Developer: Sonic Team
Release date: January 7, 2004
Buy 'SONIC BATTLE': Game Boy Advance
The near-absence of Sega's flagship mascot Sonic the Hedgehog during the disappointingly short lifespan of the Sega Saturn (the only notable appearances of everybody's favorite spiked sprinting-fanatic being a compilation of old 16-bit Sonic Team-developed Sonic games, and a flaccid upgrade of the infamously lackluster Sonic 3D Blast, which was developed by Traveler's Tales) may not have been the sole reason for the death of the platform, but there's no question that more units would have found their way off store shelves had the "Blue Blur" made a solid appearance on the console. While the two Sonic titles that did arrive on Sega's doomed Dreamcast platform didn't keep that console from crashing and burning just as the Saturn did, keep in mind that the console launched with 16 games, one of them being the highly-anticipated Sonic Adventure - and it was the most successful launch week of any console, ever, at that time. Sonic Adventure 2 arrived too late in the lifespan of the system to do anything to save it, as Sega had already announced it's plans to become a third-party software developer and phase out the Dreamcast. The game met with surprisingly strong sales anyway, and was followed up with an extremely successful Gamecube port, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. Now, with no less than three Sonic games releasing this year, those being Sonic Heroes for the GCN, PS2 and Xbox, and Sonic Advance 3 and Sonic Battle on the GBA, and a Saturday morning TV show to bolster their sales, it seems like Sega has again realized the power of their old leading Hog. Out of the three Sonic titles confirmed for release this year, Sonic Battle, a multiplayer fighting game, is the only one that sticks out as a pure departure from the formula established by previous games in the series. As expected, this is a bit of a mixed blessing - but for the most part, it's a good thing.
This is not the first time Sonic and co. have starred in a fighting game; the rare arcade title Sonic the Fighters, and the Sega Saturn classic Fighters Megamix come to mind. It's just never been done like this before. Sonic Battle is a free-roaming fighter more in the vein of games like Powerstone and Super Smash Brothers than the Street Fighter series. The concept is simple: beat the daylights out of all of your opponents until their health meters are depleted, giving you a point. Repeat until you have amassed the required number of points. Anybody can pick up Sonic Battle and have fun, as it's no trouble at all to figure out what to do, or how the simplistic controls work. Thankfully, for those of you who are looking for at least a slight challenge in your fighting games, there is much more to Sonic Battle than what initially meets the eye.
Similar to Super Smash Brothers, in Sonic Battle, the emphasis is taken away from memorizing complex button patterns to execute moves, and placed upon well-timed button presses for pulling off solid combos. For the sake of diversity in the amount of actions available to the characters, Sonic Team borrowed another idea from SSB, the use of the D-pad in combination with the attack button to alter the type of attack performed. The developers have made it fairly clear that this is a post-Smash Brothers fighting game, but don't take that to mean that this is just another cheap mascot based fighter - it isn't. Sonic Battle differentiates it from it's predecessor by adding in an innovative special attack system. At the beginning of each fight and also before regenerating, you are given a choice of three different attacks to assign to the R button. You can assign one for ground attacks and one for aerial assaults. Since there are three available, and the mechanics of each vary greatly depending on which plane of attack they are assigned, you'll have to choose carefully each time. Also, there is a small bar located above the health meter called the Ichikoro Gauge. When the gauge is filled, your character can pull off a one-hit defeat at the press of the R button. The bar is emptied with each use of the one-hit defeat attack. You can fill the bar by receiving damage (sending an eighth of the damage to the Ichikoro Gauge), defending from attacks (sending half of the damage to the Gauge), or when pressing L to trigger heath recover (causing a gradual rise on the Gauge). With nine characters available from the start, each with a differing triplet of special attacks, one can easily spend a great deal of time learning the best ways to use a given characters' special attacks against the rest, not to mention devising the best way to use the specials in combination with the various types of normal and Ichikoro attacks.
The controls are a bit to get used to at first, mainly because of the sprite-based characters pasted over pseudo-3D backgrounds. It looks a little weird, and it feels even weirder. Lining up your fighter with an opponent is an irritating task at first. It doesn't take long to get used to, but it never feels as stable as it should. Sonic Battle is not going to be entered in the hallowed halls of Sega's greatest games, but it could have gotten a few steps closer to "classic" status if it controlled with more finesse, less struggle. It doesn't ruin the game, but it takes away from it enough for me to feel a bit disappointed with the final result. I'm sure just a little bit more tweaking on Sega's part could have yielded a vastly improved gameplay experience.
There are five different modes of play to choose from, each delivering a distinctly different experience than the others. Battle Mode is a simple four player free for all, and can be played with or without CPU opponents. For many people, this mode will be the crown jewel of Sonic Battle, as most gamers agree that the multiplayer component is the best part of these types of games. With this being a portable title, I agree for the most part, but my one gripe is that in order to fully enjoy the Battle Mode, you need four GBA systems and three link cables. Normally I don't mind that sort of thing (for example, I see nothing wrong with the connectivity used in SquareEnix's Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles), but for some reason, while playing Sonic Battle, I kept getting the feeling that this would have made a great home console title. Great four player multiplayer games are best experienced in a living room with lots of snacks and drinks, not in the car or on an airplane. Nintendo seems to realize this, as the multiplayer edition of their Made In Wario (Wario Ware outside of Japan) series was released on the Gamecube, even though it could have easily been done on the Gameboy Advance. I think Sega should have done the same with Sonic Battle, and who knows, maybe in the future that will happen! But for now, we have a great GBA multiplayer game, and I am thankful for that.
Training mode is simple - you can practice your battle techniques on a customizable computer-controlled player. I'm sure somebody will find this mode useful, but I prefer to practice techniques in the heat of a fierce battle. It's definitely a plus to have this mode included, though. When it comes to the amount of modes to select from in a game, usually more is a good thing.
The Mini Game Mode is an interesting addition to Sonic Battle, but not a surprise seeing as this is from Sonic Team, the developer notorious for adding a constant flow of frills to all of it's games, from the GBA downloadable games for Phantasy Star Online Episode I and II to the Chao Gardens in the Sonic Adventure series. In Sonic Battle, the mini games are simplistic (as usual), and multiplayer only, though a single cartridge is all that is needed. The games are nothing special, such as the Bey Blade-style spin-around-and-knock-your-opponents-off-the-map game, but they are extremely nice rewards for achieving certain goals in the single player modes. Instead of unlocking something boring like a sound test or a picture gallery, you get amusing little games to try out with your friends. Even if you only bother to play these once or twice each, it's worth it. I'm sure ten minutes of mini game time is much more interesting than twelve seconds of playing with the sound test.
Challenge Mode lets you select one character and try to make it through five battles, each with varying numbers of characters, but the same requirement: get ten points from knocking down your enemies. This is basically the standard, bare-bones fighting mode. The game gives you a final score which it tags to whichever character you were using. The battles are not extremely challenging at first, but there are three difficulty modes to choose from, so you're bound to end up in a fight that will have your palms sweating with excitement. For single player modes, this one is my favorite, but I think most people would disagree with me because of the depth of Story Mode.
Story Mode is the most interesting portion of Sonic Battle, though it's complexity was a slight turn-off for me. It's not actually that complex, but I just prefer learning the abilities of a few single characters in the Battle or Challenge modes, as opposed to the open-ended nature of Story Mode. This mode does let you choose which character to play through the game as, but you actually aren't focusing on playing as the character of your choosing, but a little robot by the name of Emerl, who is (as his name alludes to) powered by the infamous Chaos Emeralds. Your job is to guide him through the game and build up his strength. He receives skill points with each battle fought (some yielding more points than others), and has the ability to learn moves by simply being in a battle where they are used. You can then equip the moves by pressing the R button while outside of a battle, and selecting which to use. At first, Emerl is extremely weak, and kind of a pain to use, but once he gains more skill points (thus allowing you to equip more of the moves he has absorbed), he can become a formidable force. Basically, Emerl is a combination of every character in the game with the exception of himself. From playing the Story Mode, I get the feeling that this game wasn't conceived as a Sonic game from the start, the focus on Emerl being that hint. Usually, I don't like when games are "refitted" for the sake of sales, but in this case, it is nice to have the familiar faces throughout the game. I just wish they wouldn't have created an entirely new character and given him so much focus. Perhaps an already existing character from the Sonic universe would have worked just as well as Emerl? There are more characters in the Sonic lineup than probably in any other action/adventure series in existence. I'm sure Sega could have found a character that would have been easier to connect with.
An interesting feature that I should note is that you can have battles with your Emerl against those raised on other Sonic Battle cartridges, which is a bit unbalanced, but a lot of fun. If everybody has fairly powerful Emerls, these battles can be much more intense than those with normal characters.
Sonic Battle's polygonal background visuals are very nice, but plagued with the usual problems of 3D games on the GBA. All of the polys are very shaky, especially when the camera angle changes, giving a feeling that there is a lack of solidity within the game world. The textures are very chunky and ugly, especially when seen on a Gameboy Player. While the character sprites are as good as they could be, they still appear awkward thanks to being pasted over a 3D background. This feeling of awkwardness is not only visual, as it makes the controls feel much less tighter than they should. Until it becomes second nature, lining up with your foes in order to deal damage is substantially more difficult than one would expect.
The music is very low quality, but very well done. The GBA can push out better MIDI sounds than what Sonic Team has presented here, yet I feel like forgiving them because of the creativity involved in what they did put together. Almost every song has a very exciting feel, perfect for a frantic fighter like Sonic Battle. There's nothing here that will get stuck in your head, though, such as some of the tunes found in past Sonic games.
Sonic Battle is a surprisingly creative, fun take on mascot-driven fighting games. It shares more than a few similarities to games like Super Smash Brothers, yet maintains a feel unlike any other game. It is plagued with a few problems, mostly stemming from the jagged, ugly 3D backgrounds (I prefer a solid 2D game to an awkward 3D one), though nothing is bad enough to drain the fun out of this game. It could have been done better, and in the future, I hope it is, but for right now, Sonic Battle is one of the better four player fighting games around. Then again, it doesn't have much competition.