Wednesday 3 March 2010

Sonic 3D

I can review mainstream games once in a while can't I?

Sonic 3D Flickies' Island. Or "Sonic 3D Blast", if you're feeling optimistic. Released in the glorious year of 1996 when the 32-bit generation was on the horizon, it was created as one of many responses to Donkey Kong Country in a last ditch attempt to extend the Mega Drive's life span. Personally I don't believe any of these attempts were really that successful for Sega, and in fact probably hindered development on the Sega Saturn, much to my distaste. But despite being more of a stunt than a classic Sonic game, Sonic 3D keeps coming back to haunt us in the many pointless collections and re-releases Sega flush out every year. Someone must like it.

Sonic 3D was initially released for the Mega Drive, but due to the cancellation of Sonic X-treme, it found itself ported to the Sega Saturn a year later, and eventually a copy landed on the PC's doorstep too. The latter two versions were updated to take advantage of the better hardware, but it amazes me that these copies have been ignored in recent years in favour of the 16-bit original. I'd have thought a PC game written in C would have been much easier to port around then having to emulate the Mega Drive ROM, especially when the game struggles on the Mega Drive, but what do I know.

Sonic 3D is unlike the older 2D Sonic games. It's more of a sequel to Flicky than Sonic 3&K, in that your task is to guide flickies (trapped in badniks) to a goal in order to progress. Unlike previous games in the series, most of the work was done by the UK group Traveller's Tales, who would later go on to produce Sonic R before hitting the jackpot with the Lego Star Wars games almost a decade later. TT opted for pre-rendered sprites at a time where 3D was still in its infancy, resulting in the worst looking Sonic ever to grace our screens. Whereas Donkey Kong Country was top of its game in 1994, the technology used to produce it was extremely expensive for the time, and furthermore, the rendering flaws of Donkey Kong Country were kept a secret by detailed and colourful backgrounds that only a large colour palette could offer. As Sonic 3D had neither advantage, it looks awful, and even when the Saturn came along many of these problems were not addressed. In fact, ugly Sonic found himself on the covers of Sonic Blast (Game Gear), Sonic's Schoolhouse (PC) and (almost) Sonic X-treme for some bizarre reason. Many of these covers were replaced in Europe and Japan, and Sonic 3D itself didn't show up in Japan until after Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast. Madness.

As said, Sonic's main aim is to guide flickies to a goal. To do this he needs to explore isometric maps, defeating badniks, attempting not to get lost and avoiding traps. In each third act you need to fight an emotionless Dr. Robotnik, who, after failing with the Death Egg, has taken a liking to staring aimlessly into the middle distance as you smash his stupid machines into little bits. It's fair to say the game hasn't aged well at all, graphics wise. You'll be seeing a lot of bland checkered floor patterns and generally dull scenery, though in Sonic 3D's defense, prototypes showed the levels used to be a lot bigger and blander. Many of these flaws were patched in the Saturn version of the game, but it's not good news for the Mega Drive.

The loops and fancy gimmicks that littered the 2D games are either automated or non-existent, something that would follow through to the likes of Sonic R and Sonic Adventure in the coming years. The expertise and VRAM space just wasn't there to create a great Sonic game in 3D, so there's clearly a lot of compromises.

The special stages are the biggest letdown of the Mega Drive version. Whereas these levels were extremely impressive in Sonic 1, 2 and 3, Sonic 3D's are just a bunch of bridges which though are fancily rendered, are boring and unimpressive compared to what the SNES was offering at the time (and don't topple Sonic 3's by any means). Again this would later be fixed in the Saturn version, as that opted for completely 3D special stages (arguably the best the series has ever encountered). For some strange reason the PC version of the game went for a hybrid between the two, and though they aren't "bad", they're a bit generic.

What Sonic 3D does well, however, is show that Sonic isn't all about speed. Though it's by no means as slow as Sonic Labyrinth for the Game Gear, it's not all about running, unlike some of the more modern entries in the series. Also, despite not aging well and being superseded by its Saturn counterpart, the Mega Drive version of Sonic 3D is a fine bit of programming. It takes some skill to make an isometric Sonic game entirely in assembly code, so kudos to Traveller's Tales.

Overall Sonic 3D is a very mediocre game, but somehow still manages to be the best of a bad bunch, and certainly the best until Sonic Adventure came along. Regardless of how I may criticise it, the other alternative at the time would have been Sonic R, and that's an unchallenging and unbalanced mess of a game.

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