Unleashing my Review
Saturday, 6th December 2008, 4:41pm (UTC), 4 Comments
It's taken me a week, but I've managed to boost, button bash, swing, stretch, claw and Quick-Time-Event my way through the XBox 360 version of Sonic Unleashed. I've avoided any other review or opinions of the game whatsoever, so that I can formulate my own verdict, unaffected by whatever anyone else thinks, so I've absolute no idea how well it's gone down. I may go against the majority verdict, either in the Sonic community or the gaming press in general, or I may well be one of many that would argue, despite some flaws, that Sonic Unleashed is among the best in the series.

I won't do the usual Sonic review thing and begin with unnecessary comments on the low quality of past titles. Rather, Sonic has been on a bit of roll over the past year and a bit, starting with the success of Sonic Rush Adventure, followed by the massively well-selling Olympic Games, a popular appearance in Smash Bros Brawl and a successful introduction to the RPG genre in Sonic Chronicles. All this however culminates here, the next big, primary Sonic game, hoping to right the wrongs of Sonic '06.

Now I like to think of myself as a positive and optimistic Sonic fan, and as such I managed to salvage some enjoyment and re-playability out of Sonic '06, but there's no denying even from me that it was a rushed and mistreated game, and one gets the impression that the developers pretty much gave up half way through and just dragged it along, leaving the game with little heart and soul of its own - more an ugly cousin of Sonic Adventure. They may be barking up the wrong tree with the werehog and the button-bashing-enemy-beating stuff, but there's no denying that this time they're really trying to put things right. What you have here is all of Sonic Team's passion and desire to build a polished and complete game that the franchise deserves, and one of the first things you'll notice is that it corrects most of the technical wrongs of the last game. Vast levels full of scenery just keep on going without needing to be broken up into sections, and loading times are never an issue. The kinds of glitches that flew Sonic off into the abyss if you innocently hit a dash panel at the wrong angle, and made you embarrassed to show the game to your friends, are pretty much stamped out and although the framerate can dip from time to time, such occasions are forgettable and don't particularly ruin the action. Fortunately actual slowdown is very nearly non-existent. And crucially, the game has its own unique, humourous charm. It rarely takes itself too seriously, and bottom line, it's fun and frenetic in a way that only Sonic can be.

Exploring the World

I managed to avoid spilling as many beans for myself as usual by ducking and dodging all new info and the ridiculous abundance of movies that Sonic Team forced upon us throughout November, spoiling three levels that didn't need to be spoilt. I hope you did too. But as such I had no idea how these day, night and village stages were all going to be organised, but it works out a little something like this. Eight core levels/countries (then a final, ninth one that I will certainly want to talk about later on), which are accessed via a rotating globe of the shattered world. Each country has a small/small-ish village area where you undertake most of the entirely optional RPG-style nattering, but an additional entrance stage area is where the action takes place, holding portals to the country's stages. In both the village and entrance stage, you can change the time freely, and thereby alternate between hedgehog and werehog, which I think is what that one Sega rep was referring to when he said that you could chop and change between the two in some areas. Time, however, never flows freely - you choose when it's either day or night. The entrance stages are quite open, and often even contain enemies and objects from levels, with different parts accessible to a particular form, changed by hitting an occasional hourglass object.

Although you travel back and forth between continents old and new throughout the course of the game, the order in which you complete the stages is linear, and as such each stage portal within the entrance stage of any country will only open up when the time is right in the story. It's not all day stage, night stage, boss either, sometimes two continents open up simultaneously, and you might do one night stage first, then a day in the other continent, then straight to the other day and back to the other night stage, or vice versa. The object is to restore power to the empty Chaos Emeralds, one by one, by gaining access to a hidden temple in each continent, which is only opened via defeating a boss (either a day or a night one), which is only accessed by collecting both halves of the boss key, acting as the goal of the relevant day and night stages.

A further catch, which extends the playing time of the game's story longer than probably any other platformer of the series, is that each portal to a stage, has a number, 1-7 on it, corresponding to the level at which your sun/moon medals need to be at. Wait.. what? Sun and moon medals are scattered throughout the action stages and villages, much like the silver medals in Sonic '06, and each individual medal can be collected only once. So you'll need to have collected a certain number of sun or moon medals to access a particular day or night stage, respectively. Depending on how diligently you were collecting these on your first attempts at stages (easier to do in the werehog levels, due to the increased opportunity for exploration), you may have to repeat some of them to gather enough, which is bound to be a bit of an unpopular move on Sonic Team's part, and particularly annoying if you really want to press on to the next levels, but have to backtrack all over the place instead. As such, my first top tip for this game:

TOP TIP #1: Collect every sun/moon medal you see and actively look for them in the werehog stages"

This mechanic isn't really made clear enough in the game until you experience it yourself, but if you follow that advice, and bear in mind that there are loads tucked away in the villages and entrance stages, plus you don't even have to finish a stage to keep any that you find, you probably won't have to do too much repeating. It is a bit of a stunning moment, towards the end of the game, where you're told you need to go back and find as many as 30-40 medals before you're allowed to press on, but trust me, they do soon start raking in, as there's loads of them about. It does help you to pace out your whole adventure too, which, in the long run makes it all the more meaningful when you look back on it, and those lovely, hard-earned Sonic stages all the more sweeter. Plus, about half way through the game, new, optional little stages start to emerge in the entrance stages, as second or third acts to the main, first acts for both hedgehog and werehog. Very similar to the Hidden Islands in Sonic Rush Adventure. These have their own additional medals, and I'll talk more about them below...

I'm a Day Person..

The whole adventuring aspect will never sit well with those who insist that Sonic should be simple and linear, but what everyone wanted to know was are those speedy, straightforward, gorgeous and nostalgic Sonic levels really as fun as they look? To put it far too simply, yes. Yes they are. There's still room for improvement, particularly in the controls department, but in my opinion, these levels can do no less than overtake Sonic Adventure 2's as the best form of 3D Sonic-only levels we've yet seen. And that's going by both first experiences with them, and after I've re-played them all a fair few times and gotten to know them better.

As you know, the levels tend to simplify everything by crossing, above all else, the Secret Rings philosophy of running forward, camera behind, dodging oncoming obstacles, and the pure, fast-flowing, side-scrolling euphoria of Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure. The two formats switch at regular intervals, although perhaps staying just a bit more on the 3D view, overall. The result is an experience that, if you're good (and often, even if you're not), you can just keep on going, and it creates a magnificent adrenaline rush. As I mentioned earlier, glitches are few and far between, although death drops are unfortunately as common as ever really. However, when you do fall in them, it's often because of bad timing on your part, and just not being able to react quick enough, but still having been given reasonably fair warning. Usually. It's no walk in the park like SRA was though, later stages require close attention, and for best results, go easy on the 'ol speed boost when exploring new areas, as it's best used when on long, safe pathways or when you know what you're doing!

One gripe is to do with the homing attack. The good news is that it is usually pretty effective, and you have a very long range in which it'll work, plus a target symbol will appear on the relevant enemy/spring etc beforehand so you know it's going to work. The bad news is that they've thrown us all off by relocating it from the A button to X, after jumping, which is a bit of a bitch to get used to, and something that's bound to just cause confusion when we revisit past titles for a quick play. I can see the method to their madness, as the mild-mannered dash that usually occurs when Sonic double jumps without anything to home in on, is now replaced with a full blown mid-air boost that rockets you forwards, and keeping all boosting to one button makes sense. The standard jump dash still exists when you don't have any ring power for your boost however, so I struggle to see what would have been so wrong in keeping the jump dash and homing attack to the A button, while the mid-air boost can be a separate move, on X. On occasions, such a powerful blast in the air can send you unexpectedly flying too far off of a platform. Not a common problem, but it happens.

The controls in the 2D sections, and even in some 3D portions where pinpoint, platform-hopping accuracy is required (such as the infamous rotating circular platforms in Dragon Road), are as tight as you would want them to be. Initially Sonic seems to drop a little more quickly after jumping than I was used to (resulting in an embarrassing plummet in Windmill Isle, akin to the numskulls who demoed it in various trade show videos), but once you get used to that, it's no issue at all. In the more fast-paced 3D sections however, everything feels very loose, and Sonic goes darting off at the slightest tilt of the thumbstick. Although it can be overcome, it makes the experience a bit disorientating when you first begin. These physics are also employed, inexplicably, in the entrance stages where you'll be flying off of platforms all the time. Not that it's really crucial there, but it is annoying how Sonic controls more like Super Sonic would.

However, at full boost the 3D portions are similar to the super-speed sections of Sonic '06, which I'll stand by as being a great idea that were extremely exhilarating once you know the glitches to avoid. Well, Sonic Unleashed can match, perhaps even exceed those speeds, and even with the looseness mentioned, you still have more control over Sonic. Although most of the time the boost is optional if you prefer a more careful approach, sections where Sonic must run across water, or along a long wall is usually where it's needed most, but little dabs will do you just as well as prolonged blasts. The left and right shoulder buttons are used to quick step left or right, although this initially isn't as easy to get used to as you might think, as you can still use the thumbstick as well, for a slower dodge. Being able to run full steam ahead and dodge obstacles successfully takes practice, even when you know what's coming. Similarly, the trigger buttons are used for a drift around tight corners, making Sonic control like a racing car sometimes, but the cornering isn't as tight as I was expecting, and later drifting sections, where you can fall off the road, are tricky to master.

Many of the 2D sections are conquered by blasting through, Sonic Rush style, but some players may be surprised at the odd intricate, careful platforming on offer here as well, comfortingly harking back to the days of yore. Arid Sands, the Middle Eastern Shamar stage is particularly of note for this, as is Savannah Citadel and the final level. Also be on the look out for the optional acts, discovered later in the game, as many cater very much to us old fogies who want simple, 2D action that has just as many careful portions as speedy ones. They're often only based on a small area, but there's a clever mechanism in place that loops the level round in a circle, creating laps, and on each lap, a different array of objects appears before you.

That said, I'm sure many will be left bemused as to the qualities of the modern Sonic experience, as there are many portions that play themselves, sending Sonic zipping between long winding paths in which very little is required of you. They're amazing spectacles to behold, especially at first, and feature some truly jaw-dropping scenes (one that got me was that massive sperm whale bursting out of the sea in front of you in Holoska), but after a few re-plays, the simplicity causes the mesmerising effect to wear off a bit, and the same can be said for the dashing-straight-forward sections of the earlier levels such as Spagonia (as incredibly enjoyable as that was first time around - if, like me, the trailer for that level really hyped you up for it, you won't be disappointed!).

Branching routes were a hyped feature, and what you can't expect is highly intricate and often entirely separate paths through whole stages, ala S3&K. No real surprise there. Instead, they have more in common with recent handheld outings, opting for the short-but-numerous option, often aided by new catcher objects that release you in one of three directions by pressing A, X or B, very much like those in Sonic Rivals. Similarly, Quick-Time-Events are used frequently to offer brief shortcuts or bonuses, and more often than not, failing them doesn't usually result in death, except for jump panels, where you need to press the displayed button in order to dart off to the next, and not fall by pressing the wrong one. Elsewhere, button combinations are always randomly generated, offering a bit of a twist every time you re-play.

Somewhat controversially, Sonic Unleashed employs a similar approach to health in the daytime as Secret Rings does, whereby ring loss still occurs, but the fallen rings are never collectible again, they're essentially just a graphic to illustrate your damage. They don't all go, but it's not a consistent number each time, it seems to be about half or a third of them, depending on how many you have. However, they're in a huge abundance in order for the dash to be available pretty much all the time, and while dashing, rings are attracted to you as if you had the ring magnet shield, so the ring count and dash meter just sort of sits there in the bottom corner and you don't really pay too much attention to it. The animation where the collected rings flow into the meter isn't nearly as annoying while playing as it was while watching the videos. Item boxes are a thing of the past as well, as 10-ring and extra life icons are now free from their capsules, allowed to float around wherever they please. Are these little changes taking us further and further away from our roots? It's the little things that matter, after all.

In order to meet this ring loss system in the middle, bosses are fought on the move ("Mushroom Hill style"), an unpopular choice back in the days of Sonic Advance 2 and Sonic Heroes, but I think they work well enough here, thanks to some clever attack patterns and controls, while Sonic is pretty much running automatically.

In summary, daytime levels are extremely fun, and on the whole, well produced. Controls can be slippery, but nothing you can't overcome after a little while, and there's a decent variety of gameplay on offer, mixing straightforward dashing with more careful platforming. If you're against the modern approach to fast-flowing levels based on quick reaction times then there's only so much you'll be able to extract that will entertain you, but if you don't mind letting Sonic do his thing now and then and just run while you watch in awe (but being ready to add plenty of your own input at any moment), then you'll get on with them just fine. If you loved Sonic Rush and/or its sequel, you'll love this.

Unleashing Your Beast

As night falls, Sonic loses his speed, and Jason Grifith loses whatever ability he had to act. But that's another matter, the werehog stages are where the controversy starts to emerge. There will be those with an open mind, who don't have quite such a strict idea of what should or should not be in a Sonic game, who will have been open to the idea from the beginning, but there are others that will just hate this mode and everything about it from the get go. What I'll say is that if you've seen even a small amount of video and read even a small amount about it, that's pretty much what you can expect. It doesn't really hold many surprises, it's a case of what you see is what you get, and if you come in expecting to do a lot of fighting and some reasonably entertaining platforming and puzzling, you won't be disappointed.

The first stage is a bit of a poor introduction to be honest, as it throws continuous series of enemies at you as you plough your way through Apotos, leaving the somewhat more enjoyable platforming to the end. An uneven framerate greets you right from the start too as large open areas are filled with many unnecessary small creatures that are easily disposed of. X and Y are used for two varieties of punches, Y being generally a bit more effective, featuring a longer reach, thanks to the werehog's oddly stretchy arms. A is your jump, and B is grab, for picking up fallen opponents and then tossing them away with X, Y or B again. If you try and press B while in active combat, you'll either be pushed back or a small QTE sequence will begin where you then have to press another button to pull off a powerful move. I never bothered with them, as more often than not I would be button-bashing the wrong button anyway before I realised what I was even doing, which allowed the enemy to counter. Holding a trigger button while running allows you to dash on all fours, essential later on where your attacks are better off being more of the hit-and-run strategy. Left shoulder button produces an impenetrable shield around you, something that I barely used until the very end (I always forget to block in other games too. I've no time for all that), and the right shoulder button initiates Unleashed mode when you have acquired enough.. whatever it is that you need to acquire, by defeating enemies. This increases your speed and power significantly, but depletes your unleashed meter.

By defeating enemies, exp points pop out of them in the form of simple yellow diamond shapes of varying sizes and strengths, and these go towards a simple levelling up system, for both forms of Sonic. At the end of a level, or even during it in the pause screen, you can add collected points to a number of aspects of how your character plays to improve his abilities. Regular Sonic just has speed and ring energy, neither of which really need to be fussed with too much as far as I can tell. I wouldn't really need him to go any faster than he already is anyway, so I concentrated the majority of mine on the werehog, who, as the game progresses, needs all the help he can get to dispose of these tiresome enemies as quickly as possible. Categories include combat (few points required for levelling up, and each level delivers a new move, to add much needed variety to proceedings), health meter, unleash meter, strength and shield meter all need your attention (well, except the shield, if you're anything like me).

TOP TIP #2: Put practically all of your accumulated exp into the werehog - he needs it!

Now, since they were introduced in Sonic Heroes, I've not been a fan of enemies with health bars. Few probably have been. In Sonic levels they're just plain annoying, but thankfully, such strong enemies have not found their way at all into the daytime stages, which is a huge relief. I can tolerate health bars a little more in slower-paced modes, such as Silver's gameplay in Sonic '06, and this. Indeed, once you've unlocked a few new combat moves via levelling up (the buttons for them, by the way, are accessible in the pause menu, but you can get by ok by mixing up the buttons randomly and seeing what happens), the combat can be quite entertaining. Knocking an enemy's health down in a single flurry as they fall back at each blow, picking one up while its dazed on the ground and swinging it round by the legs, consequently knocking it against another guy a couple of times before throwing it directly into a third on the other side of the room... All enjoyable, if approached with an open mind and a certain delight in seeing things get destroyed.

However, as you might expect, it does drag on a bit. Some stages have generally more combat than others, giving you wave upon wave. Most annoying is where a beaten enemy is replaced by another that teleports in, and you've no idea how many more are on the way before you're finally allowed to carry on. What's more, each combat session is distinctly separated from the level by the same goddamn piece of music that interrupts the stage tune, throughout the whole game. It's not a bad piece of music, it just aids the whole thing in being very tedious and you no doubt grow to associate it with a massive groan of irritation. Sometimes a batch of enemies can simply be ignored as the path onwards is still open, but the music makes you think you have to defeat them. Enemies you'll encounter include some extremely annoying individuals. The standard blue gaia grunts soon learn to block, which can be very frustrating, and the red wasps in particular are an absolute bitch to pin down and beat up. Eggman's robots want in on the action too, some of which enjoy spraying you with bullets that are hard to get away from (until you remember your shield, anyway). Their health bars increase at probably a faster rate than your strength does too.

Thankfully, the platforming and puzzling aspects are more enjoyable, though can be annoying their own ways. In order to protect myself from disappointment, I was expecting a more uneven balance of combat vs platforming than there actually is, and although its not exactly Mario standard in terms of variety and originality, it's tolerable. Most of the platforming entails jumping from ledges and a variety of platforms, climbable poles, narrow walkways that you can either hang from or balance on, swinging from horizontal poles, smaller ones that you can grab onto, or floating enemies. The bit that makes it interesting is that you can use the B button to stretch out and latch straight onto all of these things, and target markers appear, as in Sonic's homing attack, to make the whole thing a lot easier, and this system works very well. When you need to jump off or position yourself on them quickly, it can be a bit fiddly. Virtually all of these platforming instances are performed above a bottomless abyss, often making a wrong move fatal, although your stretchy arms have a very far reach, so it's quite forgiving. Fortunately, the most difficult of these often feature a checkpoint just beforehand, and an extra life in an easily accessible place before, or shortly after you start, so continued death, as will often be the case, is eased with the knowledge that you're unlikely to lose all your lives, as the 1-ups will continue to reappear on each attempt. This is the main reason why I haven't had reams of Game Over's and subsequently thrown the XBox out of the window by now, mind you. As it is though, it certainly makes the platforming more tense, as my controller quickly became doused in sweat during each of these sequences.

Savannah Citadel is a good example of platforming and puzzles. One puzzle in particular actually phased me for a few minutes, requiring decisions on a combination of movable blocks on platforms, lifted by switch mechanisms that would also allow you to climb them up to a high ledge. There's other nice little bits, such as in Cool Edge, where you must pick up one of those weird pirouetting fire enemies and actually use them to melt the ice (setting other enemies on fire is entertaining too), but make no mistake, this is no Zelda. Most puzzles simply require you to hit switches or place statues on pedestals to open doors, and rarely has Sonic ever really been more puzzling than that, and that's the way it stays here.

These werehog stages, however, are too long, at least for the rules that have been applied to them, i.e. lose all your lives and it's back to the start. It didn't happen to me, but if that occurs towards the end of the stage, that's a good 20 - 30 minutes of your life you've just thrown away. Perhaps they could have looked into establishing some sort of big "super checkpoint" object that saves your place in the stage no matter what happens, until you complete it or find another one. Since they offer a free life around the hardest sections anyway, it makes me wonder if we really even need lives for this sort of thing any more?

I'm certainly not opposed to slower-paced platforming in modern, big Sonic games like this. Although for fun, I'll return to these levels much much less often than I will the daytime stages, but in the initial story, they are important just for stretching it out (no pun intended) and making the game a bit less shallow than it would be had it all been daytime-only style levels. Sonic Team do face a problem in that that's all anyone really wants, but the speed means that levels have to be so huge that there's only room for so many, and as such, you need slower levels like this. Do you need to play them as a giant, hairy Sonic with long arms? Not necessarily, but it doesn't really bother me. Having to defeat enemies with health bars doesn't bother me either, it's just the sheer number of them that's the problem. After you've just been killed for the third or fourth time, in battle with the same batch of seemingly never-ending bad guys, you do wonder "Is this really what Sonic is about?.. Why am I having to do this?". The mechanics aren't poor and glitches are minimal (except for the framerate drops and occasional bits of scenery getting in the way of the camera), and it all works as well as any other game where you have to fight onslaughts of enemies by button bashing. Indeed, it's no more boring to me than gloomy shooters that throw barrages of enemies at you, which everyone else seems to enjoy for some reason. But having to fight so many isn't fun, it's just a pain. Reducing the total number of enemies by about a third, or even a quarter is the last minute, drastic course of action I would have taken with this, had I suddenly been placed in a high-authority job within Sonic Team a couple of months ago. The game wouldn't lose anything, as there's more than enough gameplay here without them, and you'd still keep whatever combat was left relatively enjoyable. I'd also get rid of that battle music for sure.

The Other Stuff

The only other mode, as such, that pops up twice in the game is the Tails Tornado challenge, appearing at separate ends of the story, an entirely new iteration of the Sky Chase level, in which the pair encounter Eggman's aerial assault during their usual continent-hopping. Though you're back in the lovely red Tornado 1, it too is now transformable, and the action takes place entirely behind it, so this mode has much more in common with the Sonic Adventure version of Sky Chase than the Sonic 2 one. No matter how much you try to move, you'll soon realise that you have absolutely no control over the movement of the Tornado or Sonic, perched on it. Instead, this is entirely an exercise in QTE's and how quickly you can respond, as missiles and enemies are thrown towards you, attached to a graphic of a particular button, which you need to press before they make contact. I had a hard time with the first one, losing all my health about four times, but by the second one, towards the end of the game, my button responses had improved dramatically throughout the course of the game, so my newfound QTE skills battered through it first time.

Talking to the townspeople around the villages will often yield extra missions, as Sonic '06 did, thankfully without the unnecessary load times. I haven't investigated too many of these, but ones I've encountered are often based inside portions of the relevant action stage attached to that village, and consist of things like breaking boxes within a time limit, tagging the two ghosts from that "Night of the Werehog" short while falling down Rooftop Run's sewer tower, and the old chestnut of protecting some guy from being attacked by monsters. I don't think these really give you anything, but add them to the additional action stage acts (which can be quite varied in themselves - one act of Rooftop Run urges you to find ten lost Chao within a small area), plus time limit and other challenges on the Act 1 stages, issued to you by a travelling chili dog man (that's right, Sonic's apparent love of chili dogs makes an in-game appearance, I think, for the first time!), then you have quite a lot of extra stuff to do. The game's music, cut scenes and even concept artwork are collectible in the form of records, videotapes and books dotted around the levels, and can be bought in shops along with other souvenirs that you can give to Professor Pickle, in exchange for a hint about a particular aspect to the game. Who the hell is Professor Pickle? A kindly English University professor with a stereotypical penchant for cucumber sandwiches, and who seems to know a lot about what's going on. You must return to him, based in either Spogonia or Shamar, each time you complete a stage in the story, so that he may unlock the next one for you and tell you where it is.

That brings us neatly to the supporting characters and story. There's a fair few scenes to get through at the beginning and end of the game, but most of the way through in the middle you're allowed to press on, relatively undisturbed. There are no overly-complicated twists and turns, it's all pretty simple - planet's broke, go and bring emeralds to the temples to fix. One of the things that make it stand out from similarly large titles in the series is the presence of humour and a lighter outlook on the whole thing. Eggman is back from being all serious and human-like to a somewhat more bumbling evil genius, this time with a lackey robot who lives in his Egg-mobile control panel and continuously offering him back-handed compliments, reminiscent of those lackeys of his in Sonic X. The scripts are of a higher standard than usual, as is the acting of the supporting characters such as Mr Pickle and Chip, the little flying dog fella who's lost his memory. He could have easily been all cutesy and nice, ruining Sonic's levels by throwing in cringing audio commentary like whatever-her-name-was from Secret Rings, but fortunately a) he's quite entertaining in a very cartoon-ish sort of way, with a large appetite and excellent animation, even during in-game graphic scenes and b) he refrains from all speech during the levels - even hints are given in text-only format. Sonic, Tails and Amy all give their usual acting jobs, out-performed by everyone else in my opinion, and as I hinted at earlier, Sonic's voice as a Werehog is pretty much devoid of any real acting. It's almost as if Jason is trying so hard to make his voice sound like it belongs to a large furry beast version of Sonic that he's forgotten to add any emotion to what he's saying. Curiously, unless they're hidden well within the depths of the extra missions, other regulars such as Knuckles and Shadow are uncharacteristically missing this time around. This is probably for the best - the story doesn't need them and it establishes them as having other things to do themselves, while all this is going on. Keeping Knuckles back on Angel Island, where he's supposed to stay is another thing that this game has successfully fixed.

Can I talk about the final level? Look away now for spoilers, but Eggman has finally done what has been in the works for about ten years now and built Eggmanland. Delightfully going against the real-world premise of the game and bringing us back to what is essentially the ultimate final factory style level, even with a hint of carnival about it. It's one long act that features both hedgehog and werehog segments, subsequently delivering some of the finest level design in the game. There's a refreshingly large amount of level-specific objects to enjoy, even including some good old crushers and all manner of disintegrating platforms and conveyor belts, and the 2D sections that feature these are marvellous, plus the first part is extremely rich in true multiple routes. Even the werehog segments cut back on the fighting until the end (where it gets unimaginably fiendish, granted), but what you need to know is that Eggmanland is unquestionably, by far the most insanely long Sonic level in his entire 17 year history. When I finally finished it, Eggmanland took me 63 minutes. And even that was after I'd already got through the first half-or-so and failed, so already knew that part pretty well. An hour-long Sonic level - take my advice and stock up on lives before attempting it. After finishing it goes straight into the sequence of final bosses, which is as you would expect them to be, except with one twist that is.. well, odd.

So, as you can see, Sonic Unleashed is one that's difficult to place. I'd be surprised if many people don't see it as something of an overall step in the right direction from Sonic '06. There's no doubt it's a much more polished game - they've made time to ensure that it is at least playable, and they've clearly taken on-board some of the things that people have complained about. Your enjoyment of the game will probably all come down to how tolerant you can be of the Werehog stages, and the sad truth is that although there are equal amounts of story-based stages for both forms, you will spend more time as the werehog, struggling through a 20-30 minute level to earn just up to ten minutes in a Sonic level. Your enjoyment of those too will depend on how comfortable you are with the more fast-paced, simplified philosophy of Sonic level design, but that by no means is all that mode has to offer.

As far as I'm concerned, the night stages were tolerable, because I really love the day ones - in my opinion they're well worth it. Although basic, the platforming sections at night I found enjoyable, and I just found myself caught up in the whole adventure, I suppose. I think if you meet it with an open mind and accept it as its own game rather than anything that is trying to be a game from the past, be it a classic 2D one or whatever, then you'll get the most you can out of it. I don't know about you, but the first play through the story is only really a small part of my overall enjoyment of any Sonic game - there's many months and years to look forward to where I'll pick it up now and then, as I do with all the older titles, and play through the daytime levels at my leisure, and that's what Sonic has always been about for me. I can tell these are the types of stages that will give you a tremendous rush when you can do them properly, soaring through without getting caught up on an obstacle, textbook QTE busting, knowing when and where to jump, and even when you first start, it's still all smooth and exhilarating enough without having to know the full level off by heart. And something I haven't mentioned until now but can be pretty much taken as a given from all the media we've all seen of it, everything is absolutely gorgeous. There are many places where you'll just be stunned by what that Hedgehog Engine is capable of rendering, and I might go so far as to say that it's possibly the most realistic daytime lighting I've seen in any game yet. Sonic Team should be commended for the effort they've clearly put in to try and right some of those terrible wrongs and actually trying to make a fun experience. It's not easy being in their shoes, with so many different people telling you what they want, and not knowing who to listen to. But I think they've done an excellent job with those daytime stages, looking at what's worked and what hasn't and combining the best things about modern Sonic into something that somehow still feels entirely new and exciting.
Comments   4 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Tuesday, 9th December 2008, 3:57am
It's too bad they still haven't succeeded in including a true Passage of Time system, like they were promising in the early days of Sonic Next-Gen. We've been looking forward to something like that for a long time.

My thoughts on such a system: Unlike an RPG, Sonic moves in real time. What you see on the screen is what is really happening. Everything is to scale, both size-wise and time-wise. It's not supposed to be an abtract portrayal of a day's trek through the mountains every time Sonic runs across a hill. So if it changed from day to night and back during a Zone, with a timescale similar to that of Ocarina of Time's Hyrule Field, you'd have to imagine Sonic lived on a planet that rotated really fast. Like, impossibly fast. Some game conventions are fine, but such a stretch of the imagination would take me out of the experience.

Why do people want to see a passage of time in the first place? Because they want to see the Zone change, see the contrast between the two times, and for the technical spectacle of it all. Well, to achieve all of this, all you really need is a sunset or sunrise - both of which can happen in less than thirty minutes, or about the amount of time you would spend in a goodly sized Zone (3 acts split into 10 minutes each, maybe). Sonic games have always had Zones set during sunset or sunrise, such as Spring Yard or Scrap Brain, so in addition to Day Zones and Night Zones, you'd have a third category - Dawn/Dusk Zones.

This is the method I want to employ for my project (I've already started programming the sun movement and lighting conditions). Some Zones, such as Green Hill or Marble, will be during the day, with no significant changes. But Sunset Park (and others I can't yet divulge) will show off the passage of time engine.

Additionally, once you've played the Zones in story mode, you can come back to them at any time. Depending on the game's real-time clock, the Zone will change. So it is possible to play any Zone at any time, and even during transitions, but you never have to make the concession to a compressed time-scale.

Just imagine running through a Zone at night, and as the sky brightens, the music gets more upbeat. Then, as you speed through loops and work your way to the upper route, where the background stretches out magnificently before you, the sun rises and the Zone explodes into life.
#2. Comment posted by pokecapn on Monday, 22nd December 2008, 1:30am
You seem to have had a lot more luck with the werehog's platforming than I did. A lot of times the targeting reticule appeared and vanished before I could react or never showed up and I'd fall to my doom. It made me really fear the serious platforming sections, but I felt it was the game's fault rather than my own.

The werehog sections in the final world were a level of frustrating that made me come out disliking the stage, but otherwise, I think this review is right on the money with me and other Sonic fans like me.
#3. Comment posted by Sonic booomhog on Monday, 6th April 2009, 8:56am
Good review. I think the werehog stages could be better (What is up with the music?) but are still enjoyable. Day stages=AWESOME.

I agree with your review.
#4. Comment posted by Hyper_Sonic on Monday, 11th July 2011, 8:09am
Yea, day stages ARE Awesome, But the night stages could do with some, err, I mean A LOT of work. :D
Chronicles Impressions and more
Saturday, 1st November 2008, 12:40pm (UTC), 9 Comments
Not to worry, I'm not dead. Just busy. Unfortunately juggling a full time job and work on the big Zone: 0 reinvigoration that finds itself falling further and further behind schedule, is not easy, especially when your job is looking at a computer screen all day anyway. Still, progress has nonetheless been fairly consistent, and to recap, I'm planning a massive revamp to the whole site. Although the actual writing will receive only minor amendments, based on the suggestions that visitors have helpfully sprinkled across the pages (so if you've suggested something good months ago that I haven't done yet, don't worry, it is probably coming!), and the overall layout and organisation of the site will remain the same, all of the underlying code has basically been completely rewritten in order to offer fully dynamic content, with lots of new features. It may still be two or three months off at least (and there will therefore be no more updates until that time), but hopefully it'll be worth the wait. Right now I'm working on a new, very comprehensive admin system for me to control the layout of the pages, and I'm almost done, so it'll make the whole process so much easier from here on out, and hopefully I'll be able to bash out several dynamic versions of old levels and pages in a matter of days. Visually, the new design is already there and it's a vast improvement and I'd like to think that the whole thing will help Zone: 0 become more and more recognised in the Sonic community as I continue to add new pages of content. It's just unfortunate that the place has to sit quietly in suspended animation for the moment, and I can see my visitor stats decreasing as a result.

Before I talk about Sonic Chronicles and Sonic Unleashed, was I the only UK-based Sonic die-hard to be crushed in disappointment while leaving the Video Games Live event in London last Friday? Don't get me wrong, it was a great show, but after 3 or so years of wanting to go, and after all the excitement of finally getting to see the excellent compositions of Sonic 1 performed by a live orchestra against the background of a history of Sonic game clips, they chose not to include the Sonic segment this time around. I don't mind telling you, I was mighty pissed off. If you don't know, Video Games Live is a world wide tour of game music from across the generations performed by a live orchestra, and with over 50 segments each dedicated to a particular game, I suppose it's not surprising that they only have time to include 20 or so in each show. I suppose it was my own fault for not realising this beforehand, but according to their FAQ on the site, favourites like Mario and Zelda are performed almost every night. You would think, given that Sonic is listed as seventh in their list of 50 titles, that he would be included among that elite group as well. I would try and go again next year, but how will I know if I'm not to be disappointed again? Posting up a list of the segments planned for each event beforehand would be helpful.

My, rather belated, two cents on Sonic Chronicles then. I've played, I'm guessing, past the half way point now, into what I would assume is the so-called second act of the game, and I must say, I'm really impressed by it, and I'm not sure I was necessarily expecting to be either. Sure, the prospect of a Sonic RPG from Bioware sounded great at first, but I soon found the eventual cascade of videos and behind the scenes documentaries to be not-that-riveting, under the mighty shadow of Sonic Unleashed anyway. Still, it's a game that needs to be played for quite a while before you can form a valid opinion of it, and initially I was a bit put off by a certain quality about its comic-book style cut scenes and opening sequence that, while subtle, was at the same time jarringly un-SEGA-like. Indeed, the game starts off a bit slow and boring, with limited attacks to use and at first there's little immediately outstanding dialogue, as everyone said there would be. Before you know it though, a change happens quite quickly and if you're anything like me, you'll start to love it as new characters, moves, strategies, enemies, puzzles and plots emerge. I'm no big turn-based RPG fan, in fact the only one I've really played in full is Pokemon, and generally I can't be arsed with the more strategic approach to a video game battle, but despite this being a Sonic game, which generally insists on a more care-free style of play, Bioware have somehow managed to take those characters and let you use them in an environment where levelling up, buying moves and employing particular strategies for attack and defence against various enemies actually works. All of which are things that have largely failed in past Sonic games, such as Secret Rings, in my opinion.

In Sonic Chronicles, I'm not in the mood to rush through scenery and get on with things as fast as possible anymore, I want to explore, to hone my skills and spend time finding out more about the story, and for Bioware to pull that off where others have failed, to successfully stretch Sonic rather than stretching the properties of an RPG, is actually quite an achievement in itself. Further kudos to them for finally focusing back on the story of the echidnas and Angel Island (although it does present some continuity errors, seemingly mistaking the large piece of land capable of holding several levels - and the Death Egg - that it actually is, for the often mistaken tiny piece of land shown in Sonic Adventure that is actually just an internal plateau used to hold just the Master Emerald). It's nice to see this story, undoubtedly the best ongoing arc they've ever come up with, brought back again after Sonic Team have seemingly forgotten about it entirely, leaving Knuckles as little more than a second sidekick to Sonic, and whose exploits with Angel Island and the Master Emerald usually appear only in his instruction manual bios.

One thing I'm really not big on though is the music. Most of the tunes come straight from Sonic 3D, largely the PC/Saturn soundtrack by Richard Jacques (often hyped up, but I personally prefer the Mega Drive alternative), though it's not that that bothers me, in fact that moment where you match up a tune in a new game, unexpectedly with a track from a previous game is always one of those somewhat rare joys in Sonicdom. No, it's the incredibly minimalistic and uninspiring technical translations of these tunes to the DS hardware, which I thought was capable of a lot more, as the superb soundtrack of Sonic Rush Adventure certainly proves. It's all very slow, thin and low quality techno-sounding, the likes of which you'd probably expect more from the Gameboy Advance and I really don't know if I want any of it in my personal Sonic music collection, despite the links to past tracks. I can see what they're going for with the more subtle approach in levels that you tend to spend more time in than in platformers, but it really feels like they've just slapped on the soundtrack at the last minute as an afterthought (and the re-used tunes actually add some weight to that argument methinks), and Sonic music should NEVER be an afterthought.

Although the game feels a bit rough around the edges in places in terms of its presentation, the fantastic drawn area maps give it a real unique graphical touch, and although before playing I had concerns that there wasn't going to be much of a puzzle element to the game, which I suppose is still true, it doesn't really matter that much, as the battles, story and missions requiring you to explore the maps are enough to keep you hooked. Most maps do have one puzzle each however, where you use the characters to press certain buttons at certain times in order to interact with the puzzle presented to you. Such tasks include recognising patterns that are within a grid of squares and avoiding ones that aren't and the good old match-a-tune-by-hitting-buttons-in-order chestnut. Although thinking about it, this statement isn't saying a lot, as I can't really think of a non-platformer in the Sonic series that really ranks up there with the best platformers, but I would go so far as to say that Sonic Chronicles is probably the best Sonic spinoff game yet.

Meanwhile, Sonic Unleashed is really getting to the point now where I'm seriously in danger of seeing too much before I play the game, with, frankly ridiculous amounts of new trailers coming out that are spoiling specific level contents for me and official websites that threaten to reveal all the level locations and names! Disaster! This happens every time, I end up seeing bits of virtually every level in the game, thus degrading, to various extents, the thrill of exploring brand new environments. It's a simple thrill, but one that's important to me, so I really need to employ more self control and keep my eyes away from these tempting morsels. From the amount of new media and info that's been flooding in over the last couple of weeks, you wouldn't think that we still have a whole month to wait! I saw four new movies last night for crying out loud! Still, I've managed to stay away from anything in the official sites, and there remains at least three, perhaps four levels that I'm yet to see anything for and I'd really like to keep it that way. I'm going to have to try and ban myself from taking in any new information for what will be an extremely long month now.

I must say I'm finding it difficult to match my enthusiasm for the Wii version with that of the 360. I plan on getting both, as they're clearly quite radically different from each other in terms of levels, which make the game as far as I'm concerned, so they may very well be classifiable as separate games in their own right. It's just difficult to truly accept the low end graphics when the 360's look so gorgeous, but the endless, unnecessarily wide and empty roads seen all too much in the Wii footage don't do it any favours for me either. Looks more like courses in a racing game in some places.

My hopes are really high for the title in general though. I'm sure it won't get amazing reviews, largely down to the Werehog, but it seems to be on course to at least inspire hope in the disillusioned. One of the reasons that the failure of the last primary platformer, Sonic the Hedgehog, came as such a surprise was, I think, due to the lack of decent information about how it all played out in the months leading up to release. I remember looking for previews in the latter weeks, and finding only a foreign one that seemed positive, though the translations were hard to make out, and that's about it. There was no warning - any other, earlier previews neglected details about poor frame-rates and dodgy controls etc, and we were lead to believe the demo was based on a much older build, which of course turned out to not be so different from the final release. This time however, there have been loads of previews that haven't been afraid to give us the full story, poor frame-rates and all, and the good news is that the previews have generally been getting more and more positive the further on the development gets. Check out IGN UK's opinions on several level's worth of a near final build. They report minimal technical issues and what's more, fun gameplay on both sides of the coin, and this comes from generally one of the biggest Sonic critics out there as far as I'm aware. I think the final proof will be all down to how the whole story mode plays out in full, but it's all certainly looking very positive. Exactly how good the game needs to be in order to win over some people into thinking that Sonic still has it remains to be seen. It doesn't bear thinking about if we end up facing another critical failure.

Sorry my blog posts have to be so few and far between for the moment, but my free time is fairly minimal so I need to devote most of it to rebuilding the site, and blogs always take much longer than you expect them to. I'll probably return to discuss the Sonic Unleashed demo whenever that decides to pop up, if indeed it precedes the actual release. Fingers crossed! And I'll certainly be offering a highly thorough verdict on the final game too.
Comments   9 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Monday, 3rd November 2008, 1:10am
That inconsistency about the nature of Angel Island bothered me, too, but it reminds me of something that has always bothered me about Sonic 3 & Knuckles. So I figure I'll ask a certified Sonicologist about it. :)

In the beginning of Sonic 3, Sonic and Tails are seen flying the Tornado in for a landing on what is assumed to be Angel Island. However, they pass over what appears to be a traditional beach, not the edge of a floating island. Now, this could easily be construed to be an inland lake of Angel Island, and not the ocean at all, but you'd think if Sonic Team wanted to emphasise their magical floating island they'd make it look like one. So perhaps Angel Island is actually in the sea at the time Sonic and Tails arrive? When playing Angel Island as Knuckles, the background is different (only sky is seen above the treeline, rather than a sea with other islands), perhaps adding evidence for this - when you play it as Sonic, the island is down, when you play it as Knuckles, the island is up. In fact, the Japanese Manual for the game states that the Death Egg's crash forced Angel Island down to the sea, so apparently the mystical floating island the entire game is predicated on doesn't float at all during either game when you play as Sonic. Am I the only one who finds that a little odd?

When the Death Egg crashes at the end of Launch Base, it (and you) are seen as falling down into Mushroom Hill. The Japanese Manual states that Mushroom Hill is indeed on Angel Island. But in Hidden Palace, a transporter takes you high into the sky, into Sky Sanctuary. In Knuckles' game, in the background of Sky Sanctuary, Angel Island can be seen. The transporter Knuckles takes in Hidden Palace very clearly sends him straight upward, so how can Angel Island be seen in the background? If Knuckles was just there a moment ago, in the volcano, did the transporter send him sideways? Are there two floating areas? It makes my head hurt. Any thoughts?

(and also, what the heck is a carnival doing on Angel Island? Did the Echidnas build it, or did Robotnik? And when?)
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Monday, 3rd November 2008, 7:37pm
Haha, there are certainly many little things that do need clarification about the story, despite its overall brilliance. As I recall, I do go into these issues in the S3&K guides a little bit (which you'll all see someday, I hope!), and I've wrestled with all of those questions before, but I think I can answer most of them as far as logic is concerned, although we'll probably never really know for certain.

The Japanese manual does indeed state that the Death Egg forces the island down into the sea (I don't have the translation to hand right now, but I'm sure it suggests that Angel Island does not stay afloat in the air while supporting the Death Egg), so that would make sense for Sonic and Tails to cross water in order to get to it.

About the Knuckles issue, there are several clues to suggest that, although you can choose to play as Knuckles from the start, his game appears to take place entirely after Sonic's story has finished, making it somewhat less epic. First of all it explains why we never see Sonic pop up in his story, and as you said, why the sea isn't visible in Angel Island Zone. The Death Egg's face is also no longer sitting in the Volcano when you go to the end of Lava Reef Act 2. I believe that it's basically a big clean up operation, as Knuckles rids the island of badniks, and then eventually takes the Master Emerald back from Mecha Sonic (if that is indeed his official name, I'm not sure to be honest).

I've always thought of Sky Sanctuary as being just a collection of floating ruins suspended separately from the rest of the island, but still held up by the Master Emerald. I guess the transporter's trick of sending Knuckles upwards, and then he appears to the side of Angel Island, is just the best that could be done to illustrate the peryl of an ever slanty Angel Island, with the 2 dimensional resources they had at the time. It is odd that they finally give players the chance to play as Knuckles, a very popular character at the time, and then he seems to get quite a rushed and incoherent story that's very much a side dish to the main course that is Sonic's story.

And as for Carnival Night, I can only think that Eggman had a spare carnival lying around that he had shipped directly onto the island (if you had enough helicopters you could probably do it - The abundance of Eggman's machinery seems to know no limits anyway, so why not?), probably without the permission of Knuckles, and perhaps to make money by opening up a tourist attraction as a side project, while also restoring the Death Egg. Far-fetched explanation, but it is a far-fetched concept anyway.

Oh well, food for thought I suppose. Are these the sorts of storyline issues you're tackling with your big remake project of the Mega Drive titles you mentioned before?
#3. Comment posted by mercury on Monday, 3rd November 2008, 9:05pm
That's brilliant - Robotnik has to fund his exploits somehow, so why not with a carnival? Although, he'd probably have better luck airdropping in prefab Wal-Marts staffed with Badniks. XD

Yes, these are the very things I've had to sort out for my remake, although I take a bit more creative licence than something like, say, Sonic Chronicles. I think it's more important to match the spirit of the original, than the actual resultant cartridge, especially since we now know Sonic 3 & K were rushed, and not initially meant to be released separately. For instance, I try to consolidate some of the Death Egg sequences so it doesn't feel like a bad yo-yo, being launched and crashed and launched and crashed.

However, a lot of my restructuring of the Sonic universe is selfish, really. When I first played these games at 7 or 8 years old, I didn't have the benefit of translated manuals. Furthermore, I was thoroughly confused by the TV series, OVA, and comic books. How I envisioned the Sonic universe was therefore different than any one iteration of it, and certainly nothing like the original Sonic Team's vision. So, when remaking the games I adhere more strictly to my own impressions of the characters and world more than anything else, though I do love trying to combine them wherever possible. Because I had some of the ideas that will eventually shape the game so long ago, it could be said that it's been in development for over a decade. In a way, I've never stopped working on it.

I'm aiming for a 2011 launch date, which seems interminable, I know. But I just finished making accurate 360 degree loop motion, and floating platforms, two of the hardest things about any Sonic engine. I've also studied the physics of the Mega Drive Sonic games, using debuggers, so that I know all of the true velocities used in the originals. You gotta know the rules to break them, after all. I'm now at the point where, if that's what I wanted to do, I could emulate the entirety of each of the games in Game Maker, and a heck of a lot more indistinguishably than Sonic Genesis for the GBA. If only I wasn't so ambitious... Anyway, I'm hoping that the wealth of information I gather can also benefit other Sonic game creators, helping them have more accurate Sonic engines, because, let's face it - most Sonic fan games have a lot of trouble with these things. It's not like making a Mario game.

My other great interest besides Sonic and music is science, and I grew up reading the likes of Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. When hearing them describe physics so engagingly, I always wished that I could have been like Isaac Newton, discovering the properties of light and motion and countless other things. But calculus has been invented, and we already have Euclidian geometry. All the fun stuff has been figured out, and you need to be a string theorist to be in physics today, it seems. That and I probably don't have the brains for it, anyway. So it comes as a great source of enjoyment for me that my love of Sonic can somehow result in my having an experience akin to those old scientists. I may not be able to study real physics, but I can study Sonic physics, and the discoveries I make on that front can actually benefit my "generation". Sonicology is a rewarding field, even if it won't someday result in FTL travel.

I've been rambling again... Anyway, thanks a bunch for the answer, I appreciate it.
#4. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Friday, 7th November 2008, 12:34pm
Sounds like an awesome project! Ramble away, by all means, that's what this site is all about afterall!

No matter how long it takes, you certainly sound committed to your game. It seems we only ever see as much as a few demos from most Sonic fangamers before the game is eventually scrapped, often in favour of a whole other Sonic project that is largely pretty similar anyway. A Sonic engine is certainly a lot more complicated than it looks - I tried my hand at a Sonic fangame many years ago for the Game Maker, before I really knew how to program at all, and my abilities couldn't match those high expectations of a Sonic engine. I'd never share it, but I do look back at it fondly however. It's interesting to see that even back then I had a pretty good grasp of what good level design was about, as there were tonnes of multiple routes and hidden areas etc. It's a different scene now, as there are lots of good, ready made engines out there such as yours, and I'd really love to one day use one of them to build my own ultimate levels, completely original graphics and ideas from top to bottom.

It's interesting that you talk about Sonic allowing you to expand other interests such as Science. I'm experiencing a similar sort of thing with this site. At first it was all about Sonic, before I even knew how to program PHP and use databases etc, but now that I do, it's just as much about building the best site and content management system I can, and expanding my knowledge of programming and web technlogy. I could just build it all in static html, but I want the luxury of creating text and image boxes by merely filling in a few form fields, and my new admin system with which to do that is now practically done. I guess the best thrill is creating stuff that figures things out for itself and creates the tired and tedious html for me.

Now I'm rambling, but I guess my point is how much Sonic seems to be a way of life for some of us, as a conduit to other passions. Fascinating!
#5. Comment posted by mercury on Monday, 10th November 2008, 10:19am
Hey, that's cool, I was thinking about asking you if you'd ever tried your hand at making a Sonic fangame. Now I find not only that you have, but you were using the same programme I am now. If you ever finish one and feel it's up to public scrutiny, I, for one, would love to play it. Good Zones are the most important thing about a Sonic game, after all. Too bad naming them is so hard. ;)

Sonic Extractor 3&K mix is around a fortnight from completion. While working on it, I've discovered some ways to improve the CD mix version, as well, so there might be an update in the near future. Don't worry, though, it'll still be compatible with any work you may have already done. One of the improvements is the ability to enter the Layout without any wait time at all!

Instead of posting the links to each of the things I release to Rapidshare independently, I've made a permanent Rapidshare folder. Now, all anyone needs is a link to this folder, and they can check it periodically for updates, new releases, and anything else (such as Sonic Physics FAQ's, and eventually my game proper). This way I don't have to keep posting links in comments every time I do something new.

The url is http://rapidshare.com/users/6F4GHR

You could even put the link to this folder on Zone 0, on a sort of links page, as a way to advertise Sonic Extractor. If this is asking too much, however, I would understand.
#6. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Monday, 10th November 2008, 10:07pm
Oh, by all means! Linking to your folder is the very least I could to as gratitude for the many hours your programs are sure to save me! I do plan on adding a links section, on the main page most likely, and perhaps a designated links page too. Fantastic to hear that the S3&K Extractor is so close! Can't wait to give it a spin - I'll be sure to keep an eye on your folder.
#7. Comment posted by mercury on Thursday, 13th November 2008, 7:52am
Thanks! I'm in the middle of adding the objects to Hydrocity right now. I've added the ability to import and export different palettes (in Tile Layer Pro format), so that maps can have more accurate depiction of underwater areas (since Sonic 3 has so many). I've also made a small, separate tool that makes creating palettes as easy as "eye-droppering" them right off the screen. I'll be uploading it, soon, too. And finally, I've made progress on the Sonic CD special stage mapping front, so that should be in the update to the CD mix version, also.

On another note, have you seen the "Night of the Werehog" short trailer? And if so, what do you think of it? I can't tell what it has to with Sonic Unleashed, but it does make me wonder what a full-length Sonic Unleashed CGI film would be like, especially with Hashimoto comparing the new visual style of Sonic with things like Pixar's Ratatouille. I wonder if Sega will ever try to make a full-length Sonic feature.
#8. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Saturday, 15th November 2008, 6:36pm
I thought it looked pretty cool, but ultimately I felt somewhat indifferent to it - didn't really have that much of an impact on me and I do wonder what it's all for really. To promote the game, obviously, but considering the short is apparently ten minutes in length, it seems quite an expensive and elaborate way of doing so - I would rather they have put that ten minutes worth of CG work into the game somewhere, where it wouldn't have been done in CGI otherwise.

However, I liked reading that the full thing has no voice overs necessary, and all looks very cartoony. This smash bros style approach is something that I think would work really well for a Sonic game. Not because I don't like the VA's, they're alright, but I just think a lighter, more comical approach would be quite nice. We are talking about a big blue hedgehog afterall, it doesn't all have to be serious, epic battles with monsters that live at the center of the earth.

That said, I must admit I do occasionally daydream of a full blown, CGI movie as a mainstream blockbuster, reminding everyone else of Sonic's existence, along the lines of what TMNT did for the Turtles fairly recently. But of course, videogames to movies are never the most popular of translations, especially for the fans of the series in question. I think if Sonic regains more mainstream popularity, and Sega get more money to spend, it may well be a possibility for them to consider.
#9. Comment posted by mercury on Wednesday, 3rd December 2008, 10:18am
It took a little longer than I expected, but I finished Sonic Extractor 3&K Mix, and it's now up at my LinkList. I hope you find it useful.

I've also got a gmail account, now, so feel free to send me any feedback or suggestions you may have about the programmes.

Cheers and Happy Holidays!
Sonic Unleashed level organisation: My speculations
Wednesday, 3rd September 2008, 7:57pm (UTC), 3 Comments
A mere two months or so away from Sonic Unleashed, the whole community is waiting with bated breath to see if this is the one that gets it right, or at least does well enough to retrieve the respect that Sonic deserves. As always, I'm most interested in the levels that we'll be getting, and I'm particularly intruiged by how they'll be organised. We've been told they'll be sorted in a new way, unlike the Zone-Act system, so I've been thinking about how that might be, and I thought I'd share with you my main ideas. In a few months from now, I'll look back on this and either gloat as I get it bang on, or, more likely, shudder at my huge miscalculations.

Note that I'll be using the word "level" to describe a whole, well.. level, and the word "stage" to describe sub-parts of that level, e.g day and night. To avoid confusion.

We know the main elements, every level will have a Sonic stage, a Werehog stage, and there will be small hub "village" areas that allow access to these stages. The most interesting interview that throws a new twist in all this though is this E3 one from Joystiq with Patrick Riley, the game's producer. He claims...

"Certain parts of the action stages are built for both day and night gameplay. When in these areas and when in the villages, in-game time will pass and Sonic will transform. However, we're making sure that the player won't be "stuck" in a form they don't want and it will be easy to automatically advance the clock. Other parts of the action stages are built specifically for day or night gameplay. While Sonic is in these areas, in-game time will not pass."

Although this is about the only thing I can find that talks about this aspect, it does correspond with these incriminating images of the African jungle stage at both daytime and sunset, and also in this gallery from the Japanese official site, you'll find what looks to me like a more hilly region of the Mykonos level, at sunset. So, unless they pull another Sonic '06 and ditch the changing day (don't you dare guys, I've waited too long for this feature!), we'll be able to see the effects of time gradually shifting across the day in certain Sonic levels. If we're to take the above quote literally, it'll take place in certain parts of individual action stages, meaning those parts will be built to accomodate both Hedgehog and Werehog, but other parts are stuck in a set time period. These could, I supposed, be strictly divided as separated parts much like Sonic 06 levels, but that would make all the levels pretty long, and a pain to restart if you lose all of your lives. In Gamespot's E3 showcase video, Ken Balough seems to make it clear that the stages we know best will be separate to each form of Sonic, tailor made for the appropriate playing style, and each stage in Mykonos was accessed separately from the demo's menu.

I believe that Patrick was referring to this spectrum occuring over several sub-stages within a whole level, rather than in single action stages as we would know them. So we know about day-only and night-only stages, but I would suggest that there is a third stage to each level, possibly set around a similar, but slightly different location (like S3&K variations between acts) where this transition will take place throughout its duration, and you'll be able to play as either form in layouts that are hopefully largely platform-based; not too fast to exclude the werehog, and not too open to ruin the streamlining of Sonic's style, although there would ideally be several routes and areas only accessible to a particular form. Potential examples linked above would be the more serene hillsides of Mykonos, where there are fewer houses, and the African jungle - as opposed to the African city which would be the main area of that level (I'm yet to see a single screenshot that features both environments together, so there's nothing to say for sure that they're part of the same, long-ish stage). Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but this would allow the developers to be more careful and considerate with their level design, so as to make sure it runs smoothly no matter which form you're in, and they could make them more complex, with hidden areas - an idea I thought might be good would be to hide the Chaos Emeralds in these stages, much like in 8-bit Sonic 1. It's already been stated in the Gamespot video that Sonic is on the hunt for the emeralds, to bring them back to inidvidual temples, restoring power to each. We haven't heard anything about Special Stages, so perhaps this is a way to include them as an extra challenge, as opposed to something that happens automatically.

Presumably, this is the first major 3D Sonic game that will be one long story, as opposed to multiple character stories that you chop and change between at will. There are seven emeralds, which suggests seven different levels, three stages each, which makes 21, plus villages and bosses. Roughly the right amount of gameplay that you would expect from such a game these days, although as many as nine whole levels have been suggested by different sources such as previews, but not directly from Sega as far as I'm aware, so I don't see that as being confirmed. Seven different locations seems more likely to me, if you consider how detailed the currently known stages actually are. That takes time and effort. I reckon there will be a small village per level (and that screenshots that depict this area are subtle reveals of the African one - Sonic is always shown to be walking through). So typical progress through a level could be as follows:

Wander around the village in the day, find entrance to day stage.
Play day stage as Sonic.
Return to village at night, transform, find entrance to night stage.
Play night stage as Werehog.
Return to village, which now operates on a free time scale.
Find entrance to Boss, beat boss and go to next level
Find entrance to the "freestyle stage" and hunt down a Chaos Emerald maybe? You can come back later and do this, so freestyle stages could essentially be optional.

When entering the freestyle stage, the time of day at which you enter will carry on into the stage. I'm not sure what this method of fast forwarding time will be, perhaps just an option to automatically wait for 12 hours or something. Bosses, we've only seen as regular Sonic, but I'm sure there'll be one per level and possibly some will be Sonic only, some Werehog. I doubt they'll make a different version of each boss. In the villages, I'm sure some side quests will be there, as indicated in interviews, but I don't know what completing them will offer, just emblems to collect or something. Perhaps some are necessary to open up the entrances to the stages, thus increasing the story mode's lifespan.

Now, levels. These different level environments we know from screenshots and videos:

- Mykonos (now believed to be called Windmill Isle)
- Europe (possibly the rumoured Spanish Villa stage)
- Africa (city and jungle areas)
- China
POSSIBLE: Egypt (included in the first Wii screens)

The following are suggested from interviews:

- New York (It's been in more than one report, I recall, but here's one anyway)
- London ("Sonic will be running on the hands of Big Ben in London", although the full translated text doesn't seem to be available.)


- Arctic level (As far as I'm aware, this only exists as part of this initial leak, way back when the first details and media were revealed on the EspioKaos forum).
- Brazil (I don't really put much stock in this one. It's from this Brazillian article and if the translation is reliable, I would suggest that it is in fact merely the director admitting that Brazil would make a good Sonic Unleashed level).

Egypt bothers me a bit. There we were, happy enough with, seemingly, two African stages when a third suddenly pops up out of nowhere. However, in that same, first batch of Wii screens and more recent ones, we can see what looks like a slightly alternate version of Europe. It surely can't be a whole new stage to both, so I believe it's just the Wii's version of Europe. So, is Egypt the Wii's reinterpretation of the African city? Look closely at the screens, and you do start to see city aspects, like walls and gates and possibly houses, slightly similar to what you might also find in the 360's African "sand castle" city. Either that or the African jungle and city are in fact one and the same level, and Egypt is the freestyle variation.

With that in mind, this is me officially making my bet regarding what levels will make the cut and in what order and we'll see how close I get..

#1 Mykonos aka Windmill Isle
"Freestyle" stage will be the area shown in the hilly sunset screens.

#2 Europe aka "High Europe" aka Spanish Villa
The rumoured Spanish stage is, I reckon, the Europe one we're all familiar with. Granted, I've never been to Spain, so I may be completely wrong about their architecture, but google image searches suggest something that isn't a million miles away. Also note that Europe is supposedly the fourth stage, supporting my theory of three Mykonos stages.

#3 Africa
Sandcastle city (360/PS3) / Egypt ruins (Wii/PS2) for main area, jungle for freestyle. OR Sancastle city and jungle for main area / Egypt for freestyle.

#4 China
Mountain levels are always in the middle of a game, although perhaps more conventionally swapped around with the next level type, this order seems to flow better to me.

#5 Arctic
Although it's a mere rumour, I think it's a likely stage type to fit in, if only because it's different from all the others. I think going down the abstract route, like the African city, wouldn't be a bad idea here as it'll be a bit plain otherwise. Just go all out and make a big elaborate ice palace guys, no one would mind.

#6 New York

#7 London
Add thunder and lightning for climactic drama. Sonic racing down the Thames would be an awesome sight to me, not least of all because I now live and work in the city.

Nine levels is always a possibility, and it would indeed be great, especially if they go with my freestyle stage idea too. But then, although we would probably find a home for the Egypt level (and that supposed Brazil one, for that matter), if there's going to be nine, one day and one night stage each might well be enough anyway, thus ruining my whole big theory. Oh well, 7 x 3 is my official prediction and I'm sticking to it until proven wrong. In any case, that shifting daytime stuff has to fit in somewhere.
Comments   3 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Friday, 5th September 2008, 8:46am
It's a little strange that there isn't a level set in Japan, but I guess since the game is developed there, it's not exotic enough for them, maybe. I think a Tokyo zone would be pretty cool, though - they don't have enough big city levels with a bunch of splash and dash like they used to. It would be especially cool at night.

I'm definitely still chugging along on Sonic Extractor 3&K Mix. It'd be great to see you meet your goal of having Sonic CD, 3 & K up within a year's time. I just saw some scans of a really old Sonic 1 player's guide from Japan, and the level maps were hand drawn. No matter how complicated all the coding and screen capturing becomes, I still don't envy those poor folks making game guides in the days before emulators and the internet!
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Friday, 5th September 2008, 10:03pm
Yeah, Tokyo would be a good choice - never know, could still happen. Although I'd like them to get away a bit from the cities, I'm slightly concerned they'll all be a bit samey, as impressive a sight they are.

I've heard of that hand drawn strategy guide. As I recall, the secret route along the top of Labyrinth Zone Act 1 was apparently labelled, what can be translated as, "we don't know how to get here". Any chance those scans are available online anywhere?
#3. Comment posted by mercury on Friday, 5th September 2008, 10:35pm
Yes, I saw them at sonicscene.net
Sonic 2 Complete!
Sunday, 31st August 2008, 2:56pm (UTC), 0 Comments
Update: Miscellaneous page added to the Sonic 2 section, completing all content for that game!
The misc page is up to round off Sonic 2 once and for all. Convenient timing, as today also happens to mark four years since I decided to sit down and start writing my first piece of content for this place (although checking my log, that may actually have been yesterday.. damn). Although I haven't quite managed to create the definitive collection of all Sonic game information that I had envisioned I would by now, I think it's quite an achievement just to still be as passionate about it now as I was then. As always, real life gets in the way though - I've spent the last month moving to London and starting a new job, and any spare time I've had I've put towards the new site design, so apologies that this final Sonic 2 page has come much later than it should have.

Well, it's good to have two whole games under my belt now, even if they have progressed at the rate of roughly one game per year, and that's even after I've already written most of the content. Hmm, that's not great is it? Thanks to the work of user Mercury, Sonic CD and hopefully then Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles won't take nearly as long, as I won't need to painstakingly place objects in all of the maps, which has proved the most time consuming element. With this in mind then, I hope to have Sonic CD, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles all up and running by this time next year. Tall order? Possibly, although after that I'll be returning to Uni for my final year, where updates will no doubt be thin on the ground, so I want to get as much done as possible by then, while juggling other stuff in my life.

Before any of that though, the next thing is the site redesign, which I want done by the time the Sonic Stadium's Site Awards comes around again, which should be soon. It's done, it's looking rosy, I just need to finish converting it into PHP code so that it can read all of the existing database content, which I'll need to tweak, and convert the older Sonic 1 pages to a dynamic form, as well as adding minor alterations along the way (of which I am keeping a list, so any suggestions and errors any of you have pointed out, chances are, they're on there and will be dealt with!). I need a new home page and blog system too, but after that it'll be good to go live. I can worry about my own new admin system afterwards, and just use phpMyAdmin in the meantime I reckon. No idea if anyone bothering to read this is savvy to these sorts of things at all but what the hell, my blog, my waffle.

Oh and by the by, this is an awesome interpretation of my very favourite Sonic tune.
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Other Modes
Thursday, 31st July 2008, 9:04pm (UTC), 1 Comment
Update: Other Modes page added to the Sonic 2 section
Those who have been desperate for Special Stage advice in Sonic 2, or perhaps just juicy details about the options menu (oooh!) need look no further than the Other Modes page of the Sonic 2 section. Rather plumper than the corresponding page of Sonic 1, it also contains everything you need to know about Super Sonic, the 2-player mode and even Knuckles in Sonic 2. I originally kept the latter to the Sonic & Knuckles game guide, but as that's obviously a while away yet, I've imported it in. You may not see anything wrong with the page, but compared to the new design I'm working on, the current layout for the info pages all look very plain and disorderly to me. I'm afraid it'll have to do for now though until I can implement the new look, within the next two or three months, but when I do, you'll be blown away! Or, you may not be that bothered, I don't know. I'm pretty sure you'll say "ooh, this looks different" though.

Only one more page to go now before we can finally call Sonic 2 all present and accounted for; the Miscellaneous page, where, among a couple of other matters, I will be looking briefly at Sonic 2 Beta and things that didn't make the cut. A subject that many Sonic fans are fascinated by, but I want you to bear in mind that it's not really what Zone: 0 is about, so I won't be going into great details, and certainly not really technical ones. Perhaps one day Zone: 0 will grow to encompass all details on Sonic that have ever existed, both general and very geeky, but for now I'd rather keep it a reference and strategy guide to the finished games, with particular emphasis on level design. So don't expect everything that we know about the beta version and all the other various pre-releases to be contained within it, as it's really a different subject as far as I'm concerned. Expect more of an introductory overview to the topic, with links to where you can find out more about the research. I thought I'd get that out of the way now, as I know I've had at least a couple of comments from people looking forward to this section.
Comments   1 Comment has been posted.
#1. Comment posted by supersonicsmash on Friday, 19th February 2010, 11:16pm
First to coment whooo a left the codes on Hydrocity zone coments the stages and story thing not the brief info.
YOUR suggestions for "Zone: 0.1"!
Wednesday, 23rd July 2008, 10:24pm (UTC), 6 Comments
Update: Gameplay page added to the Sonic 2 section
That's right, Zone: 0 is currently undergoing a BIG redesign, as you might already be aware, in fact it'll be its proper launch (until now, the site's design has technically been in a temporary WIP state), so you could call the update Zone: 0 v1 (or Zone: 0.1?). If you're already pretty familiar with the site and its contents, I'd very much like to hear any suggestions you might have to improve things!

In terms of what's already in the pipeline, you can expect to see a much better and more stylish overall layout, with graphics that I'm really rather proud of. The actual contents and structure of the pages won't be changing much, but you can expect an improved comments feature in which you'll be able to view and add notes to each individual section of a level or page in a little drop down box. Hopefully captions for images will be improved, with universal formatting across every browser and there should also be a full-size feature in place, allowing you to see the full screenshot for each of the cropped images on the page. I have plans to make more files available for download too, beyond just maps, and including manual scans, artwork and music perhaps. Subject to bandwidth I guess. The door will also be opening for the articles feature of the site, which I'll eventually be using to suggest some methods for ordering and classifying the games and levels of the series, and hopefully Palmtree Panic will be included to kick off Sonic CD too.

So I suppose I'm looking for more handy little features like that. Rather larger ideas like the addition of video guides and a google maps-like interface for viewing the level maps would be very cool, but not particularly practical over the next few months. So if anything's occured to you lately, go ahead and leave a message and I'll see what I think! If you do happen to have a bigger idea that might be very cool, do feel free to mention it too, I just may have to put it in the back of my mind for a while. In that vein, I'd be particularly interested if anyone would rather fancy a Zone: 0 forum for highly interesting discussions of Sonic level and game designs.

It'll be great if I can launch it in sync with the whole project's fourth year anniversay on 31st August, but there's no guarantees on that, as my back-end admin system also needs a complete rebuild and I still need to convert most of the existing pages to a dynamic form. I definitely want it done by the time the Sonic Site Awards start this year though, after being respectfully nominated for three awards last year - I think the improvements, and the site's increased notoriety since then might just give it that extra nudge.
Comments   6 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mercury on Thursday, 24th July 2008, 1:56am
Hmm... how about an RSS feed to alert us of updates?

I can't wait to see the new design, and the Articles sound like they'll be a blast, too.
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Thursday, 24th July 2008, 9:18am
Oh yeah, RSS will probably be there too! That was a suggestion from a while back so I'll definitely see what I can do about that.
#3. Comment posted by Reckoner on Saturday, 26th July 2008, 5:25am
Here is one suggestion that I have: use PNG instead of GIF. As long as it is properly compressed, a PNG will generally always be smaller than a GIF, and it is supported by all the major browsers (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_web_browsers#Image_format_support for a comparison). And note that, while IE 6 and below can't handle alpha channels, they can still do single color transparency like GIFs.

For best compression, I recommend a tool from Ken Silverman, called PNGOUT. It's a freeware command-line program for converting images to PNG format (and optimizing existing PNGs). It produces file sizes smaller than just about any other program I know of, and its compression is completely lossless. You can find it at http://advsys.net/ken/utils.htm. I used it to re-compress some of the images on the site and got some nice results; for example, the first summary image in the Sonic 2 Aquatic Ruin page, s2-arz-summaryimg1.gif, was reduced from 23.5 kB to 11.1 kB in PNG format, which is less than half of the original size. It seems you can also shave about 9-10% off of your maps, just by re-compressing them.

And about those maps, I was wondering if it might be possible to reduce their colors enough to fit into a palette-based PNG. The Genesis can normally only display 64 colors at a time, and this is doubled with a single mid-frame palette change (such as the switch to the underwater palette to render the below-water portion of a Sonic level), so that gives a total of 128 colors in any given stage (and thus a theoretical maximum of 128 colors for a plain, unedited map, though 40-50 is more typical). Naturally, since you reduce the maps to about half of their original size, you must apply some type of filtering so that they still look pretty and that will add additional variations in color. Combined with the little markings, arrows, and the map legend, many more unique colors are added, but I still think you could take the existing maps and reduce them to a palette-based image in Photoshop without much loss of quality, but with a huge decrease in size.

Just as an example, I took your Metropolis Zone Act 3 map, which was nearly four and a half megabytes, with over 160,000 distinct colors, and reduced it to an 8-bit palette-based PNG, and the resulting image was only 842 KB (a reduction of nearly 82%!), with very little noticeable decrease in quality (I can email you the image if you'd like, so that you can evaluate the quality yourself). Getting those maps down to a reasonable size would not only make your users' downloads faster, but it'd also help with your bandwidth.
#4. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Saturday, 26th July 2008, 10:41am
Thank you Reckoner, your suggestions intrigue me. While bandwidth isn't a problem right now, it's likely to be a big issue as the site gets more popular and I add more maps and other files. If it'll save me the cost of having to buy more, not to mention having to turn away visitors because I've run out of bandwidth that month, then it's definitely worth looking at. I'll check out the program you've suggested and in the meantime if you could email me that Metropolis zone map (just click on my name at the start of this post), I'll have a look at that too, thanks!
#5. Comment posted by Rachel on Saturday, 26th July 2008, 2:27pm
You could make a blue backround.
#6. Comment posted by supersonicsmash on Monday, 8th February 2010, 10:01pm
I just wanna say this: don't change the logo. That's a beautiful picture of Sonic.
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