That Time SNK Made a Sonic Game
Looks Good in Blue
The NeoGeo Pocket Color has been getting a little bit more love than usual these days. Between the NeoPocket GameDrive from Retro HQ and the new NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection for Nintendo Switch, this wonderful little handheld has had a well deserved spotlight pointed at its adorable little screen, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
The NeoGeo Pocket Color doesn’t have the largest game library in the world, but it’s still got a decent amount of quality titles under its belt. Most of the time, when people talk about this system, they’re talking about Metal Slug, or any one of the excellent fighting games made for it, and rightfully so. Those are some great games. But there’s one game for this platform that has always fascinated me a bit more than most. It’s hardly an undiscovered gem, but I can’t help but feel it gets overlooked a bit more than it should. That game is Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure. (Which I will henceforth be referring to as Sonic Pocket Adventure because who has the time to keep typing that title out?)
Sonic’s new home
Chances are, if you had a NeoGeo Pocket Color in the US, you also owned Sonic Pocket Adventure. It was a pack-in for a time, and it’s pretty darn common to find second hand these days. It was a great choice for a pack in too, because at the time, Sega was almost treating the NeoGeo Pocket like their own handheld to go up against Nintendo. When it was released in 1999, Sega and Nintendo were still very much rivals. Sega had launched the Dreamcast, and was riding temporarily high on its success. Of course, the big bad layStation 2 was just around the corner, with Xbox and GameCube to soon follow, but for those few months in 1999, the Dreamcast was the best looking console on the market, and Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance was still a ways off. With the Game Gear pretty much out of commission, Sega turned to SNK’s handheld to fill that void.
As far as portable Sonic games go, when this game launched, it was the best there had ever been (in my opinion, anyway). I liked the Game Gear games okay, but Sonic Pocket Adventure playing on the NeoGeo Pocket Color felt way more like the console games. Granted, it didn’t exactly look a whole lot better than what the Game Gear had been producing, but the feel was right. The screen on the Pocket Color was also much nicer than the Game Gear’s, and again, playing games with that clicky stick was a constant joy. Even platformers like Sonic.
SNK at the helm
What I find strange is the game’s development lineage. When it was initially released, I just naturally assumed Sega had made it. It was a Sonic game, after all. And Sega had announced this sort of partnership with the platform, including ways to actually link it up with a Dreamcast. But it was SNK who made the game with Sega overseeing development. At first, I thought this was a really cool revelation, but after having played a lot more of the game, it turned into a dash of disappointment.
I didn’t put a whole lot of time into Sonic Pocket Adventure when I first got it. I thought it was cool, played the first stage, and said I’d get back to it. But I never really did. Any time I picked it up for years after that was only to play through that first stage and then move on. It wasn’t until recently when I finally actually played past the first level and noticed something was awry.
A Link to the Past
The first stage just looks like a regular first Sonic stage. Green trees, blue skies, brown checkerboard pattern, upbeat-yet-not-too-upbeat music. Act 2 looks the same, but the music was from Angel Island Zone Act 1 from Sonic 3. Weird.
Then I made it to the second area in the game called the Secret Plant Zone. Secret Plant Zone? That sounds cool… wait a minute. This is 100% Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2, except the music is from Sonic 3’s Angel Island Zone Act 2, which is a slightly changed up tune from Angel Island Zone Act 1, which was playing in the previous completely unrelated stage. What?
As I went on in the game, pretty much every area, including the half pipe bonus stages, are basically just remixes of Sonic 2 levels with random songs from Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles replacing the original tunes.
I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing. Sonic 2 is a fantastic game, and Sonic 3’s soundtrack ranks among the best in the franchise. It’s just… weird. Especially when you consider that SNK made the game.
With SNK at the helm, it was a unique opportunity to see what a different team was capable of with the Sonic brand. Instead we got a very fun and solid alternate universe version of Sonic 2. Is it great? Absolutely. Is it something of a missed opportunity? You bet your red shoes it is.
It wasn’t completely devoid of extra features though. There were a couple of multiplayer modes you could use the link cable for, there was this neat puzzle mode where you used puzzle pieces found in stages to solve a puzzle, and there was even a save feature like in Sonic 3. None of these are groundbreaking or anything, but they’re nice little extras to have, making the game feel pretty well fleshed out. And when you compare this to where Mario was on the Game Boy at this time, Sonic seemed pretty advanced. Mario’s most recent platformer at the time was Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. I would argue that Super Mario Land 2 is still ultimately a better game than Sonic Pocket Adventure, much like Super Mario 64 is a better game than Sonic Adventure, but at the time, putting the two side by side showed off a pretty clear winner. If you wanted mascot platforming on the go, Sonic was where it was at, and you could only get him on the NeoGeo Pocket Color.
The team behind the game eventually broke off from SNK and became DIMPS. You’ve probably seen that name around if you’re a Sonic fan. These are the folks who made the excellent 2D Sonic games fans were enjoying while Sonic Team was off ruining Sonic’s legacy with awful 3D platformers. Sonic Advance, Sonic Rush, Sonic Colors, these guys get Sonic, and they started right here.
There are plenty of great games to play on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but don’t sleep on this wonderful Sonic game. It isn’t going to change your life or anything, but it features some great speed, colorful visuals, and wacky 8-bit renditions of some great Sonic tunes. It’s classic Sonic gameplay to a fault, and it’s an interesting chapter in the hedgehog’s history.