Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sonic Retrospective: The Classic Era Spinoffs

Continuing my retrospective of the Blue Blur and his games, this time we're venturing into spinoff territory.

Like Mario, Sonic has had plenty of spinoffs. Make no mistake, back when I was a kid and Sonic was red hot, I salivated for more of my favorite blue hedgehog. That's, of course, what they were counting on, because what's better than a kid wanting more of your franchise - regardless of quality - and getting the parents - who don't know any better and just want to make the kid happy - picking it up?

Luckily, it was hardly all bad in the classic era. He had some clunkers, for sure, but I often got enjoyment out of them. Make no mistake, however; the track record in the spinoff department was hardly as sterling as the core titles.

For the purposes of this one, I'm counting all the spinoffs straight up to 1999. As you're probably aware, the classic series essentially ended in 1994 with the release of Sonic & Knuckles. For one reason or another - like the dissolution of STI or the storied train wreck that was Sonic Xtremes development - a core Sonic title did not see release between 1994 and 1999. Segas mascot all but didn't show up for one console generation. For five years, spinoffs were all we had of Sonic. The Dreamcast/PS2 Era is where the core titles pick up next.

Knuckles Chaotix
Console: Sega 32X
Release Date: March, 1995

Ahh, Knuckles Chaotix. Doomed to be the "lost" Sonic game, this is probably the one game in the franchise that almost no one has played. The blame for that, of course, can be laid on the 32X; Sega was kind of desperate to extend the life of the Genesis in those days and while the Sega CD could be called a mild success - it did, of course, have several classic releases - the 32X was a bomb that could only be surpassed by Nintendos Virtual Boy. As such, only the four people who actually owned a 32X have played this one; even with emulation being prevalent, your average jamoke hasn't played it.

Hell, I didn't even play the game until just recently for the purposes of this.

Did we miss anything by the game falling into obscurity? Well, it's no classic; this game is really a case of a lot of potential getting lost amidst bad choices. I think the thing that really sunk this game was the level layouts. There are only about five "zones" with five acts each; the problem is, it's very, very difficult to tell if anything has really changed between the acts. The reason? They're barren; there just aren't enough enemies or interesting gimmicks as it is. It all feels half finished. As such, what follows is a boring, lifeless romp through barren levels without a whole lot to do.

This is unfortunate, because in a way, this game is a bit of a spiritual sequel to Sonic CD. Take a look at the production credits sometime and you're going to see some familiar names. The graphics are similarly lush, the music is nice and the new characters are colorful. This isn't even mentioning that this was the first real return of Metal Sonic (and Amy, though she only shows up in the sound test and it took years for anyone to find it). This could have been so much more and who knows, perhaps if the game director hadn't been different...

The games main mechanic - the elastic band - is a love it or hate it affair. Personally, I think it had potential and was fun to fool around with. It doesn't necessarily allow you the same freedom of movement the classics did - since you're effectively tethered to another character - but once you get the hang of it it allows for some cool tricks that could have made for some interesting secrets or the like if incorporated properly.

In all, it's a big missed opportunity. But it is worth at least one playthrough. It's not a game you're likely to ever go back to, however. Some botches in how the game was put together essentially robs it of the staying power the classics have.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

Sonic Spinball
Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: November 23rd, 1993

Not every spinoff will make a lot of sense, but this one was right on the money. Sonic already felt kind of like a pinball at times, right? Hell, we all love Casino Night as well, which had heavy use of pinball flippers. Seems like a match made in heaven.

Well, we know how often things turn out to be as they seem, but it still worked out pretty well.

This game is pretty much pinball jacked up after hitting the weights. It doesn't completely conform to the single table structure of regular pinball - except in between level minigames - and what results are sprawling levels of pinball goodness. There are usually about four or five sections in a level that are set up like your "tables", with different layouts and gimmicks, with your job being to collect the emeralds scattered around the level to open the boss section at the top.

If there's a downside to the game, it's that it's very short. There are only four full levels in the game, which is a disappointment, as more would have been very nice. It's also not exactly a game for anyone who doesn't care for pinball. Oh, and for some moronic reason they decided it would be a slammin' idea to base this game on the cartoons - you can rescue some of the Archie cast in one of the minigames - which did one more time before thankfully never doing it again.

The game has kind of a "love it or hate it" relationship amongst the fanbase. I'm one of the guys who really likes it. But I really love pinball and have always been a Sonic fanatic, so I suppose I was right in the target range for this one.

The Score: 7 out of 10

Sonic 3D Blast
Console: Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn
Release Date: November 30th, 1996

Look kids! It's Sonic! In crappy isometric 3D! Doesn't this make you just want to run out to the store and grab a copy?

... What do you mean "no"?

Boy, was this one a misstep. It's kind of shocking that this made it past the idea stage, much less into a full, completed game. Now, I don't have the hatred for this one that a lot of other people do - hell, I still load it up from time to time and have a decent enough time - but objectively this was just not a good idea.

You can see where the logic came into play. In '96, 3D models and gameplay was just starting to become the "hip" thing in 90's gaming - while 2D side scrolling was, sadly, beginning to be seen as old hat - and that blasted Sonic Xtreme game was taking forever, so why not do an isometic based 3D game in the meantime? It might have made sales sense, but Sonic gameplay was clearly not built for 3/4ths isometric and this game proved it with awkwardness to spare.

Its main problem is that it just controlled awkwardly. Given how 3/4ths isometric view works, you're above the playing field and viewing it from an angle instead of head on. Which means all paths are at a diagonal angle. I'm having a hard time describing this, but if you look at the screenshot, you can probably guess how this works and why it's a problem.

Hitting cracks in the wall with the spindash proves to be troublesome unless you're at the right angle. Hitting enemies can be something of a hassle until you get used to it. Hell, the second level's spinner gimmick is going to give you trouble, because the view makes it hard to aim yourself down a path without bouncing off the walls like a pinball and into a hazard.

Once you get used to it, it's not all bad. Maybe a bit of my nostalgia affects how I view the game. But then, that doesn't explain why I can still play through the game and not hate myself afterwards. It's not objectively good, though.

Oh, they also released this one on the Sega Saturn as well. The whole long, unbelievable saga of Sonic Xtreme ended with the game being canned outright, which left the Saturn without an appearance from the companies mascot other than in a racing game. Obviously, not having a core Sonic title was going to be - and, as expected, was - a major blow to the console, so they figured it was better to have something than nothing. Cue upgraded port. It had better graphics and better music, but played the same.

Sometimes I wonder if the Saturn would have fared better if Sonic hadn't missed the party entirely, but not only is that neither here nor there but the console was kind of doomed anyways.

The Score: 6 out of 10

Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine
Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: December, 1993

Well here's the second - and thankfully last - Sonic title based on one of the cartoons. This one was based on Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, which was the 'toon of the original too that didn't try and take itself seriously. It can be debated which was better - frankly, SatAM aged poorly, while the slapstick AoStH tends to fare better since it's not trying to be taken seriously - but it'd not worth getting into.

What we have here is basically a puzzle game. It's a Puyo Puyo game - the first one to actually make it over here - with a coat of Sonic paint applied. Oddly, Sonic doesn't even appear in this game, but I suppose that's why he didn't get billing in the title.

It's essentially a competitive puzzle game. You have to get four beans linked up to clear them and setting up combos - where when you clear one, beans above drop into place and become another clear - will detrimentally effect your opponent by dropping rocks on their stack, messing up anything they're trying to set up. Like Tetris, if you go past the top of your play area, you've lost.

It's fun, but there's little to be said about it. There's just not much to it. You go through a dozen or so rounds - matched up against characters from the cartoon with different strategies and difficulty for each - whup Robotnik and boom, done. It's fun for what it is, but nothing to write home about.

The Score: 7 out of 10

Sonic R
Console: Sega Saturn
Release Date: October 27th, 1997

Ahh, another example of the spinoff that's fun enough, but too damn short for it's own good. Due to the chaos of Sega and the behind the scenes workings of Sonic development between S&K and Sonic Adventure, this was the only Sonic game the Saturn had specifically made for it. Aside from a spinoff, Sonic skipped a whole console generation. Even Nintendo knows better than to let more than a year or two pass into a consoles life cycle before a core Mario title releases.

Prior to Sonic and Sega All Star Racing, this was the only real racing title Sonic had ever been in; which is odd, because like Spinball, this is another one of those no brainers. I mean, hello, Sonic is fast, so, racing spinoff perhaps?

It controls well enough, the music is catchy - even if I don't get how they figured J-Pop was good racing music - and the tracks are pretty open, with several shortcuts, secrets and things to collect. There are also numerous unlockable characters, including mech versions of most of the characters. You can even race as Super Sonic when you get all the emeralds.

There's just one problem; there is NOWHERE near enough content.

There are four tracks. Five if you count the unlockable stage you get by finishing first in every one of the initial four. Sure, they're pretty expansive and rather open for racing games of the time, but that's a paltry amount any way you slice it. Especially for a full priced game. Come on now, Sega.

It is fun, though, so it's not like it's a complete loss, but you'll have unlocked everything and run out of things to see way too soon.

The Score: 7 out of 10

Sonic the Fighters
Console: Arcade Machine, Gamecube
Release Date: July 1996

Wow. Uhh... what to say about this one? Other than the fact that it's not that good.

Sonic's one of those versatile characters that you can use in a lot of genres, so it's not that he's in a fighting game. Brawl even made it work rather well. It just comes down to the fact that this game was pretty poorly made; it's only good point is the fact that we got to play as characters, mainly Amy and Nack the Weasel, that, at the time, we hadn't seen in years.

Seriously, the graphics blow, even for the era - it's sub-Virtua Fighters level graphics - the music isn't memorable, the arenas themselves are just there. Even the actual fighting is borked. It could have worked, but this was certainly not the era to have been trying it, judging by the results. They should have just put Sonic and Tails in Fighting Vipers as the original idea went instead of this.

But it's no big deal, because prior to Sonic Gems Collection almost no one had heard of - much less seen or played - it, given its very, very limited release. It probably should have stayed buried, though. How this made it on the Gems Collection but Knuckles Chaotix was left off, I haven't the foggiest.

The Score: 5 out of 10

So that's the Classic Era spinoffs done. The Main Game Gear titles will be next on the list. Don't miss it!

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