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Sunday, October 9, 2011

In Retrospective - Sonic Advance

Sonic Advance is the closest Sega ever came to a true Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Now, I'll be honest: I do like Sonic the Hedgehog 4 for what it is. However, it just changed too many things while basically completely ripping off previous zones to really deserve the title. Sonic Advance feels far closer to classic Sonic: Sonic doesn't run quite at the speed of sound, there's 2 acts per zone, each zone actually has "Zone" in the title, Eggman being at the end of the last act as opposed to in a separate stage, no map screens, no switching characters mid-adventure, etc, etc. It seems like Sega knew what people wanted and delivered...for the first few zones anyways. Unfortunately, the latter zones, while still decent, really flesh out the differences between this Sonic and the one of yesteryear.

Controls - For the first three zones, the game feels more classic than modern. The stage design feels closest to Sonic 2 with fast paced sections mixed with a few slow bits and fairly quick Acts. Sonic feels slightly more sluggish than usual - he takes quite a bit of time to accelerate to top speed, although it's nowhere near as bad as Sonic 4. He also DOES have a few new moves. He can grind like in Sonic Adventure 2, but the ability isn't really used often. He can use his somersault, also like in Sonic Adventure 2 although it never seems to come in handy since you're generally moving fast enough to just press down and roll through hazards instead. Finally, he has an air dash performed by pressing the d-pad twice in mid air. I didn't find out about this until the 3rd Zone in this run through. Clearly, it's been 10 years since this game came out and if I didn't find out about it until now, chances are it's worthless. That leaves the same moves Sonic had in Sonic 3.

Knuckles and Tails return and pretty much handle exactly as they always have albeit with a melee attack assigned to the B button. Amy can't spin dash and can't jump directly on foes. She sucks. Once you beat the game with her once, you'll never feel the need to play as her again.

Gameplay - Now, for the actual game. Neo Green Hill Zone is the usual...well, zone with green hills...that typically starts Sonic games. It feels most like Emerald Hill Zone to me, which is not a bad thing. It's a perfect zone to say "Sonic's back in 2D" after a very long hiatus. Hidden Base Zone feels like an easier Metropolis Zone. However, there are enough gameplay differences and graphical differences to make it feel original, such as the removal of crushers and the inclusion of poles you spin on. Again, it feels very much like it walked out of Sonic 2. Casino Paradise Zone is like a hybrid of Casino Night and Carnival Night. Even some of the enemies are the same. I'd like to note that there are no slot machines here. In fact, there's almost no actual Casino elements in the Zone - just lots of those moving blocks and conveyors found in Casino Night. Again, it feels very much like Sonic 2 without feeling like a clone. It's a good balance between originality and nostalgia.

Then we get to Ice Mountain Zone. Act 1 is fine. It basically feels like if Ice Cap Zone were guessed it...Sonic 2. Act 2, however, REALLY shows you how sluggish the controls are. This act features extended underwater sections. Water hinders Sonic's mobility making him slower. This is common in Sonic games. What's different here is how much slower he is. Handling Sonic underwater is downright frustrating. When moving platforms become involved, you find yourself jumping way in advance of when you think you should. I'd honestly say Sonic becomes nearly three times slower underwater. Combine this with enemies that pop out of walls with almost no warning and you've got a recipe for cheap hits. Until this point in the game, I hadn't died. I lost 3 lives on this act because it seemed like every time I thought I was compensating for Sonic's slowness, he'd grow even slower than I remembered. It REALLY doesn't help when the boss fight is underwater. You pretty much have to jump as soon as the icicles he rains from the ceiling fall. Even though they look way too high, by the time Sonic gets his chili-dog loving ass in gear, they'll almost be too low.

Up next is Angel Island Zone. This has nothing to do with Sonic 3's Angel Island Zone as it's more like Sky Sanctuary. In fact, it's not even made clear why we're in Angel Island but then again, it's not clear why we're in any zone in Sonics 1-2. This zone seems to be built on one thing: cheap hits. There's so many spikes that randomly pop out of the floor, moving platforms that crush you against a ceiling that's not visible until it's too late, and springs that shoot you to a tiny platform you won't notice until you go sailing past. I got a game over in Act 2 (seeing as how I only had 1 life after the Ice Mountain Zone Act 2 disaster) which brings up another point: this game is overly forgiving WHILE it's screwing you over. It's as if the game designers went "Huh, you know. People might get pissed if we send them back to the beginning of the zone because we made a platform come from nowhere and crush them." "Do you think we should remove the platform?" "Nah, just make them go back to the beginning of the act when they get a game over!" Seriously, getting a game over is like a slap on the wrist. "Oh no, I lost 2 minutes of hard work!" You never feel like you're actually punished for failure but then again, that failure sometimes isn't even your own fault. Basically, the solution is to reduce the number of pure bullshit deaths. I know Sonic games have always had their cheap moments with spikes popping up from nowhere but this game goes overboard.

Next up is Egg Rocket Zone Act 1. This level kicked my ass as a kid but I found it to be quite easy this time around. The biggest problem is that it's a maze. I'm fine with mazes, but there are times in this stage where you don't know you're going backwards until you suddenly realize you've been here two minutes ago. The act is unique and it gets points for that: There's 3 "stages" of the rocket with a 5 minute time limit for section. However, it's long. I'm fine with long acts - Sonic 3 is full of them. However, having an act that's almost 3 times longer than any other level in the game is kind of odd.

Next is Cosmic Angel Zone Act 2. Why they didn't just drop the Act numbers and call them separate zones like Sky Chase and Wing Fortress is anybody's guess but oh well. For being a last level, it's not really that hard or nearly as cheap as the previous levels. It's pretty fun. The boss can be annoying and it REALLY kicked by butt as a kid but I've since realized how to actually fight him.

Finally, there's X Zone. It starts with fighting the first bosses of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. I like those bosses and I always kind of saw it as a joke that Eggman would use his most half-assed inventions against you at the very end. My only complaint was that Sonic 3 was left out. As for the real boss, I thought he was hard until I realized a very simple strategy: Duck against the opposite wall. If he fires a bomb, quickly jump over it and go back to ducking. If he uses his arm, wait to jump until he fires (no shit). If he uses his laser, it'll miss you as long as you duck. Just wait until he moves across and hit him. Rinse and repeat. Game beaten!

Well, not quite. There are special springs in Act 1 of each zone that take you to the special stage where you can get Chaos Emeralds. These special stages are hands down the worst in any Sonic game. The depth perception is mind-numbingly awful. I can't even beat the first one. Thank God they fixed this shit for the other two games.

Music - The music is ok. Some tunes are catchy although nowhere near as catchy as any of the Genesis tunes. The sound quality, however, is horrendous. I know the GBA doesn't sound too well, but this game really seems to flesh that out. It does get bonus points for continuing the Act 2 remixing Act 1 trend that would move on throughout the rest of the Advance games.

Overall, the game starts off really strong but gets more annoying as it goes along. It's not a bad game by any means - it's quite good. It just doesn't live up to the expectations set by previous titles in the series. Now, I suppose that's obvious, but when it was released, keep in mind it was the first new 2D Sonic game since Sonic and Knuckles. Still, it at least upheld more Genesis-era conventions than its successors. In fact, it quite literally is the transition between the Genesis games and the more modern 2D games - the early zones being the Genesis years and the later zones being the more luck/memory/pit based stuff seen in Advance 2, 3, Rush, and Rush Adventure. For better or worse, it changed 2D Sonic as we knew him.

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