Teashade Reviews Vol. 5: Sonic the Fighters
In the midst of the arcade era of the 90's, Sega's Amusement Machine Research and Development Division No. 2 (known as Sega AM2) were tasked with creating the first ever 3D Sonic game for the arcade. Releasing their vision into arcades around the world in mid-1996, Sonic the Fighters was met with mediocre reception - mostly due to its limited release in Japanese and Western arcades due to fears it was 'too violent'.
However, despite its disappointing run, Sonic the Fighters has been re-released in several classic arcade compilation games since, garnering it more attention for those who missed out on its initial run. In late 2012, the game was also re-released for sale on its own on the Playstation Store/Xbox Live.
So, just how is Sonic the Fighters? Is it a hidden gem worthy of more attention and praise? Or is it a disappointing heap of dung that should remain in the past? Time to put on my Teashade lens and dive into the game...
Narrative & Presentation
From the get-go, it's evident that Sonic the Fighters isn't a strong story-driven game. Being a fighter game in a similar vein to the likes of Virtua Fighter and Tekken, Sonic the Fighters instead has a bare bones plot involving the main cast of characters duking it out for the chance to board a rocket ship built by Tails to confront Dr. Robotnik in his new starship - the Death Egg II. The rocket ship itself only has enough room for one person - with the ship's energy being powered by a total of eight (not seven) Chaos Emeralds, a first for the series.
With each combatant carrying a Chaos Emerald, the player is tasked with picking a character to fight as - and then proceeding to defeat all seven other characters, along with a cloned version of their avatar (created by Robotnik to fill in the gap in the level order). The challenge doesn't stop there, however - as the player character heads to the Death Egg II for two more showdowns - a normal 2-round battle against Metal Sonic and a bonus fifteen-second, 1-round fight against Dr. Robotnik in his mech suit. Both of these fights must be beaten in order to unlock the ending of the game.
Originally released in 1996, it's evident that Sonic the Fighters' animations are a bit dated compared to today's standards. However, for the time, the vibrant colours, 3D animation and pumpin' 90's music were quite enthralling. It's just a shame that the market wasn't confident in a fighting Sonic game - as there is real potential here.
The opening theme is perhaps my favourite tune from the game - seconded only by the Continue theme (which I visited quite a few times playing the game on Hard difficulty). The soundtrack overall is pretty good for the time, but is fairly forgettable by modern standards. Though, I have to admit, I really like the eurobeat vibes from the OST - so I'll give credit where credit is due. The soundtrack is composed and arranged by Maki Morrow and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.
Of interesting note is the introduction of several new characters that were created for this game. Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite are two such examples of new characters that debuted in Sonic the Fighters - but unfortunately weren't revisited in the main Sonic games series (with the exception of brief cameos in Sonic Generations). Another, even more obscure character is Honey the Cat - a furry anthropomorphic cat that was originally meant to be a secret playable avatar in the original release of Sonic the Fighters.
With the 2012 re-release of the game, Honey the Cat was officially unlocked as a secret avatar along with Metal Sonic and Dr. Robotnik. All three secret characters are unlocked by pressing the start button on a specific character at the character selection screen - for Honey, pressing start on Amy Rose's portrait; for Metal Sonic, pressing start on Sonic's portrait and for Dr. Robotnik, pressing start on Bean the Dynamite's portrait.
Whilst the story and battle order won't change for the three secret characters, it's important to note that every character's story in the game is exactly the same - the only difference being who is inside the Lunar Fox rocket ship when it flies to the Death Egg II. Other than that, the game itself plays relatively the same no matter which avatar the player is using.
Gameplay & Feel
Despite the somewhat basic story, Sonic the Fighters aims on delivering a good gameplay experience. The fighting style present in this game is reminiscent of popular fighting games available in the arcades at the time - gems such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Unfortunately, Sonic the Fighters suffers from a rather basic gameplay mechanic. This isn't entirely the developer's fault, mind you - but moreso a reflection of the limited capabilities of the hardware available at the time.
However, with Sonic the Fighters being released on the Sega Model 2 arcade system, the ability to create 3D polygons and hybridise them with bitmap images was quite impressive at the time. It seemed apparent that Sega was focusing on graphics and the software technicals - which unfortunately cost the game a more intrinsic and detailed control system. Ironically, the Sega Model 3 arcade system was released later the same year in 1996.
That being said, however, Sonic the Fighters feels great. At least, on a graphical, technical and audible standpoint. The fighting gameplay, whilst basic, functions well enough - with the basic punch and kick animations along with some special moves such as grabs and breaks. Characters in the game have a barrier meter which is depleted through having their guards broken by powerful moves or getting caught off-guard. It's a nice addition compared to other fighting games at the time - as it runs the risk of a character being left helpless if their barriers are depleted, leaving them unable to block.
Including the three secret characters, there are a total of eleven playable avatars - eight of which are available by default. The characters are Sonic the Hedgehog, Miles 'Tails' Prower, Knuckles the Echidna, Amy Rose, Espio the Chameleon, Bark the Polar Bear, Fang the Sniper and Bean the Dynamite. All eight main characters are fought over the course of the game's nine stages - with Metal Sonic being the ninth stage opponent and Dr. Robotnik being the secret bonus boss. Honey the Cat is the only character in the game not to be fought as an AI opponent.
In terms of control, Tails, Knuckles, Honey and Amy are arguably the easiest characters to use, along with Fang (who is extremely overpowered to the point of being grossly unfair). Sonic, Espio and Bark are all well-rounded fighters but either handle a bit oddly or have one prominent weakness that holds them back (such as being slow or can be easily countered, etc). Bean the Dynamite is perhaps the most obscure of the main characters - as his fighting style mainly focuses on throwing bombs to damage his opponents. It's certainly different - but his handling just feels bizarre compared to the others.
As mentioned earlier, during my playthrough of Sonic the Fighters, I played on the hard difficulty setting - the second toughest challenge in the game, as I'm only a casual fighting gamer and don't wish to have my butt whooped on the Hardest difficulty setting.
Studying the game's characters and levels, I've deduced the following facts from my experience - most notably, set the barrier limit to one in the options menu. This way, you can quickly break through your opponent's defenses and wrap up the fight quickly before time runs out. Secondly, the game tries to balance fights by allowing lower-health characters to deal more damage against higher-health opponents. So, be mindful of that. Lastly, Fang the Sniper is the most ridiculously OP character ever created and I despise him. He uses popguns and long range attacks to hurt his opponents from a safe distance which makes him a real pain. My playthrough as Tails was a nightmare when facing him on Hard difficulty.
Despite this, however, the gameplay mechanics are solid and competent - it's just a shame that Sega AM2 didn't use the opportunity to innovate the fighting genre with this game. It's good, but closer to a carbon copy of Virtua Fighter, just with Sonic characters.
Overall, Sonic the Fighters is a quaint, fun little fighter game for arcade enthusiasts to relive the action and excitement of the 90's. However, despite its mix of familiar and new characters, Sonic the Fighters struggles to find a unique foothold in the competitive market - and with Sega limiting its release in the west, it seems as if the game was doomed from the start.
A true shame, really - as Sonic the Fighters has some real, genuine potential. Sure, it seems closer to a Virtua Fighter or Tekken game than a proper Sonic game - but, there was a decent and competent fighting mechanic here. Somewhat basic, mind you, but still inviting enough.
If there's any consolation, it's knowing that the game was re-released in later generations of gaming hardware - so that people who missed out can experience it for themselves. However, that doesn't excuse the game's basic control system and narrative - two major things that should be paramount in every game. As a result, I've had to penalise the game heavily for this particular misstep - but for fans of the Sonic series, it's definitely worth checking out this game if you have it on a compilation disc or if it's on sale on an online console store. You might just find a couple hours of enjoyment here. I managed to get at least two hours of decent fun with it - trying out the various characters and finishing the game with my favourite character Tails (and having a full run with Honey the Cat too).
For my final mark, I've decided to award a six and a half out of ten - despite the game being solid, I can't forgive the limited story and somewhat basic control mechanics. Also, Fang is a horrible character.
Questions & Answers
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