Sonic Battle (2003)
The steep decline and near-death experience that the Sonic the Hedgehog series went through occurred at roughly the same time that I went to school. From that period of 2003-2009, the series trajectory went a bit like that one really steep fall in Spring Yard Zone. All in that period, you had Sonic Heroes, where the rot started; Shadow the Hedgehog, which I’ve spoken about and has now become genuinely hilarious; Sonic 06, which is infamously bad and which I really must pick up one of these days; and a glut of rubbish for the Wii after that. Running concurrently with all this was the the 4Kids-poisoned Sonic X series. And somewhere amongst all of this was one of the most affronting spinoffs, Sonic Battle for Game Boy Advance.
And it was appropriate that Sonic Battle came out in 2003, the year I started what we call secondary school, because I could hardly think of a better parallel of tediousness. There used to be a teacher in the school, a real unrelenting and ignorant type, you’ll know the ones I’m talking about, and he just loved to dish out lines. It didn’t matter whether you were late, early, loud or quiet – you got given lines to write out for anything. He’d have given you lines for not wiping your bum correctly if he was only allowed to check. And it wasn’t just 50 concise sentences either, oh no. It was 150 of the best, with a sentence that would go on until Christmas. “I must not talk in class as I will disrupt myself and my classmates if I talk in class so I should not talk in class”. You think I’m exaggerating for effect, but this was the way his mind worked.
It was just busy work, stuff they wouldn’t have you do in prison. Even if you were forced to sew mailbags or break rocks, at least you’re producing something or getting a workout. It’s not all in vain. When I used to get lunchtime detentions for being late, I was at least able to write out “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” a few thousand times. Thanks to that, I’ll never forget it. But it’s relevant, you see. In fact it’s one handy biological fact that’s made me look quite the smarty pants at the high-class social gatherings I’m frequently to be found at.
Now, if you had a bit of flair about you, you could turn the whole lines thing into a bit of a gamble. Only scrubs would actually sit down and write out the whole 150 lines, when there was PS2 to be played and Ed, Edd ‘n’ Eddy to be watched. No, you had to try employing some tricks to save yourself on that precious commodity, time.
Some of the more technically minded wags speculated a device of five pens bound together, quintupling the total output with one fifth of the work. Unfortunately these devices tended to give you dreadful penmanship, they were tough to keep tethered, and in any case having even 2 pens was considered a luxury in school.
Then there’s the old-fashioned skipping of numbers, leading 29 into 40 and so on. That’s a classic throw of the dice, but probably the first one teachers look for – especially teachers who actively try to trip you up.
But the most simple, and yet most ballsy of all, is to just neglect the lines entirely. They don’t benefit you, so why should you bother? Because there’s four ways it can go. Think of it as a game theory – if you do the lines, it costs huge effort and time, but the teacher may check them which will save you further trouble. But if you do them and he doesn’t check, it’s effort and time and nothing in return.
If you don’t do the lines and he checks, it’s trouble – but at least you have initially saved yourself huge time and effort. But the optimal scenario, naturally, is that you don’t do them and he doesn’t bother checking. You have won on both counts. So why wouldn’t you put your chips that way every time?
Of course, gamble too far like this and you can get in too deep, too quickly and find yourself in massive line debt. I once bore witness to an incredible game of petty brinkmanship, the type of petulance that schoolteachers are famed for, where one of the students would continually refuse to do lines. This led to the teacher guffawing and doubling them with every single passing day. Not so bad if we were going from 50 to 100 to 200, but the teacher was still giving it large to the pupil after he had passed the 12,000 line mark. He would deliver these figures with a straight face as well. It was all we students could do but laugh. Who’s the childish one in that encounter?
The best days of your life indeed. Work may be a bark for over 8 hours a day but at least there’s no lines or after-school detentions or mitochondrias. And even if I did elect to finally write these sodding lines out, I wasn’t going to get much escape from the monotony afterwards by playing Sonic Battle.
Released at that awkward period in the Sonic series when Sega were really doubling down on having ridiculous plots with seven thousand characters, the initial premise of the game doesn’t sound too bad. It’s a fighting game set in a 3D environment, and the 3D works really impressively for the GBA I must say.
You and up to three opponents dash about the playing field, trying to deplete each others’ lifebars with a plethora of moves and special KO attacks. The animations, voice samples and the music in the game are all high quality and really do a lot with the GBA’s limitations. High praise for that.
The centrepoint of the story is some mysterious robot named Emerl that becomes stronger with, yes, Chaos Emeralds. Of course, it turns out that this robot is the key to destroying the whole universe. Before that though, and in true Fight Club fashion, you send it into battle only to discover that it’s a hunk of scrap, useful for nowt but being a sort of surrogate baby to Amy Rose when she’s not spending 99% of the game talking about chasing Sonic – I believe I already mentioned that Sonic Battle is a product of that highly odd era in Sonic Team storytelling.
The fun with Emerl comes from the fact that it learns his opponents’ attacks by viewing them in battle, meaning you can eventually personalise it from a harmless robot toy into a killing machine capable of serious work. Although it’s completely random when it’ll learn the right moves, so be prepared to waste an awful lot of time waiting for those small odds to favour you.
The thing that crucially tears the whole game down, though, is the flow of the one-player story mode. It’s split into chapters for each character, Sonic, Tails, Rouge the Sexbat etc, and in between the usual ham Sonic dialogue, you’ll have fights. However, the scraps go on for far too long, usually necessitating 10 KOs. So think of the Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat single player modes, but you have to knock down a foe ten times before you can continue.
But it doesn’t end there, because often times, your first 10 KOs aren’t quite good enough. Even a ten-nil victory for you seemingly gives your humiliated opponent adequate grounds to stand up and challenge you again, with just one line of scant dialogue between fight scenes. Rocky Balboa would know he was beaten before these guys do.
And do you know what that teacher would do when he took the lines from you? He’d rip them up, right there and then, right in your face. Now if that isn’t baiting, I don’t know what is.
And that’s what it feels like, when you’ve just done ten rounds with Knuckles and then he springs up and decides that he’s entitled to a 20-round rematch straight away, as if his previous thrashing at your hands suddenly doesn’t count anymore.
It’s galling, and hugely tedious, and it means that unfortunately, Sonic Battle’s good qualities are brought down horribly by its repetitive nature. Give it a quick try, but don’t come crying to me if it brings you back to those grey days of lines, fascists, and terrible hand cramp.
01 May 2019