And so it resumes.
For over two months, I have been reluctant to begin the review that you now read. I have put it off because I have yet to play Billy Hatcher to completion. This review sits now before you because only at length I have, for reasons I will soon illustrate, deemed it unlikely that I will find the initiative to finish the game within my brief lifetime.
As the review process is all about communication, please: if a dramatic upturn occurs within the last fifth of the game, my email address is above. Feel free to enlighten me. If you find my sense of resignation offensive in a figure who would style himself a videogame critic, then likewise put me in my place. Whatever your concern, it will surely entertain me more than Billy Hatcher.
Billy Hatcher is not a bad game, on a mathematical scale; merely unremarkable. Even its bugs and annoyances are, in effect, boring. If the game were more novel and ambitious in its problems, then it would give me some grotesque passion to carry forward. As it is, the game gives me nothing to work with.
What do I say about a game that leaves me so empty? I suppose I must explore that emptiness; to come to terms with it. To do that, I need to establish some background.
In some past articles (one given interesting distinction, in some circles, as "The Worst Videogame Review Ever"), I have taken to task the popular Miyamoto school of game design and the traps into which it can lead an unwary developer. This was not so much a slur against producer-icon Shigeru Miyamoto or even devotee Eiji Aonuma (director of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker), as it was an attempt to show the problem of misapplied design theory; how even the most elegant of game systems, removed from its original context, can be more of a crutch than a tool in the long term.
The form of creative inbreeding found in Miyamoto's Nintendo EAD studio has managed to subsist relatively unchecked for as long as it has, because it turns out some solid games -- by all of the obvious standards that we're used to. Indeed, Wind Waker seems to have gathered impressive reviews from nearly every authority. Why change when you seem to hold the golden formula.
Be that as it may, Sonic Team is no EAD -- and producer Yuji Naka is no Shigeru Miyamoto. The closest that Naka has to a unique formula, he perfected and most well illustrated with his and onetime-designmate Naoto Ohshima's 1996 Saturn game NiGHTS into dreams... Add to this the minimalist interpretation of Miyamoto's rules found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog games (and, perhaps, the trans-lingual cooperative online framework of Phantasy Star Online), and you hold the sum of Sonic Team's contributions to the spectrum of game design.
Further, while EAD is renowned for its high level of quality control -- which, in turn, leads to an equally famous tendency toward delay (except in cases like Wind Waker) -- Sonic Team is not even known for carrying ideas through to completion. Whether half-finished (Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Phantasy Star Online v1) or rushed and riddled with bugs (Sonic Adventure), one can often expect a patch or upgrade to follow within a few months. Still other games (both Sonic Adventure 1 and 2) remain incomplete in their final design, and, it is clear, were wrapped up early in spite of ambitious plans.
I mean no more insult to Naka or his team than I do to Miyamoto. What I am attempting to get across here is a sense for Sonic Team's design legacy. Where EAD has a history of successful, richly-conceived, well-implemented games, Sonic Team has at best a couple of sleek, elegant original efforts to point to over its twelve-year history. It is from this thin stock whence any Sonic Team Design Formula must be distilled.
And so, indirectly, we return to Wind Waker. In the game's ultimate form, one could, in a certain sense, think of Billy Hatcher as Sonic Team's answer to EAD's 2003 Zelda update. (Heck, they even look similar!)
Where Miyamoto has his Mario, Naka has his Sonic. Where Miyamoto perfected his ideas in Zelda, Naka did the same in NiGHTS. There are, of course, some differences. Zelda is a rich, involving game with any number of facets. Its basic premise is expansive -- indeed, universal -- enough that it can be interpreted, improved upon, and added to with relative ease. It is, as you might say, rife for adaptation. In contrast, NiGHTS is the realization of a specialized, self-contained notion. Its beauty stems from its simplicity and sense of completeness unto itself.
Naka has chosen never to develop a sequel to NiGHTS, one may in part assume, because he got the game right the first time. There is no more to do with NiGHTS in and of itself, without un-finishing what has already been closed. The best one can do is lift elements of that game (either the characters or the underlying system) out of their original context, then transplant and adapt them into a new format.
Billy Hatcher is (as we will see) a superficially new game premise, constructed around a variation of the performance-compulsiveness framework popularized by NiGHTS and within the bounds and general physical logic of the Sonic Adventure engine and design architecture. Wind Waker is a somewhat new take on the Zelda universe, trapped within the completion-compulsiveness of the modern Zelda framework and the design scheme and player interface developed for Ocarina of Time.
Now if you will, remember what I said above about the contrast between Sonic Team and EAD. If you were to reach into one or the other pool, and arrange what you pull out until it took the form of a new game, which of the two pools do you think would yield the more satisfying (if unoriginal) result?
Billy Hatcher is a gob of regurgitated Sonic Team goo, formed into a rooster shape. While a game like Wind Waker disappoints me, EAD can (to some extent) get away with such recycling. Sonic Team cannot.
Wind Waker remains compelling for its part because although I feel patronized I also feel like I'm experiencing something with a degree of weight and theoretical value. Billy Hatcher lacks that weight, and that value. It is no less professional and lively than anything out of Sonic Team -- and yet I cannot remember when I have played a game which has made less of an impression upon me. At least, for its own sake.
Thus we are established: I believe I understand my distress. And thus our review begins.
* ~ * ~ *
As the new Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon began its run on the Fox network, 4Kids Entertainment held an apparent tie-in campaign. This was nothing new; it seems every week they have a different, comercially exploitative contest ready to play unknown havok with the emotional and moral growth of America's youth. The difference this time was that the prize was a video game! And a Sega game at that!
I went to the website in question and cast my entry. Within minutes I forgot I had done so.
Several weeks later, I received an email from 4Kids Entertainment. I assumed that I had been tricked into signing to a mailing list. I instead learned that I had, provisionally, won first prize in the drawing: A copy of Billy Hatcher for the Gamecube; a Billy Hatcher T-shirt; and some Billy Hatcher-emblazoned Silly Putty. All I had to do was go to their site, get my parent or guardian to digitally sign for me, and to confirm my age.
As luck would have it, my mother happened to be at hand.
Out of curiosity, I re-read the stipulations for the contest. It turned out that I needed to be under eighteen years old to receive a prize. Thing is, I had already told them that I was twenty-five. It seemed odd to me that they wouldn't have an automatic script in place to filter out jokers like me. Nonetheless, I reaffirmed my age, did what else was asked of me, and sent the entry off, expecting little. Surely this time they would notice their error and send the prize to some kid who might appreciate it better.
It turns out, this Silly Putty is some good putty. The T-shirt is only about large enough for me to wear as a mask, however.
As for Billy Hatcher -- well. The game is kind of like NiGHTS, if NiGHTS were played like Sonic Adventure. Only now you're pushing around a huge, unwieldy egg. One with bad physics problems.
The central gameplay mechanism involves rolling those eggs over enemies -- or launching them, or using them to rocket-jump, or otherwise attacking with them -- and then 'feeding' those eggs with the fruit that the monsters leave behind. Once your egg has grown 'full' enough, you may hatch it to find one of any number of creatures or power-ups. In effect, this system is not unlike an action-oriented expansion on the Chao mini-game from Sonic Adventure.
For a setting, Sonic Team gives us a familiar, kind of arbitrary light-versus-dark storyline where the roosters of the day are under attack from the evil shapeshifting ravens of the night. The goal is to get to the end of each familiar, arbitrary themed level (fire, ice, forest...) and beat the boss, thus saving our noble culture of chickens and all that they stand for.
Each level is broken into a series of tasks, or rounds -- not unlike what you find in the Sonic Adventure series. You have to keep re-entering the level, if you want to finish everything the game expects of you. Although all these tasks use the same map, each will funnel the player along a different path. Each map is constructed of a sequence of vague room-like areas, which in most cases need to be cleared of enemies. Thus, the eggs. Sort of.
All this action takes place within a NiGHTS-style framework and game structure. This means that the player is encouraged to return to each level and play over and over, until -- through a combintion of memorization, patience, and a certain level of skill -- he or she earns a favourable grade.
Why? Surely not because the game lends itself to such a play style. Indeed, Billy Hatcher is perhaps Sonic Team's most awkward attempt yet at 3D game design. I'm just talking about the technical problems, at the moment. It is clear that the game runs on a (slightly) modified version of the Sonic Adventure 2 engine, itself a minor upgrade of the problematic engine from 1998's original Sonic Adventure. Physics and collision detection have scant progressed since then. The only obvious improvements seem to be cosmetic in nature.
Actually, I don't know if this game has any substantial physics system. It feels like most of the key actions and dynamics are scripted on a case-by-case basis. When an object falls, it falls slow and straight, as if lowered on a rope. I get no convincing sense of momentum out of the eggs as I push and roll and drag them around the levels. They act like frozen balloons that just happen to stick to Billy's hands except when you need them to.
As far as collisions go, there seems no end to objects which look solid and yet which are not. Why no one on the design team considered that a player might want to stand upon the wealth of solid-looking logs and stumps and rocks and fences that litter the levels, I choose not to speculate. The real problem, however, is that even vital stage elements tend to be unreliable.
In many places, one will encounter rails onto which one may push an egg (or, in some cases, leap, egg-in-hand). While it might just be me, it seems almost as likely that I will fall straight through the railings as that I will land on them. Even the fruit items, over which one is intended to roll one's eggs, tend to be uncooperative. Unless you hit them straight-on, they will flatten as you approach, then spring back into shape once you have passed them -- leaving you to spin around (perhaps letting go of an egg in the process) and make another pass. And maybe another. After several hours, this can become frustrating when all you want to do is collect the darned things and move on.
Compounding the technical frustration is Sonic Team's by-now trademark Hell Camera. With the default view, the camera is so close as to make it difficult to see one's surroundings. I often become disoriented, to the point that I need to retreat from the action as well as I can, and regain my bearings. I also seem to find myself walking backwards or sideways, and into enemies, as often as forwards, and not. Manual camera control, as with the Sonic Adventure games, is of little comfort.
The rest of the controls are also awkward in a familiar way. Movement feels floaty, perhaps due to that whole physics issue. The real problem, though, is that the controls just aren't that hot. As with NiGHTS, the player is presented with a suite of specialized moves, which are to be used in creative and effective ways. As in the Sonic Adventure games, these moves are kind of precise and kind of not -- and it's hard to predict which you're going to get at any particular moment. Another problem is that the whole egg mechanic, around which the game is built, does not lend itself to a natural control scheme. Maybe as a result of this, a lot of Billy's abilities have an artificial quality to them; it feels like they were designed more because the character needed moves in order to build a game around him, than out of a logical extension of the game premise.
Many of the game's mechanisms revolve around the combination of Billy and Egg. If you have no egg in hand, you cannot pass through the many NiGHTS-inspired speed hoops. You cannot bounce to higher platforms. You have no special moves. You cannot attack. Billy on his own is not unlike the kids before they meet, and merge with, NiGHTS. The eggs, however, can be lost or broken. This leads to a lot of situations where, for instance, the player will bounce up to a high platform with the aid of his egg, only to fall, leaving his egg on the ledge above. If the player finds another egg and bounces back to that platform, the old egg now forms a barrier and will knock the player off the ledge again.
Now imagine tossing a NiGHTS-like demand for precision (or at least heavy practice) into this mix -- when just fumbling around in the levels can be a task in itself. While in most cases the game does not seem to demand a "passing" grade of the player, it does send a bit of a mixed signal. After a half-dozen attempts, I struggle through a poorly-balanced level that seems to ask a certain degree of effort and precision -- as well as a good deal of exploration, lest I miss anything important -- only to receive a poor grade, at the end. Does my time feel well-spent? Not really.
This recalls for me a design problem that I first pinpointed in Wind Waker. Both games are kind of patronizing, in the sense that both seem to have an odd and detached view of the role of the player in respect to the videogame. Both cater to a kind of perceived compulsiveness. The expectation seems to be that the player does not need a reason to do what the game asks; it's just what players do. What Sonic Team does not seem to realize is that the performance-compulsiveness aspect in NiGHTS is valid because it is the driving force behind the game. When it's just thrown into a game for the hell of it (as it is here), it feels like a demand that I waste my time for no good reason. This is inconsiderate, on the part of the developer.
Wind Waker gets away with it, to some extent, because a lot of thought went into the game. For all the other detailed concerns one might raise, it flows well. For the most part. As such, it hangs together and remains more or less enjoyable for what it is. This, however, seems to be Sonic Team's weakest area of game design. They can draw up a concept and a set of mechanics. What gives them more trouble is providing a forum in which to exploit the intricacies and potential interplay of their ideas.
I see no particular thought to a player arc in this game's design. In an ideal world, the game would start out simple -- with, say, walking. Then the game would, through an invisible form of manipulation, introduce one new game mechanic after another, and show their indended and potential uses within the game world. Once every major detail had been unveiled, the game would begin to lay out tests and challenges that would demand that the player combine more than one established mechanism to pass. It would demand creativity, with the tools provided. The rest of the game would consist of a series of novel variations upon those basic mechanics, with maybe an occasional surprise thrown in.
Instead, Billy Hatcher throws the player in cold. There is no system in place to teach me to enjoy the gameplay. Instead, the levels play out as a series of arbitrary challenges (some of which -- like a stressful time-based challenge in the second round of the first level -- seem rather unfair to ask of a player who has no idea what he's doing yet). I have yet to find a practical need for some of Billy's abilities, and those which have been tested have been so in a joyless, presumptive manner.
Here as elsewhere with Sonic Team, the meat of the game comes as an apparent afterthought. And as such, it is impossible for me to judge what might have been the potential of the ideas behind the game. When I first played the Billy Hatcher demo at E3, I felt it might go somewhere in a set of clever, loving hands -- someone with a clear vision of what could be built with the ideas I saw. I feared, however, that Sonic Team would do the Sonic Team thing, and think their work was done; that, rather than use it as a block in something greater, they would try to stretch that tiny sketch of gameplay that I saw, to fill an entire game. And, as if to affirm my fears, this is just what they have done.
Billy Hatcher is awkward because it seems confused about what it wants to accomplish. It has a vague theme -- the eggs. So what does it do with them? How about an action-adventure game? A NiGHTS-inspired performance/style game? Let's just empty the Sonic Team medicine cabinet and see what takes form. The result is tentative and capricious, since these game design concepts have been applied from the outside. They don't come from the game's theme. The game's bizarre eagerness seems an attempt by Sonic Team to mask the game's inner confusion; if the game has no burning reason to exist, then maybe it can carve out a reason by sheer force of personality. Instead, the enthusiasm takes on, to my eyes, an air of desperation.
Even with that fundamental trouble, it seems like Sonic Team could have made a compelling game out of Billy Hatcher, had they any good sense of how to follow through and build upon their shaky ideas. Naka's team, however appears almost constitutionally incapable of this. We are left with a one-bar game, its melody and harmony recycled from earlier, better compositions (to somewhat dischordal effect), that repeats with a hollow sort of enthusiasm until you turn it off.
Billy Hatcher is apathy incarnate. The game leaves me numb. I do not care. I feel nothing.
And now, I need not think of it any more.
eric-jon rössel waugh is not bored easily
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