2015 was a big ol’ year for ol’ Cynric Cyning. Stuff happened. Things changed. A great black shadow blotted out the light of the moon – an evil portend of things to come? Only the weavers of wyrd can say for sure.
Well, firstly, I turned 21. It’s not really much of an achievement growing up in 21st century England anymore but it’s still a big thing; I can now buy alcohol and tobacco products in shops. I’m pretty sure I’ve been able to buy alcohol in pubs since I was 18, but now I’m free to buy a 2lt bottle of Special Brew from the corner shop, walk outside, drink it and have myself a nice lie down right there. Now that’s freedom. Secondly, I graduated from University! The start of this year was extremely stressful – I was working 9am until 3am most days (with the odd break for food and/or Pokemon), trying to balance my dissertation, various essays and revision. In the end it was worth it, I got a first and my dissertation won a university award and was nominated for a national one.
(I wish I had more opportunities to reference The Fast Show.)
But now I’m in quite an odd place – thrown out of the educational comfort zone I’ve spent my entire life in, it turns out that my degree and volunteer work are actually worth diddlysquat when it comes to getting a job. I want to be an archaeological curator but need a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies to do so, the tuition fees for which are £8,000. Ouch. I’m already £37,000 in debt from my Bachelor’s, so I’m not getting another loan. Topping the months of unemployment and money worries was the unexpected death of my 10 year old Chinchilla, which has meant that 2015 was ultimately a pretty rubbish year, when all is said and done, despite my early successes.
As you may expect, I mostly played the sort of games which would cheer me up. And when my sister’s boyfriend bought me a copy of Sonic Heroes on the Gamecube for my birthday it got me started on a massive Sonic nostalgia binge, digging out all of my old Sonic games and even eventually buying some newer ones which I’d missed out on. As with most kids in England, my first console was the Sega Megadrive and my introduction to videogames was Sonic 1&2 (I am yet to meet a single person who owned a SNES or was an early PS1 adopter). I remained a pretty dedicated Sonic fan in the face of such gems as Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic Riders (thankfully being a fairly late adopter of the PS3 I missed out on ’06), but Sonic Unleashed on the Wii was apparently the straw which broke the camel’s back. I hadn’t touched a Sonic game since it came out in 2008. After such a long break from the franchise I was actually really looking forward to revisiting it, plus being a hoarder could do it on the cheap – apart from the ones I owned on PS2 I still had all of my Sonic games.
(Sadly my Megadrive games have gone the way of the Dodo, that is to say, my cousin took them with him to University 7 years ago and I haven't seen them since.)
SONIC ADVENTURE DX:
Do you know those random completely unimportant things which you remember, no doubt at the expense of things like your National Insurance Number? Well, I can remember buying Sonic Adventure DX. There’s no story; it was in Keynsham Game Shop. God knows why I can remember that. Memories of the game on the other hand? Surprisingly scarce when compared with the sequel. Other than a vague memory of a few of the hub worlds I was pretty much drawing a blank for this one – I couldn’t have played it as much as the others at the time. That is a real shame as Adventure turned out to be a fantastic game; it’s by no means perfect, the story is awful and it doesn’t even have any production values, but it terms of pure fun it’s hard to beat (as is its excellent soundtrack). As you may have guessed this opinion is based almost exclusively on Sonic’s levels, and while time has not been kind, once you are used to the slightly stiff controls Sonic probably controls better here than in any other 3D game I’ve played. Essentially, what we have here is 2D Sonic in 3D – he can’t roll down slopes or any of that fun stuff, but he runs, he jumps, he spin dashes and now he can also homing attack. The jewel in Adventure 1’s crown is the spin dash and how nice it feels to use, it just feels right, it’s extremely responsive and allows you to build up your momentum from a standstill and because of a distinct lack of invisible walls in the levels that speed allows for some extremely inventive and organic solutions for beating time trials. When this is combined with levels which, although never as complex as the 2D games, generally have lots of little shortcuts or alternate routes, you get a game where is a lot of fun to be had just replaying old levels – zipping through them as fast as you can, or taking a more relaxed pace in order to spot the places where you could shave the odd second or two off of your final time. And you will want to replay all of Sonic’s levels, each is largely distinct from its counterparts with distinct aesthetics and music but also level design. Whilst going fast is pretty much a given (this is Sonic after all) each level has its own distinct pace and many their own gimmick: Snow cap starts out slow and platform heavy before ending with a snowboard chase which is all about speed, Windy Valley is a race track suspended in the sky and the emphasis is almost entirely on keeping the pace going, whilst Lost World adds gravity manipulation and light puzzle elements. Although lacking in a bit of polish these levels are a joy to play through, and whilst fast, still feel explorative; tending to alternate between fairly open areas and the floating race tracks synonymous with Gamecube-era 3D Sonic, and the variety prevents them from ever feeling samey.
Although Sonic was clearly the focus (having around double the number of levels as most other characters) he is in fact one of a cast of six, I’m feeling generous, so let’s call the other five “undercooked”. First we have tails – with the exception of one or two unique mini games and boss fights his levels are all rehashes of Sonic levels with the added challenge of racing Sonic to the end. You know what; these are actually a lot of fun: Tails’ gimmick is that he can jump really high and then fly for a limited time, which can be extended by going through boost rings. Unfortunately it is criminally brief, over in only a few levels and with none of them really taking advantage of Tails’ abilities. Knuckles has his notorious treasure hunts as opposed to traditional levels and honestly they aren’t that bad in their first appearance – essentially a game of hot or cold and often over in a minute or two these levels are too brief to be that offensive, and it is enjoyable enough to glide and climb around hunting for the emerald shards. Big the Cat has an out of place and extremely shallow (I will not apologise) fishing mini game. Although in truth too simple to really be as challenging or frustrating as some have made out, Big’s reputation is all one needs to get an idea of the quality of his story. Amy Rose is probably the most under-developed; her levels are of a much slower pace and involve escaping from Zero the robot through light platforming and puzzle elements, quite possibly the most fun thing about her however, is running around the hubs pogo-hammering your way around – a move never necessary in her levels. Finally we have Gamma, who is apparently the result of fan demand for shooting elements in Sonic games? His gameplay consists of locking on and shooting enemies and making it through the level in time. Fun if again extremely shallow, the most interesting feature of Gamma’s levels are their story – telling the tale of a Robotnik robot which becomes self-aware and seeks to rescue the animals trapped inside the other robots before ending on a genuinely bittersweet note. Since this was their first attempt at a 3D Sonic, and they were clearly experimenting with what they could do with Sonic and his supporting cast, I’m willing to give the game a lot of leeway, and all in all I think Sonic team did a fantastic job with this one. Plus I can’t get enough of the Soundtrack:
(Got in another one, living the dream.)
SONIC ADVENTURE 2 BATTLE
Chances are if someone knows two things about Sonic the Hedgehog it’ll be that he’s a blue hedgehog and that there was a level where “Escape from the City” was played. Honestly, this was the game I remember playing the most and was most looking forward to replaying (hell, even the sound the game makes when selecting 60Hz made me feel all warm and fuzzy). Considering that I had just completely fallen in love with its predecessor as well, I had very high hopes for this one. Thankfully, although I don’t think it reaches the heights of Adventure, Adventure 2 for the most part lived up to my expectations. The improved production values are immediately apparent with actual cutscenes rather than stock character animations, even if the audio balancing remains iffy. The Sonic stages are once again a complete blast to play through; it’s quite clear that the focus when designing these levels was on pure, adrenaline-fueled speed. Because of this however there is a drastic shift in level design, with a number of consequences. The main casualty is level variety, although each level has its own distinct aesthetic and music, they all conform to the same template as Windy Hill from Adventure 1: they are race tracks. Whilst there are secrets and alternate routes to find, they either don’t really deviate much from the main path or (since you never really have a reason to slow down) you’ve rushed passed it without even realising that you’ve missed something. The new gameplay elements also reflect this mind set – grind rails and an improved light speed dash. The latter was in the original game but had a charge time so was only used in specific instances, now it is simply a case of tapping B near a line of rings to skip a bit of the level. Grind rails in truth do allow for some inventive level design (see the multitude of shortcuts available in Sonic’s Final Rush) but they still emphasise speed over freedom. The exception to this is Crazy Gadget, featuring a far slower pace and gravity manipulation, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if I had encountered it in SA1, in its sequel however it feels completely out of place and highlights the completely different mind sets to level design. Neither is explicitly better than the other however, and which you prefer will come down to personal preference. Another slight issue with SA2 is the fact that Sonic has been given a number of new abilities – all of which are assigned to B, 90% the time it works, but that slight unreliability goes a long way to making Sonic’s controls just slightly less satisfying this time around.
Once again Sonic in one of a cast of 6 characters jostling for attention, although Sega this time decided to focus on only 3 game play styles: Sonic & Shadow, Tails & Eggman and Knuckles & Rouge. Much like Sonic, Tails and Eggman control ever so slightly worse than Gamma before them; presumably to give their mechs a tank-like feel you can pivot their aim before they start to fully turn. A solid idea in theory, the actual result is a slightly clunkier experience. Much like Gamma however, the levels are extremely shallow and fun enough for me to not actively dislike them, although now I have a save with all of the Sonic levels unlocked I will never return to them. Knuckles’ levels suffered the most during the transition to SA2, in addition to the levels being made bigger and more complex, changes to the radar serve no purpose other than to drag these levels out. They are tedious slogs which make up one third of the game. Music’s fun though:
Sonic Heroes appears to have been an attempt to take the Sonic series in a different direction, a direction which I would have preferred if I’m going to be completely honest. The games plot and aesthetics are extremely light hearted and simple when compared with the dark and brooding Adventure games and the attempt was also made to reincorporate Knuckles and Tails into standard Sonic levels. The central new mechanic is that we are now able to switch between any of our heroes on the fly: Sonic goes fast, Tails flies, and Knuckles punches things. Early on the formula works – Heroes starts off on a high note, in fact several of Heroes’ levels are a lot of fun. Although I may be lynched for this; there’s the odd fleeting moment in Heroes where I think the level design is better than SA2, there are certainly more alternate routes, even if both games share the “race track” mentality. Due to a series of problems however, some small and niggling, others more major, as an experience Heroes just falls flat. Whereas the Adventure games have highs which make the lows worth it Heroes just sort of wallows around, neither really good nor bad. The main niggling issue with Heroes is the controls; as Sonic’s first true multiplatform game a different engine was used, one that unfortunately feels very “slippery” when compared with what came before. It’s a feeling which you can never really get used to, unlike the slight clunkiness of the Adventure games, and you never feel like you have complete control of Sonic. Switching to Knuckles slows things down just enough that this becomes less of an issue, although again the controls are not perfect – Knuckles really commits to each punch, throwing his entire body weight behind it to the point that he moves a couple of feet forward each time, often off of ledges. Tails serves as a safety net: much slower and with limited flight time he is virtually necessary for some platforming sections, if only because the other characters can’t be trusted to not fly off of the edge. Heroes’ main problem however is how drawn out it all feels; although I admittedly praised the level design above, levels as a whole invariably go on for far too long, with some levels taking around 8 minutes to complete (compared to the around 2-4 minutes of most Sonic games). Alongside samey design and the addition of life bars (no doubt to justify Knuckles’ inclusion), the result is levels which feel padded out and are exhausting to play through. Several also feature plain bad design, try surviving this first time through:
(Skip to 4:36, first time I died before I found the spring, second time because the crocodile chase caught me unawares).
Following Adventure 2, Heroes has multiple groups of characters but who all play the same which need to be beaten in order to reach the final boss. Unlike adventure 2 however, they do not each get their own levels – rather they each have to play through slightly altered (but virtually indistinguishable) versions of the same levels. In order to reach the boss of the game, you essentially have to play through the game four times, when it already felt padded by the end of Sonic’s story. In all honesty, I didn’t do it when it first came out, nor did I want to do it this time, and that basically says all that needs to be said about Heroes.
In the end, I’m really happy I gave the Sonic franchise another chance – Adventure 1 is now one of my favourite platformers and I am currently half way through 100%ing Colours (another fantastic game). I’m going to leave it at these three as they make a nice group (and Sonic team clearly agree); for many they were an introduction to the Sonic franchise, for others, such as myself, they were the first games I played where I was old enough to really appreciate them. Returning to them a decade later their upbeat and high energy atmospheres were enough to cheer me up to no end, and to make me remember why I loved these games in the first place (even Heroes). I shall continue with my Sonic adventure in 2016, catching up on the games I’ve missed, or simply replaying games I haven’t touched in years, and I may decide to chronicle them further here. Or I may not. Who knows? My main goal in this New Year is to not get so stressed and to have a laugh; something I think was sorely missing in 2015 for me.
In honour of this:
(It's not The Fast Show, but it does include a very sexy Charlie Higson, which is just as good).