Gamestyle Archive intro: Daniel always enjoyed a Sonic release and this collection offered a huge assortment of Sega’s mascot escapades in one handy package. This review was the NTSC import version.
Published: August 2005
Politics are the bane of any gamer’s life. For reasons of age-rating appropriateness, the western release of Sonic Gems Collection does not contain the Streets of Rage trilogy as unlockable extras – understandable, but disheartening all the same. Nonetheless, Gamestyle has endeavoured to bring you the definitive review, which led us to seek out the ‘definitive’ version (in this case, the Japanese edition).
On first impression, Sonic Gems Collection appears naught but a leftover of the wonderful Sonic Mega Collection; its principal attraction – the much-lauded Sonic CD (which is really just a messier version of Sonic 1, albeit with added extras and proper redbook audio) – was omitted from the first compilation, but ironically, it isn’t as good as any of those were. Some of its ideas are quite intriguing on paper, but fail to convey during play; for example, the time-travel feature whisks Sonic back into the past (whereby the level adopts primitive stylings) or into the future (where either peace or chaos ensues – depending on your actions in the past). It also allows you to explore old routes which may have become blocked over time – the problem is that, unless you’re already familiar with the level layouts, you’ll be none the wiser to any metamorphosis. However, the method of temporal shifting (by running for a prolonged duration) comes across as very satisfying, and the end-of-level bosses are better than most.
Sonic CD also suffers aesthetically: sprites and backgrounds are lacking in detail compared to latter Megadrive games, and the sporadic decor usually hinders your view of the route. However, the aforementioned past/future changes are very cleverly done and show a keen eye for detail. The music is also streamed from the disc (unlike the synthesised sounds of previous Sonic games); unfortunately, this results in the loss of those ‘classic’ double-speed music effects. Even with its slightly muted look, Sonic CD is still the prettiest of the Sonic Gems on offer here. Sonic The Fighters, the quirky arcade brawler (which never made it to a home console, prior to this), barely surpasses PSone quality with its blocky 3D characters and simplistic arenas. The conversion to Gamecube has served it well, as the framerate is slick and solid and the resolution better than we expected. Using the analogue stick can be unwieldy for managing jumps and ducks, whilst the D-pad is sufficient. Sonic The Fighters ticks mostly the right boxes for a beat ’em up: characters can perform quick or slow attacks, use throws and parries, defend, perform aerial assaults or slam opponents against the arena wall (with excellent ‘bendy’ physics). There are problems: cheap tactics can keep you at bay while your opponent perpetually juggles you in the air; long-range attacks can leave you defenseless; speed differentials can create unfair advantages; and novices can easily mash their way to victory.
Two-player mode is fully supported (including the normal ‘story’ mode), but you won’t find any depth – it’s straight-up arcade fun. Next is Sonic R, the dubious Sega Saturn release from Traveller’s Tales (a company notorious for creating alluring games which play like sludge). Sonic R was technically impressive for the Saturn – although this port appears to be taken from the sharper PC version – but the controls attempt to mimic a racing game whilst keeping a platformer’s perspective, which just feels wrong. The level designs are confusing, treading too fine a line between open paths and ‘short’ circuits. The soundtrack is ridiculously cheesy (but in tune with the characters), and the draw distance has been improved; the game even runs smoothly in four-player split-screen (which provides some nominal entertainment). Sonic R is definitely the least interesting of the three main games, so onto the additional ones…
The GameGear titles offer a streamlined approach to Sonic platforming, due to the limited display options and truncated levels; the most noteworthy example being Sonic 2, which features none of the smooth-flowing omnidirectional slopes of its 16-bit counterparts (apart from some prescripted moments). It’s also unforgivingly hard, and not aided by poor camera tracking. Play becomes nothing more than a tedious memory test as you struggle for extra lives, hoping to get just one level further before being summoned back to the beginning for the umpteenth time. Sonic Spinball is hardly worth mentioning; if the superior Megadrive version failed to engage on anything other than a cursory level, then this jerkier version won’t turn any heads either. Then there’s Sonic Drift 2, which is an absolute mockery; the original 8-bit hardware could barely render the track, let alone the carts speeding around it. Here it’s downright painful to look at and near-impossible to play. Matters improve somewhat with Sonic & Tails 2, originally released near the end of the GameGear’s lifespan, and the difference is immediately noticeable: better animation, more detailed levels, smoother controls, and the music isn’t too bad either. It’s also more forgiving and loads more fun than Sonic 2.
The final two GameGear titles are notable because Sonic is absent and because they’re not strictly platformers: Tails’ Adventures is a kind of slow-moving platform/RPG hybrid (which has some nice ideas thrown in), and Tails’ Sky Patrol is a survival-flying game where you must stay airborne by not ploughing into anything solid (easier said than done – the clipping is horrendous). Gamestyle doesn’t welcome arbitrarily locked away additions at all, especially when the method for accessing them is so laborious (Sonic Gems seems to require ‘X’ amount of playing time) – but Vectorman 1 & 2, Bonanza Bros. and Bare Knuckle 1, 2 & 3 are, incredibly, better than the main games. The outstanding ‘modular’ animation of Vectorman makes for some truly fluid jumps, the blast of his gun-arm illuminating the surroundings. Vectorman 2’s more stylised look creates one of the best-looking 2D games around – but both are extremely hard to play (especially with the minuscule D-pad).
Bonanza Bros. is perhaps one of the few ‘stealth’ games to be genuinely entertaining and funny, as two players must creep into various buildings to steal whatever they can without being caught. Finally, Streets of Rage (aka Bare Knuckle): undoubtedly the jewels of this collection, these side-scrollers offer brutal 2D action. The simplicity of the punch/jump-kick method makes these games immediately accessible, and the ability to experiment with a range of suppression moves ensures that you’ll be back for more. Co-operatively, these games are even more appealing, as you can hold enemies and allow your teammate to strike them with weapons.
Bare Knuckle 2 is the pinnacle of the series (with larger sprites and better music), while the third and final instalment is simply a lazy reprise. Ideally, we would have preferred Sonic Gems Collection been an adjunct to the first disc, but its lower price-point ensures that this is no missed opportunity. The inclusion of the Bare Knuckle trilogy earns this more longevity; but even in its stripped-down western form, the few rarities included should be enough to warrant a purchase.
Gamestyle Score: 7/10