DS and PSP: The New
I have not played any of the Sonic games for the current generation of handhelds but as I understand they are quite decent. They share a lot of qualities that the GBA version has which almost puts them in a different category from the older handhelds. If for some reason you are actually here to get information before making a purchasing decision for a current gen handheld game, I would recommend Metacritic as a good place to start your research. If you want to know how Sonic compares on ‘classic’ handhelds, read on.
Game Boy Advance: The Awesome
Sonic Advance 2 was released in 2003 so Sonic is a little taller, a little more svelte, and much more sassy. He is the edgy Sonic. Some people might be turned off by the visual style, and ‘cool’ Sonictude, remembering the repeated failed attempts to both edgy up and bring Sonic into the realm of 3D gaming. This Sonic deserves a chance because, as I like to say, game-play is king. Even if you are turned off by the art style and the almost painfully self conscious attempts to make Sonic hip, give the game a chance. It is undeniable that his animation is excellent and he has a large move set which is set against some really nice art. It’s almost unfair to compare this Sonic to the original Sonic since they are so different in attitude. But strip away the attitude and some extra mechanics and there is a pure Sonic experience. This is Sonic at his best. Since it is compatible with anything from the GBA to the DS Lite there can be a bit of visual variation. Honestly it looks good on any of the platforms. The Micro and DS Lite screens are super bright so the colors really pop and are clear even at high speed. This Sonic is fast, hella fast, fast enough that there is a special move where he ‘breaks the sound barrier’ and can run across water. The level design is great, the visuals are great; this is an excellent game. If you like Sonic and have a system that can play GBA games, you should pick this up. I really have no caveats about this version of Sonic. It’s newer and it’s flashier but it is at the same time Sonic. Sonic with more bells and whistles which some fogies might not like but they should give it a chance. Beware though: don’t accidentally pick up Sonic The Hedgehog Genesis for GBA on accident. It is supposed to be awful.
Neo-Geo Pocket Color: The Good
The most needs to be said about Sonic on Neo-Geo because it is so similar to the original and yet has its own identity. Neo-Geo Pocket Color does not have a backlight however it is still a pretty fantastic handheld. It is 16 bit which should be the right amount of power for the classic side scrolling Sonic we know and love. I booted up my copy of Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure which came out in 99’. The Sega logo pops up and the familiar “Sega” sound byte precedes the title screen. The title screen has bright primary colors that pop as much as they can under proper light without any backlighting. The screen resolution is a bit low at 160x152 and the sprites have serious color limitations of a mere 4 colors per sprite. These limitations don’t hurt this port at all. As a matter of fact the limitations hurt none of the Neo-Geo Pocket Color games. The games are all perfectly designed for the system. In any case, Sonic only needs blue, red, white, and black and once Sonic is in motion you don’t even notice the low resolution. The game features Sonic solo for the bulk of the game perhaps to keep things fast. If that is the case, I applaud the developer. The game starts with the late 90’s sounding stage named Neo South Island which looks just like Green Hill Zone. Many of the stages have old school design but with newer sounding names. For example, Casino Zone becomes Cosmic Casino and Aquatic Zone becomes Aquatic Relix (if the game was made today the level would have undoubtedly been called Aquatic Relicz). The levels are generally well designed with a very original Sonic focus on speed for the bulk of the game. There is a distinct flavor to the game which makes it feel expansive with many paths for the player to follow. There are a couple exceptions such as the Sky Chase level which features a cameo by Tails who pilots a barnstormer type airplane which Sonic must ride on top of thru a side scrolling R-Type type level. These levels only slightly detract from the game and, if a bit unnecessary, do not hurt the game. This Sonic has a very basic move list consisting of just the power rev that was introduced in the second Sonic game on the Genesis. Once things get moving Sonic moves at just the right speed with no slowdown and no visible ghosting. The game is very enjoyable and is nearly flawless in its execution. The game does not feel cheap, there are not too many platforming sections that lead to instant death, the rings are a bit oversized to make them easy to see, and the enemy sprites look great. The boss battles follow the classic “find a way to hit the Dr. in the head” format but have a fair amount of variety. The sound is not great but the familiar Sonic tunes are all there. This is truly Sonic at the top of his game. It’s not quite the original but it is one of the best Sonics out there.
Sega Game Gear: The Bad
I took a look at both Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Game Gear. I’ll be clear up front: the negatives outweigh the positives on these. The game itself is solid enough but the Game Gear was not the right platform for Sonic. Sonic had to be on the Game Gear as he was the flagship character of the Sega Empire when the Game Gear was released. Unfortunately, the Game Gear can’t quite keep up with Sonic. Not in any processing way, no he moves along at full regular super sonic speed, but the screen! The screen has terrible ghosting which makes it very difficult to tell what is going on once Sonic gets sprinting. Add to this issue the fact that these are not straight ports and other issues creep up. Both of the Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Game Gear are only somewhat based off the originals on the Genesis but the feel is somehow quite different. Primarily, both of the games have a large amount of dangerous sections where a player moving at full speed will fall into a pit of spikes, lava, or a bottomless chasm. Perhaps this is a design decision to encourage players to play a bit slower or perhaps the designers merely wanted to be more similar to the Genesis sequels which tended to have a greater focus on platforming over the raw speed of the original Sonic. Regardless it is frustrating. Fortunately, at least in the first Sonic for Game Gear many of the spike pits have a bit of questionable collision and death can be avoided if they are hit at full tilt. The developer did at least make the sprites for both rings and enemies nice and large but it doesn’t really manage to make the games easy to play. A true Sonic fanatic might want to play these but in general these games are hampered by the hardware.
Game.com: The Ass
Sonic Jam is ass. Take everything bad I said about all the other versions of Sonic and they are worse in this version. Game.com tried to make the game appealing by having Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic and Knuckles in one package. Unfortunately they all suck. Here is the bad: the screen is hard to see and has awful ghosting, the game slows down terribly with more than a couple sprites on screen at once which, combined with the sluggish controls, makes things frustrating. If you wanted, you could easily count the frames of animation for the sprites of the main characters. The good: tails can fly by repeatedly pressing the jump button. This is kind of cool in a completely game breaking sort of way. I wish this was in a good Sonic game. Also the developer had the good sense to make the sprites absolutely huge so that they can be seen on the totally crappy Game.com screen. Bottom line, I have pooped better games in my sleep. The truly unfortunate thing is that it is possible that there could be a good game buried under all the technical limitations of the Game.com. I highly doubt it but can’t stand playing the game long enough to tell.
Sega Nomad: The Best!
Sega Nomad is your best option. Why? Because it is portable Sonic in its purest form. In case you don’t already know, the Nomad is the official portable Sega Genesis. Sure the Nomad has its faults: it eats batteries and does not have the best screen. However the Nomad can double as a Genesis and be hooked up to a TV and used with an external controller. The Genesis created Sonic and there is a reason it was shipped with the Genesis. Sonic was so good he could sell systems. Sonic on Genesis is what all other Sonic games must be measured against. And Nomad is the closest you can get without using a home console… Well, almost.
Zodiac, GP2X, and Your Cell phone: The Rest
Want to play Sonic on the go in its original form without owning a Nomad? There are options. I can’t speak to the quality of the versions of Sonic I have heard about for sale on the I-pod or Cell phone, but I understand they are pretty straight ports. There are also some VG Pocket and Onestation type options. These are funny little systems that come either preloaded with games or feature proprietary cartridges of dubious origin. I haven’t seen Sonic on these systems, but I have found the VG pocket and Onestation products to have very nice screens and generally nice hardware. The other option involves emulation. Unless you own the original cartridge and have checked your local laws, I cannot recommend this option. If you do own the cart and can legally back up your games, your few options include the Tapwave Zodiac (a gaming optimized PDA) or the GP2X. If you are going to go down this path I would recommend the GP2X as it has a strong homebrew community, runs Linux, a lovely backlit screen, and excellent controls. You could always hack your PSP but while Sony actively discourages homebrew, GP2X thrives on it.