Review by Mariner
"I want to go, go, go, there's no stopping me"
You can imagine my surprise when I played this game for the first time since I was a kid. You mean this was supposed to be Mario's biggest rival? This was the game the Nintendo haters trumpeted? Well, ok, I take that back. This isn't a bad game after all. Or, at least most of it isn't. But it's also not exactly great either. Or, once again, at least most of it isn't. It's a game that doesn't know what it wants to be, trying to move in too many directions at once. And while some of those directions may be great, others are completely lacking in appeal.
You start out in the lush world of Green Hill, a land chock full of platforming fun. The great thing here is the level design. There are so many different ways of making your way to the end - the levels are a good 3-5 screens tall with plenty of platforms and pits - that you'll never see it all on your first run through. In other words, it's a gold mine of good old fashioned runnin' and jumpin'. Secrets abound, whether it be a springboard hidden in a tree or an extra life out of reach unless you take a certain route. There's a ton of variety, from crumbling platforms to loop-de-loops to pits and bridges and all sorts of neat things. Running through these levels is how I always envision Sonic, because it's the best thing about the game. You can pick one route and become perfect at running through it or choose to see it all. The enemies and platforming aspects aren't too difficult, allowing you the freedom to improvise and experiment. All this means is that the world (made up of three levels) is as fun to play your 500th time through as it is your first, an absolute must in a game with no saving.
It's not just the level design that's great though, for the idea behind the rings is brilliant. I'm always a sucker for concepts that serve multiple purposes, and allowing the rings to be an item to be collected while also protecting you was (and still is) rather nifty. Since your rings reset after each level, you'll have to actively search them out if you want an extra life, and getting hit is disastrous. But you can still get to the bonus level with only 50 rings, so it's not a total loss. And even if you're not interested in extra lives or psychedelic bonus stages, picking up extra rings is still a good idea. After all, you can recapture your lost rings after getting hit, and it's a lot easier to grab a few when there's ten of them surrounding you instead of one. Like I said, a neat idea. And one that helps move Sonic from a the dregs of forgettable platformers to one that's actually worth something.
Sonic's unique controls are also worth a mention. You need momentum in this game, as the little hedgehog moves at a snail's pace at first. Once you build up speed though, he starts living up to his name. Honestly, I think this momentum thing is exaggerated a bit too much in the game. It makes the control feel just slightly off, as it's slightly annoying to creep everywhere when you just start moving. And the hills in the game don't make things any easier. It seems Sonic lacks the ability to climb up even modest inclines if he doesn't get a running start, a somewhat ridiculous notion. On the other hand, it isn't too much of a problem. The controls are consistent at least, and so you can get used to and even master them without a problem. And besides, it's kinda cool to zip by everything once you reach lightning speeds, or be able to jump the entire length of the screen. It frustrated me a bit at first, but for the most part I became accustomed to it. And as picky as I am with controls, I guess that means they're ok.
And so I had a blast on the first world. But problems started to appear in Marble Zone which made me begin to question Sega's direction. The game's blazing speed and open-ended, multipath levels turned into a linear, slow moving experience. Now you must wait for spikes to retract, lava flows to stop, and instead spend your time pushing blocks around. Standing on a block as it slowly moves across the screen is not exactly what I think of with Sonic. But these annoyances only happened in a few places, and the world was still pretty fun. You start to see more traditional platforming fare, with a few tricky jumps and tougher enemies. One of my favorite parts involves a long string of jumps surrounded by spikes and falling weights, where falling down means losing your rings and starting all over. Still a lot of fun, but it wasn't quite up to par with the wonderful level design of Green Valley.
The slow pace got even worse in Spring Yard. There are tons of vertical shafts here, populated by bricks that slowly move up and down. This means that either ascending or descending these shafts takes up quite a bit of time, all while you are in absolutely no danger whatsoever. Who's bright idea was this, Sega? It's simply aggravating to take 20 seconds or so without making any progress or without any movement worth mentioning, and the fact that they're all over this zone just makes it even worse. Speaking of which, the level design here is pretty boring. It seems like Sega took about a dozen different short segments and randomly cut and pasted them together. You'll be facing the same challenges over and over here, just in a different order each time. It's lazy, it's repetitive, and it makes these levels lack the cohesion of the first two. Fortunately the types of challenges were fun, but between the repetition and the stupid chasms, I was starting to get a bit flustered.
But it wasn't until Labyrinth Zone that I really started getting angry at the game. A water level? A water level?!?!? Remember my minor irk at the controls? Magnify it 10,000 times and you have this world in a nutshell. Sega's idea of water physics was to make Sonic move about a third as slow as normal, which means it takes forever to start moving anywhere. Imagine playing a game with massive slowdown, and that's what these levels feel like. Is it really fun to have to jump at an enemy and not hit it until two seconds later? Is it fun to inch across the screen, hoping you can build up some sort of momentum? If companies feel obligated to add water levels to their platformers, they should at least come up with new physics rather than just slowing everything down, particularly with Sonic's unique controls. The fact that you have to worry about oxygen as well (which inevitably means waiting by an air bubble, which means losing your momentum and having to start running all over again) compounds this problem. To make matters worse, the boss of this world is probably the hardest (not that that's saying much) and longest in the game. It's unique, to be sure, but it also is designed to make you panic. After all, if you go too slowly, you have to put up with the dreaded water physics, and with no oxygen either. And it's also the only boss in which there are no rings between it and the respawn point, a poor design decision that just makes it all the more frustrating. To lose on the boss after suffering through the levels really pissed me off.
You'd be surprised how much one bad level can bring down one's opinion of a game. The annoyances of Marble and Spring Yard zones were trivialities compared to my feelings about the dreaded water levels. Remember how I said Green Hill was how I envisioned Sonic? This is virtually the complete opposite. Open spaces? Cramped. Fast? Slow. Variety? Water, water everywhere. How Sega could believe that these levels, so contradictory to the game's charm, could be a good idea is beyond me. And, in an act of apparent sadism, the game returns you to a very similar level at the end of the game. Aaargh! So if you think this review is too negative, it's probably because I was reminded of Labyrinth Zone too often while writing it. It's a long, annoying world, and made me seriously consider whether it was worth playing every time I started a new game.
But I did keep coming back, as it was worth it. Star Light one is every bit as fun as Green Hill, and certainly a welcome experience after surviving the water. No cramped spaces, no slow moving parts, no derivative level design. This place is huge, and you'll be going back and forth and up and down and having a blast while doing it. We get the same sense of speed and expansiveness that the first stage offered, just with added difficulty and a few new tricks. Once again I was running, jumping, doing loops, springing upwards, and enjoying the scenery. Once again, I felt like the world would go on forever, that the levels were so expansive that you'd never see them all. Once again, I was playing my ideal version of Sonic. The last zone, Scrap Brain, wasn't as good though. It seemed like a combination of Marble and Spring Yard, fairly linear and claustrophobic and filled with traps to slow you down. I still enjoyed it of course, but it's a bit upsetting that the wonderful playing style that we finally returned to couldn't hold out through the end.
And really, it's that lack of consistency that keeps this game from being truly great. In Mario for example, all the levels are based on the same motif, the same style of playing. Despite the variety of the worlds or a few unique levels, you always feel like you're playing the same game. There's a certain consistency across the game, which just serves to draw you in even more. Here, not at all. Green Hill plays entirely different from Marble Zone, which plays different from Spring Yard, which plays different from Labyrinth Zone. Huge, expansive levels make way for claustrophobic ones, speed disappears, open areas turn into stock obstacles. And so I'm not sure if this game is really as good as some people say it is. If Sega had simply made an entire game based around the ideals of Green Hill and Star Light, I would be singing nothing but praises at the moment. Instead, I'm remembering Labyrinth Zone. Not bad for a first effort, but the game could have really used more focus.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/18/06
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