Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Closer Look at Sonic Shuffle

A Closer Look at Sonic Shuffle for the Dreamcast

I never had a Dreamcast during its brief lifespan. I had an N64 and a PSX, so the Dreamcast with all of its whistles and bells was a bit too much for my gaming palate at the time of its release. This means I missed out on some really great games. I managed to play SoulCalibur (maybe the best game for the system) at a friend’s house regularly, but beyond that SEGA’s last (?) throw into the console pool was lost on me. I heard tales of Virtua Tennis, Crazy Taxi, and Jet Grind Radio, but they were phantoms in the gaming night. So, when I married and my lovely wife added a Dreamcast to our console collection, a whole new world was opened to me.
Going through her collection of games one day, I spied an interesting property: Sonic Shuffle.

“What’s this,” I said, “some great Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Dreamcast?” “Not quite,” my wife replied. She went on to explain that it was a board game with Sonic characters. “Is it any good?” I asked. “Well,” said she, “it’s like Mario Party, without Mario or the Party.” We both laughed pretty hard at that, clever though she is, but when the laughing was done, I insisted that we give it a spin and see what happens. The following account is the result:

My turn (I’m playing as Sonic): I pick a “6” card and pick a distance of six spaces on the board to travel, however Sonic’s special ability is to occasionally double the amount of spaces I can move, so instead of 6 I get to move 12. I move 4 spaces, but then hit a spinning arrow and immediately backtrack 2. I land on a space with a picture of a helicopter on it. At that moment, a helicopter appears above me, lifts me up and proceeds to carry and subsequently drop me precisely 3 spaces behind the space where I started. Knuckles’ turn (controlled by the CPU): Knuckles selects an “S” card (from my row of cards no less!). A menu appears from which he selects “Roulette.” A spinning card appears on the screen and he stops it on a “5.” Knuckles then proceeds to move 5 spaces and lands on the same square that is occupied by Amy (the other CPU character). The word “DUEL” appears on the screen and Amy and Knuckles move to a screen filled with cards. Icons with all four characters appear amidst the cards. The screen says “GO” and all of the character icons begin to move about the cards. Some cards leave the screen toward Knuckles, some towards Amy, and then suddenly, they all fly back up and fill the screen again at which point the process repeats until finally all of the cards are gone either to one side or the other. A winner is somehow declared and it is Amy. The game shifts back to the main screen and Knuckles must sit out a turn. Next it is Tails’ turn (played by my wife). She selects a “6” card and chooses a space the appropriate distance away. Tails moves to this space, which is marked with an “!.” The screen goes black and the words “Mini-Game” appears. All four characters are whisked away to a screen that explains the rules of the mini-game. Apparently, one of the players is to be the “DJ” and the remaining three are going to be placed on a giant turntable. The DJ character controls the movements of the turntable and various arcs of electrical current that span it, while the other characters must run about trying to avoid the electricity and collecting rings. Get hit and you lose your rings. The game lasts one minute. Chaos ensues. The minute expires, somehow a winner is declared and a leaderboard appears listing the rankings plus the amount of rings awarded. Knuckles wins, and as a result he also gets to steal 10 rings from another character at random. A wheel appears, spins, and the arm lands on me. I am forced to give 10 rings to Knuckles. Finally, it is Amy’s turn (the other CPU, remember). Amy selects a “1” card from Knuckles row of cards and moves one space onto a red space with a gold ring. Amy flinches as she loses 6 rings, only made worse because the screen says “COMBO 2.” The action suddenly stops and a character called Eggman appears above the board in a metal contraption. He laughs and says that we have stepped on a collective amount of 10 red ring spaces and as a result he is going to make the red ring spaces bigger so that we lose even more rings! His contraption zaps the red ring space with a yellow beam and it shrinks. The game’s administrator, Lumina, informs us that Eggman made a mistake and made the red spaces smaller. Instead of his insidious punishment, we will actually earn more rings for landing on blue spaces and lose less for landing on red. And now it is back to my turn…

Lost yet? I am not kidding you; this is what can happen during one average round of turns from Sonic Shuffle. I’ve seen a game last as long as 4 hours. One game. But I am getting ahead of myself… (continued after the jump!)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Closer Look at Asteroids on the GBC

A Closer Look at Asteroids for the Gameboy Color

I mean seriously, it’s Asteroids. Everything you need is right there in the Atari 2600 version. Hell, the arcade game was concurrent with the VCS. What could a game from twenty years later on a vastly superior system possible add to something that was clearly a classic in its own time? Nothing, Asteroids was perfect as it was. Read no further.


I really have no idea how Asteroids for the Gameboy Color ended up in my collection. My best guess is that I got it in a lot of games from a yard sale or the like. Maybe I got it cheap at a convention. Who knows, but that really isn’t the point. Due to an overwhelming sense of obligation to make sure that every game in my collection actually works, I was duty bound to pop this thing into my GBC just to be sure it wasn’t a clunker. Shouldn’t take too long, I mean, it’s Asteroids, nothing to see here…

Wait a minute…select a ship? You can’t pick your ship in Asteroids; you get the little triangle.

But here you can. What could possibly be the difference? Hmmm…

Needless to say, from there the differences began to multiply and become increasingly evident, and gasp, dare I say enjoyable? If you have already played this particular version of the arcade classic, you know that it isn’t your father’s (can you, the humble reader, be so young…sigh) Asteroids. Could it possibly be better? Let’s not get hasty.

Asteroids for the Gameboy Color is much like the Asteroids you may know and love, but with some very interesting updates. The gameplay is exactly what you remember from the original: you pilot a ship in space and asteroids come drifting near you. It is your job to blow them all into harmless space dust before they do likewise to you. However, this version of Asteroids takes that basic concept a few steps further. First of all, there is an attempt at a story. The opening cut scenes (yes cut scenes!) introduce you to the fact that there is a method to your asteroid smashing. You’ll even get a mission briefing before the first level! The story doesn’t really change anything about the basic game, but it does add some really nice flavor and back story. The only disappointment is that the story stops after the second zone. I was looking forward to mission briefings and story updates throughout, but for no apparent reason there is nothing beyond the second zone.

The second advancement is the aforementioned ability to select the ship you wish to do your asteroid smashing in. There are three varieties, each with different designs and secondary abilities, an interesting take on the old game variations which imbued your craft with various upgrades. While this doesn’t fundamentally change the gameplay it does allow you to tweak your experience a little bit and provide different kinds of challenges. To that extent you are also able to select the difficulty level you wish to play with. The main difference in difficulty level resides in the number of continues you are granted and what secondary weapons are made available (although I am sure there are deeper distinctions, I have yet to find a manual to explain such things to me).

Continues are another nice feature. Since the game is finite, unlike its predecessor, you’ll probably want to reach the end of the adventure. Doing so with three reserve ships is not going to be easy, so having a few extra chances doesn’t hurt. You can also obtain passwords for each level so that you can pick back up at the start of a level if you get obliterated or you just really want to replay that level again. Fortunately, the game has the kind of appeal that makes this feature more than just an endless continue.

The biggest impact on gameplay comes in the form of alien spaceships, weird hunks of space junk, some kind of metal space tube and various other intergalactic brik-a-brak that also clutter the cosmos in addition to the familiar asteroids of yore. In this game you’ll be shooting and dodging lots more than hunks of rock. You’ll also have to get out of that rut where you just sit in the middle of the screen and rotate 360 degrees firing indiscriminately--you know, classic Asteroids strategy! Level innovations include black holes, giant space worms and stars going supernova. These features create dynamic new gameplay situations and add depth to the overall Asteroids experience. This is the kind of game for people who think Asteroids is a good idea, but wish there was a little more to it. Honestly, for all my histrionics at the start of this article, that’s me.

The game is rather short, only five levels, but there is sufficient challenge and enough varieties of gaming experience that you’ll probably spend a lot more time with it than you might expect from an Asteroids game. As an added bonus, you can unlock a version of “Classic Asteroids” which you can select and play from the main menu screen. This game has tremendous pick-up-and-play appeal and doesn’t require much personal investment, a sometimes refreshing break from much larger more immersive games of this era.

The Final Look

Asteroids for the Gameboy Color is a successful adaptation and evolution of a true classic! All of the elements that make Asteroids a great game are here, and they are supplemented by features that take that basic concept to the next level. Furthermore, the game is ideal for a handheld system like the GBC, because this is the kind of game that can salvage a long road trip, a visit to Aunt Helen’s house (you know there is nothing to do there, why do YOU have to go?), or just kill 15-20 while waiting for that Overture at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey to end. I strongly recommend anyone who likes Asteroids to give this game a look. I never would have if it hadn’t fallen to my collection by accident, but I am glad it did.

Asteroid-Smashin’ Stan

Join me next time when I’ll get my board game on and take a Closer Look at Sonic Shuffle for the Dreamcast.

Tips follow after the jump!