Retrospective: Knuckles Chaotix

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As a former child growing up in the 90s, I remember when Mario and Sonic were the go-to guys for video game-related fun and time-wasting. They still are, I suppose – but in the early 90s, they were a whole lot more prominent, complete with massive ad campaigns and a running war over the world’s game console market.

As it turned out, neither Nintendo nor SEGA won that war, because Sony pretty much screwed both of them with the Playstation. But while Nintendo managed to hang on with the Nintendo 64 and carve out a niche for themselves as a purveyor of excellent first-party titles, SEGA spun completely out of control and crashed into the NASCAR bleachers, killing and maiming hundreds of spectators. The Saturn debacle could be taught at business schools as a case study in marketing ineptitude, but SEGA’s earlier hardware add-ons to the popular Genesis console were almost as misguided.

The SEGA CD system was the first of these disasters, a 1993 CD attachment that sold poorly and should have tipped SEGA off to the fact that nobody was interested in new consoles that attached to consoles they already owned. But SEGA hadn’t learned their lesson, because Christmas 1994 brought the SEGA 32X, yet another add-on to the Genesis that could run 32-bit games. As far as I can remember, none of us at school really knew it existed – and we were exactly the same little shits that SEGA was directly targeting with their ad campaigns.

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Bad marketing decision, or worst marketing decision?

Okay, enough of the video game console wars history stuff. The 32X, despite the general shittiness of its concept, did have at least a couple of interesting games on it, as I learned when visiting the house of a friend from school (who was also the only person I knew in the world who owned a 32X. Seriously, next to nobody bought it.) One of these was Knuckles Chaotix, a game spun off of the wildly popular Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Knuckles was supposedly an echidna, which as far as I can tell is a sort of Australian anteater thing, and he was Sonic’s rival in Sonic & Knuckles, which was and still is an amazing platformer. In Chaotix, Knuckles joins up with a new team of animal-people to do whatever the hell it is you’re trying to do in this game (I don’t quite remember, but “stop Dr. Robotnik” probably covers it.)

Yes, it says "WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD."  Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

Yes, it says “WELCOME TO THE NEXT LEVEL IN 32X WORLD.” Too bad nobody cared to take the invitation.

It really is too bad that nobody played it, because Knuckles Chaotix is an interesting game. It might not be a good game, exactly – but it’s certainly not a bad one, and if you have a friend to play it with, it can be pretty fun.

Having a friend around is vital, actually, because Chaotix is really a two-player game. In some ways, it resembles other Sonic Genesis titles: it’s a platformer with lots of curves and loops and straight areas that let you build up speed, and Dr. Robotnik is the bad guy you’re fighting. However, Chaotix distinguishes itself from every other game in the series by featuring 1) a mandatory policy of two characters on screen at all times 2) who are tethered together by a magical sparkly rope that never breaks. This bond allows each character to “slingshot” each other across a level, quickly building up insane amounts of speed and allowing wild leaps that would never be possible to make with a single character. Characters could also pick up and throw each other up onto higher ledges (or pick each other up for no reason and run around – not especially productive, but a great way to piss off your friend.)

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

This golden tether keeps you and your partner tied together and allows you to build up massive speed by slingshotting each other up curves.

Knuckles Chaotix is interesting for the way it forces teamwork and cooperation between its players. It’s also interesting for how it takes control away from the player when choosing a new level to play (picked randomly by the computer) and a new partner to play with. Each player has seven characters to choose from, including Knuckles himself, his friends (who each have special abilities) and two really shitty, slow characters called Bomb and Heavy that seem to have been inserted into the game solely to piss players off. Unfortunately, you might have to play as these guys, because in order to switch up your team mid-stride one character has to play a game akin to that ripoff carnival grabber game that features a seemingly random collection of possible new partners. You’ll need decent reflexes to grab the character you want.

The strange character select screen

The strange character select screen

So this is definitely an interesting game (how many times have I said that this review? Way too many times.) But Knuckles Chaotix does have some issues that put its overall quality into question. Firstly, the layout of the game’s stages can be confusing – it’s often not clear which direction you have to travel to reach the end of the stage. Sonic CD also had this problem, but Chaotix takes it to the extreme. This can obviously produce a lot of frustration.

Secondly, Chaotix pretty much sucks if it’s played alone. It can be played alone, but, as I learned when playing it a bit recently on an emulator, it’s quite aggravating and unintuitive to control two characters at the same time, even though it is possible through the carrying and slingshot methods. Besides, from what little I can remember about playing this game with a friend almost 20 years ago, most of the fun of Chaotix comes from screwing over your partner and laughing at the general weirdness of the game’s features and mechanics.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork.  Also note the negative ring count.

There are some doors that will only open through teamwork. Also note the negative ring count.

So is Knuckles Chaotix worth playing? The question is pretty much moot because, as far as I can tell, the game was never re-released after the almost immediate failure of the 32X. One might have expected SEGA to slap Chaotix onto a compilation to give it a new lease on life, as they did with the equally forgotten Sonic CD, but for whatever reason they never have. If you want to play this thing, you’ll either have to go the emulator route and find a way to set up a two-player thing around your computer or buy a 32X (and a Genesis, if you don’t own one already) and a copy of the game on eBay. Knuckles Chaotix is a strange and fascinating title, but I can’t honestly say it’s worth tracking down a 20 year-old Genesis add-on for. If, however, you are a Sonic fan with lots of disposable income and you know someone else who actually gives a shit about playing this, I say go for it.

Anyway, that was entirely too many words I just wrote about this game. I blame it on the half-pot of coffee I drank. I’m going to lie down now.

Retrospective: Skies of Arcadia

Skies Of Arcadia

Sometimes I get nostalgic for my old Dreamcast, and when I do one of the games I think about is this one. Skies of Arcadia was released in 2000 and it stands on its own, without any sequels or spinoffs (the Gamecube port with added content, Skies of Arcadia Legends, doesn’t count.) And it’s still one of my favorite games of all time.

Skies of Arcadia didn’t have an especially fresh plot or complex characters or anything like that – it was a pretty standard “save the world” sort of deal, and the characters were, for the most part, either just plain good guys or bad guys. Moreover, a lot of the bad guy characters in this game are of the goofy, sort of incompetent type. SoA did have a nice lightheartedness to it that a lot of RPGs lacked, though, and the characters were genuinely dynamic and fun – just don’t expect any big deep human drama or anything like that.

The heroes of Skies.  Please don't laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

The heroes of Skies. Please don’t laugh at the graphics too much; 2000 was a different time.

But as far as setting went, Skies was unique as hell. The main character here is Vyse, the son of a pirate captain (a good guy pirate, meaning he only plunders bad guys.) Only, as the name implies, these pirates don’t sail the seas: they sail the skies. The whole world of Skies of Arcadia is suspended in the sky, including the land masses and the ships. Imagine the good Pirates of the Caribbean movie, only it takes place a few miles above ground, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on here.

This is your navigation screen while you're piloting your ship.

This is your navigation screen while you’re piloting your ship.

There’s no real explanation of how or why everything in this game is in the sky or how it’s all floating up there, and no indication of why the developers decided to set a pirate-themed RPG in the sky. Somehow, though, it all works. SoA offers the player a big world to fly around in (at least for a game made in 2000) with new parts of the map revealed as the game progresses, all RPG style. Your character can dock at ports, some of which are town areas and some entrances to dungeon/field areas. At this point, you set out on foot.

This is generally when you get into fights.  SoA's combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it.  There are way too damn many random battles, though.

This is generally when you get into fights. SoA’s combat system is pretty standard, but RPG lovers should enjoy it. There are way too damn many random battles, though.

A lot of SoA‘s gameplay is pretty normal turn-based RPG fare. Where the game gets interesting is in its ship battles. At certain points in the game, you will enter into battle with an enemy ship, during which you must choose your ship’s actions (usually you’ll get three or four of them, depending on how many characters are in your active party) against your prediction of what you think the enemy ship will do. Here you’ll have to use some tactical thinking to take advantage of times at which your enemy is most vulnerable to attack and to shield yourself when your ship is weakest in position. You can outfit your ship with plenty of weapon types, including normal cannons, smaller guns that can fire in succession and torpedoes that can hit the enemy up to two turns away from when they’re launched, allowing you to concentrate a lot of firepower at the point where your enemy is exposed to attack. Trust me; it’s all a lot of fun when you actually play it.

Ship battles also feature a lot of "turning point" decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Ship battles also feature a lot of “turning point” decisions like this that can change your fortunes for better or worse.

Later on in the game, you can enhance your ship by recruiting crew members who add special abilities to your craft such as added attack, defense and healing. The whole ship battle thing might have come off as gimmicky if it had been shoehorned into the flow of the game or was done poorly, but I think it really ties in well with the story and the action of Skies.

Also, you fight this thing.

Also, you fight this thing.

Sadly, SEGA never followed up on this classic. I’d guess that it didn’t sell all that well, only that can’t be true, otherwise they wouldn’t have re-released it on the Gamecube with a ton of added content. So what happened? Nobody seems to know. Fans of the game have been badgering SEGA to put out a sequel, or at the very least an HD remake of the original, and SEGA has consistently put off those hopes. I’m not holding my breath, myself.

If you’re looking to play Skies of Arcadia today, you might have a hard time going about it. Both the Dreamcast original and the Gamecube port are currently selling for $150 on Amazon and similar amounts on eBay and other sites. You might notice that this is completely insane. I don’t know why copies of Skies are so rare these days, but they are.

That said, if you have the money to burn and the time to fully enjoy this fantastic RPG, I’d advise you to go for it. Skies of Arcadia is worth it – it offers dozens upon dozens of hours of gameplay and is just a lot of fun.

Or it could just be the nostalgia talking. Either way, Skies was a great game that still holds up today.