For fans of classic console games, or for those who missed the entire life span of the Sega Genesis console, the Sega Smash Pack for the Game Boy Advance offers a unique chance to experience three of Sega's lesser-known hits. Published by THQ and developed by CodeFire, the compilation includes Ecco the Dolphin, Golden Axe, and Sonic Spinball. The games stand the test of time fairly well, but there are a few shortcuts and inaccuracies with the conversions that ultimately diminish the compilation's overall value.
From the selection menu, the first game you'll have the opportunity to play is Ecco the Dolphin. You assume the role of a bottle-nosed dolphin that has to rescue his friends from an invading alien parasite. It's your typical side-scrolling adventure game, except that you swim through the water and bash enemies with Ecco's durable nose. Two of the more fun things you can do include leaping out of the water to replenish Ecco's oxygen supply and using his upgraded sonar to cook the evil jellyfish and sharks that lurk underwater. The game includes 28 levels, all of which are pretty varied. Some have puzzles to solve, others are races against the clock, and there are even a few with bosses to defeat. Graphically, Ecco the Dolphin remains impressive to this day. The blue ocean and tropical backgrounds convey the mammoth scope of the underwater world, while Ecco himself moves with a considerable amount of grace and fluidity. Unfortunately, the awesome soundtrack that accompanied the Genesis version of the game didn't survive the transition. In its place is a single tune that loops the entire length of the game.
Golden Axe is the second game on the cartridge. It's a side-scrolling beat-'em-up with a medieval flavor. There are eight stages in all, and your basic objective is to slay every enemy before you run out of continues. You have three playable characters to choose from, and they differ in terms of speed, strength, and magical ability. Strangely enough, Golden Axe isn't just the oldest game in the compilation; it's also the most flawed. A number of graphical effects are absent that were once a part of the original game. Rivers no longer possess their animated wave motion, and day-to-night transitions no longer cycle from sunny orange to dim blue. Gameplay is somewhat problematic as well. Moves don't execute as quickly as they did in the original game, and it's now impossible to tag two enemies with a single attack. You can still make it through to the end, but it's pretty frustrating to be unable to execute combos or throws without incurring massive retaliation. Besides the standard arcade mode, there's also a battle mode where you can face off against monsters in an arena and a two-player head-to-head mode where you can link up with friends using a link cable.
The last game included in the Sega Smash Pack is Sonic Spinball, which is considered the black sheep of the Sonic series. Instead of the side-scrolling stages and platform gameplay typically associated with the franchise, Sonic Spinball is basically a pinball game with a few exploratory elements. There are four different tables in which you use the flippers to launch Sonic into targets, just as you would in a standard game of pinball. The tables are pretty large, however, and full of secret areas. In some spots, Sonic will actually land on his feet so that you can move him around and make him jump over obstacles, as you would in a traditional action game. Surprisingly, Sonic Spinball is the most accurate re-creation of the three games included in the compilation. The music is upbeat and full of typical Sonic tunes, and the animation is remarkably fast.
Other than the aforementioned problems with Golden Axe and the complete removal of the soundtrack from Ecco the Dolphin, all three games are pretty much identical to their Sega Genesis counterparts. CodeFire used the original artwork and audio assets to re-create the games from scratch. As such, they're not quite as colorful as modern GBA games, though they do reflect the ability of the older Sega Genesis to litter the screen with large character sprites. The viewable screen area is cropped due to the GBA's lower resolution, but that doesn't pose significant problems in any of the included games. Audio quality is mostly on target as well. The volume level for digital sound samples is too loud, but generally the sound effects are crisp and clear. Some of you may remember the controversy that erupted over the garbled audio in the Sega Dreamcast version of the Smash Pack. Thankfully, the GBA version doesn't exhibit the same butchery.
All told, the Sega Smash Pack for the Game Boy Advance could have been better than the final product that THQ shipped to stores. Nevertheless, at roughly $10 per game, the compilation is still rather attractive. The problems evident in Golden Axe are unfortunate, but it's still quite playable. Likewise, the removal of the entire soundtrack from Ecco the Dolphin is shameful, but its absence doesn't spoil what is otherwise a terrific game. The biggest surprise, however, is Sonic Spinball, which has the kind of sporadic gameplay that's more addictive on handhelds than consoles.