One of the few good things about being old is that sometimes you can glean satisfaction from being in the right place at the right time, where you were lucky enough to have first-hand experience of something special. Nostalgia is the bread-and-butter of retro gaming and throughout its history there will always be moments that stick in a gamer’s mind, with memories of Sonic: The Hedgehog’s introduction to the world being one notable example. It was important that SEGA of the early 1990s created a credible platforming mascot to counter the elegance of Super Mario World, so in this context it was a massive turn of events to see Sonic first appear on a Nintendo system in 2002 (alongside the GameCube’s Sonic Adventure 2: Battle in Japan, 2001). Thankfully, when Sonic Advance hurtled its way to the Game Boy Advance nine years ago its development was in safe hands, as a combination of a creative Dimps code-shop worked with the experienced Sonic Team, under the supervision of Yuji Naka as Producer.
Dimps had previously developed Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure in 1999 on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and this experience served them well in establishing the core mechanics for a Sonic game on GBA. While Sonic’s foot-speed may feel slightly slower than the Mega Drive games, the 2D platform level layouts and obstacles are a continuation from the originals, as you set out to deter the dastardly Dr. Eggman from gathering seven Chaos Emeralds. You speedily navigate through loop-the-loops, conveyor belts, bounce on springs and collect rings, while keeping an eye out for speed boots, invincibility and protective barrier power-ups.
You may be surprised to notice that the first level has set the Neo Green Hill Zone on a beach, complete with a tropical musical flavour that would fit well on a Super Mario Kart Koopa Beach track, but you soon find that Sonic Advance’s design takes a number of cues from its predecessors. It feels like a 2D Sonic game, with examples such as the spin dash and springy pinball themed casino zone from Sonic 2; you can even re-create the CPU controlled Tails from that title by inputting a cheat code.
Visually it is lively and bright, with a taller, ‘modern’ design of Sonic that is wonderfully animated. It is a pleasure to watch him aquaplane across water-shoots, swing between hooks and whizz down zip-wires. Sonic fans will also appreciate that you feel in control of how he interacts with the environment. Set-pieces do not dominate the level layout; he may be able to grind down a rail but it is only for a short blast, the main focus is on traversing platforms. For example, a graphical highlight is the Ice Mountain Zone, with windswept snowflakes and chilly icicles that hark back to a similar looking stage in Sonic 3.
The audio also manages to keep in tune with its predecessors, with its own themes that fit well with the series, alongside familiar sound effects for actions like invincibility and running out of air. There is diversity between the background visuals and audio, from a chilled-out funky jazz tune as fireworks set off in the Casino Paradise Zone, to more intense music during one of the game’s ten boss battles. Gameplay additions like anti-gravity sections in Zone 6 add flare to the visuals; in a similar manner to the retro classic Strider, the world is turned upside down.
There are twelve main acts in the single-player game that can theoretically be completed in under an hour, as well as two extra zones. Despite a gameplay system that encourages you to rush, including a Time Attack mode, by the fifth Angel Island Zone it becomes apparent that you need to take care where you jump. This is not new to the series, but there are difficulty spikes in Sonic Advance, such as bottomless pits that become more prevalent in the final few zones. There are also more awkward Badniks to face, like Buzz Bombers and Caterkillers, as well as Spikers that shoot from the ground and can be difficult to spot, particularly on a tiny Game Boy Micro screen. The game is a breeze up until the fourth boss in Ice Mountain Zone, but becomes harder from that point on.
Sonic Advance is not a game that revolves solely around Sonic, as there are three other selectable characters. It is important to understand that the level design is built around a variety of character abilities, not just Sonic’s sprint and leap approach. If you become stuck with Sonic, you may decide to start a separate game with Tails and find that flying with his propeller makes progression much easier when avoiding bottomless pits. The ability to be able to swim as Tails or Knuckles makes quickly grabbing air from the water’s surface more accessible, while controlling Amy gives the game a more traditional 16-bit platformer feel. She is noticeably slower than other characters and does not roll into a ball like the other three, though she attacks by swinging with her hammer. Alternatively, just like in Sonic & Knuckles, taking control of Knuckles enables you to glide into walls, which he is then able to climb. The variety of abilities between four characters opens each act up to alternative routes, adding to the replay value of the title. The challenge is varied, with the player able to change their character to aid progression as well as switching between Normal and Easy difficulties.
Sonic Advance has a number of extra gameplay options once you have completed the initial seven zones. Instead of collecting 50 rings, you search each level for a Special Spring that catapults you to a Special Stage, in which your character hurtles down a 360° tube while avoiding obstacles and collecting a set number of rings. The theme of this is a continuation of the Special Stage in Sonic 2, and if you are skilled enough to collect all seven Chaos Emeralds, you can unlock Super Sonic for an extra Moon Zone boss battle.
Both single and multi-game pak four-player multiplayer is also provided. The single game pak sets players off with a timer to collect the most rings while attacking opponents, and the multi-game pak option enables two modes: Race and Chao Hunt. The Race has each player bolting towards the zone’s goal in the fastest time, and the Chao Hunt has them catching as many cute Chao characters as they can within a time limit. To round off a comprehensive package, there is a single-player mode based around the Tiny Chao Garden. This is a basic pet-simulation game, where you raise a small Chao creature and attempt to keep it in high spirits by petting it, feeding it fruit and purchasing toys to keep it entertained. There are two mini games in the garden: a card-matching game and a rock-paper-scissors based section, which earns you rings to spend in the store. The most interesting part of this is that you can link your GBA to a GameCube with an expanded Chao Garden, providing you have the console’s title Sonic Adventure 2: Battle.
If in 1991 you were to tell a gamer that SEGA's prized Sonic the Hedgehog would spin onto a Nintendo handheld in 2002, it is possible they would burn you at the stake as a blasphemer. It is this historical turning of the tide that makes Sonic Advance such a potent retro title, but it is the way in which it maintains the classic feel of 2D Sonic platform game design that will keep you coming back for more. By incorporating four controllable characters, Dimps and the Sonic Team allow players to progress on their own terms. You can be slow and steady, scouring each level for seven Chaos Emeralds, or fast and impulsive, rushing to the final X-Zone. There is an enjoyable vibrancy to the backgrounds, as well as charming animation and audio that flows well alongside the classics of the series. Add multiplayer to the mix, as well as the Tiny Chao Garden that links to the Gamecube, and Sonic Advance is a treat for Nintendo and SEGA fans alike.