Friday, 11 September 2009

Retro Review - Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis)

Every now and again, I'll take a look at an old game and review it. To begin, I've decided to revisit Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Mega Drive.

GAME: Sonic the Hedgehog
FORMAT: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

Back in the early 1990s, Sega ran a marketing campaign in the USA with the slogan, "Genesis does what Nintendon't." The idea was to differentiate their 16-Bit Genesis (Mega Drive) console from Nintendo's 8-Bit NES. Whereas the NES was seen as safe and family-friendly, the Mega Drive was intended to be seen as its sleeker, cooler, edgier, brashier, more exciting rival. While Nintendo would be the Strictly Come Dancing of the gaming world, Sega would be The X-Factor. The Mega Drive's range of games would consist of arcade conversions and sports simulations - good old 'man' games, not the girly crap you'd get on the NES. We'll ignore the fact that games like Mickey Mouse's Castle of Illusion and Alex Kidd in something probably Enchanted were two of the Mega Drive's more popular early games. One game that would demonstrate the Mega Drive's difference to the NES more than anything else was Sonic the Hedgehog. A blur in blue, as the stuff that you never read on the back of the box likes to describe him. Whereas Mario was slow and middle-aged, Sonic was fast and young. Whereas Mario liked rescuing a forever-getting-kidnapped Princess from castles in rather boring-lookng landscapes, Sonic would be whizzing around vibrantly colourful zones and through surreal pinball tables and suchlike to defeat Dr Robotnik, or Dr Eggman as now likes to go by his maiden name.
The first time I saw anything about Sonic the Hedgehog was in a news article in either Mean Machines or Computer and Video Games magazine. There was simply a screenshot of the famous intro screen and something about it getting launched in summer. But even that screenshot looked so much more polished and exciting than anything I'd seen before. Shortly afterwards, more and more of the game began getting revealed, until I was nearly piddling myself with excitement over the release of it. Sometime shortly after its release, I saw the game running in a shop in Llandudno. I recall having mixed feelings about the game. After all the hype, I was expecting Sonic to run faster through the levels than he did, and there was something I didn't like about the music. But, once I picked up the control pad and guided the little blur in blue through Green Hill Zone, any doubts about the game vanished. The speed issue may have been down to the fact that on PAL Mega Drives, Sonic does run slower than he should. After returning home from my short Welsh break (I was in Wales in my last entry too - must have spent most of my childhood there!), I traded in my Master System and games for a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog. The money I had left over was used to buy Fantasia at a later date. Not a good decision. I still feel guilty about selling my Master System to that shop. It didn't work! Well, it did work, but not properly. There was something wrong with the power button meaning it only powered up properly about one in every twenty attempts, and you sort of had to push it in slowly and only in fully as soon as you heard the Sega logo fanfare. Anyway, where was I? Still in Llandudno? Oh no, I'd returned home, sold my Master System and purchased Sonic the Hedgehog. And for many weeks, months, possibly even years, I assisted Sonic the Hedgehog in his quest to rescue animals from their robotic shells, collecting Chaos Emeralds and giving Dr Robotnik/Eggman a good old slap. For a long time, it was my favourite game ever. Possibly until the release of Sonic 2.

Today, Sonic the Hedgehog still stands up well against its contemporaries. Despite its age, it doesn't seem to have aged badly. Quite clearly, seeing as it seems to get rereleased every other year in one way or another, it is still in demand. Playing the game on a Mega Drive, rather than on a retro compilation or (whispers) through emulation, is sometimes a frustrating experience. When I was younger, I wasn't aware that UK Mega Drives played slower than American and Japanese ones. I just thought we had squished screens and that was all. But when you've played the game as it should have been played, and go back to how you played it, you do notice the difference. And playing the Labyrinth Zone feels more like a chore than a pleasure. Why it was never optimised for Europe, I'll never know. Even so, the game is still instantly playable as soon as you start it up. The levels feel as fresh as ever; the bright, colourful graphics still give you a happy feeling and the music, well, I did eventually grow to like it. The game is probably a little too easy when compared to a lot of newer games. The difficulty only really ramps up to anything near challenging towards the last zone. Then again, the last zone can't be played at speed, unlike the previous ones, and seeing as Sonic's speed, and the fact that the most fun you have with the game is rushing through the levels, spinning into anything in your way and not having time to take in the scenary, means that making the game tougher would probably be more off-putting than beneficial to it. I don't have a clue if that last sentence made any sense! One thing I've never been a big fan of and I never understood all the praise it got on its original release, is the game's special zone. I've always found it quite frustrating. Although it clearly requires skill, it just didn't feel like you were in complete control over Sonic as he floats around the level like a drunken tramp. Although the level obviously needs to be hard to make getting the Chaos Emeralds a challenge, it just felt unfair rather than difficult. And the music on that level really annoys me!

Despite a couple of flaws, Sonic the Hedgehog is still regarded quite rightly as a classic. Sonic 2 took all that was good about the game, and made it ten times better. The two games represent an era of when Sonic games were good. Sega have recently admitted that they need to "fix" Sonic. I'm not too sure if that means they're going to get the heavies on him and have him done over. They simply need to take him back to his roots, not necessarily back to his side-scrolling days. There's nothing wrong with doing 3D, just as long as it's done well. Nintendo managed it with Mario. Even though Mario's roots are two-dimensional, his third-dimensional exploits still feel like a proper old-school Mario game. Sega chose to pick on Mario many years ago and made him out to be past it and slow. But Sonic would do well do follow his example rather than try his best not to be him.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

My First Games

I thought I'd start my classic gaming blog with an entry about how I got into video games. So, here goes. Hmmm... direct and to the point - that's not like me!

I was born in 1978. At the time, people around the world were playing Space Invaders in the arcades and their Atari VCSs at home. Meanwhile, I was filling my nappies. As I got older, grew out of nappies and learned to talk and walk, I began becoming more aware of the world around me, as is the tradionally accepted behaviour of a young human being. Although I obviously didn't understand much about the goings-on of the world, at some point I became aware of computers. Of course, in the early-eighties, computers were just about coming into their own. The first time I ever saw a computer in the flesh was when I started primary school in 1983. My school was lucky enough to own a computer. They also had a special computer desk with wheels, on which the computer lived. Most of the time, it lingered in the corner of the assembly hall with a cover over it. At first, I thought it never got used. You see, I lived in a little village in the middle of nowhere where anything even approaching futuristic was distrusted. It was likely that the Local Education Authority had forced the computer onto the school to meet some computer literacy target but the school itself chose not to attempt to switch it on for fear that it may develop a mind of its own and take the teachers hostage. Instead, it simply lived in its corner of the assembly room under cover. It was probably also surrounded by barbed wire fences, landmines and alarms with signs covering it saying, "Thou shalt not use this machine of evil."

However, on one memorable day, the barbed wire was cut, the landmines were, er, debombed, the alarms were switched off and the computer was freed from its corner and wheeled into our classroom. The cover was lifted from it to unveil a fine specimen of a BBC Micro in all its glory. Model A or Model B, I don't know. To be honest, I didn't even know that the computer I was gawping at was a BBC Micro. It was only in later years that the realisation of what this marvel machine actually was dawned on me. Anyway, the computer was plugged in, switched on and a huge disc was slotted into its huge disc drive slot. Within seconds, the computer displayed what would become the very first game I ever played. It was quite simply a screen of about 6 blue boxes. You had to choose a box which would then be cleared to reveal a vehicle behind it (something like a car, lorry, bike, tractor or train). You then had to choose another box. If the item revealed under the second box matched the first item, you'd got a pair. Oh yes, it was a primitive version of a matching pairs game, or that Concentration quiz show with the bloke with the big chin. And I had the opportunity to play this game (with a partner of course - back then you weren't allowed to have any less then two people at a computer at any one time). From what I remember, the game lasted about ten seconds, and then we had to let somebody else play it. And that was it. Once everybody else had had a go, the computer was unplugged, the cover replaced, and it was wheeled back into its corner. There was no Granny's Garden to entertain/educate/brainwash us or anything like that at my school. I think the BBC Micro made another appearance in our classroom at a later date, and again we had the opportunity to play the matching cards game for ten seconds before it went back to its corner. In later years at primary school, as computers became more trusted, each classroom had its own RM Nimbus and we were allowed to use them at least once a week. But, we're flying ahead here. This is meant to be an entry about how I got into video games, not my recollection of computers at school.

So, while my school possessed, but didn't really use, a BBC Micro, some of my friends had a range of other technological marvels. There was Jon, who had just about every gizmo and gadget going. He had a Pong clone thingy, with little metal switches that allowed you to play variants of Pong. Amongst the variants were Football Pong, Tennis Pong (which is probably just Pong) and Hockey Pong, which was basically Football Pong with less paddles. I think we played on this for, oooh, it must have been minutes. The thing is, even then, Pong was old. And it wasn't particularly exciting. We were aware of the existence of games such as Pac Man and Space Invaders, even though we hadn't had the opportunity to play them, but being able to play a version of Pong didn't really compensate. Jon also had one of those handheld game thingies that you put to your eyes and looked through it with the controls on the top/side of it. I seem to remember having a go of it on one of those school days when you could take your toys into school and being amazed by it. It was sooooooo futuristic.

I had another friend (popular, wasn't I?) who actually had his very own computer. From what I remember, it was some kind of Amstrad. Going over to his house after school was a treat. I got to play proper computer games! Okay, so you had to have some kind of IT degree to work out how to get them to load, and it would take what seemed like an hour for it to do so, but once it had loaded, I was in some kind of gaming heaven. To be honest, I can't remember much of what I played on it. One game I recall was a bit like a cross between Pitfall! and Hunchback. I'm sure it involved swinging from ropes and attempting to get across a river by jumping on things. It was one of those games that I became instantly addicted to and had to play each time I visited. And it's bugged me for years what it was called.

I think the next step of my introduction into video games came around October 1985. My parents had bought a holiday home in North Wales, and it just so happened that the camp site had an amusement arcade. While being taken on a tour of the site in August of that year, the arcade was one of the things I noticed above anything else. Now this was your typical mid-eighties arcade - dark, dingy, dirty and smokey. October was just about the end of the season, so when we visited our shiny new chalet for the first time during that month, I discovered that just about everything on the camp site was shut - including the amusement arcade. However, the ever-thoughtful management of the site did allow for some end-of-season gaming to be had. Just outside the arcade, they positioned a small number of video games. These were Pac-Land, Phoenix, Moon Patrol and the aforementioned Hunchback. They became the first arcade games I ever played. I was particularly fond of Pac-Land, and as it would turn out, platform games in general. Phoenix is a game I'd completely forgotten about until I recently rediscovered it on a Taito compilation for the PlayStation 2. Moon Patrol is a game that I recalled, but couldn't think of its name until I had a look around for Mame roms and found it. I suppose out of the four games, Hunchback was the one I was least keen on. I gave it a go not too long ago but gave up after finding it too hard!

Anyhow, my weekend away in North Wales was an education. It confirmed my love of video games, and seeing as Christmas was just around the corner, more than likely caused me to request a computer from Santa. And that Christmas, my request was granted. I became the proud owner of a (drumroll here)....... Acorn Electron. Oh yes! I had my very own computer. At the time, I didn't know of the limitations of its technology, and that it would be impossible for it to be able to reproduce the games I'd been playing in the arcade. Regardless, I fell in love with the cream-coloured machine, playing games such as Snapper, Boxer, Starship Command and, um, Sphinx Adventure, over my Christmas holiday. From then on, I began building up my games for the Electron and would later take in the sights and sounds of other systems. My video gaming journey had begun - a journey that I am still on to this very day.

In a later entry, I'll talk some more about the Acorn Electron and my memories of it and its games. Until then, I'm off to find my Electron.

Welcome to your doom!

Good evening. My name's Jimbo and this is my blog dedicated to classic video games. For just about all my life, I've been a fan of computer and video games. My first computer was an Acorn Electron. Since then, I've owned (or we've owned as a family) a Sega Master System, a Sinclair Spectrum +2, a Sega Mega Drive (and later Mega-CD add-on - woo-hoo!), a Commodore Amiga A500, a Super Nintendo, a Game Boy, a Game Gear, a Sony PlayStation, a Sega Dreamcast, a Sony Playstation 2, a Nintendo Gameboy Advance, a Nintendo DS, Wii, Sony PSP and Sony PlayStation 3. As well as that, I've owned a number of Windows-compatible PCs (from Windows '95 to Vista). Phew! Listing them all like that has made me realise that I've actually owned quite a lot of equipment.

Although I own some of the current generation consoles and enjoy using them muchly, I have a special soft spot for what many people like to call retro games, or old school games. Basically old games. Admittedly, a large number of old games were simply useless, and some that were once considered good have just not aged well. But, there are loads of gems amongst the thousands of games that have been produced over the last few decades. Timeless games that are just as great to play now as they were back in the eighties and nineties. Sometimes I ask myself whether I now play old games and occasionally buy the old console/cartridge as a way of holding onto or attempting to relive my youth. Is it a way of keeping the past current and denying the fact that I'm in my thirties now? This is probably a subject I'll discuss at a later date. But, until then, here's a little bit about what I want to do with this blog. Firstly, I'll mostly be reviewing the games and machines of old. I'll revisit some of the games that became a part of my childhood and also introduce myself to some classic games that I've never had the opportunity to play before. I'll also have a look at new games with a retro twist. And there are loads of other things I did have planned for my blog but can't think of them now (that's probably another sign I'm getting old!). Anyway, that'll do for my rather unexciting introduction.

Let the (old) games begin!