We gave you an exclusive first look at this Mario Party-style game last issue, when it was going by the tentative title "Sonic Square." Sega has since settled on the name Sonic Shuffle, and the game is still due for release this fall. As we reported last month, SS takes all your favorite Sonic characters and unleashes them on Chutes and Ladders-style game boards, where they'll encounter 50 mini-games. You can either play solo or with three other players. Better still, you can play against opponents online, as well. The game's producer told us online play will suffer no noticeable lag.
We'd also like to clear up some confusion over the game's developers. We've read speculation online that SS is being made in the U.S. That just ain't true. It's a Sega of Japan title, and some of the same Hudson folks who created Mario Party are working on this game. We've also learned that SS might not be Sega's biggest title at E3; video of Sonic Adventure 2 may be shown behind closed doors at the convention.
Download Sonic Shuffle
Console owners have come to expect greatness from any title that has the word "Mario" on it. Nintendo's intrepid little plumber can seem to do no wrong--whether he's battling koopas, racing around a go-kart track or hitting golf balls, a game with his name on it guarantees fun. It also guarantees high volume sales--a truth that has not gone unnoticed by rival developers. The value of cultivating a company mascot has lead to the inception of Universal Interactive's Crash Bandicoot and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, and where the plumber goes, these two follow. Crash and Sonic started life as heroes in platform adventures, just as Mario had. The success of the Mario Kart series prompted the subsequent release of Crash Team Racing on the PlayStation and Sonic R on the Saturn. And now, the popularity of Mario Party has given rise to the development of Crash Bash and Sonic Shuffle.
Of course, Crash Bash did not provide gamers with a board game layout; its play focused exclusively on mini-games. This ultimately led to a multiplayer experience that was less satisfying than the one Mario Party offered. Sonic Shuffle doesn't take such chances: It sticks more faithfully to the structure of Nintendo's game. As you progress toward a specific goal on one of five different game boards, you collect gold rings, which increase your score and buying power: Land on a red platform, and you lose some rings. Land on a blue platform and you gain some. Multiplayer events pop up now and then, testing your hand-eye coordination. All of this has been seen before, has worked before, and works here, too.
As with most first-party Dreamcast titles, the visual presentation is really slick. A new cel-shading technique--used to such great effect in Jet Grind Radio--provides in-game characters with a hand-drawn, cartoony look. The figures are quite striking, and reinforce the game's light, fanciful tone. The five difficult stages look great too--each one presents a dreamscape threatened by the forces of Void, the game's central antagonist. This evil figure has gained control of the mystical "Precioustones"--powerful gems which have the ability to destroy dreams. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Amy are enlisted by lllumina, a magical sprite, to regain the Precioustones and restore order to the world of dreams. This narrative comes to life in the game's story mode, which gives you a cinema before and after every game played. Naturally, Dr. Robotnik is also on hand to keep Sonic and company from reaching their end goal. He mercilessly steals rings, reduces the value of prize spaces at inopportune moments, and periodically drops a 16-ton weight on players who dawdle.
Speaking of Robotnik, boss "fights' provide for some tense moments. If you land on a battle space or attempt to procure one of the Precioustones, a monster will challenge you to what amounts to a game of roulette. If you win, you are rewarded with a valuable prize. If you lose, most of your collected rings are taken away.
Instead of relying on hitting a spinning box to determine how far you can move forward on a board, Sega's game uses a card system. Every player is given a set of cards. Each card has a number, indicating how many spaces you can move on a given turn. You can use your deck in any order you see fit, and when it is depleted, you'll select cards from other players (without being able to peek at their value, of course). This adds a welcome bit of strategy to the gameplay, and a deviation (if only slightly) away from Mario Party. The boards themselves are also far less linear; you get full control over the route your character takes. Plenty of shortcuts are scattered here and there, and many require a specific character to be taken advantage of. For instance: wall-climbing shortcuts can only be performed by Knuckles; paths which require flying are accessible only to Tails.
Of course the minigames are important too. They don't pop up as much as Mario Party, but like that game they are all easy to learn and play. And since the board is the primary focus--not the minigames--the game is even more like "standard" board games such as Monopoly and Life, and even more friendly to non-gamers. Your kid brother, relatives, girlfriend--anyone typically put off by video games should be happy to try this one out. Big family get-togethers never have to be boring again.
Some will certainly prefer Shuffle's emphasis on the board over minigames; others may be put off by the lack of action. If your buddies are used to the frantic multiplayer action of Blitz 2001 or Soul Calibur, they might not have the patience to play through this. But if you are looking for a simple, eyecatching party game, you've got one more DC title to look forward to this winter.
What's the deal?
Sega and the same Hudson guys who brought you Mario Party are the brains behind this minigame-packed title starring Sonic and company. As in Mario Party, SS is set on themed game boards covered with icons that kick off mini-games or trivia challenges when you land on them. Oh, and Sega's giving the characters that nifty Jet Grind Radio-style celshaded look, too.
So why is it a must-get game?
We got no reason to think SS won't be every bit as fun as Mario Party, and--better still--you can play this thing over the Internet, too.