sonic’s adventure took him from the serene Green Hill Zone, untouched by human hands, to the corrosive and smothering Scrap Brain Zone, a dystopic industrial complex belching fiery smog into the skies above, passing through increasingly urbanised locales on the way. Granted, the theming was slightly compromised by the mid-development decision to change Labyrinth Zone from the second level of the game to its fourth (a decision that was absolutely a no-brainer from a difficulty design perspective), but it’s undeniably there. Sonic CD doesn’t just continue this theming, but elevates it by intertwining it with the game’s mechanics to brilliant effect in the art design of each stage’s past, present and future variants. The present can be considered to be the default and, for the most part, riffs on the stage tropes seen in Sonic 1 – lakesides, cities, water-logged ruins, etc. Meanwhile, travelling to the past will show these stages in a less developed light – Palmtree Panic and Collision Chaos take on a somewhat pre-historic aesthetic, while Stardust Speedway’s bustling city reverts to a deep green waterfront that’s a little more Greco-Roman in its aesthetic, and industrialised stages such as Wacky Workbench can be seen still under construction. The two futures, however, are where things are at their most interesting with relation to the nature vs technology theming. In the bad futures, Eggman’s corrosive influence has twisted the landscape into something almost unrecognisable – natural areas are inhospitable, with dead plant life and waters that run a sickly purple with oil and waste. Even Eggman’s own constructions aren’t spared ruination, as the likes of the Quartz Quadrant mining facility have fallen to rust and disrepair. On the other side of the coin, the good futures present something far closer to a utopia in which nature and technology don’t just coexist, but harmonise and excel in symbiosis. Where Tidal Tempest transitioned from a Labyrinth Zone-esque temple in the present to what appears to be a long-abandoned sewage treatment plant in the bad future, the good future’s transformation is far more benign and arguably more radical, completely overhauling the area into some kind of futuristic aquarium crossed with botanical gardens. The water is the clearest out of any of the time zones, and plants are preserved in pristine condition within glass tubes throughout the background. Even Eggman’s final base of operations, Metallic Madness, has changed for the better, with sky visible once again over a fantastical city in the background, while birds and butterflies soar freely in the playable area, itself lush with potted plants. To me, the strength of this theming lies in its nuance. Lesser interpretations of such a narrative, even those within other areas of the Sonic franchise, such as the 1993 SatAM cartoon series, certainly present the adverse effects of unchecked industrialisation upon nature, but the machines themselves are always presented as sterile, cold and unaffected. Meanwhile, even current depictions of eco-modernism aesthetics focus squarely on the natural side of things, showing apartment blocks and highways covered in vegetation in a manner not too dissimilar to apocalyptic settings like The Last of Us or otherwise post-population settings such as Kirby and the Forgotten Land, where humanity has either been forced to cede its structures back to nature, or has simply abandoned them for new pastures. Either way, there’s little conception of the role technology plays in such hypotheticals. By contrast, Sonic CD’s answers that technology can be as ruinous to itself as to everything else, but that it can also be used to cultivate and enhance nature in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, feel to me to be genuinely more-considered, profound and ahead of the game’s time. It almost feels a little silly to get so philosophical concerning a 1993 platformer about a fast hedgehog, but it’s this kind of vision that allows Sonic CD to stand tall as one of the best games in the Sonic pantheon as far as visual design goes. As far as the more technical elements go, the game remains strong here too. Things largely follow the foundation laid by Sonic 1 (with Sonic even using a sprite set very similar to the one in that game), bolstered by the Mega CD’s colour capabilities facilitating softer shading and more diverse palettes. Kazuyuki Hoshino and Takumi Miyake bring us an even more animal-centric cast of badniks to bash than the previous two games, largely made up of insectoid and crustacean-inspired enemies. Even Yasushi Yamaguchi, last seen in the 16-bit Sonic 2 as the central graphical designer and creator of Tails, finds time to pitch in with the design of the special stages. Compared to Sonic 1 and 2, characters are a fair bit cutesier here, with a bigger emphasis on rounded shapes, but that absolutely fits the whimsical and trippy world that Sonic CD presents. I’m pleased to confirm that Sonic CD’s immaculate sense of style also extends to its phenomenal soundtrack, brought to us courtesy of Naofumi Hataya and the previously-mentioned Masafumi Ogata, both returning from 8-bit Sonic 2. There’s an oft-cited adage within the Sonic community that, regardless of gameplay quality, you can always expect to find a good soundtrack in a Sonic game, and I think that CD is perhaps the first title to be truly emblematic of that. Not that the prior soundtracks, particularly those by Masato Nakamura for the first two Mega Drive games, were lacking, but Sonic CD represents a huge leap forward for the series in terms of its music. While the technology of the Mega CD may have only provided modest graphical gains, the uplift in audio was revolutionary, allowing for the use of studio quality recordings rather than synthesised tracks transcribed from demo tapes, as was the process for Sonic 1 and 2 (and would continue to be so for the remaining games on the Mega Drive). Frankly, the results are phenomenal. In terms of application, the soundtrack nails theming just as well as the graphics do, though the focus in this area of presentation is more on the time travel aspect than environmentalist subtext. Present is once again the default here - most similar to the music of the New Jack Swing genre, these tracks feature a lot of bombastic brass, classy piano and persistent synth percussion, as well as fantastic use of sampling (a series-first for Sonic), and generally sit in the 120-140bpm range, with a couple of outliers on either side of that. In the bad future mixes, the tempo raises a little and the sampling and percussion develop a greater presence as techno and electronic elements are added into the mix, all in service of a more frantic and strained vibe. By contrast, the good future mixes generally dial the tempo back a bit and favour the keyboard (now emulating chimes and xylophones rather than strictly keeping to the piano) and brass elements of the original tracks, supplementing them with moderate amounts of saxophone to create an optimistic and serene atmosphere). Finally, the past mixes are all rendered at the system level in PCM (pulse-code modulation) format, a la the Mega Drive games. The instrumentation in these tracks is generally ambiguous, but a throughline of wind instruments and somewhat more archaic drumbeats (with frequent tom drum usage) is definitely present. Whether the decision was made on artistic merit or out of pragmatism regarding system memory is a debate that I don’t think has definitively been settled, but the past tracks have a brilliant identity all their own as a result. Frankly, the greater fidelity in sound quality and even more avant-garde style than the previous games make it hard for me to really critique Sonic CD’s soundtrack in a technical sense, since I lack the musical knowledge and vocabulary to articulate my enjoyment in any meaningful way, but I can say with confidence that it’s up there as one of the series’ very best. Picking a favourite from each era, my highlights this time around are Collision Chaos Past, for its catchy pan flutes and orchestra hits, Quartz Quadrant Present, for its multiple tempo changes and sonorous piano medley, Stardust Speedway Bad Future, for its near constant but ever-changing samples and intermittent police sirens, and Metallic Madness Good Future, for so brilliantly reinterpreting the originally menacing composition into something that’d normally be entirely unexpected for a final level theme. Outside of those, the final boss theme is appropriately dramatic and, while I’ve already shouted out the game’s opening theme, its credits theme, Cosmic Eternity ~ Believe in Yourself, is absolutely worthy of praise also. Honestly, I’d say this is one of those soundtracks where you can pick pretty much any track and be met with a pleasant listening experience. But that’s not all, as Sonic CD is the gift that keeps on giving. During the localisation process, some moron at SEGA of America decided that the original soundtrack was too much like club music and wouldn’t be entertaining enough for American audiences. Whoever had that take was dumb and wrong, but I will forgive them because it resulted in a whole other soundtrack for the American release of the game (PAL regions kept the original Japanese soundtrack). Composed by in-house SEGA musicians Spencer Nilsen and David Young, with performances by Brad Kaiser, Erik Frykman, Bobby Vega, Armando Peraza and jazz trio -Pastiche- (Sandy Cressman, Jenny Meltzer and Becky West), I think the American soundtrack might best be described as more atmospheric than its Japanese counterpart. The mission here seems to have been to produce something more reflective of the imagery seen within the game’s locales rather than exploring the themes of time travel. For example, the green shores of Palmtree Panic are accompanied by a bright sax lead and lots of tom drums, while the industrial locale of Quartz Quadrant places heavy emphasis on its electric guitar shreds. That’s not to say that the individual mixes don’t match the mood of each time period, simply that the differences are perhaps more subtle, with instrumentation generally being consistent between each time zone. That, and I find that the melodies themselves are better in the moment than after the fact, as most of them don’t quite worm into the ears the same way that the Japanese tracks do, in part due to how the tracks are structured to build in progressive sections of instruments layering on top of one another, rather than there being a clear melody anchoring each song. This is all great if that’s your bag, I just happen to derive the more enjoyment from the original music. With that said, there are some tunes that I do prefer to hear the US versions of, such as Tidal Tempest and Wacky Workbench, while others, like Stardust Speedway and Metallic Madness, are more of a toss-up with each as good as the other in my mind. Unfortunately, this soundtrack is stuck with the now-incongruent past themes from the Japanese version of the soundtrack, given that replacing these PCM compositions would be more taxing than simply swapping out the CD audio files, so the US version loses points on the cohesion front. Also worth noting is that, rather than having separate intro and ending themes, the US soundtrack opts to give us two different versions of its vocal theme, Sonic Boom. The intro version is pretty well-loved and was probably my first exposure to Sonic CD as a whole, but I’m partial to the ending version myself, given its lower tempo and guitar strumming towards the end. So, while the US soundtrack by and large isn’t my thing, it’s absolutely worth listening to, and modern rereleases graciously cater to both audiences with an option to choose your preferred soundtrack. And that’s Sonic CD, one of the sequels of all time. A quirky, oftentimes scattered and frustrating game, albeit one wrapped in the best presentations values this series had yet seen at the time of its release. It’s a game that very much needs to be met on its own terms – you can’t play it the way you would play Sonic 1 or 2 and expect to have a good time. Heck, you can’t guarantee enjoyment even by playing it the way it expects you to, but it’s nonetheless an interesting look at the direction Sonic could’ve gone in, not to mention the game where it all began for Amy Rose and Metal Sonic, two future mainstays of the series. The game’s saving grace is most certainly that it’s an unfiltered blast of Naoto Ohshima’s conception of the Sonic world directly onto your eyeballs, backed by tunes that are as timeless and unmistakable now as I’m sure they must’ve been back in the day. It’s a bit of a shame that Ohshima didn’t take another shot at directing after Sonic CD, honestly. His role in Sonic reverted back to being a designer in future titles and, after a couple of non-Sonic director credits with NiGHTS Into Dreams and Burning Rangers (both Sonic Team-developed titles for the SEGA Saturn), he’d left SEGA completely by the turn of the millennium. Surely if he were to take another crack at a Sonic game in, oh, let’s say 2023, he’d be able to refine the weaknesses of this one and give us a truly good Sonic game without caveats. Ah well, we can but dream… Addendum: Miracle on 93rd Street Next instalment: Sonic Chaos (SEGA Master System and Game Gear, 1993)
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