Sonic on the Go: Sonic Jam on the Game.com

Sonc Jam title screen

Few of you truly know the depths the Sonic franchise have sunk to. I know this because I’ve been there repeatedly. I’m not sure if it is out of some perverse pleasure of causing myself pain, or if I just feel the need to punish myself, but I have attempted to play this game repeatedly for all of you, so that I could deliver an accurate account of the experience for the #Sonic23on23 celebration. I mean, what better way to celebrate Sonic’s Golden Birthday then to talk about the worst thing he’s ever been in? Unfortunately, after staring into the awful, dark, green-gray abyss that is the Game.com screen, I come back to you defeated and with a warning: for the love of God, stay away from this thing. This isn’t just the worst portable Sonic game ever made, it’s the worst Sonic game ever made period.

I suppose, before I go into just how awful this thing is, I should give you all a little history lesson. In early 1997 the Game Gear was discontinued, and other handhelds began to rush in to fill the void it left in the market. Among the first was an awful little handheld from Tiger Electronics, a company best known in the gaming space for their portable LCD games. These LCD games were usually based off of licenses from other companies, including SEGA, which gave them the licenses for many of their properties including Panzer Dragoon, After Burner, OutRun, NiGHTS, Shinobi, and of course Sonic. Given their extensive experience in the portable gaming space with these various LED games, one would think that a cartridge based handheld game system would be a natural evolution for Tiger’s business. Unfortunately, Tiger would instead produce the worst handheld game system to ever make it to market.

gamecom_manual_large

The Game.com was awful. It possesses one of the most consistently awful and poorly programmed gaming libraries of any system, it’s screen was poor and difficult to see even by 1997 standards (even worse than the Game Boy’s, released in 1989), and the damn thing just feels cheap to hold. What makes all of this even more depressing is because in many ways this system was ahead of its time. It was the first gaming system to feature a built in touchscreen (seven years before the DS), it was the first handheld system to feature built in PDA functions like a phonebook and calculator, and it was the first handheld system capable of connecting to the internet, albeit through an add on. This damn thing was ambitious, but was so poorly made in so many critical areas that this ambition didn’t really matter. As far as I can tell, this system’s most critical flaw was its lack of true third party support. Though the system features IPs from numerous companies, as near as I can tell they were all developed in-house at Tiger. At least, that’s the only way I can explain the amazingly consistent poor quality of every game in the library to myself, especially Sonic Jam.

Even explosions can't break the boredom Tails is suffering from.
Even explosions can’t break the boredom Tails is suffering from.

So what of the game itself? Well, put simply there is absolutely nothing redeemable about this thing. Nothing. The game utilizes 16 bit sprites ripped straight from Sonic’s Genesis titles, but the Game.com clearly doesn’t have the power to run them. The game runs at a constant slide show, only reaching a playable frame rate for a few faint seconds every now and then. I doubt this game is even running at 15 frames per second most of the time. The physics are the worst I’ve ever experienced. Getting up every single hill is a chore, causing Sonic to slow to a complete stop no matter how much momentum you may try to build up. It’s virtually impossible to build up momentum without use of the spin dash, which itself has been severely gimped so that it’s not possible to rev it up. Rolling down a hill will not only not gain any real speed, it also reveals another weird flaw: the game doesn’t want you to move fast. Try rolling down a hill, and you will hit the edge of the screen and an invisible wall which significantly slows your progress.

Unfortunately the level design often only intensifies these issues, with its constant slopes and hills and randomly placed springs that will shoot you into the air with no apparent destination or item in mind. There is no rhyme or reason to this game’s level design, it all just kind of feels like it was slapped together by some intern in a level editor over the weekend. My first thought was to compare the design negatively against fan games, until I realized that I’d only be insulting fan games. I don’t think I’ve ever played a Sonic fan game that even approaches how slapped together these stages feel. One stage even had a whole lower path that was just a series of flat planes, that occasionally rose or fell. That said, the one positive thing that I can say about these stages is that they aren’t linear. They are actually pretty decent in size and offer a few different paths to traverse. I mean, the design of these stages are still poor, but at least it’s possible to explore right? That’s more than can be said about a lot of other Sonic games!

Sonic Jam Suuuucks

Some parts of the game don’t even seem to work at all. Near the end of the first Sonic 3 level there is a tree that you have to run around in in order to get to the end of the stage. This tree is something most of you might remember from the end of the Angel Island stage. The Game.com attempts to recreate this cool little moment, which it fails to miserably. This makes the entire Sonic 3 portion of the game completely unbeatable by any character but Tails, who can just fly up to the exit after the game breaks.

Really, Tails is the only way to play this game, since Knuckles can’t glide or climb and the level design is so awful that the game is physically painful to traverse on foot. Tails’s flight lasts long enough to get through most of a level in just a couple of goes, and is really the only way to get through any of the levels in this game. Don’t think for a moment that I’m implying Tails makes the game fun though, he just makes it a little less torturous to get through stages. The actual boss battles still tend to be pretty damn awful, since it’s really difficult to play them with the game’s horrid frame rate and they were made too large for the Game.com’s small screen.

Sonic Jam TailsThen there’s the game’s music and…well I don’t even think I’m going to bother describing it. As near as I can tell the Game.com has the worst sound capabilities of any handheld I’ve ever played (including every handheld that predates it) so I’m not sure it’s even fair to bash the poor thing for it. Instead, I’m going to go ahead and link to one of the game’s tracks below. “Enjoy”.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ay8ilo08mlY[/youtube]

Sonic Jam for the Game.com is the very definition of shovelware. It doesn’t have even a lick of passion in its design, something that I don’t think can be said about any other Sonic game out there. It’s a slow, ugly, poorly planned mess of a game made by people who clearly didn’t seem to understand the limitations of their hardware. The entire game is a mess of false advertising, too.

This isn’t a portable version of Sonic Jam, but instead just a hastily made “original” Sonic game that takes sprites and bosses from Sonic 2, 3 and Knuckles. Though the game may display the cartridges for these games in the menu, each game only actually uses the assets from the first stage of each game. In other words, Sonic 2 just has a few really crappy stages using a assets from Emerald Hill, Sonic 3 is just Angel Island and Sonic & Knuckles is just Mushroom Hill. There are a few bosses taken from randomly from other parts of the game, as well as fully realized 3D special stages from Sonic 3 (which run about as well as you’d expect) but “jammed” this game certainly is not, unless they are referring to how they jammed 16 bit sprites into an 8-bit handheld.

Sonic Jam Boss

The one positive thing that could probably be said about this game is that at the very least, Sonic hit his low point early in his career. Sonic 2006 and Shadow the Hedgehog have nothing on this travesty. After the death of the Game Gear all this release really did was rub salt in the wounds the character was dealt by the Game Boy. I can’t help but pity the few poor Sonic fans who picked this up expecting a quality title, only to discover something that was virtually unplayable, especially given that this was released when Sonic fans were starved for games and didn’t even have Game Gear releases to look forward.

Thankfully, Sonic fans wouldn’t have to wait too long to get their next quality portable Sonic fix. Released on an equally obscure (but considerably better) handheld, Sonic Pocket Adventure would not only act as the final chapter in Sonic’s pre-Nintendo career on handhelds, it would serve as a nice bookend for the classic era of Sonic, released just as Sonic was finally about to make the jump to the third dimension and change the franchise forever.

Sonic on the Go: Sonic Blast

Sonic Blast

This article is the second part of the Sonic on the Go series. You can find the first part here.

If Sonic Triple Trouble was the apex of Sonic’s Game Gear titles, its successor Sonic Blast was arguably the nadir. Aside from a few lousy spin off titles like Sonic Labyrinth and Spinball, no Sonic game on the system failed quite so hard as Sonic Blast did. Don’t get me wrong though, I still think Blast was a fun game personally. For all the hate I’ve seen the game get from retro fans, I don’t really think Blast is all that bad. Still, even if the game isn’t awful it was a huge step back for Sonic’s handheld adventures.

The game is slow and kind of ugly. Though the technically impressive pre-rendered sprites look pretty good, the levels themselves are almost completely devoid of charm or color. The level lay out is simplistic and dull, lacking multiple hidden paths and areas that made the stages in Triple Trouble so fun to explore. Finally, the game just moves too slowly, even for an 8-bit Sonic game.

Triple Trouble managed to blow this game out of the water in almost every way imaginable, which a huge disappointment given that this game was Sonic’s swan song on the system. It’s a shame that developer Aspect threw away everything they had learned about Sonic game design and the Game Gear’s limitations to create was is effectively a tech demo.

To Blast’s credit, though, it is an impressive tech demo. As the Game Gear counterpart to the Genesis’ technically impressive Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Blast was tasked with accomplishing something similarly impressive on SEGA’s aging 8-bit hardware. In this regard Aspect was reasonably successful, creating the one and only Game Gear game that utilized pre-rendered sprites by pushing the Game Gear’s color capabilities to their max. Unfortunately this game at the expense of the game design, but it’s still nice to see the Game Gear was capable of such a feat.

Blast also gave Knuckles his first handheld adventure. As a major fan of the character at the time, Knuckles’ inclusion instantly made Blast one of the most played games on my system. This game doesn’t disappoint either: Knuckles plays exactly as he should, complete with his gliding and climbing abilities. The bland level design does hold Knuckles back somewhat, but he does play well at least, and he’s a heck of a lot better than Sonic, who has lost his cool power ups from Triple Trouble and only got a double jump in return. After Triple Trouble constantly enticed me with the character’s presence, it was nice to finally play as Knuckles in the car in Sonic Blast.

In hindsight, I do have to acknowledge that Sonic Blast wasn’t all that good, but it doesn’t negate all the fun I’ve had with it over the years. So if you’ve got the money to spare and want another Sonic game to play, I think you should check out Sonic Blast. On the Game Gear it’s an interesting tech demo that demonstrates abilities no one thought the system had. On the 3DS it’s a mediocre Sonic game that can help kill an afternoon. Sonic has definitely done worse, both on and off the Game Gear. Even in terms of portable games, Sonic Blast would be followed up by what is arguably the worst Sonic game ever made: Sonic Jam on the Tiger Game.com.