Sonic running down a tube, then whacking zombies with our arms. On the surface it doesn't sound that much more impressive than any of the other countless EyeToy mini-games packages we've encountered, which have seemingly lost their charm in recent months. But delving a little deeper, as we did with Sega SuperStars at E3, we were impressed with a number of things, especially in the case of Sonic. Here was a game that wasn't just about flapping arms and setting high scores; it was about directing a character and beating levels one by one, you could actually fail at it, and it was better for the use of the camera. Somehow more engaging than it would have been on a pad.
It's safe to say then that we were keen to get our hands back on - or rather in front of - Sega SuperStars. Now we have, we feel somewhat vindicated in our previous excitement, because apart from refined versions of both the Sonic and House Of The Dead games we'd seen previously (both of which we'd class as 'improvements'), we've also played the Virtua Fighter game and, most promisingly of all, the Samba De Amigo version. And both of them are great fun.
Before we get on to those though, let's return to Sonic and HOTD. When we left Sonic, his was a game of directing the speedy hedgehog around the inside of a rollercoastery tube, using our arms to move him between eight possible trajectories, and trying to collect chaos emeralds and rings whilst avoiding spike traps. It was quite tough, but there was more of a sense of winning than any of the other EyeToy mini-games we'd played up to that point, and managing to ease into the path of a chaos emerald at the last second was extremely rewarding. It was, to be fair, also a little on the unresponsive side, and that was a definite worry. The good news now is that it's less of one - the new Sonic mini-game seems just as fast, but it's much easier to control, and there seems to be a sensible degree of interpretation there to guide you.
Likewise House of the Dead has changed, although now it seems determined to label us as woman-beaters. In our previous encounters, we made it through the smack-everything-that-moves stage relatively unscathed, swiping at bats, zombies and other nasties as they honed into view, and managing to preserve civilians by pulling our punches during that split-second between the natural impulse to lash out and the realisation that they weren't hostiles. In this version, not only do we have to do that, we have to wave at them to get them out of the picture. And this proved somewhat difficult for your humbly flapping correspondent, who managed instead to smash all of them in the chin and get slapped back for good measure. Only fair really.
That House of the Dead is arguably the weakest of the games is also quite strange, because it's still fun - even if it is fairly close to the kinds of EyeToy mini-games we've seen before. But then it's obvious how much we like the Sonic game, and soon enough it'll be obvious how much we liked Virtua Fighter and Samba De Amigo. Oh Samba. Bless you. Ahem. Sorry. Wait for it.
Toe To Toe
Remember the EyeToy Play boxing game? No? Imagine standing side on to the screen and camera, flailing your hands at an imaginary enemy in your path while watching his movements on-screen, and trying to notch up the highest hit count of all the people in the room during your couple of minutes of fame. It was one of the more enjoyable Play games, to be fair to it, particularly when somebody accidentally wandered into your path and caught the business end of one of your fists, as happened to an unfortunate acquaintance of mine who hadn't quite grasped the significance of my pose and the action on screen during an EyeToy outing a few months ago.
Well, Virtua Fighter is a lot like that. Except with health bars. And blocking. It's actually a beat-'em-up, really - you stand poised next to Akira from Virtua Fighter, and just prior to his attacks, a little block marker appears on the screen where he's going to strike. React in time by raising or lowering an arm to fend him off at the right point, and he won't hurt you. Fail and he'll take off a chunk. Meanwhile you're free to strike him whenever you like, but it won't be as easy. Sometimes he leaves gaps; most of the time he does not. It's certainly a fight though, and it's certainly interesting to see how different people cope with it. Perhaps they were stoking our egos, but the Sega lads claimed we were the first people they'd seen beat Akira. We sobbed with pride.
But, and there's no use pretending, while we were happy to spend an afternoon toying with Sonic, House of the Dead and Virtua Fighter, our armpits came to sweat for Samba De Amigo. And Sonic Team's EyeToy-based interpretation of that most eBayable of Dreamcast packages is more or less exactly what we'd hoped - a flapping and posing rhythm-action game that mirrors the brilliance of its maraca-based predecessor.
Shaking Things Up
The idea is as simple as it ever was. As you can see from the screenshot [left], there are six coloured circles on the screen, positioned roughly at the peaks, widths and lowest troughs of your arm-span. There are crazy little monkeys and other creatures prancing around in the foreground. As the music plays, little balls shoot out from the centre to the six circles, and it's up to you to wiggle your hands at the appropriate circle whenever a ball hits - an action which, in sequence with the others, gives the impression to onlookers that you're dancing. Or, at the very least, completely and utterly insane.
The action translates perfectly to EyeToy. Whacking the circles in rhythm will never compare to wiggling maracas, but it's still tricky and genuinely funny for everyone involved, and it's broken up expertly by the occasional need to pose for a second - by pointing your arms at two particular circles as indicated on the screen. It's hard, too. Stuff up a few beats (which isn't difficult when there are so many balls flying around), and your rank will plummet, and on a particularly fast song and a harder difficulty level (there should be several of both), the influx of blue (normal) and red balls can be a nightmare to keep track of, albeit a rather happy nightmare. On the Dreamcast, the red ones (which generally come in bursts of four or eight) required you to waggle the maracas rapidly on each point. Here it's like waving to an in-law: measured, brutal on the wrists, and done with a smile.
Although Sega isn't confirming which tunes are involved at the moment, we had a go on several taster tracks in the build we played, and we're excited. Indeed, we reckon we could play this for entire evenings as it is now, and that's before you consider the wealth of other mini-games bundled into the Sega SuperStars package. Hell, we would have done; our generous hosts actually had to boot us out as our "afternoon playtest" threatened to stretch well into the night. Still, we'll be back. (And we're not joking there, chaps - we will be, and you better let us back in.)
Eyes On The Prize
Phew. And with that, we're puffed out. EyeToy does that to us. As we remarked when we first stood in front of SuperStars though, Sonic Team has come at the popular peripheral with a bit more thought than some of its rivals, and as the games are refined and we get to grips with the latest ones, you could almost argue that we're starting to lose our objectivity in the face of so much fun. So let's try and wrestle that back under control for a moment. There are still issues that face SuperStars, and most notably the current lack of variation in each task (we'd like to see different sorts of Sonic levels, more Samba actions, combos in VF, things like that), but as each of the games we've seen so far are probably best described as prototypes, we're content to keep our hopes up, and we'd encourage you to hang onto that EyeToy for a little bit longer. We promise we'll bring you more on SuperStars' progress as soon as we're allowed back in the building.
Sega SuperStars is due out in October 2004 by Sega's current estimates.