Certainly, there are loads of good things to look forward to. It's a traditional top-down RPG with turn-based battles, incredibly cool looking, hand drawn environment graphics, stylus controlled movement, character switching for hopefully clever puzzles, and promises of a massive storyline with refreshingly deep characters and hopefully an especially well written script for once. With Sega, now more than ever, it's often fair to treat particularly exciting little features with suspicion, because the little things often don't quite turn out as expected in the end. Especially when it comes to connecting with the past games (remember when they told us STH '06 would be full of little warm, fuzzy throwbacks? There were like three or four, and all from Sonic Adventure 1 and 2). I must confess to not ever having played a Bioware RPG, but supposedly they're pretty good at them, and I've no particular reason to mistrust promises of the reappearance of classic tunes and environments. They already boast Green Hill, Mystic Ruin and Emerald Town (an odd choice that last one, but I'll go with it), although I'm yet to be convinced that they will be the very same areas, or just ones that look like them. The hints of a story twist involving Eggman that "goes back to the franchise's early days that Sonic fans will not expect" is highly intruiging. As is their desire to tie up certain loose ends that our Sonic Team writers, God bless em, have managed to accumulate over the years. It sounds like they know their stuff, or at least have done their research.
In terms of story and characters, there isn't much better that a Sonic fan can look forward to than this kind of depth and these kind of promises from good writers. I know that's what most of the Sonic community seems to crave above all else, and it's all well and good, but my anticipations can go higher than this, because my most craved aspect is good old Sonic platform gameplay and level design, and I don't really need any plot at all. Of course, this is an RPG - a spinoff, and I guess I was hoping for more of a clever mix of RPG puzzle-solving and Sonic platforming, as traditional Sonic platformers are what I care about above all else. I've always been a bit put off by those turn-based battles in RPG's, which seem a bit complicated and lacking in intensity. That said, I guess I did enjoy Pokemon though.
Still, I was playing Zelda, Phantom Hourglass recently, at a point where you can control a Goron, who rolls around with speed and is able to jump and roll into enemies that are tapped with the stylus, very much like Sonic. It was controlled in such a precise way that I thought it'd make a far easier and more fun way to deal with minor enemies in Sonic Chronicles, and allow for more of a focus on Zelda-esque puzzle solving than leveling up and turn-based skills and things. That, I'd be more interested in. And as for leveling up and altering different attributes, well, they tried it in Secret Rings, and personally, I just couldn't be bothered faffing about with them. Maybe in the context of an RPG, it'll make more sense.
Still, there's much to be excited about, even for those sceptical about Sonic in an RPG. At the very least, we seem to be much more assured of quality, and effort in getting things just right for this one, so, using Bioware's popularity, it could well prove to be the big critical success we need. And if the next primary Sonic platformer (which I estimate to be unveiled at some point this year) is successful, Sonic could still be able to improve his reputation in the gaming world yet.
Oil Ocean might well be an equal distance away though, as I have yet more work coming this term at uni, but we'll see how it goes. There's loads of stuff I need to do here really, including redesigning the site and adding a proper menu system. This home page has always been temporary, but I just haven't had the time to fix it up.
So a couple of Sonic news items of late to discuss. It would seem that, as reported on Sonic News, a potential name for a new Sonic game, "Sonic Chronicles" has been discovered in a trademarks database. As I recall the same thing happened for Sonic Gems Collection and I think, Sonic Rush Adventure, so it's perfectly possible, and I would say very likely that this is indeed a forthcoming title. Chronicles means the documentation of historic events, so that could suggest this title contains some sort of reference to the older days of Sonic history. Surely not another compilation title though? It's been too soon since Mega and Gems Collections, and there are only three or four games left that aren't readily available on modern consoles, so I would be disappointed if it were any kind of collection disc. Although the game has been in development for a long time, I think it's most likely to be the upcoming DS RPG that Bioware are making for us. They may only have decided on a title quite recently (afterall, new titles for Sonic games are getting hard to think up these days), and I suppose it would still fall to Sega to trademark it. The possible significant references to Sonic history however is certainly interesting, or perhaps it is intended as a prologue to everything? Even more interesting!
If you've been keeping up with your Smash Bros Brawl updates over at the dojo, you'll know of the emergence of a classic Sonic tune to the game's soundtrack. An interesting choice, Angel Island Zone from Sonic 3, updated by Jun Senoue into quite a fun, guitar-ish version that would be suitable background music for a battle. The page presents a short 50 second preview of it that consists mostly of the Act 1 theme, followed by the start of Act 2. Compared to Sonic 1 and 2, it's less common for Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles tracks to get remade, and as that's my favourite soundtrack of the lot, it's always a special treat for me when one of its tracks pops up again. This could imply that Angel Island Zone will be a stage in the game, but as I understand it, the music can be collected and played on a random basis anyway, so it may just be a disembodied track floating around in the game. There definitely needs to be at least one classic Sonic stage in there somewhere though, for maximum goosebumps. Angel Island is a bit of a weird choice for it though, I would say. Perhaps it hints that Knuckles is a playable character too, and that would be his stage? Who knows.
My pages have always been straightforward HTML files. If I have to make a new one, I load up my template HTML page, and slot my text and image links in, messing around with their heights and widths and if I later realise I need to add a new point, changing all the subsequent point numbers and tags by hand is a real pain. However, I have now built a system that can successfully match this whole process using PHP scripts, form fields and MySQL databases, which looks a bit like this and this.
Look! It's all stored dynamically now! Every paragraph, every stat, every margin value for div tags. I can enter everything into these form fields, and the page simply builds itself! The coolest feature is that I can add, remove and change the order of the points incredibly easily, and the whole lot simply reorganise themselves accordingly. All of the sections are colour coded correctly, and when I add an image, it works out the right file name and size all by itself. God, I love PHP. Since learning it, the world of web design has really opened up for me.
So, other than making the whole process much quicker and easier for me, it means everything is loaded from the same, single page, so if I feel like changing the way things are presented, these changes will affect every level. Because everything is dynamic I can use particular bits of content elsewhere on the site, maybe share it with other sites and even build a little search engine for it. I know I may eventually need to either acquire staff members, or hand the torch on to others, due to lack of time, so this system allows them to build upon it, and still keep everything consistent and easy to manage.
I've been using my writing for Mystic Cave as the tester, and no other existing levels have been converted yet, but they will be, and the system should be easily adaptable to any new features that the next few games on the list should require. One thing it can't do at the moment is anything to do with the non-level pages, like background info and Special Stages, etc. These will either be too specialised and may as well just exist in HTML form for the time being, or I may just do some more coding to include them soon-ish. *Hopefully* you will be able to see the completed Mystic Cave Zone page soon, but I'm unsure about the maps at the moment, as my eyes are playing up once again. And also, because I've gotten so carried away with my PHP-spree, I've forgotten to do my coursework. Oh well.
Check back soon!
So, played Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games yet? I must admit, I've let this one slip by, despite how well it seems to be doing, which in itself is despite the fact that it hasn't been advertised nearly as well as it should have been. Admittedly I've seen its TV ad more often than I have the other Sonic games of recent years, but this is a very casual-gamer title, and as such, needs the absolute shit advertised out of it, like Mario Galaxy seems to be getting. Sega's budget doesn't seem to be able to stretch that far with advertsing for anything, and that always annoys me. Still, it does go to show how popular Sonic still is if he can regularly get into the charts with minimal TV advertising. Or it goes to show that TV advertising isn't that successful at shifting games. But it probably is. I probably won't pick up the game until it goes down in price, personally. I'm most interested in platformers that are single player focused, and Mario and Sonic is primarily a multiplayer spin-off that doesn't seem like it'll capture my interest for long. It does seem a more comprehensive experience to Wii Sports though.
I did however pick up Sonic Rivals 2 on Friday, and I think it's rather good. Its predecessor was a nice little, small-scale adventure, and this is still quite small-scale in the grand scheme of things, but with additional characters, more original and interesting levels, a slightly more complex story, and 6 different, arena-enclosed battle modes in addition to the level racing, it all adds up to a richer experience. Like with the Sonic Rush series, and unlike the Sonic Advance series, the basic mechanics of things like character control and the pace of the levels has remained mostly unchanged, so as was the case with Rush Adventure, it's very similar to its predecessor, but better.
So what's changed? Well, it's all about the levels with me, and we've got six more to add to our list here. They range from done-a-bit-but-not-to-death levels like Blue Coast, Sunset Forest, Mystic Haunt and Chaotic Inferno (clear throwbacks to the likes of Ocean and Water Palaces, Sunset Hill, Hang and Cryptic Castles and Crisis City), done-to-death-but-not-quite-like-this levels (Neon Palace, the thankfully alive and well bouncy Casino stage, inspired by BINGO Highway but looking even more colourful and even rather graphically impressive), and of course, the one that got me very excited, the completely brand new, fully wild west style Frontier Canyon Zone. 16 and a half years, over 200 different levels across the whole series, but there are still surprsingly obvious environments that we haven't properly covered before. These are a much more original bunch than the generally more obvious and less inspired choices made by SR1, and though the graphics are still quite polygonal, there seems to be a bit more decorative stuff in the levels, so it's not such a big deal.
The emphasis on racing and conflict between the two rivals continues to set limits to the level design, so the multiple routes are still numerous, but very close to each other and brief, and the pace means that there isn't much opportunity for objects and traps that stop you for a bit to make you use your brain. But in addition to the many common objects, there are also a fair few interesting level-specific ones to take advantage of too, and Mystic Haunt is particular good at that, with its picture-matching levers, portals and even a terrific nod to the dark-dwelling ghosts in Sandopolis Zone (with light switches and everything). Neon Palace of course contains the usual flippers and stuff too, and even an enemy that strongly resembles Crawl, from Casino Night. There's rolling around inside barrels in Blue Coast, and mine trolleys in Frontier canyon that require you to pump them by madly tapping away. It all adds up to a rich and varied experience, which is what a good set of levels needs to have.
Each stage contains three acts and a boss, but only the first and third acts are actual levels. Act 2 always takes place in an enclosed arena where the two characters have a battle, which usually consists of a three-round knockout, but sometimes extends into one of the other 5 battle modes such as a ring collecting challenge. The missions in the levels sometimes vary too, where you have no rival but are racing against the clock, or attempting to collect 100 rings. In story, the eight characters are paired up into four alliances. It would have been logical to only have one story per pair, alternating between the two partners, but instead, each individual character has a story, yet you still play as your partner during each third act anyway, with any given character always rivaling another particular character at each level. It means twice as much to unlock, sure, but seems a bit pointless to me, especially when every character controls exactly the same except for their own special move. These special moves, by the way, are now fuelled by ring power, and a full meter allows you to perform it by pressing square, but alot of them are nothing to shout home about. So expect little more than basic Sonic controls here once again, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Bosses are more challenging this time around, but also quite original and fun, and your rivals seem a bit smarter as to how to go about beating them. The game always remains a challenge and you'll find yourself losing quite alot, but the acts are usually less than 2 minutes long, and breeze along fairly simply, so to me at least, it never really felt like a pain having to try again. The point, afterall, is not getting to the end but getting there first. My biggest gripe with the first game was the highly uninspiring and bland music that robbed the levels of that real icing on the cake, which Sonic games generally seem to be so consistently able to provide. Thankfully, things have improved a bit this time around. Granted, we're not talking one of the all time best soundtracks here, but things are no longer just "meh", they're "good". Blue Coast Act 1 borrows the game's opening theme, which is an upbeat lyrical rock tune by the fella that gave us Escape from the City and Theme of Team Sonic. Not to everyone's tastes I'm sure, but it's far more appropriate and energising than anything in SR1, and Act 2's lyric-less variation is a bit of an instant semi-hit for me. The rest often feature bits of that bland rock style from before, but some actual melodies and appropriate styles make up for that. The only exception is Sunset Forest, Act 3 especially, which is a disturbingly inappropriate, factory style piece of dullness that puts you off the level a bit.
So all in all it's a neat little adventure with alot of variety, but still remaining quite comfortably where a Sonic platformer should. Ultimately I prefer the traditional obstacle-based challenge of other Sonic games than this racing-based one, and I suspect others do too, because it allows the level and object design a bit more freedom. Still, despite preferences, I've never been one to say "Sonic should always do this stuff and only this stuff, and everything else is worthless", and I always welcome different ways of doing things now and then. Sonic Rivals 2 is better than its predecessor in just about every way, and should be a fairly good one to come back to once in a while.
It's unfortunate that, as the title of this entry suggests, I just simply don't have any time at all to work on here right now, and probably won't be able to get much done until Christmas. I'm on my second year of university, and just have so many projects to juggle right now, I'm afraid I'm going to have to neglect adding anything to the site for the time being.
Will let you know when I've managed to do anything significant, but until then, I'm offially hitting the pause button.
In other news, I've finally gone and bought myself a PSP this week. Don't know if they're still doing it, but I took advantage of a fantastic bundle offer from HMV, which consisted of a PSP Slim and Lite, with Sonic Rivals, Sega Megadrive Collection and Virtua Tennis 3 for only £150. That's basically two full priced games for free, so if you've been meaning to get hold of a PSP, that's the offer to go for, I'd say. This of course also means that Sonic Rivals is finally mine, and therefore, my Sonic game collection is now once again fully complete. Phew. You know what, it's actually a better game than I was expecting it to be too. Not that I thought it was going to be rubbish, but I guess I was just a bit put off by its slightly ugly and simplistic graphics, and the fact that it's a relatively simple Sonic platformer too, certainly compared to the DS's recent Rush Adventure. Relative to the full 3D console games, screenshots and movies of Sonic Rivals have always made it seem to me almost like the 3D equivalent of the Game Gear/Mastersystem counterparts to the Megadrive games, i.e. much, much less pretty. When I saw it running on the PSP screen however, it suddenly all makes alot more sense.
It carries a racing theme, and I was surprised to learn that, like Secret Rings, it also abolishes lives, checkpoints and total ring loss in its levels, with re-spawn points occuring regularly to keep both competitors very much in the action. While Secret Rings levels were still a struggle even without that stuff though, the challenge in Rivals isn't about getting through the levels and bosses, it's about doing it before your opponent does, and you do get beaten quite a bit from start to finish in the story, although perhaps not so much in the middle, for some reason. It's a shame all the characters play exactly the same apart from their one special move, when an item is obtained, but handling isn't bad once you're used to it, and it certainly feels totally different from the Advance/Rush strand of the series.
The levels are better designed than I thought, with quite a range of obstacles and features, both common and level-specific, and some stages change their appearance by quite a surprising degree as you venture through each act. A few, like the rollercoaster-styled Sky Park Zone, my favourite, feature an altered appearance for each act - something from S3&K that I've since been absolutely dying to see again in a 2D platformer. I wonder if the fact that Act 2 looking quite a bit like Sonic CD's Stardust Speedway Zone 3, where you also raced against Metal Sonic, is intentional. On a final, soundtrack based note, the extremely mediocre, repetative and uninspiring level music seems to be alot more bearable when you're actually playing, I must admit, but I still say it's one of Sonic's worst soundtracks for a platformer. I mean, it's not awful, but Sonic music simply must be at a mich higher standard by default.
I suppose 3D graphics on a 2D control plane is the exact opposite to Sonic 3D, which was 2D sprites in 3D controls, making both of them difficult to categorise in either the "2D" or "3D" folders that most people like to use for the series. But as I predicted before even playing, 2D controls in 3D visuals is an idea that works really well for Sonic, I think. The great thing about Sonic in 3D is the more dynamic camera angles you get while whizzing through stuff, and this is certainly used to the full extent in Rivals, yet the simplistic 2D controls remain. I really think that Sonic Team's next big move should be to translate this in some way into their next primary, console-based Sonic platformer. It keeps it 3D and up to date, but retains the simplistic Sonic controls that we all know and love and if done with enough pure, brilliant content and interesting little ideas, I think it could prove a big hit. In the meantime however, I'll continue anticipating Sonic Rivals 2 - especially that lovely new Wild West style level. Why we've never really had one of those until now, I'll never know.
Sorry about the 10 month late review there, but once you get me talking, it's hard to shut me up. Unfortunately that hasn't yet happened for Mystic Cave Zone however, as I've not really had the time to do anything other than re-reading and editing what I had already written for it. I know, I'm sorry, but as I said last time, I'm pretty busy at the moment, with about seven different other projects floating around in my head, so you'll have to sit tight for the moment. I'm sure you can manage.
Oh, and the Sonic Site Awards are closing in a couple of days, so if you've not yet voted for Zone: 0, go and do it now! Go on, quick!
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