Name: Sonic Advance
Format: Game Boy Advance
Region Reviewed: PAL
Year of Release: 2001/02 (JP/EU)
In the year 2001 a big part of the gaming industry died when Sega officially cancelled the Dreamcast and left the hardware side of things. No longer would we see the incredible craftsmanship from the company that made the home console an art form. It was never really about business at the heart, not the marketing, not the mainstream crowd, none of that crap that has actually made the industry boom. It was innovation, invention and having the balls to do what others would only dream of, eventually mounting to the debt and disbanding that came to be.
Yet, at the same time; it allowed Sega to return to what they did best to begin with. Third-party software that could make the first-party candidates blush. Y’see, Sega were always there and in some form, even if they do eventually close the doors for good, their mighty legacy will always survive. It’s part of that reason as to why I am such a Sega fan, it is what helps spur me on. Hit me with sales figures all day and I’ll still tell you that Sega either did, or in some small parts still do; do it better. William Blake was written off in his time, too.
But where am I going with this? Isn’t this a review? Of course! Because the above all plays a part into just why I’ve decided to go back to a certain handheld and fire up a certain cartridge. This is a review for Sonic Advance!
In that same year (2001…In Japan, at least), Mario’s biggest mascot rival appeared on the Big N’s hardware for the first time officially. It pretty much blew the minds of every single gamer who grew up on the blue side of the fence, let alone the ones on the red. It was time for Sonic Team (& Dimps) to show Nintendo fans exactly what they were missing all these years and just why the blue blur bitch-slapped the stereotypical Italian plumber in popularity a decade earlier. The fact it was made in such a short amount of time and still holds up as one of the Game Boy Advance’s best titles goes to show just how frakkin great Sega were at getting the job done.
True, it wasn’t technically the first “first”, but was most certainly the first original title on a Nintendo system from Sega’s flagship brand. What a first it was, as I shall now go into. Sonic Advance is essentially what the original Sonic games could have been if condensed and released on the Super Nintendo. Although, it does have its inherent problems with being so. The majority of the Sonic standards remain, from the spin dash, to the rings system and implementation of Special Stages, as well as levels being split between Acts through Zones.
I gotta get my gripes out of the way immediately. As much as I commend the job that Sonic Team/Dimps did with this particular iteration of the world’s most beloved hedgehog; they rather made the kind of game that Nintendo fans would sort of expect and/or demand from a perceived 2D Sonic game. That being; it’s almost absolute focus on speed. Despite the designs being rather larger and encompassing and still allowing time for some real exploration, the encouragement to just go fast, hold the right button and spin dash to get up pesky hills is highlighted way more than ever, something which is only increased as the Advance series continued (unfortunately).
This, believe it or not, in many ways makes it feel more like a Mario title. With a SMB game you typically get set a very, very short timer by comparison and feel like you’re constantly racing against the clock – which is one of the reasons I find the pacing side of things horrendous with Super Mario World. As much as you hear the phrase Blast Processing and as much as the myth gets purported, Sonic was never just about speed. Yes, it is the main characters key identity trait, but as stand-alone video games speed was only ever one factor, a single jigsaw piece in the masterpiece of design that were the original 16-bit trilogy (& Knuckles). It was about adventure, it was about exploration, it was about sharp design and colourful graphics with excellent music. It was about momentum and physics being tested in a way before unseen. Pushing boundaries and having a multi-faceted experience. The perfect blend, the right balance – a mix to kill for, to which many tried and failed in replicating. Sonic has long gone without the true recognition the series deserves as a whole, due to folk being stuck in their misguided ways of thinking.
Alas, that is the game makers decision. This was, after all, to be a Nintendo-friendly Sonic experience. Despite my gripes, the experience remains a positive one.
Being released post-Sonic Adventure 2, the overall designs of the characters match that of the contemporary canon as opposed to resorting to the 16-bit designs of the Mega Drive era. Tails, Knuckles and Amy all join Sonic for the ride and each character has their own unique abilities and level of speed. Also, the Tiny Chao Garden exists for those well up for some Tamagotchi-cum-Pokemon cutesy sprite raising in a post-VMU world. The personal abilities for me are only decent for Sonic’s friends as quite honestly I found his dodgy rolling slide kick rather bloody useless and a bit of a waste and was a tad disappointed then and even now at the lack of the Super Peel Out’s availability.
Story wise, it’s pretty shallow and a come to be expected affair, even if not as straight forward as “rescue the princess” dynamic prevalent in Mario. Basically, Eggman wants the Chaos Emeralds, to kick Sonic’s freedom fightin’ butt and take over South Island. The focus here isn’t plot, like the majority of the 3D brethren, but rather gameplay. The gameplay on offer I can gladly report is rather good indeed. All the characters control well and it all moves at an exhilarating pace that only ups the excitement ante for a quick pick-up and play appeal, spot-on for a bit of on the go platforming action. Physics, while not exactly on par with Sonic 2, are competently handled and worlds away from the horror of Sonic 4.
There are six regular Zones in all, split across two Acts a piece. The Special Stages are activated upon discovery of the Special Springs that can then lead to the collection of the fabled Chaos Emeralds. You’ll need to get all the Emeralds and beat all the Zones with each character (including the X-Zone) to access the Moon Zone with Sonic to finish off a nice round of nostalgia-driven battles with Eggman and claim complete victory over Sonic’s moustached foe.
Graphically speaking, despite some oddness of the ‘bending’ (can’t think of another way to describe it) during spin dashing, everything looks gorgeous and utilises the GBA to its almost full potential. Backgrounds are vibrant with nice scrolling, all foreground objects are clear and obvious – overall the sprites just look very nice and well animated, almost like playing a mini-version of the Sonic X cartoon. With returning Zone’s such as Angel Island being clever updates, it’ll all come well appreciated by any true Sonic fan. That said, there is the occasional instance of slowdown…But this is a Nintendo console, after all.
Musically Maeda/Minobe do a bang up job, whether relishing in the then-recent yet rich history of the Sonic The Hedgehog franchise or utilising cute sampling techniques combined with original composition. It sounds like a Sonic game, which only helps the feel. But then, whenever has there been a Sonic game with a poor soundtrack? That’s something us diehard fans will always cling to at the very least!
Ultimately it’s rather difficult to rate this game. On the one hand, Sonic Advance delivers in spades being a playable genre title for anyone who is or even isn’t a fan of the franchise, or downsized handheld outings of big mascot characters. Plus, whatever my gripes, it is extremely solid in literally every area. Not to mention, the historical significance of this title is particularly one that should never get overlooked and as such again, makes it difficult to rate. But there does exist historically significant, in some form or other, titles that just don’t make the cut anymore while this, much like the original Sonic The Hedgehog, very much does.
Sonic Advance took everything back to basics, with a contemporary make over on a system at one point you could never imagine it being on. For that, it is a work to be praised and definitely one deserving of your time to seek out and play. Is it an all-encompassing masterpiece? Nope. Is it the best handheld Sonic game, at least? Arguably no. Is it a great game in its own right with a historical slant that raises it above the competition? You bet your ass it is!
If you were mourning the end of the Dreamcast and fearing the future in 2001, Sonic Advance gave you that glimmer of hope that all things Sega may well be bright again one day…
Verdict:- A very, very strong entry into the modern Sonic canon and perhaps the most historically significant release to kick start the second coming of Sega’s third-party status. A game that sold well and in its time achieved rave reviews across the board, with good reason.
It may have limitations arguably caused through expectation of the Nintendo crowd, but the strengths by far outweigh the weaknesses and present a well-oiled package deserving of a spin or three.
Sonic’s true arrival on a Nintendo platform firmly put Mario on notice, while the Big N were happy just to sit back and re-release older titles with the Advance titling. This was just the first step in what was a monumental leap from Sega showing even on other people’s consoles’, they would always be one of, if not the best.
The game manages to manufacture its own lastability through the use of various characters, modes, special stages and of course the Tiny Chao Garden. Not to mention, its so fun, you'll not help yourself from returning again and again.
Sonic Advance, as well as on GBA, was also ported as SonicN for the N-Gage and is now available on the Wii U Virtual Console.
Second Opinion:- Sega went away and denied me my rightful sequel for the Dreamcast, I won't lie, this made Transbot a very angry robot indeed. There was some good news though in that they did immediately come right back from the collpase of their last hardware to become a super publisher.
One of the reasons I didn't exact vengeance on the boses at the time was that this first Nintendo entry was an absolute corker and once again returned Sonic to his rightful 2D element... Transbot happy!
With fantastic graphics and a catchy if not classic set of tunes this fast and colourful platformer was a real head turner for the handheld console, shifting more than a million copies it was rightly hailed as one of the best games in genre on release by the games press of the time. All these years later and it's still got it, it's still great to look at and even better to actually play, with character abilities and all manner of unlocks it gives and gives until it can't give anymore... Then adds more. If you have the console and some brains then you will grab a copy of this immediately and see what the fuss is all about.
Transbot Scores:- 8 out of 10