Is this really a collection of gems, or is it all plastic jewelry? Find out inside.
Sonic sure loves Nintendo sleepovers. With Sonic Gems Collection, Sega has ensured that almost every game featuring the blue hedgehog can be found on the GameCube. Sonic Mega Collection, the Sonic Adventure ports, and Sonic Heroes were so successful commercially that the company would be crazy not to run the ell dry. Sonic Gems is visibly scraping the bottom of the barrel, though, testing the limits of character fandom.
Unlike Sonic Mega Collection, where the flagship titles shared much in common, Sonic Gems collection is a grab-bag of games widely varying in gameplay and quality. Writing one review for this collection is impractical and unfair, so instead I present a parade of mini-reviews:
Sonic CD (Sega CD 1993, PC 1995)
Sonic CD is easily the most anticipated game on this compilation and was originally expected to appear in Sonic Mega Collection. Sonic CD came out on the ill-fated Sega CD attachment for the Sega Genesis, using the system's additional resources to produce more varied backgrounds and a rich Red Book audio soundtrack. Sonic CD is known for its anime intro and ending sequences and for introducing both Metal Sonic and Sonic's sort-of-sweetheart, Amy. Sonic CD in SGC is actually a conversion of the Windows 95/98 edition re-release, which is identical except for a friendlier menu interface.
Sonic CD includes familiar Sonic platforming with controls and level design somewhere between Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. In addition to running fast, Sonic can perform a Spin Dash (down + A) or rev up on his feet with the Super Peelout move (up + A). Sonic fans may notice that the hedgehog handles slightly differently from the Genesis classics in Sonic CD. The Spin Dash takes a few seconds to charge—a change likely introduced when the developers realized how useless the peelout maneuver otherwise would have been. Perhaps they should not have balanced the controls, because releasing the Spin Dash too early and going nowhere quickly gets annoying. On the positive side, Sonic turns around much faster in Sonic CD to facilitate the levels' slower-paced, more precise platforming.
The big new feature in Sonic CD is time travel. Dr. Robotnik has invaded the mysterious Little Planet and plots to use the world's time stones to manipulate history in his favor. Sonic must travel through time using the Time Warp in order to uproot Eggman's operations. By touching signs tagged "Past" or "Future" and then running fast for a prolonged period of time, Sonic will blast into another time period. Some of the levels minimally vary among the time periods, but even so the variations certainly add longevity. There are even two variations on the future—if Sonic destroys the pod generating enemies in the past, he will instantly destroy the level's enemies and create a good future. It is a shame Sega could not make the time-travel transition less distracting back on the Sega CD (it abruptly triggers a stock animation and loading screen).
As one would expect, Sonic CD also contains a pseudo-3D bonus stage. Wait, don't cringe yet! Thanks to the Sega CD's extra memory and power, players can actually judge distances fairly well. The special stage takes place in an arena slightly resembling a Super Mario Kart battle stage. The floor contains traps, water pools, and other details to use as reference points as the player guides Sonic through the open environment, chasing down and destroying UFOs traveling on predefined paths. The special stage has a time limit, which is diminished when Sonic steps in water and (sometimes) extended when he destroys a UFO.
Sonic CD is a good game, but it is not the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be. At times the level design lacks cohesion, causing confusion and frustration, and it tends to suffer from blind-spike syndrome more frequently than the average Sonic game. Maintaining speed for the Time Warp can be difficult in more congested areas, and I could swear one of the last levels has a dead-end in the past. Finally, the boss battles against Robotnik are thoroughly simplistic, leaving one to wonder how he could even pose a threat. Sonic CD also provides good examples of why Nintendo shied away from its own SNES CD attachment. While Sonic CD has more detailed graphics than the Genesis is capable of alone, the upgrade is not compelling. Also, the excellent soundtrack's atmospheric and pseudo-rock tracks distractingly fade out and restart instead of seamlessly looping. Sound effects fail to trigger on occasion, too.
Even with some setbacks, Sonic CD's interesting level variations, excellent soundtrack, and a solid time attack mode make it an excellent addition to a Sonic fan's collection. Revisiting this game was a pleasure.
Sonic the Fighters - a.k.a. Sonic Championship (Arcade, 1996)
Now here's an obscure game! It seems Sonic beat Mario to the all-star fighting genre by three years, because this is one-on-one fighting game featuring all of the favorites! The roster includes Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Robotnik, Amy and Metal Sonic, as well as odd picks such as Nack (Fang) the Weasel from Sonic Triple Trouble on the Game Gear and Espio from Knuckles Chaotix (who recently re-entered the limelight in Sonic Heroes). The game also introduces two new characters: a polar bear named Bark and a bird named Bean.
Sonic the Fighters is a standard 3D fighting game based on the Virtua Fighter (1) engine which makes heavy use of button sequences for powerful moves. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of most fighting games—especially those that heavily rely on memorization—making Sonic the Fighters squarely outside my field of expertise. Nonetheless, this game is among the three major titles in the compilation, and I would be doing readers a disservice by not discussing it.
Frankly, I find the game's controls severely lacking. Players can crouch (down), jump (up), block with a shield (B), punch (A) and kick (X). Naturally, combo moves make use of all of these. Players can also throw their enemy (L), sneak behind an opponent (A+B), and recover from a throw quickly (A+B+X). The button layout isn't the problem, though. Responsiveness is key, and Sonic the Fighters is abysmally sluggish. Characters move slowly, recover slowly, and generally feel detached from the action. Then again, I've felt similarly about other popular traditional fighting games, so keep my disclaimer in mind.
With so many special moves (that I can never remember), there does seem to be some depth to the fighting system. It is hard to call the game a button masher, since some moves are clearly better than others for countering or avoiding moves. For example, an aerial attack probably isn't a good idea when Bean's ballistic bombs are in play. However, even with my limited skills I found the character balancing suspect. For instance, Bark may be incredibly slow, but his strength can still overpower all but the most agile characters. Of course, Bark cannot duck, making him susceptible to Nack's gun, but two one-sided match-ups do not make one balanced competition.
The game features rudimentary 3D graphics that were probably impressive for the time, but the minimal texture work makes it plain by today's standards. The sound is similarly mundane, with generic "fighting game" music and unremarkable sound effects. As is all too common in fighting games, every fighting arena plays identically. At least AM2 included some mildly amusing animations.
Sonic The Fighters is absolutely no fun alone, but its abundance of moves and familiar characters make it a passable if unexciting multiplayer time-killer in short intervals. If you and your friends can memorize a bucket-load of special moves, then for you there may be more to the game than I recognize.
Sonic R (Sega Saturn 1997/PC 1998)
Sonic R is another lesser known game from a time that left the blue hedgehog behind. The concept makes perfect sense—after all, what is more befitting of Sonic and Co. than a 3D foot race? Sadly, a sound concept alone is not enough for a good game, and Traveller's Tales fails to deliver on many things one would hope from a Sonic racing game.
Firstly, in spite of an excellent framerate, the sense of speed in this game is non-existent. Sonic trots—need I say more? Secondly, the controls are shoddy. If you are foolish enough to play with poor weather conditions, the analog stick, or Tails, your character will handle like a borracho at a sobriety checkpoint. If you avoid these three pitfalls the controls are passable, though you'll still overcompensate somewhat frequently. Forward or B accelerates, pushing L or R helps the character turn more sharply, and A performs a jump or other special move, depending on the character. Unfortunate racers may ram directly into a wall, revealing the controls' biggest oversight: there is no reverse. This means the player must slooooowly turn around, making it nearly impossible to recover. Running into walls can even lead to bugs: As Sonic I got stuck in a double-jump against a wall once, unable to turn myself around.
Poor controls are compounded by substandard track design. Courses are too bloated for their own good, with secret paths and cubbies that may or may not lead anywhere useful. Many of these secrets areas are guarded by a door that only opens with enough rings, further confusing the issue. Then there is the course without a clearly defined main path, making it difficult to distinguish between 180-degree turns and dead ends. This is largely a camera problem, and even those familiar with the course may find themselves disoriented if they fall somewhere undesirable. The game does have an on-screen map, but it could be better described as a useless ball of tangled spaghetti thanks to the aforementioned non-linearity.
The confusing course accommodates the brilliant inclusion of out-of-the-way collectables in the single player grand prix—which consists of one course, in case you were confused. Stashed within the grand prix are five tokens and one or more chaos emeralds. Finding an emerald and placing in first is a reasonable enough challenge, but trying to find all of the tokens and place high is not an appealing prospect. The game offers a similarly rubbish "collect five balloons" mode in multiplayer, as well as a standard race. Besides the GP, solo players may play the time trial, collect those darn balloons, or chase down and touch computer opponents in a game of tag.
Those who thought Sega was emulating the Saturn can relax, because the GameCube version of Sonic R is actually based on the PC conversion. This means Sonic R in Sonic Gems Collection has more detailed environments, smoother graphics, and four-player support. The game also features upbeat music sung by T.J. Davis. The soulful pop isn't bad (except for some of the lyrics), but most of the songs do not fit the gameplay or locales.
Sonic R isn't despicable, but its dubious controls, confusing level design, and mere five courses pry Sonic R into novelty status. If you are looking for a good Sonic racing game, stick with Sonic Adventure 2: Battle for the GameCube.
Although Sonic Adventure DX includes all of the Game Gear games found in Sonic Gems Collection, they were so difficult to unlock that many fans (who do not also own Sonic Mega Collection Plus) will appreciate their inclusion in this compilation. What's more, Sonic Gems Collection includes a quick save/load feature and eight persistent save slots shared among the emulated games.
Some of the Game Gear games, such as Sonic Spinball and Sonic Drift 2 (which plays like a cruder version of OutRun, are not worth anyone's time. However, others are entertaining enough to hold one's attention.
SGC contains two Sonic Game Gear platformers: Sonic Triple Trouble and Sonic 2. Sonic the Hedgehog Triple Trouble accommodates the Game Gear's small screen surprisingly well, incorporating levels mindful of the screen's resolution and allowing gamers to play as the more manageable Tails. Sonic 2 is still better than most of Sonic's Game Gear outings, but compared to Triple Trouble, the older game suffers gravely from its more horizontal level design, poorly-calibrated camera and overall abundance of speed.
Tails' Sky Patrol avoids such woes by avoiding attempts to replicate console or arcade gameplay. Tails' Sky Patrol is an entertaining action/puzzle game featuring Tails and his trusty hookshot-esque power ring. Tails must grab tools and swing off poles with his ring to navigate through the levels and defeat his enemies. The game is surprisingly difficult, but the emulator's save feature keeps aggravation to a minimum.
Tails pulls through with another sleeper hit in Tails Adventures. Like Sky Patrol, Tails Adventures abandons Sonic mechanics for a more laid-back style better suited to the platform. Tails cannot spin-jump or spin-dash. Instead Tails must save his island home from invading robots using his ability to fly and the gadgets he builds or finds during his adventure. Tails can carry up to four tools at a time with offensive, defensive, or other special features useful for thwarting baddies and providing ways to grab more goodies in earlier areas. The controls are a tad clumsy, but the game's pacing makes them manageable.
Sega has also included two Genesis games: Vectorman and its sequel. Both are standard, unoriginal shoot-em-up platformers that somehow remind me of Earthworm Jim—only without the charisma needed to distract players from mediocre gameplay. Both games earn the dubious award of having the most blatant seizure-inducing flashes I've ever encountered. When Vectorman destroys an item box, the entire screen rapidly flickers between the game's darker tone to a bright white for roughly three seconds. The phenomenon is so painful that I wound up turning my head before destroying every box until I simply became fed up with such "exciting" graphics. (The sequel's cheap level design didn't help, either.) How Sega escaped criticism for this in the nineties is beyond me, and I seriously question Sega's decision to expose a new generation of gamers to such dangerous light patterns without at least a special in-game warning.
Sonic Gems Collection is packed with rare games, but "rare" is frequently confused with "good". Is this disc interesting enough to rent? Absolutely. Is it worth $30? Not really. Even at $20, a Sonic aficionado should only make a purchase if he does not own (a playable copy of) Sonic CD and the better Game Gear games. I just hope Sega restrains itself from re-releasing Knuckles Chaotix or Sonic Shuffle anytime soon.