Miles 'Tails' Prower has come a long way since his debut as a silent, second-player-controlled sidekick in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, becoming one of SEGA's most beloved mascots and appearing in dozens of games over the past twenty years. It's a bit surprising then that he's only had headlining roles in two titles, both on the Game Gear: the on-rails aerial action of Tails' Skypatrol, and a more traditional side-scroller, Tails Adventure.
Rather than simply placing his sprite in a Sonic game, Tails Adventure casts the fearless fox into his own Metroid-inspired adventure platformer, as he embarks on a quest to save the conveniently-named Tails Island from an avian invasion. It's a much slower-paced experience than we're used to with Sonic, but it's just Tails' speed, and a great little game in its own right.
One of the first things that tips you off to the gameplay difference is Tails' endearingly laid-back walk. Rather than speeding through platforming racetracks, you'll saunter through twelve non-linear levels, upgrading items and abilities in order to open up new paths in previously visited stages. Tails might not be quick, but he can fly, as well as attack with bombs - his somewhat surprisingly incendiary weapon of choice. Rings serve as the sole life-force, in the form of HP, but Tails seems to have figured out a much better way to carry them than Sonic ever has; hitting an enemy or hazard will simply take a few rings out of your total, instead of spilling the lot.
Discovering items and upgrades is a big part of the adventure, and along with several different types of bombs and the Chaos Emeralds - which increase your health and flight meters - Tails Island is littered with gadgets to find. Most are helpful tools, but quite a few of them are easter eggs, like a radio to change the background music, and some Sonic & Friends-themed surprises we won't spoil here. Far and away the coolest piece of gear in Tails' pack, however, is the minuscule Remote Robot, also known as Mecha Tails. This remote-controlled fox doll can walk, jump, and fly as well as the larger Tails, but can also squeeze into tight spaces to solve puzzles or retrieve objects, and can't be damaged by enemies. It also transforms into the sleek Sea Fox, a submarine-airship combo that has its own equipment upgrades to find, and makes this one of the only games in the Sonic family where underwater sections are genuinely fun to play.
In fact, Tails' entire adventure is a joy, thanks to his many gadgets and especially the excellent level design. Besides being tailor-made for the small screen, these stages are also much less disorienting than the labyrinths in most Metroidvania-style games. There's definitely backtracking, and you'll pass plenty of puzzles that need as-of-yet unfound items to solve, but it's hard to actually get lost within the levels themselves. Instead, the exploration is about finding a fork in the road, picking a path, and coming back for the second one later. The Remote Robot is a huge help here, effectively allowing you to scout ahead without putting yourself in danger; it's adorable, side-scrolling espionage, and it feels great. There's quite a bit of variety between levels as well, with airborne battles, water current mazes, and a unique upriver salmon-hop stage all accompanying the platforming action, while inventive boss battles top off your first run through most areas.
The only real gameplay annoyance comes from Tails' limited inventory. He can only carry four items into a stage at a time, and knowing which tools you'll need for the road ahead is up to you; if you find you're missing something important halfway through a stage, you'll need to traipse back to the beginning (or to another exit) to reach the world map and perform the swap. Backtracking to switch out your inventory is significantly less fun than backtracking to solve a puzzle, but the stages are small enough that it's a relatively minor issue.
Once you get used to the momentum of Tails' flight, everything controls wonderfully. His measured movements are a perfect fit for the slower pace of the platforming, and lobbing bombs is a surprisingly fun replacement for the spin jump attacks of the mainline Sonic games. This 3DS Virtual Console release boasts an even better control scheme than the original, thanks to the pause/item-selection screen being mapped to the 'Y' button as well as 'Start' - considering how often you'll be switching equipment, being able to use a face button makes a huge difference.
As with all of SEGA's Virtual Console releases, the controls are fully customizable, there are several different display options, and you can return to a restore point at any time. Along with the control tweaks, the restore points make this version immensely more playable than the original - back in 1995, players had to input sixteen-character passwords to continue their adventure from where they left off. The new digital manual even provides genuinely helpful gameplay tips from a modern perspective, as well as a welcome warning that you can't exit the password screen without entering a valid code.
Visually, Tails Adventure is an impressive game for the hardware, but its graphical style means it hasn't necessarily aged as well as simpler titles. It's filled with repeating textures that seem a bit too busy for how closely they're tiled, and it's not as vividly colourful as you'd expect a Sonic spin-off to be - the backgrounds are heavy on chasms and caves, and Tails spends an awful lot of time wandering through the brown-to-dark-green end of the colour spectrum. That said, the character and enemy sprites are beautiful, the animation is totally charming - Tails' in particular - and there's very little of the slowdown that plagues the Game Gear Sonic titles. There are plenty of the classic Game Gear graphical glitches, though, so having your health meter temporarily disappear behind a background element is a relatively frequent occurrence.
The soundtrack is an 8-bit delight, with a score full of eminently hummable tunes by Kojiro Mikusa, who also worked on Sonic Blast. The audio levels are a little low, and the percussion track drops out every time you toss a bomb (the Game Gear's single noise channel at work!); the songs are so good you won't mind at all.
Tails Adventure is definitely the odd game out in the Game Gear's Sonic lineup, but it makes a sound case for its unique identity. This is SEGA's friendlier take on the Metroidvania formula - a fun adventure platformer with excellent level design, creative items and abilities, and some much-deserved time in the spotlight for Tails. For fans of the two-tailed fox, or adventure games in general, Tails Island is well worth exploring.