Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Video Game Review: Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut)

I haven't played a game that could satisfy my current craving since I finished Super Mario Land 2 so long ago (except for a brief stint with Mario Bros. Classic). I gave the GBA port of Super Mario Bros. 3 a whirl, and while it was fun, I found that it didn't quite hit that sweet spot. It occurred to me then that what I was looking for was a weird blend of 1980's platforming and game design with a handheld twist and maybe just a teensy bit of early 90's influence.

But where I could find something to satisfy such a specific crave? I'd already played and reviewed both Super Mario Land titles, and that puts me out of 8-bit on-the-go platforming commission. I could order up a new game, I mean, I am kind of dying to get my grubby little fingers on the Wario Land games, Metroid II, and the GB Zelda titles (which I believe would suffice in staving of this beast within, despite being of a different genre), but if I buy them I'd be going back on my vow to not buy a single new thing until I play all of my current games (I can receive gifts though. Nudge-nudge-wink-wink).

Deciding I'd just have to starve the beast I played Justice League Heroes, as dungeon crawling superheroes happen also to be a favorite of mine, but I found it insufficient at driving away these needs. Kind of melancholy, I gave a quick glance at my games collection. Nothing really jumped out at me, and I was thinking maybe I should take a break from gaming. After all, I still haven't finished reading that dreadful Husky book, and I've been on it for a few months despite it being less than 200 pages. I'm seriously starting to feel the slag from not reading anything. And while I have been watching my movies I haven't been reviewing them, which is probably a serious no-no.

Naturally, I did none of the things I should have done, and decided instead to buy a trio of bookshelves and make my gaming collection look neat and tidy. To go along with this, I've been modifying DS cases for Game Boy Color use and printing out inserts from The Cover Project to clean up those horrendous GameStop filler inserts (and I'll, unfortunately, be replacing the official inserts which GameStop has absolutely ruined by adhering price stickers to. Shame on you, assmunchers, for destroying Xenosaga). While doing this I came across instructions for fitting Game Gear titles in the DS cases, which I promptly flipped off and replaced with my own design. Now, I only have three Game Gear titles, one is lost, and neither of my Game Gears work. I think they just need to be cleaned, but I'm far too lazy to do that. Besides, they take six freaking batteries and eat them in about an hour. Who has time for that bullshit?

Still, the Game Gear called to me. Fond memories of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers flitted through my mind. "Play it!" my soul demanded. "Grab that mutant hedgehog and take him for a spin!"

That's when it hit me: while I don't own the cartridges, technically I do own every last Game Gear adventure Sega tossed their mascot into. They're all built right into the GameCube version of Sonic Adventure DX. With no wasted time I was off, jamming that bad boy into my Wii and grinning gleefully. Unfortunately, I, in my haste, had forgotten that each game must be unlocked by locating the emblems found throughout Sonic Adventure. No problem for me, though, because I like Sonic Adventure. I'll just kill thirteen birds with one stone.

First up, after swearing at Casinopolis for a bit and gather a whopping twenty emblems, the Sega Game Gear version of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Immediately as the game booted I noticed this was going to be a different experience than playing on the actual Game Gear would have been. It's very clear that the game was intended for a smaller screen. The sprites are very, very stretched and can be kind of difficult to look at, and I do not have a very large television. It's certainly much smaller than the average American will have set up in their living room. These stretched sprites can be a little hard on the eyes at times, but it's something one can quickly become accustomed to. Once you do find yourself more used to them, the graphics are actually quite nice and I don't think they're properly 8-bit. There seems to be far too many colors per object for that to be true. Characters are a little squashed looking, as per the requirement of fitting more on a smaller screen, but they don't really look distorted. Just smaller, almost like chibi versions of their Genesis counterparts, and a little indistinct.

On the other hand, a number of the environments are pretty awesome. Of note is Scrap Brain Zone which I was honestly amazed with. It reminded me a lot of Galaxy Man's stage from Mega Man 9 with blinking lights and glowing walls and backdrops. I loved it, to be honest. Most of the game's six zones have a charm to them, or at least something which makes them memorable. Bridge Zone feels far more Super Mario and far less Sonic the Hedgehog, and there's probably some truth to this. The stage design will remind players very much of the bridge stages in Super Mario World, which released before Sonic the Hedgehog did. That zone is also lined with fence posts which look majorly cartoonish and feel more like they belong in a Peanuts video game than Sonic, but I wouldn't have it any other way. These environments, which have much depth despite being so simple, take Sonic from the classic Green Hill Zone to a jammin' jungle to the terrifying flying fortress, Sky Base.

One thing Sonic familiars are going to notice almost right off the bat is the fact that the levels in this game are not labeled as "Zones". Instead you get simple names like "Green Hill", "Bridge", "Jungle", and "Sky Base", which is something I actually liked. The whole "Zone" naming scheme always gave me a bit of a headache, and I like having these areas portrayed as actual environmental locales as opposed to mystical "Zones". I don't know. Removing the "Zone" just makes these areas feel more solid than they have in the past.

Most zones (which I will continue to use in place of "Worlds" out of respect for this franchise) are fairly typical Sonic fare. You've got your tropical grassy hill zone, you've got your annoying-as-fuck water temple zone, you've got the dense jungle zone, you've got the Robotnik-occupied city zone, and you've got the aerial base zone. What I haven't seen before in a Sonic game is anything like the Bridge Zone, which I talked about just a paragraph or two above. While every other zone, despite being awesome, felt extremely familiar, Bridge Zone felt unique... to the franchise. And I appreciate that about it. It's a really simple concept, taking a theme and breaking it into a bunch of related stages. Usually, though, this theme is some kind of element like ice or fire. It's not often that them is bridges. I liked it. I loved it. I want some more of it.

This game breaks traditional Sonic formula in a lot of ways, most notably in the second acts of the second and third zones. These levels have seemingly gained the ire of many Sonic fans, but I think they're actually my favorite levels in the game. The first of these is a scrolling level, styled muchly like the ones from Super Mario. The screen scrolls and Sonic cannot push it forward nor backward and must survive at the same pace as the screen. Moving too quickly can be an issue because you might find yourself damaged by traps or falling platforms, while moving too slowly will cause you to miss jumps or opportunities to take alternate routes. A lot of what I call Speedbabies will absolutely hate this stage, and they do, because it forces you to slow down. They don't really understand that these early Sonic titles were great for this specific reason. While Sonic could move quickly, and sometimes you are reward for doing so, the primary enjoyment of a Sonic title is actually the same thing that makes a good Mario title: the platforming and the puzzle solving. So, while the Speedbabies who have absolutely ruined the modern Sonic titles will hate this stage, I, being a fan of good game design and platforming titles, love it. I really tend to love anything which forces the player to fight their instincts, and this stage does just that.

My second favorite stage, and the second odd stage, is another one which will force you to take it slow because it inverts the entire concept of typical Sonic stage design. Instead of moving horizontally and gaining speed to move horizontally even faster, the stage is built vertically and you're tasked with surviving while scaling the face of a waterfall. I found this stage to be highly enjoyable, and while it borrows some elements from Super Mario Bros. 2 (such as falling logs acting as platforms), that comparison is largely abused by this community because it's really pretty minimal.

One thing I noticed, and which made some portions of the game quite nerve wracking, was the slipperiness of the controls. I was never completely confident that Sonic was going to land where I wanted him to, and this made situations where I had to land precisely on a thin platform very intimidating. I don't know, though, that I would ever have this changed because it builds such tension that I think it improves the game over all. There are also a few instances, mainly in Bridge Zone, where Sonic absolutely will not jump as high as he needs to while coming off a slope, and this can be a little frustrating. It can be difficult guiding him to the exact spot he needs to be at to make the most of his jump, but if you don't, you're going to die. Which is a bummer.

Stage design is typically terrific, but there were a few instances (mainly early on in the game) where I didn't know where to go because the platform was off-screen. This is very problematic, mainly because learn from your mistakes style of games aren't typically very fun for me, and this is even less fun when the game was built at a time that game overs were an actual punishment. Fortunately the developers seemed to have gotten it together after building the Bridge Zone, and this kind of guess-and-jump game play is largely absent from the rest of the stages.

The music is actually pretty good for a game with such a limited sound set. The early tracks aren't anything that will catch your attention, with a mediocre rendition of Green Hill Zone, and some music for the Bridge Zone I can't even remember. Later stags, however, have some good music with the tune for Scrap Brain being phenomenal. The entirety of the Scrap Brain Zone is really good in general, with the stage design and music direction working together to create a more frantic feeling of desperation than either could have done on its own.

The game plays pretty much as expected. Multiple paths have been a common theme in Sonic games for ages, although this game is particularly good about encouraging exploration by making most paths accessible regardless of speed and putting a greater emphasis on the exploration and platforming than running. Rings serve as health, although in this game you cannot collect them after taking a hit. I believe this was to reduce the number of objects on screen at any given time. Collecting fifty rings and crossing the finish pole will take the player to a bonus zone where they have the opportunity to earn extra lives and continues. I found these bonus worlds to be a lot more fun than the rotating ones used in the Genesis game, and they actually are pretty entertaining.

Chaos Emeralds are featured in this title, and collecting them all will give the player a Good Ending, which isn't too terribly different from the Normal Ending. You really aren't missing anything by not collecting the Emeralds, but they're there if you want to, and hunting them down is a large part of the game's charm. At this point in Sonic history there are only six Emeralds, and Super Sonic hasn't yet been introduced, so there's one per zone and no game play benefits for gathering them. Also, they're all blue.

Bosses are fine, though nothing spectacular. While they're fairly simple with easy to remember patterns, the difficulty is increased by the fact that you gather no rings in a boss stage with one exception... but you don't fight a boss in that stage. So you have to take on Robotnik and his devilishly designed devices with only one hit to your life, and that can get pretty scary.

There's a lot of good in this game, a lot of good, and a fair bit of mediocre, but very little of it is bad. One thing, though, holds it back. Just this tiny thing, which really couldn't have been avoided. Painfully massive slow down. This is most noticeable in the Jungle Zone and the Labyrinth Zone when you're dealing with a lot of water. It just totally wrecks this game. Brings it down to an absolute crawl, and this can destroy Sonic's momentum or throw your reaction time right out the window. It's a shame, too, because this game is nearly perfect otherwise. Aside from slow down, having too many objects on screen at once can cause some weird graphical anomalies, like Sonic or large portions of the water disappearing. While that's mostly just an annoyance, it's still kind of weird and if it had happened to me on the original cart, I probably would have worried the game was breaking.

Before I wrap this up, there is one other cool thing I forgot to mention: shields follow you between stages. This is really nifty, because it means you can bring a shield into a boss stage with you. That gives you the one extra hit you might need to take down Robotnik and rescue South Island.

This game is really good. I love it. It's short, sweet. Beating it won't take you anything more than half an hour to two hours depending on your preferred level of exploration and skill. Stage design is practically flawless, and were it not for the slow down bug above, this game would be damn near perfect. In short, grab a copy of this game (I hear it was included in one of the Mega Collection games, and of course there's always the Game Gear original) and put your butt in a chair. Sonic the Hedgehog speeds by with an eight out of ten.

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