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Sonic Jam - Sonic on the Master System

Do I... Do I have to?

Look, I'm going to lay it all out for you. All of the Sonic games on the Master System are bad. Okay? Like... really bad. I mean, look, in a franchise maligned for having bad games, everybody seems to forget these exist and, instead, focus on stuff like Shadow the Hedgehog and the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog. But, uh, truth be told? Those games look like fucking godsends compared to anything put out on the Master System.

They're not the worst Sonic titles, sure. We'll get to those in a couple of posts. But really? They have no redeeming qualities. None. They suck. They're bad. They... you're still going to read this anyway, aren't you? It's not just enough to tell you, "this shit's bad, deuces," is it? I guess not. I guess I have to break these down. Well. Maybe we can polish some diamonds out of this trash, huh?

Here we go.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

In 1991, there were two games that came out with the name Sonic the Hedgehog. One was golden nectar from the gaming gods that kickstarted Sega and Nintendo's fierce rivalry, an unbridled spectacle of pure, bombastic bliss.

The other one was released on the Master System.

Barely resembling its Genesis/Mega Drive counterpart, Sonic the Hedgehog was an 8-bit version of a game that was intended to be a mascot for the 16-bit age, and it was about as good as it sounds. That is to say, not very. See, what's historically made 2D Sonic's gameplay work so well is its sense of speed. That sense of speed is so captivating and compelling that you're willing to forgive things like occasionally imprecise controls and weird performance issue (read: horrific lag in any level that involves any sort of liquid whatsoever.) And when you take that speed away, then strip away the bright, vibrant worlds and killer soundtracks, you have a hollow facsimile of a Sonic game.

Of course, because pretty much everything done in the proper version of Sonic couldn't be done on a Master System, the developer (Ancient) ended up making an entirely different game altogether. There are entirely different levels (Jungle Zone and Sky Zone, anyone?), the plot is different (Robotnik's smogged up Green Hill Zone with pollution, Sonic's got to clear it with Chaos Emeralds, blah blah blah,) and the overall aesthetic is more in line with an older platformer. Only... more drab and dull to look at and generally unimpressive.

"Gotta Go At A Reasonable Pace!"
"Cut-rate" would probably be the optimal word to describe this game. It's probably not the worst thing you'll ever play, and I guess if you had a Master System, it would be better than nothing... but even then? The Master System had better titles than this. To reiterate: the game revolving around Sega's new mascot was a so-so title on a Sega console. Pretty bad, right?

So... yeah. Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System is a pretty boring game that's a bad imitation of its older 16-bit sibling and, by today's standards, a woefully inadequate, disappointingly bog-standard clunky platformer for a system that was on its last legs.

One would figure that Sonic would say farewell to the Master System after this. One would be sorely mistaken.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

Enter Aspect Co., who would henceforth develop almost every other Sonic title on the Master System and Game Gear. A thankless job, no doubt, but somebody had to do. Actually, no. That's a lie. Nobody had to do this. Nobody wanted this. They could have literally just made Sonic a Genesis thing and done something else with their time. But hey. Money's money, I guess. So, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 happened.

This is actually an interesting game. Not a particularly good one, mind you, but interesting. It's interesting in the sense that absolutely none of it is related to its console companion. Like... none. None of the levels are the same. The story's entirely different. The music's completely dissimilar. It's a whole other beast entirely.

So what's different? Well, for starters, there are entirely new gameplay mechanics here, most of which have never been in another Sonic game sense. Hanggliders? Mine carts? Chaos Emeralds that just lay out in the open, precisely in the second act of each zone? Some of the stuff here is actually kind of cool... on paper. In execution, it has the same problem that its predecessor did: what Sonic's all about can't be done on an 8-bit system. Period. Movement is more of a light jog than a sprint, and there's a lot of stopping and starting. Not mention movement is weirdly chunky and segmented, resulting in awkward moments where Sonic is trying to go down a hill, but is really just going down a flight of invisible stairs.

There's a hedgehog that treads/ In shoes painted red/And he's climbing the stairway of glitches
Oh, yeah, and several aspects of the gameplay are utterly broken. The hangglider is necessary to progress, but next to impossible to control. Some minecarts will strand you at the bottom of pits next to pools of lava, with no way to get back up and continue the level, meaning that a player has to manually kill Sonic in order to try again and get it just right. Yes. There are parts of this game in which killing Sonic is the only way to progress. I'm sure many modern game critics would jump at this chance, but I digress. Don't worry, though. That's not as bleak as this game gets, folks, because Tails can outright fucking die in the end.

I shit you not, Tails, that cute little fox duder, can totally be killed by Robotnik in the narrative. See, Sonic 2 on the Genesis has two distinctly different endings. If you don't get all of the Chaos Emeralds (which, again, are in the second act of each zone,) you can't access the last zone, and therefore, you can't save Tails, who's been kidnapped in this game. The result?

Tails: The Ghost of Awkward Sprite Renderings.
Yep, that's Tails' face up in the night sky, smiling down at the player all Mufasa-like, reminding you what a shitty human being you are. The implication is, of course, that Tails has been kept prisoner by Robotnik, and presumably is being experimented on, tortured, or murdered... or some combination of the three. Really nice way to end your kids game, Aspect. "Hey, kids, you didn't collect all six arbitrary hidden collectibles? Sorry, your cute little fox friend fucking bites it! Get good, you little fucks!"

So, that's Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Master System. A mediocre, albeit slightly creative, platformer where the player's time is rewarded with the unceremonious murder of a cute anthropomorphic fox. Next!

Sonic Spinball (1995)

You know that lame Sonic pinball game? Imagine that, but worse. 

This picture encapsulates the whole experience.
Enough said. Let's jump back a year.

Sonic Chaos (1993)

Pff. Another Master System Sonic game. More mediocre, slow platforming. More half-assed design choices. More flat, dull visuals. More-

Whoa. Whoa. Wait a second. Is that... Is that on the Master System?

Is that Sonic running on the side of something in a space-themed city on the Master System?

Is that Sonic flying a hoverboard through a ruined Green Hill Zone on the fucking Master System?!

Indeed, Sonic Chaos ends up being the exception to the rule when it comes to Sonic on the Master System. Doing nothing short of pure witchcraft with the limited tech available, Aspect finally delivered what could be called a true Sonic experience to Sega's little system that couldn't just give the fuck up. Speed? Check. Foreground and background visuals? Check and check. A smooth, consistent experience? Double check. It seems like instead of trying to make a pared-down, slower Sonic game, the developer just said, "fuck it, let's squeeze a Sonic game onto this shit and see what happens."
What happens is one of the more underrated titles in Sega's oeuvre, if I'm being entirely honest, and something that took me by total surprise playing it for the first time. The levels are clever, the gimmicks are fun, and the sense of speed is impressive. I mean, sure, the game has problems. There are really jarring framerate dips, given that the Master System just wasn't made to handle this sort of game, and the boss fights are pretty simple affairs. Plus, the whole game is on the short side, able to be cleared in way less than an hour if you're good. 

And yet? One can't help but marvel at how impressive this all is for such limited tech. Sonic's spindash is here, as is his "peeling" move from Sonic CD. Not to mention the fact that this is the first game in series history where we can actually control Tails as he flies. There's all sorts of cool shit going on here, and it all plays super well. One might even say it's pretty fun by today's standards.

So, I take back what I said. There's one pretty good Sonic game on the Master System, and if you're gonna play one, make it Sonic Chaos

And that's it, folks, all of the Sonic-themed titles on the Master System! Next time, we...

Wait a second...

Just hold on...

That's right, kids. Eleven years after the Master System debuted, and two console generations later, Sonic had one last roll around the Master System. Only released in Brazil, and for good reason, it's...

Sonic Blast (1997... yes, really)

A lot happened for video games in 1997. Some of the greatest games of all time were released. Gunpei Yokoi, the creator of the Game Boy, was killed. Duke Nukem Forever went into production. An infamous episode of Pokemon caused seizures in hundreds of children, putting the popular franchise into a contentious relationship with parents. A lot of important stuff, to be sure. It could be argued that 1997 was one of the most crucial years in gaming history.

But none of that meant shit in Brazil. 

More specifically, none of it meant shit to TecToy, the Brazilian distributor of Sega products, who had been successfully cranking out the Master System for years. Because Brazil is apparently a bizarro alternate universe, the Master System was still the most popular console to buy, by and far, beating out the Genesis by a wide margin. There were even ports of Genesis games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat III, because there was enough demand for those games on that platform. I'm not making any of this up. Thanks to a tumultuous history with gaming companies, expensive import barriers, and a lot of other factors, the Master System was a hot commodity in Brazil. It still is, actually, considering that it still sells around 150,000 units a year. 150,000 units. A console that's over 30 years old. Fucking madness.

But where does Sonic figure into all this?

See, in 1996, Sega released one of Sonic's absolute worst titles, Sonic 3D Blast, for the hot, new Saturn and the aging Genesis. I'll talk more about that turkey another day, but what's of the most importance to us right now is Sonic Blast, the Game Gear spin-off of it. A totally different game, Blast was a mediocre side-scroller that used pre-rendered polygonal graphics (a la Donkey Kong Country) to animate everything. It looked bad. It played bad. Nobody really liked it. But in Brazil, Blast wasn't just a bad spin-off. In Brazil, it was an opportunity.

Considering that Game Gear games had historically worked okay when ported to the Master System, Tectoy took it upon themselves to port Blast for a Brazil-exclusive release.

What follows is footage of the resulting tragedy. Fair warning: it's not footage for the faint of heart.

Sonic Blast is a game in which everything that can possibly go wrong does. The controls not functioning would be an improvement. The visuals look like the video game equivalent to drunken finger painting. The music is a grating series of beeps and boops that invite spontaneous ear-bleeding.

Not only that, but the whole thing is functionally broken. In more than one instance, Sonic clipped through walls and got stuck inside them. At first, I thought, "hey, it's one of those fun hidden rooms." Nope. Just a fucking invisible cage for Sonic to be stuck inside of for all eternity. Mind you, the first instance of this happened in the first fucking zone. 

I barely made it much further after starting the damn thing over. Sonic Blast is an unholy eldritch horror of a game. I feel genuine empathetic pity for Brazilian children who looked under their Christmas tree to find this instead of Mario Kart 64, Tomb Raider II, Final Fantasy VII, Star Fox 64, Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, or any of the other great games released that year.

It's easily one of the worst Sonic titles ever made. Not only that, but it's legitimately one of the worst video games that I've ever had the misfortune of playing.

That's it, though. That's all of 'em, every single Sonic title released on the Master System. One pretty good game, three bad ones, and one urine-soaked demon possessing a game cartridge. Not a good batting average, to be sure. 

After that, I need a stiff drink and a palette cleanser. And what better to wash away the corrosive taste of rotten video games than with what many consider to be one of the greatest platformers ever made?


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