Sonic United Grand Reopening!

Sonic United has been officially reopened! Sonic United was closed in April 2015, however many have been asking for the site to return. After some discussion, in May 2016 we decided to bring back the site. The site has been in development since. Over the past few months we have been experimenting with different concepts and styles for the site until we developed the current concept and style quite recently. The new Sonic United features a shiny new modern theme inspired by the site’s previous design while still maintaining an identity of its own. Sonic United’s old content has been restored and updated, along with a ton of new content being added.

For those who are on mobile devices, here’s a screenshot of the full-width new design:

Sonic United is still in development, however expect to see a lot of new content added to the site overtime. The goal of the new Sonic United is to make the site a huge resource for Sonic fans with creative content and in-depth articles exploring the Sonic franchise.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the site over the years.

New Patch for Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric

Let’s see. Should I talk about Sonic Runners or Sonic Boom. Sonic Boom it is.

Recently, Big Red Button* has made a patch for Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. It is currently only in effect in Europe, but it will probably come to America shortly. This update takes up more than a gigabyte(to be exact, one GB and 2 MB’s), so it better be good. There aren’t any patch notes but gamers have reported that Knuckles'(how do you pronounce that?) infinite jump has been fixed. Which probably means every other glitch that involves pausing the game has been fixed too. Including the one the one that makes Sonic go fast.

* I got the joke. BRB. Be right back

Sonic Boom TV Show a Success

The last episode of Sonic Boom before a mid-season break has recently aired. The show has done well with the attention from key demographics doubling and tripling. This is great news considering the poor reviews of the video games. The reviews of the TV show are twice as good as the reviews of the games. The next episode is set to air early-2015. We’ll just have to wait for the new episodes.

The Sonic Second: The Chequered Ball

The nature of video games is such that drastic changes are possible in development up to the very last minute. Despite this, the press and public need to see the game in action in order to build awareness and anticipation, so it’s incredibly common for promotional materials to depict preview builds that vary significantly from the finished product. The Sonic series is no exception, and its history is rife with examples, from the celebrated Hidden Palace Zone appearing in countless magazines representing Sonic 2, to screenshots from prototypes being used for the games’ own packaging and instruction booklets. (If you have a North American box for Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, look at the back – the screenshots on Sonic 1 say “RING” instead of “RINGS”, and Sonic 2‘s show Sonic’s whirling feet from the beta.)

While Sonic 1 doesn’t have any axed content as high profile as entire zones, it has a large number of unused sprites and objects, from Splats the bouncing bunny Badnik to odd UFOs in the background of Marble Zone (original graphics for both of which have been recovered). One of the most interesting of these objects, and the subject of today’s Sonic Second, is the chequered ball:

The screenshot above comes from a sidebar in an unidentified issue of Official Sega Magazine from the UK. Seeing this screenshot on the internet was the first I’d heard of the ball, and the bit about it being reused as Robotnik’s weapon made enough sense that I just accepted that narrative.

This giant ball eventually found a home as Robotnik’s weapon at the end of the Green Hill Zone.

However, there’s evidence to suggest it wasn’t as simple as repurposing graphics from an unused hazard. In the Game Players Encyclopedia of Sega Genesis Games: Volume Three, both the ball and the Green Hill Zone boss are shown, presumably meaning that they coexisted in the same build. (Unfortunately the screenshot of the boss shows a completely brown wrecking ball; in the finished game the wrecking ball flashes between completely brown and chequered frames, so I’m going to assume that’s the case here.)

Adding more support to the idea that a boss with a wrecking ball was always planned is this image from Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works (image from Azukara at Sonic Retro):

Again, the ball isn’t chequered, so it’s conceivable that the wrecking ball was plain brown until the chequered ball was cut, and then its graphics were repurposed to create a flashing ball for the Robotnik boss.

All that aside, the coolest thing is that we’ve now got moving footage of the ball object in action, thanks to a YouTube upload of the Nick Arcade TV pilot. Here’s just the relevant part for your viewing pleasure (the ball appears at 0:54):

It shows video of this section of Green Hill Zone Act 1, shown here in a partial map from Brazilian magazine Videogame:

Interestingly, Sonic doesn’t have to give the ball a push to make it go; much like the Robotnik signs at level end, it’s activated by Sonic jumping over it. It lurches to life and begins rolling forward, giving Sonic an object with physics very similar to his own to race or chase.

The caption from the Game Players Encyclopedia screenshot above makes the following claim:

Don’t underestimate that big ball. It can squash our hero like a bug. The slightest touch will start it rolling, so Sonic shoves it to the left and keeps moving.

This suggests that touching it also activates it, and that it’s capable of harming Sonic. In the video, Sonic seems to be pushed by the ball for a few frames without being hurt, so it’s possible the only danger is if the ball crushes Sonic against a wall or other solid surface.

An interesting thing to note is that the object, which so far everybody’s been calling a “ball”, has the exact same colour and pattern as the ground in Green Hill Zone. So perhaps it was intended to simply be a boulder, made out of the same rock from the region that mysteriously sports a regular chequerboard. Once I thought of it as a boulder, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a very similar object in a game that takes a few cues from Sonic: Chomp Rock from Yoshi’s Island, which also appears in its respective game’s first level.

(There’s even a level in Yoshi’s Island called “Chomp Rock Zone”!)

Boulder or ball, the Nick Arcade video shows that the object seemed to be working well, so why was it cut? Was it a test object that was never meant for the finished game? Did it cause obscure glitches? Or was it just considered too challenging and confusing for the pleasant rolling hills of the first zone? We may never know why Sonic Team – if you’ll pardon the pun – dropped the ball.


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Thoughts on Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal – Part 3: A New Venture

When the demo for Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was released on the 5th, I was keen to write about it, having been pleasantly surprised by its quality. Things got a little out of hand, however, when I decided to split my thoughts into parts: Part 1, about what I think made the classic Sonic games so special; Part 2, about why I think none of Sega’s Sonic games have quite lived up to them since (2D or 3D); and now Part 3, in which I will finally review the game itself.

A lot has happened in the past two weeks, though – the full version of the 3DS game was released on the 11th, as was the Wii U game, Rise of Lyric. The Sonic Boom TV series has also since premiered on the Cartoon Network. I wound up playing Shattered Crystal through to the end, trying the first few episodes of the cartoon, and watching an LP of Rise of Lyric just so that I’d have the big picture when writing this article. Having now done all that, I have to say that in my own estimation, the grand cross-media experiment of Sonic Boom would have been a total failure if not for this little 3DS game. It’s the only silver lining for me in the whole deal, with the cartoon being profoundly dumb and the Wii U game being a complete embarrassment.

It’s frustrating, because I’ve been looking forward to Sonic Boom ever since it was announced, excited to see someone else’s take on the franchise after Sega’s recent efforts had felt increasingly stale and misguided. Unfortunately, just like with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, what was ultimately delivered didn’t live up to the dream, or even, in many ways, what was promised. But something nice, however small, has come from it, so let’s focus on that.

Structure

Shattered Crystal is, at heart, a sidescrolling action platformer based around exploration. The player switches between the four characters on the fly with the D-pad, using their unique abilities to collect everything hidden in the levels. The level of complexity is not high, and retraversal is not emphasised – all of the characters are unlocked for play so early in the game that you’ll only need to revisit the first couple of areas.

Levels are accessed via a world map, and must be unlocked with a certain number of the badges that are awarded for playing previous levels thoroughly. This structure is a familiar one, being used in Super Mario 3D Land amongst countless others. I found it possible to earn enough badges while playing leisurely that I didn’t feel like I was forced to go back and grind through previous levels just to progress, which was something that marred Sonic Rush Adventure. Your mileage may vary, however, because I tend to be a “100% it as I go” kind of player; if you just rush through collecting nothing you’ll find your progress hampered.

In addition to the standard exploration levels, there are two other kinds of levels, both of them Sonic-only: Races and Worm Tunnels.

The Races are built on the same engine as the standard levels, but are much quicker and don’t contain any of the special hidden collectibles. They basically functions as the “bosses” of the game, with the final one pausing a couple times for Sonic to directly battle Lyric. Apart from that, though, there aren’t any traditional boss fights to be had.

The Worm Tunnels can be thought of like Special Stages from other Sonic games. Sonic runs forward, collecting rings and avoiding hazards, but can also boost through barriers and use the Enerbeam to connect to rails temporarily. They’re really fun – probably the best version of this concept in quite some time – and the Enerbeam rail sections are much better than the ones in the Wii U game because Sonic only moves between three positions to collect rings rather than swinging around wildly.

Gameplay

If you are expecting anything approaching classic Sonic gameplay, you will certainly find Shattered Crystal jarring. There’s no real momentum; Sonic and friends move at a languid pace by default, like Ristar or Kirby. Curves, slopes, and complicated moving platforms are all but absent, with the only loops and corkscrews being automatic speed sections like Sonic 3D Blast.

So, Shattered Crystal basically throws everything out from previous Sonic games. Instead it focuses on a few simple actions, one for each of the four face buttons on the 3DS.

  • Pressing Y does the Sprint, allowing the player to dash quickly, useful for traversing disappearing platforms.
  • Pressing B will jump, and also do a double-jump in the air. If an enemy or other target is nearby, B will perform a homing attack. Jumping and attacking are the same for each character now, so Sonic isn’t the only one who can home to enemies anymore. Unlike classic Sonic games, the player is not protected merely by jumping, and only a direct attack will destroy enemies.
  • Pressing A activates the Enerbeam. Primarily useful for swinging on dedicated grapple points, but can also rip shields off of enemies.
  • Pressing X does a character-specific ability. For Sonic, it allows him to Spin Dash (on the ground) or Air Dash (in the air); Knuckles can dig at certain context-sensitive points; Sticks throws her Boomerang to collect items or hit switches; Tails throws sticky bombs by default, but at specific points he can send his toy submarine, the SeaFox, into mini-mazes to collect blueprint fragments (I love that they reference Tails Adventure in this way).

The gameplay is rather slow-paced and deliberate, which seems antithetical to the Sonic series, but it’s actually quite enjoyable on its own due to how generous the controls are. For example, Sonic can jump, double jump, Air Dash in one direction, do another double jump, and Air Dash in another direction, all without touching the ground. Attacking an enemy, hitting a spring, or swinging with the Enerbeam all allow even more actions to be chained together, and it can be quite fun to keep a run of dozens of actions going without stopping. It’s not the traditional Sonic speed at all, but it’s its own kind of flow. I’d almost call it a rhythm-platformer.

Because of the leeway for using actions, it’s easy to catch the opportunities the levels provide without having to memorise them. Instead of flying off of a spring and missing a chance to Air Dash because everything’s happening too quickly, the player can still succeed even if they double-jump first to give themselves more time, or Air Dash in a different direction.

In some of Sonic’s recent 2D outings, it’s felt like he’s just impelled by springs and boosters and the player’s only input is to react correctly in time or Sonic falls to a lower path, gets hurt, or dies. Shattered Crystal improves on this greatly by expanding the number of reactions and giving the player more freedom of choice in how to use them. It’s slower, but it feels like you’re actually doing something because you’re more in charge of the bouncing and dashing around.

Challenge

Unlike Rise of Lyric, Shattered Crystal lets you collect as many rings as you want without capping out at 100, and they work just like classic Sonic. You lose them all when you are hit (unless you activate a certain upgrade), and having only one protects you from death.

Gone are instant deaths – there are no crushing deaths, and pits only throw you back a ways and make you lose your rings. With so many Dimps games being marred by a preponderance of death pits, this is quite refreshing.

In fact, the game may be too easy. I didn’t die even once on my way through the normal levels or races, not even in the final boss. I ran into a few barriers in the Worm Tunnels, which immediately restarts the level, because I missed a ring and wanted to try again. There’s no lives system, so even that doesn’t feel like an actual death.

Replay Value

In order to progress, it’s necessary to collect badges to unlock the next levels. One badge is earned per level for simply reaching the goal, and two more are earned for finding all the crystal shards and blueprint fragments. Thus some amount of replay is required just to reach the end of the game.

But there are also tokens, separate from badges. While tokens can be farmed by working out with Knuckles every 24 hours in his Scrapyard home, they are also awarded for clearing level times and reaching goals with a certain number of rings. Tokens can then be spent to unlock cute 3D trophies of enemies, characters, and other objects in the game.

Personally I found the gameplay kind of soothing and addictive, so I went through levels more than I needed to as I went, obsessively getting both tokens in the Worm Tunnels before moving on.

Music

The music, composed by Richard Jacques, is not a brilliant, instant-classic soundtrack like Sonic CD or Sonic Rush, but it’s very good. It’s got more of an adventure cartoon vibe than a traditional Sonic game vibe, but there are definitely a handful of stand out tracks.

Voices

One of the biggest problems with Rise of Lyric is the abhorrent use of voice clips all throughout the levels, with the characters commenting on everything from bounce pads to collecting rings, often a second or two late. Thankfully, this is wholly absent in Shattered Crystal, with absolutely no voice clips other than simple grunts during gameplay. Even the bulk of the cutscenes aren’t voice acted, opting for Zelda style vocalisations instead.

That said, the vocal grunts can get a little grating, especially when Sonic is Air Dashing and attacking. It’s not horrible, but it’s a small thing preventing the aural experience from being totally comfortable.

Graphics

The graphics are not outstanding, and are easily out-competed by Donkey Kong Country Returns or Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, but they are not bad by any stretch. Some levels, like the ancient ruins and sky city are quite pretty, recalling classic environments like Marble Garden or Sky Sanctuary.

Writing

I was worried that the game’s writing would be really bad, preventing me from enjoying the experience, because I heard that Pontac and Graff were writing it. Fortunately the cutscenes are brief and mostly inoffensive. The writing is still mostly hokey jokes, but at least the mean-spirited sniping from Rise of Lyric isn’t present and some of it verges on cute.


Conclusion

Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is not the second coming of Sonic, but nor is it an abject mess like its Wii U cousin. It would be a shame if it were overshadowed and ignored just because the other parts of Sonic Boom didn’t turn out so well. It’s polished, above-average, and full of content, so if you enjoy slower paced platformers and have a 3DS, give it a chance. After all, the demo’s free!

All around I think Sanzaru Games did well for their first Sonic effort, and I’d be glad to see them return for a sequel, or perhaps a Sonic game outside of the Boom universe.