Tuesday 31 August 2010

Sonic Blast

Pre-rendered fun for everyone.

We like to forget Sonic Blast exists. As a Game Gear (and Master System title if you're living in Brazil) game released in the extremely late year of 1996, it's always been tarred with the "average" brush and shoved aside in favour of other 1996 Sonic disasters, such as Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island. Sad then that it was actually the last 2D "classic" Sonic platformer with its own set of new levels.

It's an odd game, but surely in these days of endless mediocre Sonic titles we can start caring for it... right?

By 1996 clearly Sega must have been fed up by Donkey Kong Country's success, and of course the fact the Game Boy was still in business despite Sega's constant attacks on the handheld's limited palette. Clearly it was time to try and beat everything at once, and what better game to do that than Sonic Blast, a pre-rendered Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Game Gear. On paper that sounds like an unstoppable force that would easily crush the competition - not only would the primitive Game Gear be able to top the monstrous Super Nintendo, they'd be able to wipe out Game Boy sales completely and emerge as the dominant handheld games manufacturer.

And in an alternate universe, their plan worked.

In this universe though, it didn't. And there were a number of reasons for this, mostly centred around the fact we're talking about the Game Gear. By 1996 few people cared what the system had to offer thanks to seven years of great Nintendo games, so not only was it trying to prove the Game Gear was powerful, it was trying to keep it in the race.

See, what I always like to teach when discussing the original Sonic the Hedgehog is exactly how it trumped Super Mario Bros. on the NES in every possible way. Sonic 1 boasts bigger sprites with more colours on screen, faster gameplay, less repetition, better music and as it's only operated with one button, it also ends up being the simpler game. Essentially it's a win on all fronts apart from the fact Sonic can't swim (though Tails can in Sonic 3), and since the only water sections are in the already horrible Labyrinth Zone, that wasn't a big deal.

But when you start making Game Gear and Master System Sonic games you struggle to keep the same selling points. The biggest concern with the Game Gear is the small resolution. In a platform game, the player requires a view of the level just ahead of the controllable character, otherwise they are more likely to make mistakes and die as they can't see what they're doing. To achieve this, the player's sprite needs to be of a reasonable size, and this is even more important when the game is known for having fast gameplay otherwise what little you can see of the background will whizz by before you can react. If the sprite's too big, you won't see anything, but if it's too small, there's a fear that nobody will buy the console as it struggles to demonstrate the graphical power of the machine.

None of the Game Gear Sonic games managed to get this balance. You're often left with the feeling that you can't really see what's going on, and for the first three Sonic titles, that was partly because they were designed with the Master System in mind, which of course sports a bigger resolution. Things are great on the SMS, but cramped and tricky on the GG, just ask Sonic 2's first boss battle.

The difference this time is that Sonic Blast wasn't designed for the Sega Master System, it was designed to fight Nintendo, and the problem this time was that if the sprites weren't big enough, people might struggle to see that they've been pre-rendered, defeating the whole purpose of the game. As such, Sonic and Knuckles take up a greater amount of screen space.

Others have really criticised the game for this reason but even though it's a disadvantage compared to other Sonic titles, the level design is a lot nicer and understands you might be having issues seeing what lies ahead.

If you're running Tec Toy's Master System alternative you run into other problems, namely the reduced colour palette. The Game Gear had 4096 colours to choose from, whereas the Master System just had 64. The conversion between the two wasn't pretty and so it's a toss-up between a big resolution or nice graphics. Personally I'd go for the higher resolution every time, but opinions differ and you have to remember the Master System version was designed for 17.5% slower PAL systems (and Sonic Blast suffers greatly on PAL machines because no optimisations took place).

With big sprites comes less cartridge space, and as the Game Gear was already a generation behind the Mega Drive, none of the levels had a chance in hell of being as thrilling as those found in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Despite having a big palette, there's still only room for sixteen colours on screen, and so there's mixed results to be had in terms of graphics (and these are of course worse on the Master System). It doesn't help that it was built in a time before Sega had mastered the art of "3D Sonic" either - the character models are lifeless and animate strangely. Rare had invested thousands in the latest 3D rendering technology with Donkey Kong Country, Sega... hadn't... and it shows.

And to top it off, the Game Gear was not noted for its amazing sound chips. All the music is passable, but not memorable and not up to par with either the Mega Drive classics or what Nintendo were offering across the border (or even previous 8-bit Sonic games). In short, the Game Gear could not handle this game, and when you consider the fact the Game Gear was running in a distant second place in 1996 and was close to being axed, it does make you wonder why people invested time and money into bringing Sonic Blast to the public. There's a Sega Saturn just crying out for a Sonic title over there. Cut your losses on the Game Gear and move on.

But bad points aside, Sonic Blast isn't quite as bad gameplay wise as people widely claim. With all the Sonic 3 moves (minus Sonic's insta-sheild which was replaced with a double jump), this game has a lot going for it, it's just always felt a bit clunkier than previous attempts because the sprites are that extra bit bigger. The physics are a bit broken but that's to be expected I suppose.

It remains to this day the only Game Gear game to have Knuckles as a playable character, and though he doesn't get much in terms of new routes, all his Sonic 3 & Knuckles skills are available. There's more loops in Sonic Blast than in previous titles, and although they're not executed amazingly well, you can see it was tried. Most of the weird and wonderful gimmicks from previous titles were thrown out the window in favour of standard Sonic 3 stuff - special stages are accessed through hidden giant rings, there's no vehicles or seemingly pointless powerups, just the basics.

And it's a matter of personal opinion about how you feel about that. I've completed both Sonic Chaos and Triple Trouble without those extra gimmicks so it wasn't a huge loss for me, but for others it might feel like a step back. You can see it was attempting to give the Game Gear its own taste of Sonic 3, but so much effort was put in to housing those hideous pre-rendered graphics that Sega seemed to have completely neglected to put in anything groundbreaking. It's a very standard Sonic game, and though a breath of fresh air from some of the recent drivel, it's not something that would draw in large crowds.

As to which is the better version, I think I'd go for the Master System copy, despite reviewing the Game Gear version of the game. It takes a hit in the graphics department but unless you've got side-by-side screenshots, you won't really notice... well except for all the glitches. I'd like to live in hope that one day someone will bother to clean the Master System version up, but it's still good playable fun, just a little ugly.

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