It’s Time to Take You Back to the Past
Throughout the summer, TSSZ News will run a feature called Retro Reviews, wherein we take an honest look at the older and more obscure titles in the Sonic franchise. These games will be played on their original hardware whenever possible, and all available ports of the game will be reviewed as well.
Let’s go back in time, shall we?
The year is 1993. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is captivating gamers the world over, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is well on its way, and Sonic CD is busy trying to convince people that the Sega CD isn’t a waste of time. While all this happens, a development studio called Aspect continues to release 8-bit Sonic adventures for the Sega Master System and Game Gear. Their project this year is Sonic Chaos, a title meant to expand on the speed, gimmicks, and gameplay featured in their 8-bit version of Sonic 2. Their attempt at expansion succeeded, but it’s important to remember that bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Available On: Master System, Game Gear, Wii VC
Released On: October 1993 (MS), November 1993 (GG), February 2009 (Wii VC)
Upon booting up Sonic Chaos, players will immediately notice that the game, for better or worse, is truly a product of the 8-bit era. The six zones on display sport a fair amount of detail and polish, but the overall visual quality falls short of the more well-known 16-bit titles. When the game is played on an HDTV via the Virtual Console, these visuals take another serious hit and become a blurry, indistinct eyesore. Given the Master System and Game Gear’s limitations, this is to be expected, but it’s hard not to be disappointed to some extent, especially since the environments lack personality and fail to stand out when compared other titles in the series. From the familiar late-night glow of Gigalopolis Zone to the mechanical foliage of Mecha Green Hill Zone, Sonic Chaos fails to provide players with many new or exciting areas to explore.
These uninspired environments seem to have throttled innovation in the level design department as well. Most of the game’s 18 regular levels are very straightforward with little to no genuine challenge, leading to an easy and unsatisfying experience. Additionally, the levels also infrequently throw in bottomless pits or strings of springs when the player least expects it. These annoyances are often cited as flaws in the Sonic Rush games and the Sonic 4 saga, but it’s important to realize that these design decisions extend to some of the earliest franchise entries as well. Most new level gimmicks, such as destructible surroundings, end up slowing down and diluting the experience, whereas more successful gimmicks like rapid-transport tubes and underwater segments are directly lifted from earlier titles. The game does introduce engaging design and a decent amount of challenge in the final zone, but this will be too little and too late for some players.
Like Sonic 1, the third act in each zone ends with a boss fight. These bosses are surprisingly durable on the Master System, with each mechanical monstrosity taking a substantial amount of hits before Sonic can defeat them. The challenge and number of hits are corralled somewhat on the Game Gear, and this can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. While the weaker bosses lessen the redundant and often mundane fights, they also remove what little challenge the game had to offer. Even the longer versions of the boss fights do little to add to the game’s length, however. Most of the non-boss acts can be finished within 45 seconds with little to no practice. Even with several screw-ups and delays, acts should not take much more than minute or so to complete. With boss acts only adding another 30 to 45 seconds, this amounts to the game being very, very short. Even with a few deaths, I was able to beat the entire game (sans Chaos Emeralds) on my first go in under 45 minutes. That didn’t leave me very satisfied, and I bet it didn’t leave many gamers satisfied in 1993, either.
What should satisfy gamers, however, is the wealth of new moves and power-ups Sonic has at his disposal. Sonic Chaos is the first 8-bit title to incorporate the Spin Dash, and it simultaneously integrates a variation of Sonic CD’s Super Peel-Out. This variation, called the Strike Dash, grants Sonic a brief moment of invincibility as he takes off, allowing him to plow through a nearby enemy or projectile without taking damage. In addition to the standard ring and speed shoe monitors, Sonic can now pick up two additional power-ups in the form of spring and rocket monitors. The former places Sonic on a spring and automatically flings him high into the air, while the latter places Sonic on a rocket and flies him across the level at top speed. You have control over both power-ups, though coming into contact with any walls or similar obstacles at any time will knock Sonic off his new ride. These new power-ups are entertaining in bursts, but they are sadly underutilized in the main game.
They really come into play in the special stages, however. In a slight change of pace for the series, Sonic Chaos only grants you access to these stages after you acquire one hundred rings in an act. Since not even the early acts provide straightforward access to that many rings, the player must go out of their way to scour the level and collect them. Once that hundredth ring is collected, the game immediately whisks you away to the special stages. These stages cater specifically to Sonic’s new power-ups, and they prove to be a mixed bag. Fortunately, the stages are fun, quite creative, and cater to the new abilities well. Unfortunately, some of these stages also contain copious amounts of rings, and this ends up giving Sonic copious amounts of extra lives. It serves to make an already-easy experience even easier.
All of this happens amidst a curious control scheme and run-of-the-mill sound design. Like the 8-bit titles that precede it, Sonic Chaos utilizes slippery high-speed controls and a lack of distinct momentum. This approach gives the game a wilder, more arcade-like feel and, while it mostly succeeds at recreating the Sonic formula in a less powerful package, it also makes precise platforming and exploration very difficult. For the most part, this weakness is not a major issue, but the game’s handful of precision segments are often accompanied by bottomless pits, and this can frustrate even the most dedicated player. If you’re in the mood to mix things up, you can also play as Tails. He utilizes many of the same controls as Sonic, but the Strike Dash is replaced a very slow and lethargic few seconds of flight that can only be triggered from the ground. Additionally, he does not have access to the special stage, so playing as him restricts players from experiencing the game’s most entertaining segments. Regardless of your character choice, the sound effects are as varied and appropriate as 8-bit sounds can be, although most of them are taken from older Master System Sonic titles. The music is similarly varied, although this is definitely one of the franchise’s weaker collections of tracks. Some compositions are catchy and fitting, but most simply come off as uninspired.
Sonic Chaos has the framework of a great Sonic game, but weak level design and a shamefully short length hold the title back in more ways than one. If you happen to have the game lying around, it may be worth your time to pop it into your Master System or Game Gear and remind yourself of how things used to be. If you don’t have it handy, you may be tempted to track down a copy from eBay, Amazon, or the Virtual Console, but I would advise you to resist that urge. This is one Sonic game where the chaos on display may not be worth the price of entry.
Why? With more difficult bosses and a wider view of the action, the Master System narrowly establishes itself as the definite version of Sonic Chaos.
Why? Easier bosses and a smaller viewing area put the Game Gear version of Sonic Chaos a notch below its Master System counterpart.
Why? Murky graphics and emulation issues make the Virtual Console port of Sonic Chaos less desirable than any of its console brethren.