by Wes Pringle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is not terribly surprising when you consider what Sonic has done. Let's face it. Sonic made Sega what it is today. The Genesis did not take off until Sonic the Hedgehog was launched. The money that the Genesis made helped to finance Sega's remarkable Arcade division. Such is the power of a lowly little hedgehog. For reasons that I will never be able to understand, Sonic did not appear on the Saturn in a truly 32 bit format until now. (Its true that the Sonic World portion of Sonic Jam was a 32 bit version of Sonic, but this was not a full game, rather it was almost an expanded demo).
As a long time Sonic fan, I have been looking forward to this title for some time. In a very real way you could say that I have been looking forward to this title since the Saturn was launched. Now that its here, the question is, how did it turn out?
The very first thing that someone will notice when they boot up Sonic R is how incredible the graphics are. The impressive "Sonic World" portion of Sonic Jam was thought to be a preview of the upcoming 3D Sonic Project. The truth is, that the graphics in Sonic R blow those in Sonic World away. In fact, I have not seen more impressive 3D on any Saturn game period. The textures look great, the frame work is amazing, and the pop-up has been extremely well masked by a "fading in" technique that works extremely well.
Let me put it this way. About a month ago I was reading the UK's Sega-Saturn magazine. The preview claimed that the graphics in Sonic R were superior to that in Super Mario Kart 64. When I read this, I rejected it for two reasons. First, I just simply didn't believe it. I love my Saturn, but I have come to accept that it simply can't reproduce the same type of visuals that the N64 is capable of. Secondly, I rejected it because I told myself I didn't care. I have long felt that gameplay is more important than graphics, and continue to stick by that fundamental belief.
Nevertheless, when I saw this game in motion, it changed my perspective. You know what? It DOES look better than Mario Kart 64 - and don't accuse me of bias because I've got that game also. And believe me folks - it feels GREAT seeing a fantastic looking 3D Sonic.
The scenery is detailed. There is a very impressive reflective effect on the water, and the 3D polygonal racers (as opposed to MK64's sprite based racers), look absolutely outstanding. I still can't believe that the whole thing looks the way it does and appears to be moving at 30 frames per second.
Sonic R has got some loopy vocals during most of the tunes. You may even find yourself reminded of the original music in Daytona. Now personally, I like this kind of touch. I find it adds character to a game, and makes it more fun. However, its not for everyone. That's why there is also an option in the game to turn the vocals off and revert to a slightly remixed and toned down version of the music (similar to Daytona CCEs remixed versions of the original Daytona tunes). As they say, you can have it your way.
Additionally, the atmospheric sounds are very impressive. When you run under the (amazing looking) waterfall, you hear it around you. Further, all the grunts, bleeps and screeches that you would expect to hear in a Sonic style racing game are there, and they work very well.
Now this is the area which has probably received the most attention. Remember the first time you played Sega Rally? Well I remember the first time I played it feeling frustrated as hell. In fact, the first time I brought it home, I rented it, bounced back and forth across the road, and ended up bringing it back in disgust. I didn't end up actually buying the game for another 3 or 4 months after a friend had convinced me that it was worth a second look.
Well Sonic R is a bit that way. The first time you boot it up, you will probably choose Sonic on the first track. The thing is that Sonic is the most difficult player in the group (more on this in the gameplay section), and the first track is pretty tough too (all the water makes for some tight turns). What this means is that you will probably be all over the road when you first try out this game. Remember, this is not a platformer, it is a racing game. The players drift and weave. You do not have precise control - if you did, it wouldn't be that fun would it? To be honest, the control reminds me of Wipeout or Wipeout XL. Imagine really fast vehicles with slightly floaty controls and you've got the picture. The bottom line: Once you get used to the controls, they are absolutely second nature. I wouldn't change a thing.
One last thought here. Even though the game supports the 3D pad, you are much better off in digital mode. For some reason, I just couldn't stop the "zig-zag" syndrome with the 3D pad. I found this game works much better with the "tap-tap" style steering that you get from digital control.
The Sonic series has always been about great gameplay and this game is no exception. There are all kinds of different ways you can approach this game. Obviously on the first level, it is a racing game and you need to try and win on each of the tracks.
Once you have done that, you can tackle the next objective. Namely, finding the Chaos Emeralds (which are hidden in various locations) and still placing first. Once you have accomplished this, then you can try to collect the 5 gold coins on each track, and still place in one of the top three positions. As you perform each of these feats, more powerful secret characters are released which you can then select. This by the way adds the final challenge in the game. Not only can you select these new secret characters, but you also have to race against them. They are faster, and smarter. They know all the shortcuts and force you to do the same. This means that winning requires a real sense of exploration and a constant desire to find the quickest route, and the best technique. All this innovation adds a great deal to the game, and makes it a ton of fun.
Also in terms of gameplay is the various characters. At first, you can select one of the following characters - Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, or Amy. Each character has truly different skills which dramatically affect the way you need to approach the game. For example, while Sonic is the fastest, Knuckles can glide for an indefinite period of time, Tails can fly for a brief period of time, and Amy can turn her car into a little boat which goes across water. Each of these characteristics allow the character to take different short-cuts and routes through the tracks. Finding the best path is very challenging, and very fun.
There are so many extras in this game that I am sure I will miss a few. I have mentioned many already, but let me list a few more. In addition to the straight out "Grand Prix" mode, you can also run in "Time Attack" mode. This allows you to race against the clock either forward, or backwards around the track. You can also play a "Find the Balloons" game where you have to run around a track finding 5 hidden balloons while the clock ticks away. Since the tracks are so huge and diverse with all kinds of different routes and secrets, this can often be very difficult. Finally, there is a "Tag" mode, where you chase after 4 other characters, and try to touch them as quickly as you can. Believe me, its harder than it sounds.
For those of you that like 2 player games, there is a split screen version. This is the one feature which I would argue doesn't work all that well. The "pop-up" continues to be hidden by the fade-in technique which I talked about before, but this time, it happens so close to the player that it materially affects the race. Basically, I would offer that if you don't already know the layout of the track, you will have a pretty tough time racing in this mode.
All the extras which I have described really add to the long term appeal of this game. I would also offer that the endearing nature of the Sonic franchise is powerful enough that it also makes the game an instant classic which you will want to play for years to come. Let's face it - how long has you waited for a truly 3D, 32 bit Sonic game? Well, now that its here - and it delivers the promise - you'll be wanting to play the heck out of it.
There is only one key reason why I gave the game an 8 versus a 9 or 10. The principal challenge for more experienced gamers is in finding the gold coins and Chaos Emeralds. Unfortunately, once you have captured the coins or the Emerald on a certain course, they disappear. This means that you cannot try to improve your time capturing these things unless you start a fresh game. I would have preferred that they kept some kind of prize in the place where the original gems were held, to incent you to try and grab them over and over again as you got better. Is this nit-picking? Maybe, but unfortunately, with those prizes gone, the only remaining challenge to the game is getting better and better times against tougher and tougher foes. This is good - but it could have been better.
This is the game that may Sega fans have waited for. It may not be exactly what you wanted (being a Racing game as opposed to a full platform Sonic game), but it is a brilliant execution of the Sonic characters in 3D with a innovative gameplay, and a lot of style. The game is a real treasure that belongs in every Saturn owners collection.
Let me end this review then by offering a few thoughts on Sonic and Sega.
As much as I love this game, it makes me feel a little bittersweet. As we watch the Saturn go into its last Christmas, we get a chance to play the kind of game that could have saved the system if only it had been released when the Saturn was launched, instead of when it was dying.
I believe Sega has mismanaged the Sonic franchise. It is their most valuable asset and yet we have not seen a 32 bit version of the mascot until just now. How many years have gone by with nothing? How many years since we heard Sonic's last real marketing campaign: (Who's laughing now - FAT MAN!).
If Sega didn't feel comfortable releasing a 3D Sonic game before today, they should have released a 2D title with the kind of graphics that can only be done on a Saturn. I am positive that such a title would have not only sold Saturns - but would have done Sega proud as well. By releasing essentially nothing over the last several years, Sonic has become a victim of neglect. Today there are a whole generation of gamers who believe that Crash Bandicoot invented the word attitude, and innovative platform gameplay. That my friends is tragic.
Well we all know that it is too late for the Saturn now. Hopeful what this game will do is remind the world that the world's best platformer awaits a system which can show off its true glory. Sega. Are you listening? Make sure that you launch Dural with a break through Sonic title. Get the hedgehog back on top! It's long past time that Sonic kick a little Bandicoot butt.
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