Today, June 23rd, marks the 20th Anniversary of the release of Sonic The Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis.
(Thus the recent focus on the series, naturally!)
So, Happy Birthday, Sonic! Keep on running!
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I left for Japan in the summer of 2004, bringing with me only the essentials—my Nintendo Gamecube, my Game Boy Advance, a collection of manuals and CDs, and Miles "Tails" Prower. For the little two-tailed fox, the trip must have been quite a surreal experience: he had originally been imported from Japan, after all. For me, Japan was at once new and familiar: everything seemed to recall the shadows of old memories, once thought lost in the misty corners of a three-year-old's memory.
The move to Japan may have been a drastic change of scenery, but any culture shock I could have potentially felt was lost in the challenges of living alone for the first time. Nevertheless, I slowly but surely built a life for myself.
One person who was a great support during the first few years was a fellow English teacher, a fiery, tomboyish young woman who lived in a neighboring city. Ours was a bizarre friendship: our personalities were so completely opposite that we were ironically perfectly matched. She was, like me, a huge fan of Japanese popular culture—and of video games. We would talk for hours about a variety of topics, and we also shared games and series that we enjoyed with one another. It was she who convinced me to read Harry Potter—and was willing to talk critically about the books. It was she who told me about Eragon and her dismal opinion of the series. Together we discovered Tales of Symphonia, 「鋼の錬金術師」 (Full Metal Alchemist) and 戦国無双 (Samurai Warriors). One of the games that I introduced to her, and that she found surprisingly fun to play, was Sonic Advance 3.
Sonic Advance 3 was brilliantly designed. The story involved Eggman using the power of the chaos emeralds to split the world apart. Separated from their friends, Sonic and Tails had to work together to find their companions and stop Eggman. Not much new in the story department, yes. What was unique, however, was the way in which Sonic and Tails worked as a team. Not only did they run through the levels together, and not only could they call on one another for support, they also had unique abilities that they could only use when paired with one another. The same was true for any pairing of characters: along with Sonic and Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Cream were also available to use. The game was so good, and the play style so creative, that I forgave Cream's presence in this title. Along with great play control, a fun system, and a clever way to collect chaos emeralds, the game also had polished graphics and spectacularly good music. The nod to the Green Hill Zone was a nice touch.
And, furthermore, the game had an excellent two-player mode.
With the help of a game link cable and an extra cart, Sonic Advance 3 could be played with a firend (even if the cartridges were of different regions!). When played together, each player took one character and raced through the levels as a team, helping eachother reach the goal. If one player was killed, both players had to go back to a checkpoint, which made the going a little difficult. Having two screens, however, meant complete freedom of exploration: the players were not required to stay near one another. I, of course, played as Tails, while my friend used Knuckles, since she loved both the character and his Japanese voice actor (神奈 延年 [Nobutoshi Canna]). We finished the main story after a good day's worth of playing, and my friend remarked that she had had a spectacular amount of fun.
While I was enjoying myself, however, most Sonic fans were growing restless. They were not entirely without good reason, either: the next big Sonic series title was Shadow The Hedgehog, and it featured the Sonic's black-spined rival as the game's weapon-toting main character. The game had its moments, but it was awkward to play and exceptionally dark and brooding. The music was also appropriately dark, though one piece, "Chosen One" by A2, was just fantastic. The creators reportedly hoped to spin Shadow off into his own franchise, but fan backlash quickly put an end to that dream.
The next release, Sonic Gems Collection, was well-received, largely because it was a compilation of rare older titles such as Sonic CD, Sonic R, and Sonic The Fighters, a Sega CD title, a Sega Saturn title, and an arcade title, respectively. I found myself primarily playing Sonic R, at last able to enjoy the game's music.
I thoroughly enjoyed (and completed) Sonic Riders for the Gamecube after I got used to the controls, but was unimpressed by Sonic Rush for the new Nintendo DS, particularly due to the title's insistence on adding another new character, Blaze the Cat.
These new characters, by the way, was becoming a sore point for Sonic fans in the United States. The ever-expanding cast seemed to be taking the focus away from Sonic and making the world unneccessarily convoluted. Sonic fans complained loudly about Sonic The Hedgehog for Xbox and PS3. I never had a chance to play the title, but dismal reviews did not have me running to the stores. Fans also complained about Sonic and the Secret Rings. I did buy that title, but I found its exceptionally strange controls difficult to use and soon gave up on it. This all happened on near Sonic's 15th anniversary. To celebrate the date, a lot of merchandise was released. I still proudly wear my Sonic T-Shirt, and my Sonic statuette stands proudly on my shelves.
Sonic Rush Adventure, another DS game, was a title that I never even picked up. I was content with replaying the Sonic Advance titles, the Sonic Adventure series, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles; the original Sonic Rush just hadn't cut it for me. Sonic's sales were flagging in Japan despite the Sonic X animated series. After Sonic Rush Adventure, 小学館 (Shougakukan) ceased releasing Japanese Sonic strategy guides (a shame, too; Japanese guides are exceptionally good, and I would have loved to see books for the next several releases, since I'm something of a collector).
The Sonic X animated series seemed to have given Sonic a boost in the States, though: when I would travel home, Sonic suddenly had a place on toy store shelves. Going to English fansites, in contrast, had now become quite an experience. Fans were screaming for Sonic to return to his roots, for series to cut out all of the extra characters, for games to feature only Sonic and Eggman. Sega seemed inclined to listen.
In the meantime, however, 2008 came, and brought with it the Summer Olympics. The gaming world seemed to explode when Nintendo and Sega announced that Sonic would be joining Mario in a video game version of the Beijing Olympics, entitled 「マリオ&ソニック AT 北京オリンピック」 (Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games).
I was excited, but doubtful. Sonic would be completing in all of the events, it seemed. But what about the swimming events? Sonic can't swim!
When I bought the title and put it in, I was in for a surprise: the developers had thought of that, too. Sonic could indeed compete in the swimming events, but he wore a bright yellow life jacket and his swimming technique consisted of flailing about in the water. The fact that it was possible to make him flail more quickly than Princess Peach could do the breaststroke was just hilarious.
I was impressed.
The summer of 2008 was also the year that I was assistant coach of my high school's track and field club. The timing was great. I would meet my best friend through coaching track and field, and we occasionally would challenge eachother to 100-meter races on Mario and Sonic's turf. That game was a workout—it marked the first time that video gaming had ever given me muscle pain!
Gaming had, for me, finally become a social activity again. One of the most wonderful games to play with friends was Smash Brothers X (Smash Brothers Brawl in the states). Ever since I saw that Pit would be joining the roster, I was glued to the game's site, watching and waiting for any further announcements about the title.
The announcement that surprised me the most came shortly after the announement of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: Sonic would be joining the roster of characters in Smash Brothers X!
This was a dream come true. The hedgehog played well; his controls were spot-on (a given, since the title was overseen by Masahiro Sakurai). Not only that, but he had his own stage, a beautifully rendered Green Hill Zone. As icing on the cake, Jun Senoue created a special arrangement of the stage music for the Angel Island Zone from Sonic The Hedgehog 3!
Jun Senoue's composition was also given a CD release, on True Blue: The Best of Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic had enjoyed years of great music, and I soon made a point of gathering as many of the Sonic music CDs as I could—I now have a nearly complete collection. I was particularly happy to get my hands on Digi-Log Conversation, the soundtrack to Sonic Adventure. And I got it for a good price, too!
Something that came as a bit more of a surprise was finding a manual to Sonic The Hedgehog 2 in a warehouse-style store of used games, toys, and hobby goods. Such stores are common in Japan, and are a joy to walk through for collectors like me. When I opened the manual, I was blown away: the manual was bright and colorful, and full of story information, profiles, and concept art! I imediately set about collecting the other Genesis-era game manuals. With a good deal of effort, I eventually came into possession of the manuals for Sonic The Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3, as well as for Sonic CD, Sonic Spinball, and Sonic & Knuckles. All of the manuals are great reads, and all of them are rife with art. They, along with most of my other possessions, got shipped from Japan, and I wasn't able to sleep well until I had them safely here.
I had a few more Sonic titles to look forward to while I was in Japan, however. 「ソニック・ワールド・アドベンチャー」 (Sonic World Adventure, known as Sonic Unleashed in the US) was a spectacle of sight and sound. Stateside fans ripped it apart because of the clunky sections in which Sonic was transformed into a lumbering beast-like werehog, but I enjoyed the game a lot. I do have to admit, though, that the werehog stages wore thin after a while, particularly one stage in which the player has to jump across a series of tiny moving rafts using the extremely temperamental controls. Werehog Sonic has difficulty with small movements.
The daytime running stages, however, were phenomenally enjoyable. Playing them well is even more satisfying than racing through the stages of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle.
The music, too, is unbelievably good. Each area of the world features appropriate world music, created using real instruments. The violins that accompany Windmill Island were an early favorite, and each of the cities and villages, with their daytime and nighttime versions of their themes, are simple joys. I bought the soundtrack at the first possible opportunity, and the main theme, Endless Possibility, became my personal theme song during my last year at the high school where I spent the first five years of my Japanese working life.
Night of the Werehog, that is both entertaining and gorgeous to watch.
However, while Sonic World Adventure was a great game, Tails plays only a small role in the story, and Knuckles was nowhere to be seen. Sega soon announced Sonic The Hedgehog 4 as a downloadable program, but I found that game, too, lacking. Fans tore it apart because the physics engine was laughable; I just found it lonely. Sega seemed to be responding to fans' demands to get rid of all of the extra characters, but losing Tails and Knuckles is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fans adore Sonic 2 and Sonic 3; those games have Tails and Knuckles as playable characters! To me, any side-scrolling Sonic game in which Tails doesn't follow Sonic around is missing a key component of what makes Sonic so much fun. I think that yes, the series had expanded to give too many characters the spotlight, but I think that Sonic Advance had the balance just about right: I'd like to see a game featuring just Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. And maybe Amy, if for nothing more than to keep things interesting.
The years went by, and my CD and book collection grew. I found Sonic in unusual places, since the character often appeared in SEGA WORLD, Sega's chain of arcades. It was always fun to see Sonic on a welcome mat or Tails on the side of a coin exchanger. And then there was the old Sonic popcorn machine that I stumbled across while on a date in Nagoya.
Sonic and the Black Knight was released, but reviewers had already begun to complain about it before it was even released. I did not buy the game right away, but I did get the CD soundtrack after watching a promotional video. Drums, guitars, and violins seemed like an amazingly good aural combination. Say what you will about Sonic and the Black Knight: it has high production values. Not only is it full of fanart, but the music is just inspired. My best friend and I made a point of listening to it when he was driving, and he became particularly fond of Camelot, with its seemingly unending series of musical feints.
For my part, I love the references to earlier games, particularly the quiet, contemplative versions of It Doesn't Matter and Believe In Myself, performed on violin. And the use of the traditional piece Ash Grove as a menu theme was a brilliant choice. The soundtrack was a collaborative effort on the part of many artists, and their dedication shows. Both the composition and the instrumental performance was in a class by itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that I made my decision to buy the game because of the quality of the soundtrack. Unfortunately, I bought the game shortly before leaving Japan, so I have not had much change to play it. I am looking forward to taking it for a spin when I can finally hook my Wii back up.
Winter of 2009-2010 brought with it the Winter Olympics, and Sonic and Mario took to the slopes to compete with one another in 「マリオ&ソニック AT バンクーバーオリンピック」 (Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games). I love the Winter Olympics, and so I had great fun having Mario ski, Sonic snowboard, and Tails break records in figure skating. I only wish that figure skating had featured music from the Mario and Sonic series as selections to skate to.
My best friend and I also spent a good bit of time playing that game together, though he didn't become as fond of it as he had been of Mario and Sonic's summer outing.
Sonic Chronicles arrived. A DS game created by Bioware, Sonic Chronicles was a Sonic Role-Playing Game. The game was fun and the system creative, but the timed touchscreen battle controls were frustrating and really got in the way of gameplay for me. It was irritating to enter into a round of battle only to have all of my attacks fail, and the precision required for success made it unrealistic to attempt playing the game on a bus, train, or airplane. Sonic Chronicles eventually saw a release in Japan, but it remains virtually unknown there.
Near the end of my time in Japan, Sega gave me one more treat: Sonic Colors. It was, at last, a game that seemed to make the fans happy. Most of them, anyway—it, like nearly every Sonic game before it, has been the subject of much online derision. Seeing the online community react to Sonic Colors brought to mind one ironic tounge-in-cheek comment by a fan: "True Sonic fans hate every Sonic game." Cute.
Sonic Colors came close to the sweet spot for me. The game was lighthearted, and the levels were fast and colorful. Tails was not a playable character, but he figured prominently in the game's plot and was Sonic's constant companion. One of the most interesting things that I noted in the game was that the game's dialogue (and some story points) differed dramatically between the English and Japanese versions. For example, listened to in English, Sonic and Tails are sneaking into Eggman's amusement park, Sonic is convinced that Eggman is up to no good but Tails thinks he has reformed, and Sonic and Tails both take credit for victory by good-naturedly ribbing one another. In the Japanese version, Sonic and Tails walk into the amusement park as regular guests (the vehicle they enter with is used by all park guests), both Sonic and Tails are suspicious of Eggman's reformation from the start, and Sonic and Tails each insist that the other is responsible for their victory. Both versions of the dialogue are fun (the jokes in the Japanese are downright hilarious), but you'll need to understand Japanese to follow that script, since the English subtitles were made with the English script in mind.
The DS version of the game, too, was made with exceptionally high production values. There is an alternate version of the opening movie, the movies are of comparable quality to the Wii version, there is enough variety in the gameplay to keep both editions interesting, and the music is actually of the same level as the Wii version of the game.
Oh, did I mention that the music is spectacular?
I reserved Vivid Sound x Hybrid Colors, the Sonic Colors soundtrack, just before I left Japan for Christmas of 2010. The CD was due to be released the day before my flight, but the store actually provided me the music the day before its release date. I had been a good customer, too: my point card was so full that I got a $20 discount on the purchase. I immediately loaded it into my MP3 Player, and had something great to listen to on the long ride home. Sonic Colors was the highlight of that winter; my little cousin had also become a huge Sonic fan, so we played the Wii version a bit together at my aunt's house, and I polished off the DS version during that trip home.
Oh, and "Reach for the Stars" has become one of my favorite songs.
My last months in Japan were extremely bittersweet. It had been great to live and teach there, and I would miss my friends terribly. When I was packing things away, my best friend came over for one last round on the Wii before I put it in a big box and shipped it home. We played some 「戦国無双３」 (Samurai Warriors 3), which was a favorite of ours, and then I asked him to pick one last game, our very last to play together before I left.
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.
How appropriate for two people who had become friends through running.
We booted up the game and decided to challenge the 400-meter relay. We had never had great success with the event before, but this last day, we nailed it. We broke both the Olympic Record and the World Record that were set in-game. And then, after that last adventure, the Wii turned off, went into its box, and set out for the United States.
Of course, a big part of what made Japan so magical was the students. I loved teaching them, and even when they were obnoxious, I couldn't get enough of them. Furthermore, my students' familiarity with video game culture had allowed me to do some creative things in class. For example, shortly after the release of Sonic Colors, I was teaching a writing class to my high school seniors. Writing essays was not easy for them, but they had to do it for their college applications (which, by the way, are in the form of tests). Not only did they have to write essays, they had to do it in English.
One problem that was tripping them up was a question that asked them to write about a character from a book, movie, or other medium that had inspired them in some way. A lot of my kids said that most of what they read were manga (Japanese comics), and they thought that teachers would scoff at an essay about a comic book character. They struggled to come up with characters to choose whom they thought would impress college admissions.
I stopped them then and there. The importance of these essays, after all, was to be genuine: writing about something that was meaningless to you would be immediately transparent and would result in a weaker essay. If comic book characters had inspired them, they should by all means write about comic book characters. If they could support their ideas and write clearly, their essay would have an impact—and a personal touch. I vowed to give them an example the next day.
The next day, I came to class with a small bag. I set it on the table and said, "I would like to introduce you to the character who most inspires me: Miles Prower."
A few of the students looked up in interest: they knew who that was.
The rest of them became equally attentive when I lifted Tails out of the bag and set him on the table.
And I spoke.
I told them how Tails had been awkward; he had always been teased for his two tails, for being different. I, similarly, had not fit in when I was a kid, and so Tails resonated with me.
Tails found someone to look up to in Sonic, a person to aspire to and become friends with. I learned from Tails that I, too, should find role-models whom I could respect and trust. Tails found that in Sonic; I found it in the teachers who put so much effort into my education. I was set on the path toward being an educator.
Although Tails was always following Sonic, he wasn't content with being a fan and a burden; he found ways to support and help Sonic, becoming a valued friend without ever undermining his hero. I learned from Tails that it was important for me to give back, for me to help the people whom I so admired. I aspired to support others, to be useful without being disruptive. I became a director's assistant, a faculty aide, a team-teacher, a supporting cast member, the harmony in a chorus. I found that I was at my best when standing at another's side, rather than seizing the spotlight.
Tails admired Sonic, but he also came to recognize that Sonic's strengths were different from his own. Tails was not Sonic, he was Tails; he had his own unique skills and contributions to make. Sonic is the wind, speedy and effortless. Tails is electricity, the flash of inspiration. Tails's strength was in machines; he could build and design machines on a par with Eggman himself. Not only that, but Tails could fly. His two tails—the very thing that everyone had mocked about him—were actually his greatest strength. I learned from Tails that my weaknesses could actually become my strengths. I have a bizarre mind; I'll be the first to admit it. I always have three trains of thought going on in my brain at once. Connections would form between diverse concepts automatically; I would often get lost in my own imagination and was besieged by nightmares as a child. I would ask unusually abstract questions about mundane topics and baffle my teachers. Other kids, understandably, thought I was weird. But, just as Tails's two tails allowed him to reach new heights, having three mental processes always on the go allows me to look at problems from angles that others may not have considered. In theater, I was in my own element: three trains of thought meant that I could have one thinking as my character, one keeping track of the script, and one monitoring my acting. In writing, in art, thinking in a way that doesn't fit in with everyone else becomes the very definition of creativity. While abstract connections occasionally result in unusually long prose (like this five-part article), I believe that they serve me well.
When I finished talking, my students stared at me in amazement. They had never before heard someone talk about a fictional character in this way. The essays that they wrote that day were about their comic book heroes—and they were stronger than ever. Teachers came to me asking what I had done to so transform the students' writing.
"I introduced them to Miles," was my simple reply.
It has been a rocky road with Sonic and Tails, but they've been good to me. Sonic's 20th anniversary is nearly here. I don't know what Sonic Generations will bring, but one thing's for sure: it's going to be a wild ride.
I only hope it includes Tails, because that little fox has been with me during my rough middle school years, as I rediscovered myself in college, and as I expanded my horizons in Japan. I was very surprised to find, during my first two months back in the United States, that the thing I was most desperate to get from the boxes that I shipped was not my books or my CDs, or even my Nintendo Wii.
It was my Tails doll. I had felt guilty putting him in a box in the first place, and it gnawed at me as each day ticked by with no sign of my luggage.
Perhaps it's not the most widely accepted thing for a thirty-year-old male to admit, but it's true: my boxes finally arrived a little over a week ago, and the very first thing that I did was frantically tear open boxes until I found Tails. I'm not ashamed to admit that I clutched the little fox to me for a full thirty minutes after finally freeing him.
Welcome home, little buddy. I missed you.
Friday, June 17, 2011
At about the same time that I was rediscovering Sonic with Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was being released on the Nintendo Gamecube. There was no question about what I wanted for my 21st birthday.
I am sure that I would have loved Sonic Adventure 2: Battle whether I had played the previous title or not. However, since the two titles were tied together so well, I know that I appreciated the Gamecube title all the more because of Sonic Adventure.
Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was streamlined compared to its predecessor. There were no longer large adventure stages (which I missed terribly, though I am certainly in the minority on that point) or individual characters to select. This time, players chose either the Hero side, consisting of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, or the Dark side, consisting of Dr. Eggman and two new characters, Shadow The Hedgehog and Rouge The Bat. The two sides ran parallel to one another throughout the story, and when both sides were completed, a special final chapter opened up involving all six characters. The new characters played important roles in the plot: Shadow the Hedgehog filled the gap that was left when Knuckles became more of a friend to Sonic than a rival. Brooding, mysterious, and yet strangely polite (his referring to himself as 「僕」 "boku" in the Japanese dialogue is particularly endearing), Shadow drove the entire story of the game. Rouge, a selfish jewel hunter with connections to the government, proved to be an excellent foil for Knuckles. Each character on the Hero side basically had a mirror image on the Dark side: Sonic and Shadow were focused on speed, Knuckles and Rouge were treasure hunters, and Tails and Dr. Eggman, both confined to strange walking machines, had shooting stages like those of E-102γ in Sonic Adventure, so the variety of gameplay was somewhat reduced compared to its predecessor. There was, thankfully, no fishing. Perhaps because pairs of characters now played similarly to one another, each character's stages were unique: there was none of the clever multiple-character level design that I loved so much Sonic Adventure.
I spent most of the summer parked on the couch in my room, controller in hand, undertaking the monumentally difficult task of collecting all of the game's 180 emblems. This task was made even more challenging because of the game's plethora of bugs: characters would occasionally fall right through the ground to their deaths, and the controls for Sonic's and Shadow's stages were temperamental at best. I grew to hate grinding on rails or using Sonic's homing attack or light speed dash, since those would more often than not result in a sudden plummet to my doom, due to no fault of my own.. When most of the challenges in the game required perfect, no-miss performance, these bugs had me screaming maniacally at the television all summer long.
"So stop playing!" my mother would say.
"I'm having too much fun!" was my reply.
It was true: never before or since did I find so much enjoyment in playing such a buggy game. The temperamental controls on an already difficult game meant that when a level was played through perfectly, it felt—and looked—really good. Finding the game's secrets, like Knuckles's air tank upgrade in Aquatic Mine, was also exceptionally rewarding.
As difficult as the normal stages were, however, getting the emblems for raising the little creatures called Chao wound up taking far more time than completing the main game ever did. The labor-intensive Chao Garden held my patience simply because the characters were so lovable, and also because being in the Chao Garden was the one chance for Tails to get out of the giant Cyclone walker machine that he was stuck in elsewhere in the game.
For the entire next year, I would put Sonic Adventure 2: Battle into the Gamecube when I wanted to relax after a difficult day of classes. Even now, I put the game in to run through a familiar level now and again. The gameplay itself is fun, but listening to that music is also a joy. Jun Senoue again did a spectacular job. Each character had his own theme song (the Sonic Adventure 2 version of Sonic's theme, It Doesn't Matter, is one of my all-time favorites), and subsequent pieces of music for that character's stages was in a similar style to the character's main theme. There was rock, there was smooth jazz, there was even hip-hop with bizarre lyrics. Almost all of the music incorporated real instrumental performances, particularly guitars played by Jun Senoue himself. In all, the music was excellent: I quickly picked up Tokyo Pop's domestic release of the soundtrack and gave it a home in my CD player.
That game remains my favorite game of the Gamecube years. I've clocked over 130 hours on my save file. On an action game, mind you. A short, buggy action game. Amidst all of my playing, I also did some research, and found that this Sonic Team, headed at the time by 中 裕司 (Yuji Naka), that was putting its name on all of the Sonic products, had spent years preparing for Sonic's break into 3D. They did, I felt, an excellent job, and I began to frequent Sonic Team's Japanese website, even when I couldn't yet read what was posted there.
While Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was living in my Gamecube, Sega also released a Game Boy Advance title, appropriately-titled Sonic Advance. The game featured a character roster of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy, with each character playing differently. The game even had a special code to unlock a Sonic 2 mode where Tails would follow Sonic around the levels. The gameplay was tight, the music was wonderful, and the animation was charming. I played that game a lot, and it traveled in my little purple GBA on more than one occasion when I went to visit my grandparents. One day, I became so engrossed in the title that I took only the system and the game home with me, and left all of my other games at my grandparents' house!
Shortly thereafter, I found myself with access to most of the previous Sonic titles: Sonic Mega Collection, a compilation of Genesis titles, was released on the Gamecube. I suddenly had a huge collection of titles at my fingertips, including Sonic 3D Blast, the lackluster title whose reviews I had confused with Sonic Adventure's. One of my favorite features on that disc was the inclusion of the opening and ending movies for Sonic CD; I would sometimes pop the disc in just to watch those movies..
Speaking of great animation, I also picked up ADV's domestic release of the Sonic The Hedgehog Original Video Animation. Marketed as Sonic The Hedgehog: The Movie, I had thought that the program was a domestic production and would feature original American characters like Sally Acorn. Imagine my surprise, then, when I put the title in and found that it was a Japanese production, overseen by Sonic Team, and animated in the same style as Sonic CD. I brought the program in for viewing by my college's Anime Society, and it was one of only two titles seen that year (the other being Please Save My Earth) that was universally enjoyed by the club's members..
I also managed to pick up Sonic R on the PC. My computer at the time couldn't play Redbook Audio for some reason, however, and so I played the game without the benefit of music. It was still a fun title, but I would be blown away years later when I would actually hear what the game sounded like with songs like Can You Feel the Sunshine playing in the background.
It was at about this time that Sonic Team did the first thing that truly irritated me. Sonic Advance 2 was announced, featuring a new character: Cream The Rabbit, a little bunny who could fly by flapping her ears. Why did the Sonic series need another flying character? Tails was already in Sonic Advance 2. With two characters who played very similarly, Sonic Advance 2 lost some of its charm for me. Add that to the extremely convoluted method of collecting chaos emeralds, and the obnoxious boss fights, and the title became a game that I had little motivation to play. It was a shame, too: the graphics and music were a cut above those of Sonic Advance.
My collection of old Sonic titles would be further bolstered by the release of Sonic Adventure: DX, an enhanced release of the game that rekindled my love for Sonic, this time on the Nintendo Gamecube. It was wonderful to replay the game with improved graphics, and this time, there was a huge motivation for collecting all the emblems: a full collection of Sega Game Gear titles and a playable Metal Sonic. The game's new mission mode was occasionally exceptionally frustrating (such as collecting tiny flags while snowboarding down a hill) and the game was still extremely buggy, but at least I could import my champion Chao, Dash, in from Sonic Adventure 2: Battle to win all of the Chao events for me.
Then, just before my last year in college, Sega released Sonic Heroes. I had been looking forward to the game since its spectacular preview in the Mario Kart: Double Dash bonus disc, and I eagerly leapt into the game.
The graphics were great, the music was fantastic, and the atmosphere was a bit closer to the Sonic titles of old. I thoroughly enjoyed playing through Team Sonic's story; the new mechanic of using Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all at once was very creative and the dialogue between the characters was a lot of fun. The Gamecube version did not offer Japanese voice acting, but the English voices were wonderfully fitting, particularly those of Sonic, Knuckles, and Eggman, not to mention William Corkery's youthful and energetic Tails.
After I finished Team Sonic's story, though, I suddenly found that I had to play through the story with the other three teams—all of whom played similarly and had similar stages to complete. My patience waned. I did complete the game, however, and I often go back to replay stages—but only Team Sonic's.
Finally, just as my college career was ending, Sonic Battle appeared. A bizarre Sonic fighting game (but not the first), the game was notable for having an absolutely brilliantly-written story. The gameplay was strange, the ending bittersweet, but it was a wild ride, and it helped to even further define the characters' personalities. Amy Rose, Sonic's self-proclaimed girlfriend, was particularly fun to see in action: her dialogue betrayed a dangerously unstable personality. Though it was not a traditional Sonic title by any stretch of the imagination, I still feel compelled to revisit the title from time to time..
It was about that time that I discovered the import store Game Music Online (now sadly defunct), and so swiftly leapt at the opportunity to purchase the Multi-Dimensional Sonic Adventure 2 Original Soundtrack, as well as the CDs for Sonic Heroes. Unfortunately, I could not get my hands on the soundtrack to the original Sonic Adventure, but the three CDs that comprised my Sonic Heroes collection lived in my CD changer during my senior year of college, and the upbeat music helped me to wake up every morning before class.
That was not my only prized Sonic possession, however. During my junior year in college, I also managed to get my hands on a doll of Tails. Modeled after his Sonic Adventure appearance, the little toy was perfectly-sized and had a bright smile. As a grown man, I probably shouldn't readily admit this, but I snuggled that toy quite a bit. My closest friends in college came to associate me with the toy, but rather than tease me about it, they chose to find it charming (I had good friends in college). My best friend during my college years, a dedicated video game fan herself, also appreciated the presence of a huggable Tails on more than one occasion.
During those years, the Sonic series was such a source fun and relaxation, and Tails such a source of comfort, that I felt compelled to give the little fox some sort of recognition. I had particularly came to appreciate Tails during the end of my senior year. Writing a senior thesis can be daunting, and there was many a late night that I spent huddled in front of the computer, Tails sitting snugly in my lap, as I frantically typed away at the keyboard or fought what would ultimately be a losing battle against my spectacularly uncooperative printer.
So, it was only natural that I include a subtle nod at the end of my two pages of acknowledgements:
"I extend deep and heartfelt thanks to Miles for helping me believe in myself and fly ever higher."
Tails always wanted to be a hero. Well, little guy, you're certainly a hero to me.
Monday, June 13, 2011
I was a sophomore in college. When I had enrolled in college, my mother was absolutely certain that console games would be the death of my higher education, and so she decreed that I would not bring my Nintendo systems with me to the dorm.
This edict, it turned out, was a phenomenally bad idea. Video games were my primary outlet for tension, and the biggest way to engage my imagination. Games were important to me; they were a part of me. Even without games on hand, their presence in my mind was undeniable. For example, I wrote an essay on games that first year that received the highest grade of any essay in my Japanese culture course. That, however, is another story.
What matters now is that the first years of college were a pivotal turning point of my life, and without my favorite escape, the stress began to get to me. I was attempting to learn Japanese at the same time, and my performance in the course was less than exemplary (今は信じられないけどね). I was learning new things about myself that were difficult to accept. Amidst all the chaos, I wanted games to play, and the little offerings that were available on the Internet simply didn't cut it.
Now that I think about it, it's a testament to my upbringing (and probably my arrow-straight personality) that I didn't turn to drugs or alcohol.
Somehow, I survived, and life continued into Sophomore year. I was involved in a number of extracurricular activities, but life in my dorm room was horrid. I wanted an escape, something that I could do to relax. Near the end of that second year, one of the graduating seniors in my House posted an ad on a mailing list: a Sega Dreamcast, complete with two controllers and a VMU memory for data backup, along with Sonic Adventure, for $40.
It didn't require much thought on my part. I answered the ad right away. I had played the Dreamcast before, and though it was competition for Nintendo, I respected the system greatly. Besides, now that Sega was out of the console business, the company was no longer competition, now, was it?
I was curious about Sonic Adventure, but not enthused. I had not given much thought to Sonic in years, and, in fact, thought that my years as a Sonic fan were over. I had read somewhere several years ago that Sonic's experiment with 3D had been a dismal failure, and had ceased to follow the franchise shortly thereafter. Still, terrible or no, the game was a Sonic title; it might be fun to see what had happened to the character over the years.
Little did I realize that the review I had read had been referring to the bizarre but tepid isometric Genesis title, Sonic 3D Blast. Thinking that it and Sonic Adventure were one and the same, I plugged the Dreamcast in and loaded up the game.
And was blown away.
The game was loaded with impact right from the very beginning. The opening movie is an apocalypse in motion: an entire city being destroyed by an explosion of water. Then, the water begins to take a vague shape, and a giant opens right in the middle of the thing—and a little strain of English, "Open Your Heart", makes it through the chaos of the soundscape. A moment later, the hard rock starts. This was not the bright, cheery Sonic world that had been on the Sega Genesis. This game had an edge.
The game definitely looked pretty. The characters, redesigned by 上川 祐司 (Yuji Uekawa) had a new appeal and confidence all their own. Sonic sported long spines and piercing green eyes; Tails was a bit more confident and athletic and yet was still a cute blue-eyed boy, and Dr. Robotnik, was now sleeker and more devious-looking than ever. Dr. Robotnik now also went by the moniker of Eggman, which had always been his official name in Japan.
Though the graphics caught my eye almost immediately, the other thing that caught my attention was the music. Created by 瀬上 純 (Jun Senoue), Sonic's world was full of melody, from the upbeat city theme in Station Square to the peaceful rhythms of Mystic Ruins. Even more than that, there were vocal songs. English vocal songs. GOOD English vocal songs. Jun Senoe (an exceptionally talented guitarist as well as a composer) and vocalist Johnny Gioeli would soon team up to make their own band, Crush 40, which would headline many future Sonic titles.
So, yes, I loved the music. While music is usually what clinches a game for me, however, it was only part of a phenomenal mix this time around.
Sonic looked GOOD in three dimensions. The worlds were laid out extremely well. Sonic's control was tight and responsive, though occasionally a bit buggy. The action was fun and flashy.
And then there was the story. A fully-voiced story, at that. With language options. I, having struggled dismally the previous year with Japanese, saw the opportunity to refresh my ears and set the language option to 日本語. I was happy to find that the Japanese voice acting was excellent.
Sonic Adventure features six playable characters. SIX. Each character, once unlocked, plays an important role in the main story. Unlike many games in which each character's plot plays out in sequence, is not contemporary with the other characters' storylines, or simply is a kind of alternate reality, each character in Sonic Adventure is running about the world at the same time in the same story. Choosing to play as a character means seeing the events in the story from that character's viewpoint. The storytelling device was brilliant. Certain plot points that were a complete mystery to Sonic would be fully explained by playing as Knuckles. When Amy Rose, Sonic's obnoxious self-proclaimed girlfriend, prevents Sonic from destroying a certain robot, her motives are opaque until one plays through the story from her point of view.
Not only that, but the characters have their own unique take on stages, as well. Unlike other games (even later Sonic games!) in which different characters have completely different stages or play through exactly the same stages with just subtle gameplay differences, Sonic and his companions go through exactly the same environments in drastically different ways. While most of the stages are built with Sonic in mind, a certain part of each stage is opened up for another character to travel through in a completely different way.
And, of course, there was Tails. Miles "Tails" Prower had his own take on the story. The little fox, separated from Sonic for parts of the story, learns to believe in his own abilities, eventually thwarting a threat to the city all on his own. Tails's theme song, appropriately enough, is entitled "Believe in Myself."
I played that game all through May and June. My dorm room gradually became brighter, the air became fresher and warmer, and by the time the year was up, I was a bigger Sonic fan than I had ever been before.
Never before or since have I had such low expectations for a game, only to have them be so completely exceeded. When I went home that summer, I dug out an old copy of Next Generation magazine in which I vaguely remembered a review of Sonic Adventure appearing.
Four stars. How had I missed that?
Unfortunately, my abject admiration of Sonic Adventure was not shared by everyone. One of my favorite parts of the game was the Adventure Stages, the open worlds that connected the Action stages of the game. I loved exploring them, talking to the people and searching for secrets. Flying around the jungle with Tails quickly became my favorite way to relax after a day of classes. Unfortunately, I seemed to be in the minority: Adventure Stages did not appear in any subsequent game.
The large cast of characters, too, has since been the subject of many complaints. I, for one, loved playing as Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and E-102γ. Amy, I could take or leave. The bizarre fishing stages for the obese Big The Cat, however, I could easily have done without. And the Chao, a Tamagochi-esque artificial life system, was charming, yet extremely labor-intensive.
For me, it was the best Sonic game I had ever played.
For others, though, it was the beginning of the end of the world.
I, blissfully unaware of the unrest that was brewing in the Sonic community, was still in Hedgehog heaven, however, and I was about to hit the most enjoyable gaming summer of my life.