Monday, June 27, 2011

Sonic Month: Sonic Labyrinth

Sonic Labyrinth
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Minato Giken
  • Platform: Game Gear
  • Release: November 1995
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate (US$10-30)
Picture for a moment the Sonic title for Sega Genesis known in America as Sonic 3D Blast.  This was a different animal than the 2D platformers the hedgehog is most famous for.  Yes we still have our main man running around, but in an isometric camera angle to simulate three-dimensional movement, and with the tacked-on goal of finding five "Flickies", the little animals and birds that flew out of enemy robots when Sonic broke them in older games, in each section.  Between the tacked-on fetch quest, the controls which are never as precise as you need them to be, and levels which all but prohibit you from breaking loose in the speed department, this has not been remembered fondly - even by yours truly, even if I was wowed by it when it first came out.  Okay, now imagine that game, but without the ability to run or jump.  Yeah, I just broke you.  Don't bother putting yourself back together just yet, because Sonic Labyrinth for the Game Gear will just rip you a new one.

But wait, you say, what's Sonic doing without his trademark speed?  Our excuse given is that in the backstory, Dr. Robotnik had one of his robot henchmen sneak into Sonic's place while he was sleeping, and replace his regular shoes with a pair of slow-down boots.  Thus, when Sonic puts them on in the morning, he notices that he can't run or jump in them.  What's worse, he can't take them off unless he finds and uses the power of the Chaos Emeralds (of which there are four in this game.  Canon?  What canon?).  But Sonic still has one ace in the hole: his cursed footwear doesn't stop him from doing his standing Spin Dash, which will serve to be his only means of attack and fast travel in the adventure that lies ahead.

You need to find keys to move on.
Sonic Labyrinth takes place in four zones: the Labyrinths of the Sky, Sea, Factory, and Castle, each with four acts.  The three main acts in each zone are mazes wherein three keys are laid about.  Sonic must find all three of these keys in order to get through the goal gate and move on.  Instead of rings, Sonic's survival is based on a timer.  Collecting a key or time power-up adds time, and getting hit by an enemy takes time away (if you have any keys, they'll be dropped and scattered instead).  I have to admit this is a novel concept, and would like to see it implemented as an optional feature in other games where movement is, ya' know, a more pleasurable experience.  The fourth acts each have two parts to them: first you roll down a slope, almost (?) too fast to collect the rings you'll need to survive the upcoming boss.  Fortunately, these bosses fall on the easy side of the difficulty scale; even Robotnik, who serves as the final boss, is literally boring once you get a pattern down.  You get a Chaos Emerald, which do nothing within gameplay, for each boss beaten.

Even though the locations of the keys don't change locations on separate play-throughs, it'll be an unhealthy challenge to find them on your first few runs.  The level designs only impede matters, where some sections look the same but lead to completely different corners of the map.  And then throughout the second half, there are a slew of levels that rely heavily on warp doors or tiles, some taking you to a different place than where you were if you backtrack through one of them.  Of course Sonic's walking speed is way slow, I warned you about that, but when you take away all "justification" the backstory may attempt to apply, you're left with a mechanic that just makes ordinary movement painful.  Of course you still have the Spin Dash, but it's executed differently than in the platformer games.  Instead of mashing Button 1 or 2 to charge it up, you hold one of the buttons, and a meter made of four triangles moves up and down on its own; this determines your speed.  Depending on how much of a hurry you're in, you'll probably just throw level-one dashes all over the place, which just becomes counter-intuitive (for more reasons than you might think - see below).
The Spin Dash mechanic can break your flow of movement.
After coming off of the visual detail-rich Triple Trouble or even Chaos, Labyrinth's visual style is decidedly blah, hardly taking advantage of all those colors the Game Gear is famous for.  The soundtrack is equally uninspiring, except for the pre-boss music used in the fourth acts, which I find energetic and rockin'.  The sound effects, on the other hand, are even worse.  In particular, the sounds of braking and taking off from a slow Spin Dash - both things you'll be doing a lot - are just grating (Enough for me to italicize that word.  Think about it.).  Don't worry; if you're good, you can blast through this game in just over half an hour.  This, my friends, is one of the reasons why handheld games are viewed unfavorably when compared to their contemporary console peers.  But when the console game this is similar to (which, ironically, came out a year later) wasn't that great to start out, well, forget about it.

+ Pretty rockin' soundtrack, as always.
- Even if it weren't for the Sonic licence, this is slow gameplay.
- The later levels are confusing to get around.
- Annoying sound effects.

Graphics: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Sound: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Control: 1 Chaos Emerald out of 5
Design: 2 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 45% (D-)

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