Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sonic Retrospective: The Classics

So, as you may be aware, today's the twentieth anniversary of the release of the original Sonic the Hedgehog. So, it's his birthday, if you will.

Over that twenty year span of time, the hedgehog has had his share of highs and lows, but even with the specter of the shitfest that was Sonic '06 hanging over him, the fact remains that the good ends up outweighing the bad. Sonic's starred in some true classics of video gaming and at one point was the only serious contender to Mario. That tends to stick. Even with the beating he took in the mid 2000's, he remains one of the most recognizable characters in video game history.

Today, I start a look at the various games the hedgehog has had over the years. Where the hell else do you start but the classics? I'll very likely run through further eras in his history - though time will tell if I go through the full history over the course of the year - but for now let's get started with the original five.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: June 23rd, 1991

Ahh, the original. In gaming, it rarely ends up being the best in a series - well, unless that franchise absolutely blows - but the good ones still tend to hold up. Cue Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that raced on the scene back in '91. As far as opening salvos go, the original still holds its own pretty goddamn well.

Obviously, this was the game to own on the Genesis at the time and it's not hard to see why. Colorful zones, a great combination of speed and platforming, adventure and great music. Hell, once you get Green Hills theme in your head, try getting it out. Then there were the special stages, a trippy, psychedelic area you had to traverse to get a Chaos Emerald. Collect them all and get the real ending.

Twenty years later, and the one that started it all is still a pretty great game.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Sonic the Hedgehog CD

Console: Sega CD
Release Date: November 19th, 1993

Ahh, now this is the stuff. When it comes to the Sonic, there are two games generally held above as the best in the series, those being Sonic CD and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Both are fantastic games that are definitely classics, but for my money Sonic CD beats out S3&K by a small margin.

This one had it all. The introduction of Amy Rose - one of what I see as the core five characters in the franchise along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Eggman - Metal Sonic, time travel, fantastic new zones, interesting gimmicks, CD quality music, awesome special stages and much, much more. Even better, the amount of replayability is ridiculous.

This one is pretty much perfect in every way. I generally feel that most Sonic games - even the classics - have as least one zone in the mix that isn't all that great. Sonic CD is the exception for sure; this game simply does not have a clunker in the bunch. Every level is varied, fun and interesting, giving some of the best variety of the series. This extends to the special stages, which picked up on Sonic 2's idea of 3D special stages and ramping it up to new heights.

More than that, the time travel gimmick puts it all over the top. It inspires irritation in some - detractors typically say it's "unnecessary" - but it just adds to the experience. It adds loads of bang for your buck - every zone has four different variations between Past, Present, Good and Bad future, complete with special tile sets and music for each - but on top of that it adds something else. You actually get to see the effects on the world.

All the prior and future Sonic games were pretty straightforward; get to the end, free a bunch of animals from a capsule and move on. Sure, you know you're doing good, but there's no effect on gameplay. Not in CD. Each zone defaults to a bad, Robotnik controlled future, but if you destroy a roboticizer in the past, the future becomes a utopian wonderland free of Robotnik or his robots. Not only does the ending you get depend on this, but each boss takes place in the future, so you're definitely going to see if you freed the zone or left it to its doom.

This kind of thing simply didn't happen in games of that era. This game had ambition. This game is fantastic.

If there's a downside to this game, it's something entirely beyond its control. A lot of fans just haven't played it. This gem was put out on the Sega CD, one of Segas numerous failed add-ons, which was out of reach of most of the people who would want to play this game. Curiously, Sega never seems to include this one in re-releases; the Genesis four have been re-packaged to the point of ridiculousness, but CD has only ever made it into a compilation once.

It really is a shame, because playing it the original way is a damn hassle.

The Score: 10 out of 10

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: November 24th, 1992

Bigger. Bolder. Better.

The first proper sequel to the original - Sonic CD started out as Sonic 2, but ended up going in a different direction - Sonic 2 just ramped everything up. This game is mammoth, having the most levels of any single Sonic game in the classic series with eleven zones; and this is before you take into consideration the fact that this one was originally going to have six more that ended up scrapped. New moves, new bosses, a new sidekick, a new 3D special stage and a metric ton of new levels. If they set out to double up on what the original contained, they pretty much succeeded.

I've got a soft spot for this one. Even when I knew in my heart 3&K was the better game, for most of my childhood I liked this one more. It could have something to do with the Casino Night Zone. It could be the plane right to an airship fortress. Hell, it could even be the final battle on what is essentially the Sonic version of the Death Star. Whatever the reason, I've always loved Sonic 2. But what the hell do I need to justify that love for anyways? This game is awesome.

Sadly, it's not perfect. While it's the biggest single, standalone Sonic game in the classic five, it also has the highest number of zones I just do not care for. I really could have done without Mystic Cave and Oil Ocean looks good but as a level is nothing to write home about. There's also Hill Top Zone, which I like but don't love; could have something to do with the insta-death pits I abhor in Sonic games.

This stings worse when you consider what we could have gotten. Hidden Palace, for one thing. That zone had a great look to it and even had the first act mostly finished early in development. It made the rounds on a game show or two as well. What happened? Sure, we got a Hidden Palace in Sonic & Knuckles, but it was a completely different deal. Then there's Dust Hill, which got as far as the concept stage and even had a few promotional screenshots, but never saw the light of day. These plus four others fell victim to Sega pushing Sonic 2 out the door to meet the holiday season deadline; meanwhile, Mystic Cave made it to completion.

Still, this game is better than the original and has a lot to offer. It's just falls short of perfect. But what the hell, at least Sonics first sequel wasn't a Doki Doki Panic game with a different coat of paint on it.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: 1994
Note: This one is actually two games in one. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. They were originally intended to be one game, but as usual Sega decided the holiday season was more important and pushed Sonic 3 out the door with more than half the overall game removed. Nowadays, the game is widely recognized as being one game, so despite being two of the classic five in all, I'm treating it as the full, locked on game.

Generally the last game of the classic era - though not necessarily the classic series, as Sonic 4 exists - Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a hell of a swan song.

Pound for pound, this game has the most content of any of the classic games. This one gave us the concept of the mid-boss, giving each act a closing battle, several memorable boss battles, some of the best zones in the series, a future franchise mainstay in Knuckles, playable Tails, numerous shields with special powers and so much more. The game even had dedicated paths for each character, as well as a dump truck full of secrets and alternate pathways. They even threw in a save feature that's damn near godly; once you beat the game, you can start from any level you choose, meaning they basically cut out any tedious level select codes and just gave you the goods after you stomped Robotnik.

By this point, the gameplay had been honed to perfection and it shows. Level design is top notch, the music - which even had Michael Jackson involved - was similarly great and the game was just a benchmark that the 2D iterations of Sonic have yet to reach again. There are so many cool moments and gimmicks in this one, including a zone that frequently dicks around with gravity.

Earlier I said that I personally think Sonic CD is the best - and I hold to that opinion - but this one gives it a run for its money. Like CD, there is very, very little wrong with it; all the new additions feel organic, the mid-bosses make the entire game feel like a step up from Eggmans usual antics and there's not a bad time to be seen.

Well, mostly. Remember that rule I talked about earlier? You know, the one about how most Sonic games have that one terrible level that sticks out from the pack? This one does too. It's called Sandopolis Zone and despite the numerous good ideas present, it just doesn't work as well as the rest of the pack. But you know what? While I hated it as a kid, today I think it's an okay level. I think that says something when the worst level of the game is merely okay.

The Score: 9.5 out of 10

That's it for the classics. The next look back at the past of Sonic will likely tackle the main Game Gear games. Or I could just go for the Genesis era spinoffs next. Time will tell. When I do get to it, I hope you'll join me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Secret Avengers: Mission to Mars (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Mike Deodato Jr, David Aja, Michael Lark
Collects: Secret Avengers #1-5

Ed Brubakers run on Secret Avengers was shockingly short. Around when the second arc actually kicked off and the closing issues of said arc were being solicited, suddenly the word was that he was going to be off the book. When this happened, Brubaker admitted something; that he didn't feel like he really fit with the team concept as well, or something to that effect.

I bring this up because I would have gotten that feeling from this book even if he hadn't said it.

For most of this volume, this doesn't necessarily feel like a team book. For the first four issue arc, the focus seems to fall largely upon Steve Rogers. This is, to some extent, expected - he has, after all, been writing the Captain America book for the better part of seven years as of this writing - but it goes to the point where at times this feels more like a secondary Steve Rogers book with some allies tagging along on adventures than the team book it's supposed to be. Steve is in the vast majority of the scenes in this comic - I'd say about three quarters - he's clearly in charge and it comes down to him to stop the threat of the main four issue arc.

There are a few scenes spotlighting different characters - Black Widow and Valkyrie have a few decent scenes in here while Ant-Man does help in saving the day - but the other half of the team is just there. Nova himself has like one scene, Beast barely plays much of a role and both War Machine and Moon Knight have few lines, much less anything to actually do. I can barely remember anything War Machine said or did and I just read the damn thing. Fair focus on the team at large, this ain't.

The last issue barely has any of the team in it, as it's a bit of a "revelations" issue, which sheds light on a mystery or two introduced in the first four issues.

This is not to say the story is bad. It's well written, as expected, Brubaker portrays a likable, capable Steve Rogers, what little we get of the others feels on point and it's a pretty well told tale. It's by no means a crash and burn. But it's not what I expected and it's not necessarily as advertised. Team books aren't supposed to be like this.

None of this is to say anything bad about Ed Brubaker, however. Sometimes, some writers just cannot gel with some projects. Shit, I like Matt Fractions work, but he and the X-Men haven't been the best of fits. If nothing else, it's worth noting that Bru clearly knew something wasn't working and decided to bow out of the title a little bit later. Besides, Bru's done enough damn good projects to build some leeway; hell, this book is proof that even when he isn't a hundred percent on he can still pen a damn capable title.

So, hey, I've barely talked about the art. This isn't a knock on it though. It's damn good stuff. Deodato's work is great enough, but man, something just really clicked with me in regards to the fifth issue. It's simpler in linework and the coloring feels a bit older. Think seventies, eighties era comics. Since it's essentially part flashback to years past, this gives the issue an extra little oomph, to me. I'm not exactly sure what the breakdowns are for this issue - the art looks Lark-esque, but it could be mostly Aja for all I know and the credits sure as hell don't make it clear - but it's sharp stuff.

The Score: 7 out of 10

Even on an off day, Brubaker pens a solid tale. Really, if this were a Captain America comic, I'd probably say this were a seven point five or a solid eight. But it's supposed to be a team book and it didn't necessarily feel like one, so I feel like I need to knock a point off or so. But don't be fooled, this is still a decent read. I wouldn't say it's one of Brubakers best, but if you're just looking for a dependable read out of the post-Siege Avengers relaunch, I don't think you could go wrong here.

Just don't expect a lot of focus on the guys not named Steve Rogers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Uncanny X-Men: The Birth of Generation Hope (comics)

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Whilce Portacio, Jamie McKelvie, Steven Sanders and Olivier Copiel
Collects: Uncanny X-Men: The Heroic Age, Uncanny X-Men #526-529

The more I read, the less I think Matt Fraction and the X-Men really go together. Fractions a great writer; one of the things he does well is getting character across. But the problem I'm having is that his run here has been either boring or plodding. The X-Men have had periods where there isn't much action in the past and that's okay, but when done right, it should not bore you.

To be fair to Fraction, in this volume, at least part of the problem just straight up is not his fault.

It actually starts out well enough with the Heroic Age one shot. It feels like a bit of a closer to one age and the bridge to the next. Some Second Coming fallout crops up while the X-Men are brought back into the Marvel Universe as a whole.

The Cyclops segment starts promisingly, with Beast flat out quitting this time over the way Scott has changed the team. Cyclops is broken up for all of twenty seconds, however, before he's out in the Savage Land fighting dinosaurs and being told what a great guy he is by everyone from Steve Rogers to the President. He's even given a damn medal, for chrissakes, for "fighting for his country" and "the peace and safety of the world". The fact that he led all mutants to secede from the US and literally stopped caring about a goddamn thing to do with the world at large - now, where were they during Siege again? - is of course completely ignored, like it never happened.

Scott Summers, ladies and gentlemen; jerkass stu of the decade.

The other two segments fair much better. We see Hope acclimate to her new circumstances now that she's back in the present. Meanwhile, Beast chills out in the zoo waiting for his girlfriend to show up. Thus far, Hope is proving to be rather believable to me; a teenage girl treated like a messiah whom numerous people have died to protect is not likely to be able to just suck it up. There are going to be issues. While the Beast segment is rather touching, as he tries, fails, fails some more and then succeeds in comforting a young mutant scared of the concept of extinction.

Part of what makes it all work is the art. I'm not including Whilce Portacio in this, but I'll get to him in a bit. The stars of the show here are Steve Sanders and Jamie McKelvie. McKelvies work is just stunning stuff; hell, Hope actually looks her age for once. I will say the way he draws eyes is a little weird to me, though.

Sanders work is my favorite of the two. There was a lot of grousing about "horse head" Beast, but man, once you get used to it, it's a look that really works for him. Sanders is fantastic at facial expressions, body language and just plain storytelling with his art. This man needs work on SOME kind of Marvel series, now. You know, considering Marvel pulled it's dick move of canceling SWORD at issue five.

The main arc is where it all goes downhill, but it's not necessarily the fault of the story. The writing isn't going to win any Eisners, but it's not necessarily bad. It carries the feeling of a cool down arc, which makes sense after the huge brawl of Second Coming. Not a lot of action to be found.

Instead, it focuses more on character arcs. The four issue arc focuses mainly on Emma Frost and Hope; for once, we're getting a reprieve from the Cyclops show. I quite like Emma a lot, especially since she was brought over to the side of the angels. She's always had an edge to her; a high class, tough woman. I like that she's never lost that, despite devoting herself to doing good. She still makes morally questionable decisions - and her story in this arc focuses on them and her attempts to fix them - yet she's still likable despite her douchiness.

For the record, her and Scotts relationship is about the only thing I like about Cyclops these days.

Then there's Hope. The mutant messiah. After Second Coming, she's weary from the pressure of being the "Mutant Messiah", as Cyclops has basically trumpeted her up to be. Since she grew up in the future, she never knew her family, or much of anything except running from death. So now she goes in search of it. Through it, she finds some manner of drive to go after the five lights; the first mutants "born" since M-Day.

But all that's fine; no, where this volume sinks is its art.

I try to find some good where I can in things. But sometimes, it's just not possible. The art just feels so goddamn 90's that it's distracting. Facial expressions are way off, storytelling continuity is borked - there's a sequence where a character jumps off a roof in a suicide attempt, but instead of dropping, the next panel it looks like she's jumped thirty feet away from the roof and has traveled upwards, like she's flying - there are way too many lines. I'm sorry, it's just bad. There's no other way to put it.

Occasionally, there's a couple good pages. But for the most part, the artwork is pretty ugly. It actively detracts from the story and frankly, if I knew it was going to look like this I would have passed outright.

The Score: 6 out of 10

The art kills it. Only two of three segments in one issue are actively good artwise. The script is the only reason the score is as high as a six, but while good, it's not able to carry this book through the bad art.

I think this might be my last X-Men book for a while, unless something really catches my attention. My foray into the current X books has turned out to be a bust. Just don't even bother here.