Handheld Sonic games always seem to get the short end of the stick. From the days of the Game Gear all the way up until today, it seems like Sonic’s quality portable outings are usually ignored in favor of worshiping or hating the console games. Now don’t get me wrong, many of Sonic’s best games have been on consoles, including the legendary flagship trilogy that launched the entire franchise. However, there have been plenty of great entries on a multitude of portables as well, even during the franchise’s so called “darkest days” in the mid-2000s when the best Sonic had to show for himself on the consoles were games like Sonic Heroes, Shadow, and Sonic06. With summer almost upon us, I thought I would take a look at some of Sonic’s portable games, and maybe convince some of you to try them out if you haven’t already! Among these great, under appreciated gems was Sonic Triple Trouble, a culmination of years of work on perfecting the formula on the 8-bit Game Gear.
Sonic’s history on the Game Gear was a rocky one. Most of his games were cross developed for both SEGA’s 8-bit home Master System console and the Game Gear, meaning most of Sonic’s early portable outings of the time were hamstrung by the Master System’s limitations. Sonic’s debut effort on the portable, simply titled “Sonic the Hedgehog”, was hardly the triple A title the Genesis edition was. Developed by Ancient, its graphics were simplified and ugly, the game play was slow and the level design was simplistic. While it shared the art style of its more advanced brother, the game itself felt too much like a generic 8-bit platformer, poorly conveying the unique level design and sense of speed that made the Genesis version so popular.
After their new mascot’s mediocre debut on their 8-bit platforms, SEGA found a new development team to handle the 8-bit versions of the franchise: Aspect. Picking up where Ancient left off, Aspect developed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Master System and Game Gear in 1992. This version of Sonic 2 featured vastly different locales and bosses from its Genesis counterpart, featuring underground caverns in place Emerald Hill, a green mountainous area above the clouds instead of Chemical Plant, and so on. It was a completely different game in all ways but one: it actually felt like a Sonic game. The levels were larger and featured multiple paths and faster game play, as well as level specific gimmicks like mine carts and hang gliders. True, it lacked a spin dash and Tails, but it did prove that the Genesis’ “blast processing” wasn’t needed to make a Sonic game. Of course, the game wasn’t perfect. Aside from the aforementioned lack of Tails and the Spin Dash, the game also featured odd difficulty spikes, including what was easily the most difficult first boss in Sonic’s history. The level design sometimes forced players to make blind jumps and it clearly still wasn’t being optimized for the Game Gear. It wasn’t until the next game that Aspect really began to understand how to make a Sonic game on the Game Gear.
Sonic Chaos was the first entirely original Sonic game for SEGA’s 8 bit consoles. Released in 1993, a year before Sonic 3’s launch, it had no Genesis counterpart to be connected to, and as a result became the first entry in the “Sonic & Tails” series, as it was known in Japan. It was here that Sonic’s Game Gear games finally defined themselves as something unique and separate from the Genesis games. Sonic Chaos was the first Sonic game to introduce unique power ups, in the form of Sonic’s rocket boots and the pogo spring. The jet boots allowed Sonic to blast across the stage for a limited amount of time, while the pogo spring allowed either Sonic or Tails to bounce around the level and reach high areas. Sonic Chaos also added additional abilities to the characters. Not only could Sonic finally spin dash, a feature inexplicably absent from Sonic 2, but he could also perform the super peel-out, a move introduced in Sonic CD earlier that year. Sonic Chaos was also the very first game in Sonic’s history to allow Tails to fly through the game.
The level design and graphics were even further improved over Sonic 2, offering more detailed, more colorful sprites and levels. The game play was faster, and the levels were bigger and more effectively designed for the Game Gear, all but eliminating blind jumps. The difficulty also gradually rose throughout the game, rather than randomly spiking upwards in certain areas. The bosses themselves were easier, though still provided some challenge. Finally, Sonic Chaos became the first 8-bit Sonic game to have special stages for Chaos Emeralds, rather than simply hiding the chaos emeralds in the levels themselves. The special stages of the Sonic and Tails series were not your typical special stages though. Rather than half pipe or pinball-esque mini games, they were labyrinthine levels in and of themselves. Sonic Chaos was a fine 8-bit Sonic game, fairly well made despite the limitations of the hardware it was being made for. It pioneered a variety of concepts, both for handheld Sonic games and Sonic games in general. It wouldn’t be until its sequel, Sonic Triple Trouble that these ideas were used to their potential.
Finally, in 1994, Triple Trouble was released. Known as “Sonic and Tails 2” in Japan, it took everything good about Sonic Chaos, and made it great. It was the first Sonic Game Gear game to be made exclusively for the system. Thanks to this exclusivity, it was able to make full use of the Game Gear’s superior graphical capabilities, allowing Triple Trouble to look more detailed and colorful than any other Sonic game on the system. Triple Trouble was also a bigger game then Chaos, with larger levels that featured more places to explore and more alternate paths. The bosses were also significantly improved. The first boss takes place in two arenas, beginning in an underwater cavern and ending on the surface. The second one takes place aboard a moving train, ending in a fight with the train’s engine. The third battle is with a giant robotic caterpillar, that explodes and rains fire down on Sonic for a minute after it is destroyed. The final act of Triple Trouble destroys the final boss in Sonic Chaos, featuring four consecutive boss battles including Metal Sonic. In addition to all of these conventional boss battles, there are now boss battles at the end of four of the game’s five special stages. These bosses were piloted by another Triple Trouble original, fan favorite bounty hunter Nack the Weasel, or Fang the Sniper as he’s known in Japan. Fang himself was also a unique addition to the Sonic franchise, not only for being one of the first non-Robotnik villains, but for also injecting some humor into the game. For an 8 bit sprite, Nack could be surprisingly expressive, trying to portray himself as a cool, threatening bounty hunter yet always managing to screw himself over eventually. In your very first encounter, he tries to activate a trap much like Knuckles does, except this time the trap burns him, not the player. In one of the boss encounters, Nack does the smart thing and just fires a homing missile at you while he floats out of range. This battle only requires the player to avoid the missile for a little while, as it eventually veers off course and crashes right into Nack. Say what you will about Robotnik’s effectiveness, at least his stuff works! It’s no wonder Nack has some popularity in the fan community.
In addition to offering a bigger and better looking game, Sonic Triple Trouble added a variety of unique and interesting touches to its game play that remains exclusive to it. Sonic’s super peel out now made Sonic momentarily invincible, allowing him to run through enemies. Both characters now had the ability to curl in mid-air, allowing players to skillfully attack enemies and destroy item boxes after they bounced off of springs and fell off of ledges. I’m surprised mid-air curling hasn’t come back in some form since Triple Trouble, given how natural it feels. The very first boss in the game actually requires this one of a kind move. Triple Trouble also significantly expands on Chaos’s power ups. Sonic now has access to a snowboard in Robotnik Winter, which allows him to slide across the stage and move over areas of snow cover that he’d otherwise fall through. Sonic can now also receive scuba boots, which allows him to temporarily swim through the water. Tails, meanwhile, got his own version of the jet boots, the Hyper Helitail, as well as a submarine that can shoot torpedoes and drill through rock, making moving through Tidal Plant a breeze.
Triple Trouble was easily Sonic’s best game on the Game Gear. It was built off of years of experimentation and experience on what a Sonic game on the Game Gear could be like, and resulted in a game with its own identity. It wasn’t like the Genesis games. It didn’t use shield power ups, or feature half pipe or sphere collecting mini games for its special stages. It wasn’t as fast or as slick looking as its more advanced counterparts. Yet as far as I’m concerned Triple Trouble still held its own, despite being on vastly inferior hardware, featuring game play designed for a 16 bit home console. It was one of my first Sonic games, and remains one of my favorites. From its creative and sometimes epic boss battles, to its unique power ups, to Nack’s screw ups, to the diverse levels, Triple Trouble is a superb example of classic Sonic game play.
Now, don’t take all this praise to mean it’s as good as the Genesis games. The levels are still smaller than they are on the Genesis, the speed is still slower, and the game itself feels stiff compared to the Genesis games. Even so, Triple Trouble is an exceptionally well made Sonic game and one I still have very fond memories of. Much like the Genesis games, it has stood the test of time well, and if you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend you give a shot first chance you get. With the game now easily available on Nintendo’s 3DS, there is no better time then now to give the same a try!