14 November 2009

Game Review: Sonic Boom

There's a new hack on the Sonic scene - Sonic Boom. It's been three years in the making, the brainchild of snkenjoi and iojnekns, with music by Tweaker and a host of others. It's not finished - it's only a single zone demo, but it's a big release for the community and deserves a full review.

The first thing I did after firing it up was to check out the Sound Test. I was met by a bevy of expertedly ported songs, mostly from the Megaman X Series, and a kickass (if a little wandering) original composition by Tweaker. The best of all, though, has to be the 16-bit versions of the "Sonic Boom" vocal tracks from the North American Sonic CD sountrack. Both the intro and outro versions are included, and they simply shine.

Then I returned to the intro to check out the game itself. I have to lodge a minor complaint here about the two options on the intro screen, though. Since there are only two, there is no way to tell which is highlighted and which is not - like all those bad DVD menus we have to struggle with. I would have assumed the lighter colour to be the selected item, but it wasn't. Furthermore, since the game remembers where you left the "cursor", and I wasn't expecting this, I went straight back to the Sound Test by accident when trying to start the game. I'll let this slide, though, since the finished version will most likely have more than two options here.

Now for the game - or rather, the zone: Power Plant Zone.

First, the art:

I have to be honest here and say that I'm disappointed by the visuals. The foreground art is nice enough, and so is the background art - but together they create a colour scheme I'm not sure works at all. It's generally not a good idea to have all three primary colours in the same scheme, and the addition of both bright whites and dark greys doesn't help matters.

Sonic's sprites are slightly better, but I have a few beefs with them, as well. For one, I think he's too dark, especially for the dark background of the zone. Also, I've never been a fan of the green eyes. On the more technical side of things: because he faces away from you when he takes damage, and he remains facing straight ahead (instead of looking at you) when he enters his waiting animation, he loses some of the expressiveness, and therefore appeal, that the original Sonic had. A distant, uninterested looking Sonic with low contrast in the eyes and face can throw a pall over the whole thing, breaking your connection with the character on the screen, and thereby your engagement in the game. This is why I've always preferred the Sonic 1/CD style sprites to the Sonic 3&K ones. I'm not advocating replacing Sonic Boom's sprites with Sonic 1's - I like the fact that they're different - but I do think that he needs to be a little more expressive and attitudinous. Also, the raised arms in the springing animation look retarded, but that rounds out my criticisms for the sprites. To end on a positive note, I like the way the kicking animations look, and the combination of Advance style sprites with the classic set is clever and rather seamlessly executed.

The bosses look absolutely fantastic, though. The shading is very well done, but of course they're perfectly round, so we'll just have to wait and see if later, more complex bosses come out as nice.

And now, the gameplay:

One of the first things to be learned about Sonic Boom is that there are new moves for Sonic to perform. And unlike a lot of hacks, you'll be needing - and in fact, wanting - to use them.

The Super Peel Out and Spindash have been included, which is pretty standard, but also pretty nice, and Sonic now has a double jump (much like the Electric Shield affords him in Sonic 3&K, only it takes him higher).

Then there is a class of moves that require Rings to perform. Sonic can shoot straight downward by pressing Down after jumping, which costs one Ring. This is a cool move, related to the Bounce from Sonic Advance 2 and Sonic Adventure 2, only without the rebound at the end. I like it, but I'm annoyed that it only takes a press of the D-pad. This causes it to happen accidentally, which is never good when trying to clear a pit of spikes. I would like it a lot more if you had to hold down and press A, B, or C.

Rounding out the Ring consuming moves are two types of Air Kick. One sends Sonic flying horizontally, costing 5 Rings, and dealing damage to enemies. The other is much like the first, only it sends Sonic diagonally towards the floor, and costs but 2 Rings. The great thing about this downward kick is that Sonic hits the ground running at close to top speed. It is a much more satisfying way of gaining speed than the Spindash or Super Peel Out, as long as you can spare the Rings.

Incidentally, I had envisioned a downward kick as a way to gain speed long ago, so I'm happy to see someone finally using a similar idea. I had come up with it because of Sonic Chaos. In Sonic Chaos, Sonic can do the Strike Dash (which is much like the Super Peel Out, only he is briefly invulnerable as he launches). Tails can Fly, but in order to make Sonic and Tails have similar controls, he must now hold Up and press the button to do so. This sucks (mainly because he can only start to fly from a standstill), but the idea of making Sonic and Tails perform their iconic abilities in the same way was intriguing. In Sonic 3&K, both Tails and Knuckles do their special abilities by jumping and pressing the button a second time. Sega had to give Sonic a comparable ability, and introduced the Insta-Shield. Now, some people don't give a fig for the Insta-Shield (I like it though), and one might want Sonic to have a more speed-oriented ability anyway. So I thought the Super Peel Out could be redesigned as an aerial ability, like Tails' and Knuckles', and that led to the speed-gathering dropkick idea.

Anyway, the move works very well and makes the game fun to play. Which brings me to the level layout. The layout is a strong point. It reminds me of the best speed levels from Sonic 2 and 3&K, like Chemical Plant or Flying Battery, and I suppose that's high enough praise.

They're just long enough, and don't drag, and you don't get lost. They also have to have the best sense of speed I've ever encountered in a fan game, and very nice loop structures. I'm not sure I'm wild about the "clear the room of badniks" parts, but they aren't nearly as onerous as the ones in Sonic Rush and don't mar the experience.

Well, what about the badniks? I counted four types on my way through, and they're all great. The challenge is higher than the Mega Drive games, but I think that was supposed to be the point. The best part about them is that they encourage the use of the new moves, which helps the game feel coherent, rather than a bag of ideas the developers just want to fit in.

Which brings us to the Bosses. The boss in Act 1 is absolutely brilliant. It too encourages the new moves, is challenging yet beatable, and has damage modelling, which is always cool. The Act 2 Boss, however, has a few technical glitches, and is significantly harder. I probably don't play enough Megaman, and my skills are atrophied, but this is like the Metropolis boss (my personal bugbear), only reimagined by a sadistic Dr Wily on LSD. Don't get me wrong, I like the boss, and am awed by the proficiency of the programming. I do however think that the choice to make Sonic invincible after hitting it (sort of like what happens when Sonic is hit) indicates that it may not be as balanced as it should be.

After defeating the Boss, and "surviving" Act 2, we are treated to a real surprise. Act 3, where Sonic has to high-tail it out of the plant with a wall of onrushing flame hot on his heels (pun intended). Again, my twitch gaming skills - underdeveloped as they are - conspire to let me down, but the concept is awesome.* It may sound strange for me, then, to advocate making it even harder, but I think that the edge of the flame should probably kill Sonic immediately. I suppose there might be some perspective or parallax going on, but it seems weird to be halfway into a wall of flame before you finally decide to die.

* It reminds me of Dino Run, which by coincidence I had played mere days before Sonic Boom. I'm not pointing fingers (after all, I think good ideas should be reused), but I am curious for curiousity's sake if inspiration was drawn from Dino Run, or perhaps they both share a common memetic ancestor.

Upon completion of Act 3 are credits (set to the aforementioned 16-bit remix of Sonic Boom) with a welcome "Cast of Characters" scroll showcasing the enemies, in the tradition of Kirby, Mario World, and Mean Bean Machine.

Overall, Sonic Boom is fun, sounds great, and is a technical juggernaut. With some spit and polish on the visuals, it could carve its way into the pantheon of Sonic Hackdom. I eagerly await the next demo. Good work guys, and ganbatte!

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