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Every so often I get asked what my favorite game of all time is, and for a long time I didn't really have an answer. It's kind of like a favorite song, it just changes so often that it's hard to nail down one. But I thought about it and it dawned on me: it's Super Mario 64.
I wanted to give my story on how I came to that conclusion. For as long as I could remember I was always interested in video games. I only enjoyed watching at first, too scared I was going to die, but eventually I worked up the nerve to try it for myself one day. The game was the orginal Super Mario Bros, and yes I did die (at least I assume I did) but I don't remember that. I just remember having a great time, and then subseqently needing to get my hands on the game, and of course an NES to play it on.
For me that was a point of revelation. I was probably only 7 or 8 at the time, but I remember the exact spot I was when I fell in love with gaming. The fact that I can still go there is interesting to me as well, something about that is just special to me. Eventually, I did get the system and found myself growing with gaming as the medium evolved. So I played each game in order, I feel like I could fully appreciate the jump in fidelity that each game offered. Each of the original games and Mario World just resonated with me but in differerent ways. To this day platformers are my favorite genre.
At that time I would have considered myself a casual gamer. Sure I enjoyed playing games on a semi regular basis, but I knew nothing of the industry, I didn't know that the 3D revolution was about to begin, nor did I know how impactful it would become to me.
The next turning point for me was the day I walked into a Toys R Us in 1996. I remember seeing multiple demo N64 systems playing and no one was around. I grabbed that strange new controller and saw Mario in 3D for the first time. Unfortunatley the analog stick was out of alignment so Mario moved of his own accord. I tried to fool around with the controller but ended up frustrated at the malfunction. If you would have watched me as a 12 year old you would have though I walked away disapointed. But that day it planted a seed in my mind.
Not the most intuitive controller ever made
The next year rolled around and I still had that seed in my mind. It had grown signifigantly so I asked for an N64 for Christmas. I wasn't so sure I could get it as my parents weren't in the best financial situation, but lo and behold my dad said yes...with some strings attached. See he wanted something out of me, I had to get on the honor roll at school and go out for wrestling. I wasn't the smartest kid but I had an easy enough schedule for 8th grade, but wrestling was another story. Wresting involved 3 hour practices through the week and 8 hour meets on Saturday's. Talk about having no life, but it was a way, I took the bargain.
That Christmas morning to this very day, was the best I ever had and probably ever will have. Now perhaps that has clouded my judgement, but I can't help but have the fondest memories of that Christmas.
Okay so what about Mario 64? Well I actually didn't get it till the following spring actually, money was hard to come by but at least Diddy Kong Racing (the game my parents bough with it) was enough to keep me occupied.
Yeah, I got the player's choice version...
But when I finally did get my hands on the game I must say I was estatic. I think what most impressed me about the title was the freedom that it offered. All previous entries into the series were all about moving left to right, power ups, and getting to the end with the allloted time. But now there was no time limit. If I wanted to spend 15 minutes trying to find a secret in the courtyard I could. If I wanted to complete objectives out of order I could. But I think what really got me excited, was the idea that if I wanted to complete an objective in my own way, I could do that.
One such example is the second world in Mario 64 called Thwomp's fortress. There was a star in a cage way up in the air. Now what you're supposed to do is climb up in the tree in the front and an owl would come out and take you up there. I had no idea about the owl so I got in one of the cannons and started trying to blast my way over there. I can't tell you how long it took, but I eventually got it.
There were other things that made an impression in my then 13 year old mind. Mario 64 brought a lot of new concepts to my attention. Flying in a 3D space for instance was something I was only vaguely familar with. I played the original Star Fox but changed the pitch to normal. When I grabbed the wing cap and blasted out of a cannon, I was forced to learn inverted controls and analog movement. I learned other things too, like how to control a camera, or how false walls work, and even got my first taste of survival horror. To this day the Ghost house music still creeps me out.
To me it was the perfect game to cut my teeth on, and is one of the few games that I feel deserves a perfect 10. No, it's not a perfect game, but it epitomizes what a 10 should be. It was beatiful, had amazing music, spot on controls (for Mario at least), tons of content and secrets, and has aged rather gracefully. I could knock it for the camera controls but it's 1996. That's like playing basketball with a retarded kid and calling him for double dribble, you gotta let a few things go.
Long story short it took me from a casual gamer to a hardcore. It made me appecitate all the nuances that we take for granted in today's games. It pioneered 3D gaming and should be on everyone's list as one the greatest games ever made.
It's no secret that the Sonic games have had their ups and downs for years. If you look at some of the games that Sega has really put their heart and soul into you can see some brillant examples of quality platforming. But conversly, you can see where Sega has just slapped games together for a quick buck or for a contractual obligation. What's odd about this is we've seen perfect examples of both in this past generation. So much like my blog on Virtua Fighter (which you should read, nudge, nudge) I want to discuss what I would like to see from the next Sonic game.
First off I want to clarify that I am talking about the next console Sonic game. It's not that I have anything against handheld Sonic games, it's just that the kind of scope I am looking for isn't going to be as easily accomplished on a handheld format.
First off I want to address the overworld. I feel like Sonic developers have been fooling with different ideas for the overworld since the orignal Sonic Adventure back in 1999. While I really liked running around as Sonic and the crew in a fairly large hub world (for the time) I felt like it had far too many problems. There was a lot of tacked on puzzles, too much backtracking, and the camera went apeshit in tight quarters. The novelty of climbing up the terrain with Kunckles quickly died when I was constantly glitching the enviornment or scratching my hea trying to solve some cryptic puzzle.
The hubworld in any Sonic game needs to be straightforward and well thought out. The game I think that nailed this was Sonic Unleashed. Before you say it, yes, Sonic Unleashed was a bad Sonic game, one of the worst, but that doesn't mean we can't glean from some of the parts they got right. I liked that it had a litteral world map where you chose your world location. It was easy to see where you were and what options you had available to you. Once you clicked on a location you would then drop into the overworld for that region. The entrances to the levels were clearly maked as well as the requirements to enter them. There were also places to explore so there's room for hidden power ups. Sonic games don't need you to solve puzzles to unlock levels, they need to let you concentrate on platforming and exporation. Sonic games in the future need to adopt this philosophy in design.
Secondly, the engine. This is the real mean and potatoes of the game. Admittedly, Sonic Team has been doing much better in this area as of late. The days of random pits, momentum killing obstacles, horrid cameras, and glitching through environments are over. Not to say that still doesn't happen, but it's far less frequent. If you don't think Sonic has evolved much over the years, go play Sonic Colors or Generations, then go and play Sonic Adventure 1 or 2. I feel like there's still room for improvement though. I would like to see differerent shields make a return, I also feel like water sections are sorely missed (I'm probably alone on that) as well as heavier interactions with enviornments. I also feel there are far too many sections that run in autopilot. Don't get me wrong, they look cool, but that's hardly something to base a game on. Long story short, I want to take the ideas from the Genesis games and convert them over into the modern 3D entries.
Along with that I want more playable characters. Back in the day I used to whine when they shoehorned unfun characters into the game for the sake of variety, but that was because Sega couldn't get it right. For whatever reason they thought fishing with a retarded cat (Yes you Big) was a good idea. They fullfilled my dream of gliding around with Knuckles in 3D only to restrain him to digging for emeralds in a small space. I never understood why I can't tackle the same levels that I just cleared with Sonic, with Tails and Kuckles. That's what made Sonic 3/Knuckles the best game on the Genesis. It gave three destinct play styles but retained the fun and intuitive Sonic gameplay that we all know and love. Would it take some clever level designs? Yes, but that's what needs to happen. How cool would it be to go through the same level with each of the 3 main characters and have a unique expereince each time. I wouln't mind at all if each world had 3 acts. If the themes can bear the repetition I would welcome it.
Speaking of theme I feel that needs to be addressed. For whatever reason Sega seems to want to treat the Sonic like Mattel treats Barbie. What I mean by that is they keep wanting to spice up the franchise with a new gimmick or mechanic instead of just making a quaility game. The old Sonic games never did this but then again suppose you have to do something to make the annual Sonic release stand out.
I never played Sonic 06 and from what I've heard I don't want to. But the aethetics sure looked like what I want from a sonic game. No goofy wisps, no scarfs and tape, just classic Sonic themes. I feel like they had a great idea in rebooting Sonic the hedgehog for a new generation it was just so horribly excecuted that it had the opposite effect. I would be really estatic just to see the character settle down in a good series of games with a consistant storyline. And I don't think it needs to be said that having any kind of kinky fanfiction relationships is just out of the question.
Finally, I think the series needs some replay value. I've always been irrititated by how little there is to do beyond the main quest with more modern entries. I realized that there have been attempts with DLC (Sonic Lost World) side quests (Sonic Generations) and extra objectives like the Red Rings and Time Trials (all the recent Sonic games) but they just don't bring much t the table. I really loved the idea of raising chaos from the first two Sonic Adventure games. I never got into it becauise playing on the VMU screen seemed lame, and I never was quite sure how to get into it. But maybe if they adequately explained the process or better yet rebooted it, I might give it a legitimate chance. It doesn't even have to be chao racing, just the idea of a side game that can be played interchangeably with the main quest seems awesome. One of the best examples I can think of is the card game from Final Fantasy VIII. You could completley ingnore that aspect of the game or you could spend hours challenging people and building up an impressive deck, better yet use those cards to aid you on your quest. Something like that would be amazing for the Sonic games.
I really enjoy the Sonic games. I feel like they have a lot of charm, the levels are fast and frantic, the music is often memorable and I usually look forward to the next game in the series. I just feel like more often than not the ball is dropped on the finer elements (usually in the second half of the game) that keeps it from being a stellar franchise. Just a little more variety, attention to detail and quality control would go a long way to bring Sonic back to its former greatness.