How Sonic 3 turned a bookworm artist jungle kid into a lifelong Sega fan

The chapter which follows is what began as my attempt to write a concise explanation as to what I saw in the Sonic the Hedgehog games growing up to someone who was brave enough to ask whether he were the only Sega fan who didn’t care for the Sonic games (Sega’s mascot character, for the uninformed).
THE SEEDS OF IMAGINATION

My love of hearing stories, reading, studying hand drawn and photographed illustrations for hours, drawing, and building models goes back to my earliest memories and predates my awareness of video games. One way of summarizing the common thread would be to say that I was really into imagination and finding out what was in others’ imaginations. Like most guys, I imagine, this revolved around central characters and inventing stories as I played with toy cars, planes, soldiers, etc.
My infrequent visits to my grandparents’ house also found me spending a lot of time with old school mechanical toys – puzzles that used ball bearings, underwater hoops to try to stack on spindles, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, ViewMasters, and those sorts of things. From these, my appreciation of physical materials, physics, construction, and stereo vision were nurtured.
This is to say nothing of their children’s book library (my grandmother was an elementary school teacher for decades) or other mind opening aspects of being in their house such as the visual striking translucent red glass bird on their wind chimes or the variety of different fabrics in their guest bedrooms or the strange cubby-hole nature of their laundry hamper. But I begin to ramble. =)
ELECTRONIC PUZZLES
 
I know that I’d encountered a few computer games briefly though the years like Centipede/Millipede, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders and seen a few others, but I never spent much time with any of them (either watching or playing).
 
Most computer hardware that I’d been exposed to was just too primitive to do anything resembling smooth scrolling movement etc. so I just wasn’t overly interested. My impression of computer or video games at that point would have been more of an electronic puzzle than anything to do with an imaginary world.
NINTENDO
 
Over Christmas holidays when I was in… either 4th of 5th grade my family did some housesitting for an old friend of my dad’s family while they were in Australia and I found their sons’ NES with which my younger brother and I were able to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt and get our first real dose of playing video games.
 

Playing Super Mario Bros. was a revelation to me in terms of having a world that a story could take place in, which you could interact with. The smooth scrolling of the level made it possible for me to think of the level in the same way that I thought about moving toy vehicles over the ground or through the air in the real world.

I thought of it, at the time, like an interactive painting or, to put it another way, of being able to get into someone else’s imagination in an objective sort of way, avoiding any sort of misinterpretation that comes with reading someone else’s story or trying to imagine what lies beyond the edges of an illustration.

When I was entering sixth grade our family got a DOS copy of Prince of Persia from one of my uncles. Our ancient monochrome computer could only play it at about 1/3 the correct speed. Nevertheless it left a deep impression on me because of the puzzle based level exploration and the rotoscoped animation. Again, you felt that this was an actual place that someone had dreamed up and although the story is similarly sparse, you understand that you are following the journey of the hero of the story.
 

When I was entering 7th grade, my dad bought my brothers and I a second hand NES as something to do at home, since we had moved around the world away from all of my friends and I was having trouble fitting in. He got us Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3 and my younger brother and I played those like crazy. Only months after getting these games did I discover that you could run by holding down the B button (our copies didn’t have boxes or manuals), which was insane to me, since I had already learned to beat everything possible without running.

We also obtained a copy of Duck Hunt and our own Zapper and also got a cheap copy of Prince of Persia for the NES.
Strangely, we also began collecting NES peripherals on the cheap from pawn shops and it is with some amusement that I remember that we had more controllers than we had NES games.

SUPER NINTENDO
 
During the Christmas holidays of my 7th grade year, Super Mario All Stars was being promoted on TV and I couldn’t believe how beautiful SMB 1 and 3 looked when I saw them on display at WalMart. When someone gave me and my two brothers $40 apiece for Christmas I lobbied for us to put our money together and get the $120 SNES bundle which included a system, two controllers, Super Mario World, and a mail in rebate for Super Mario All Stars.
 
My brothers were easily convinced so we headed off to the store and came back that afternoon with our shiny new system (our first experience of owning any brand new gaming equipment – and having the game’s manual). After getting over the alien nature of completely differently shaped cartridges and controllers, we got it set up and played Super Mario World like crazy. I was very impressed by the better color palette and parallax scrolling as well as the new gameplay mechanics (such as Yoshi, using the cape to fly as opposed to the raccoon tail, or the hidden exits to levels and finding the switch palaces to fill in missing blocks which made other areas accessible) but although I enjoyed Super Mario World, I felt that it lacked artistically when compared to the pixel art of Super Mario Bros. 3, so I was extremely happy when our copy of Super Mario All Stars arrived in the mail.
WHAT SHOULD WE GET NEXT?
 
Later that year we were browsing the game section at Toys ‘R’ Us.
At this point in my life, I had beaten all four original Mario games in Super Mario All Stars as well as Super Mario World and loved all of those five games (well maybe The Lost Levels a little less, but it was interesting nonetheless).
I had been looking for more games to get for our Super Nintendo but the combination of only having a few promotional pamphlets and screenshots on the back of game boxes to look at and a very limited number of games on display in stores (thanks to Nintendo’s policy of pushing each scheduled showcase release hard for a month or more to generate sales) and occasionally flipping through a games magazine which someone else had already removed from its shrink wrap wasn’t much to go on for laying down anywhere from $40 to $70 when you’re 13 years old.
After looking through all the game boxes for NES, SNES, and GameBoy and playing whatever game was on display on the SNES there for the fifth time or so (probably Super Metroid, but I’m not sure) I decided to branch out and see what else might be on the next isle…
AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY
 
I was surprised to see that it was more video games, but nothing that I’d encountered before.
“Sega… Genesis? Game Gear? What was that?”, I wondered, suspecting that they were some sort of cheap knock off of Nintendo stuff.
 
I walked down to the system on display and saw and heard, for the first time in my life, Sonic 3.
To say that I was impressed would be a complete understatement. I’d never seen or heard anything like it.

With Sonic 3, although the rules of the world were recognizably borrowed from Mario (walk, jump, run, fly, explore, jump on enemies, get goodies out of boxes, avoid pits, go swimming, launch off of spring loaded platforms, etc.) there was a completely different mentality and idea about what a game could be artistically.

From the moment it starts up and a pre-rendered Sonic jumps through that huge star-encrusted ring on the title screen to the posterized shot of his face peeking out from behind jungle foliage and his name behind the save file select screen to the way that the character select menu rotates Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles in the 2P Competition menu, these were things I’d never seen any computer or video game do before and in each case it felt as though someone who knew what looked good was the master of their craft and the master of using this hardware to realize their vision.

(Even the way the save file menu functions – selecting Robotnik and moving him over to the file to be deleted and then selecting Delete or Cancel with Left or Right was intuitive and interesting and unlike any menu I’d encountered in any other software, limited though my experience was at that point.)
I loved the idle animations.
I loved that when you pushed into a wall the character had a unique animation for that action.
I remember playing as Tails and being surprised that he got tired when flying and I was pleased that when I flew into the water, his animation switched from flying to swimming. (Sonic hadn’t had different underwater animation frames.) I remember being surprised that you could drown underwater and that there were air bubbles that you could get extra underwater time from breathing in.
 
I remember riding the flying foxes down the vines or smashing through the large boulders that hide secret caves and seeing them shatter into smaller boulders. Discovering spin dashing was an amazing surprise after not finding any run button.
 
I remember trying out the 2 player races and that being my first sort of experience with any sort of two player local competition. The whole experience was just incredibly impressive to me.
 
This was to say nothing of the sleek black crescent moon controller, the huge (A) (B) (C) buttons, the strangeness (to someone who had only played two Nintendo systems) of having an odd number of buttons on the controller, or the tiny size of the sleek little black system with its sweet Model 2 curves or the tiny black cartridge that the game came in.
 
I walked out of the store that day promising myself that I would save as long as it took to buy that system, even if the only game I ever got for it was Sonic the Hedgehog 3.
SAVING $200 TAKES A WHILE WHEN YOU’RE 13…

As the year went on I caught glimpses of other Sega Genesis games on display in stores like Disney’s Aladdin or The Jungle Book.
“Licensed games?” some will scoff, but I would like to point out that from 5th grade onward I had been an animation junkie (I’d dreamed of pursuing it professionally throughout junior high and high school) and Disney’s Aladdin on the Genesis had real Disney animators drawing the frames which stood out to me from the tile-confined pixel art of other games in stark contrast.
I had been the one who pushed for our purchase of the SNES and I did love it and the games we had for it and I could tell, even then, that the SNES had more colors and had the ability to draw translucent sprites (clear advantages, artistically) but every time that I encountered another Genesis game, I walked away with the impression that whoever was making these games just put more attention to detail and effort into them and it just felt to me as though they were trying harder.
 

It took me until my birthday in November of that year (having seen the Genesis shortly before the end of my 7th grade year) before I could save up the money to buy a Genesis. That summer I had bought a Super Scope and Yoshi’s Safari (graphically impressive Mode 7 scrolling but very short for someone accustomed to full length Mario games… also the Super Scope eats AA batteries for lunch) and among several other SNES rented games, discovered the amazing multiplayer gameplay of Super Mario Kart (although I was initially reluctant to give it a chance because of its pitiful art style).

Only after I saw that the Mode 7 background plane scrolling and rotation gave the same illusion of space that Yoshi’s Safari had (as opposed to the completely unappealing-to-me fake ‘pictures of a left turn’, ‘pictures of a straightaway’, ‘pictures of a hill’ style of racing game that I’d seen in older arcade games in bowling alleys (like OutRun or Hang On – or Lamborghini on the SNES). Again, it was that sense of continuous movement over space that sold me on Super Mario Kart, much the same as Super Mario Bros. had made me a believer in the side scrolling platformer to create an explorable imagined world.

14 YEARS OLD
My 14th birthday arrived and with the exception of the summer rentals of SNES games and my purchase of the Super Scope and Yoshi’s Safari, I’d been putting every penny away to get a Genesis and Sonic 3 bundle. My birthday night came and card after card had another check or ten or twenty dollars in it until I had just enough to get a Genesis bundle (which included the system, one controller, and one game), with a little money left over.
My family made the drive out to the nearest town that night which had stores that carried video games.
(We had moved from Colorado to Pennsylvania at the end of that summer and lived on the outskirts of a smaller town so it was over an hour’s drive to get to a city which had the stores we wanted and which would still be open late.)
I remember visiting a Radio Shack, Service Merchandise, and Sam’s Club, among others.
NO SONIC 3 BUNDLES!?
Unfortunately, everywhere we looked that night had either a Sonic 2 bundle (not quite what I was looking for, amigos), a non-Sonic game bundle (no thanks), or a standalone console (which, if bought alongside the same game separately cost more than getting them bundled). I didn’t have enough money to get a standalone console and Sonic 3 separately and I wasn’t going home without a game to play on my new system.
Somewhat frustrated, I finally decided that because I would probably eventually want to pick up the earlier games in the series and because there was a savings involved, I would buy a Sonic 2 bundle. I debated what to do with my leftover $15 or $20 dollars. Should I keep it as a head start toward saving up for Sonic 3? Should I try to buy a second Genesis controller that same night? I finally decided on the latter to get it out of the way, knowing that it meant months of extra waiting for the game I actually wanted. In the end, Sonic 2’s 2 player competitive levels were a big hit with my brothers and our friends that night, which is what I’d hoped for, so I think that I made the right call.
WHEN YOU’RE TRYING TO SAVE FOR SONIC 3…

Well, right about that time, as I was saving up for Christmas and hoping for some Christmas money to get Sonic 3, what should come out in stores but Sonic and Knuckles? I played it several times in stores and just thought Knuckles was such a cool character and loved the exploration abilities that he had to climb up walls that Sonic and Tails couldn’t scale – and although he couldn’t fly upward like Tails, his ability to glide infinitely sideways until he lost enough altitude to land meant that if you climbed high enough first, you could glide extremely far.

Sonic & Knuckles is, as many will tell you, the second half of Sonic 3. I don’t know that I knew that at the time, but I felt then, as now, that it had everything that Sonic 3 had going for it with an extra layer of polish on it (albeit, Sonic 3 has better title screen music to my ears).

The colorful stages, the animating foreground elements, the ability to break through different parts of the level to discover alternate routes, the mini in-game cutscenes at the end or beginning of a level to further the story or even things like the crazy use of parallax scrolling to create the planks of wood which form gateways between the huge tree trunks on the final boss of Mushroom Hill Zone was unlike anything I’d seen in any other game before. (A year later, I would have similar feelings about the 2-dimensional parallax scrolling in Donkey Kong Country 2’s underwater ship backgrounds. Amazing pre-polygon depth effects.)

Again, my background was playing with model planes and putting my head as close to them as possible as I flew them around my house or our yard in the village I’d grown up in or imagining what it would be like to be the size of my Lego men climbing up through our Christmas tree. For that matter, during my youngest years I often flew in a small single engine Cessna with my family several times a year, so I had a love of flying and watching the rainforest roll along below me and seeing that infinite expanse of open space. So getting that feeling of things really moving past the character with that change in perspective as you passed them and illusion of space was something that really connected with me.

DILEMMA
I still very badly wanted to get Sonic 3, but now knew that Sonic & Knuckles was also a must have for me.
I may not remember correctly, but I believe that Sonic & Knuckles was $10 cheaper than Sonic 3.
It was that same time that Donkey Kong Country came out for the SNES and I knew that that was also a must-have for me, but honestly there’s only so much that a $2 allowance can buy, especially when you have no job. =)
I saved as much money as I could between November and December and in mid-December I was able to afford Sonic & Knuckles, just as my brothers saved enough together to buy Donkey Kong Country.
We spent that Christmas in Virginia with our other cousins and played both games as much as we could, although there was competition for the TV. =)
THE QUEST FOR SONIC 3 CONTINUES
I spent that spring saving for Sonic 3. I believe that the exception to this was the purchase of a Super Soaker for that summer, but I was a man on a mission. Sonic 3 or bust. By the last month of that school year, I was able to afford my long awaited dream and spent many hours exploring every corner of the game.
Thanks to the barrel in Carnival Night, I also made my first 1-800 call to Sega’s toll-free automated help line. =)
THE SUMMER OF GAMES
That summer, my younger brother and I were offered a job by a kind local farmer to help him pick potatoes in his fields (and later some of his wife’s strawberries and blueberries, if memory serves) and suddenly our capacity to save money went from single digit dollars per week to single digit dollars per hour.
Together, my brother and I bought Star Fox (which we’d been introduced to by our neighbors) Sonic 1, Super Mario Kart, and Disney’s The Lion King for the Genesis.
I picked up Sonic 1 just for completeness’ and curiosity’s sake more than anything, and also because it was only $20 brand new.
I was amazed by its primitiveness and amused to think that it was popular enough to kickstart a blockbuster series which so quickly stepped up its production values. Having said that, though, I still find Green Hill Zone to be one of the most beautiful Sonic levels ever and playing through the game was a series of ‘aha’ moments, realizing that some of the enemies went right back to the first game and that those mid-level bosses in Sky Sanctuary were all throwbacks to the bosses in Sonic 1. I was also fascinated by the slower more puzzle oriented gameplay in Sonic 1 and the curiously ‘early Mickey Mouse’ vibe that it had going on.
So, with that, our Sonic collection on the Genesis was complete. I know that there’s Sonic CD, Sonic Spinball (we’d managed to get this with a mail-in rebate from another game), Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, and (after this point in the story) Knuckles Chaotix but I just didn’t have the money to buy a Sega CD (or 32X). Years later, I tracked those games down out of curiosity, but in the case of Sonic CD and Knuckles Chaotix, I never felt that they were on the same level at all as the main Sonic series. Sonic Spinball is really not a real Sonic game at all and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine is just a rebranded puzzle game which is unrelated in any way.
Later that summer, my younger brother, being the pragmatist of the family (I’m the idealist) decided that he didn’t mind second hand games from pawn shops with missing boxes or manuals if they were 1/4th or 1/5th the price of a brand new game (an understandable position) and this way he was able to afford the Super Star Wars trilogy on SNES as well as Disney’s Aladdin for the Genesis.
ALL HIS LIFE HAS HE LOOKED AWAY… TO THE FUTURE, TO THE HORIZON.
Either just prior to that summer or at the beginning of it one of our British friends’ family came to visit Pennsylvania and our friend told us about Nintendo’s upcoming ‘Ultra 64’ and Sega’s new ‘Saturn’ which was all news to me.
It was exciting news and I wanted to see what the new games looked like. The production values on Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were just so completely off the charts amazing that I was sold on the Saturn sight unseen.
I had similar faith that whatever Nintendo did next would be crazy good.
Nintendo 64 news was hard to come by (although I scoured EGM and other open game magazines in stores in the summer and fall of ’95 whenever I could and then later broke down and bought a couple of magazines with Mario 64 coverage from E3 ’96) but I saw Daytona USA arcade machines on one of our summer of ’95 road trips with a ‘coming to Sega Saturn’ promotion on them and was duly impressed.
Later on I saw a Saturn on display in a store and spent ten or fifteen minutes going through some sort of demo disc which included a playable version of Daytona USA. I still remember hitting the wall in the tunnel and seeing that stock car flip and tumblr and thinking, ‘Wow!’ just from seeing that tumbling animation of something so much more solidly 3D than Star Fox had been.
So, with our handful of games from our potato picking earnings, as my brother put his last savings toward pawn shop games, all of my money was going into a ‘Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn’ fund.
At E3 that year, Nintendo announced a one year delay on their system and made my decision for me as far as which system I’d be buying first.
LOOKING FOR A REASON
I kept hoping for some sign of a new Sonic game for the Saturn. Of course we know there wasn’t one for some time (and even then, not from Sonic Team, aside from Sonic Jam). Somewhere along the way, however, I’d seen a Sega Saturn VHS promo in a store, gotten a look at BUG!, and could hardly believe my eyes at the perspective of all of the platforms shifting as they passed by and the expanse of the pathways as they stretched into the distance. Combine that with some slick DKC-style pre-rendered sprites with a great early CG cartoon style to the character designs (tragic box cover art aside) and I’d found my platformer launch game.
So few stores had Saturn hardware in mid-1995 (in combination with how infrequently our family was near to cities that had big stores), that I was actually never aware of the surprise launch of the Saturn. It’s kind of amazing and sad to me that someone as devoted to learning all I could about the system –  and all-out dedicated to buying it as I was still thought that September’s planned ‘Saturnday’ launch date was still the plan. I’m sure that was partly due to reading older gaming magazines in my infrequent visits to stores.
I’d seen a Saturn demo unit on display earlier, as I’d mentioned, but assumed that the store just had an advance unit as a promotional deal. I’d also seen a couple of stores with slips of paper that had the game covers on them with a pocket of tickets for the game that you could take to the checkout counter and present to the clerk to buy the game but I just took these as a pre-order or something.
I remember convincing my dad to take me to our nearest large city (we’d moved to rural Missouri during the summer of ’95) to some electronics stores (I think this was my first time in a Best Buy) to try to get my hands on a Saturn display unit on ‘Saturnday’ and being confused at the lack of fanfare. Little did I realize that the Saturn had already been on sale for four months. =) It didn’t really matter, since I didn’t have $400 saved up at that point in time anyway and just wanted to see some games in action.
I believe that Best Buy didn’t have any playable games on display so we went over to the local Toys ‘R’  Us in Springfield Missouri. I can’t remember what they had on display that day, but I do remember visiting that store three or four times in the last months of ’95 and the first few of ’96. I know I played BUG! there (and became more certain than ever that I would be buying it – say what you will about how it has aged), as well as Daytona USA, Cyber Speedway, Astal, Sega Rally Championship, and in early ’96 Panzer Dragoon II.
I knew the moment that I played Panzer Dragoon II that it was going directly onto my ‘must have’ list. I’d seen screenshots of the original and realized from that that it must be like Star Fox and being curious, simply on its art style alone.
DISCIPLINE
Saving up $400 dollars just to buy a Saturn with one controller and no full game (not to mention the $50 for 1 new game, more money for a second controller, more money for a memory cartridge, or the money for a Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64, or a second N64 controller for later multiplayer games) at the speed of $2 per week is not very easy, especially when there are amazing games coming out for the 16-bit systems that you already own.
The fall of 1996 saw the release of Donkey Kong Country 2 and Yoshi’s Island on the SNES, both of which were high on my list of wanted games. I knew that I was dedicated to getting the Saturn and N64, but my brother wanted me to help him buy both of those SNES games that fall. With the understanding that he would buy back my half of both games as soon as his allowance would permit him to in order to put back the hole in my Saturn + N64 savings that it would take, I agreed. There are no regrets there as I think that both of those titles are amazing games.
Donkey Kong Country 2 is my absolute favorite of the series and one of my favorite SNES games of all time and Yoshi’s Island is an amazing tour de force for the SNES and FX2 chip.
Anyway, fast forward to the end of my 9th grade year and a few weeks before school was out the guy who sat behind me in homeroom told me that the Saturn’s price had been slashed to $200. This was mind melting since I already had a little over $200 saved up. I didn’t have enough to buy both the system and a game but my family was going to be leaving the country that summer before the launch of the N64 and suddenly my goal of having a new system with me when we returned to the South Pacific was within my grasp. I calculated the difference in what I would have left after sales tax and realized that I could also afford to buy BUG! before we left the country so went ahead and that very same night begged my dad to take me directly to WalMart to buy a Saturn.
I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to walk into our house with it late that night.
I can’t remember whether I had tried to keep going to get it a secret from my brothers or not but do remember that they were in bed that night already when I brought it in and hooked it up for the first time.
Booting up the Bootleg Sampler disc and being able to play demos of Clockwork Knight 2, World Series Baseball, Sega Rally Championship, and BUG! was just mind boggling. And that realtime attract mode of Virtua Fighter 2? Every negative thing I’d seen written in game magazines about the Saturn in relation to the PlayStation went right out the door. Any doubt I had was gone.
I’d seen Tekken in action at the same Toys ‘R’ Us that I’d played the Saturn games mentioned before at and I had to hand it to Sony for making such a symmetric console and controller with decent looking games (I’d also played a little Ridge Racer). At that point in time, though, Nintendo and Sega had proven records in game development and publishing, though, and even though Sony had a massive bank account and I knew from gaming magazines that they were serious about getting into the games industry, I considered getting a PlayStation a 3rd priority behind the Saturn and N64, where I had every expectation that big libraries of great games would be.
I’d heard people talk crap about the Saturn compared to the PlayStation and from what I was seeing in stores with Sega Rally and Panzer Dragoon II and later at home with Virtua Fighter 2, I just didn’t see anything on PlayStation that impressed me as much or more than those games. I also didn’t see any platformer at that point in time on PlayStation, so since that was my go-to favorite sort of game it was just low priority for me.
HEADED WEST
Our family headed west toward Oregon via Colorado shortly after that.
In Colorado, I asked my younger brother to return the favor of the loan I’d given him for DKC2 and YI and lend me the rest of the money I needed to buy BUG! which he did.When we got out to Oregon, by brothers bought Super Mario RPG and my youngest brother bought his own first whole game, chosen all on his own – Astal for the Saturn, which he’d played in Missouri. Both Astal and Rayman were on my ‘must have’ list, so I was happy with his purchase, which was a complete surprise to me when we were in the car headed home from the store that day.
DECISIONS DECISIONS
My Saturn was popular when I got back to the South Pacific and my friends and I spent a good deal of time exploring BUG!’s many levels and Astal’s beauty, and replaying the Bootleg Sampler many times over. I definitely wanted another game, but the list of interesting games already had too many on it, although I was looking for something multiplayer that several people could enjoy at once. I wasn’t very big into sports games (after all if you want sports, we had plenty of space outside) but did ponder getting a soccer game since soccer was popular in our community.
We didn’t have Internet access there yet and no one that I knew had any gaming magazine subscription that covered Saturn or N64 games, so my knowledge of what was available was pretty limited. A friend did have some Nintendo Power issues, so that did fill in some gaps in knowledge.
AN UNEXPECTED BLOW
Sadly, during that first year overseas my Model 1 Saturn just stopped working one day in the middle of playing my Sega Rally Championship demo. My heart sank as I’d spent my entire 9th grade year saving to buy it and was finally making some progress toward being able to buy a Nintendo 64 when suddenly my Saturn was out of commission.
THE LONG WAIT
It had already been difficult enough to try to decide between getting another Saturn game or two or biting the bullet of the long and arduous journey of saving and saving just to get an N64 and Mario 64. Now I had to think about whether I should spend money on shipping my Saturn overseas to a repair shop which would be expensive enough just getting it over there and back through customs, let alone what the repair shop might charge me just to look at it, after which time they might have been forced to tell me that I would have to buy a whole new system, so I sadly resolved to just finish saving up for an N64.
Westerners taking local jobs isn’t welcomed there (or wasn’t at the time) and we were about seven km outside of the local town anyway, so I didn’t really have any way to earn money to speed up saving.
A friend of mine eventually agreed during the end of our 10th grade year to go 60/40 with me on buying an N64 and Super Mario 64 and having my grandparents bring it over to us when they returned at the beginning of the next school year.
I was looking for a cheaper game to buy my youngest brother for his birthday that summer and thought that, given that he and his friends had played a lot of Contra Hard Corps, he might enjoy Vectorman. I’d played it a bit before leaving the US the year past and was pretty impressed with its visuals.
NINTENDO 64
Just a couple of weeks before my 11th grade year began, my grandparents returned with a long awaited sleek charcoal grey system hidden within. After supper with my grandparents the night they arrived, I quietly asked them to get it from their bags and took it down to our game room.
Setting that up for the first time was a blast since I’d kept the fact that I’d gone ahead and bought the system and game a secret, even from my own brothers.

I still remember powering it on and hearing, ‘It’s a me, Mario!’ for the first time.
As I recall, my younger brother walked in right about then, just home from playing ball in our local gym. =)
My friend who had gone halvsies with me on it was still on summer vacation with his parents so I wanted to keep a tight lid on the knowledge of the system’s existence until he was able to use it.

 

IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING?

Unfortunately, less than a month later, in an effort to take screenshots of Super Mario 64, I made the mistake of plugging the system into the wrong power outlet at my dad’s computer desk (it looked like a US power outlet and indeed our US Windows PC was plugged into it but my father hadn’t informed me that his PC also ran on 240. Alas the N64 did not run on 240 (not that I ever thought it did – I thought I was plugging it into 110) and in a horrifying flash of smoke, the N64 no longer turned on. =|
So… now I was out 1 Sega Saturn, 1 N64, all immediate prospects of buying games for either, and I owed my friend half an N64 in cash. I had no idea how extensive the damage to the N64 was – was it only the power adapter or the system itself? Was the Super Mario 64 cart damaged? I didn’t know. Again, I faced the dilemma of whether I dared risk the expense of shipping the system all the way to the US and paying a fee for a repair shop to examine it, only to be told after all of the money needed to get that far that I needed to just buy a brand new system. It seemed like too expensive a gamble, given what I’d already obligated myself to paying so I just waited and began saving money again as fast as I was able.
LIKE A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS
Later that year, the mother of one of my classmates had to return to the US for cancer treatment and after much self doubt and questioning whether this was insensitive and selfish to ask a favor of her during such a difficult time, I finally asked her if she would mind carrying the N64 and its power adapter in her bags with her and taking it to the local Nintendo certified repair shop when she was in the States. She agreed to do so, which I am so grateful for and humbled by.
The upshot was that a few weeks later I got an email from her that she’d taken it to the shop, they examined it, and determined that I just needed a new power adapter and the rest of the system was just fine.
LOOKS LIKE MEAT’S BACK ON THE MENU, BOYS!
That meant that I went from looking at buying a whole new N64 myself (and not owning half of it, after I had) plus still wanting to buy games for it, to suddenly having enough money left over after getting a new power adapter to not only buy MarioKart 64 for my brothers for Christmas, but also buy a blue controller for myself and a red and a green one for my two brothers. My friend also got a yellow controller and, by the end of that 10th grade school year, he and I bought WaveRace 64 as our second co-owned game. Somewhere along the way, I also bought a Memory Pak to use with MarioKart 64 and WaveRace 64.
A New Zealand friend of ours knew some Chinese guys in town who had an Australian N64 who had Star Fox 64 (Lylat Wars 64) and Shadows of the Empire, in addition to the international version of Super Mario 64. We met and let them borrow our WaveRace 64 and MarioKart 64 cartridges while we borrowed their Lylat Wars and Shadows carts until we realized (after they were on the road back to town) that the Aussie N64 carts are molded to not fit into US N64 systems and vice versa, at which point they returned and we just traded the whole system for a week or so, including their Rumble Pak.
OLD WOUNDS AND FUTURE PLANS
I was pleased that the Nintendo 64 circumstances had turned out so well, but remained really sad about having lost my Saturn. It was becoming clear to me now from non-gaming magazine coverage (and also the number of N64 and PS1 ads in VHS tapes of TV programs that US family members would mail to us and our neighbors while we were overseas) that the Saturn was struggling in the US, but it already had plenty of games that I wanted to get. We had finally gotten dial up Internet access and I was able to visit Nintendo and Sega’s sites to see updated game catalogs.
I had a list of Saturn games I was still interested in and also kept an eye out for interesting SNES and Genesis games, but N64 seemed the most hopeful in terms of new exciting games. There were also plenty of other people who had SNESes and Genesises to borrow those games from. I decided that Ocarina of Time would be my next project to save up for. I kept my Saturn in mind, but on the back burner. I just didn’t have the heart to spend my entire last year of high school saving up to replace the system that had cost me my entire first year of high school’s savings. My youngest brother agreed to split the expense of Ocarina of Time with me when it released my senior year of high school.
THE CHRISTMAS OF SHOCK AND AWE
The Christmas of my senior year, my parents pulled a coup de grâce on my mourning for my Saturn. This will go down in history as one of the most meaningful set of Christmas gifts that anyone has ever given me. My parents have never had much money, but because Saturn stock was being liquidated off of store shelves in the US, they’d been able to get quite a good deal and in a combined birthday/Christmas gift gave me a Model 2 Saturn (which came with a slightly modified Bootleg Sampler as well as a NiGHTS demo disc).
I hooked up my Saturn to our living room TV and put the NiGHTS demo disk in before I took my beautiful Model 2 Saturn downstairs to my game room and played that NiGHTS demo over and over and over again that morning.
It was also great to be able to fire up Astal and BUG! after all this time and enjoy them again.
My dad actually let me just play for a couple of hours before he tapped me on the shoulder and told me that he had something else for me. I guess our family like a lot of secrets and surprises when it comes to gifts. =)
What should he hand me but Panzer Dragoon Saga?

I’d definitely had my eye on NiGHTS for some time and had looked at the information on Sega.com about Panzer Dragoon Saga as well. To be honest Panzer Dragoon Zwei was still a higher priority to me than Saga was, but this was still an amazing surprise and to be honest the system alone would have been an amazing gift.

In retrospect, I’m very happy to have gotten Saga when I did and, although I still feel that Zwei has the more cinematic gameplay (due to being on branching rails and being able to control the pace that you move through the level), there’s no denying Saga’s much deeper story or excellent battle system.
For the next week or so, I and my youngest brother and one of my friends were very heavily engrossed in making our way through Panzer Dragoon Saga with more and more NiGHTS demo practice thrown in for good measure.
THEY REALLY LOVE ME
Then, randomly after about half the Christmas holidays are over my parents hit me with more news.
They also bought Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R for me and were just waiting for the right time to tell me.
To be honest, I had more interest in the Sonic World 3d museum portion of Sonic Jam than I did in Sonic 3D Blast, but I’d downloaded a demo of the PC version of 3D Blast and enjoyed it for what it was, even if I don’t consider it a real Sonic game. I’d considered getting it for the Genesis, simply as a counterpart to Super Mario RPG in terms of pre-rendered isometric perspective 16-bit console games.What I hadn’t counted on (or experienced in the PC demo) was the polygonal 3D special stages in the Saturn version of Sonic 3D Blast which are a remake of the Sonic 2 style of special stages. These were (as I understand it) programmed by Sonic Team in Japan. While the draw distance is not astounding and the geometry is nothing too mind boggling, I was still very very happy to see my Saturn doing such rock solid geometry at such a good frame rate.

I only wish that once you had beaten the game, there was some way to easily jump directly into the special  stages as they are by far the most enjoyable part of the game for me. The corkscrew spins in some of them are fantastic and reminiscent of some parts of BUG TOO! or Speed Highway in Sonic Adventure, except without the blocky geometry of the BUG TOO! terrain. I also love the fifth and sixth special stage in the bright blue clouds, especially the sixth one which has a transparent halfpipe/track.

I also feel like these special stages would have made a cool addition to Sonic R if you had save files from both games on your Saturn. Clearly some modification would be needed since the special stages rely on you being forced down the halfpipe and Sonic R’s camera follows you wherever you wander (and there is nowhere to wander outside of the halfpipe) but I’m still of the opinion that you could have some great 2 player gameplay, given some good MarioKart style powerups in the Saturn 3D Blast special stages.

While Sonic R controls oddly when compared to 3D platformers, and Travelers Tales is not Sonic Team, I enjoy Sonic R for giving us a glimpse at what sort of world a fully 3D Sonic platformer could have been on the Saturn. I finally had a Saturn counterpart to MarioKart 64 (even if it has nowhere near the number of tracks) and between my two Saturns, I had two controllers for my 2 player Saturn game.
Only a month later, Ocarina of Time would be arriving at our house after its long journey in international mail.
Before our copy of Zelda 64 arrived in the mail in February of ’99, though, my class had taken a surprise trip to Cairns, Australia for a week, using the money we’d raised during our junior year and while there I bought a couple of gaming magazines with news about Sega’s Dreamcast and I picked up a Rumble Pak to use with Zelda 64 once I returned home, since I knew it couldn’t be much longer. In fact it arrived in the mail that same week that I was out of the country.
Sonic R was the last Sonic game – indeed the last console game of any kind that I got while I was still in high school.
…NOW I TELL YOU OPENLY YOU HAVE MY HEART SO DON’T HURT ME…
By that point, I’d already seen screenshots of Sonic Adventure and could hardly believe my eyes.
I’d spent all night one night downloading a 15 megabyte trailer of Sonic Adventure in AVI format.
As flaky as our dial up internet connection was, the fact that the connection stayed open until the download finished was a small miracle. I also downloaded all of the publicity stills released at the announcement of the game. Amazing stuff at the time.
After returning to the States in July of ’99 and visiting family and friends and renting Super Smash Bros., Yoshi’s Story (dodged a bullet not being able to afford that one overseas), playing Worms Armageddon with my classmate in Wisconsin, watching him play HalfLife, and scoping out a Quake 2 LAN party in Colorado, we moved back to Oregon where I was when the Dreamcast launched.

I hadn’t found a steady job yet so it took me about a month until I was able to find work to afford getting a Dreamcast and again I was stuck not being able to afford the game I wanted right away, but the Dreamcast Generator disc came to my rescue and I soon rented the full game and played through to the Egg Carrier with Sonic and Tails in a single weekend.

Soon after that, I was able to afford the full game and my younger brother and I rented SoulCalibur. That was an amazing weekend and we unlocked nearly everything in Mission Mode within our rental period.

 

3D SONIC IN RETROSPECT

Anyway, looking back on Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, I feel like the gameplay of Sonic games suffered when it jumped from 2D to 3D. The classic 2D games feel like you flow along all surfaces that you come into contact with (save for vertical walls which don’t have a ramp leading up to them) and you have big sprawling levels which are often as tall as they are long. The 2D games have many places to reach top speed as well and tons to explore off the beaten path.
The 3D Sonic games, however, often feel like you’re colliding with edges that you ought not to be, in the case of Sonic Adventure 1, and in the case of Sonic Adventure 2 it feels to me as though too much of the levels are comprised of being shoved down a skinny corridor to the point that I feel like I’m constantly tightrope walking across Niagra Falls or walking the plank over an endless empty void.
I was also not a fan of the forced character changes in Sonic Adventure 2. SA2 is my youngest brother’s epitome of what a 3D Sonic game ought to be (or at least has been so far) but while I agree that it’s sharp technologically and I can appreciate its scale and variety of gameplay, it still left me hoping for Sonic Adventure 3, but the Dreamcast died before that could happen.
MUCH HAND WAVING
Past that point, I haven’t truly played so many of the newer Sonic games.
I guess, for that matter, while I did 100% Sonic Adventure 1, I found it to be completely impossible to achieve all A Ranks in Sonic Adventure 2, probably due in many cases to simply not knowing what time limit or score I needed to achieve.
I always meant to play through Sonic Heroes and while I really liked the overall style of the game visually, when I downloaded the demo on PC and also played the very beginning on GameCube once, I found that the irritating forced character switching between levels in SA2 had become full bore gate unlocking throughout each level so that dampened my spirits somewhat.
When Sonic 2006 was first announced I was hopeful and nearly picked it up when I got my 360, but after seeing other people play it am not too sorry I missed it.
The Wii spinoffs like Black Knight and Secret Rings… I don’t really consider them to be Sonic games per se, but wouldn’t mind watching someone play through them sometime and if I like what I see, playing through them myself once.
I loved the initial trailer of Sonic Unleashed (before any of the werehog stuff was shown) and enjoyed the demo on 360 but never got around to buying the full game – in part because of the werehog stuff that you’re forced to play in order to get back to the good Sonic parts.
Sonic Colors seems like a really interesting game and my youngest brother seems to really enjoy what he’s played of it, so I would be down for giving it a play through at some point. I just need to find the time and get a copy.
Sonic Generations was bought and mailed to me out of the blue by my cousins and I played through it pretty quickly except for a few of the last challenges on the world map and I got stuck on the controls on the Super Sonic boss fight.
I’d really like to finish this game but unfortunately my 360 DVD drive went on the fritz about two year ago.
I tried to like Sonic 4 and downloaded the demo when it was first out, but the physics were all wrong.
I don’t remember if I ever played a demo of Sonic 4 Episode 2 or not.

I never really played the GBA or DS or PSP Sonic games and not many of the Game Gear games either.

Some of the mobile games look decent but haven’t made me sit back and think, ‘Whoa, that looks amazing!’.
I was curious to try out Sonic Lost Worlds on Wii U.
It seems like the Sonic take on the Super Mario Galaxy idea which, if it’s done right I could get into.
I can’t really say without having actually played it, but if I get a Wii U, it’s definitely on the pick up list.
Sonic Boom, I haven’t really paid attention to.
It might not play poorly (I really don’t know) but the character redesigns are a turnoff for me for sure.
No offense to the people involved in the show or game. It’s just not at all what I’d choose to do with the characters.
THE BEST OF TIMES
So, in summary, I guess what I liked about the series the most was the attention to detail, interactivity of the environments,  artistic vision, and unexcelled graphical techniques in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles on the Genesis, where I don’t think that you can find a better looking platformer or possibly even a better looking side scroller.
The terrain wasn’t a bunch of flat lines like in Mario games up to that point. You could knock leaves off of trees in Sonic 2. You could kick up snowdrifts and hydroplane across the surface of water (like Dash does in The Incredibles) in Sonic 3. Sonic 3 took us snowboarding. Sonic & Knuckles took us rappelling.
Whether it was the physics that allowed you to bounce higher off of springs or mushrooms depending on your beginning altitude, the momentum that would carry you up a wall or around a loop, or the pseudo 3D special stages on the Genesis which I’d never encountered elsewhere, they just were such a spectacle to fly through and (certainly in Sonic 3 and Knuckles) a pleasure to go exploring in.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
I have a few main criticisms of the 3D Sonic games (certainly the early ones that I’m familiar with):
1) it doesn’t feel as though the environments are a custom fit for Sonic’s abilities in 3D, as they did in 2D.
2) whether it was the power of the hardware or the imaginations of the team, we lost the feeling of expansiveness in 3D.
3) We keep being given a bunch of distracting alternate gameplay to substitute for a lack of excellent Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles gameplay.
4) It’s difficult to say any more that the Sonic games are graphically unexcelled in their cartoon based art style on the systems on which they appear.
OF A CERTAIN AGE
Even for what are for me the true essence and high point of the Sonic Series – Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles – they are 2D 16-bit platforming games.
If you got into gaming later than that or there aren’t any 2D 16-bit generation platforming games that you enjoy and appreciate, then you’ll be hard pressed to enjoy these along with them. It isn’t so much that those games are so antiquated that only those with nostalgia goggles can enjoy them. It’s more like: “Are you able to appreciate that they are artistic and cutting edge technological showcases of that system which most people would struggle with topping on original Genesis hardware even today?”
Even beyond that, if you just don’t like easygoing carefree cartoon worlds with physics driven navigation which require athletic finger dexterity and quick reflexes to navigate, then again you’ll have a hard time connecting.
 TOUCHSTONES
We all have different things which we respond to that others don’t.
I love so many things that Sega has created but to be honest with you there are a whole stack of their arcade games and home games which just seem generic and sterile and completely boring to me.
Outside of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on NES, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a beat-em-up, so things like Streets of Rage that so many people remember fondly… I just don’t care.
Altered Beast? Nope. I just can’t get into it.
For me, things are all about the way the camera moves through the world and the way the character or vehicle moves smoothly with style through that environment and communicates emotion.
When it comes to characters, that means that I want to see well drawn facial expression – something more common in cartoon styled characters.
The things that I am looking for are the finesse or fit-and-finish of motion and mood.
“What things is this game expressing better than any other game?”
would be one way to say what my eyes are always asking.
“How is this game taking what its peers have done and bringing it all to the next level?”
“Have any other games done this type of physical environment better than this?”
“Is this bringing to life an idea from books or comics or other past media which has never yet been expressed in a video game?”
“Is this game bringing something completely new to the table in terms of environment which I’ve never even read, thought, or dreamed about before?”
Those are the sorts of questions that my brain asks without words.
I guess because of my artistic and creative background, I’m always looking for the state of the art in the expression of ideas and certainly for a time the Sonic games were just that.