"Hedgehogs are fairly misrepresented in the videogame world. Despite what Sega's top brass would have you believe, our spiky friends are not blue. And that's just for starters. The majority of them do not wear trainers. They tend to travel on four legs, not two. They can't jump. They don't like to go charging around the hillsides as if some little tyke has given them a bowl of caffine-laced milk. They aren't particularly adept at underwater activities. At least their 'roll into a ball attack', wh..."
Hedgehogs are fairly misrepresented in the videogame world. Despite what Sega's top brass would have you believe, our spiky friends are not blue. And that's just for starters. The majority of them do not wear trainers. They tend to travel on four legs, not two. They can't jump. They don't like to go charging around the hillsides as if some little tyke has given them a bowl of caffine-laced milk. They aren't particularly adept at underwater activities. At least their 'roll into a ball attack', which is quite effective when used against evil robots in the Sonic games, exists in real life, although when the lil' critters try in against our motor vehicles it has a slightly lower success rate. So, in all honesty, our friend Sonic is not really an accurate portrayal of Average Joe Hedgehog. I'm not being picky, I'm just setting the record straight....
Sonic has had quite a turbulent life in Game-Land, really. When he burst onto the scene just over ten years ago now (how time flies!) he was a fresh faced new hero for all of us gamers - he represented good clean fun, although he still had 'attitude', ably represented on screen by his badass red footwear. Word. With the subsequent sequels to his massive Mega Drive hit, as well as various adventures on Sega's other machines at the time, his popularity grew and grew. But every idol has to come unravelled at some time. In a manner not to dissimilar to the way in which Adam Ant went postal with a gun in a grotty little pub, Sonic went mad with the arrival of a third dimension into his world. The Saturn / Mega Drive title Sonic 3D was a very passable game, but not a patch on previous efforts: the cracks were beginning to show in the blue one's majestic facade. With the advent of the Dreamcast it all really began to fall apart. Sonic's two 3D efforts on Sega's underrated masterpiece received mixed reviews at best, and when the Dreamcast died, along with Sega's career in hardware manufacturing, things looked bleak for our favourite bush beast. His fan base was losing interest in him after a few much-hyped but ultimately disappointing releases. His home of the last ten years had been ripped away from him. It looked like it was all over. But then something utterly unexpected happened. Sonic started a comeback. He shook off the scandal and shame of failure and managed to begin the climb back to his former glories (and he managed it without snogging Madonna or publicly ridiculing Timberlake's wang). And all with the aid of the company that had rivalled his over the years. Yes, a few years ago now, Sonic returned to the 2D platforming roots that had made him a star in the first place, and he did it on Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. And now he's back to do it a second time. But is this just a desperate too-little-too-late brief comeback (a la Right Said Fred with their risibly poor 'You're My Mate'), or is it a true Kylie-esqe better-than-ever performance? Well, neither really, but it's more good news than it is bad.
Anyone who's played a Sonic game before will find the plot to this game extremely familiar: The nefarious and fat Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman as he's now more commonly known) has once again decided that he would quite like to take over the world, and so he again kidnaps all the cute little animals and turns them into robotic killing machines. Only this time the bearded bloater has kidnapped Sonic's friends Tails the fox and Knuckles the echidna. Sonic is naturally a little upset at this turn of events, and true to form sets out to stop the evil meanie and save his friends.
This really is a Sonic-by-numbers plot, with just one original factor to it: once Sonic clears the first few levels and comes face to ginger-'tached face with Robotnik for the first time, he sees that there is a young female rabbit caught in blubber-boys flabby clutches. Upon freeing her she introduces herself as 'Cream' (not being funny, but that is an utterly crap name for a rabbit...), and introduces you to 'Cheese' (...this is getting silly...) her pet Chao. And from that point on, Cream too becomes a playable character, and a new addition to the Sonic family.
In terms of structure, this game follows the Sonic formula down to the letter. Sonic's pursuit of Robotnik takes him through several zones, each one containing two levels (or 'Acts') and a boss encounter with the merry chubster himself. This time round, every few boss fights will see you rescuing one of Sonic's mates (Cream first, then Tails, then Knuckles) who then becomes a playable character. It all starts off in the traditional 'green and pleasant' zone: it's called Leaf Forest here, but the name means nothing, it's really the Green Hill Zone all over again. From there you progress to the traditional technical installations, Lava based environments, ice levels and such - it's familiar territory, for the most part. Even the one zone that is different to everything else (the slightly trippy music zone) feels like the token attempt at something a little different.
However, the environments may feel a little stale, but the level design itself is still top stuff. For those of you yet to play one of Sonic's 2D adventures, the basic concept is simple: it's fast. Sonic blasts around the levels at speeds that no hedgehog in his right mind should really consider - with his mental pace the levels rarely last more than five minutes, tops. He is aided in this high-speed havoc by many strategically placed springs that can launch him all over the place, rails that he can grind down, tunnels that he can roll down, and the iconic loop-de-loops, that just make him look really cool. In addition, the developers at Sonic Team obviously realise that while bezzing around, bouncing, spinning, grinding and such for a few short minutes 'til you reach the end of the level is fun first time round, but not really all that good for replayability in the long term. As such, there are multiple paths through each and every act, meaning that you'll want to try each stage again to see what you missed. And if that isn't enough, there are also seven special rings to collect in each zone, hidden throughout the stages. All seven must be collected if you are to unlock the bonus stages and collect the chaos emeralds that are essential if you want to really complete the game (a fifth character can be unlocked if all seven emeralds are gathered). This is a really nice touch, as it still allows those who want to just rip from the start of the act to the finish as quickly as possible to have fun with the game, but also does something to reward those who wish to take their time to explore things more thoroughly.
Although the speed is really the series' trademark more than anything else, it also lets the game down somewhat this time round, perhaps due to the relatively tiny size of the GBA's screen. The most common complaint with the first Sonic Advance game was that it just wasn't fast enough. Well Sonic Team seem to have taken that on board and have tried to rectify things. Unfortunately, it appears that they probably had it right first time round. Although the previous console Sonic titles were eye-bursting quick at times, you never really felt like things were spinning out of your control (so to speak). You always felt that if anything went wrong then it was due to your reactions being too slow rather than the game being too fast. However, with the action shrunk down onto a screen smaller than a credit card, the scenery becomes harder to make out the faster you go, and at times you really are left feeling quite helpless as you are shot from spring to bumper to platform. It doesn't help, then, that the increase in speed seems more of a focus than ever this time round: at the start of each act, your character is seen 'revving up' as an annoying digitised voice counts down to the start of the level. What's more, an element of speed has now been incorporated into the Robotnik encounters. Now, instead of doing battle on a static screen, you fight him in his various robotic guises while chasing him across the screen. This feels quite flawed compared to the old system: when you catch up with him and start attacking he is usually pushed right to the edge of the screen. This can mean that on occasion you can't see his attacks coming until it's too late.... A noble attempt at trying something new with an ageing formula perhaps, but you can't help but hope that Sonic Team now have all of this rebellious creativity out of their system so that they can return to the good old ways next time round...
Every good platform game needs some form of item that can be scattered liberally throughout the levels. Mario has his coins, Crash has his apples, and so duly Sonic has his golden rings. It almost goes without saying that collecting one hundred of these shiny trinkets will grant you an extra life, but in a pleasant way the Sonic series has always made their collectable items more integral to the proceedings. The rings are, essentially, Sonic and co.'s energy. If, while carrying rings, our heroes come into contact with some form of adversary or harmful obstacle, they are knocked back stunned, and all their rings scatter (helpfully giving you a few scant seconds to reclaim as many as possible). This done, you can carry on. If, however, you are carrying no rings, one hit will kill you. This can lead to some gloriously tense moments when, especially during boss encounters, you are down to your last ring, and there are no more in sight. Every time you take a hit you'll be scrabbling to get to your scattered ring before it escapes you. This can lead to some colourful language, some minor bouts of Game Boy Rage, and some vows that the next hedgehog you see will become roadkill, but at the same time the frantic edge that this lends to the proceedings really does add an awful lot to your enjoyment of the game.
Although this game is relatively short, you really will want to play it through with each of the characters, just so that you can face each level with their own unique moves. While the principle is the same run-jump-spin formula for all four (five with the bonus character) of your heroes, each come with some rather impressive attacks of their own. Sonic, for example has some speed based attacks, such as skidding through his enemies, while Cream can send Cheese to home in on the bad guys. Tails can use his... well.... tails to fly for a short time, while Knuckles can climb walls, and so forth. It's little touches like these that make you come back to the game time and time again, and give it it's value for money.
Once you've finished the main quest with all the characters, though, there's still plenty to keep you going: the Time Attack mode lets you select individual acts in an attempt to best your previous time. You can happily spend hours trying to shave precious seconds from your time here, but this mode is also perfect for a quick pick up and play session when the adverts come on the telly, or while you wait for your kettle to boil. In addition to this, you can unlock a Chao garden, where you can tend to one of the little critters, Tamagotchi style - playing games with it and such. You can even import your little fella from your GBA into Sonic Adventure 2: Battle on the 'Cube if you so wished. Which is cool.
If that still isn't enough, then there's the multi-player modes: a multi-pak game where you must race through each Zone in the fastest time, or a single-pak game where you must collect as many rings in a given time as possible. To be perfectly honest these multi-player modes are quite tacked on and superfluous:- there's nothing on display here that's particularly groundbreaking. That said, it's still a good laugh racing your mates around the various levels on display here.
The graphics in this game are really quite special. Sonic games have always looked pretty, but this one really sets the bar at times, with everything looking suitably well-defined and 'chunky'. Although on rare occasions enemies can get lost against the background, on the whole everything is clearly defined and impressively smooth. Things even stay quite crisp as the game gets faster (although at times it's so fast that you may not notice....). The different zones all look impressively varied, too, with every different location packed with charm and character (although the music zone was maybe a little too gaudy for me, the mad look still suited the feel of that particular set of levels...), and I'd go so far as to say that the Ice Paradise Zone, with it's deep blue twilight sky, distant cityscape and snow-capped platforms, is perhaps one of the best looking environments seen in a GBA title.
Aurally this is slightly more dubious, though. While there are some classic tunes that feel really suited to the game, with catchy melodies that'll have you humming in no time, along with some beats that'd probably be described as 'speaker-rattling' if they were played through your TV (it's still awfully impressive through headphones, though), there are also a few tunes that... well, don't - some of the songs here are slightly below the standard we have come to expect from the Sonic series over the years, unfortunately. And the sound effects are quite mixed, too. While it's impossible not to smile like a loon the first time you hear the familiar 'brling!' noise when you collect a ring, the dodgy voice that excitedly proclaims pretty much everything (from the name of the game at the start to your choice of character) feels totally out of place here. Also, it may only be a tiny thing, but I really miss the 'Sega chant' at the start of the game....
Ultimately, this is a very solid Sonic game. The occasional feeling that things are going helplessly fast and the quite poorly designed boss fights mean that the first Sonic Advance title just about has the edge over this one (and neither GBA Sonic quite matches the glory of the Mega Drive Sonics....) but this is still a worthwhile purchase. There are plenty of extras to keep you entertained when the main quest itself is done and dusted, and the game is really quite addictive. It's just that, well, there's nothing to really make it stand out above the other Sonic titles out there really, apart from Cream the rabbit (who's not really in the same league as Knuckles or Tails in terms of being an endearing character anyway...). Probably the best way to judge whether you get this game is this: if you felt almost painfully strong pangs of nostalgia when I first used the word 'Acts' to describe the levels then get it now: this will provide all of your retro Sonic needs. Those looking for something to revolutionise the franchise, though, may be a little disappointed.
Community review by tomclark (March 07, 2004)
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