review: sonic battle (GBA / sonic team)
review by tim rogers
02172004


So I've been getting into Gameboy Advance games lately. I've mostly been getting into them because one of my two roommates was arrested for an insurance fraud what he commit against his best friend from elementary school. Now, before you go saying that that's just like me, to hang out with a guy who'd do such a damned sickeningly terrible thing, let me tell you -- he wasn't my friend or nothing. I only knew him through my other roommate, a good fellow who met his roommate through the internet.

So yeah, this guy was arrested on a clear day at the end of November, when two police detectives woke me up at the crack of ten AM to ask me if I was Mister Fujimoto. I told them what the hell do I look like? And they told me, oh, my mistake. Then Fujimoto arrived home and was pulled out to the clink directly. Case solved. He won't be coming back for two years.

That very day, though, a MasterCard bill came in the mail for my good roommate's credit card, the one he never knew he had. That MasterCard bill said that 100,000 yen had been charged to his card, and when he called the bastards, they said he used the card to buy a ten-time bullet train ticket, which was then sold at a pawn shop to fund some marijuana. Those computers are just getting faster and faster these days.

Rife with anger, my friend didn't want to talk anymore, or laugh anymore, at that kusoyarou bastard that stole off some of his money. So solemnly we hid away a box of the guy's shit where we should, even now, really have a washing machine. The box was newly-bought, and full of newspapers bought with that foreboded credit card. He bought the box just for the purpose of hiding the newspapers he was pressured into buying by some door-to-door girl, just so the person with whose money he bought the newspapers couldn't ask where the hell he got the money to buy them if he couldn't pay the god-damned rent.

At least we got to keep the guy's TV, VCR/DVD combo, and his collection of not-returned Beat Takeshi VHS tapes.

I was a week into working my way through Beat Takeshi's works one at a time when I spied the Gameboy Advance. It was black, and Super Jinsei Game Advance, a damn dumb Japanese videogame version of the helling Game of Life, was in the cartridge slot. I asked my roommate if he knew the thing was in that drawer, and he said yeah, he just didn't bother with it because it didn't have no batteries. So I says, yeah, you mind if I take this? And he tells me to knock myself out. So I have a Gameboy Advance now.

You may remember months ago I sold my videogames through this very fine website. Well, now I'm starting to get videogames back, one by one.

The problem with that Gameboy was that it not only had no batteries -- it was lacking a battery lid. Not only that -- I couldn't find any games other than the fucking stupid one already inserted into the system. So I went on a hunt through that box of newspapers. And that's where, tucked inside the Yomiuri Newspaper for Tuesday, November 18th, 2003, I found the kaoyase mask. It's an S&M-looking piece of foam rubber that you put over your face when you either want to look like a murderer or sweat weight off your face. The bill we later found revealed that the damned thing had cost the dorobouyarou 29,800 yen. What a shame. We now think of it as a big joke, and it made me forget about the Gameboy Advance for a while, it was so funny.

So it was that weeks later, I went to the local Famicom shop, where I found a battery lid for 100 yen. They had all different colors. It was hard to choose -- I could be like the typical Japanese person and pick the same color as my system, or I could go with something a little more eccentric. As my new Gameboy Advance (and I do mean new -- the buttons hardly ever been pressed) was black, I decided to do things the insertcredit way, and get a white battery lid. So I did.

Be aware, then: that battery lid choice is the most interesting thing about this piece, which is supposed to be a review of Sonic Battle.

Well, now that I think about it, the manner in which I received Sonic Battle is probably pretty interesting, too. Let's dispose, then, of the interesting things, before we get started:

On my livejournal site, after getting the Gameboy, I asked people to send me games. I said the new Fire Emblem and Super Mario Bros. Advance 4 Super Mario Bros. 3, or some cash, would be excellent Christmas gifts. The people of the world -- that's you, my fine, dear readers -- apparently didn't give a shit. Instead, one of you unanonymously sent me a Christmas card with a one-Canadian-dollar gift certificate to Canadian Tire, one of you very anonymously spent sixteen dollars in international shipping to mail me (from El Paso, Texas, no less!) a plastic bag full of twenty-two dollars worth of 1976 Bicentennial quarters which I can't for the life of me cash at any bank here, both because they're coins and because they don't "look like normal quarters," and another one of you sick bastards slipped the Sonic Battle cartridge into a folded-over and taped white envelope and threw it into the air of Boise, Idaho, thinking it'd land here.

God knows, it did.

So I've been playing it all day today. It's Thursday, January 22, 2004, and it's nearly four in the morning. I'm going to review this game as quickly as possible, because I don't really want to talk about it. And that "I don't really want to talk about it" is not, don't you know, supposed to express any kind of sick contempt. It's more of a disinterested thing. Though you might not have hated the pepperoncino you ate for dinner, if you're in the middle of something more interesting than talking about pasta, like, say, having sex, you might reply to your mate's question of "How was dinner, really?" with "I don't want to talk about it."

Right?

So yes: Sonic Battle: I don't really want to talk about it. I will, though, because I hate myself enough to do things I don't want to do, because that's how I live, baby:

Sonic Battle stars characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, running around and punching each other. Punch the opponent enough times, and you survive to punch another opponent. Punch that opponent, and another opponent appears to punch. Keep punching, and eventually there's an ending involving much dialogue between two talking-sprite-heads, one of which is most likely Sonic the Hedgehog, who sometimes says, in voiceover, "WHAT?"

Like a hip-hopper, almost, if that helps it along. Like Urkel grown-up bad:

"WHAT?"

The battles themselves are pulled off in a setup that would have been slick when I was nine and Tetris was the only Gameboy game money allowed me to have. That setup is, of course, three-dimensions. You run back and forth (you can move up and down, too, though it's not at all necessary) -- yes, punching -- in a playing field that bulges and swerves like under a fisheye lens. If you play the game on Gameboy Player, I'm inclined to think, and you had kimchee nabe for lunch four days ago, you might vomit. The pixels are big, and loud. At least they're bright -- I had no trouble seeing the game on the Tobu-Tojo Line up to Sakado today, and it was cloudy as a bastard outside those windows. Also, I'm playing the game on a regular Advance, not an SP -- petty insurance-scamming bitches don't care about quality, you understand.

And neither do the people who put together this game. Sure, there's a story mode in which the only stroke of execution is the viewing perspective -- three-quarters overhead, with lines drawn like with bold markers, calling to mind Mother 2 on Super Famicom. You point Sonic the Hedgehog around town with a white-bitchin'ly-jagged cursor, and he mostly follows. Sometimes he gets caught on buildings. He always catches up, though, so it's all-right. You don't need to worry about your reflexes in this mode, anyway -- you're just traveling from node-to-node initiating story sequences with characters like Rouge, the bat girl you might have liked until you stopped looking at the Sonic Adventure 2 instruction manual and played the damned game, and she comes on to Sonic, asking for dates and all that, and it's half-cute -- that is, it's cute until the conversation ends with Rouge saying, "How about we have a fight? If I win, you have to join me!" Then you fight. You'll sit there, in the middle of the train in the middle of the afternoon, and say something like, "What the hell? That's not how it goes!" Then you'll check yourself -- what the hell? That's not how it goes where?

And this brings us to the first, most important point in our review of this game. Where the hell is this game going? And why does it make us feel like a kid playing "THUNDERCATS: THE VIDEOGAME," on NES, screaming about how Lyono never jumps that much in the TV show?

The kid in me -- this kid that refuses to die -- looks at the way Rouge challenges Sonic to a battle, and is frustrated that the fight begins this way, and has this kind of purpose. It's the game's choice to put this lameass story around the thin gameplay, yes. Yet, it's our choice to think: Sonic doesn't work this way; he's not this kind of guy. What we have here, then, is a videogame based on a videogame, and it may be more frustrating conceptually than the day my brother suggested they make a "Super Mario Bros.: The Movie: The Game," or maybe more perplexing than the day I saw in Electronic Gaming Monthly that they really were making a Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game.

Yet there's a step that's missing, somewhere in here -- that is, the step where the game became a television show or a movie, and then inspired a game. Though Sonic has, recently, become a rather-okay anime what goes by the name of "Sonic X," that anime is not in any way inspiratory to the making of this game. This game's story takes place in "Emerald Town," a place so shoddily thrown together you'd think it was something out of an American-made cartoon of the early nineties, back when cartoons had tiny little souls and great big dreams of money.

Which is to say: this is an unoriginal original work of game that feels like a licensed straight-to-Gameboy summer-blockbuster-movie-based Target sale HOT PRICE item.

What did Sega forget with this game? What did they remember, even? Before we can question that, we'd better ask what they were trying to do in the first place.

What were they trying to do? In the first place?

The only answer I can think of here is make money. Maybe that's not good enough for you. So I shall expand:

The goal of this game, far as I can tell, is to make a pseudo-3D fighting game with simple-to-grasp-anyone-can-play controls, a game which can be turned on, sorted out, and played in a nearly-complete piece during a short train ride. This would be more than honorable -- I've been looking for a game like this for a while -- if the piece of game you can bite off and chew during such cramped time limits were, in and of itself, satisfying. It's not, though -- it's filler. It's almost like this game is made because it needs to be played, and played because it needed to be made to fulfill an annual quota; it's like that Elven bread in Lord of the Rings, which has no taste, yet fills the eater up for a long time on just a tiny bite. It's video Silly Putty. Hell, it's best to just call it dry chewing gum.

The gameplay itself certainly has something of an elastic texture. Like Bubblicious about six minutes in to a chewing session, it's very flexible, on the verge of that stage where it becomes a lump in your mouth which can be moved by jaws of neither man nor beast.

If Sega-Treasure's mostly-recent Tetsuwan Atom (Astroboy -- review forthcoming) is like a rock in its tightness, Sonic Battle plays like twirling a plastic spoon in a cup of strawberry yogurt. Sonic and friends, renowned for a decade and some change for their speed, zip halfway from one side of a wide arena to another with a tap of the D-pad. A double-tap sends your character into a dash that spurts him all the way to the other side of the area, possibly right in front of someone doing an instant-kill special attack. The special attacks are activated by gritting your teeth and pressing three or four buttons at once. When you pull one off, killing three opponents in a four-man battle, you almost reflect, and think, "Hey, it's about time someone made a shitty-controlling game that's too loose rather than sluggish."

The element of speed, then, in this game, is wasted. There is absolutely no reason for Sonic to zip around that damned fast. He could get himself killed. How are you supposed to line yourself up for attacks? Protip: you don't. You just run back and forth, hitting the standard punching button, and you'll eventually whittle your opponents down enough to win the match. Which is to say -- you don't have to run, or even jump.

The fact that you don't need to make use of half of your repertoire is disheartening; it disappoints me, in a way, like the first Zone of the Enders did, when I realized how easy it was to complete every mission: while it looks kind of cool to see your mech jumping and swirling and ballet-dancing around his opponent, flashing a sword like some crazy son of a bitch, all it really takes is to stand back and fire over and over again.

The problem with Sonic Battle, however, may be that none of the things that are really supposed to look cool do, and you're not even going to do them anyway. You're just going to keep running back and forth, punching. When you win, you progress. This has been said. It bears repeating. And it bears repeating that it bears repeating -- because repeating is what this game is all about. Beat an enemy, feel good about yourself, beat the next one, feel alright about yourself, beat the one after that, and feel like shit.

"This is so . . ." you'll say.

"What?"

What, really, is it?

There are blocky protrusions of that third dimension in each stage. Upraised blocks to jump on while you wait for your opponent to jump up and face you in a punching match. Why are these protrusions here? Why are they there, even?

They're there for the same reason you can win new special moves at the end of each Story Mode battle, one could say. What in God's name do the new special moves do? You can beat the game without mentally distinguishing between a single pair of them. Bewilderingly, each time you die in a punching-match (and die you shall, for never will you know what the hell is, really, going on!), a screen pops up, with a timer. The timer tells you you're going to be thrown back into the action in eighteen seconds, and it's up to you, now, to pick your three special moves. One of them is "Aerial," one of them is "Ground," and one of them is "Defense." This reminds me of the "groove select" in Capcom Vs. SNK, only in that game I know what the "groove select" does. I just pick my three special moves with haste, and then position a cursor as far from my opponent as possible, hit the button, and am dropped back into the punching action. I then punch some more, be punched, and defeat my opponent because I'm coming into the battle with a full life meter, and he's already done been punched quite a hell of a bit.

If there's one element I like about this game, it's the tennis-deuce style of winning a match. Beat your opponent once, and earn a point. Beat them twice, and earn a second point. You need three points to win. However, if your opponent beats you the third round, he gets a point from you, meaning you now need two more points. Which is to say, you now need to win two rounds in a row in order to settle the game. In this way, games can go on forever, which I'd honestly love in a case like Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution.

I wonder, now that I write about this, if that wasn't the single inspired idea that got someone at Sega promoted when it came time to start blindly coding this game? Something deep down tells me: YES I AM.

Dude: "We're going to make a fighting game where you always have to beat your opponent by at least two rounds in the end, kind of like . . . like winning a deuce in tennis -- a game can aspire to perpetuity, kind of like pinball. It's possible for a match to never end. We don't yet have a clever means to make that actual fighting, in any way, inspired or inspiring or even entertaining, however, we'll try our best to work on it and my wife is pregnant with our second child."

President: [With a thumbs-up] "What?"

And so it came to be.

Closing up this section: there's a "minigames" mode, too. In it, you play minigames. I really don't know about this -- I only have one copy of the game, and no friends who play videogames, so I can't actually play this mode. Also, the graphics are a little less eye-cutting than I remember them at E3; though I constantly refer to the attacks as "punching" in this review, the truth is that, unlike the E3 version, your characters now have several attacking animations which stretch from punching to kicking, though every attack results in the same OOMPHCRUNCH sound and recoiling of opponent. There are some nice new backgrounds, although grainy, including one in a casino which looks mostly like a place I wouldn't mind visiting if there were any living things there. The music reminds one simultaneously of waiting in line to buy a light bulb at a Japanese electronics store and of one's first childhood experience with a Casio keyboard, one that had keys that you pressed, and out came these funky sound effects like someone saying "Ooh OOH ahh AHH." When you choose your story mode character the first time, every time you move the cursor, it's Sonic's portrait you see; there is no traditional fighting-game field of portraits, proving that the Sega employees masquerading as Sonic Team obviously never took an English composition class, because then they would have known the rule of outlining that states no 1 without a 2, no A without a B, no I without an II, no arrows on the screen without choices to the left or right, and no Sonic without a Tails.

Reaching out, now, to you: Smash Bros., for Nintendo 64, and even for Gamecube -- now, there's an interesting game. I don't play it much -- hell, not even at all -- though I can at least say it's interesting. Here's a slice of a game served up on a platform that can handle games ten times as complicated. In Smash Bros., though the backgrounds are breathing textured polygons, though control is accomplished with the analog stick that invented and was invented for three-dimensional platformers, it's very much a two-dimensional side-scrolling action game with goals equal to those of a fighting game -- and a display that doesn't scroll. The screen holds still, maybe zooming back a little bit an inch or a meter at a time, letting us take in the action with the wholes of our eyeballs. Though touted as a game "anyone" can pick up and play, I find myself getting my ass torn right-clean-off whenever a six-year-old girl challenges me to it at an underground game shop. Here I am, a guy who can fucking beat Gaiares, and I'm realizing, at the murderous hands of a little girl, that there exist some entire canons of games that I cannot ever enter.

Wordy Conclusion:

Sonic Battle, as a game that lives and breathes (albeit on an iron lung) in a period where more games (Onimusha Buraiden/Blade Warriors and That Game With All Kinds of Hudson/Konami Characters in it) imitate Smash Bros. than imitate god-damned River City Ransom get the point already oh my god, is an inverse-colored beast. Rather than being difficult to master, technically too simple for its system's specifications, it's a game anyone can pick up and swallow with two fingers, technically more aspiring than it is mechanically inspired. Smash Bros. is a resounding success in that it owns and hones its simplicity into some kind of secret society where each appearance of every even insignificant character causes someone's heart somewhere to skip two beats; Sonic Battle is a whimpering failure in that it reaches into the third dimension, comes out with a single polygon shard in hand, and then wallpapers the whole thing with characters we don't love solving problems like they wouldn't solve them if we loved them.

. . .

I'm as confused as you are.

The last word:

"WHAT?"

--tim rogers is hungry

CONCEPT:      A fighting game starring Sonic the Hedgehog and friends like Rouge, whose levels we hated, and Shadow, who might have eaten Mecha Sonic grrrARGH! It's gonna make that money for sure!

CONTENT:      One of the stages looks like a casino, and lord knows I love casinos. There's a minigame mode I can't play, because I'll never find another person on earth who owns this game, is standing next to me while I'm carrying this game on my person, and who I'd be societally permitted to talk to. The story mode is the silliest of afterthoughts, and about Chaos Emeralds again?

EXECUTION:      The only thing approaching intelligent is the tennis-deuce scoring system. Nothing is compelling. It is a statue of a fighting game made of popsicle sticks with yogurt used in place of glue.

CAPSULE GAME REVIEW: White-gloved fists go flying in Sonic Battle on your Gameboy Advance! The Dude with a 'Tude is back, and he's bluer than ever (unless you count the bitchin' red flame title screen), faster than he needs to be, and completely lacking in imagination! Watch as he bounds around needlessly, punching, on backgrounds that pulse and cycle in headachy fisheye-lens ways! Burst with special moves you don't understand, grooving to bouncy, live, graty tunes that don't understand themselves! Made by a basement team pretending to be Sonic Team (we hope!) in need of some serious cashage! TOTALLY! Insert Credit gives it a 36 out of 108! TO THE MAX!!

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Developer
Sonic Team

Publisher
Sega

Release Date
1/5/2004