Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi
Shining Force II
Shining in the Darkness
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
Soldiers of Fortune
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 2 & Knuckles
Samurai Shodown – 1-2 player simultaneous, 6 button controller supported. Samurai Shodown is a fighting game from Takara, a port of SNK’s great arcade classic of the same name. The arcade original was one of the first weapon-based fighters, and is a pretty great game with great graphics, design, and gameplay. I like SNK a lot, and this game started one of their best series. The game is set in an anime-styled version of 18th century Japan, and there are 12 characters to play as. The cast is interesting and varied, and is a strength of the game. The game is slower-paced than Street Fighter II, but still moves at a good clip in the arcades. Characters have three punch/kick and three weapon-swing attacks, and each character has several special moves. It’s a fantastic classic! This Genesis version is similar, but is downgraded all around. First, one character has been cut, Earthquake. His sprite is just too big to manage to fit on the Genesis. That’s too bad, and it’s unfortunate that nothing replaces him. Also the sprite scaling is removed, as in the arcades the game will zoom in or out depending on how far the characters are from eachother while here there is just one zoom level, but that is to be expected on a system without hardware scaling. This Genesis version looks a bit zoomed-out compared to the arcade version and sprites look smaller, but you do get used to it. They are at least larger than the sprites in the SNES version. Those changes are understandable, though the missing character is in the SNES version, but there is more. The graphics lose a lot of animation, sound isn’t as good and the music often just stops resulting in matches fought mostly in silence, the controls and move activations are okay but Neo-Geo caliber, and the game has slowdown.
This all results in a good game, but one that’s a huge step down from the awesome arcade title. Sure, none of the other 4th-gen home consoles could get close to the Neo-Geo in most of those respects, but still, Takara wasn’t SNK, and their ports never were as good as they could have been. This is no exception. The Genesis version of Samurai Shodown is still a good game, but first, that slowdown really hurts. And it’s not only slowdown, the whole game plays a lot slower than the Neo-Geo version does. Play one and then the other and the difference is obvious. This makes this version less fun than the original. The slowdown also makes it harder to pull off your moves right, and some moves seem harder to activate here than in the Neo-Geo while others are fine. I’m not sure about the hit detection all of the time, either, it may have some issues. And that long stretches with no music is bad, but worse not all of the speech samples for special moves are here, only some of them.The result of all those changes is that while this game may be slightly easier than the Neo-Geo game, it’s still very hard, and feels slow and not as fair, more than negating any possible easing of the intense challenge. Overall, I wish that SNK had made their own home ports, I’m sure they would be much better and more accurate than Takara’s always-flawed work. But as they are, the early-’90s home ports of Neo-Geo games are never quite the same as the real thing, and now you can play arcade-perfect versions of Samurai Shodown on newer platforms. The best ports of Neo-Geo games to the other 4th-gen consoles are probably Hudson’s four TurboGrafx (PC Engine) Arcade CD titles, though even they don’t match the Neo-Geo for sure, but sadly Samurai Shodown didn’t get a release there. I wish it had, that’d have been great. So, as good a game as this is, this Genesis version might not really be worth getting. I like Samurai Shodown a lot, it’s kind of amazing on the Neo-Geo… but why play this specific version, and not a better one? There isn’t really a reason. Play this for the Neo-Geo or a near-perfect port of that version. Arcade port. The arcade game was ported to many platforms — the Game Boy, Game Gear, 3DO, SNES, and Sega CD all have versions, as do many newer systems in compilations (PS1, PS2, Wii, etc.). This version is better than the GB or GG versions, but not as good as the PS1 or 3DO. The Sega CD version may be slightly better, but I haven’t played it myself.
Shadow Blasters – 1-2 player simultaneous. Shadow Blasters is a decent but unspectacular sidescrolling action game. You play as a team of four warriors on a short and easy quest to save the world from evil forces. The game is kind of fun while it lasts, but is a below-average title which is over far too soon. At the start you can play the first six levels in any order, then the last two stages are played sequentially after you beat the initial six. There are two difficulty settings, but both are easy. On the harder one you will die and get some game overs, but you have infinite continues and levels are short, so even on “hard” the game is easy. Ingame, you can walk slowly, jump a bit, attack with a ranged shot, and use a superbomb. Holding fire will charge up your shot, and the many powerups will boost your health, weapon power so you start with higher levels of the shot without having to hold down the button, and character speed and jumping, though these two are barely noticeable. All are character-specific, and you can swap characters at any time by pausing. Characters are slow and not maneuverable. A run or slide move would have helped a lot, here; some bosses can be hard to avoid because they move faster than you do. What you need to do is get to the boss with a lot of health in all four characters, and then switch during battle to keep people alive. This will work well.
However, the blandly-designed stages and generic bosses make it hard to get too engaged with this game. Stages are brief and a few screens high, and enemies run out at you constantly as you move, which can be annoying. They die quickly, but exploring isn’t all that fun. The graphics are pretty bad, too; this is one of the worse-looking Genesis games I have. Sprites are amateurish, backgrounds basic, and there is almost no parallax scrolling to be found; almost all backgrounds are static. The music is a bit better, but it’s average overall. The game does keep up a decent pace, as the short-ish stage lengths and varied environments and bosses keep things moving, but this game is not great. I do like the two two player co-op support, though, that’s a great feature to have. I also like the four different characters each with their own unique attacks. Still, overall, Shadow Blasters isn’t that good. The subpar visuals won’t hold your interest for long, and the game is way too short and easy for its own good. Most anyone should be able to beat this game in their first sitting if they don’t turn it off. It is fun enough to stick with to the end, though, so there is that. It just won’t take long to finish, and “hard” is not much harder. Overall, though, Shadow Blasters is an okay but below-average game. If you like this kind of game maybe consider it if you find it cheap. Or skip it, that’d be fine too.
Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi – 1 player. The second of the three Shinobi games on the Genesis, this 1990 Sega release is one of my favorite Sega action-platformers ever and the only Shinobi game I unreservedly love. Shadow Dancer is a fantastic sidescrolling action game. Unlike the other Genesis Shinobi games you die in one hit in this one, so you’ll need to be careful and take your time in each stage until you learn what to do. Unlike Shinobi III you aren’t very mobile in this game; all you can do is walk left or right, jump, and attack. Up or Down plus jump move you to the next level of platforms above or below you, as in Rolling Thunder. Interestingly, touching enemies is not instant death unless they are brandishing a weapon. So, touching enemies is often non-fatal, but you do get knocked back a bit, and in the few levels with death pits this can mean being knocked into a pit. The game has very good, responsive controls though, and pits are easily avoided once you learn the levels. Again you have a sword and shurikens, both on the same button depending on the distance enemies are from you, but in this game you have infinite shurikens, thankfully. It’s a great design decision that I wish the other two Genesis Shinobi games shared, it’d make them better games as with infinite shurikens you can’t get stuck in no-win situations as you can in those games; your sword is not always a viable option. In the options menu you can turn on limited shurikens, but I never will. There are also some difficulty levels, but the game is challenging on any setting. This is not a really hard game, but it isn’t easy either; I’d call it well-balanced, difficulty wise. You do get only two continues, so you’ll be starting the game over often; this can be annoying, but this game is short enough to be fun to replay. In each level, you need to rescue some prisoners and then find your way to the exit. Many prisoners are guarded by special enemies with these green shield things they will throw. Interestingly, the game will remember which prisoners you have rescued between lives if you die in a level so long as it wasn’t a Game Over, and the green-shield guard guys will not appear so long as their prisoners don’t either. All other enemies will still be there, but still, this makes stages slightly easier the next time. All levels are straightforward, so you’ll never be wandering around lost; the enemies are the challenge, not mazelike levels. The game is balanced very well in that regard. The graphics are only okay, but I like the art design. Similarly the music is good, but not too memorable.
Still, Shadow Dancer is a short game. There are only 5 levels, each made up of several stages and then a boss. The first four levels have two not-too-long platforming levels and then a bossfight in a third stage, while the last level has four shorter platforming challenges and then the quite hard final boss. The first four bosses are surprisingly easy, and actually the first boss is harder than the second through fourth ones because the rocks he drops from the ceiling can be tough to dodge. Through the first four levels, the first boss and some of the stages, particularly in level 4, are harder than most of the bossfights. Because you die in one hit and are sent back to the start of the stage if you die, though, those stages can be tricky even with the help of those special baddies that don’t appear again if you die in the level so long as you’ve rescued the prisoner they were guarding. Each enemy type in this game has specific patterns it follows, and you’ll need to learn them and learn how to exploit them to succeed. The jumping ninja enemies are particularly difficult to avoid sometimes, particularly in the mostly-dark level where you can only see in certain spotlit areas and not the rest of the screen. That is a pretty cool stage though, I like the different approach that the dark screen requires. The levels here have a great degree of variety, more so than many games in this genre; every level is different in design as well as in environment. The stages are not flat, but there aren’t many instant-death pits either until the later stages. It’s all very well thought through, Shadow Dancer has fantastic level designs among the best in the genre. The first stage is a great introduction to how to play the game, and each level afterwards adds some new things. The levels here are great from the city to the warehouse to that dark cave and beyond. It’s a lot of fun to slowly explore each level, learning where the enemies will appear from so that you can start to learn what to do in the stage. Sort of like in Rolling Thunder, memorization and deliberate, controlled actions are the order of the day here, and I love it this way; the other two Genesis Shinobi games don’t play like this, to their detriment in my opinion.
In between levels, you play a bonus game where you fall from a tall building, trying to hit as many of the 50 ninjas that you pass along the way as you can. If you get 48 or more you get extra live(s), so try to get them all! It’s difficult, but can be done with practice, as the enemy patterns are the same each time. That’s it for extras here, though. This is mostly a great game, but there are a few downsides, first that the game has no secrets to find beyond a few hidden 1-ups. Some also will dislike how predictable the game is since enemies always appear in the same places every time. The graphics are also clearly early-gen; as much as I like the variety of settings, the actual graphics are nothing special, and the game doesn’t do anything to push the hardware. It’s short, too, with only those 5 stages. Also, the final boss is frustratingly hard. I keep getting to the last boss with plenty of lives left, only to die over and over there. Ah well, at least something in this game is hard! That’s probably better than it all being easy. Overall, Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi is a fantastic game. Shadow Dancer looks good enough, and plays better than most games. With good controls, variety, fun and varied bosses, a great difficulty curve, unlimited shurikens, and enemies that it’s great fun to fight against, Shadow Dancer is one of the best games on the Genesis and is my favorite Shinobi game by a very wide margin. This is a must-have. There are also arcade and Sega Master System (Europe only) Shadow Dancer games, but they are apparently different from this Genesis game. I’ve never played either one, so I don’t know if they are good. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games.
Shadowrun (1993) – 1 player, battery save to cartridge. Shadowrun is a cyberpunk series, designed back in the ’80s when the Japanese economy seemed unstoppable, so while set in Seattle, the money here is the New Yen and such. It was originally a pen and paper RPG, but I’ve never really played or read anything Shadowrun. This is a top-down RPG that I never have put much of any time into since buying. I have both the SNES and Genesis Shadowrun games, which are entirely different, but haven’t really played either one much; both seem a bit intimidating at the start, and I haven’t gotten past the initial learning curve. I did try to play the game again for this, but after dying again and again against the first enemy I could fight, I gave up. There must be some trick to this game I’m missing. Shadowrun does have nice graphics, okay music, and a somewhat ambitious design. The game is well-drawn and has some background animation, which is cool. The isometric SNES game might look better, but this has pretty good art design too, so really it’s close between the two. The music is conventional Western Genesis stuff, but it’s good enough. For gameplay, you walk around, talking to people, getting quests, and fighting things with your guns. With the buttons you can change who you are targeting, change weapons, and shoot. Enemies take about as many hits to kill as I have health though, come in numbers, and you move somewhat slowly, so surviving seems difficult. You have stats, and can choose three classes at the beginning, for a more combat or magic focus. The pause menu has your inventory, skills, stats, and a (text-only) questlog, though there is no map for some stupid reason. Sure, the first area isn’t TOO hard to get used to, though learning what is where does require some tedious trial and error, but this is a big game, and badly needs an ingame map system. 16-bit RPGs often don’t have one, but that’s one thing I dislike about them. Better RPGs have maps. And when you’re told “go to [placename X] and then go to [placename Y]” as a quest but aren’t given any clues about where either place is and just have to wander around until you memorize the maps, that’s annoying. Worse is that I keep dying against the first or second enemy, though, and it doesn’t seem close. I’ll try to revisit this one again. There are other Shadowrun games, but this game is Genesis-exclusive.
Shining in the Darkness – 1 player, battery save to cartridge. The first game in what would become one of Sega’s longest-running series, Shining in the Darkness is a first-person dungeon-crawler RPG made by Camelot. This is a very traditional game, and that means grinding. Basically the gameplay here consists entirely of grinding. You can see maybe two spaces forward in the dungeon and that’s it, also. There isn’t an ingame map, of course, so draw your own or download one from the internet. Don’t play the game without some kind of map, it is absolutely essential; everything looks the same as there are only a handful of different backgrounds to be seen and the dungeon is a big maze. In the dungeon there are some simple puzzles to solve, but it’s mostly about grinding levels against the monsters. The encounter rate is very high, and monsters get harder the deeper you go into the dungeon. There is only one dungeon in the game and it isn’t as big as some in this genre, but there are multiple floors to explore. That will take a while, though. At the start of the game, you need to grind several levels right at the front entrance of the dungeon, regularly returning to town when you need to heal. You start the game with only one character in your party, your generic hero guy who’s off to save the country from evil. If you get far enough you will eventually get some party members, first a female elf mage, but that’s some hours into the game. Gameplay is simple and extremely repetitive, and the battle system has little depth: as usual in JRPGs, you just attack, use magic, or use items, and item and magic management are the only real strategies here beyond ‘try to not get lost’. Western first-person dungeon crawlers of the day are also often overly hard grindfests, but at least they have more puzzles in the dungeons than you will find here. This game does have some, but not many.
The game does have decent sprite art for your characters and the enemies, though. This game is by Camelot, and it has what would become their signature art style and menu and font designs. This isn’t a great-looking game, but for the genre it’s solid. The music is good as well, and can be catchy. In between trips to the dungeon you can buy stuff in town and save your game, but this is just a menu; there isn’t an actual town or overworld to explore, unlike more in-depth first person RPGs. I wish you could save anywhere, but that is sadly rare on console RPGs. This game is simple and focused only on dungeon exploration. I’m okay with that, I like a more focused experience over an open-world game myself. But that really is about all there is to see here. After getting this game a few years ago I played more of it than I thought, and did get to the end of the first floor of the dungeon, but I haven’t gone back since. I don’t like grinding; skill-free grinding is not something I consider good gameplay. On top of that, the ‘item and mana management as strategy’ school of RPG design very much most of the time. This game is a pretty bad offender on both scores. Still, Shining in the Darkness is okay, and its simplicity makes it approachable. It can be fun to get deeper into the dungeon and see new enemies as you progress. There are better dungeon crawlers out there than this average effort. I didn’t really start to actually like dungeon crawlers until they had in-game map systems, myself, so I’d say just stick to the Etrian Odyssey and Class of Heroes serieses on the DS and PSP, for some pretty good Japanese first-person dungeon crawlers. But if you see this cheap and like the genre, maybe give it a try. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games. As this is a battery save game modern compilations might be a good way to play it, if your carts’ battery is dead (mine still works).
Shining Force – 1 player, battery save to cartridge. Shining Force is the second Shining game, and with this game the series shifted genres. Again made by Camelot, this game is a strategy game with RPG elements, not a first-person dungeon crawler. Whether you call the game an RPG, strategy game, Strategy-RPG, or what have you — and all are defensible — what Shining FOrce is is a great game. Released in 1993, Shining Force was surely at least somewhat influenced by Nintendo’s classic Fire Emblem for the NES, but this game is a bit simpler and easier to play than Fire Emblem. There is also an RPG world to run around in, instead of only tactical battles. That’s why the game is sort of hard to classify, the battle system is a tactical strategy game, but there is also that overworld to explore, JRPG-style, just without the random battles; instead the strategy-style battles only occur at set points. That’s great. I also like that you do fight on the same map you explore on, so battles don’t happen on some alternate plane as you see in many games, RPGs especially. The cartoony graphics look great, and the music is even better. This game has a really good soundtrack! But anyway, Shining Force looks good, sounds great, and is a lot of fun to play. The story and interface are really the only significant flaws in the game.
That story isn’t great, though. The story is predictable JRPG stuff, as you are a boy knight who will go on to be a hero and save the world from the forces of evil, and the characters are all cliches, but that doesn’t matter much. There are some non-human characters, which is interesting. Knights are centaurs instead of humans on horseback, for instance; that’s kind of neat. The story and characters are decent enough to serve, and the great strategic gameplay is still really fun. The game is streamlined in several ways versus other games in this genre. First, unlike Fire Emblem, dead characters do come back. You’ll need to get to a church to resurrect them to get them back, and sometimes if someone dies you will need to be without them for several battles until you get to one, but you can bring them back. Churches are also where you save, which means yes, you often need to do multiple battles without saving. This isn’t good, in a strategy game you should at minimum be able to save after each battle. And in this game you get an immediate game over, go back to the last time you saved, if the main hero ever dies in battle, so be careful with him! This is one of the few issues with this game apart from the story, though. A second way the game is simplified is that each character can only hold four items, and there is only one kind of equipment in the game: weapons. Your weapon will take up one slot, and the other three are for that characters’ healing items and the like. Each character has their own inventory and there is no combined storage, so sometimes you will need to consider what you need, but really it’s just for healing items, so it isn’t anything difficult. It is kind of annoying that you need to use separate menu commands for getting items and talking to people, though, and that there isn’t a character list with health and such in the menu. The sequel fixes those two issues.
Combat is also simple. The game takes place on a square grid, and each character moves in turn. You can’t move anyone you want; instead there is a turn order in each battle based on their speed I believe, and you can only move that character during their turn. Player and enemy units all mix together, so there aren’t separate player and enemy turns. The system works, though sometimes when a character is blocked by another one you’ll wish you could move that other one first. Characters each have their own separate stats and experience, and will gain experience points from each action they take during battle. RPG-style leveling is important there, though you can’t grind — the game follows a set path and there aren’t random battles to go back and fight, you’ll just need to use better strategy if you get stuck. For attacks, weapon attacks have a one or two space (in any direction) attack range, depending on type, so swords only have melee-range attacks, while bows can shoot two. Spells generally can be used up to two spaces away as well. You start out with a combat mage and also a healer, and both are very useful. Health and magic are refilled between battles automatically, so you don’t need to go rest to heal them. You do get money, but it’s only for buying weapons or healing items in the shops. You also want to be on the lookout for potential party members, as as you progress your team will get larger and larger. The Shining Force has a base to fill up, and it is fun to see more group members there even if they don’t do much other than just stand there and repeat the same one line. Later on, just like in Fire Emblem, you do make choices about who to bring along, and with the RPG levelling system, ones left behind will quickly fall behind so your choices do matter.
Overall, Shining Force is a great game. The game has good, well-drawn graphics, fun gameplay, a good-length quest to play, a reasonable though not Fire Emblem-level challenge along the way, and lots of fun to be had. The main negatives are the cliche story and characters and irritating limitations on where you can save, but for the most part this is a very good classic, and it’s easy to see why it was so successful. I love strategy games, but mostly play them on PC and handhelds; the only TV-console strategy game that I’ve ever really put a lot of time into and finished is Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance for the Gamecube. I’ve had this one for some time now, but never did pla yit. Well, after starting it for this summary, I want to play a lot more of this, soon. However… the sequel is even better in most respects. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games. As usual check those batteries, if you have the cart! I’m sure lots are dead.
Shining Force II – 1 player, battery save to cartridge. Shining Force II is a lot like the first game, but with even better graphics, an improved interface, some gameplay improvements, and a new, though still cliche, story. Get this, you are a warrior hero guy and need to rescue the princess and defeat the forces of evil! That plot’s never been done before. So yeah, the story is once again a series of cliches. The characters seem a bit better-written than the the first games’ cast, though, and I like the occasional bits of comedy; the first one is a pretty serious game, cartoony art style aside. Some of the plot points along the way are somewhat interesting as well, as far as I’ve gotten. For the most part though, this game is more of the same. The first game had a great formula, though, so that’s just fine. Shining Force II is basically the first game, but better. First, the interface is similar, but now you don’t need separate menu commands for Get Item and Talk; the game has context-sensitive controls instead, which is appreciated. Also you now can easily see character health and a list of your characters in the menu, which you couldn’t do in the first one. In most other ways, the game is more like the original. Again the soundtrack is really good, and the graphics are more varied and detailed than in the first game. Gameplay is similar to before, but there is maybe a little more variety. For instance, where in the first game at the beginning mages and healers are near-useless in combat and do only 1 damage, here they can do 3-4 damage in regular combat, which makes them more useful fighters. Several hours into the game actually my healer has the most kills, oddly enough. Gameplay is the same as before, with RPG-style world exploration interspersed with strategic battles at set points. Again you have a Shining Force to build, and choices to make about which characters to take with you in battle. And yes, the interface still has that iconic Camelot style. Unfortunately, you still can only save at those too-far-apart churches, annoyingly enough. This time sometimes you have to heal characters at the church if they run out of health in a battle, but other times they just come back after the battle. I have no idea why it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other, it doesn’t make much sense. And there is one battle early on with a surprise can’t-win scenario, which was interesting, I wasn’t expecting that.
For the most part, though, you know what you’re getting with Shining Force II: a very good strategy game with RPG leveling, sort of like Fire Emblem but not as brutally difficult. The quest may be generic, but the gameplay along the way is really great. Strategy games are my favorite genre, and these games are the kind of strategy game that works great on a console. The game is simple enough to be very playable with a gamepad, but has enough strategy in character placements and actions that battles are lots of fun. The basics here are standard JRPG stuff, with only Attack, Magic, and Item for actions, and you still can hold only a few items and have only weapons for equipment, but this all works just fine in a strategy game. You have a full party to move around the map, after all, and strategy will definitely be required if you want to keep them alive and win. Again if the main character dies you lose the battle, but instead of being sent back to your last save, now you seem to just have to restart the fight, usually. That’s good. Overall, Shining Force II is a fantastic game. In graphics, music, and gameplay, this is top-tier stuff and I like it a lot. Definitely play at least one of the two Genesis Shining Force games, they are classics for a reason! This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games.
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master – 1 player. Shinobi III is a popular platform-action game Sega released in 1993. The last of the three Shinobi games on the Genesis, this game has moves and faster action than any Shinobi game before. However, at its core it is a followup to Revenge of Shinobi, and that, along with control issues, are my main problems with the game. It’s too bad that the only-okay Revenge of Shinobi got a sequel, instead of the much better Shadow Dancer. Just like Revenge of Shinobi, this game isn’t a precise and deliberate game like Shadow Dancer, but is a bit faster-paced and less controlled, and less fun. Still, even if I like this less than most Genesis fans seem to, the game does have some strong good points for sure. First, the game looks great. Shinobi III has very good graphics with great backgrounds that use a lot of parallax, top-quality sprite work for the system, lots of variety in both graphics and stage designs, and some nice effects too. The graphics can be pretty cool, from standard platforming to an early section on horseback to some tricky vertical areas and a confusing but interesting ninja fortress late in the game. Levels are a lot longer than the short Shadow Dancer stages, and you will need to figure out where to go sometimes in this game and solve some basic puzzles. Sometimes that’s good, other times bad. I do like the factory level, but not the rock-shaft or last stage, for instance. You often have to use ninja moves to get through, and conceptually that’s great. The stage variety in this game is a definite strength. The music is also good. This is also a bit longer than its predecessors, and will put up a good challenge too. You do have difficulty level options, but it just seems to set how many lives you get per continue.
I have a lot of problems with this game, though, and don’t enjoy it much overall. As in Revenge of Shinobi, you have a health bar and two weapons, a melee sword and a limited number of ranged throwing daggers. They REALLY should have had the unlimited daggers from Shadow Dancer here, it’s not hard to get stuck in a near-unwinnable situation if you run out of daggers and you have limited lives and continues in this game, and no saving. The controls have some major problems, too. Now, you have a bunch of ninja moves in this game — you can hang from ceilings and pipes (hold Up while jumping), wall-jump off of any wall (hit jump when you touch a wall, with near-perfect timing), slide (down+jump), and double jump (hit jump again at the peak of your jump, again very tight timing is required). Most of the moves work with practice, though having to hold up to hang on things really gets old fast and helps make the last level a lot harder than it should be, but the double jumping is pretty much broken. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off double jumps consistently; even after playing the game several times recently, I still fail a majority of the time. That is just unacceptable; well-designed games are not this frustrating, and double jumps are not usually this hard to do. And the last two levels absolutely require extremely good double-jumping skills. In the time I got the farthest, playing on Easy, it’s a miracle that I beat level six, and the first section of the last level, 7, is just hopeless with controls this problematic. I lost all remaining lives there and while frustrated I got game over so far in, I was relieved to not have to play this game anymore. With good controls that section would be pretty cool, but as it is it’s frustrating and not any fun. Double jumps in games are usually so simple, why is it so hard here? And other moves such as the wall-run, ceiling-grab, and more can be tricky to use when needed, too; it’s not only one move that is a problem. That you move forward a set distance each time you hit forward while hanging from something can get you killed, for instance, especially in that last level.
Overall Shinobi III is an okay game. It looks great, each level is pretty different, and has a more agile ninja than most any other Genesis game, but it doesn’t control well, and I prefer the more tightly designed, precise challenge of Shadow Dancer of this games’ looser, more open style. I just don’t have enough fun playing it to make it worth the frustratingly high difficulty. While Shinobi III is a very good game in some ways,I don’t like the controls, and while playing I find the fun moments fleeting compared to the frustration. It’s no Shadow Dancer, for sure. For me, this game is average, with good graphics but problematic gameplay. Still, probably try Shinobi III; a lot of people like this game much more than I do. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games.
Socket – 1 player. Socket is a platformer from Vic Tokai. An incredibly unoriginal platformer, to be specific. This game is one of the most blatant Sonic clones ever! From the graphics to the gameplay, this game is Sonic, just easier and just okay, not amazing. You are Socket aka Time Dominator in Japan, an anthropomorphic, time-traveling time-police duck robot, and need to save time from an evil badguy traveling through time and messing everything up. This is a nice-looking game with bright, often pastel, sprites. The Sonic influence is everywhere, but it does look nice. The music is pretty good as well. Music tracks are short, but catchy and fun. You run and jump, and jumping is a little slippery unfortunately, but unlike Sonic, in this game you attack with a ranged attack on the B button. It stays in the air for a while though, so it’s easy to hit enemies with. Importantly, Up plus attack does a vertical attack into the air. This is rarely actually needed, but is absolutely vital on the final boss; it made that otherwise-tough boss a lot easier once I finally figured this move out! You also have a health bar and can take many hits. It does slowly drain over tme, so it is a timer as well as a life meter, but the levels are filled with lightning-bolt powerups, this games’ version of Sonic rings, which refill some health when you touch them, so running out of time is rare. The game does have limited continues and no saving, but I’ve never actually run out of continues; both times I’ve played the game since buying it, I finished it. You get more continues as you go too, presumably from pickups. Yes, it’s easy. The first three worlds out of seven are entirely challenge-free, and the last four are only moderate, not hard. It’s good that it does get a bit harder later on, though.
Levels are large, just like Sonic, and the game tries to have a Sonic-like physics system, though it isn’t quite as good. I do like that many stages have multiple routes though, it adds something to the game. Running around the levels, exploring and looking for extra lives, continues, challenge doors, and more is often fun even if the game is mostly easy. Levels go all over and are not just straight paths to the right, which is good.exploration to complete; they aren’t just straight paths to the right. That’s good. There are no bottomless pits in the main levels either, only spikes that just take off a bit of health. In a game this fast-moving, that’s nice, though spikes should be more of a threat. Each game world first has a ‘speed’ stage, then one or more ‘labyrinth’ stages. The last labyrinth area will have a door to the world’s boss. Speed stages are all about fast movement, and require almost no thought or strategy; just run, occasionally attack, and try the various paths, and you’ll finish them. They are fun but insubstantial levels, and look too similar as all are set in Socket’s future as you travel to the next time period. Only the labyrinth stages are actually set in different time periods, and even there the difference is subtle. Enemies are the same robots throughout and the whole game has a consistent look, so the whole time-travel element isn’t emphasized nearly as much as it could have been.
Labyrinth stages are the meat of the game, and are fun to explore. Some have dead ends, so you will need to backtrack and check all of the routes sometimes in order to find your way forward. Doors before the last area of a world are sometimes-optional challenge areas on otherwise dead-end paths. These are the only place in the game you will find instant-death bottomless pits, and can be tough. If you die in one you do lose a life and go all the way back to the last checkpoint in the main level, which can be annoying at times. Dying in Sonic special stages doesn’t take away a life! It’s nice to have something kind of challenging here, and I like that they made them mostly optional so less good players can avoid them. Boss doors look the same as challenge-room doors, oddly, it would be nice if they were different. Bosses are mostly extremely easy, and just hitting attack over and over usually results in a win. The final boss is the only tougher one, and there really all you need is to remember that Up+Attack move for the second form and you should be good. Overall, Socket is an okay, slightly above average platformer. It looks and sounds good, but is extremely derivative and has no original ideas of its own, it just copies Sonic except with a different attack system and less great quality all around. Still, it’s a decent, fun little game worth a try if you like platformers and don’t mind it when they are short and easy.
Soldiers of Fortune – 1-2 player simultaneous, password save. Soldiers of Fortune, or The Chaos Engine in Europe, is a European top-down action game released on several systems. This game was inspired by classics like Commando or Ikari Warriors, but is a slower-paced game with larger levels to explore. While it seems to be quite popular with classic-gaming fans in Europe, honestly I don’t see why. The game does have nice graphics, with good sprite art in a cartoony steampunk-ish setting, and the music is decent up-tempu stuff as well, but the gameplay isn’t nearly as good as the graphics and sound. This is a below-average game and doesn’t even match up to Rambo III, much less MERCS. It does have two player co-op, which is nice, but the game is overly difficult, sometimes confusing, and doesn’t control that well. It stops being fun too soon as a result. The game isn’t all bad, but compared to my expectations, or other games in the genre, it’s pretty disappointing. In this game you play as a team of six mercenaries, off on a series of dangerous missions. You can play as any of the six guys, and you always have an AI companion controlling a second character if you aren’t playing with another human, so the game is always co-op. Each character is different and has different weapons and stats. Occasionally you will be able to buy stats and such in a shop between some levels. There are also passwords between each of the four worlds, but you need to beat an entire four-level world to get one, and I’ve never managed that despite more than a few tries, so I haven’t gotten one myself.
The first issue here are the controls. All you can do is walk and fire in the direction you are facing; no direction-lock, no twinstick control, and in a game which needs them. Bullets are uninspiring-looking little circles, too, and shooting lacks intensity. Enemies spawn all over as you move, so you really need to either have memorized everything or be paying close attention to not take hits. Not being able to shoot while you move out of the way to dodge bullets is awful, and you will take hits… and you have VERY few hit points per life, and only three lives before it’ Game Over. And no, there are no continues at all, beyond that password you may never reach. That’s too harsh. The levels themselves can be interesting, but it’s way too easy to get hit and the game punishes you too much for it. Level pacing is also mixed; the early levels are fun, but quickly get tedious or frustrating once stages get larger and more confusing a few levels in. As you go you collect keys, which unlock paths, and money for that shop. Some keys open one of several branching options, so there are alternate paths to add a little replay value, though most of each stage is one path. There is the core of a decent game here, but the controls and difficulty ruin it. And worse, once I got stuck in what I’m pretty sure was an impossible-to-progress-past situation, so the game has glitches as well. Since there is no timer in the game, I had to turn it off and start over. Ugh! I still haven’t beaten the whole first world in this game, but playing it makes me want to not do so again anytime soon. Overall Soldiers of Fortune is a disappointing, below-average to bad game that I kind of regret buying. The nice graphics and two player co-op are the main positives here, but the gameplay isn’t much fun, levels can be long and enemy spawn locations are hard to avoid, the game has glitches, and really this game is just too hard for its own good. Skip this one unless you have nostalgic feelings for it. Also available on Amiga (in Europe only) and SNES, but I only have played this version. Apparently the SNES version has lots of slowdown, so skip it.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) – 1 player, supports lock-on with Sonic & Knuckles (for a full Sonic 3 & Knuckles bonus-games mode called Blue Spheres, with passwords to access any possible level). Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991, and is one of the great, industry-changing titles, the kind of game that only comes along a couple of times a generation at most, and even most of those don’t turn into franchises as popular as Sonic’s has been. Sega made an incredible game, and then marketed it exceptionally well. The result was a phenomenon that continues to this day, as Sonic is still Sega’s mascot. Sonic created the humanoid-animal-mascot trend in character design, changed platformers with its focus on speed and attitude, and is one of the best-selling game of the 4th generation, too. And yes, I at least think that the game is still fantastic today! This game has some critics, but I love Sonic the Hedgehog. It isn’t the best platformer of the generation, and I do think that its nemesis Super Mario World is the better game and the best 2d platformer ever, but Sonic 1 is outstanding, and one of the next best 2d platformers, along with its sequels, the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, and a couple of Game Boy games (wario Land 1, Kirby 2). Sonic is just exceptional in almost every way. The graphics are great, the music is iconic, the levels are fantastic beginning to end, the physics engine behind it all was unlike anything seen before in a platformer, and the large levels are a lot of fun to explore, too! The difficulty level is challenging, but it’s a fun challenge, not the crushing difficulty of some other Genesis games. This is a hard game and I only beat it for the first time last month, but it’s extremely fun whether or not you complete it. It’s hard to think of much bad to say about this game, really.
But for the zero people reading this who don’t know the game, Sonic is a platformer. Sonic runs and jumps, and rolls in a ball when you jump or hit Down while running. Hitting enemies in normal form hurts you, but hitting them in ball form hurts them. It’s a simple but great system, though this first game doesn’t have the spin-in-place move that would later become a series staple. Your goal is to go to the right until you reach the end of each stage. Each world has three stages, and the last has a boss in it. Levels are huge, have multiple routes, and are better-designed than most in the genre. The physics system is great. You slow down as you run up hills, jump off a slope at the opposite angle, and such. This was a rarely-seen thing at the time, and Sonic’s physics are very solid and well-programmed. It is one of the cores of the experience. The levels are extremely well-designed as well, and the game has a great balance between exploration and challenge. Levels are designed around the physics, and are absolutely full of challenging jumps to optional areas, alternate paths easier than the main one, and more. There are also TVs with powerups in them, usually rings but sometimes invincibility or a shield. In these open-levels platformers blind jumps are a common issue, and they are an issue here, but the game has few instant-death pits. They are rare enough that usually when you jump into space you have confidence that you’ll land on ground… but once in a rare while, you won’t, that was a pit. They are not always marked, so this is one issue with the game, until you learn where the few pits are. Most of the time, though, your main obstacles will be spikes, spike-balls, and moving enemies. If Sonic touches any of these, he drops all of the rings he was holding, but if something hits you when you have no rings you die. Up to 20 rings will appear around you after yout get hit, and you need to try to collect at least one before they vanish. It’s a good mechanic, and the levels are designed to encourage memorization, but also to reward exploration. Some newer, post-Genesis Sonic games go way too far into the trap-heavy school of level design, an this adds to the challenge, but not the fun. The Genesis games are better-balanced: there are traps, but you don’t need to constantly stop in fear of enemies. You do need to be careful, but not inordinately so. Oh, and there are checkpoint posts, for when you die but it isn’t a game over. On game over you restart the level, so long as you have continues left of course.
There is one issue people have with the levels in this game, though, and that’s that later Sonic games emphasize speed much more than this game. Sonic is fast, but only the first world is entirely built around speed. After that the second world is a slow-paced underground stage, and then after that the game has a mixture of faster and slower elements. The water levels are the slowest, and some of the hardest, stages, as Sonic can drown if you go too long without getting an air bubble. I like good water levels in games, but Sonic’s can be frustrating. The water-world’s boss climb is one of the hardest parts of the game. Still, though, I like most of the slower parts of this game. The second world’s great fun, even if you’re not going full-speed most of the time! Maybe it was just including more conventional level-design elements out of uncertainty about how much people would like the speed the game starts with, but I like the results a lot. Each world looks different, and plays differently as well. All are fun. Yes, blasting through the first stage is great, but making your way through the lava pits in world 2 is also great! The one level-design element I will criticize is that you get no rings in the final boss fight, which makes it MUCH harder than it should be. Sadly, both of its sequels on the Genesis, and many of the Game Gear games, copy this particularly annoying design trait. You should not have to fight hard bosses without rings in Sonic, but most of the classic ones force this on you. It’ll cause many game overs right at the end of the game.
Your second goal in the game is to get all of the Chaos Emerald collectables, which are in bonus stages. In this game, you get into bonus stages by reaching the end of the first or second stage in each world except for the last one with at least 50 rings, then jumping into the giant ring that appears, you will go into the bonus stage. Bonus stages are a rotating top-view maze, and you need to try to get to the center and get the Chaos Emerald in the middle, without running into an exit. In addition, if you get 50 rings in a bonus stage you get a continue. You start with no continues, so getting them in bonus stages is essential! There are ten opportunities to get into bonus stages in this game, and six chaos emeralds, so if you want to get them all and the special good ending screen, you need to do well. I’ve never quite managed to get all the emeralds in one run in a Genesis sonic game, but it is a fun challenge. The bonus stages in this game aren’t the best in the series, but they are good, and a nice break from the main game. After the first world having to have 50 rings to get in is a real challenge and takes memorization, so it’s satisfying once you finally get into a bonus stage in later levels!
Overall Sonic the Hedgehog is a fantastic game. Innovative when it released and still fresh and fun today, the first Sonic game is an amazing experience. The game has great graphics, a really good, iconic soundtrack, extremely well-polished gameplay, very well designed levels to explore, many positive innovations that set it apart from any other platformer available at the time, lots of replay value, fun bonus stages, difficulty that is just about right, and more! In comparison to all those strengths, the flaws are very few. Sonic 1 doesn’t have saving, and it is a lot shorter than Super Mario World and there are many fewer levels as well, but that’s about it. What the game does have has all been done really well. The game doesn’t have Mario’s precision, as the speed and physics system makes things trickier, but that is as much a strength as it is a problem, as it sets the game apart and allows for some pretty cool things once you figure out how to use the momentum system well. Sonic the Hedgehog is an all-time great which still holds up as among the best games ever released in the genre. Its sequels are even better, but the first one is almost as good and set the stage for it sequels, and Sonic’s enduring popularity as well. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games. Sonic 1 has lots of ports on newer systems.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 2 & Knuckles – 1-2 player simultaneous, supports lock-on with Sonic & Knuckles (to play as Knuckles in this game). Basically Sonic the Hedgehog but better, faster, better-looking, and better-sounding, Sonic 2 is a fantastic sequel. It takes everything great about the original Sonic, removes the slower-paced stuff that many didn’t like, and improves on everything else while also adding a second character and co-op multiplayer. The result is that Sonic 2 is another one of the great platformers. The engine, physics, graphical style, music, and everything else are all just as before, but better. This is a faster-paced game than the first one, as Sega listened to the critics and didn’t include any slow areas like the second world of Sonic 1. It also has two playable characters, as Sonic’s friend Tails is added. Tails the fox flies in, and flight is his signature move, but in this game you can’t actually fly while playing, oddly. Also, in single player you play as Sonic only while Tails follows you around. Only a second player can play as Tails, but they can take control at any time, which is nice; it’s not a separate mode. Tails has infinite lives, but has to stay on the same screen as Sonic, so play centers around Sonic. Still, it’s a fun option and it’s good they included it. While quite difficult, Sonic 2 is slightly easier than the first game. While Sonic 1 took me many years to finally complete, I finished Sonic 2 not too long after getting it back in 2006 or so. You still do have limited continues and no saving, unfortunately, and the game is probably longer than the first, but most of the game isn’t quite as hard as it was before. The difficulty here is balanced well. One other change is that worlds only have two levels now, so there are more, shorter worlds than the first game. Future Sonic games would keep this games’ two-levels style over the three-levels-each style of the original.
Beyond the addition of Tails, there are two major changes in Sonic 2 versus the first game. First, the Spin Dash has been added, and it’s a move that ever since has been one of Sonic’s most important. By hitting Jump while holding Down, you will spin in place, and then zoom off as soon as you let go. You can still spin by running and then hitting down, but this is more useful and makes level traversal easier and more fun. And second, the Chaos Emeralds are now found in new minigames which you access a new way. Instead of getting to the end of a stage with 50 rings, now you just have to reach a checkpoint post with 50 rings. Then a portal will open above the post, and if you jump up into it you go into the bonus stage. This means that now you can go into multiple bonus stages in a single level, though each post can only be used once, checkpoint posts are limited and now are often hidden on side paths, and your rings are reset to zero after leaving a bonus stage so it isn’t too easy. The bonus game itself is an into-the-screen running tube. Sonic and Tails run down a tube, collecting rings and avoiding spike balls. You need to get the required number of rings by each of several points along the tube. The first bonus stage is easy, but they quickly get hard after that. While these “3d” tubes were quite impressive back in 1992, in retrospect I probably like them the least compared to Sonic 1 or 3&K’s bonus levels. They’re probably harder than either other kind of bonus stage, too. Still, they are fun, and it’s nice that Sega mixed things up by changing the bonus stages each time. One final lesser change is continues. This time, you get a continue by getting enough bonus points in levels, instead of based on coins in bonus stages. I’m not sure if this makes getting continues easier or harder, it’s sort of mixed.
Otherwise, though, Sonic 2 is more of the same. The graphics are very similar, just better. The music is familiar, but with new compositions which are just as great as the originals. The levels are like those in the first game, but bigger. Again the final boss is really tough and you have no rings for the fight, irritatingly. The new bonus stages are also frustrating, but they do look really cool and play okay once you memorize them. Tails is a decent addition, even if he’s not nearly as cool-looking as Sonic. You can’t play as Tails in single player, unfortunately, bue he’s basically a Sonic clone; he does fly into the screen after dying, but otherwise plays just like Sonic. You can even play as Knuckles in this game if you connect it to a Sonic & Knuckles cart! That’s really cool. Playing as Knuckles in Sonic 2 is really fun, I like it a lot. At one point Sonic 2 with Knuckles was maybe my favorite Sonic game, in fact, though S3&K really is the best one. Knuckles has a lower jump height, but can glide and climb up walls. He also doesn’t lose rings after bonus stages, which is fantastic and makes the game easier. He’s great. There is also a splitscreen versus mode, for two-player competitive play. I’ve never found it all that exciting compared to the main game, but it’s nice they added it I guess. The main game is great. Levels are large, multi-pathed, and incredibly fun to explore. Different paths can play very differently and lead to different areas and secrets, and this game encourages exploration more than the first game since not only coins and lives, but also checkpoints with their bonus-warp gates, are scattered around. This game is hard but fun, and will keep you coming back until you beat it. Sonic 2 is a fantastic classic which deserves its place as one of the all-time-great platformers. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games.
Sonic Spinball – 1 player. Because Sonic 3 wouldn’t be finished until 1994, Sega had its American studio Sega Technical Institute make a Sonic game for the 1993 holiday season. Instead of making a platformer like their previous work Kid Chameleon, this pinball game was the result. This game is a pinball game with a platformer-styled design to it. Sonic is mostly a pinball, but your goal is to get three Chaos Emeralds in each table so that you can move on to the next one, instead of playing for score on a preset table. Here you actually have a time limit, and the tables are gimmicky and are designed around unlocking areas to progress towards the emeralds, instead of more conventional pinball table design. Kirby’s Pinball Land for Game Boy, one of the great console pinball games of the generation, also has levels and progression, but it balances things better — those tables can be beaten, but also are great pinball tables even outside of that. Here, you just don’t get that feeling, unfortunately. The physics are also extremely bouncy, so Sonic will go flying all over, without much control. Hitting what you want can be difficult. The controls are also bad — you use A and B for the flippers, and C for both flippers. Other, better console pinball games of the era use Left on the d-pad for the left flipper and the rightmost button for the right one. That is a far better control scheme than this. You really want a thumb on each flipper, and holding the controller so one thumb is on A and the other on B isn’t too comfortable. The game does look pretty nice, though. This clearly isn’t a Sonic Team game, and you can tell that it’s a Western game, but the graphics are good and each environment is detailed and nice-looking. The music is solid as well, though it’s not main-series Sonic caliber stuff.
The game has one other major flaw, though, and it’s crippling: this game is incredibly difficult. Sonic Spinball gives you three lives and zero continues. Once you’ve died three times, it’s all the way back to the beginning of the game you go. And after the first table, the which has ball-saver platforms, there is nothing to save a ball if it drains, you just lose a life every time. I did manage to beat the first table while playing the game for this summary, but quickly got game over on the second because of this. In a progression-based game that is this hard, with random deaths inevitable thanks to the physics and genre, having no continues or saving is too cruel. Overall Sonic Spinball is an okay, average game, but it could have been better. The game can be fun to play if you can stay alive, but it has a bunch of issues which hold it back. Pinball and Sonic fans might want to try it, but this definitely isn’t a must-play game. Some years after getting this game and finding it way too hard, I got the Game Gear version. The graphics there aren’t nearly as good, but the game is much easier and, for me, more fun. I’ve beaten that game and did like it. This game is available in collections and digital re-releases of Sega’s Genesis games.