Sonic the Hedgehog has lived a life as a video game mascot just a little less than Mario. In this time there have been numerous Sonic the Hedgehog games, mainly platformers, but every once in awhile Sega makes a more innovative game. Maybe it was the popularity of Smash Brothers that inspired this game or maybe it was designed to fill a void of a decent fighting game on the GBA. Either way, Sonic makes another appearance on the Game Boy Advance, but this time in a fighting game.
Sonic Battle has all of the classic characters that you’ve seen from other Sonic games. Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, Amy, and Rouge are all playable, along with a new robot buddy Emril. Sonic Battle has three main modes: story, two player and mission. No matter which option you pick you’re going to be fighting, the only thing different are the conditions. When you first get the game you will only have Sonic’s story mode available, to get other modes you’ll have to beat his first. If you want to try out any of the other characters you’ll have to go to the mission mode or play against a friend. The story mode has a world map, which contains areas that you’re supposed bring your character to for battles. When you start story mode, the world map feels a bit ludicrous because you’re just bringing your character to the next fight. What’s the point to have a world map if you don’t have choices of where to go. Later on though, you will have limited choices of which battle you want to do.
The heart of the game isn’t Sonic running around a town, its the battles. When you dive right into the battles they’re fun for a little while. Kind of like how versus mode for Golden Axe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is fun, for a little while. However, the bulk of the game is battling other characters. The fighting system uses all four buttons on the GBA. L is to charge your special meter (which is green), R launches a special attack, A jumps and B is your basic attack button. The battle system is more a kin to a beat em up game like Final Fight than any other fighting game. Each character has one combo to unleash by mashing the B button. Since there aren’t any combos to learn the game is easy to jump into, but this is a double edged sword because there is nothing to master. The only real option you have for battling is at the start of the battle you can choose what you want for your special move. You can choose a projectile attack, a power move and a timed land mine. From these options you can select if you want the attack to be a ground attack or an aerial attack. This allows for some strategy in the game when you play against another player. When you’re playing against the computer you can normally corner your opponent and continue alternating between your combo and special attacks to finish them off quickly.
Once you have gotten through the story mode you’ll get a chance to customize Emril, Sonic’s robot buddy. You can take moves from any other character and piece them together to make Emril a fighting machine. You can pick which moves you want for his combo, what specials he can choose from and even his winning pose. There is a lot of depth to making the "best" Emril. The best part about this is that you can battle your Emril against a friend’s if both of you have copies of Sonic Battle. Once you make an Emril, going back to play the basic characters feels boring. Emril can be made to be much stronger and cheaper than any of the other characters, which causes a problem in gameplay balance. When you have a super character why would you want to use anyone else, well if you want to complete the story modes you have to. It would have been a nice option if you could customize the other characters too, or unlock moves as you play.
Instead of putting time into making solid gameplay, most of the time was spent making the graphics engine for this game. Battles take place on a 3D field. The fields look similar to Virtual On fields, where there are barriers you can jump on and hide behind. The fields are gorgeous on the Game Boy Advance. Many games have attempted to make pseudo 3D games, but have failed miserably (SSX for the GBA anyone?). Sega took the challenge and passed with flying colors. The battle fields are crisp, big and have clear areas that you can jump on. Another bonus is you can rotate the camera, which is another graphical feat for the GBA. All of this is done without any noticeable slowdown. The sprites on the game are clear too. Each character has detailed frames of animation, but they don’t have too many different animations. You can see the detail in the sprites during the cut scenes where the sprites look like they were pulled from a Dreamcast rendition of Sonic. The only problem with the graphics is seen when you have four players fighting at once. The camera only shows a piece of the battlefield, the piece you’re on. Other battling characters can be hiding outside of the camera’s range, charging up their special attack meter or worse launching projectiles. Your character can be hit with projectiles fired by characters you can’t see, which makes the game pretty cheap. Normally, the computer doesn’t do this, but when you play against a Sonic Battle veteran you better bet they will. It’s a minor qualm for an excellent graphics engine.
Sonic Battle tries to mimic the fun of Smash Brothers on the GBA. The best part of party fighting games like Smash Brothers or Power Stone is playing with other people. One of the problems with this from the start is that you need four other Game Boy Advances and four other copies of Sonic Battle. By the time you put the effort (and the money) to do this you mind as well buy a Gamecube, four controllers and a copy of Smash Brothers. Since you can’t really have a full multiplayer experience with Sonic Battle the game needs a deeper fighting system than "mash the B button with all your might". While this game is a graphical achievement, it’s a gameplay nightmare. The problem is heightened even more due to the game’s length. You can beat Sonic Battle pretty quickly, unless you want to go and collect all of the trading cards this game will be on the shelf as fast as you can yell SEGA.
Most of the menus and all of the story are in Japanese. The story isn’t much, but does contain a good amount of humor. Playing the game doesn’t require any knowledge of Japanese, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out.
Sonic Battle is US bound on January 5, 2004.
+ Pros: Brilliant graphics engine, easy to learn
– Cons: Poor fighting engine, easy to beat
Overall: As pleasing as this game is to look at I can’t say it’s worth $35 to purchase. It’s fun for a short period of time, easy to beat and doesn’t have a strong multiplayer mode. A solid rental, but there are better games out there.
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