Nintendo is such a frustrating company at times. It can be absolutely brilliant, when it wants to be. Mario Kart, Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Metroid Prime - all games which shine brightest in the genres they inhabit, nurture or just plain created. But there are times when you have to wonder what in God's name the Sloth From Kyoto is up to. The GBA software situation, for example, is a colossal farce. A million and one SNES ports are hurting the console in the eyes of both players and publishers, and instead of fighting the tide with classic, original content, Nintendo is practically leading them off the cliff! Mario Advance? Much as we like games like Yoshi's Island and Super Mario World, we yearn for something new.
Sega, meanwhile, has become quite shrewd in its old age. It knows how badly consoles can fail, and these days aims for the gaps and exploits the obvious flaws in any console's make-up. Panzer Dragoon Orta answered the call for classic shoot 'em ups in 3D, Super Monkey Ball gave us an addictive and varied 3D puzzle game worth its salt, and now Sonic Advance 2 gives 2D platform fans something new. Not just another goddamn re-release.
So here we go again, and we love it.
Sonic Advance 2 uses the same engine as the original Sonic Advance, recycling a handful of art assets and introducing a boatload more, and although the classic elements remain - the race against the clock feel, the ring-collection, the two-hit (plus power-ups) health system, the spike traps, the block traps, loop-the-loops and so on - the game is faster and smoother, the level design is new and more expansive than ever, heading in every direction quite unabashedly, and the game has been given more replay value than a waterproof jazz mag.
Right. Changes. It's not just Sonic and Tails, or Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy like last time: it's Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Cream. You start off as the blue blur, racing through more than a dozen levels and half a dozen boss fights trying to save the world from Dr. Robotnik (he just never quits, does he?), but as you continue to clobber the ageing, ginger-moustachioed super-villain and his various contraptions, you unlock Sonic's captured chums and chumettes, starting with Cream - who Martin fancies.
Cream deserves the most attention as she's the new lass in town. She's a bunny rabbit with a little chao hovering round her shoulder called Cheese (oh God), and she can hover for a short while and lob Cheese at enemies - which is bloody useful in boss battles, without being advantageous enough to render the game too easy. As ever, all the characters' abilities are specific to their design. Sonic's as blue, blurry and fast as ever, and could be described as the least frilly character, while Tails the fox can hover and climb through the air for a short amount of time thanks to his spinning, rotary-blade-style twin tails, and so on. But we can't tell you about Amy this time; because we haven't completed the game with each of the other four characters yet - which is what you need to do to unlock her.
Completing the game four times over shouldn't be too difficult though, because although the levels are huge, and there are quite a number of them, you can probably complete the game itself with Sonic in a few hours. Getting 100 per cent though is very difficult, because that involves collecting all the chaos emeralds - and you can't even start doing that until you've claimed each of the seven special rings spread around each stage. And they're harder to find than a hedgehog in a hayfield. Unless it's blue.
But despite hiding treats right at the end of the game, you can gradually unlock bits and pieces as you go. The regular addition of a new character opens the game up to an entirely different style of gameplay. You'll breeze through the game like a knife through butter under the guise of Sonic, but the chopper-like Tails allows you to explore a bit more, seeking out those special rings, and Cream lets you focus on your ring-collecting or points-scoring by moving at a sensible pace and taking enemies out at a distance.
Slightly disappointing, though, is that you only get the basic single player game, a Time Attack mode and the basic multiplayer mode returning from Sonic Advance to start with. It's not until you finish the game with Sonic (or whoever) the first time, collecting all the chaos emeralds, that you're able to head into the Chao Garden - which can allegedly link up with both Sonic Adventure titles on the Cube (although we weren't able to test this as Sonic Adventure DX Director's Cut isn't out yet and we didn't receive our copy of Sonic Adventure 2 last year - maybe we should have bought one of the second hand copies that flooded CEX shortly after May 3rd…) But the Chao Garden itself is a nice touch, allowing you to nurture your little fellows like Tamagotchi without having to pull a beeping, egg-shaped case out of your pocket and field looks of disdain and pity from passengers on the 3:20 to Margate. It should be unlocked from the start.
Bossy and endearing
That said, it's difficult to be cross with Sonic Advance 2 for this sort of lunacy, because you genuinely will want to play it thoroughly - and certainly beyond the extent needed to unlock the Chao Garden. Each level is a treasure trove of hidden paths, and you'll miss probably 75 per cent of the game if you just race from one end to the other and then plonk the game down again for a refund. Pick up Tails or Knuckles and venture back in, or pay more attention to your surroundings, and you can pick out the special rings (which are often 'hidden' on that platform you didn't bother to check out), and you can enjoy with fanboyistic delight the various pleasures Sega has lined up for you - like the bouncy, tune-spilling keyboards which plonk you back and forth in the music zone, or the way Sonic slides on his rump in the ice zone. Each zone is lovingly crafted and so very ornate - we're trying to finish this review quickly to get back in and play around with them some more. [Tom's new year's resolution is to stop putting reviews off for six months while he plays everything else out that week -Ed]
The boss fights, too, are varied, but rely on a central principle which makes a nice change - you're always running. Instead of merely having Robotnik swoop around the sky dropping bombs or something like that, or shooting spinning spike platforms at you, each boss battle has you trying to manage your pursuit speed so you can jump up between attacks and score a hit. You have to be careful not to get caught without rings, or within striking distance of that boss's main weapon, because having to pull back on the directional pad means heading back to the far left of the screen. We very much enjoyed these encounters, and it's nice to see Sega trying something new in 2D platformers all the way up here in 2003.
Graphics on the Advance
Visually, Sonic Advance 2 is lush - so much so that we were actually quite taken aback. OK, it's just Sonic Advance with bells on, but they are very pretty bells, and coming here after spending so much time with Sonic Mega Collection on the Cube, it's like I'm Marty McFly. Characters are minutely detailed - from the way Tails flips like a skateboarder when he bounces between pads to the different ways the characters salute the player at the end of each stage. The stages, too, are beautiful. Sega's done the Green Hill/Leaf Zone type stage about fifteen million times, but it still looks nice, and the ice zone is full of detailed touches like the aforementioned rump-surfing and ran-too-far-one-way, icy back-pedalling. The further you get, the better it looks, too - the music zone is like Zool 2003. Speaking of music, the soundtrack rocks. Turn it up [as much as a GBA allows - Ed].
And the framerate is never less than superb - even when scenery is flying past like sports cars in the opposite lane. When you go really fast, you even get speed trails, and the various power-ups each render an improved effect - the shield looks shinier and more ethereal than ever, rather than a big silver bubble popping out of the screen, and the invincibility power-up turns Sonic into a sparkler, near enough.
It's not just spit and polish either. Mixed in with the various old, rehashed ideas like grinding rails are new, stage-specific ideas, like windmills which sling the balled up character in a particular direction like a revolving door, depending on the angle they're approached; and the wind instruments which let the little scamps levitate above the ground collecting rings. There's not a pixel out of place.
That said, there are some pixels we'd like to move, like some of the spike traps, and the bottomless pits. We know the series thrives on its challenge, but the first three or four zones are a breeze, really, with only the boss challenges causing minor headaches, before the difficulty curve turns into a difficulty mountain - it took us about an hour to conquer the first few zones, and about the same or more to conquer each individual one after that. Not because the design was clever, or we were missing something, but because spikes would pop up beneath our feet, enemies would fly up like missiles from beneath the ground and we'd be unable to get Sonic or whoever aligned to grind the next rail. It's not enough to just fall in the right direction these days, and it can be frustrating when you don't understand why you just missed that rail and fell to your death - particularly when you're past the checkpoint on the second stage of the zone and the Game Boy's response is Game Over.
That said; Sega has been very fair about recording your progress, storing all your times, scores and level progress to the nearest zone - with each character, too. Although technically it's only one, effectively this means a whole five save slots, which is quite impressive. Limit yourself and your flatmate, sibling or spouse (yeah right) to one specific character, and you're all set.
So would we buy it? Already have. This is the sort of game we need to encourage. It takes a tried, tested, and thoroughly flogged old genre and injects some more speed and ingenuity into it, and there's a heck of lot of replay value here, even if the game's levels can probably be beaten in a few hours. Granted it's not Mario 64 to what's come before it, but it's a darn sight better and more original than 99 per cent of platformers on the GBA, and it's probably the best 2D Sonic since the days of 16-bit.
Beat that, Nintendo; it's about time you tried.