Friday, October 31, 2014

Ghost House 「ゴーストハウス」

Not every game that leaves an impression has a big, long story to go with it.  Some are much simpler affairs, like Ghost House, which I thought an appropriate blog post for Halloween.

I mentioned in my first Sonic the Hedgehog post a neighbourhood family whom my brother and I spent a great deal of time with. The two boys who lived at the house a few streets over were friends of ours for as long as we could remember, and their ages nearly coincided with my brother's and mine.  In those years, they were one of the first families in the area to own all the new systems and games, and were one of the three places where I had my first exposure to most of the games that shaped my young consciousness (the others being my cousin and the teenager living across the street from me).  One of the unusual things about the family was that they had a Sega Master System, an 8-bit system that attempted to compete with the Nintendo Entertainment System, but remained relatively unknown in the United States.  Graphically, it was capable of displaying many more colours at once than Nintendo's offering, making it a graphical competitor.  However, with only minimal support from third parties, and with Sega only really hitting its stride as a developer after the Sega Genesis was released, the Sega Master System remained something of an obscure offering, but it had its charm.

The NES eventually came to live in the room of my younger brother, who was more my friend, while the Sega Master System stayed in the room of the older brother, who, as one may expect, was closer to my older brother.  Generally, however, we were free to venture into his room to play the small collection of games they had.  Really, the only Sega Master System games that stick in my mind are Action Fighter, Zaxxon 3D, Fantasy Zone II, Spy vs. Spy (a fantastic port of the Commodore 64 version), Double Dragon (featuring two-player simultaneous play and my favourite game on the system), and Ghost House.

While most games came on cartridges, Ghost House came on this cool little card, much as games would later do on the Turbografx 16.  The game's premise was simple and lighthearted, and the monsters were even more cartoony and less threatening than the ones in Castlevania.  For me, fascinated with ghosts and monsters but terrified of anything scary, Ghost House was a dream.

The game's premise is extremely simple.  The main character is Mick, or 「ミッキー」(Mickey) in Japan, described in the game's manual as "the normal-looking guy in the blue shirt" in spite of his conspicuous pointy ears, which resemble those of Sega's mascot at the time, Alex Kidd. Mick has inherited the family jewels, which is good, but those jewels happen to be in the possession of Dracula, which is bad—and which also raises a bit of a silent question about Mick's pedigree.  Mick, brave boy that he is, goes unarmed into Dracula's mansion to retreive the jewels, apparently confident that he can punch his way through whatever comes at him (which, suprisingly, he does a decent job of doing).

Ghost House contains only one maze-like mansion, complete with a labyrinth of doors (that don't always lead back where they came from), and five monsters: a run-of-of-the-mill swoopy Derobat; the blue blob-like Death; the rotund Fire-Blowers; the creepy Mummy, which only appears in later rounds; and Dracula himself, who has to be let out of his locked coffin and defeated before he relinquishes the jewel he carries.  Mick's straightforward goal of hunting Dracula is complicated on the surface by the fact that the vampire has four decoys, but this just serves as a means to give the player five Draculas to beat in each round, since each carries one of five jewels that are necessary for progression.  Get all the jewels, and the game begins another loop, but with added difficulty.

That is, more or less, the crux of Ghost House.  The game is made a more compelling by challenging the player to be constantly observant: hidden pitfalls abound, detectable only by subtle differences in the brickwork; passing a candelabra causes a knife to be thrown at Mick from off screen, which can then be jumped on, collected, and used as a weapon; passing a brass genie-like oil lamp similarly causes an arrow to be fired, while jumping on enough arrows lends temporary invincibility; jumping and hitting the overhead lights causes all action on-screen to freeze; and, finally, the little "?" boxes dotting the area give a random number of points and cause a random amount of life to be replenished.

All and all, it’s a simple game, one which I was finally, many years later, able to acquire the means to play again.  And, while it's basic and repetitive, I find myself coming back to it now and again.  Partly, I like it because it's goofy and colourful and has VERY catchy music.  Partly, I like it because the gameplay is simple but challenging.  And partly, I like the setting—a quick romp through a haunted mansion, taking only a few minutes of my time for a single adventure.  The game's lack of an ending that I can find also makes it a simpler affair; there's no ultimate goal to reach.

Most of all, though, I think I like the game because it's a curiosity, a single one-off Sega experiment on the Sega Master System—though apparently there is a similar arcade title that I know nothing about—a short spotlight for a long-forgotten Sega character and his haunted mansion, long before Nintendo's Luigi got a ghost house of his own.

So, this holiday with its spooks and its candy and its costumes, let me tip my mask to the pointy-eared, normal-looking guy in the blue shirt.

Happy Halloween, Mick.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Castlevania (Part 1) 「悪魔城ドラキュラ」(其の壱)

It would be years before I consciously realized just how heavily influenced my gaming and creative life had been by one game series.  If you asked me in high school or the first several years of college who my favourite video game characters were, I would always give the same answer: Pit, Mega Man, Link, Tails, Toad, and Kirby.  Similarly, I'd have cited those characters' six series, plus Squaresoft's Final Fantasy, as my favourite game series.  And yet, the whole time, I was failing to give due recognition to another game series that had managed to hold me in its thrall time and time again, dating back to one of my first few exposures to the Nintendo Entertainment System.

It was a new chapter.  My aunt, uncle, and cousins had moved, leaving behind their old house and finding a new, larger home in a new neighbourhood.  Their former house was one of a great deal of memories for me: curling up in their empty fireplace (which I never saw used), swimming in their pool, playing with the dog, and, of course, my first exposure to the NES, Super Mario Bros., and—most importantly for the purposes of Videoland—Kid Icarus.  After all, to a six-year-old, the memories of even one year ago were all huge, significant milestones.
There was plenty to love about their new home, however. It was spacious; with plenty of room for entertaining.  My aunt would go on to become the host for most of the family gatherings on my mother's side, and the new house was perfect for it: large enough to contain the chaos of a large, exuberant family and still give people breathing space, but not so large as to leave people feeling lost.
When we went to visit, the older of my cousins had several friends over.  The NES had yet to find its permanent home, and was currently sitting in what would later become a home office, next to a cardboard box full of games.

The system was plugged into a monitor, and it was running something new, a game I had never seen before.

Red. That was my first impression. The walls were made of red stone, and a man in yellow and brown was trying to navigate a fairly straight candlelit hallway, a seemingly simple task that was complicated by a swarm of flying blue heads—with snakes?—that swooped through the hall in a sine wave pattern.
One of the very first things I noticed, besides the graphics, was the music.  A rich base line (well, as rich as could be produced by the NES's little sound processor, anyway), thumped away a moody and enthralling rhythm, a piece I would later know as "Stalker" and call my first favorite piece of game music.
My cousin's friends were crowded around the system, watching as the man in brown swung a whip as he attempted to make his way down the hallway.  In the middle of the hallway, a small window was set near the ceiling, through which the indigo night sky could be seen.  The man jumped, whacked the candle in the window, and a dagger fell out.  Now the man had two weapons to use.  Midway through the hallway, a small raised platform was set in the floor.  The man stood still on it for a few moments, and a treasure chest rose from the ground, while beyond the platform, knights in steel armour patrolled stoically back and forth.
Upon seeing this intriguing new game, I asked what any sensible young child would ask:

Stage 05: My first exposure to Castlevania
"Can I try?"

The request was met with groans from my cousin's gaggle of friends.  Of course the little kid would want a turn.  But then one of them grinned wickedly. "Sure, let him try.  He can have one life."   Slow smiles appeared on the faces of the rest of the group, and the controller was thrust into my eager hands.

I didn't even make it down the hallway.  No sooner had the stage started than my hapless vampire hunter was swarmed by the flying medusa heads, and I, unused to the game's idiosyncratic whip timing, was helpless to defend myself. Snickering, my cousin's friends lifted the controller back out of my hands as I stared woefully at the crumpled body lying on the stone floor.
I would become used to seeing that crumpled form over and over again, because, while I had no idea what I had just transpired in my ill-fated 45-second visit to those haunted halls, I was hooked.
And so, Stage 05 in Block 2 became my first exposure to Simon Belmont and Castlevania, and both character and game would go on to become among my all-time favourites.
I came away from the experience with nothing more than the name of the game: Castlevania, but it made an impression.  Left without a game to play and with my beloved cousins both occupied with their friends, I went down to explore more of the new house, and wandered into the basement.
My aunt's basement would eventually become beautifully furnished, the new home of the extended family's joyously chaotic Christmas Eve parties after my grandparents sold their house, but for now, it was simple and gray, with a cement floor and exposed insulation in the walls (which used to terrify my mother, who was convinced we would inhale fiberglass shavings whenever we went down there). As I looked around, however, I spied a single small window, set high up near the ceiling of the basement, through which just a little bit of the pale outdoor light could be seen.
Instantly I was transported away in my imagination to that gloomy hallway in Castlevania, dodging around bobbing medusa heads, whipping the candle in front of the window and grabbing the dagger that it somehow managed to contain.

It wasn't much to go on, but for a little six-year-old's overactive imagination, it was enough.  And it was all I would have, at least for a while, until a few short months later when my brother and I earned a NES of our own for his birthday (and, by extension, mine, which followed his by a month and a half).
The decision of what to buy was my brother's.  Rather than get a fancy system with the pack-in games of Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, or the even more expensive option that included the endearing R.O.B (Robotic Operating Buddy) and an additional software title, my brother successfully argued the merits of the simpler option, just the basic system. No toy robot, no light gun, not even an included game. Just the system, two controllers, and something called the Official Nintendo Player's Guide.  He then made the reasonable request to my mother that, with the money saved by buying the less expensive system, he choose a first game of his own: he selected the Namco-created and Sunsoft-distributed Skykid, a phenomenal game about which I could (and should) easily devote an entire post.
There are a number of stories to tell about when we first got the system--how my brother's friends pooled their money to surprise him with Konami's Top Gun on his birthday, how my mother came home one day and presented us with Super Mario Brothers because we had played so well together with Skykid, and so on--but the important story for today's purposes is how my brother, upon opening the big box with our NES, magnanimously handed me a thick black book and said, "Josh, this is for you."

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide.

I was already a fan of video game manuals, having pored over the documentation for Kid Icarus, Super Mario Brothers, and the handful of games we owned on the Commodore 64.  This, however, was something different.  A product of the partnership between Nintendo and Japan's Tokuma Shoten Publishing that would produce Nintendo Power Magazine a year later, the Official Nintendo Player's Guide had in-depth information about a select 24 NES titles, plus brief summaries of the 90 games available on the NES at the time of its publication, and a quick 11 more mentioned briefly as coming attractions.  I of course wasted no time in diving into the guide, and got into the habit of carrying it around with me.
The summaries of games like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and (of course) Kid Icarus were ones that I read over and over, but perhaps the one that got the most attention from me was the section on Castlevania—the book was opened to the Castlevania section so often that the spine eventually split at the beginning of the section.

The guide described the game's mechanics in detail, including screenshots of each of the title's items and monsters. The Castlevania series would eventually become a sprawling, genre-bending franchise, but so much of the game's core mechanics were firmly established right out of the gate. Simon had his whip, which could be powered up to a lengthy chain whip through strengthening items, and a set of five subweapons, requiring hearts as fuel: The Dagger, fast but weak, with a strength equal to that of Simon's unpowered whip; the Axe, a very strong weapon which flies in an awkward high arc; the Firebomb (really Holy Water), a glass vial of consecrated liquid that hits the ground with a satisfying crash and immediately bursts into flames upon contact with any part of the unholy castle; the Boomerang, known always in Japan simply as the Cross, a pair of blue pointed stakes lashed together in a cross shape, which flies slowly through the air like a boomerang; and the heart-hungry Stopwatch, which freezes all action on the screen for a precious few seconds, but is completely impotent against most of the game's stronger monsters.
The monsters!  Many of the big ones were there right from the beginning: the bobbing, infuriating medusa heads; the swooping bats; the stoic, spear-wielding armour knights (a favourite of mine) and their bulkier, shield-bearing axe-knight cousins; the fire-breathing dragon skull cannons; the not to mention the grim-reaper himself.  The game set the tone for the series, a kind of who's-who of haunted houses, pulling in monsters from every B-movie available and tossing them all into one giant castle, headed up by the Count himself.  It nailed the concept right from the beginning—every single item and enemy from that first game has gone on to appear in subsequent games in the series, and even the format of the first long entrance hall appears again and again throughout the series.

That last bit is an important point, because the game's title is well-chosen.  The game is not all about hero Simon Belmont (in fact, neither the game manual nor the Official Nintendo Player's Guide even identify Simon by name in that first game; he isn't named until the game's ending, and then with the surname of "Belmondo", by which the vampire-hunting family came to be known in Japan), nor is it focused on Dracula, who doesn't make an appearance until the end.  This game is about the Castle, which is the real star.  Even the Japanese title 「悪魔城ドラキュラ」 translates literally as "Demon Castle Dracula", giving as much focus to the Castle as to its Count.  Later games would even ascribe the Castle a degree of agency, identifying it as a creature of chaos, but the groundwork is laid out here, where every stage takes you to new, creepy surroundings, with each stage having an distinct character and feel.

The Official Nintendo Player's Guide only covers the first three blocks of the game, each containing three stages, covering exactly half of the game's content.  By the time I got my hands on the castle-in-a-grey-cartridge (my cousin eventually let me borrow it), I knew those first areas inside and out.  There were plenty of secrets—life-giving meat hidden away in the walls, places to stand that would cause treasure to appear, which in turn would put you closer to important, point-earned extra lives—and if it was called out in the player's guide, I knew of it.

Just because I had the maps memorized, however, didn't make me actually any good at the game.

Castlevania has a learning curve. It might seem steep, but with only 18 stages, the curve had to ramp up quickly to pose a decent challenge.  And that it does—in spades.  The game mercifully offered unlimited continues, but using one would boot you back to the beginning of whichever three-stage block you were on, giving you a lot of ground to make up. And, truly, that was one of the things that made the game so memorable to me.

Castlevania was the first game to really give me a concrete feeling of getting better at a game.  Other games I had played at the time had shortcuts (like Super Mario Brothers) or had some way to save your progress when you were stuck and come back later (like The Legend of Zelda and Kid Icarus).  Castlevania, however, had none of those things: turn the game off, and when you turn the power back on, you're right back at the Castle gates.
That was part of the game's strength, however, and the feeling of improvement when you can breeze past early parts of the game that were once painfully difficult is palpable.  The early entrance hall was always a straightforward experience, but those bobbing medusa heads in Stage 05 took some getting used to, especially when there were small platforms to traverse.  Eventually I was able to get to the blue-hued walls of Block 3, but making it to the end of Stage 09's bridge and beating the pair of pink mummies at the end of the stage proved an elusive achievement for a very long time.  When, on a subsequent loan of the game, I somehow managed to survive the mummies by a hair's breadth, my brother (who was providing moral support on this particular excursion) and I watched in horror as Simon plummeted into a cavern beneath the castle.

This was new, uncharted territory, the first stage of the second half of the game, unmapped in the Official Nintendo Player's guide.
The dark, claustrophobic colour scheme and spooky music stood in stark contrast to the bright blue hues of Block 3's open-air bridge and upbeat theme tune, Wicked Child.  I dodged swooping bats and slimy mermen and jumped onto a floating platform, only to immediately see Simon bonk his head on a stalactite and plummet into the murky lake below.
My brother and I did the only thing we could do: burst out laughing.  Near the later parts of a lot of early NES games, nearly everything becomes variations on a theme. Castlevania, however, continuously throws new things at you: new monsters, new obstacles, new environments.  Every step of the way brought a new challenge, and required new skills to overcome.

I wound up playing the game's sequel before I managed to crawl out of that pit, and it would be even longer before I managed to survive the fleaman-dropping eagles, bobbing skeletal dragons, and Frankenstein's Monster and his mad cohort Igor who guarded the remainder of Block 4.
The rest of the game worked in a similar pattern. A month or a year would pass, I would borrow the game again and again, and I would eventually find myself good enough to pass through another Stage, reach another Block.  One day, I somehow managed to get past the Grim Reaper, only to be thwarted by the swooping bats that guarded Dracula's clock tower.  When I finally did make it to the Count, in a boss battle that I find challenging even today, he soundly defeated me again and again.  It wasn't until sometime after playing the third game in the series that I defeated Dracula and his bright blue monstrous alter-ego and finally saw the end of the very first Castlevania title.  By then, the series had firmly rooted itself in my consciousness, and it has never left.

There are a number of things I love about Castlevania, but one of the dearest things about the series is its treatment of its subject matter.  I was a very fearful child, plagued by relentless, chronic nightmares that persisted into my teens and made the prospect of going to bed at night and sleeping a fantastically terrifying ordeal.  Anything could set me off—a particularly gory VHS jacket at the video rental store, a Halloween episode of The Hogan Family where a character dreamt the everyone turned into zombies, or even a pair of eyes in the darkness, stalking the cast of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?  Something would root and fester in my imagination, and manifest itself when the lights went out, tormenting my sleep and causing me to bolt awake too terrified to even call for help.
At the same time, however, I was utterly fascinated by ghosts and monsters. My love of Halloween rivalled my love of Christmas (and still does); Jack Prelutsky's It's Halloween was one of my absolute favourite books, I watched The Rescue of Pops Ghostly that worked with our VHS light gun system Action Max over and over again, even without the gaming peripherals attached.

And Castlevania was a perfect game for me. Often creepy but never scary, Castlevania's monsters weren't hiding and stalking you; rather, you faced them head on, whip in hand.  Even the later titles I played, like the deliciously atmospheric Nintendo 64 offerings, chose action over terror. The series, too, always had a dose of lighthearted humour, from the monster movie actor name parodies in the first game's credits to the crazy in-jokes and outlandish creatures dotting the later titles.  Konami is a company that isn't afraid to laugh at itself (just look at the Parodius series), and Castlevania is no exception.  It was the perfect exercise in empowerment for a terrified little boy like me.  No surprise, then, that where my brother had a collection of toy guns in his closet, I kept a self-fashioned whip made from an altar-robe tie in mine.  After all, nothing keeps the monsters in line like a whip-crack to the face.

Press Start to Continue


You know those wonderful games where you think you've finished all the content, only to discover that there's a whole lot more to the story?  Like when you figure out what's controlling Richter in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and then find out that there's another whole version of the Castle to explore?  Or how about in Kid Icarus: Uprising, when you finish Stage 9, and Hades comes along and literally rips a hole in the credits sequence, and the game goes on for another 14 stages?

Well surprise! My Life In Videoland is having one of those moments! It may have looked like a forgotten derelict blog, floating out in the miasma of the Internet, but in reality, it's been constantly on my mind. Life has just been really busy in the last three years.

In the time since Sonic's 20th birthday, the last regular blog post I made, I've done work as a designer, had a stint at a Japanese teacher, moved a few times, authored two books for an educational software company, become a paid artist, sung in a choir, met the love of my life, got married, and then left the country again to earn a degree in Digital Humanities in Ireland alongside my spouse (for which I have my own academic blog). So, I've been a bit busy.
A lot of things have gone on in Videoland, too, some of which beg extensions of older posts.  Kid Icarus: Uprising was released, and actually managed to exceed my very high expectations—and the Japanese developers even used a message from me on their website! (in Japanese, of course!).  Sonic Generations was released, and was a bit of a mixed bag.  I could write extensively on both of these things, as well as on a number of other game series that I haven't touched upon that are dear to me.
For starters, though, considering the proximity to All Hallows' Eve, the next best step for the blog might be to examine one of my favourite series, one that is very dear to me: Castlevania.
And so, without further ado, let the next level begin!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

285 Issues of Power

I just received the final issue of Nintendo Power. This magazine has been in my life since I was a mere lad of seven, and reading the very lovingly written final installment was a surprisingly poignant experience. Nintendo Power has been there for almost my entire life, and I read each of its 285 issues, watching as the magazine transitioned from Nintendo's in-house, map-laden PR machine to an independent collection of reviews, previews, and interviews. Way back in 1988, when one couldn't just jump onto the Internet and download a walkthrough, Nintendo Power was a repository of maps, codes, and guides. I finished a number of games with the help of that magazine, and vicariously enjoyed many more. Even all these years later, I still go back to the first few years of magazines to read up on those old games.

The very final spread of Volume 285 was a comic: Nester & Max; a very touching tribute that pays homage to the monthly comic of the magazine's early days, Howard & Nester (originally drawn by the unbelievably talented 今井修司 [Shuji Imai], whose name I finally tracked down after seeing his illustrations credited in the Japanese guide book to Castlevania III).  Nester, now all grown up and with a son, reads the last issue of the comic and puts it on the shelf before going off to join his son Max for a game on the Wii U.  The comic is filled with references to Nintendo Power's history; the writer and artist (Chris Slate and Bill Murdon, respectively) clearly put a lot of love into the magazine's send-off.  Reading it, I felt a profound sense of nostalgia combined with a deep sense of loss, and suddenly realized that tears were running down my cheeks.  The comic is very touching, and, for me, very resonant. Nintendo Power has, in many ways, been a centerpiece of My Life in Videoland. Which is why, after a year-and-a-half's unintended hiatus, I am determined to resurrect this blog.

Goodbye, Nintendo Power. Thank you for the past 24-and-a-half years. You will be missed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SONIC! おめでとう誕生日、ソニック!

Today, June 23rd, marks the 20th Anniversary of the release of Sonic The Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis.

(Thus the recent focus on the series, naturally!)

So, Happy Birthday, Sonic!  Keep on running!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sonic The Hedgehog (Part 5: 2004-2011) 「ソニック・ザ・ヘッジホッグ」(其の五:2004年~2011年)

I left for Japan in the summer of 2004, bringing with me only the essentials—my Nintendo Gamecube, my Game Boy Advance, a collection of manuals and CDs, and Miles "Tails" Prower.  For the little two-tailed fox, the trip must have been quite a surreal experience: he had originally been imported from Japan, after all.  For me, Japan was at once new and familiar: everything seemed to recall the shadows of old memories, once thought lost in the misty corners of a three-year-old's memory.
The move to Japan may have been a drastic change of scenery, but any culture shock I could have potentially felt was lost in the challenges of living alone for the first time.  Nevertheless, I slowly but surely built a life for myself.

One person who was a great support during the first few years was a fellow English teacher, a fiery, tomboyish young woman who lived in a neighboring city.  Ours was a bizarre friendship: our personalities were so completely opposite that we were ironically perfectly matched.  She was, like me, a huge fan of Japanese popular culture—and of video games.  We would talk for hours about a variety of topics, and we also shared games and series that we enjoyed with one another.  It was she who convinced me to read Harry Potter—and was willing to talk critically about the books.  It was she who told me about Eragon and her dismal opinion of the series.  Together we discovered Tales of Symphonia, 「鋼の錬金術師」 (Full Metal Alchemist) and 戦国無双 (Samurai Warriors).  One of the games that I introduced to her, and that she found surprisingly fun to play, was Sonic Advance 3

Sonic Advance 3 was brilliantly designed.  The story involved Eggman using the power of the chaos emeralds to split the world apart.  Separated from their friends, Sonic and Tails had to work together to find their companions and stop Eggman.  Not much new in the story department, yes.  What was unique, however, was the way in which Sonic and Tails worked as a team.  Not only did they run through the levels together, and not only could they call on one another for support, they also had unique abilities that they could only use when paired with one another.  The same was true for any pairing of characters: along with Sonic and Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Cream were also available to use.  The game was so good, and the play style so creative, that I forgave Cream's presence in this title.  Along with great play control, a fun system, and a clever way to collect chaos emeralds, the game also had polished graphics and spectacularly good music.  The nod to the Green Hill Zone was a nice touch.
And, furthermore, the game had an excellent two-player mode.

With the help of a game link cable and an extra cart, Sonic Advance 3 could be played with a firend (even if the cartridges were of different regions!).  When played together, each player took one character and raced through the levels as a team, helping eachother reach the goal.  If one player was killed, both players had to go back to a checkpoint, which made the going a little difficult.  Having two screens, however, meant complete freedom of exploration: the players were not required to stay near one another.  I, of course, played as Tails, while my friend used Knuckles, since she loved both the character and his Japanese voice actor (神奈 延年 [Nobutoshi Canna]).  We finished the main story after a good day's worth of playing, and my friend remarked that she had had a spectacular amount of fun.

While I was enjoying myself, however, most Sonic fans were growing restless.  They were not entirely without good reason, either: the next big Sonic series title was Shadow The Hedgehog, and it featured the Sonic's black-spined rival as the game's weapon-toting main character.  The game had its moments, but it was awkward to play and exceptionally dark and brooding.  The music was also appropriately dark, though one piece, "Chosen One" by A2, was just fantastic.  The creators reportedly hoped to spin Shadow off into his own franchise, but fan backlash quickly put an end to that dream.
The next release, Sonic Gems Collection, was well-received, largely because it was a compilation of rare older titles such as Sonic CD, Sonic R, and Sonic The Fighters, a Sega CD title, a Sega Saturn title, and an arcade title, respectively.  I found myself primarily playing Sonic R, at last able to enjoy the game's music.

I thoroughly enjoyed (and completed) Sonic Riders for the Gamecube after I got used to the controls, but was unimpressed by Sonic Rush for the new Nintendo DS, particularly due to the title's insistence on adding another new character, Blaze the Cat.

These new characters, by the way, was becoming a sore point for Sonic fans in the United States.  The ever-expanding cast seemed to be taking the focus away from Sonic and making the world unneccessarily convoluted.  Sonic fans complained loudly about Sonic The Hedgehog for Xbox and PS3.  I never had a chance to play the title, but dismal reviews did not have me running to the stores.  Fans also complained about Sonic and the Secret Rings.  I did buy that title, but I found its exceptionally strange controls difficult to use and soon gave up on it.  This all happened on near Sonic's 15th anniversary.  To celebrate the date, a lot of merchandise was released.  I still proudly wear my Sonic T-Shirt, and my Sonic statuette stands proudly on my shelves.

Sonic Rush Adventure, another DS game, was a title that I never even picked up.  I was content with replaying the Sonic Advance titles, the Sonic Adventure series, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles; the original Sonic Rush just hadn't cut it for me.  Sonic's sales were flagging in Japan despite the Sonic X animated series.  After Sonic Rush Adventure, 小学館 (Shougakukan) ceased releasing Japanese Sonic strategy guides (a shame, too; Japanese guides are exceptionally good, and I would have loved to see books for the next several releases, since I'm something of a collector).

The Sonic X animated series seemed to have given Sonic a boost in the States, though: when I would travel home, Sonic suddenly had a place on toy store shelves.  Going to English fansites, in contrast, had now become quite an experience.  Fans were screaming for Sonic to return to his roots, for series to cut out all of the extra characters, for games to feature only Sonic and Eggman.  Sega seemed inclined to listen.

In the meantime, however, 2008 came, and brought with it the Summer Olympics.  The gaming world seemed to explode when Nintendo and Sega announced that Sonic would be joining Mario in a video game version of the Beijing Olympics, entitled 「マリオ&ソニック AT 北京オリンピック」 (Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games).

I was excited, but doubtful.  Sonic would be completing in all of the events, it seemed.  But what about the swimming events?  Sonic can't swim!
When I bought the title and put it in, I was in for a surprise: the developers had thought of that, too.  Sonic could indeed compete in the swimming events, but he wore a bright yellow life jacket and his swimming technique consisted of flailing about in the water.  The fact that it was possible to make him flail more quickly than Princess Peach could do the breaststroke was just hilarious.
I was impressed.
The summer of 2008 was also the year that I was assistant coach of my high school's track and field club.  The timing was great.  I would meet my best friend through coaching track and field, and we occasionally would challenge eachother to 100-meter races on Mario and Sonic's turf.  That game was a workout—it marked the first time that video gaming had ever given me muscle pain!

Gaming had, for me, finally become a social activity again.  One of the most wonderful games to play with friends was Smash Brothers X (Smash Brothers Brawl in the states).  Ever since I saw that Pit would be joining the roster, I was glued to the game's site, watching and waiting for any further announcements about the title.
The announcement that surprised me the most came shortly after the announement of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games: Sonic would be joining the roster of characters in Smash Brothers X!
This was a dream come true.  The hedgehog played well; his controls were spot-on (a given, since the title was overseen by Masahiro Sakurai).  Not only that, but he had his own stage, a beautifully rendered Green Hill Zone.  As icing on the cake, Jun Senoue created a special arrangement of the stage music for the Angel Island Zone from Sonic The Hedgehog 3!

Jun Senoue's composition was also given a CD release, on True Blue: The Best of Sonic The Hedgehog.  Sonic had enjoyed years of great music, and I soon made a point of gathering as many of the Sonic music CDs as I could—I now have a nearly complete collection.  I was particularly happy to get my hands on Digi-Log Conversation, the soundtrack to Sonic Adventure.  And I got it for a good price, too!

Something that came as a bit more of a surprise was finding a manual to Sonic The Hedgehog 2 in a warehouse-style store of used games, toys, and hobby goods.  Such stores are common in Japan, and are a joy to walk through for collectors like me.  When I opened the manual, I was blown away: the manual was bright and colorful, and full of story information, profiles, and concept art!  I imediately set about collecting the other Genesis-era game manuals.  With a good deal of effort, I eventually came into possession of the manuals for Sonic The Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3, as well as for Sonic CD, Sonic Spinball, and Sonic & Knuckles.  All of the manuals are great reads, and all of them are rife with art.  They, along with most of my other possessions, got shipped from Japan, and I wasn't able to sleep well until I had them safely here.

I had a few more Sonic titles to look forward to while I was in Japan, however.  「ソニック・ワールド・アドベンチャー」 (Sonic World Adventure, known as Sonic Unleashed in the US) was a spectacle of sight and sound.  Stateside fans ripped it apart because of the clunky sections in which Sonic was transformed into a lumbering beast-like werehog, but I enjoyed the game a lot.  I do have to admit, though, that the werehog stages wore thin after a while, particularly one stage in which the player has to jump across a series of tiny moving rafts using the extremely temperamental controls.  Werehog Sonic has difficulty with small movements.

The daytime running stages, however, were phenomenally enjoyable.  Playing them well is even more satisfying than racing through the stages of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle.
The music, too, is unbelievably good.  Each area of the world features appropriate world music, created using real instruments.  The violins that accompany Windmill Island were an early favorite, and each of the cities and villages, with their daytime and nighttime versions of their themes, are simple joys.  I bought the soundtrack at the first possible opportunity, and the main theme, Endless Possibility, became my personal theme song during my last year at the high school where I spent the first five years of my Japanese working life.

And, of course, Sega also released a short video, Night of the Werehog, that is both entertaining and gorgeous to watch.

However, while Sonic World Adventure was a great game, Tails plays only a small role in the story, and Knuckles was nowhere to be seen.  Sega soon announced Sonic The Hedgehog 4 as a downloadable program, but I found that game, too, lacking.  Fans tore it apart because the physics engine was laughable; I just found it lonely.  Sega seemed to be responding to fans' demands to get rid of all of the extra characters, but losing Tails and Knuckles is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Fans adore Sonic 2 and Sonic 3; those games have Tails and Knuckles as playable characters!  To me, any side-scrolling Sonic game in which Tails doesn't follow Sonic around is missing a key component of what makes Sonic so much fun.  I think that yes, the series had expanded to give too many characters the spotlight, but I think that Sonic Advance had the balance just about right: I'd like to see a game featuring just Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles.  And maybe Amy, if for nothing more than to keep things interesting.

The years went by, and my CD and book collection grew.  I found Sonic in unusual places, since the character often appeared in SEGA WORLD, Sega's chain of arcades.  It was always fun to see Sonic on a welcome mat or Tails on the side of a coin exchanger.  And then there was the old Sonic popcorn machine that I stumbled across while on a date in Nagoya.

Sonic and the Black Knight was released, but reviewers had already begun to complain about it before it was even released.  I did not buy the game right away, but I did get the CD soundtrack after watching a promotional video.  Drums, guitars, and violins seemed like an amazingly good aural combination.  Say what you will about Sonic and the Black Knight: it has high production values.  Not only is it full of fanart, but the music is just inspired.  My best friend and I made a point of listening to it when he was driving, and he became particularly fond of Camelot, with its seemingly unending series of musical feints.
For my part, I love the references to earlier games, particularly the quiet, contemplative versions of It Doesn't Matter and Believe In Myself, performed on violin.  And the use of the traditional piece Ash Grove as a menu theme was a brilliant choice.  The soundtrack was a collaborative effort on the part of many artists, and their dedication shows.   Both the composition and the instrumental performance was in a class by itself.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I made my decision to buy the game because of the quality of the soundtrack.  Unfortunately, I bought the game shortly before leaving Japan, so I have not had much change to play it.  I am looking forward to taking it for a spin when I can finally hook my Wii back up.

Winter of 2009-2010 brought with it the Winter Olympics, and Sonic and Mario took to the slopes to compete with one another in 「マリオ&ソニック AT バンクーバーオリンピック」 (Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games).  I love the Winter Olympics, and so I had great fun having Mario ski, Sonic snowboard, and Tails break records in figure skating.  I only wish that figure skating had featured music from the Mario and Sonic series as selections to skate to.
My best friend and I also spent a good bit of time playing that game together, though he didn't become as fond of it as he had been of Mario and Sonic's summer outing.

Sonic Chronicles arrived.  A DS game created by Bioware, Sonic Chronicles was a Sonic Role-Playing Game.  The game was fun and the system creative, but the timed touchscreen battle controls were frustrating and really got in the way of gameplay for me.  It was irritating to enter into a round of battle only to have all of my attacks fail, and the precision required for success made it unrealistic to attempt playing the game on a bus, train, or airplane.  Sonic Chronicles eventually saw a release in Japan, but it remains virtually unknown there.

Near the end of my time in Japan, Sega gave me one more treat: Sonic Colors.  It was, at last, a game that seemed to make the fans happy.  Most of them, anyway—it, like nearly every Sonic game before it, has been the subject of much online derision.  Seeing the online community react to Sonic Colors brought to mind one ironic tounge-in-cheek comment by a fan: "True Sonic fans hate every Sonic game."  Cute.

Sonic Colors came close to the sweet spot for me.  The game was lighthearted, and the levels were fast and colorful.  Tails was not a playable character, but he figured prominently in the game's plot and was Sonic's constant companion.  One of the most interesting things that I noted in the game was that the game's dialogue (and some story points) differed dramatically between the English and Japanese versions.  For example, listened to in English, Sonic and Tails are sneaking into Eggman's amusement park, Sonic is convinced that Eggman is up to no good but Tails thinks he has reformed, and Sonic and Tails both take credit for victory by good-naturedly ribbing one another.  In the Japanese version, Sonic and Tails walk into the amusement park as regular guests (the vehicle they enter with is used by all park guests), both Sonic and Tails are suspicious of Eggman's reformation from the start, and Sonic and Tails each insist that the other is responsible for their victory.  Both versions of the dialogue are fun (the jokes in the Japanese are downright hilarious), but you'll need to understand Japanese to follow that script, since the English subtitles were made with the English script in mind.
The DS version of the game, too, was made with exceptionally high production values.  There is an alternate version of the opening movie, the movies are of comparable quality to the Wii version, there is enough variety in the gameplay to keep both editions interesting, and the music is actually of the same level as the Wii version of the game.
Oh, did I mention that the music is spectacular?

I reserved Vivid Sound x Hybrid Colors, the Sonic Colors soundtrack, just before I left Japan for Christmas of 2010.  The CD was due to be released the day before my flight, but the store actually provided me the music the day before its release date.  I had been a good customer, too: my point card was so full that I got a $20 discount on the purchase.  I immediately loaded it into my MP3 Player, and had something great to listen to on the long ride home.  Sonic Colors was the highlight of that winter; my little cousin had also become a huge Sonic fan, so we played the Wii version a bit together at my aunt's house, and I polished off the DS version during that trip home.
Oh, and "Reach for the Stars" has become one of my favorite songs.

My last months in Japan were extremely bittersweet.  It had been great to live and teach there, and I would miss my friends terribly.  When I was packing things away, my best friend came over for one last round on the Wii before I put it in a big box and shipped it home.  We played some 「戦国無双3」 (Samurai Warriors 3), which was a favorite of ours, and then I asked him to pick one last game, our very last to play together before I left.
His choice?

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.

How appropriate for two people who had become friends through running.

We booted up the game and decided to challenge the 400-meter relay.  We had never had great success with the event before, but this last day, we nailed it.  We broke both the Olympic Record and the World Record that were set in-game.  And then, after that last adventure, the Wii turned off, went into its box, and set out for the United States.

Of course, a big part of what made Japan so magical was the students.  I loved teaching them, and even when they were obnoxious, I couldn't get enough of them. Furthermore, my students' familiarity with video game culture had allowed me to do some creative things in class.  For example, shortly after the release of Sonic Colors, I was teaching a writing class to my high school seniors.  Writing essays was not easy for them, but they had to do it for their college applications (which, by the way, are in the form of tests).  Not only did they have to write essays, they had to do it in English.
One problem that was tripping them up was a question that asked them to write about a character from a book, movie, or other medium that had inspired them in some way.  A lot of my kids said that most of what they read were manga (Japanese comics), and they thought that teachers would scoff at an essay about a comic book character.  They struggled to come up with characters to choose whom they thought would impress college admissions.

I stopped them then and there.  The importance of these essays, after all, was to be genuine: writing about something that was meaningless to you would be immediately transparent and would result in a weaker essay.  If comic book characters had inspired them, they should by all means write about comic book characters.  If they could support their ideas and write clearly, their essay would have an impact—and a personal touch.  I vowed to give them an example the next day.

The next day, I came to class with a small bag.  I set it on the table and said, "I would like to introduce you to the character who most inspires me: Miles Prower."
A few of the students looked up in interest: they knew who that was.
The rest of them became equally attentive when I lifted Tails out of the bag and set him on the table.

And I spoke.

I told them how Tails had been awkward; he had always been teased for his two tails, for being different.  I, similarly, had not fit in when I was a kid, and so Tails resonated with me.
Tails found someone to look up to in Sonic, a person to aspire to and become friends with.  I learned from Tails that I, too, should find role-models whom I could respect and trust.  Tails found that in Sonic; I found it in the teachers who put so much effort into my education.  I was set on the path toward being an educator.
Although Tails was always following Sonic, he wasn't content with being a fan and a burden; he found ways to support and help Sonic, becoming a valued friend without ever undermining his hero.  I learned from Tails that it was important for me to give back, for me to help the people whom I so admired.  I aspired to support others, to be useful without being disruptive.  I became a director's assistant, a faculty aide, a team-teacher, a supporting cast member, the harmony in a chorus.  I found that I was at my best when standing at another's side, rather than seizing the spotlight.
Tails admired Sonic, but he also came to recognize that Sonic's strengths were different from his own.  Tails was not Sonic, he was Tails; he had his own unique skills and contributions to make.  Sonic is the wind, speedy and effortless.  Tails is electricity, the flash of inspiration.  Tails's strength was in machines; he could build and design machines on a par with Eggman himself.  Not only that, but Tails could fly.  His two tails—the very thing that everyone had mocked about him—were actually his greatest strength.  I learned from Tails that my weaknesses could actually become my strengths.  I have a bizarre mind; I'll be the first to admit it.  I always have three trains of thought going on in my brain at once.  Connections would form between diverse concepts automatically; I would often get lost in my own imagination and was besieged by nightmares as a child.  I would ask unusually abstract questions about mundane topics and baffle my teachers.  Other kids, understandably, thought I was weird.  But, just as Tails's two tails allowed him to reach new heights, having three mental processes always on the go allows me to look at problems from angles that others may not have considered.  In theater, I was in my own element: three trains of thought meant that I could have one thinking as my character, one keeping track of the script, and one monitoring my acting.  In writing, in art, thinking in a way that doesn't fit in with everyone else becomes the very definition of creativity.  While abstract connections occasionally result in unusually long prose (like this five-part article), I believe that they serve me well.
When I finished talking, my students stared at me in amazement.  They had never before heard someone talk about a fictional character in this way.  The essays that they wrote that day were about their comic book heroes—and they were stronger than ever.  Teachers came to me asking what I had done to so transform the students' writing.

"I introduced them to Miles," was my simple reply.

It has been a rocky road with Sonic and Tails, but they've been good to me.  Sonic's 20th anniversary is nearly here.  I don't know what Sonic Generations will bring, but one thing's for sure: it's going to be a wild ride.

I only hope it includes Tails, because that little fox has been with me during my rough middle school years, as I rediscovered myself in college, and as I expanded my horizons in Japan.  I was very surprised to find, during my first two months back in the United States, that the thing I was most desperate to get from the boxes that I shipped was not my books or my CDs, or even my Nintendo Wii.

It was my Tails doll.  I had felt guilty putting him in a box in the first place, and it gnawed at me as each day ticked by with no sign of my luggage.

Perhaps it's not the most widely accepted thing for a thirty-year-old male to admit, but it's true: my boxes finally arrived a little over a week ago, and the very first thing that I did was frantically tear open boxes until I found Tails.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I clutched the little fox to me for a full thirty minutes after finally freeing him.

Welcome home, little buddy.  I missed you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sonic The Hedgehog (Part 4: 2002-2004) 「ソニック・ザ・ヘッジホッグ」(其の四:2002年~2004年)

At about the same time that I was rediscovering Sonic with Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was being released on the Nintendo Gamecube.  There was no question about what I wanted for my 21st birthday.

I am sure that I would have loved Sonic Adventure 2: Battle whether I had played the previous title or not.  However, since the two titles were tied together so well, I know that I appreciated the Gamecube title all the more because of Sonic Adventure.

Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was streamlined compared to its predecessor.  There were no longer large adventure stages (which I missed terribly, though I am certainly in the minority on that point) or individual characters to select.  This time, players chose either the Hero side, consisting of Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, or the Dark side, consisting of Dr. Eggman and two new characters, Shadow The Hedgehog and Rouge The Bat.  The two sides ran parallel to one another throughout the story, and when both sides were completed, a special final chapter opened up involving all six characters.  The new characters played important roles in the plot: Shadow the Hedgehog filled the gap that was left when Knuckles became more of a friend to Sonic than a rival.  Brooding, mysterious, and yet strangely polite (his referring to himself as 「僕」 "boku" in the Japanese dialogue is particularly endearing), Shadow drove the entire story of the game.  Rouge, a selfish jewel hunter with connections to the government, proved to be an excellent foil for Knuckles.  Each character on the Hero side basically had a mirror image on the Dark side: Sonic and Shadow were focused on speed, Knuckles and Rouge were treasure hunters, and Tails and Dr. Eggman, both confined to strange walking machines, had shooting stages like those of E-102γ in Sonic Adventure, so the variety of gameplay was somewhat reduced compared to its predecessor.  There was, thankfully, no fishing.  Perhaps because pairs of characters now played similarly to one another, each character's stages were unique: there was none of the clever multiple-character level design that I loved so much Sonic Adventure.

I spent most of the summer parked on the couch in my room, controller in hand, undertaking the monumentally difficult task of collecting all of the game's 180 emblems.  This task was made even more challenging because of the game's plethora of bugs: characters would occasionally fall right through the ground to their deaths, and the controls for Sonic's and Shadow's stages were temperamental at best.  I grew to hate grinding on rails or using Sonic's homing attack or light speed dash, since those would more often than not result in a sudden plummet to my doom, due to no fault of my own..  When most of the challenges in the game required perfect, no-miss performance, these bugs had me screaming maniacally at the television all summer long.

"So stop playing!" my mother would say.

"I'm having too much fun!" was my reply.

It was true: never before or since did I find so much enjoyment in playing such a buggy game.  The temperamental controls on an already difficult game meant that when a level was played through perfectly, it felt—and looked—really good.  Finding the game's secrets, like Knuckles's air tank upgrade in Aquatic Mine, was also exceptionally rewarding.

As difficult as the normal stages were, however, getting the emblems for raising the little creatures called Chao wound up taking far more time than completing the main game ever did.  The labor-intensive Chao Garden held my patience simply because the characters were so lovable, and also because being in the Chao Garden was the one chance for Tails to get out of the giant Cyclone walker machine that he was stuck in elsewhere in the game.

For the entire next year, I would put Sonic Adventure 2: Battle into the Gamecube when I wanted to relax after a difficult day of classes.  Even now, I put the game in to run through a familiar level now and again.  The gameplay itself is fun, but listening to that music is also a joy.  Jun Senoue again did a spectacular job.  Each character had his own theme song (the Sonic Adventure 2 version of Sonic's theme, It Doesn't Matter, is one of my all-time favorites), and subsequent pieces of music for that character's stages was in a similar style to the character's main theme.  There was rock, there was smooth jazz, there was even hip-hop with bizarre lyrics.  Almost all of the music incorporated real instrumental performances, particularly guitars played by Jun Senoue himself.  In all, the music was excellent: I quickly picked up Tokyo Pop's domestic release of the soundtrack and gave it a home in my CD player.

That game remains my favorite game of the Gamecube years.  I've clocked over 130 hours on my save file.  On an action game, mind you.  A short, buggy action game.  Amidst all of my playing, I also did some research, and found that this Sonic Team, headed at the time by 中 裕司 (Yuji Naka), that was putting its name on all of the Sonic products, had spent years preparing for Sonic's break into 3D.  They did, I felt, an excellent job, and I began to frequent Sonic Team's Japanese website, even when I couldn't yet read what was posted there.

While Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was living in my Gamecube, Sega also released a Game Boy Advance title, appropriately-titled Sonic Advance.  The game featured a character roster of Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy, with each character playing differently.  The game even had a special code to unlock a Sonic 2 mode where Tails would follow Sonic around the levels.  The gameplay was tight, the music was wonderful, and the animation was charming.  I played that game a lot, and it traveled in my little purple GBA on more than one occasion when I went to visit my grandparents.  One day, I became so engrossed in the title that I took only the system and the game home with me, and left all of my other games at my grandparents' house!

Shortly thereafter, I found myself with access to most of the previous Sonic titles: Sonic Mega Collection, a compilation of Genesis titles, was released on the Gamecube.  I suddenly had a huge collection of titles at my fingertips, including Sonic 3D Blast, the lackluster title whose reviews I had confused with Sonic Adventure's.  One of my favorite features on that disc was the inclusion of the opening and ending movies for Sonic CD; I would sometimes pop the disc in just to watch those movies..

Speaking of great animation, I also picked up ADV's domestic release of the Sonic The Hedgehog Original Video Animation.  Marketed as Sonic The Hedgehog: The Movie, I had thought that the program was a domestic production and would feature original American characters like Sally Acorn.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I put the title in and found that it was a Japanese production, overseen by Sonic Team, and animated in the same style as Sonic CD.  I brought the program in for viewing by my college's Anime Society, and it was one of only two titles seen that year (the other being Please Save My Earth) that was universally enjoyed by the club's members..

I also managed to pick up Sonic R on the PC.  My computer at the time couldn't play Redbook Audio for some reason, however, and so I played the game without the benefit of music.  It was still a fun title, but I would be blown away years later when I would actually hear what the game sounded like with songs like Can You Feel the Sunshine playing in the background.

It was at about this time that Sonic Team did the first thing that truly irritated me.  Sonic Advance 2 was announced, featuring a new character: Cream The Rabbit, a little bunny who could fly by flapping her ears.  Why did the Sonic series need another flying character?  Tails was already in Sonic Advance 2.  With two characters who played very similarly, Sonic Advance 2 lost some of its charm for me.  Add that to the extremely convoluted method of collecting chaos emeralds, and the obnoxious boss fights, and the title became a game that I had little motivation to play.  It was a shame, too: the graphics and music were a cut above those of Sonic Advance.

My collection of old Sonic titles would be further bolstered by the release of Sonic Adventure: DX, an enhanced release of the game that rekindled my love for Sonic, this time on the Nintendo Gamecube.  It was wonderful to replay the game with improved graphics, and this time, there was a huge motivation for collecting all the emblems: a full collection of Sega Game Gear titles and a playable Metal Sonic.  The game's new mission mode was occasionally exceptionally frustrating (such as collecting tiny flags while snowboarding down a hill) and the game was still extremely buggy, but at least I could import my champion Chao, Dash, in from Sonic Adventure 2: Battle to win all of the Chao events for me.

Then, just before my last year in college, Sega released Sonic Heroes.  I had been looking forward to the game since its spectacular preview in the Mario Kart: Double Dash bonus disc, and I eagerly leapt into the game.

The graphics were great, the music was fantastic, and the atmosphere was a bit closer to the Sonic titles of old.  I thoroughly enjoyed playing through Team Sonic's story; the new mechanic of using Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all at once was very creative and the dialogue between the characters was a lot of fun.  The Gamecube version did not offer Japanese voice acting, but the English voices were wonderfully fitting, particularly those of Sonic, Knuckles, and Eggman, not to mention William Corkery's youthful and energetic Tails.
After I finished Team Sonic's story, though, I suddenly found that I had to play through the story with the other three teams—all of whom played similarly and had similar stages to complete.  My patience waned.  I did complete the game, however, and I often go back to replay stages—but only Team Sonic's.

Finally, just as my college career was ending, Sonic Battle appeared.  A bizarre Sonic fighting game (but not the first), the game was notable for having an absolutely brilliantly-written story.  The gameplay was strange, the ending bittersweet, but it was a wild ride, and it helped to even further define the characters' personalities.  Amy Rose, Sonic's self-proclaimed girlfriend, was particularly fun to see in action: her dialogue betrayed a dangerously unstable personality.  Though it was not a traditional Sonic title by any stretch of the imagination, I still feel compelled to revisit the title from time to time..

It was about that time that I discovered the import store Game Music Online (now sadly defunct), and so swiftly leapt at the opportunity to purchase the Multi-Dimensional Sonic Adventure 2 Original Soundtrack, as well as the CDs for Sonic Heroes.  Unfortunately, I could not get my hands on the soundtrack to the original Sonic Adventure, but the three CDs that comprised my Sonic Heroes collection lived in my CD changer during my senior year of college, and the upbeat music helped me to wake up every morning before class.

That was not my only prized Sonic possession, however.  During my junior year in college, I also managed to get my hands on a doll of Tails.  Modeled after his Sonic Adventure appearance, the little toy was perfectly-sized and had a bright smile.  As a grown man, I probably shouldn't readily admit this, but I snuggled that toy quite a bit.  My closest friends in college came to associate me with the toy, but rather than tease me about it, they chose to find it charming (I had good friends in college).  My best friend during my college years, a dedicated video game fan herself, also appreciated the presence of a huggable Tails on more than one occasion.

During those years, the Sonic series was such a source fun and relaxation, and Tails such a source of comfort, that I felt compelled to give the little fox some sort of recognition.  I had particularly came to appreciate Tails during the end of my senior year.  Writing a senior thesis can be daunting, and there was many a late night that I spent huddled in front of the computer, Tails sitting snugly in my lap, as I frantically typed away at the keyboard or fought what would ultimately be a losing battle against my spectacularly uncooperative printer.
So, it was only natural that I include a subtle nod at the end of my two pages of acknowledgements:

"I extend deep and heartfelt thanks to Miles for helping me believe in myself and fly ever higher."

Tails always wanted to be a hero.  Well, little guy, you're certainly a hero to me.