Sega’s Megadrive 32X. Hands up if you remember it. Now hands up if you ever owned one. My condolences to the two of you.
The 32X came about at a time when Sega, after living upon a tower of extreme complacency for the past few years, found the Megadrive’s 16 bit rule was coming to an end with frightening announcements of Playstations, Jaguars and other 32 bit powered hardware.
A department of Sega Japan, in conjunction with Sega of America, were ordered to design a 32 bit add-on for the Megadrive, and this would become the 32X. Bizarrely, however, another section of Sega Japan were also working on what would eventually become the Saturn – a superior 32-bit CD format. Interestingly, this was done in secret, completely unbeknownst to Sega of America while they beavered away on the 32X. This famously weird manoeuvre was completed in style by Sega’s somewhat suicidal decision to release both consoles at roughly the very same time.
The result? The 32X, with its old-fashioned cartridge format, rather laughable operating procedure (two power supplies, an extra video cable, and even some wacky anti-magnetic clips to keep it held snugly in the Megadrive cartridge slot) and poor software support from the get go, was dead before it started – losing to the Saturn, which in turn was obliterated by the Playstation and Nintendo 64. A sad tale at the time, but an excellent proposition for retro collectors with failing cash supplies; fairly cheap to pick up, and only about six good games before you can call your collection “complete”!
Chaotix, then. The only existing 32 bit, two-dimensional Sonic game. But a Sonic game without Sonic. And a Sonic game sold on a gimmick. Initially panned at release – generally because Sonic fans wanted more Sonic, and less Knuckles – the game fell into quick obscurity helped in no small part by the short shelf life of the 32X. This is a shame because, once you look beyond its flaws, a tricky and intelligent platform adventure with a unique twist lies within.
Imagine a world in which you’re permanently attached to a companion by a mysterious elastic-like band of energy. When you move, they have to follow, when you jump, they jump. A nightmarish proposition and, indeed, the very core of Chaotix’s gameplay. So does it work? Hmm…sort of. When you get the hang of it, Chaotix is actually quite a wild ride.
Controlling the two characters simultaneously, bound together by one of Dr. Robotnik’s evil experiments, the player must learn to use this disaster to their advantage, namely by creating tension in the link to supply momentum to run faster, clear obstacles, and progress up platforms.
The physics engine that supplies this unique style of movement was a brave endeavour by Sega, and admittedly isn’t always one that pays off. The structure of the game’s levels is rather different to standard Sonic fare, with everything having to be far more spaced out to allow the bouncing, spinning (often out of control) twosome to rebound around the levels. Frustration will often come by becoming stuck either above or below where you want to be, mashing the buttons desperately to make the characters gain the movement necessary to progress. Then there’s the constant risk of smashing clumsily into enemies (of which there are, wisely, also a lot less than usual) and losing a large amount of rings unfairly. Careening around randomly is something you’ll be spending a lot of time doing, and it’s fun at first, until you actually become bent on getting somewhere and trying to collect all the Chaos Rings (this instalment’s replacement for the classic Chaos Emeralds). Progress can become slow and frustrating, but after a while, when perhaps no longer judged simply as a “Sonic game”, Chaotix starts to get under your skin, and makes its subtleties known. I’d never promise you that true mastery of the crazy system is possible, but you’ll certainly begin to smile the first time you send your mammals speeding off in the right direction, clear a loop, kill an enemy, spin hectically through space and then make a neat, balletic landing at the level exit sign. That’s Sonic to the power of two, and then some!
And then, gameplay considerations put aside, as a 32X showcase title, Chaotix is a must for any collector. The 32X’s new range of colours is shown off fully, with every new level – chosen at random – taking place at a different time of day, resulting effectively in around four different colour palettes per stage (and there are about 30 of them!). This gives the game a real feeling of uniqueness on every play through. Sprite scaling is also used to hilarious effect – new powerups allow characters to shrink to a tiny size or grow into an enormous pixellated monstrosity. Then there’s the bonus stage…
Placed inside a fully 3D world, your character must collect blue spheres (a la Sonic 3), but this time, running up the walls causes the tunnel to rotate with the player, creating an immensely challenging, gravity-defying experience that often ends in falling – swearing and throwing your controller across the room – out of the bottom of the tunnel. Never has a Sonic special stage required such a devilish combination of planning and reflexes.
At the end of the day, Chaotix was a brave new idea, almost well executed but just missing that extra round of playtesting (probably due to being rushed out for the console’s ironically untimely release!) needed to make it a bona fide masterpiece. In addition to this failing, there were never enough people in possession of the hardware to play it, anyway.
Sega – release Chaotix on the next Sonic Compilation so the whole world can enjoy the elasticated eccentricities of this flawed, forgotten classic!
Copyright © 2006 Peter Michael Gothard