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!
So I'm afraid updates will almost certainly become fewer and further between. I had originally hoped to stick to to my schedule of approximately two new levels per month but I think it's probably going to be more like one, for the time being - If that. It's hard to say at the moment, and depends on whether my eye and internet problems will get better, and unfortunately, Zone: 0 isn't at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. There are no plans to give up on it yet however - It's just a case of having to be a little bit more patient.
That's all. Cheers!
SO! In one word? Excellent. It is an excellent Sonic game and will probably become my favourite secondary Sonic platformer thus far. I'll start by saying that I never disliked Sonic Rush, it's always been good fun, but I always felt it was a bit overrated, and not without faults, particularly regarding its level design and frustration factor, in initial play. I would say that almost all of these problems have been fixed for its sequel, and while its frantic flowing style of gameplay is still very present, there is an absolute tonne in here that separates the two games very significantly.
Rather than a traditional menu, all of the game modes can be accessed within the hub map of Windmill Island, and within the map, small RPG style rooms and docks that Sonic can walk around in, and talk to people such as Tails, Blaze, new character Marine, and her various Koala-based friends that the team meet along the way. Great to see new NPC's that aren't humans, even if they do all have to be the same animal. It would seem that the powers that be are determined to make RPG style gameplay work alongside Sonic's usual running and jumping shenanigans, to help freshen the series. There will always be those that are dead set against it - the annoying, bitching type of people that never want Sonic to do anything that he didn't do prior to 1995, and I admit I was eager to plough through the initial ten minutes of story scenes and training sequences to get to the action. But after that, I think those two main modes, and the sailing (which I'll get to in a minute) gel quite well together to form a neat little adventure, and the game certainly feels deeper and longer as a result.
Seven levels, two acts and a 3D boss each, and all very similar to how things were done in the first game, but there are many notable differences that any discerning Sonicologist will be able to spot, and to me, just about all of them are for the better - Except perhaps for the control system. It's the same basic thing, but the X button is now unused, and B is used to perform combo tricks while in the air, although the R button still does tricks while grinding and dashing across or up, aswell. It's a bit fiddly and confusing at first, but you get used to it. Thankfully the pinpoint tight movement controls of your character remain the same.
The wonderful level design more than makes up for that. Their locations are more original, with bright colours and the environments are full of stuff, compared to the slightly empty feeling I got in the first installment. Speed is still of the essence, and I felt that my bursts of speed flowed a bit better, and for longer. There are more level-specific objects ("gimmicks", if you prefer), and loads more occasions where Sonic's 3D model is used to great effect, popping in and out of the layout, and even indulging in the occasional, completely 3D segment, such as hopping between adjacent grinding rails. There are so many new, innovative moments that I think most fans will enjoy. The focus on enemies is back to being just right, with almost no health bars in sight, and none of those areas where you have to beat a group of them to pass through.
Perhaps most importantly, someone over there at Sega or Dimps or wherever has finally said "Hey, yanno what.. there's too many death drops these days, lets do something about it".. hallelujah. They're still there, but occur much less frequently, particularly in the earlier levels, and even later on, I still felt that their inclusion was reasonably fair. As a result however, the game does feel alot easier, probably quite a bit too easy, in fact, and most of the levels feel at least a minute too short too. While they're still very entertaining and keep you on your toes, and I infinitely prefer too easy to having challenges that are just too difficult, there just weren't as many particularly tricky bits for me to get stuck on for a little while as I would have liked. I never actually got a Game Over - something I was getting all the time in SR1, and if the levels were played one by one, with nothing in between, you could probably race through, even on your first time, in little more than an hour or even less. I beat all levels and the final boss by the end of my first day.
What's more, I don't think I even lost a life on any of the bosses, and that was definately not the case for the bosses in SR1, whose dodgy ring loss system made me want to throw the damn DS out the window in unbelievable frustration. That problem is fortunately very much fixed, and the bosses actually have both an easy and normal difficulty setting in the options. Mine was on easy so that might have explained it. Still, they remain very interesting challenges that really break the boundaries of anything we've seen before in Sonic bosses. Multiple routes in the levels are of a similar style to original. Plenty of places where you can see separations, but I don't think many of them last all that long, but I'm sure there's plenty more for me to explore yet.
The sailing was an area that I thought might not have been fully refined, but as it turns out, it's just as well implemented. Four very different crafts lead to significantly different methods of play, from Special-Stage-like moving and ring collecting, to firing at enemies by touching them with the stylus, and they all travel for different maximum lengths and over different surfaces, etc. They're necessary for travel to the different islands that house the levels, and Tails builds the crafts one by one from different amounts of materials that you can gather by completing each act. You often end up needing more than what one playthrough of any level will give you though, so you must either do the level again (which is something I would do anyway, but there was something about the fact that the story seemed to force you to do it that didn't quite sit right with me), or you can explore many of the hidden islands on the great, sea map. These contain small, fresh chunks of level that are either of a special seaside location, or based on the appearance of one of the full levels. This is a great addition that helps to make up for the lack of the length in them, and some of them are actually quite a bit harder too. The whole thing reminds me alot of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker actually, which is also a great game.
Story scenes are numerous and mostly take place using images of the characters and text, like in Sonic Rush, but this time 3D sequences are also used to convey any significant action. Marine is the new Raccoon girl and she certainly has alot of life in her, decorating her many sentences with a barrage of crazy Australian phrases (some of which I've never heard in my life, so they possibly may have been made up entirely). For anyone who was wondering why this game was given an age rating of 12 for bad language, it's because Marine uses the word "bugger" on four different occasions. Probably intended to be perfectly innocent, but of course over here in Britain, it's something of a mild swear word, which Americans may not be aware of. It's rather funny that probably that one word caused the whole game to be inaccessible to anyone below the age of 12 without their parents handy. Anyway, Marine's childish naivity, bossiness and excitability ceratinly makes the other characters seem quite a bit less interesting, but it doesn't take long for her to get on your nerves.
Beyond the main story, there's more extra stuff to do than in any previous 2D Sonic game. On top of the hidden islands, you also get 100 extra missions to complete (containing all the usual suspects), and Chaos Emeralds and Sol Emeralds to collect, which seem to open up the inevitable extra boss encounter (which I haven't unlocked yet). No Special Stages this time though, Sol Emeralds are collected by beating harder versions of the bosses as Blaze, and Chaos Emeralds are won by beating "Johnny", the simplistically-named torpedo robot, at jet ski races. Incidentally, Blaze does not have her own story, she joins the others when they meet her in storymode, and from then on, you can simply choose to play as either Sonic or Blaze. Good news for me - I hardly ever play as Blaze in Sonic Rush.
What else..? Oh yeah. Good soundtrack. Not amazing, but good, and better than Sonic Rush's very unorthodox one. This is from the same sort of vein, but features much more traditional, catchy Sonic style tracks. Good to see that each act has a different variation of the same tune aswell, rather than just a separate one for each character. The way it should be.
This is a bit of a historic week in Sonic history, as it marks his first official foray into proper online gaming, but I can't believe Sonic 2 on XBox Live Arcade pipped this game to the post by merely 2 days! Unbelievable, but regardless, the online competition in SRA is perfect. I've had a few races and there's been no lag whatsoever (unlike for Tails in Sonic 2), and I'm thrilled that it's even here - I was honestly expecting it to not make an appearance in the end. You know how Sonic Team are with letting us down on the little things. I'm returning to Uni tomorrow where there isn't a wireless connection, so if you want to play against me before then, be quick and enter my ID: 1007-7113-9238-4000, for when I can find the time to play for a bit, and whenever I'm home.
Overall, Sonic Rush Adventure is a superb game, that, at least on initial play, is way better than its predecessor in my opinion. However, what's important to me is its lasting appeal over the months and years that I'll return to it now and then for a play, at which point it can be properly compared to the other games of the series. It's a shame the levels are so short and easy, in fact I dare say this could be the easiest Sonic platformer we've ever seen, and it remains to be seen if this will impact much on its lasting appeal. That doesn't mean for a second though that it isn't a fun, innovative and highly enjoyable experience that is deepened tremendously by its sailing aspect and a not-too-overwhelmining smidgen of RPG. It's all so well thought out and the developers have really softened every corner, which is a sight for sore eyes in these modern times. Dimps may have kicked off for us the start of Sonic's return to the top, or at least a more comfortable alcove on the mountain of gaming.
By the way, Hill Top Zone isn't far off completion now. More people are flocking to this place to find out Sonic 2 info for its XBLA version, so I'll try to build it up as quickly as I can.
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