Why do we need another GBA Sonic game? Because the 3D console games keep getting worse.
Sonic and his friends at Dimps sure seem to love the Game Boy Advance. Sonic Advance 1 and 2 were spectacular games that jump-started the hedgehog’s fading spirit and reminded gamers of why they love Yuji Naka’s creation. While Sonic Advance 3 has some disagreeable moments, Dimps and Sonic Team have created another excellent side-scroller with a special focus on variety.
The big addition in Sonic Advance 3 is the Sonic Factory, letting players pick any two of the five characters as a leader or partner. The game uses the same basic controls found in Sonic Advance 2, with the computer-controlled partner character loosely following the player’s moves (think Sonic 2). I was initially deterred by the two-character system, still bitter from Sonic Heroes. I found the two-character tag moves, which are assigned to R and must be charged before use, to be too clunky for time-critical situations. I was also annoyed with my partner for running ahead and triggering a vehicle or platform prematurely, causing me to either wait or run off-screen for it to regenerate.
However, unlocking new characters reveals a more pleasant side to the tag-team system. Partner characters don’t just provide alternate special moves: they can also modify the player character’s skills! For instance, picking Knuckles as Tails’ partner makes the fox glide instead of fly. Having Knuckles help out Amy makes the spunky girl’s hammer more powerful and spring-loaded. Letting Amy tag along causes the leader to attack with her signature hammer and sacrifice the spin-jump, though Tails gets a significant aerial boost for his trouble. Some standard moves from the first two Sonic Advance games are reserved for certain teams, such as the mid-air trick or the previously mentioned hammer jump. The team chosen also affects which paths may be trekked: only Knuckles’ power can bust down certain walls, and flight characters can make many sections more easily accessible. If you have a friend with his own copy of Sonic Advance 3, the main game can also be played cooperatively with player two controlling the partner character.
The game’s level design is inconsistent, though not nearly as badly as in any of Sonic’s recent console games. Paths through each level are intertwined masterfully, putting classic Sonic levels to shame. Interactive gadgets are placed intelligently to guide the player and make each trip through a unique experience. However, a handful of the game’s twenty-one acts rely far too heavily on such gimmicks. In these levels, Sonic Advance 3 becomes a tedious battle against unforgiving controls as the player breaks walls and hits switches mindlessly littered about to ensure a slow progression through the level. To be fair, though, the few levels I initially despised grew on me as I explored alternate paths with different teams. To complement the less impressive levels, each zone’s acts and boss battle are strangely connected via a hub. The hub also contains transporters to two mini-games and the Sonic Factory. Didn’t Sonic Team learn on the Dreamcast that Sonic and hubs don’t mesh?
Dimps has finally found the perfect balance between exploration and approachability for unlocking the special stages. Sonic Advance 1’s special stages were too easy to find, while Sonic Advance 2’s seven unsaved emblems per act deterred even the most hardcore Sonic fans from completing the game. In Sonic Advance 3, each zone’s special stages is unlocked by finding ten hiding chao dispersed through the associated hub and three acts. Once all ten are found, keys used to enter the special stage can be swiped from any of the zone’s three acts. The hiding chao are saved to memory when found, making chao hunts a challenging but pleasant diversion.
The music isn’t as compelling as in the first two Sonic Advance games. All of a zone’s acts and its hub have music based on the same theme, which isn’t unusual for a Sonic game, but some variations don’t distinguish themselves well enough. That isn’t to say the songs are bad—the soundtrack is still better than most. The game includes atmospheric, laid-back tunes and as well as some catchier jam sessions. One rockin’ song even resembles a quality Castlevania remix! However, some of the arrangements are mediocre, and the later boss tracks are especially weak. Dimps and Sonic Team should be commended for reserving the game’s voice samples for less frequent events.
Sonic Advance 3’s team system both sweetens and sours the gameplay experience, and a few of the game’s acts stick out as inferior, but the game is worthy of any Sonic fan’s collection. If you liked either of the first two Sonic Advance games, you should give this one a spin-dash too.