Keep the World a Safe Place and Defend the Floating Island
Say what you will about modern Sonic the Hedgehog games, but at least they understand what is arguably the blue blur’s biggest selling point: He’s gotta go fast. Whether you actually have much input over said speeding or you’re simply made to sit and watch as the game handles most of the steering for you, that velocity is still something like a series staple that the franchise does not fare well without.
In a previous article covering Sonic Labyrinth, we saw what happened when Sonic was stripped of his running shoes and made to move at a more leisurely pace. But even that game had its moments of high speed — barely controllable speed, yes, but speed nonetheless. So, howsabout we remove the variable entirely, by moving to a game system completely incapable of even conveying speed? A system that – despite coming out nearly seven years after Sega’s Game Gear – could only produce four colors in a monochrome palette and run at a top speed of what feels like five frames per second?
I only had a handful of paragraphs with which to briefly describe Sonic Jam in our retrospective of the Tiger Game.com. But it’s a game which warrants further inspection: A Sonic game so completely devoid of any mechanical fluency or merit, it’s incredible that it was ever allowed to see release. Taking its name from the Sega Saturn compilation of Genesis Sonic titles (including 1, 2, 3 & Knuckles), Sonic Jam on the Game.com sold itself under much the same premise, though lacking the content from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Unfortunately, those who bought the game would soon discover that it was lacking far, far more.
Grab All of the Black Balls
An important note to address at the top here: Sonic Team isn’t responsible for this game — at least, not directly for its development. As with most Tiger Game.com titles, it was developed by an internal team within Tiger Electronics, doing their best to recreate the experiences of the third-party licenses afforded to them. That being said, I would have to imagine that Sega / Sonic Team saw fit to provide the developers with some amount of their original game assets, as I don’t believe the Tiger team reproduced all the sprites and animations here from scratch. At the very least, Sega is complicit in allowing Tiger to take a stab at their star franchise in the first place, and that’s honestly damning enough as is.
It’s also important to note that the blurb on the back of the game’s box is deliberately vague about the actual contents of the game. It compels players to “Play classic levels of Sonic 2, 3 and Sonic & Knuckles” — which at least acknowledges that the first game is not included as part of the compilation. However, that “classic levels” line is the real sticking point here. At first glance, you might just assume that they’re referring to the original Genesis releases as classics in their own right, and that their levels are all classics by association. In actuality, this is a very sneaky way for them to admit that we’re not actually getting any of the full games here: We’re merely getting a small selection of levels from across each of the three reference games. Of course, not even that is a wholly accurate statement, as most of the levels on display here are merely “inspired” by levels from the source material. It’s like getting one-eighths of three games for the price of one. What a bargain!
On first launching the game, it actually begins at least somewhat promisingly. You get a decent little title graphic with Sonic wagging his finger at you, before heading immediately into the game selection where you get a glimpse at the downscaled versions of the original Sega Genesis cartridges. Granted, all the “Sega” and “Genesis” branding is removed from the labels here, replaced instead with “Tiger” and “Game.com,” but at least you can easily recognize what the artists were trying to evoke here. Hell, even the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge is depicted as a weird, misshapen lump of plastic that other cartridges would be meant to slot into.
Judging from an unused graphic left on the cartridge which reads “NO LOCK ON,” there may have been a point in the development where you were intended to mix and match the in-game cartridges for 2 and 3 with the Knuckles cartridge, in order to possibly access some extra content or whatnot. In the final release though, everything is very much streamlined, to the point where Sonic, Tails and Knuckles are all playable across all three of the included “games” by default. It’s as simple as selecting one of the three titles and then selecting one of the three characters, and you’re off to the races… The incredibly slow, barely-playable races.
Before we can even talk about how the gameplay here compares to console counterparts, we need to refresh ourselves on the technical capabilities of the Tiger Game.com. Despite the handheld making it to market in 1997, it was vastly inferior to the likes of pretty much all its contemporaries — maybe managing to edge out the Game Boy in potential processing power, but never managing to take advantage of that fact. It outputs graphics in four-color monochrome, utilizing dithering effects to create the illusion of additional shades. Unfortunately, playing the game in emulation or looking at something like the GIFs in this article sort of ruins that illusion. But when played on original hardware, with the intended LCD display, the effect is largely seamless, and the game looks about as good as you could hope for given the limited palette. The problem is, those cheap LCDs are also responsible for some severe ghosting issues, rendering the game in motion as a blurry mess.
To this end, a measure was taken by the developers to at least attempt to mitigate this issue: The background layers had to suffer severely, with the more elaborate backdrops seen on the game’s own back cover ultimately being gutted in favor of mostly blank white space with some lightly-dithered clouds and mountains. This definitely leads to the feeling that the game takes place in something like a void at times, but the alternative – as demonstrated by the occasional room or passageway where the backgrounds are textured – would be an incoherent mess. The other drawback to this is, with their options for backgrounds being so limited, the developers were also limited in what tilesets they could feasibly pull from the original games; god forbid they end up having to draw more than two different backgrounds.
And so, what we are effectively left with in the final product are all levels taking place outdoors during daytime. In other words; levels are exclusively based on the first zones of the associated games, with none of the scenery or obstacles from any further in. This means that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is localized entirely within Emerald Hill Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 never leaves Angel Island, and Sonic & Knuckles is stuck in the Mushroom Hills. This also means that each game only contains three unique enemy types, spread across five acts, broken up by three boss encounters. To say that Sonic Jam on the Game.com lacks in variety would be something of an severe understatement. Whether these were compromises made due to graphical constraints, cartridge space limitations, or simply as the result of a rushed development, is a matter still up for debate.
The cherry on top of all this is the Game.com’s general inability to run the game at a speed above ten frames per second, with overload manifesting in the form of frames being dropped outright rather than the game going into slow motion. As you might imagine, this makes moving at high speed an incredibly risky proposition, as the screen might not update quick enough to give you sufficient time to react to incoming hazards and enemies. Given the small resolution and blurry nature of the game already afforded by the Game.com’s screen, this means that you will likely have to take each stage at something of a snail’s pace if’n you want to survive. It’s just like Sonic himself always says: “Gotta go carefully!”
Despite all these signs that the Game.com was far from the ideal platform for a game of this genre, the developers pressed forward, doing “the best they could” with the crippling limitations of their hardware. You think they’d be forgiven for simply giving up and abandoning the project altogether, but that apparently was not an option for Tiger at the time: Promotional material for the system points to a previous failed attempt to convert Sonic 3D Blast to the doomed handheld, which I can only imagine was even more of a struggle to get running than Sonic Jam ultimately proved to be. The fact of the matter probably was, Tiger had paid a pretty penny for the use of the Sonic license, and they’d be damned if they let it go to waste. For their part, I like to imagine Sega probably knew full well that whatever game Tiger ended up putting out was going to look and play pretty awfully, and hopefully drive business back to Sega’s own hardware.
And so, with all that out of the way, I think we can finally begin to discuss the finer points of the gameplay itself. It should come as no surprise at this point to hear me tell you that it doesn’t feel very good to play, and that there was probably nothing that could have been done (given the limitations of the Game.com) to get this game to the point where it might’ve. That being said, there are still design decisions in need of criticism and deserving of further scrutiny, as the developers not only struggled with their hardware at hand: They also struggled to understand the fundamentals of designing a Sonic game — even with all the assets at their disposal and the original levels for reference.
In adapting a game originally intended with a more powerful console in mind, there are obviously certain concessions and trade-offs you’re going to have to make in making the levels flow and the gameplay translate. In example: The developers for Game Gear Sonic platformers understood that simply dragging and dropping the Genesis assets onto the handheld screen would end in disaster. And so, they set about creating their own graphics and levels, ending up with characters and objects that are still entirely recognizable even given their smaller scale. The stages are far more linear affairs,** accounting for the fact that multi-layered levels and verticality on a small screen are a pain in the ass to navigate. All in all, while the Game Gear games might not be perfect conversions of the Genesis titles (they’re basically wholly unique games), they still successfully evoke the all-important feel of their console counterparts.***
And now, for comparison: Given the smaller nature of the screen and the underpowered nature of the Game.com hardware, priority should have been placed on scaling down / re-drawing the original assets to maximize as much of the screen real estate as possible. Instead, the priority was placed on adapting the character sprites from Sonic 3 as faithfully as possible; right down to retaining a 1:1 scale. This effectively causes the characters to fill out more of the frame, leaves less space between them and the edge of the screen, possibly contributes to slowing the game down some, and thus requires superhuman reflexes on the part of players in order to avoid running directly into hazards. Needless to say, the trade-off here is not worth it. Sonic Jam may very well recreate the Genesis graphics with impressive accuracy, but it completely fails to recreate the feel of a genuine Sonic game.
This lack of screen space really gets in the way of… well, just about everything else in the game, honestly. It leads to having to make blind jumps, which can often land you in a pit of spikes. It forces you to stop dead in your tracks when confronted with any moving platform, and hold up for several seconds to peek above you in order to effectively time your jumps. It makes it more difficult to gauge how much room you have to build speed before tackling ramps and loops. It means that the heads-up display elements keeping track of score, time and collected rings take up an inordinate amount of space on the screen, making the whole frame feel that much more cramped. All this contributes to players having to play incredibly slowly, cautiously, and methodically if they want to have any chance of making it to the end of a given level.
You know, I mentioned “verticality” before, and I realize now that I should probably explain what exactly I mean by that: It’s level design that requires players to account for what’s above and below them, rather than what simply lies in front of them. In Sonic games (particularly the 2D ones), this can manifest itself as alternate routes through levels that are accessible by making your way to higher or lower ground. With levels in Sonic Jam drawing “inspiration” from original Genesis levels, this means that they often feature multiple paths through a stage as well — above and below what we’ll call the “primary path.”
The problem with attempting this sort of design on a smaller screen is, it’s harder to maintain in-game spatial awareness when the camera covers such a small scope. It’d be like trying to play an entire first-person shooter through something like the zoomed-in lens of a sniper rifle, basically blinded to your surroundings. And so, venturing off the primary path will not often be a thought on the player’s mind — unless, of course, they’re playing as Tails, who can easily fly up toward the upper portions of the levels and largely skip much of the nonsense put in his way. Granted, this is also true in the Genesis games as well, where Knuckles also gets to cheese the game in a somewhat similar way too thanks to his being able to climb walls and all. Only, he can’t do the same on the Game.com, because he can no longer climb walls or glide.
Remember my earlier point about having to “make concessions” and potentially getting rid of some features? Stripping an iconic character of their unique play mechanics is one of those concessions you’re not supposed to make. As it stands, Knuckles’ inclusion in the game is completely pointless, as all he serves as is an alternate skin for Sonic. I seriously cannot even begin to fathom what issue in development would have forced the team to take away his abilities: If it was a cartridge space concern, they might as well have just cut Knuckles entirely and freed up that many more resources. If they somehow couldn’t figure out how to implement the wall-climbing mechanic or gliding, they shouldn’t even tease players by making Knuckles selectable. You know, I’ll bet that Knuckles probably did have his climbing ability fully implemented at some stage of development — I mean, I don’t seriously believe the programmers couldn’t figure out how to program that. In that scenario, there had to be a pretty good reason it was ultimately removed, and I reckon it would’ve probably happened at the last minute.
If you should ever manage to sneak away from the primary path, you’ll reach brave new heights. And when you hang around up there for a while, you begin to discover something: It’s all very, very broken up above. I’m talking invisible floors, objects with no collision, and generally unfinished level design. I would not be shocked to discover that there are probably some easy ways to get yourself out of bounds and completely break the game while you’re up there. And so, with this in mind, here goes my best guess: Playtesting as Knuckles probably made these broken areas even more easily accessible — possibly leading players to discover some major glitches or stumble into softlocks. And so, with what was probably an incredibly rushed development cycle, the decision was made to simply gut Knuckles rather than the far lengthier prospect of redesigning the levels. Of course, the fact that Tails can still easily access this hell of broken level design is just one of those things they didn’t consider or couldn’t help at that point.
This isn’t to say that the primary path fares all that much better in terms of polish, either: Bad angles mixed with inaccurate player momentum make for some frustrating instances where you won’t be able to run up certain hills or clear shuttle loops. Ring placement is sometimes mis-coordinated, with rings stuck inside of walls and made generally inaccessible. As alluded to earlier, enemy placement is also a constant frustration, with some enemies who are actually near impossible to pass without taking a hit (the Sonic & Knuckles stages are particularly bad about this). And in another frustrating omission, all the shield power-ups are completely missing in action — from the basic defensive one to the elemental ones seen in the latter games. You’ll still find the boxes containing speed shoes, ring bundles and 1-Ups, though.
A feature you may be shocked to discover actually made the cut are the Sonic 3 blue sphere bonus stages! Except, of course, being as the Game.com is greyscale, your objective in them is now to “Get Black Spheres.” These stages function in much the same way as on the console, and are accessible in 3 & Knuckles from the same oversized warp rings. Unfortunately, as the Game.com is barely even capable of rendering fluid 2D let alone pseudo-3D effects, these bonus stages quickly become a stuttering exercise in frustration. They suffer from a noticeable input lag, stilted sprite scaling, and for immediately tossing you into the “deep end” as they don’t have the benefit of a full game’s worth of gradual difficulty curving. And with no Chaos Emeralds to collect at the end, there’s really no point to subjecting yourself to any of these stages more than once.
About the only point I can award the game is for including a decent variety of bosses, with some who would appear in later zones appearing earlier and out of their typical context. This at least adds some minor variety to the otherwise completely repetitive stages. That said, the bosses still lose something in the translation to Game.com, with one boss in particular (Sonic & Knuckles’ “Gapsule”) not even flashing when he’s damaged, which can lead to a somewhat confusing little fight. Another – the “Flying Battery Blimp” that appears in Sonic 3 – can be beaten as Tails by simply hovering above it, where you’ll find that they never even bothered to draw the out-of-frame portions of the airship.
Once you beat the final boss at the end of one of the three games, you’re instantly whisked away to an underwhelming “Congratulations” card, with your total score and character of choice. From there, it’s right back to the main menu, where the game assumes you’ll want to jump right into the next exciting episode. Honestly though: If you’ve played through one of the games, you’ve probably seen everything there is to see across all of them. If I had to recommend one over the others, I guess I’d go with Sonic 3, as it has the most amusingly broken level designs and provides access to the black sphere bonus stages. Sonic & Knuckles was probably the most frustrating to play through, with what feels like lots of dead ends for characters who aren’t Tails and some of the worst enemy placements.
As far as bonus features are concerned, you’re treated to the fully 3D overworld and all the full-color concept art available on the Saturn version! And if you believed that, I’ve also got a bridge to sell you. Naturally, what you actually get is a whole load of absolutely nothing — not even an options menu. The only thing I can even consider serving as a sort of bonus are two cheat codes you can enter while paused, making your character impervious to damage or giving you free extra lives on demand. These do not make up for the lack of debug mode codes, which might honestly be my favorite features in the original Genesis games, truth be told.
That’s all, folks. There’s nothing more for you to see or do in the Game.com take on Sonic Jam. As a conversion of a classic games compilation, it is clearly a complete and abject failure. If you wanna consider it as a standalone platformer game, it still can’t stand on its own. Even if it somehow ran at a smooth 60 frames per second, it still wouldn’t play well thanks to the very nature of the level design and limitations of the screen. Understanding the circumstances behind the rushed development and the hardware at hand, it’s a miracle that it’s even a semi-functional game; but that’s hardly a merit worthy of distinction. This is by far the worst Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made, and debatably one of the worst available on the Game.com.
Oh, and the music and sound effects suck, too. Unforgivable.
** This is especially evident when looking at zoomed-out views of all the maps, courtesy of SMS Power.
*** Save for 1996’s Sonic Blast, which disregards all the good design of the previous Game Gear games and presents players with semi-pseudo-3D character sprites in a very gaudy, very much 2D world. Man, am I going to have to review this game at some point, too?
Nice Guys Trapped in Nasty Creatures
The Game.com was a massive commercial failure, for a multitude of reasons and market realities. As such, Sonic Jam likely didn’t move it’s intended number of units either. The title seems to have gone largely uncovered by the major games publications of the era — GameSpot and IGN couldn’t even be bothered to get a freelancer on the case. It’s almost shocking just how little attention Sonic’s non-Sega-console debut seemed to receive from the gaming world at large! It seems like most folk are content to pretend it never existed, and point to 1999’s Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure on SNK’s Neo-Geo Pocket Color as being the first time Sonic crossed console-manufacturer lines.
At the very least, the blatant false advertising on display for Game.com Sonic Jam should have been something like a news story: Between the game’s box art showing screenshots completely non-indicative of the actual game, and commercials for the Game.com purposefully speeding up footage of the gameplay in order to make it look like it was running at comparable speeds to consoles, it’s amazing that Tiger seemed to have gotten away with it with little consequence. I mean, sure; the Game.com as a whole was something of a fiasco for them, and resulted in much general criticism of their business acumen. But this feels like something that could’ve started a conversation about misleading games advertising, well before that one Call of Duty 2 trailer got everyone up in arms.
Again, I must concede that the developers at Tiger were given what is frankly an impossible task in trying to bring the Sonic experience to the Game.com. Could they have done a better job than what they ultimately produced? Probably, if given the necessary time and resources. Would it have mattered at all in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, given that the hardware itself was still gonna set something like a governor on performance and financially fail regardless. It just sucks for the number of folk who took a chance on the Game.com — the folk who might’ve hoped that a decent conversion of Sonic Jam might have finally made for a game worth playing. Unfortunately for all of us, it wasn’t.