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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sonic the Hedgehog - Review and Retrospective

Sonic the Hedgehog
A game so massively overshadowed by its 16-bit counterpart that it receives very little recognition on its own merits. I actually prefer it considerably to the better known Megadrive / Genesis title, though I don’t expect to convince too many …

Initial impressions are poor, as the game opens on a level that can only be described as a pale, low-res imitation of the 16-bit version’s opening stage. Matters improve considerably, however, as the game diverges from the Megadrive layout and establishes a style of its own. The second “Bridge” stage features particularly beautiful (though non-parallax) backdrops, and animated waterfalls. The graphics continue to be clean, vibrant, and detailed (for an 8-bit game) throughout.

One glaring issue – if you are playing on a real SMS rather than some over-clocked emulator – is the lack of speed: without the power up shoes, Sonic moves about as fast as any other Master System player character, in spite of the frantic twirling of his legs. There are occasional stunt ramps and slides to introduce high-pace moments, but the emphasis of this game is definitely not on speeds runs. However, the optional bonus stages are impressively frantic, and reminiscent of the “Spring Yard Zone” in the Megadrive game.
Presentation is excellent, with two map screens to illustrate your progress, adding a narrative structure sorely lacking in the random-seeming levels of the original game. The true end sequence is also more elaborate and satisfying than the 16-bit version.
Not the best graphics on the SMS – “Cool Spot”, “Master of Darkness”, and the third SMS Sonic title (“Sonic Chaos”) overshadow this one visually – but still very appealing and effective, and with a few nice tricks thrown in. The pitching, swaying, vertigo-inducing ride on Dr. Robotnik’s airship is probably the highlight (and a nice parody of “Strider”, which, incidentally, piddles all over the official SMS conversion of that sadly-abused coin-op …).

With pleasant (if slightly short) compositions for each stage, boss music, bonus stage music, incidental tunes for power ups, intro, death, and end stage music, as well as a decent selection of sound effects, there isn’t much to complain about. Except possibly for the grating “Scrap Brain” theme that starts to predominate towards the end …

The lack of emphasis on speed is, at least to begin with, a disappointment, but that can also be said of the Megadrive game: in spite of the demo modes, anyone trying to storm through 16-bit Sonic would almost certainly miss the true end sequence and blunder into any number of traps. Some stages – especially the Marble Zone and Labyrinth Zone – were even constructed to slow the player down. This irritating trend would be corrected in later Megadrive Sonic titles, and even the Master System ones would do their utmost to speed up the gameplay. However, since extreme high-octane gameplay is not something one tends to expect from an 8-bit graphics chip (pre “Mayhem in Monsterland” days …), the slower pace of the first Sonic game is more acceptable in the 8-bit version.
Thankfully, the levels are well designed with a lot of variety that makes the more sedate and exploration-focused gameplay always enjoyable. Each level has its unique obstacles – trampolines, rolling logs, collapsing bridges, flame jets, teleporters, “Strider” style electronic force fields, to name a few – and some levels depart entirely from the normal style with such variations as a forced sideways scrolling level, a climb up a huge waterfall (in which backtracking is fatal), a maze of one-way doors, and a deadly ride on the outside of a zeppelin, with the screen pitching in a disorienting way. Bonus levels and boss fights also vary the action, although the latter do tend to be almost insultingly easy. Even assuming this game had a mostly young demographic of players, back in the day, the first boss is particularly laughable (Unarmed, and apparently with a death wish ...).
One major improvement over the Megadrive version, along with the narrative structure, is the distribution of the Chaos Emeralds (which you need to collect to see the true end sequence) within the levels rather than within the bonus stages, although the 8-bit pinball bonus stages are a lot more fun than the 16-bit’s annoying Escher maze thing. Putting the emeralds in the levels offers an extra challenge to the explorer, and some of their hiding places are quite devious (though one or two are painfully obvious), and give a nice sense of achievement when you finally ferret them out.

Not my favourite SMS platformer, in spite of the iconic brand status, but still one of my favourite Sonic games. In a series that later became characterised by a vast profusion of gimmicky characters and deranged locations, in a fantasy world where anything from giant pinball machines, to Halloween-themed mountains, to random lakes of molten metal seems to be acceptable logic, this early game actually offers a nicely structured quest, an appealing environmental theme, and a straightforward clash between good / nature and evil / destructive technology. Starts a little limply, but improves hugely as soon as it stops trying to imitate the 16-bit game, and strikes out on its own. The sequel would take that trend even further, to its credit, but that’s another story …

Friday, March 25, 2011

Golvellius for iPhone

Golvellius - The Valley of Doom has always been a firm favourite among our wise circle of Master System RPG gamers. It is after all a beautiful 8-bit action-RPG that I actually prefer over the original Zelda. What's more the thing has been made available on the iPhone, complete with Game Center support, a new UI, a variety of small enhancements and an almost perfect save system. You can get Golvellius at the App Store for less than 1$. Lucky you.