Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Rings of Saturn Review #2: Sonic 3D Blast

History: Developed not for the Saturn but for the Genesis back in the mid-90s late in the Genesis' life. There's not much to say about the development itself. The intrigue is in the ports, of which this game had money but only one has a good story behind it.
The infamous Sonic X-treme, Sega's intended Sonic exclusive for the Saturn, was going through development hell. Since it was not ready (eventually cancelled) for the 1996 holiday season Sega released an updated port of Sonic 3D Blast to the Saturn instead. The game was ported in a mere seven weeks while the Genesis version was finishing up. Both versions were released November 1996 in America.
In Japan, surprisingly, the game wasn't released until 1999 for the Saturn no Genesis release. Matter of fact it was the same day as Sonic Adventure International. A Japan re-release that fixed bugs and other issues and was based on the US version of the game, but more on that in 'I Have A Dream(cast)' when I get to the Sonic Adventure review. The Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast wouldn't hit Japan until the Gamecube days when it showed up in a compilation with other Sonic games.

Availability: As stated already it was first released for the Sega Genesis. But this game has been ported and re-released as much as more popular Sonic games. Odd considering not a lot of people seem to like it. It has been released on PC (multiple times) and modern consoles via collections/digital download for the Gamecube, Playstation 2 and 3, Xbox and 360, and the Wii's Virtual Console. All of which were the Genesis original. Meaning the Saturn port stands out being the only one of it's kind on console (the PC had the Saturn version I believe.) As well as the most expensive version to pick up, technically, at an average price of $20+ complete with box and manual.

Personal History: I was a big fan of this as a kid playing it for endless hours when it first came out. Of course it was victim to my 'buy/sell/trade' phase I went through so I am not playing my original copy. I am very excited to have it again.

Version I Played: It wouldn't be a 'Rings of Saturn' review if I didn't play the Saturn version. More specifically, the American release.

Review: When I picked up a Saturn again I had a short list of games I knew I had to pick up right away. Only problem was that a good portion of them were somewhat expensive. A lot in the price range of $40-$60 especially if I wanted the case and manual complete (I do!) Since I just dropped a bunch of cash on the console itself and my resources are limited I decided on one of the less expensive/still somewhat valuable games on that list. That game was Sonic 3D Blast. The least expensive Sonic game on the Sega Saturn. The most expensive being Sonic Jam that had a common price tag of $60+. So until I save up more cash to get more of those 'essential' games I'll just play this and some of the cheaper titles I picked up when I got the console (that I'll be reviewing here in time).

Sonic 3D Blast was a game for years I only experienced on the Sega Saturn. Seriously, I don't think I played the Genesis version until years later and it was a modern console port. Come to think of it, I didn't know there was a Genesis version at first. I really though this was a pure Sega Saturn exclusive. So when I saw the Genesis version I thought it was a backwards port or something. Little did I realize it was the other way around.
But you know what? Whatever! I really liked this game and I still do. Even looking at the box art brings back a lot of good memories. Not just of this game but my entire Sonic and Saturn experience. Not sure why it's this one over the others but it is. Go back to the top of this page and look at that cover. It may mean nothing to you but if I could I'd display that shit on my wall. Actually, I used to have a poster that was a similar design. It was printed in the red/blue 3D and came with 3D glasses.
This game is definitely one of many games I point to when I talk about my Saturn experience and why I love the console so much. But how does it hold up?

Before 3D Blast we had almost entirely 2D sidescrolling platformers with few exceptions (Sonic Drift, Sonic Spinball, and a Tails educational game all came out before this) but this one featured 3D gameplay. Faux 3D. The game is presented in an isometric view, or 3/4 angle, giving Sonic full 360 degree movement instead of just left and right. Sonic also got a 3D upgrade now being presented using pre-rendered 3D graphics turned into a sprite.
Strangely this wasn't the first time Sonic was presented this way. The Japanese arcade game SegaSonic the Hedgehog did this back in 1993.

As you can see here.

With that new approach to the console games also came a new gameplay objective. Instead of the traditional 'run right to win' gameplay Sonic now saves little birds called flickies trapped in Robotnik's robot minions (before America got his real name. Dr Eggman.) Meaning every enemy you fight has one of these guys and you have to save them all to progress. Not as hard as it sounds.
Each act of each level has multiple sections. Each section has a whopping five enemies to find. But there's no wiggle room. It's either all the flickies are saved or you can't advance. Thankfully the flickies can't die. You just have to re-collect them if you're hit. In the later stages they can get hard to hold onto while avoiding obstacles and other dangers. Making for annoyances and stupid deaths.
Despite these changes the game is setup in a familiar way. Each level is split into 3 acts. The first two acts are separate stages in and of themselves with the third act as the boss act. Like the older games Robotnik tries to kill you using various flawed and vulnerable inventions. Rinse and repeat til you win the game.

Also like traditional Sonic games there are special stages. But unlike the other games the special stages feel more like a secret. Unlike the first game when a giant ring shows up at the end of the stage, or in Sonic 2 when you get the portal at the checkpoint, you have to track down the special stage in 3D Blast. You need to find either Tails or Knuckles, give them 50 rings, and they'll take you there. The special stage is familiar like many other things. You run down a set path collecting rings until you reach the chaos emerald. Rinse, repeat until you get all 7.
The major difference in the Saturn version is the stage is full polygon 3D instead of the faux 3D like the main game or Genesis version. This was really cool to see back in the day because it was one of the first times the world saw Sonic like this. A similar 3D model would be used later in Sonic Jam.

And that's about it. It's a traditional Sonic game done in a non-traditional way. Despite the 'traditional' method of presentation the game has plenty of ups and downs.

Lets shit on it first.

The biggest downer is the perspective as it is the reason for most of the flaws in the game.
While a neat trick for the time on the Genesis this is a perspective that does not work for this kind of game. 3/4 angle perspectives work best for PC games I feel. Even then usually in adventure, strategy, or action role playing games. Not a fast paced platformer like Sonic.
This is entirely because of control. This angle works best with a mouse where you can point where you want to go. When you're using a D-pad it's much more difficult because you're taking an 'up, down, left, right' type of control and forcing the player to do something the controller isn't built for. Sure this is somewhat fixed when using a joystick for than 360 degree motion. But it doesn't help a ton because...
The camera blows. It never changes angles (a good thing) and it always stays focused on Sonic (also a good thing) but it is zoomed in too far, causing problems. Many of these problems include not seeing enemies and obstacles soon enough to react well.
You'll be blazing through a level with the greatest of ease until suddenly a wild enemy pops up out of nowhere. You try to react quickly but can't because of the floaty controls. So next thing you know you've lost your rings, power up, flickies, maybe a life because the camera couldn't be bothered to tell you something was coming before it was too late. Not that you'll be blazing through this game quickly like the 2D entries anyway. The design choices drops the game to a slower than comfortable pace for a Sonic game.

Remember how the old Sonic games had an average two, maybe four minute run through a level? Here you'll be taking at least five or more minutes per level and for many reasons. You'll play it safe because of the camera and controls. When fighting an enemy you'll some time to get the depth perception down. If you actually blaze through it's because you got lucky or had the levels memorized. Worst of all you'll get lost. The camera and pacing make it very easy to get lost. Shocklingly easy.
Don't get me wrong I like the visual style and design of the game. I think the 3D look (even if it's faux 3D) looks great. I also like the level design as they are varied, challenging, yet fair. However with their maze-like design mixed with the 3/4 angle and the zoomed in camera it is stupidly difficult. It's like trying to find the bathroom at your friends house by staring at your feet. Instead of thinking, "Oh I turn right at the tree because that's where the statue of a giant bird was hanging above me" you'll be thinking, "I turn right here because that's where the broken tile was. The broken tile that looks like every other broken tile." Even the Microsoft Windows maze screensaver was less confusing than this game and that maze was randomized.
All of the above are made worse as the game progresses because the levels get bigger and wilder. You even find transporters that kick you around with little to no control. So that confusion can and will be amplified. Mix that in with the difficult controls and confusing depth perception and you've got some intense, frustrating moments late in the game.

Here's a pulled back image of a small portion of a stage.

And here's the perception you get in game. Imagine how this would be in a complex stage with lots of obstacles.

Despite the issues I still really enjoy this game. To me it's a (very) flawed experience but shouldn't get as much hate as it does. For all it's problems the game is still functional. It's not like the bizarre departure the franchise took with Sonic '06 and wound up being in story and being buggy as hell. Feeling more like a beta than a finished game. No, Sonic 3D Blast is not like that. It's an experiment on the franchise that failed in many areas but not for lack of trying. Think of it as the Zelda II or Halloween III of the franchise. Something very different but never done again making it awkwardly stand out. That doesn't mean it's bad. Just different.
So while the level design may get confusing that makes it more challenging. Technically while this game took a lot away from the Sonic franchise it did make it more in depth. You had to think more than ever in a Sonic game. That's not a terrible thing. Sure you had to do some back tracking if even one enemy is missed, but I feel this game gets better with repeat playthroughs. Much like other Sonic games there are secrets that are fun to find. Although the payoff isn't so great since you don't get to be Super Sonic. You just fight an additional "true" final boss. Giving the ending a slightly different outcome.
I'm definitely in the minority here as I am a Sonic 3D Blast advocate. While far from being high in the ranks of Sonic games it definitely does a few things right. Even though I spent most of this review bad mouthing it I still liked it. I still had fun and that's what matters in the end. Certainly a better experience than Sonic '06 and some of the Wii titles.

If you have the option go for the Saturn version. It's far superior in many ways. I did play through a portion of the Genesis version (via a port on PS3 in Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection) and it left a bad taste in my mouth knowing how good I can have it otherwise.

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