Tag Archives: Sega

Sonic Forces is 3D Sonic Done Weird

I got my hands on Sonic Forces a couple of days ago, and it was pretty eye-opening.  The excitement for this game had built up for a year before giving way to terror, as the game hadn’t seemed to progress beyond what we’d seen an entire year before release.  It released to average reviews, but I thought it looked pretty fun, and I was determined to keep thinking that until I’d at least played it.

I was desperate for Sonic Forces to be good, but for everything I like, it just can’t let me think of it that way.

Every time I see something in Forces i just enjoy, the game takes at least two steps back with the horrific flaws in its gameplay, its blatant lack of polish, lack of ingenuity in stage design, and abundance of pointless deaths.  So let’s break it down like a fraction.

The camera in this game is so zoomed out all the time that sometimes I couldn’t see where I was on-screen.  This is opposite to the problem I had with the original trilogy of Sonic games, but it’s still really rough not knowing where I am spatially.  The modern stages are the closest I’ve seen any Sonic game come to “hold boost to win.” In fact, you could beat the demo with one button, and the rest of the game is not as far off from that as you might hope.  Enemy placements are useless about 70% of the time because most of them are put there to be boosted through.  Even the best modern Sonic levels in the game consisted mostly of timing a series of 5-10 homing attacks or a few rail jumps precisely in 3D.  It also had 2.5D precise platforming sections, which I didn’t mind in other games, but they’re a nightmare in Forces because of its awful momentum.

The player’s momentum causes them to continually speed up when they don’t expect to.  You might be going for a running start for a jump, but then go 0 to 60 and lose all mid-air control.  This will usually result in death, frustration, or being stuck on a worse path through the level that somehow manages to be more boring than the stage already was.

Sonic Forces is a walking identity crisis.  It blends a bunch of Sonic’s mechanics from the past 10 years or so, without giving them much of a proper home in terms of level design.  Modern Sonic himself is meant to be somewhere between Colors and Unleashed in terms of control, but his boost feels less satisfying.  His double jump, which was great for air control in Colors, fails in Forces because of its unrefined momentum.  Boosting is now also tied to Wisp capsules from Colors, which return once again for no reason in greater numbers than ever before.  This hampered my sense of urgency, since most of the time these capsules were placed specifically where I needed to boost.  I always feel the need to go forward as fast as possible in modern stages, but the placement of red rings requires you to explore levels like in Colors, and so the game gives mixed messages.

The Avatar stages are similar, but I do enjoy those for the way they’re laid out.  Using different weapons unlocked through the game gives you access to different Wisps.  These Wisps give you access to different areas or shortcuts in each level, encouraging you to go back and experiment with different routes.  This could be a great feature, although sometimes these different paths overlapped in confusing ways, and it’s not always easy to tell which Wisps you’re allowed to use.  The Avatar’s weapons are often jittery, unsatisfying, and sometimes downright confusing (like the drill), and the inclusion of Wisps sometimes annoys me because the Wisps used to be very situational, but now work in such short bursts that I find myself having to constantly re-grab capsules to get the necessary items.  Avatars also have different abilities depending on speed.  For example, birds can double jump to get more height or distance.  But the same problems arise because Sonic Forces doesn’t give you adequate mid-air control or momentum.  Things like the double jump end up getting you killed or damaged about half the time.  Not to mention the fact that Avatar stages feel so linear and scripted that the game practically plays itself in places.

Speaking of the game playing itself, the classic Sonic levels in this game are some of the most unnecessary and poorly implemented stages I’ve seen since Big the Cat.  Forces ties in explicitly with Mania because they have the same maguffin, so Sonic Team decided to bring the little guy back for a second outing.  Despite being teased from day one, these levels feel like an afterthought.  Whenever classic stages try to be inventive, something about the physics or control hamper them once again to make them feel like a chore.  In the level Iron Fortress, I took over 10 minutes and a number of deaths because of a screen-scrolling segment that required defeating enemies on very small platforms using half-baked platforming physics, as well as hopping between giant spinning wheels that will literally drop you off the stage to your death if the invisible wall catches up.  This pattern of unnecessary frustration due to broken mechanics is common in the few classic Sonic stages, and I didn’t enjoy a single one, with the possible exception of Chemical Plant.

The sound design in Sonic Forces is odd and somewhat disappointing.  In some places the music is catchy and great, but in others like Classic Sonic’s, the music feels generic and low-effort, which doesn’t do much to cover up the gameplay.  And it’s sad, because soundtrack is something Sonic has always done well.  Sound effects don’t feel as punchy either.  I found myself really missing the satisfying thunderclap of Sonic’s boost.

I don’t really even want to mention the game’s story because it’s so blatantly stupid and the dialogue so insultingly bad that it clearly took no priority.  The only thing I will really criticize is the fact that with all these old characters brought back, and with all of the mission-oriented narratives behind the stages, and with all the cinematic QTEs (which totally need to be there), it would’ve been cool if the characters interacted with the stages.  For example, I would’ve liked a Sonic level where Silver was defeating enemies in the background the whole time, and then helped me get through a normally impassable part of the level.  This would’ve been a creative move.

All this being said, I actually didn’t hate playing Forces that much.

The better stages feel fun to go back and earn S-ranks on, and the game’s mission system gives you tons of new gear to customize your avatar.  While I admit most of it is really ridiculous, some of the equipment is pretty cool and I genuinely had fun decking out my “OC” with the new stuff I got.  The game gets a little better with replays, and some alternate paths make the levels feel deeper and more variable.  A few bosses also stood out as having decent design.  For example, I like some of the fights against Infinite because getting hit by his illusions puts you in a more dangerous situation temporarily, creating a nice push-and-pull.

The game is also drop-dead gorgeous, but this might be a potential short-fall itself.  Despite being the same length as GenerationsForces feels like half a game to me.

If I had to suggest some ways to fix Forces, I’d say its biggest downfall was ambition.  Instead of having 30 short, low-effort stages to accommodate Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, AND the player avatar, I would rather have seen a few longer stages with more focus given on one or two playstyles instead of having three.  It was like they introduced multiple playstyles to generate hype, but forgot to deliver on satisfying gameplay in the long run.

Developing ports for Xbox, PS4, Switch, and PC was also a huge ask.  I realize Sonic Team was put between a rock and hard place with the finicky fanbase, but anyone can distinguish between a polished game and an unpolished one, and I think a polished one would’ve fared better.  I think Sonic Team’s method of making modern games has is beginning to fail them.  Its standard of creating huge, detailed 3D backgrounds leads to some really beautiful stages, but gives way to linear gameplay that’s over in 2 minutes.  All that work is wasted on visuals that impress the player for a fleeting moment.

Sega needs to do something, somehow, to make sure that Sonic delivers on the meat of the gameplay.  If you’re going to give the player visual spectacle, it has to be worth it for the gameplay.  This is why Mania is one of the most highly-praised Sonic games of all time.  Granted, it worked with much, much simpler assets, but its simplistic formula gave it room to explore dozens of unusual mechanics.  It also made a smart, tactical use of rings either as a reward for a small mechanical challenge or as a way to indicate secrets or alternate paths.  I think most of us would rather have this than the Forces approach of giant, empty backgrounds and levels overstuffed with hundreds of pointless rings that make the player feel like a speck of dust floating around in a boring vacuum.

I think the Mania is important because despite being a fanmade project, it appealed to a massive audience.  It showed that even with a series as inconsistent as this one, charming visuals, tight level design, consistent gameplay tones, and good pacing win the day.  In a sense, the amount of tropes Mania abandoned gave it room to become something spectacular.  I’ve always admired Sonic as a series because even though it fails constantly, it insists on trying different things.  I still think it should do so, but it needs to be careful about what it invents and what it recycles.  Otherwise it turns out Sonic Forces, a game that tries to please everyone but doesn’t know how.

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.

My Top 10 Favorite Super Smash Bros. Characters

I watched a lot of great top 10 videos during my early days on YouTube.  Since I love ranking things, it wasn’t long before I started making them myself.  I thought it might be fun to start putting some on ScreenLooker.  Why not list my my top 10 favorite characters in my favorite crossover/fighting game ever?  That’s right, it’s Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

So without further ado, here it is, my top 10 Smash…brothers…I guess?

10 – Mewtwo

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One of Nintendo’s greatest decisions in developing this game was bringing Mewtwo back into Smash Bros., ready for round two.  I remember being super-excited because I’ve always thought Mewtwo was cool, but I never really felt like I got to experience the true extent of his power in the actual Pokemon games.

This was my first taste of Mewtwo in Smash, and it did not disappoint.  Although he’s fairly easy to KO, Mewtwo has some great aerial attacks, amazing mobility, and great mix-up options.  You have to remain firmly in control of the battle to play as Mewtwo, and his play style is unique.  He’s joy to play, and a joy to have back in the game.

9 – Mega Man

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I never grew up with the games, but I still love the Mega Man series – it revolutionized the action platformer and is a massive influence on gaming as a whole, not to mention a super-cool universe in its own right.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when Mega Man was brought into Smash, and was one of my early favorite newcomers.  His projectile game is extremely complex but rewarding, and very faithful to the series.  I’m insanely glad that Mega Man has returned to the spotlight for once, and I hope that he stays there for a while.

8 – Ness

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My attachment to Ness started when I got a Ness amiibo as a gift.  Before that, I mostly ignored Ness.  When I actually started committing to learning the character, though, I discovered that the little guy has a lot of strengths and fun complexities.  His moves are incredibly varied, but come together in a beautifully chaotic harmony.  He may take the title for quirkiest character in Smash for me, keeping his fantastic series, Mother, relevant for years, and I don’t think the game would be the same without him.

7 – Zelda

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I have a tendency to root for underdogs a lot of the time.  I’m well-aware that Zelda is considered the least competitively viable character in this game.  That doesn’t stop me from thinking she’s a good character.  She’s fun to play if you like trapping opponents in complex maneuvers.  Mixing up gameplay between her ranged and close-quarters combat is also a lot of fun.  Zelda is better than ever before, and I prefer her to a lot of high tier characters.

6 – Fox

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Straight-up intense speed in a fighting game really appeals to me. When I was first getting into Super Smash Bros., I liked Fox, but recently, I started getting into the competitive Smash scene.  Like many, I started by watching competitive Melee, in which Fox is considered the best character.

I developed a fascination with the character that I carried into my own experience with the game.  It also helps that, in my opinion, Fox in this most recent version of Smash is the best he’s ever been.  Overall, Fox is one of my favorite characters.  His speed and technicality in high-level play embody what I think the series is all about.

Plus, who wouldn’t love playing as a talking space fox?

5 – Cloud

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I never grew up with Final Fantasy games.  I’ve mostly observed the series from afar, but I always thought Cloud Strife from FF7 was a really cool character, the best representative of the series.  He was also one of my most desired Smash newcomers, but because of the complex licensing deals that would be involved, I never expected him to join the roster.

Needless to say, I was just as jaw-droppingly stunned as the rest of the Smash fanbase when Cloud joined Smash.  I remember seeing his reveal trailer late at night before going to bed.  When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t sure if it was actually real.  But as excited as I was about Cloud, he exceeded expectations.

His unique limit break mechanic not only adds a new layer of strategy to his gameplay, but it adds value to the little pauses in-between attacks during each fight to charge the limit meter.  This unique limit mechanic means that Cloud plays like no other character.  I’m incredibly happy about his inclusion and what it means both for Smash and for gaming as a whole.

4 – Lucina

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Lucina has frequently been written off as a pointless character because she has the same moves as Marth, a three-time Smash Bros. veteran.  Personally, though, I feel like Lucina is actually a better version of Marth.  In fact, despite their identical movesets, I think Lucina is a more accessible character.  She’s less floaty, she’s quicker, and she can do damage more consistently due to her lack of a tipper.  ZeRo (AKA Gonzalo Barrios) has expressed this same opinion.

All of her moves do a consistent amount of damage regardless of where her sword hits the opponent.  This is opposed to Marth, whose attacks do more damage when they make contact near the tip of his blade and less damage when they make contact near the hilt.  On the whole, Lucina is better for players like myself, who like diving into the fray more than being precise.

Above and beyond all this, I have a prior attachment to Lucina.  Her original game, Fire Emblem Awakening, was the first Fire Emblem game I ever owned, and it has since become one of my favorite games.  After playing it, I found Lucina to be an interesting character.  I like that she’s fiercely loyal and kind, but awkward and unsociable because of her lonely upbringing.  A lot of people would have preferred other characters over Lucina,  but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3 – Sonic

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I’m no longer sure of whether I can still call myself a fan of Sonic games due to its lengthy series of ups and downs, I’m definitely a huge fan of the character himself.  I originally got into Sonic with the release of Sonic Generations in 2011, and since then, I’ve gotten pretty good with Sonic in Smash despite the fact that I used to hate him in the game.

His speedy movements and great recovery make him a serious threat, especially because his moves have gotten stronger since the last game.  Although Sonic as a franchise has gotten a bad reputation recently, I sincerely hope this character doesn’t go anywhere — after all, if anyone deserves to be in Smash Bros., it’s Mario’s greatest rival!

2 – Link

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I have a soft spot for Link because I’ve always been a fan of The Legend of Zelda.  When I first got Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the third game in the series, Link quickly became my favorite character.

Although he’s never been particularly viable in advanced, competitive play, Link has always been one of my go-to characters for his nicely weighted movement, decent capacity to do damage, and variety of powerful projectiles.  He has a lot of potential for technical play, particularly on unusually constructed stages. Watching a skilled Link player in action is an amazing experience.  The amount of planning that goes into an effective Link is staggering.  He’s a character who you can play with easily, but takes extreme skill to truly master, and that makes him one of my favorites.

1 – Shulk

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Before the full roster had been revealed, Shulk was my first choice for a Smash Bros. newcomer.  This was mainly because I owned his original game, Xenoblade Chronicles, and to this day it remains my favorite Japanese RPG, a truly underrated gem.

After I played Xenoblade, I knew Shulk would transition beautifully into Smash Bros.  I was even more right than I thought.  The ingenious designers on Masahiro Sakurai’s team turned him into one of the most complex and interesting characters in the series.

I think Shulk’s greatest strengths are his unique Monado Arts and his incredible range.  His Arts, called Jump, Speed, Shield, Buster, and Smash, are based on his unique abilities from Xenoblade Chronicles.  They allow him to greatly enhance particular attributes for a short time at the expense of giving him temporary weaknesses.  For instance, Buster causes Shulk’s attacks to deal more damage, but while using it, he takes more damage himself.  Arts can be switched out at the drop of a hat as the situation requires, making Shulk a force of nature in the proper hands.

These compliment Shulk’s extreme close quarter range — although most of his moves leave him open when they miss, a clever and patient player can do wonders with him.  To this day, he remains my favorite character to play as in Smash Bros. for Wii U.   It was a tough decision, but Shulk’s great design as a character combined with my love of the Xenoblade series make him my absolute favorite character in Smash to date.

And there we have it!  I hope you all enjoyed my long-considered Smash ramble.  To close, I suppose all I can say is, get the game if you haven’t already.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best games out there.