[GAME REVIEW] Sonic the Fighters

Introduction

In the year 1993, a game named Virtua Fighter debuted in arcades worldwide. Created by Yu Suzuki, a member of Sega’s second arcade game development division (Sega AM2), Virtua Fighter became a gigantic success – both commercially and critically. What particularly stood out was its presentation. Whereas many pioneering fighting games used two-dimensional sprites to depict its characters, Virtua Fighter featured three-dimensional polygon graphics. For braving the world of 3D gaming a before it became the standard and offering a level of complexity few contemporaries possessed, Virtua Fighter continues to be praised to this very day with some calling it one of the most influential titles of all time.

During this time, Sega was experiencing a lot of success in the home console market as well. Their 1991 breakout title, Sonic the Hedgehog, gave them a character capable of standing on even ground with Nintendo’s own mascot Mario. With Sonic as Sega’s mascot, the company sought to give him spinoff titles to demonstrate the character’s versatility as well as capitalize on the character’s popularity. Yu Suzuki once spotted one of his subordinates having created a model of Sonic during the creation of another fighting game entitled Fighting Vipers. This gave Mr. Suzuki the idea for a Sonic the Hedgehog fighting game, which he presented to Hiroshi Kataoka – a fellow head of the division. This, in turn, caused Mr. Kataoka to approach Yuji Naka, the leader of Sonic Team with the idea. Although Mr. Naka expressed concern that Sonic couldn’t fight given his large head and short arms, he was won over by the polygon animations provided by Mr. Suzuki’s team.

With Sonic Team’s approval, Mr. Suzuki and the rest of AM2 began developing a fighting game for Sega’s blue hedgehog. The result, Sonic the Fighters, was released to domestic arcades in June of 1996 before appearing in North America a month later under the name Sonic Championship. However, despite starring a popular character, the game quickly fell into obscurity due to its limited release in the West. It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the game received a greater amount of attention. In that year, Sega released a compilation dubbed Sonic Gems Collection, which most notably included Sonic the Hedgehog CD – a popular game that was highly difficult to find at the time. Sonic the Fighters also featured on that compilation. Between the release of Sonic the Fighters and Sonic Gems Collection, Nintendo, with the help of HAL Laboratory, conceived a fighting game starring their own mascot named Super Smash Bros. With Sonic having a three-year head start over Mario in this genre, was Sega able to successfully explore new ground?

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Monster World IV

Introduction

With Ryuichi Nishizawa and the rest of Westone having created Wonder Boy in Monster World, the versatile franchise now had a presence on the Sega Genesis. However, while Wonder Boy had arguably been Sega’s premier franchise throughout the third console generation, the company provided its answer to Nintendo’s Mario with their own mascot in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog. His debut in June of 1991 garnered a lot of critical and commercial attention, moving millions of copies. Suddenly, the Genesis could stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s then-newest console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES). However, the success of Sonic the Hedgehog ended up being a radical paradigm shift for Sega. Because they had a popular franchise on their hands, they focused their attention on making Sonic as versatile of a character as Mario. This ultimately overshadowed their third-generation triumphs. Most jarringly, their previous mascot, Alex Kidd, was left to fall into obscurity when his Genesis debut failed to resonate with fans.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nishizawa and his team were determined to create a follow-up to their fifth Wonder Boy game. Realizing that Monster World was far more popular than the Wonder Boy franchise from which it had spun off from, it seemed highly fitting for Westone to drop the original title for the sixth installment. The result of their efforts was thus simply entitled Monster World IV and released in 1994. Although fans of the Wonder Boy franchise existed in the West, Wonder Boy in Monster World would be the last time they ever saw a new entry.

As the century drew to a close, the internet began rising in popularity. It was only natural for the first adopters to be savvy in the art of programming and, by extension, video games. Through using the internet, they learned of the many games that never left Japan – including installments of popular franchises such as Square’s Final Fantasy. In extreme cases such as Intelligent Systems’s Fire Emblem, entire series were never released in the West. Among the games Western fans learned of was Monster World IV. The use of the internet along with the widespread availability of the titles’ ROM images allowed enthusiasts to band together to translate these Japan-exclusive games – including this one. Thankfully for Western fans who weren’t knowledgeable about emulation, Monster World IV did at last see the light of day in May of 2012 on the Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console, and the PlayStation Network. Unlike most cases of a game not previously localized being imported, Sega went a step further and provided an official translation for Monster World IV. Unfortunately, in the eighteen years since its domestic debut, Westone had gone out of business. Monster World IV was the newest installment in the series in both 1994 and 2012. Was Westone able to end their most famous series’ initial run on a high note?

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Wonder Boy in Monster World

Introduction

Westone’s Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, despite its lack of a domestic release, quickly became one of the premier titles of the Sega Master System library. With an inadvertent shapeshifter as a protagonist and a level design that forewent the traditional, linear structure of its predecessor, The Dragon’s Trap was among the first Metroidvanias to grace the medium after Nintendo’s own pioneering work. However, even with a game as impressive as The Dragon’s Trap, the Sega Master System trailed behind Nintendo’s juggernaut Famicom console. Fortunately for Sega, they were about to take a significant step forward.

October of 1988 marked the release of the Sega Mega Drive. Redubbed the Sega Genesis when it debuted in North America during the following year, the console was a significant step forward in terms of presentation and sound quality. As Sega Mega Drive fans upgraded consoles, many of them began waiting for new installments of familiar franchises. For fans of the Wonder Boy series, they would eventually get their wish. Almost exactly three years after the domestic launch of Sega’s 16-bit console, Wonder Boy V: Monster World III made its debut. This decidedly bizarre title demonstrated that it was the fifth game in the Wonder Boy franchise and the third installment in the Monster Land subseries following Wonder Boy in Monster Land and The Dragon’s Trap. This game was localized and subsequently released in North America and Europe in 1992 under the name Wonder Boy in Monster World.

A heavily altered port was also released for the Sega Master System in Europe where the console enjoyed more success than in the United States. Retaining their partnership with Hudson Soft, a version of this game was released on the Turbo Duo. In a manner similar to The Dragon’s Trap, Wonder Boy in Monster World was retooled into a standalone game called The Dynastic Hero. The main characters were modeled after insects with the bosses resembling their natural predators. Regardless, the base game was largely unchanged. Does Wonder Boy in Monster World manage to retain the impressive amount of momentum generated by its predecessor?

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Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair

Introduction

With Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone Bit Entertainment had another hit on their hands. The idea of an arcade game placing a great emphasis on role-playing elements was something rarely seen before or since. If one wanted an experience similar to the one offered by Wonder Boy in Monster Land, they would need to pay for a powerful gaming computer or the latest home console. It was therefore highly ambitious of Westone to place such an experience in a scene known for fast-paced, simplistic gameplay.

By this point, Westone clearly had a flagship series, so it was only natural of them to continue the momentum by creating a sequel. The third installment in this budding franchise, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair, debuted in domestic arcades in 1988. Though it wouldn’t reach international arcades, it was ported to many popular home consoles such as the TurboGrafx-CD. Strangely, this would be the only port North American gamers received. One was created for the Sega Mega Drive, allowing Japanese and European enthusiasts to play it, but a Genesis port never surfaced. With its two predecessors different as night and day, what did Westone decide to do for the third installment in their popular franchise?

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Wonder Boy in Monster Land

Introduction

Escape’s debut game, Wonder Boy, became a hit when it was released in arcades in 1986. Because the publisher, Sega, only had rights over the Wonder Boy trademark, the company entered a partnership with Hudson Soft to have it released on the Famicom – or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known abroad. Wonder Boy, retooled into Adventure Island, would go on to be a beloved classic in the NES’s library as well. As a result, the game managed to find a broad audience, being one of the few titles legally available on both a Nintendo and a Sega console. With this success, two members of Escape, Ryuchi Nishizawa and Michishito Ishizuka, began work on a follow-up. To mark the momentous occasion of having released Wonder Boy, they changed the company’s name to Westone, believing the name Escape made them sound unreliable. Westone is derived from the first kanji in these two artists’ names – “Nishi” meaning “west” and “Ishi” meaning “stone”.

In the same year in which Wonder Boy saw its release, a skilled programmer named Yuji Horii put the finishing touches on a game known as Dragon Quest. This title was a massive success upon release, introducing countless Japanese enthusiasts to the role-playing game. One person who took note of this game’s popularity and its subsequent impact on Japanese enthusiasts was none other than Mr. Nishizawa. Drawing upon his experience, he sought to create a game that combined arcade and role-playing elements.

The result of this experimentation, Wonder Boy: Monster World, was released in arcades in August of 1987. Although the original arcade version never left Japan, it received a port on the Sega Master System in 1988. This port, which was redubbed Wonder Boy in Monster Land overseas, is frequently considered one of the stronger games in the Master System library. Similar to the case with the original Wonder Boy and Adventure Island, it also saw retooled ports on the PC Engine and the Famicom under the names Bikkuriman and Saiyūki World respectively. Bikkuriman was based off of a 1980s franchise centered on sticker collecting. Saiyūki World, published by Jaleco, was inspired by the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West in which players assumed the role of the monkey king Sun Wukong – or Son Gokū in Japanese – on a quest to save his country. Of these various ports and retools, only the Master System version saw the light of day in the West. Did Mr. Nishizawa successfully use the increasingly popular role-playing genre to give Wonder Boy a worthy sequel?

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Wonder Boy

Introduction

Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. proved to be a tour de force when it was released on the Famicom in 1985. After the Famicom was allowed to make its international debut as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo had the honor of single-handedly revitalizing the North American gaming industry, which had been in shambles due to a devastating crash two years prior. Super Mario Bros. fared especially well commercially due to having been frequently bundled with the console itself. In a year, the NES became synonymous with gaming itself and Mario became one of the most recognized characters in the medium after Pac-Man. This presented a problem for any would-be developers. How could they possibly stand up to a company that so thoroughly dominated the market?

In 1986 as Super Mario Bros. took the world by storm, a company named Escape was founded in Sumida, Tokyo. They had teamed up with another up-and-coming developer, Sega, who just entered the console market upon launching their Master System console in 1985. Escape allowed Sega to publish what was to be their inaugural game: Wonder Boy. It was among the first electronic games to bear Sega’s name. As a result, the title character became one of the company’s mascots along Sega’s own Alex Kidd when Wonder Boy proved popular in arcades. The game was then ported to several prominent home consoles, including the Sega Master System.

Despite Sega directly competing against Nintendo at the time, Escape had entered a deal with Hudson Soft to port the game to the NES and the TurboGrafx-16 – domestically known as the PC Engine. When Wonder Boy was ported to the NES and certain other consoles, Hudson replaced the title character with an exaggerated caricature of Takashi Meijin – one of their spokespeople. The likeness even shared the same name in Japan, though he was renamed Master Higgins in the West. Versions of the game that cast Mr. Meijin’s 8-bit doppelgänger were renamed Adventure Island. Though not nearly as well-known as Super Mario Bros., Adventure Island became one of the hallmarks of the NES among Western gamers when it was released internationally in 1988. Whether it was called Wonder Boy or Adventure Island, did Escape manage to leave a good first impression in an increasingly competitive industry?

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Sonic Heroes

Introduction

Following the Dreamcast’s discontinuation in 2001, Sega’s future seemed uncertain. Fans were particularly concerned over the fate of their expansive Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Their fears were ultimately assuaged when a port for the latest game, Sonic Adventure 2, was announced for the Nintendo GameCube. It is nearly impossible to overstate how many shockwaves this development sent through the gaming sphere. An entire generation of enthusiasts had grown up knowing of the fierce rivalry between Nintendo and Sega. By the end of the year Sega pulled out of the console race, Sonic Team found themselves porting their latest work to their former rival’s console.

Because of this, for enthusiasts who had grown up with Nintendo consoles, Sonic Adventure 2 wound up being their gateway entry. As if to prove this wasn’t an elaborate joke, an original 2D platforming game by the name of Sonic Advance emerged for Nintendo’s newest Game Boy model. Both games were well received by these new fans. Over the next few years, this was followed up by a GameCube port of the original Sonic Adventure dubbed Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, a sequel to Sonic Advance, and Sonic Mega Collection – the last of which being a compilation new fans could use to play the series’ generation-defining Genesis installments. Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog then breathed a sigh of relief as the future of the franchise seemed secure.

During all of this, they began to speculate on what the next Sonic console installment would look like. Their answer came in the form of a project dubbed Sonic Heroes. It was being developed by the San Francisco-based Sonic Team USA – a crew consisting of nineteen members – to commemorate the series’ twelfth anniversary. The first few screenshots showed several returning characters from the Sonic franchise – including some such as Big the Cat, who had only appeared in one installment by that point. The project was led by mainstay producer Yuji Naka and director Takashi Iizuka. Mr. Iizuka stated in interviews that he didn’t want Sonic Heroes to be a sequel to Sonic Adventure 2. He was worried only fans of the series would buy the game and he wanted it to draw in a new audience. To this end, he desired to return to a gameplay style similar to that of the Genesis installments.

Furthermore, to reach as many people as possible, Sonic Heroes was to be the series’ first cross-platform installment, slated to see a release on the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. In order for this to be possible, Sonic Team opted against using tools built by Sega, instead partnering with Criterion Software. The RenderWare engine would allow the game to be programmed and ported to each platform with ease. They were able to use some textures and models from the two Sonic Adventure installments, but most of the game ended up being built from scratch. The biggest problem that plagued development stemmed from having to work with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, consoles with which they had little experience. Mr. Iizuka and Mr. Naka briefly considered including content exclusive to certain versions, but ultimately decided it would be for the best for everyone to have the same experience.

Twenty months after they started, the game was released domestically in December of 2003 before emerging in North America in January of 2004 and PAL regions the following February. Though fans by and large enjoyed the Sonic Adventure installments, the reception to Sonic Heroes was decidedly mixed. Particularly unimpressed were those who purchased the PlayStation 2 version, as technical difficulties forced Sonic Team to make the game run at thirty frames per second. By contrast, it ran at sixty frames per second in the other two versions. Discounting this particular issue, critics felt that the game, while lacking the issues of the Sonic Adventure titles, were still well below the quality of the universally beloved Genesis installments. However, criticism toward Sonic Heroes lessened over the years, and it is now considered a decent effort. Being the first Sonic the Hedgehog console game to be conceived by Sega as a third-party developer, exactly how well has it held up? Did they manage to put their best foot forward after a tumultuous period?

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Sonic R

Sonic R

Introduction

The year 1991 saw the debut of what would become Sega’s mascot: Sonic the Hedgehog. With his cool, edgy attitude, his series resonated with the zeitgeist of the era and was almost single-handedly responsible for the sale of millions of Genesis/Mega Drive units as well as spawning a fierce rivalry with Nintendo, the other giant in the home console market. Nearing the end of the console’s lifespan, Sega collaborated with an up-and-coming British development team known as Traveller’s Tales to create Sonic 3D Blast in 1996. Although the quality of this game has been heavily debated, it pushed the dying console to its limits with its isometric presentation and pre-rendered graphics, easily becoming a hit just like its 2D, side-scrolling predecessors when it sold over 700,000 copies.

After several failed attempts to squeeze more life out of their dying console, culminating in the ill-fated 32X add-on, Sega had released the Saturn in 1994. Similar to the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, the Sega Saturn was one of the first standalone consoles to make use of optic discs, significantly increasing the amount of storage space developers had to work with. In terms of sales, the Saturn did not reach the same level of popularity as the Genesis/Mega Drive, which is largely attributed to, among other factors, a subpar marketing campaign. Those who did purchase the console doubtlessly wondered why Sonic had such little presence on this new console. Once Sonic 3D Blast was completed, Sega approached Traveller’s Tales about working on a new project. Having coincidentally been working a 3D engine at the time, they accepted the proposal. Their collaboration with Sonic Team resulted in Sonic R, and was released in 1997 for the Sega Saturn, making its way onto PCs a year later.

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