Monday, 21 August 2017

Greenalink reviews Sonic Mania




Developers: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 15/08/2017 Consoles,  29/08/2017 PC Steam
Average Price: $20 or roughly £14.99
Filesize: under 300mb for Xbox One and under 200mb for PS4 and Switch



After playing this game, all I can say is this, dreams do eventually come true, even after over 20 years!
Considered to be a love letter to many fans and one of the three games released to celebrate 25 years of Sonic (other two being Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice from last year and the upcoming Sonic Forces later this year), Sonic Mania goes back to its roots from his golden days literally and it turns out to be one of the best 2D revivals in recent years!


Features:
26 Stages,
3 Playable Characters,
7 Special Chao Emerald Stages,
Time Trial mode,
Classic competitive mode,
Lots of boss fights


It looks and plays like the classic games, so why was this game not called Sonic 4?

Well Sonic 4 was released back in 2010 as Episode 1 and 2012 as Episode 2, these 2 games were done by Dimps who did produce very good Sonic games in the early 2000s including Sonic Advance trilogy (next best set of games since golden era) and the introduction of Boost button Sonic gameplay with Sonic Rush, Sonic Rush Adventure and Sonic Colours for Nintendo DS. Sonic 4 was very different to the original trilogy as it ditched the classic 16-bit sprite design, used Modern Sonic who can perform a homing attack and used a different physics engine that wasn't anywhere near as close to 16-bit games as it used Sonic Rush engine which caused floatiness and severe oddities.

After the release of Sonic 4 Episode 1 and Episode 2, chances of a *new* great traditional 2D sprite-based platformer slowly faded after 2011 as the upcoming Sonic games were 3D based (Generations, Lost World, Boom) and all of them were released to consoles and/or PC along with handheld ports to the 3DS.



Hidden heroes rise.

During those years, the Taxman was getting some recognition after creating a fan game: "Retro Sonic" which was made by using his own game engine with the same capabilities as the engine built into Sonic 3 & Knuckles. A year after that fan game, he asked Stealth to aid in creating a pitch demo of Sonic CD running on an iPod Touch powered by Taxman's own engine known as the Retro Engine.

The Retro Engine aims to be very faithful to the 16-bit trilogy in terms of physics but with a lot of visual enhancements such as Mode 7 (smoother rotation effect), sprite scaling (changing the size of sprites easily) and Widescreen support.

He contacted Sega about his release plans and it eventually became a reality in late 2011, not only that release was to celebrate the franchise's 20th anniversary but was also billed it as a 'prequel' to Sonic 4 as the events of Episode II would rely heavily on what occurred in CD.

This enhanced 2011 release of Sonic CD is notable for supporting both US and Japanese soundtracks along with Tails being a playable character for the first time

After that release, both Taxman and Stealth (now registered to Headcannon) would eventually release enhanced versions of Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 with similar treatment, both of those games were released in 2013 but this time only on iOS/Android devices. 
Then the duo teamed up with PagodaWest Games (responsible for the unofficial HD Fan game of Sonic 2 in ~2010) to create Sonic Mania.

Praise helix lifts

Graphics:

Sonic's iconic art style has aged very well and the Retro Engine enhances it even further with smoother rotation effects when running through a loop-de-loop, more variety of colour tones thanks to a bigger RGB palette, more animated frames for smoother animation and new visual effects including simple 3D polygons for backgrounds used in certain stages with the quality of a Sega CD game and transparency effects.

Performance for 2D segments runs at a rock-solid 60fps throughout.
Blue sphere runs at a higher framerate and runs more smoothly than Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
Special Stages used simple 3D polygons in a style similar to Model 1 arcade games, it captures the 90s feel very well.

The most interesting part for Sonic and Tails is that they used Sonic 1/2/CD sprite set as a template instead of 3, probably because Sonic's attire from Sonic 3 & Knuckles never had a Strike Dash pose and his design was only used in that game. They did a good job creating new sprites that fit the same attire used in the earlier games.


Knock, knock. It's Knuckles

Sound:

The Sonic franchise has a very good track record when it comes to background music.
Tee Lopes: arranger and composer for the entire game could have done this through 2 different ways, the 16-bit Yamaha YM2612 style used for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive or Redbook audio used for Sonic CD. He went for the latter option and nailed the execution extremely well, The classic stages from Sonic 1 and 2 are notable for having Act 2 remixes that sounds very different to their Act 1 counterparts, the new stage Studiopolis is one of the new zones that stands out to be one of the very best of Sonic video game music.
The quality of the tracks is a huge step up to other 2D revivals including New Super Mario Bros series & Yoshi's New Island plus it's almost impossible to feel negative during the first few hours of playing the game, it's that good.

Sound effects are mostly the same with a few new ones added into the mix such as the phantom ruby space-time warp sound, windows/ice blocks getting smashed and a few directly taken from other games including Revenge of Shinobi and 8-Bit Sonic.

One unexpected addition is voice samples from Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, best known for writing the music and singing all vocals in Daytona USA. He gets to shouts out various words in both Time Trial and Competition modes (none in the main game mode: Mania), admittedly this does seem out of place at first but it fits in with the Sega 90s theme very well, if it was someone else then it wouldn't work as well.

 Hard Boiled Heavies are very memorable villains and feel like Sega's answer to Mario's Koopalings


Gameplay:

Now, this is a Sonic game done right, the controls are simple to play and execution is spot-on.
The new engine has added a few new mechanics to the game including the ability to perform Co-op flying on a single controller by holding Up and then pressing a spin jump button to command Tails to use his flying technique. Sonic's technique is now a drop dash which is simply an air spin dash, it allows Sonic to get a boost as soon as he lands on the ground by pressing and holding the jump button whilst in mid-air, it fits Sonic style pretty well and finally has a movement based advantage over his 2 friends.

Knuckles does have a few alternative routes but isn't as significant as his previous adventure in Sonic 3 as there isn't an increase in difficulty when it comes to boss fights and only has 1 stage & 2 boss fights that are exclusive to him due to plot reasons.

Stage structure mimics the Sonic 3 & Knuckles approach by having a boss at the end of each act and all of the zones have two acts.
Classic stages use two different formulas. One act mainly highlights memorable moments from the original games and the other act is essentially a brand new stage using assets that did not exist in the original game. Some are classics such as platform-raising wheels from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, others are brand new such as bouncy gel pools and helix lifts.

Not everything is perfect but it does not mean it was terrible, just, it hasn't aged as well as the rest of the game including an auto-scrolling segment partway through the playthrough which only lasts for 90 seconds. The difficulty for the special stages isn't balanced as I had a hard time completing Stage 5 but had a much easier time completing Stage 7.

I also find it weird that bonus stages from the signpost only affect unlockable content from the main menu and not the main gameplay as it has zero use after obtaining all 32 gold medals. All it does is select a random course from the completed 32 to get the same medal again, no bonus points that can be counted towards an extra one up, it's that pointless.

Boss fights have a lot more variety, not as extreme as gimmick heavy Earthworm Jim 2 but some are mainly fan service nods to the previous games with a little twist part-way through. Others are completely unexpected and original to a Sonic game, Chemical Plant Act 2 boss steals the show as the biggest surprise.

One of the more original elements in Mania, it has a small nod to Sonic CD's bonus game.


Value:

For a 2D Sonic game, it has nearly the same number of stages as Sonic 3 & Knuckles meaning it already has a lot more content than recent games without a doubt and has a competitive time trial mode that will get players replaying a lot to get good times. There are some unlockable options including the ability to add Knuckles as your NPC/2P partner or changing Sonic's move to enable Strike Dash (CD) or Insta-shield (3 & Knuckles) by obtaining a certain number of medals from the blue sphere mini-game, a hidden mini-game that can be played with 2 players max and sound test are unlockable too.

Classic stages will highlight memorable moments from the original games.

Versions:

Nintendo Switch:
Supports 1080p docked and 720p in portable/tabletop mode. Special Stage 1 does drop a few frames at a certain point but it is a very good version of the game. You do have to go to the Switch Home Menu and manually set the Joy-con to sideway mode to enable 2 player games with just a single Joy-con each.

PS4 regular/slim and Xbox One:
More powerful machines than the Switch as there are no frame drops in Special Stage 1 and the pixels are a tad sharper, it's an extremely small difference (like 1%) that it's only noticeable when you zoom in the image and compare it to the Switch.

PS4 Pro and probably Xbox One X:
PS4 Pro supports Native 2160p/4K making it the best console version to play on 4K TVs, Xbox One X should support this easily but it depends if the developer will add a 4K patch after release.

All versions are playable, the Switch gets a bonus for having the ability to play anywhere despite the small performance drop when playing through Special Stage 1.

Currently, as of August 21st, the PC version has not been tested yet as it will be released later on August 29th.



 Another new stage, another decent track to listen to.

Overall:

So the message here is that unlike Nintendo's approach to DoctorM64's famous Metroid 2 fan game: AM2R from last year by sending a DMCA message, Sega hired these talented developers and the gamble has paid off big-time. If there is one Sonic game you have to play from this decade, this is the one to pick without hesitation.

Now Sega, go and send Bomberlink an apology for taking down Streets of Rage Remake 6 years ago and hire him for a potential new Streets of Rage project. 

+ Highest number of stages since Sonic 3 & Knuckles.      
+ No handicap options to help newer gamers, this is a very 90s game.
+ Top notch soundtrack.
+ Sega does what Nintendon't by hiring talented fans from the Sonic community.
+ Very cool new zones, most of them have a unique theme.
+ Classic stages are awesome too.

-  The classic stages do however take up 2/3rds of the entire game. I was hoping an even 50/50
-  Some special stages/blue sphere stages can be very hard to beat.
-  Online leaderboards do not always work according to some users.
-  Sometimes a bit too nostalgic by including the Tornado autoscroller segment, a few deja vu bosses and an awkward screen ratio for competitive VS mode.

Recommended: A


Version played: Nintendo Switch

Review copy was provided by Sega

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

European Speedrunner Assembly 2017, 3 Sega Speedruns

European Speedrunner Assembly is an annual summer event taking place in Sweden.
This year was my third time attending the event and as always, it was a great experience.
It's was my 5th speedrunning related event overall as I've been to AGDQ twice and ESA three times.

I did 3 runs for the event this year and it's notable for being all SEGA games this time and all were done on a Thursday too. I haven't retired from Mario such as New Super Mario Bros 2 but it's a good idea to have a little break every now and then because I do not want to get burned out playing the same game over and over.

The first run was the first of its kind: Game Gear 2 player co-op.
There has been a few Game Boy Advance co-op runs in the past, mainly Kirby and the Amazing Mirror but Game Gear speedrunning is obscure for 2 reasons:

1) Sega has never released an official accessory to support video output like a Game Boy Player. So DIY mods were required.
2) Sega Genesis/Mega Drive has fewer colours than a Game Gear so a cartridge converter would not work.

I had at least one comment saying that why did we (Me and Btrim) did not do 2-player co-op on the Genesis/Mega Drive, well everyone at least knows that version and how easy it is to get 2 players to work. This is like once in a lifetime opportunity to see something like this (technically twice overall as we did a playthrough of this last year) and there are some interesting changes to the game mechanics, most notably Supers which are really powerful and can be abused big time in co-op.

I would watch this run for the comedy 2-player chaos at the end of each stage.





A few hours after the Streets of Rage 2 run, I was ordering a steakhouse burger and some fresh orange juice, it was going to be delivered to the venue at 1:20 pm nearly an hour before my next runs. As it approached 1 pm, Krazyrasmus told me that the NES runners were going way underestimate that my next runs were pushed forward by nearly 40 minutes, so 1:20 pm went passed and I had my lunch, then went upstairs and tried my best to not burp too much due to the nerves of the next two games, yep I had to do two games back to back.

Game 2 was The Game Gear Shinobi 2, I am a pretty big Shinobi fan, mainly Revenge of Shinobi as one of my favourite nostalgic games to play today, the Game Gear entries used a similar visual style to the 16-bit game. I did speedruns of the first Game Gear Shinobi a few years ago and ESA 2016 bonus stream, the first game was out for 3DS Virtual Console but the second one wasn't. So this run used Edenal's modified Game Gear which support both RGB output and a wired controller (a Famicom) to play through the game. I was very fortunate to find tricks for this game before submitting it a few months before the event because there's a trick called Grapple Storage where you can store the swing animation and use it much later on in a different location to swing through walls or go off screen for some cool sequence breaks.

This run turned out to be a PB even though the first two stages of this run can be improved by a good amount of time due to "marathon nerves". The grapple storage execution is 2 frames so it is pretty impressive that I got some first try a few times in a row at one point.





After game two, the third game was the last for my runs at ESA 2017.
Although the game is the shortest, it also the hardest and most punishing of the three.

Fantasy Zone released back in 1986 is a shump with very bright colours and light hearted assets, some would call it a cute 'em up. It doesn't use traditional auto-scrolling, Because of this, it is one of the very few notable shmup games that can be a viable game to speedrun.

The main goal is to destroy all of the bases to spawn a boss, defeat the boss to complete the level. You get gold for destroying bases, clearing a set of enemies and destroying a boss. You can go to a shop to buy some upgrades ranging from movement to Weapon 1 and Weapon 2 upgrades. Weapon 1 has infinite ammo for a limited time whilst Weapon 2 has limited uses with Twin Bomb being the exception as that is a permanent upgrade.  When you buy an item for the first time, it is pretty affordable, but when you want to buy more of that same item the actual price increases. This does not apply to engine upgrades which are nice but simply put 7-Way shot gets a lot more expensive near the end of the game because I buy that upgrade a lot throughout the run. Round 1-7 are traditional stages whilst round 8 is a boss rush from the first 7 levels followed by a final boss.

So why is it hard? Well it only takes 1 hit to lose a life and losing a life means your gear goes back to square one, this isn't too bad if you still have to destroy a few more bases to spawn a shop balloon and buy the upgrades again but going back to square one against a boss is really bad, Round 5 boss especially can be a run killer because small wing and regular twin shot against Popozu is really hard to fight against.
The 3DS version is a good arcade port done by the emulating legends of M2. It doesn't have the lag seen in the PS2's Sega AGES 2500 series volume 33 and added some nice extras. The only extra feature I used was Base Markers which allows me to figure out the exact position of each base off-screen. Anything else would have made the game too easy and not faithful to the arcade version such as Gold Rush or Infinite Weapon 1 time.

The actual run was very good overall, roughly 45 seconds behind PB due to safe marathon strats and trying to not die to regular shots from enemies.