Friday, April 24, 2009

"Sonic the Hedgehog" Makes Its Forty-Second Ported Appearance

Well, maybe not forty-second, but it might be damn near close to it. Sonic the Hedgehog will soon be coming to the iPhone and iPod Touch. Do we need another mobile incarnation? Will Sonic 1 on the iPod Touch have that special... touch?

Sonic the Hedgehog, while an excellent genre-defining classic, has seen more ports than a really old boat (that was an awful pun, I apologize). Some, myself included, would argue that the more you port a classic game to different platforms the more you saturate what made the game so awesome in the first place. A true Sonic 1 experience is the act of popping open that black game case, hearing the "snap" of the cartridge as you remove it and then the subtle "sh-chunk" as you insert it into your Geneses/Mega Drive. Flicking on the power, that tiny red light illuminates, accompanied by the opening chorus. "SEGA!" It's more than the game, it's the process and the system itself. It's a process that I would equate with a movie buff loading a film projector to watch Citizen Kane.

Sonic at Home
All that being said, it's understandable that not everybody would own or would still want to own a twenty year old gaming system in their living room. Citizen Kane is still just as great a movie on DVD, right? And so comes the classic gaming equivalent of the DVD re-release, the port. On home systems, Sonic has had some pretty successful rereleases. 1997 saw two; Sonic Classics 3-in-1 on the Genesis and on the Saturn there was Sonic Jam. Sonic Jam is the undisputed best rerelase of Sonic's Mega Drive days. You not only got the full series, but also a number of bonus videos and artwork in a 3D world setting. 2001 took a step back with the Dreamcast's Sega Smash Pack, which featured twelve poorly emulated Genesis games including Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega redeemed themselves in 2002 with the Sonic Mega Collection for the Gamecube, PS2 and (my preferred version) the Xbox. This collection, while lacking bonuses from Sonic Jam, included fourteen perfectly emulated Genesis games plus six Game Gear games. In 2006 another Sega Smash Pack-like release came to the PS2 titled the Sega Genesis Collection, which included 28 Genesis games including Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. Believe it or not, that wasn't the end! This year saw the release of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection (Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection in PAL regions), featuring a whopping 49 games including (once again) all of the Sonic titles seen on the Genesis.

Sonic Handheld
Whew! So we've established that Sonic 1 can be played on virtually every home system, with perfect results for the most part. But what about handheld devices? This is where it gets messy. Outside of playing Sonic 1 on a Sega Nomad, if you wanted a port of the game in the 1990's you were out of luck. Obviously, Sega's only available handhelds to port to were its own. The Game Gear featured a Sonic the Hedgehog game, but this was the 8-bit Master System version. By 1999, both the Nomad and Game Gear were defunct and so Sega found it safe to release Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure for the Neo Geo Color handheld system. Like the Game Gear itieration, Pocket Adventure was influenced by the original game but was in no way a port. A majority of the level design and gameplay was inspired by Sonic 2 with sprinklings of Sonic 1. Upon Sega's pullout from the hardware market *sniff* a series of successful Sonic sidescrollers hit the Game Boy and PSP platforms, but again these were not Sonic 1. In 2006 our prayers were answered and then were quickly thrown into the flames of Hell with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog: GENESIS for the Game Boy Advance. Jerky sidescrolling, a cropped screen and shitty sound effects ruined what could have been a perfect 15th anniversary release. A year later the aforementioned Sega Genesis Collection hit the PSP, featuring what was and still is the best port of Sonic 1 on a handheld gaming device. But is it worth buying a PSP for? Absolutly not.

Sonic on Your Phone
During the 90's the idea of playing a Genesis game on your phone was unheard of. Nowadays not only can you do that, but I wouldn't be surprised if we saw Sonic Adventure on our phones in a few years. In 2006 Glu Games, a leading mobile gaming producer, released a two-part Java run Sonic The Hedgehog known as Sonic Mobile. Sonic Mobile demonstrated that even without superior hardware like the Game Boy Advance, an apt port of the classic could occur. Of course, Sonic Mobile had the drawbacks of a tiny screen and less than steller sound (depending on your type of phone) but the gameplay remained true. Glu returned with Sonic Dash, a port of Sonic 2, and as before the port was a success. A year later, in 2007, Sega brought Sonic to the iPod. Sonic the Hedgehog for the iPod was a visual success, beating out Mobile, but stumbled in the controls. Obviously the development team knew that the click wheel would be their greatest obstacle, but for what they were given I'd say that Sonic's iPod was a success. While it may take a level or two to get used to the controls, once you're there you're playing at about 80% accuracy compared to the original.
In March, 2009 Sega announced that Sonic would be coming to the iPhone and iPod Touch. A resounding groan of "Again?!" arose, but this is still something to be excited for. Apple's app store is fast becoming the leading mobile gaming hub, introducing many hot new games from both indie developers and the big hitters like Namco and Sega. Games are relativly easy to bring to the app store, with an Apple approval process the only thing standing in the way. If Sonic for the iPhone is a success, we could very well see the rest of the series as well as other Sega classics. I dream of a world in which Phantasy Star Collection hits the store of $9.99.

What about the controls, or the lack of controls? While many games have failed in touch screen buttons (see Mega Man 2), an equal number of games have succeded in implementing touch screen buttons. One option are ghost buttons overlayed on the game itself, and by moving the senter of the screen towords the top there is less of a chance that your thumb will cover that upcming spike trap. Another option, already successfully done via jailbreaking an iPhone, is to have the game played in a portrait setting with a digital Genesis controller below. Functional, stylish and enough room to still see whats going on.

As evidenced, Sonic the Hedgehog in the portable world has come a long way. What was a perfect release to begin with had to begin as a series of mistakes before that original level of perfection could be reached again. While that perfection will be met with the iPhone release remains to be seen, but don't forget that a perfect mobile version has existed since 1995. ;)

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