It was strange times for Sega going into the new millennium. They had just lost out in the console race as Dreamcast sales dropped. And facing financial ruin a new chairman was appointed. By January 2001 Sega announced they were restructuring the company into a third party developer. As a Sega fan I felt down but hoped the change in direction would not effect the quality of games. Sonic Adventure and its squeal were great games and I just hoped my beloved Hedgehog would continue to shine.
The announcement that Sega would start developing handheld games for Nintendo’s new Game Boy Advance was a real eye opener. Sega made the bold move to pass the Blue Blur to Dimps. A brand new developer made up of ex SNK and Capcom employees including Street Fighter legend Takashi Nishiyama. They were tasked with bringing Sega’s mascot to the small screen and it would be their very first game. The last time Sonic had found his way onto a handheld console was in 1999 when Sega joined with SNK to produce Sonic Pocket Adventure. This Sonic 2 inspired title showed that Sonic could rock it on a handheld as well as be in safe hands with another developer.
Released in December 2002 Sonic Advance was well received by critics even if it seemed strange to play Sonic on a Nintendo console. You take control of one of four characters, Sonic, Tails, Knuckles or Amy. Sonic Advance keeps to the format of the Mega Drive titles in that they are 2D and require you to platform your way through each stage. It is up to you how much you explore but doing so will uncover more rings and power ups. The levels are broken down to two acts with the customary Dr Robotik battle at the end of the second. You destroy enemies with attacks and your score increases by keeping hold of your rings until the end of the act.
Anyone who has played one of the original titles on the Mega Drive will feel right at home with Sonic Advance. The controls are simple as you jump around and speed round loops. All the characters moves are intact including the spin dash, Tails’ flying and Knuckles’ gliding. Only Amy Rose feels different in that she cannot roll in a ball to attack enemies. Instead she uses her giant hammer to whack them and this also acts as a double jump propelling her forward in midair. As with other Sonic games, finding the Special Stage entrances spread around the levels will give you a chance to capture one of the Chaos Emeralds. Those that manage to get all seven have a special surprise at the end of Sonic’s adventure.
The most notable aspect of this 2D revamp is how much the art style reflected the new design of the Dreamcast’s Adventure games. The anime style character designs, by artist Yuji Uekawa, had been used since 1998. This made sense as Sega had planned to allow you to connect Advance to their Gamecube port of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. This was because both were released in Japan on the same day. Similar to moving Chaos from your Dreamcast to your VMU, the Game Boy link cable allows you to move your Chaos around when you link both games together. This was a great feature and Sonic Advance was one of the very first games to take advantage of the link system.
Playing Sonic on a Nintendo handheld did take some getting used to. You would think that Sonic and Nintendo were old friends with the release of two games that take full advantage of Nintendo’s hardware. But Sonic Advance is a great game and shows the power of the Advance with fast gameplay, excellent use of Mode 7 and a pumping soundtrack. Having that Mega Drive feel in your hand was refreshing if difficult to keep up with the speed at times given the tiny screen. It is not all perfect however, you may find the levels quite easy and the Special Stages too hard. Some of the bosses are weak as well and once you work them out pose little challenge. But this was the perfect introduction for Sonic on his first Nintendo outing.
The planning for a second Advance started as soon as the first had launched. Once again Sega asked Dimps to develop the game seeing as they had made a great start with the first. We got our hands on Sonic Advance 2 in December 2002 and while the premise of blasting through stages was the same, there were a few new features. The most notable difference is the platforming style. If Sonic Advance was about exploring and keeping your rings then Advance 2 is about going as fast as you can trying to keep your momentum going. The same mechanic would be used again in the Sonic Rush games for the Nintendo DS.
The emphasise on speed changed how you tackle the game. You do not need to explore so much as items and rings fall neatly into the many paths you can take. You are bombarded with rail sections that allow you to pick up speed and there are many loops to send you in a spin. The only difference to the character roster is Amy has been left out making room for series newcomer Cream the Rabbit. She plays much like tails with a flying ability and has the same spin dash and attacks as sonic. This was Cream’s Sonic debut and she also has a little Chao friend that she uses as a projectile.
All the characters in Sonic Advance 2 have a special move. These correspond to their attacks in the Sonic Adventure games. Knuckles, for example, now has his Drill Claw move and Sonic can home in on enemies. The additional moves help to break things up but they do little to improve the gameplay. Another addition for you to play around with are midair stunts. These moves pulled off after launch ramps help you get to high up secret areas. This is fine but with the emphasise on speed it seems a little odd to have areas that require you to pull off a difficult manoeuvre or slow right down.
The other change from the original game comes in the form of the Special Stages. Last time out you had to find the secret spring located in each level but Sonic Advance 2 takes a different approach. Now you must collect seven emblems in an act without dying and you will be transported to the Special Stage at the act end. It again goes against the idea that the game wants you to blast through the levels. The emblems are stuck in some crazy places that mean you may be searching around for a long time. The Special Stages themselves are better than the original and feel like the stages from Sonic CD. You find yourself in a pseudo 3D environment and must collect 300 rings in two minutes. All the while avoiding one of Robotnik’s contraptions.
There are a few unlockables for you to work towards. Amy becomes playable after you complete the whole game with the other four characters. The Chao Garden returns and is similar to the one in Sonic Advance. There is also a secret Sonic level and a boss rush mode. Sonic Advance 2 is a solid game but the extreme speed and having to suddenly stop to explore may be a little much for some.
Sonic Pinball Party was released in June 2003 and was originally an exclusive to Target stores in the USA before gaining a more universal release. Sega once again trusted the Blue Blur to a third party developer as Jupiter were brought in to code the game. Jupiter had already worked with Sega on the Sakura Taisen series of games for the Game Boy Colour. The second game being notable as the first Sega published game after the company went third party. Sonic Team also lent a hand in the development and many of their franchises feature heavily in the game.
Sonic Pinball Party features several games modes all set around the basic pinball mechanics of flipping the balls around a table. Story mode uses Sonic as the story’s main character as he competes in the Egg Cup Tournament at Casinopolis. Sonic needs to rescue his brainwashed friends from Dr. Eggman. There is a simple arcade mode that plays like traditional pinball and a mini game mode where you flip balls into holes to start a roulette or slots machine. The Tiny Chao Garden makes another appearance here with a new mini game mixing elements from Puzzle Bobble and Dr Mario.
The three main tables in Sonic Pinball Party feature Sonic, obviously, Nights into Dreams and Samba de Amigo. Each table has its own special events and challenges to help you rack up the high scores. Just like real pinball, the better you are the more features you unlock on the table. The visuals are bold take full of advantage of the GBA’s large colour palette. There is the odd blurring of the graphics as the balls whizz around but nothing that spoils the action. The music is a stand out feature in Sonic Pinball Party with many tracks from previous Sonic Team games that will nudge the nostalgia.
The game controls well and you can even shake the table just like a real pinball machine. There will be an obvious comparison to Sonic Spinball on the Mega Drive. But the two games could not be more different besides the basic pinball idea. Spinball plays more like a platformer with pinball mechanics where as Pinball Party is a proper pinball game with some added mini games. The story mode is short and the mini games are a bit of a non-event but those who enjoy pinball will have lots to do racking up high scores in the arcade mode. Sonic Pinball Party is a well made pinball game with some added extras to keep gameplay fresh.
Later on in December 2003 Sonic Battle was released in Japan, then released in America and Europe in early 2004. This was the second time the Sonic franchise was used in a fighting game after Sonic the Fighters was released in arcades during the 90’s. The two games are very different though and Sonic Battle leans more towards an arena fighter like Power Stone than a traditional fighting game. The story centres around Emerl. A mysterious robot who can copy other characters moves. The further you get in the story mode the more powerful he becomes through upgrades. To upgrade Emerl is a bit of grind though and you need to put a lot of time in to power him up to beat the game.
There are also challenge and multiplayer modes as well as a few mini games to flesh out the content. You can take control of ten characters and each has their own special moves and strengths. Sonic is unsurprisingly fast and Knuckles super powerful to give two examples. The game is tough, especially towards the end of the story mode and the AI can be very unforgiving at times. You will have to jig around with Emerl’s stats and moves that are acquired through cards representing move sets. You can mix Sonic’s attacks with Rouge’s techniques or Tail’s flying abilities. The more you level up the more points can be allocated improving your move set overall.
Considering the GBA only has four action buttons there is a lot of different moves. You can punch, jump, dash, defend, heal and use special moves. The unique system of holding buttons or combining with a directional control opens up quite a large move set for each character. Although controls are responsive enough, sometimes they let you down if you are trying to change direction. The isometric view with 2D sprites does sometimes become confusing but with a little practice you can master the movement. At times there are four fighters on the screen at once and this feels overwhelming considering the GBA’s screen size. It is not a major issue though, and you might say it adds to the frenzied nature of the battles.
Visually Sonic Battle keeps with the adventure games style although the story does sit outside of it. This game is referenced again in the DS game Sonic Chronicles which is a spiritual successor of sorts. The bold and bright pixel art is gorgeous in places with decent effects and animation. Quite impressive for a GBA game with full use of the colours available. The over-world map is a little bland in places but just marks out where the next battle is. The music is decent, if unfamiliar, for a Sonic title and the sound effects are a little washed out. But overall Sonic Battle has great presentation and it is easy to see why Sonic fans mostly enjoy this one.
Sonic Advance 3 was the last game in the main series. Dimps again developed it and it arrived in June 2004. It takes everything built into the first two games and dollops on a lot more. The main new feature is you must now select two characters to play the game with. Similar to Tails following Sonic around in the original Sonic games on the Mega Drive. But this time you can mix any two characters from the roster, so long as they have been unlocked in the main game. As you progress in the story more characters become available. Sonic Advance 3 has more of a industrial feel to it with most levels taking place across city skyline. The same fast paced action has been kept but now you have three whole acts before a boss battle.
Another change is a new over-world map similar to that found in Sonic Adventure. You can move about on platforms to find new levels and each zone has its own small area. The game is big, huge levels and lots of secrets. Add in all the different character combinations and you could be at this one a while to see everything. The Special Stages once again make a return but this time they are difficult to access. Spread around each zone are ten Chaos that must be found. Once you have found all these a key appears somewhere in one of the acts that grants access to the Special Stage. It gets quite complicated as you reach the later levels. To get all the Chaos Emeralds is hard and you will only really want to complete this game fully if you fall in love with it.
The game itself plays well and has lots more stunts and moves to perform. Each combination of characters has its own move set from speed bursts to flying power. The one gripe I have with this game personally is that Knuckles has lost his gliding ability. It has been replaced with a diving headbutt move that reminds me of E. Honda! Knuckles without his glide or wall climb really lets the game down for me being that he is my favourite character. I just feel Dimps and Sonic Team were trying to add far too much here and forgotten what Sonic is all about. But enough of my moaning, Sonic Advance 3 is a great game overall and how the developers have fit so much into one cartridge is astonishing.
Sonic Advance 3 has some of the best graphics seen on the GBA. Colourful and vibrant, big sprites and, as already mentioned, big levels. The bosses in this entry are also much better than the previous two games. They feel more like traditional Sonic bosses without the gimmicks. I do feel that if it were not for the issues around Knuckles and the Special Stages, this would be one of Sonic’s greatest ever games. It has all the ingredients but is let down by a few niggles. But you should not let this stop you giving this mammoth game a go.
There were two other Sonic games released for the GBA. Sonic Genesis was released late in the GBA for Sonic’s 15th Anniversary. It suffers from terrible frame rate issues and has been zoomed in. The game would not fit into the GBA’s wider screen in its original format. The game is hard to play and it is surprising Sega let this one out the door. Slightly better, but still zoomed in, Sonic Spinball is part of Sega Smash Pack. The game plays fine with better frame rate than the Genesis port. Both these games can be skipped though as neither do their big brother counterparts any justice.
So that is every Sonic game on the GBA. I sometimes feel gamers forget how good Sonic fans had it post Dreamcast. The GBA has some excellent Sonic games on it and Sega made the most of the tech. It is worth exploring these if you’re a fan of the Blue Blur.