Friday, March 27, 2015

Knuckles' Chaotix (Sega 32X) Review

The Sonic franchise, like Sega itself, has seen better days. The Sega Genesis outings were truly sublime, and I believe that Sonic 3 & Knuckles (the combined Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles) is truly the best platforming game of all time. I don't think it gets the love it deserves due to the way it was released. Sonic 3 & Knuckles was always intended to be one game, but due to the size of the game it was too expansive to put on one cartridge in a cost effective way. It was split into Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles to keep costs down for everyone.

Those games were the last real Sonic games for most people. Sonic 3D Blast came out later, but it was clear that it was never really intended to be a true successor. Sonic Xtreme, the planned Sega Saturn outing, never came to be and we were left without a true Sonic game until Sonic Adventure. There was another game, though... on the immediately deserted Sega 32X. I remember this game coming out, and the Archie Sonic comic series had a special tie-in issue for the game (most of the games had some sort of tie-in issue).

Sonic is NOT in the game, though.

This was a treasured issue of mine, just because that red "Super" Metal Sonic is so fucking badass. The Archie Sonic series was actually pretty well done from what I remember, and the important bit is that Sonic's friends didn't suck in this series. That's another story for another time though.

My parents were (shockingly) aware that I couldn't get Knuckles' Chaotix though, as I didn't have the needed 32X mushroom. Now that I do, this was the game I was looking forward to the most by far. Knuckles' Chaotix has been something of a lost game in the Sonic canon. In all of the many emulated collections (Sonic Mega Collection, Sonic's Classic Genesis Collection, XBLA ports, so on and so forth), Knuckles' Chaotix has never been re-released in any form. There's a few rumors about the game, one of them being that Sega asked that Sonic be removed from the game because they had concerns about the format of the game. It surely seems possible as there is an early prototype of the game that can be found online that runs on Sega Genesis known as Sonic Crackers.

Instead of Sonic and Tails, we get Knuckles and his group of friends, the Chaotix. Mighty the Armadillo (who had actually appeared earlier in SegaSonic the Hedgehog, an arcade game), Charmy Bee, Vector the Crocodile and Espio the Chameleon. Utterly forgettable, and they wouldn't appear again until Sonic Heroes (which was also utterly forgettable). It manages to add to the Sonic-Knuckles rivalry that used to be a thing though, making it seem like Knuckles' has his group just as Sonic has his own.

Knuckles' Chaotix differs from traditional Sonic games in the fact that you use two characters. The characters are bound together by a chain of rings which essentially functions as a rubber band. One of the key gameplay elements is to use the hold button, which makes the non-player character stand in place while the other character runs until the chain is stretched, and then shoots forward.

This is admittedly awkward at first, but it adds a great sense of speed to the game and it becomes second nature once you understand the limitations of the mechanic and when the best times to use it are. The game makes a pretty admirable attempt at the physics of this idea, but sometimes it's just outright glitchy. It's not unusual or uncommon for the characters to just kind of spaz out and sling around all over the place when you're bouncing off a spring or moving between two different heights. This isn't surprising considering the age of the game, but it is disappointing that it happens since this is the key idea of the game. You can also pick the second character up and throw them to higher platforms or to hit switches, though this isn't used much. The rest of the game is essentially identical to other Sonic games in terms of mechanics.

Unfortunately, the level design is a bit scattershot. Most of the team that worked on Sonic CD worked on Knuckles' Chaotix and the level design shows. Where the numbered Sonic entries have multiple clear paths through the levels, Sonic CD and Chaotix just kind of have paths all over the place with no real single route. It is more bearable here than it was in Sonic CD since you won't be traveling back and forth in time, but the confusion takes away from the game. This group of developers did seem to be capable of relatively straightforward level design; the Speed Slider levels are fantastic and wouldn't feel out of place in a main series game. Would you like to replay those levels...?

Good luck. Knuckles' Chaotix decided everything needed to be random. The only real choice you have is which character you're controlling when the game starts. From there? Random. The character following you is picked from a claw machine which scrolls back and forth of its own accord.

There are two useless characters in this situation (the robots), and if you end up with one, you're stuck with them. You re-pick every time you reload the game. In addition to the claw moving back and forth, characters drop off the bottom of the screen and pop back up. Your best strategy here is to just immediately hit A to get the character directly under the claw. If you're playing as Knuckles, it's always Vector. As long as you end up with a character that isn't one of the useless ones, you're good. Levels are also selected in a random order. A cursor moves over all of the levels until you stop it, then it moves a few more times and lands on a level. Chaotix's levels are broken into acts just like other Sonic games, but there are 5 acts for each level. Once you complete an act, you go back out into the hub area and pick another random level. Once you've completed all five acts, that level is taken out of the selections and it can't be picked again.

The really strange part is that you can never freely pick levels. One of Sonic 3's best features was the ability to go back and pick levels freely once you finished the game. You could also collect any missing Chaos Emeralds and replay the last level to get to the better ending. Once you've beaten Knuckles' Chaotix it just replays the final boss fight. You have to start a new game and play levels randomly to revisit anything. It's really weird to play the acts in a random order and you never really get into a groove with any of the levels. Where the acts in previous games introduced a mechanic and then ramped up the difficulty, the acts here are just... randomly strewn about.

Anyways, this game is a 32X exclusive. Does it benefit from it? Not really. The graphics aren't anything that couldn't be done on the Genesis. The color count is obviously much better and there's no dithering in sight. It actually kind of makes me wish that Ristar would've been a 32X game. Both games have very similar styles, and it would be nice to see Ristar without all of the dithering. There are some 3D effects in the game, some levels have platforms that are 3D and can be seen from slightly different perspectives. The bonus stages are also fully 3D and play out like a more advanced version of the bonus stages in Sonic 2. The game also relies heavily on sprite scaling effects, which wasn't possible on the standard Genesis hardware (scaling was also possible on the Sega CD). There are some very nice parallax effects as well but it's nothing that would've been missed had this just been a Genesis game.

As it stands, Knuckles' Chaotix will likely forever remain a curiosity in Sonic, and even Sega, canon. This is not a bad game by any means. It's much more deserving of a spot in compilation releases than Sonic 3D Blast, but it looks like it will never get any kind of rerelease treatment. If you're looking for some classic Sonic, this will scratch the itch. You'll need a 32X or an emulator, though.

The Score: 8/10

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