Initial Impressions: SONIC & KNUCKLES

Perusing my little brothers game collection I ran across Sega’s SONIC MEGA COLLECTION for the GameCube and decided to get my old school game on and play one of the Sonic games I never got around to when I was younger.  I was a Sonic follower when I was little and I had a small collection of the games on the Genesis.  I’d never gotten a chance to play the fourth installment, though, so I was actually kind of excited to finally try out SONIC & KNUCKLES.  (The collection includes SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, its two sequals, SONIC & KNUCKLES, SONIC 3D BLAST, SONIC! SPINBALL, and DR. ROBOTNIK’S MEAN BEAN MACHINE.)

The first SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, in case you haven’t played one of the original Sonic games before (I know, I’m getting old), was built for the SEGA Genesis and was a 2D platformer to compete with the Mario games from Nintendo.  The big sell-point was the amazing speed at which Sonic could traverse his tile-based levels and  the fun roller coaster design that resulted from all that speed.  SONIC & KNUCKLES was the fourth installment of the series and was the final 2D version.  The game plays exactly like its predecessors, though the designers added a couple new abilities for both Sonic, and his new rival, Knuckles.  These abilities allow the designers to create sections of a level that are character-specific, only Knuckles could reach some places with his smashing power.  Basic mechanics included moving and jumping (the basics of a platforming game precedented by SUPER MARIO BROS.) to progress from platform to platform, avoid dangers, and attack enemies.  The Sonic games also added the ability to roll into a spikey spinning ball in order to attack some enemies from the ground.  Springs and loop-de-loops are characteristic of most Sonic levels and spinning gold rings were the collection item of choice.

It was interesting to go back to this game and see how strongly the arcade mentality influenced the design of the game.  The arcade industry was still fairly strong and console designers were constantly chasing arcade-quality.  Generally big successes were games that were big arcade hits and were then ported to the consoles, though with lower quality graphics due to the limitations of the console hardware. Despite (as far as I’m aware) never being an arcade title, SONIC & KNUCKLES still held on to a three lives, no continues philosophy, leading to a very challenging game.  The player has to earn new lives and learn the levels in order to progress to the later stages.  If he fails to get to the end before his life stock has run out, the game is simply over and the player must restart from the beginning.  Game design since has changed to favor helping a player play through and enjoy the game, with automatic saves, infinite “lives” (see my REPUBLIC HEROES post), and a focus on playing levels again after completing them in order to find other bonuses or increase score.  This is in contrast to having to play a level over before completing it due to failure to reach the end and having to learn how best to accomplish the task.

As a side note, I still find it amazing to play a Sonic game on a Nintendo platform.

Initial Impressions: ASSASSIN’S CREED

I didn’t really know what to expect when I finally got around to popping Ubisoft’s ASSASSIN’S CREED into my PS3.  I’d read some stuff from the guys at Penny Arcade a long time ago talking about how at first they didn’t like it, but then they did.  I had friends who were telling me that they got kind of bored of it after a while and my dad said he didn’t like it much because he’d found the combat to be cludgey after getting through games like FALLOUT 3, UNCHARTED, and BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM. Yet, despite all the ho-hum responses, the general consensus in the gaming world seems to be that ASSASSIN’S CREED is a great game and, indeed, it even has two high-profile follow-ups.

The gameplay is a mix of 3D platforming, timing-based combat, and sneaking puzzles.  The main mechanic is the sort of auto-traversing system the developers created for the player in an attempt, I assume, to not only make the controls a little easier and streamlined, but to also make the feeling of running across rooftops much more fluid.  Players simply have to run in the direction they wish to jump and the character will determine on its own the best place to land, whether that be grabbing a pole, landing on a balcony, or even latching on to the side of a wall.  For the most part this works well and does make the menial task of getting from one place to the other much more interesting and dynamic.  The system isn’t perfect, though, as the character will somewhat regularly jump to some other target or miss a jump entirely.  This is most likely due to some amount of ambiguity as to where to land based on where the character started and the direction the player was holding.

Combat is similar to a 3D fighting game like SOUL CALIBUR, but I found after a bit of practice, it amounted to standing around waiting for the enemy’s attack animation to start then hitting the counter-attack button.  This, after a while, made me less and less worried about getting into fights with city guards.  As a matter of fact, that leads me to one of my two biggest design complaints.  In the end all the sneaking around one is supposedly trying to do as an assassin, is made rather voluntary since with the simple counter-attack strategy, even the whole garrison of city guards can be casually taken down.

My second big complaint is the odd choice to make it impossible to do an assassination job without being detected.  It could be my lack of experience with the game (though I have played a number of games prior to this one), but despite setting up a need to gather information on the target before being allowed to take him down, the player is not given an opportunity to make the kill discreetly.  In some instances this is because of story twists where the player is set up and the target knows he’s coming, but in other cases, there simply is no way to get to the target without alerting the city.  I personally find this irritating as the designers had just forced me to do all these repetitive tasks to get the information on how to do the deed correctly.  If I’m not going to be given a chance to take the guy out without being detected, why not just let me roll in, sword swinging, and kill everyone on the way in?  In addition to this is a somewhat absurd paused time after the player makes the killing blow on a target that allows the soon-to-be-deceased character several minutes of chatter to progress the story and bring up morality questions.

The premise of the story itself is rather interesting and someday I may go back to the game to see where it goes.  I would also be interested to see what the developers changed or added to the newer titles and if they come across as any less absurd as a result.


I pulled this one of my brother’s half of the PS3 shelf since he and his friends had been playing a lot of it recently.  STAR WARS – THE CLONE WARS: REPUBLIC HEROES is from Krome Studios and follows some of the adventures of the main heroes from The Clone Wars series.  It seems to cross back and forth between a beat-’em-up with some minor platforming and a ROBOTRON-style, two-joystick shooter.  The player controls a Jedi for the former and a clone trooper for the latter.  Both styles play from a third-person perspective, though the camera is not controlled by the player.  Generally this system works well in both play styles. In some instances, however, the fixed camera can make lining up jumps for the platforming elements tricky because of ambiguous jump directions.  In the clone trooper segments the camera often runs through awkward moments as it tries to move from one cinematic angle to another, leaving the player to deal with suddenly wanky controls while being pummeled by blaster fire.

Level design is straightforward (at least through the hour I played), with platforming segments separated from battling segments and no real alternate routes.  The designers chose to use trails of glowing spheres (physical manifestations of the force, implies Yoda) to help the player figure out where to go when playing a jedi level (trooper levels don’t have any platforming, so the path is more or less obvious in most cases).  The platform elements are greatly simplified, where simply jumping toward a platform will auto-land the character on the platform regardless of the width of the landing space much like Ubisoft’s PRINCE OF PERSIA.  The controls, however, are nowhere near as smooth or responsive.  There are often delays in direction changes or actions, leading, for instance,  to frustrating situations where Anakin will simply jump straight up and fall to his demise.  Luckily, “dying” simply resets you to the nearest checkpoint and checkpoints appear for nearly every screen, making it more about playing through the levels than worrying about making it through a level, a decision I standby given the audience and the style of the game.

The actual battling aspects are fun in the same way most beat-’em-ups are.  In order to fight the eventual boredom of swinging a lightsaber through waves and waves of droids, the designers added some simple force abilities and the ability to “droid-jak,” which is to hop on a droid and be able to control it.  This gives the player some variation in their droid butt-kicking and bonus points are awarded for continuing to destroy enemies in creative ways (much like STAR WARS – THE FORCE UNLEASHED does).  The clones get their variation through the ability to drive vehicles and the use of special guns (both of which I had not gotten a chance to try in my hour of play).

Overall, REPUBLIC HEROES comes off as simple fun.  The mechanics are proven and the designer added some interesting variations through the “droid-jak” abilities.  The basic controls and the camera could have used a bit more love, but are adequate in most cases.  Looking at the game’s case, I see it’s rated T (teen), but it feels to me, with it’s simplified play-mechanics, LEGO game-style co-op play, and silly bonuses (funny hats, heads, and droid dances), that it really wanted to be E (everyone) or E10+ (everyone 10 and up).  I suppose the blaster fire and lightsabers forced the T rating, though I find it no more violent (and maybe even less, since the characters only destroy robots) than THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: WIND WAKER, which carries an E10+ rating . . . just my observations.