Feature: Sonic: The Nintendo Years - Part One
Posted by James Newton
As Sonic the Hedgehog reaches 20 years old, we take a look at the spiky one's past.
Sonic’s career is as chequered as those famous green hills; since his runaway success in the first half of the 1990s he’s struggled to reclaim those glory days. Luckily if you’re a Nintendo console owner you can play all the best Sonic games extremely easily, thanks to Virtual Console and the Wii and DS’s backwards compatibility services. With that in mind, join us as we take a leisurely stroll down memory lane with video gaming's favourite blue hero...
When Sega left the hardware business in 2001 it was a hard time for its fans, but the company’s announcement it was to develop Sonic games for arch-rival Nintendo’s machines made it harder still. Did all those playground arguments between Sega and Nintendo fans mean nothing?!
Before the year was out Sega had released Sonic Adventure 2: Battle for Gamecube, a slight reworking of Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure 2. Introducing a two-player mode and Gamecube to GBA link-up for the addictive Chao minigame, SA2 Battle made decent use of the Cube’s new features, although graphically-speaking it was not a huge leap over its last-generation origins.
Like the Dreamcast original, SA2 Battle was criticised for over-emphasising characters other than Sonic and introducing gameplay styles that simply were not as playable as the classic Sonic games, though thankfully there was no repeat of the fishing levels from Sonic Adventure. Nevertheless, SA2 Battle was a big hit for Sega and proved that, despite what had happened between them in the past, Sega and Nintendo could get along for the sake of the kids.
Sonic’s first original appearance on a Nintendo console came in the form of the excellent Sonic Advance, a brand-new platformer on Game Boy Advance in 2001. A 2D platformer with classic characters all drawn in a lean, athletic style, Sonic Advance drew good reviews and received two sequels, the first of which is most memorable for giving the world Cream the Rabbit. Developed not by Sonic Team but Dimps, who later handled the Sonic Rush series on DS, Sonic Advance was a step in the right direction for Sega and a good introduction to Sonic for many Nintendo owners too young to remember the 16-bit glory days.
Buoyed by the previous year’s success of Sonic Advance and Adventure 2 Battle, 2002 saw Sega release two Sonic games exclusively for Nintendo consoles: Sonic Advance 2 and the excellent Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube. A full set of Sonic’s unforgettable Mega Drive outings, Sonic Mega Collection even included Sonic and Knuckles’ “Lock-On” feature sadly omitted from the 360 and PS3 Ultimate Mega Drive Collection.
With all four legendary platformers plus series spin-offs Sonic Spinball and Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Sonic Mega Collection was a clear move by Sega to indoctrinate Nintendo heathens into loving the blue spiky ball over their ageing mascot Mario, and was another sales hit.
Sonic hits rock bottom
The following year, Sega decided to spread Sonic a little more widely and release games for Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the emerging success of Microsoft’s Xbox, which saw the most Sonic titles released in a year since the series’ peak in 1994. Alongside the port of Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut to 'Cube and a new pinball game called Sonic Pinball Party – more notable for its NiGHTS and Samba de Amigo tables in all honesty – came the first brand new Sonic game since 2001 in the shape of Sonic Heroes.
When the first screenshots of its opening level were released, Sonic fans dared to hope its blue skies, chequered hills and inclusion of alternate routes was to mark Sonic’s proper entrance into 3D, but sadly Sonic Heroes proved to be among the worst games of his career. None of the previous games’ camera problems had been addressed, combining with the unresponsive controls to cause countless unnecessary deaths, an issue exacerbated by appalling level design that saw players fight through three or four minutes of enemies only to be placed back at the start if they lost a life.
Engine issues aside, the game also drew strong fire for featuring too many characters yet again – with four teams and three characters per team, Sonic Heroes actually went down in the Guinness Book of World Records: Gamer’s Edition 2009 for featuring the most available characters in a platform game. Quite what drew Sonic Team to double the already bloated character roster from Sonic Adventure is anybody’s guess, but even despite its generally poor critical reception and low opinion amongst Sonic fans, Sonic Heroes went on to sell very well, finishing the year as the UK’s sixth best-selling title and hanging around the top ten even a year after release.
The second of the year’s GBA titles came in the form of bizarre beat ‘em up Sonic Battle, a 2D fighter mixing Sonic Advance styling with a more RPG take on the genre, with characters unlocking extra abilities and levelling up a strange robot called a Gizoid, whose name is Emerl. Easily dismissed as a poor attempt at story in a fighting game, the origin of Gizoids was ignored in Sonic stories for years before being revived in the 2008 RPG Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood. As for Sonic Battle, it’s an inoffensive scrapper most notable for its chunky graphics style in the cut scenes and box art, as well as the ability to beat Tails up for the first time since the forgotten arcade Sonic The Fighters.
Everybody's Super Sonic racing
At least, it appeared to have been forgotten, but in 2005 Sega released Sonic Gems Collection for Gamecube, featuring Sonic The Fighters, Sonic R and fan favourite Sonic CD. Released for a budget price, Sonic Gems Collection failed to garner the same sales as its predecessor, no doubt hindered by the relative obscurity of the games featured. But what of the titles themselves?
Sonic the Fighters was developed by Virtua Fighter creators AM2 for arcades in 1996, and is a very strange fighting game indeed. Played at a breakneck speed with bombs, rings and corks from pop guns flying around, it’s not the most strategic fighter available and, in true arcade fighter style, features an extremely cheesy and annoying boss character in the form of Metal Sonic, although complaining about the fairness of an evil robot Sonic created by a warped genius is a pretty thin argument. Sonic The Fighters is showing its age now, and it’s unlikely it’ll ever receive a follow-up, but as a cartoon fighter it’s worth a few giggles with your friends.
The second game on the compilation, Sonic R, was the first Sonic racing game developed for home consoles, quite surprising considering his speedy heritage. A collaboration between Sonic Team and the then unheard-of Traveller’s Tales, Sonic R was the only truly original Sonic game released on the Sega Saturn before its sad demise, and was a real graphical showcase for the machine with scenery fading in, reflections on water and an extremely fast and smooth engine powering it all.
It’s a pretty playable racer, with the handling pitched somewhere between a platformer and a racing game, and the courses reflect this decision, with plenty of open spaces and opportunities to jump off-course to discover new shortcuts. Sonic R’s major downfall is usually cited as its difficulty; despite the inclusion of unlockable characters, alternate routes and collectable coins and Chaos Emeralds, a decent player can reveal all the game’s secrets in just a few hours.
The version featured on Sonic Gems Collection is based on the PC port, and adds new weather features and a four-player race mode over the 32-bit original. As a multiplayer game it performs pretty well, but with only five courses to choose from it lacks the variety of main rival Mario Kart. One thing always worth mentioning about Sonic R is its infamous soundtrack composed by Richard Jacques, consisting of seven vocal tracks in a Euro dance style that you’ll either love or hate.
Jewel in the crown
Sonic Gems Collection’s biggest contribution to Sonic fans is the inclusion of the oft-overlooked Sonic CD, which as the name suggests was released on Sega’s Mega CD add-on all the way back in 1993. Due to the limited take-up of the attachment the game never received the audience it deserved, and despite a PC release and its appearance on this compilation it’s still rarely mentioned alongside the Mega Drive entries in the series, a baffling situation considering the game’s extremely high quality.
Sonic CD fleshes out the series’ classic 2D gameplay with a time travel system, which requires players to find certain Star Posts and then reach and sustain a top speed in order to travel through time (think of Back to the Future if it helps.) It’s not a pointless gimmick either, forming the crux of the game’s challenge as Sonic has to travel backwards to the past and destroy Robotnik’s badnik generators, creating a “Good Future”. If you succeed in taking out every generator in the game you receive the good ending, a far bigger challenge than any Sonic game previously.
Each Zone actually has four different variants: Past, Present, Bad Future and Good Future. In the Past, all the badniks are new and shiny, whereas in the Future they’re weathered and broken down. The music even remixes to reflect whether it’s a Good or Bad Future, resulting in some of the most celebrated music ever heard in a Sonic game.
Therein lies one of the problems with Sonic Gems Collection, sadly. When Sonic CD was originally released in America it was in fact delayed by several months to accommodate the writing of a new soundtrack by Spencer Nilsen, completing replacing all Present and Future tracks from the game. While not a poor soundtrack in its own right, when compared to the Japanese version it comes off unfavourably, especially when the Good Future tracks from both versions are placed side-by-side. Unfortunately for Sonic music connoisseurs, every Sonic CD re-release has featured the American soundtrack, making the original European Mega CD version the only way for Western console owners to play the game as Sonic Team intended.
2005 also saw the launch of the DS, and Sega released Sonic Rush for the console’s first Christmas and it proved a big hit, becoming the biggest-selling third-party DS title at the time. Sonic Rush is often hailed as a classic Sonic 2D platformer, despite the fact it plays much more like a recent 3D title squeezed into two dimensions – many of the levels play out as grinding between sections and then watching a setpiece transport you across the stage. Combine that with the large numbers of bottomless pits and the reliance on the Rush move to give you even more unbelievable boosts of speed and you’ve got a game that shares more with recent games like Sonic Heroes and Sonic Unleashed than it does Sonic 2. All the same, it certainly satisfies Sonic fans by reducing the cast of characters and simplifying the level design, as well as introducing a trick system which also allows you to access high-up areas with a well-timed double jump. Bafflingly, the Official Nintendo Magazine in the UK called it "the best Sonic game ever!": if that's not a stupid statement coming from a Nintendo magazine, we don't know what is.
Phew! That's a lot of history covered by anyone's standards, but we're not even halfway there. Sonic: The Nintendo Years - Part Two tells the rest of the story.