HOW TO FIX: Sonic Adventure 2 Battle

I firmly believe that Sonic Adventure 2 is actually a good game.  Maybe that’s being too generous…but I still really enjoy this game despite all its faults.  But what are its faults?  How can they be fixed?  What would it take for Sonic Adventure 2 to become a masterpiece?

First of all, this game has a lot of positives.  Given its cult fanbase, this makes sense.  The soundtrack is amazing — it’s my favorite soundtrack in the series.  Honestly, it’s probably one of the best rock soundtracks I’ve heard in a game.  Its combination of acid jazz, 90s pop rock, and metal works well with the psychedelic style.  And although the rap tracks in the Knuckles levels are cheesy as hell, I still nod my head to them constantly.

Overall, I like the characters in Sonic Adventure 2.  Sure, they border on being parodies of themselves, but I think characters like Rouge and Shadow are endearing.  In fact, I think the depiction of Shadow in this game is better than in any of the other Sonic games.  There’s actually some emotional content to his character, and by Dreamcast standards, his voice actor David Humphrey puts on a good performance.

Some of the environments in Sonic Adventure 2 are amazing.  City Escape is iconic, and has an awesome theme to boot.  Radical Highway has a cool aesthetic, Green Forest is nice and elaborate, and I honestly love Pumpkin Hill.  My favorite thing about this game is its overall tone and aesthetic, even if it sometimes borders on absurdity.  The feeling I get from this game is the feeling I think all Sonic games should try to give its players.

But I acknowledge that I have a better-than-average tolerance for iffy games, and SA2 is certainly iffy.  The levels where you play as Shadow and Sonic are considered pretty solid, but the gameplay of every other character is where things fall apart.  Let’s diagnose these other two level types one at a time.

The levels where you play as Dr. Eggman and Tails revolve around using mechs to shoot up enemies.  There’s also some simple platforming to reach the end of the level.  The more enemies you can lock onto and destroy at once, the better the score you rack up.  These levels struggle in part because locking onto enemies at different heights using a straight reticule involves an annoying combination of jumping and spinning an analog stick.  Since you’re usually trying to platform at the same time, this doesn’t help.  What’s more is that the control of the mechs themselves is clunky.  They don’t move at a consistent speed, and turning on a dime is not an option.  Combine that with occasionally glitchy surfaces and you have a recipe for disaster.  Bonus problem: the targeting beam makes the loudest, most obnoxious beeping sound ever.

The solution: place enemies so that locking onto them requires fewer acrobatics.   Locking onto enemies should be faster, and once you lock on, enemies should be destroyed instantly.  It might require better processing, so the better option might just be to have fewer enemies.  These levels just have to move faster.  The next step is to make movement more fluid, give the player more space to maneuver, or both.  The player has to feel in control at all times to have a good experience.  (Also, just get rid of the beeping noise.)

Next up, we have Rouge and Knuckles treasure hunting levels.  In these, you have to navigate a set space with no goal — the mission is to find three hidden objects somewhere in the level.  The locations are always set, but there are a lot of different possible locations.  Even worse, the locations are random every time you do a level.  You have a radar that tells you when you’re near an emerald (sort of like hot-and-cold) and you can get hints from sentries in the level.   I didn’t mind these levels quite as much, but they need fixing.

For one thing, bring back the same radar system as the first Sonic Adventure.  In Sonic Adventure 2, the radar will only let you track them emeralds in a certain order.  This means you can find an emerald by accident but not be able to grab it.  The first game never did this, and for good reason.  If you got close to any emerald in any order, you could track it.

This is the most concise and fair way of doing things.  Beyond that, some of the locations need to be more logical and some of the hints more accurate.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a wild goose chase in these levels.  Otherwise, some of the level layouts need to be simpler.  There are so many levels where you have to go through several steps to reach an area, and half the time there won’t be an emerald and you waste your time.  Others are just too darn big and complicated (like Mad Space).

Is that the bottom of the pile?  Mostly.  There are a lot of issues with this game that deal with the fundamentals, like control and level design.  Sometimes the enemy placement or design is unfair, or the controls unreliable.  Caddicarus put it pretty well when he said he would lightly flick the control stick and suddenly go “flying off to Mercury.”  I can’t really argue with that.  Sonic Adventure 2 often isn’t as fun or solid as people might like.  The story is often completely ridiculous and contradictory.  The voice acting is pretty terrible.  But do I think it deserves hate?  No, not at all.  There are lots of things this game does that I hope more Sonic games do.  It may not be a great game, but it will always be in my heart.

Also, the Chao Garden must be its own mobile game.  Get on it, Sega.

Jet Set Radio and Games as Culture

My college roommate and I are great friends.  We’re similar in a lot of ways, but we bond most strongly through a lifelong love of video games.  We play them together in our spare time, and talk about them all the time.  We’ve become pretty close through gaming.  Recently, I brought my Xbox 360 to our dorm for the first time.  I brought it for the sole purpose of showing him two games: Jet Set Radio and Jet Set Radio Future.  I even told him, “These games are important.  They’re basically me.”  I realize now that this is the truth.

Jet Set Radio for Dreamcast is far from a perfect game.  Lots of people have complained about its glitchiness, poor physics, repetitive gameplay, and short length.  All of these complaints are valid.  And yet, this is one of my favorite games of all time.  The gameplay is innovative and fun, but that’s not what roped me in.  I fell in love with this game’s personality.  Jet Set Radio is a mixture of everything I love.

It pioneered the cel-shaded art style, loading up its art with bright colors and stunning visual color contrast.  The story is told through manga/comic panels that remind me of when I was seven years old.  The bold colors remind me of the Marvel comics drawn by Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and Joe Simon that were passed down to me by my dad, the comic book wizard.

Jet Set Radio gameplay
Gameplay of the first Jet Set Radio game. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The story is a classic clash of art vs. oppressive establishment, mixed with the fast-paced, theme-driven gang war seen in The Warriors.  The rival gangs reflect motifs from every corner of pop culture.  Poison Jam, the movie monsters inspired by Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon.  The Noise Tanks, robots inspired by Hackers and Daft Punk.  The Love Shockers, punk rock renegades that echo the same tone as bands like Warrant and The Runaways.  Even the Keisatsu police hunting you down are straight out of a 70’s cop series like Starsky & Hutch, headed up by Captain Onishima, AKA whacked-out Columbo.

DJ Professor K
DJ Professor K! (Photo: theEyZmaster via deviantArt

The action is narrated by the voluptuous vocals of DJ Professor K, the game’s bombastic narrator, who’s half Bob Marley, and half a combination of Cyrus and the mystery DJ from The Warriors.  Professor K runs the titular pirate radio station, the centerpiece of the entire experience.  Hideki Naganuma, the composer and sound designer of the series, created a sound in JSR that’s unlike any other video game.  It’s a collage of acid jazz, funk, R&B, disco, electro house, grunge rock, J-rock, and 90’s rap.  Artists from Professional Murder Music to the Jurassic 5.  Jet Set Radio music brings fans of Nirvana to James Brown together under one banner.  It’s timeless, but still an incredible snapshot of the new millennium.

The appeal of Jet Set Radio comes from all the different styles it brings together into one.  Here you have a game that mixes East with West, J-Rock with 90’s rap, Tokyo with New York City.  Japanese “Don’t Rush Out!” street signs with Western-style comic panels.  This game has music that will transition from a shredding electric guitar to a record scratch at the drop of a hat.  This game isn’t just a game, it’s an homage to modern culture.

I think the sequel, Jet Set Radio Future, reinforces this notion.  Although I go against the grain in that I don’t quite like JSRF as much as its predecessor, I have to admit that it took what Jet Set Radio did and flung it into the next century.  Tricks could now chain into one another, levels now had more verticality and detail, and everything looked at the same time more realistic and more comical.

The soundtrack had more synth and became more experimental.  90s rap turned to 2000s rap, and things became a little less James Brown and a little more Beastie Boys.  Smilebit updated JSR for a cyberpunk world of Napster, The Bourne Identity, and The Matrix.  I love these movies, and when I watch them I can’t help but think of the incredible evolution that JSRF represents.  I’ve hardly ever seen a sequel adapt a theme and improve upon a formula so gracefully.  And all this in roughly one year.

The Jet Set Radio games are cult classics, but poor sales have kept the series from getting a third installment.  And…this bothers me not just as an early 2000s kid, and as someone who appreciates this glorious cultural mashup.  It bothers me because I want to see how the series would interpret the world in 2017.

I listen to a real online radio station called Jet Set Radio Live.  Its a true love letter to what the series represents.  It plays music from the actual games, of course, as well as songs from tons of bands, DJs, and remixers of the past 15 years.  Everyone from Parov Stelar to Featurecast, to some of my favorite bands like Jamiroquai and Gorillaz.  Everything it plays fits in with the tone of of one or both Jet Set Radio games.  Every song I hear reminds me that Jet Set Radio and JSRF didn’t just show the present and past — they saw the future.

I don’t know what will happen with Jet Set Radio in the coming years.  Maybe we’ll never get a new one.  Even if we don’t, I’ll always think of it that a series that defines me.  Everything from Michael Jackson’s video for Bad to the work of Banksy now reminds me of the message spread by these games.  A message of freedom, expression, and the power of individuals that we, in this world, must remember.

My world is more full of color, beauty, and groove thanks to Jet Set Radio.  It will remain a testament to the revolution of the early 2000s.  And maybe someday, if we’re lucky, a new generation will end up with their own gang of roller-skating rudies.

Banjo-Kazooie and Character Platformers

One of the most fascinating times I can think of in the history of video games is the late 90s.  This was the era of the Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and good old Sega Dreamcast.  But what we’re here to talk about is a certain British company called Rare.  They  made a number of amazing cult classic games like Perfect Dark, GoldenEye 007, Donkey Kong Country, Conker, and most importantly…Banjo-Kazooie.

Rare was able to, as Jon Jafari puts it, “seemingly tackle any genre and set the bar while they were at it.”  Their games were more than good, they were unique.  They reached new heights of technology, gameplay, and character.  This was during a time when companies sought to create new mascots to stand out in the emerging 3D market.  Although this happened across all genres, the most important was probably the 3D platformer.

3D not only led to big changes for Sonic and Super Mario, but also games with similar styles trying to share the spotlight.  Crash Bandicoot was one, Spyro the Dragon another, and even Bubsy the Bobcat…existed.  Some of these games were incredible and even genre-defining (I’m still a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot).  But Banjo-Kazooie is particularly important.  Let me explain why.

The Nintendo 64
The Nintendo 64, a very important console and Rare’s weapon of choice. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Like I said before, lots of games are good, but Rare games are unique.  They had a talent for getting to the roots of what made certain kinds of games fun.  Banjo-Kazooie’s primary team was Chris Sutherland as director, the Mayles brothers as designers, and Grant Kirkhope as composer.  The team they led channeled the essence of what made for a great platformer.  Every one of the game’s nine worlds are memorable, sporting different art styles and game mechanics.  So memorable that they’re equally good for different reasons

Clanker’s Cavern has a mechanical, even horrific feel.  Click Clock Wood is creatively based on the four seasons.  Treasure Trove Cove is a lovely, sunny pirate-themed beach.  The list goes on.  Every world has its own cast of enemies and characters, and they all serve a clear role.  Nothing in the game is put there for no reason (unless you count the Ice Key, but forget that).  Because of this, exploration feels natural and directed.  You have a reason to explore every inch of the world, because if there’s someone you can talk to, they’ll give you a task.

Beyond that, exploration in Banjo-Kazooie is fun because the worlds and soundtrack are vivid and colorful.  All the characters are a joy to interact with, from Mr. Vile the competitive crocodile to Eyrie, the eagle you have to raise from a chick.  Completing certain tasks involves using Mumbo the Mystic to change into creatures like ants, crocodiles, or even pumpkins.  They all have different abilities and a sense of personality.  Kirkhope’s brilliant, whimsical soundtrack uses MIDI-channel fading to adjust the background music so that whenever you control Kazooie, play as a different creature, or enter a new area, a different version of the world’s tune will play.  This creates an incredible sense of real exploration for a game made up of simple textures and polygons.

Banjo-Kazooie cartridge
The cartridge for Banjo-Kazooie! (Photo: retrogamecraze via Flickr)

Banjo-Kazooie is a great platformer because it’s not afraid of embracing its own whimsy.  Everything has a goofy name, and cartoonish animations.  The “voice acting” is a series of different mumbles for each character.  All of the dialogue is silly and seems to appeal to children.  Yet, the underlying method is that the true charm of a game is in how you experience it.  Everything in this game is a mystery to be discovered, and it never fails to make you chuckle.  It’s a master class in how to make a player feel great about exploring a world.

Sadly, Banjo-Kazooie only got two amazing games before basically dying out.   Since then, its key creators moved on from Rare and got back together to create Playtonic Games.  Their big project is Yooka-Laylee, the spiritual successor to their greatest series that intends to bring back the character platformer for a new audience.  So far it looks like it will have all the character and spirit that made Banjo-Kazooie a great game.  I completed the first Banjo-Kazooie one-hundred percent when I played it.  Hopefully when Yooka-Laylee comes out, I’ll get to do the same thing.

Fire Emblem Heroes: Nintendo Brings Strategy to Mobile

The latest Fire Emblem Nintendo Direct was a few weeks ago.  One of my most anticipated games was the release of Fire Emblem Heroes.  This is part of a slew of Nintendo mobile games that have been coming out this past year.

Although Pokemon GO was a bigger smash hit for Nintendo, I prefer Fire Emblem Heroes.  It’s partially because I’m a huge Fire Emblem fan.  I’ve played GaidenAwakening, and now Fates, and I love every minute.  A full-fledged Fire Emblem mobile game sounded like a dream, and I want to give you my take.

The game hit app stores yesterday (February 2nd), and is already buzzing.  The servers had some initial trouble, but online play works great so far.  The game unfortunately requires an Internet connection, but that’s not been much of a problem.

Fire Emblem Heroes castle hub.

Heroes also has a very good attitude about in-app purchases.  The only major currency you can trade real money for are Orbs.  You can use Orbs to summon units from other games into your army.  You can also earn them by beating missions for the first time on a new difficulty.  The prices for simply buying orbs are pretty steep, but it’s better to earn them by actually playing the game.

Fire Emblem Heroes in-app purchases
$74.99 for 140 orbs is a bit much.

So how is it to play Fire Emblem Heroes?

I had some trouble with the game at first.  The same Fire Emblem formula is still there, but now it’s the size of a touch screen.  Every match is four units versus four enemy units, and each unit can only move a few spaces.  As per usual, fliers and horses move further than other units, and archers and mages can attack from two spaces.  Each stage also has different terrain, which is one of my favorite features of the series.

Fire Emblem Heroes battlefield
One of the battlefields in Heroes.

I will admit that sometimes the battlefield can feel a little cramped, but each battle is so quick and interesting that I never notice.  Heroes has a overhead camera with a cute, chibi art style that’s easy on the eyes.  But during battle, each character also has beautiful battle portraits, including extras for when characters take a lot of damage.

Lyn in Fire Emblem Heroes
Lyn as she appears in Fire Emblem Heroes!

Fire Emblem as a series has tons of characters, and Heroes takes advantage of that large number.  Summoning new characters to build your army allows you to put together a bunch of teams.  This way you can prepare for any situation, using lots of cool fighters.  You can also increase their star rankings to make them stronger and equip them with different weapons and skills.

Fire Emblem Heroes teams
Fire Emblem has a great team-building mechanic!

The game looks great and plays fast like any good mobile game, but it also has a lot of longevity.  Different difficulties, online play, and daily quests make it easy to pick up, play, and put down again.  I’m looking forward to seeing more characters, getting through the story, and playing more Fire Emblem on the go.

I’ll also add that for a free game, Fire Emblem Heroes is great about letting you play whenever you want and never showing ads.  The download was pretty big, but it’s worth it for Nintendo’s best mobile game.  If you’re looking for a fun mobile game, this one gets my recommendation!