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!)

As my wife rather colloquially put it, Sonic Shuffle is a game in the vein of the enormously popular Mario Party game series from Nintendo. The game is based on a classic board game design with the board demarked in spaces, each space representing different consequences that occur to your player when he or she lands on it. The ultimate goal of Sonic Shuffle is to collect “Precioustones” as you traverse the game board (although this has little impact on who actually wins the game). After a set number of stones are collected the game is called. Apart from gathering the stones, there are several other objectives you pursue during the game. The simplest and most consistent goal is to collect rings, either from the game board, from mini-games or from other players. Each game board also features unique “quests” such as rescuing a beached dolphin or freeing a caged bird. Different rewards are given when each quest is completed.

The basic board game is supplemented by various mini-games, events, duels, and battles. These sub-features all have different objectives and rules that govern their game play. For instance, in the battles, you participate in an extremely simplistic version of a turn based battle in which you pit cards against an enemy (not another player). The person with the highest card wins. The result: rings, usually. Of mini-games there is a slew. We played a couple of games the other night and only had two repeat mini-games. The games vary widely and while some are straightforward (scoop rings into a bucket and load them onto a flat) others are nearly incomprehensible (climbing a number tower). These side games are intended, I think, to boost the basic game board experience and give players an edge in meeting the various larger objectives of the game. Whether they succeed in this or fail is really up for grabs.
As are most things in this game. And that maybe the biggest issue this game has: complete randomness. If someone one day asks you to explain to them the fundamentals of chaos theory, simply put this game in your Dreamcast and make them play a game. When the game is over, 3 hours later, they will understand chaos theory better than the minds at Harvard. Sonic Shuffle is a true exercise in surprise. Most board games work on a mixture of strategy and luck. This game tosses strategy out the window and goes for pure luck. There simply is no way to plan your way to success, even you could even figure out what that is.

Allow me to break this down a bit more, if that is possible. As I said above, the main goal of the game is to collect Precioustones. While you can set the number of stones per game, the maximum is seven, the person at the end of the game with the most stones isn’t the winner. I’m not entirely sure how the winner is determined (numerous games have failed to really establish any set criteria), it seems that collecting rings is a safe bet. At the end of the game, at the victory screen, emblems are awarded for things like stones, rings and quests, I have a feeling those have the most bearing on determining an outcome.

During the game luck is just as important. Classic board games like Monopoly or Clue incorporate some basic strategic elements, trying to acquire certain properties or correctly eliminating suspects through trial and error. Sonic Shuffle never gives you the chance. Oh, sure you can work your way toward that Precioustone, but unless you are two moves away from it, chances are extremely good that random circumstance from either a flying dolphin or a falling pillar is going to prohibit you from advancing in that direction. Never mind the fact that should another player reach the stone before you, a new location will be chosen for the next stone and it will probably be diametrically opposed to your current space. After several rounds of this back and forth, you’ll be no closer to getting a stone. The good news, you may not need one to win anyway…

The sheer amount of random stuff that happens keeps this game from being as fun as its Mario counterparts. If the game could just calm down a bit maintain a little internal consistency, it could be a lot more fun. Also, if the goals were clearer, the manual is less help than the in-game “tutorial,” you might have a better chance of knowing what to concentrate on doing.

The other main problem with Sonic Shuffle is the flawless AI. The computer players win their challenges 95% of the time when the game is set to normal difficulty. I have seen a computer player go up against a Precioustone guardian who had a six card, the CPU player had a 6 card also, and win consistently. Now to win the challenge, the card spins and you must stop the card on a number equal to or higher than the enemy’s number. The highest possible number is 6. This means that in order to win the computer has to stop the card on six, nothing else. Mathematicians are way ahead of me. You’ve got a one-in-six chance of winning this battle. For the human player this is a matter of timing and reflex pitted against those odds. Success is possible, but unlikely (until you learn one little secret). For the computer, this is a guaranteed win 9 out of 10 times. Also, when drawing cards for moving around the game board, players have the option of taking from their own row which is visible, or drawing blindly from another player’s row which is hidden. For the human player this is a risky proposition. Not so much for the computer which successfully picks high cards over low cards a large majority of the time. The lack of failure in the computer player makes the 1 player Story mode extremely frustrating and party games lopsided if there are less than 4 human players. It even comes to a point where the mini-games and duels are virtually unwinnable against the AI. This does not make for a fun gaming experience.

On the plus side, Sonic Shuffle is a very bright and colorful game with interesting game board designs and various environments to play in. One game takes place on a runaway space train, while another has you pitted deep in a dense jungle. The early version cell shading (if that is what it truly is, I only really have a 30% understanding of what that term means) on the characters looks quite good. Visually the game is quite nice. The voice acting is pretty standard, cutesy but not stupid.

Final Look

Unless you just really really really love Sonic the Hedgehog or are some kind of masochistic board game fanatic, Sonic Shuffle for the Dreamcast is crap. Sorry, but it is. It looks nice, it wants to be fun, but it just isn’t. Flawless computer AI and pure chaotic randomness hold this game back from being what could have been a really fun gem for the Dreamcast library. I suppose if you had four human players and a zealous love for Sonic all the while possessing no real need for rules or order, you could eek some fun out of this game, but outside of that I’m pretty sure this is collection filler. There is a reason there are like 9 Mario Parties and only 1 Sonic Shuffle. It really is like Mario Party, without Mario or the Party. Move on.

Join me next time when I really step outside my comfort zone and take a Closer Look at Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town for the Game Boy Advance. God help me.


You know I can probably fill this space with several paragraphs of gibberish and have an equal chance of assisting you in getting the most out of this game. But I’m a sporting fellow, so why not at least try to point out some things that will, at the very least, make your trip through Maginary World a little less insane.

First of all, do not be thrown off when the computer players take your best cards. You can certainly turn the tables on them and return the favor. Just watch when it is the computer’s turn and remember where the card you need is in their row and then snatch it on your next turn. The computer rarely shuffles their cards so this works most of the time.

When using a Roulette “S” card or doing battle, or any other time the card spins and you must stop it on the number you want, remember this: the card always spins in numerical order, 1-2-3-and so on. So as long as your reflexes are not completely shot, you can reliably get the number you want with a little timing. This will help level the playing field a little against the perfect AI.

On the game board, utilize the unique spaces, particularly for your character. Knuckles can climb certain walls; Tails can fly over certain areas, etc. These spaces can cripple other players and make your route to the stone almost the only viable route.

Also utilize the spring board spaces. These will bounce you across the game board and often right next to a Precious Stone. Locate these when the game begins and keep them in mind.

Go ahead and do the side quest challenges if you can. Spaces like “rescue the beached dolphin” or “unlock the ancient temple” may not be on the path to a Precioustone, but they will net you an emblem at the end of the game, which I think somehow, contributes to you winning the game.
Either way, it’s worth the risk, especially if the space is close and the computer is obviously going to claim the next Prescioustone.

Rings are important. Having the most will net you another emblem at the end of the game. Chances are pretty good that you are going to shed rings like mad during the mini-games and various other random circumstances. Therefore it is always wise to make every effort to land on the blue ring spaces and avoid the red ones. The blue spaces are guaranteed ring profits in a world where guarantees are rare.

Do not forget to use your Forcejewels. They are generally won in battles or bought from the shops and can easily be tucked away and forgotten in your inventory amidst all of the other chaos going on in the game. Often these can turn the game to your advantage with minimal effort. Effects vary from jewel to jewel, but most do something useful.

That about does it for advice, although the best tip I can possibly give you is taking this game out of your Dreamcast and swapping it for Crazy Taxi. Trust me.

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