Since its debut in 1989, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog series has seen some of the finest monuments of 2D platforming ever produced. However, as games shifted their emphasis to polygonal graphics and 3D gameplay, it began to appear that Sonic's 2D days were behind him. But, while 2D may be disappearing on home consoles, sprites can be found alive and well in the portable market, thanks to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance--a sprite powerhouse that has quickly become the new home of 2D gaming. Thanks to the 2D renaissance brought about by the capable little system, Sonic is able to put on his best sprites for one more spin dash down the 2D highway in Sonic Advance. While the game is slightly flawed due to some imbalances in its gameplay, it's ultimately a satisfying experience thanks to a mix of classic Sonic 2D gameplay, a familiar cast of characters, and new technology.
Sonic's latest adventure finds him heading up a cast of four characters. In addition to the speedy blue one, you'll find the usual suspects from the Sonic series--Miles "Tails" Prower, Knuckles the echidna, and Amy Rose. The game's story finds everyone racing to collect the Chaos emeralds and stop Dr. Robotnik's latest evil plan. This time, you'll tear through seven zones, each of which is split up into two acts, and you'll face the standard assortment of enemies along the way. Skilled players who manage to collect the Chaos emeralds during the game's bonus stages, which are accessed via special springboards hidden in each act, will be able to access a final level that offers a rewarding and challenging boss fight.
Veteran Sonic fans should be right at home with Sonic Advance's gameplay, which stays true to the gameplay of Sonic's classic 16-bit games. You'll guide one of the four playable characters through each zone, collecting rings, avoiding hazards, and dispatching enemies. Your experience in each level will vary slightly depending on which character you choose to play as. While the various acts are the same, the level of difficulty each act offers will be higher or lower depending on the unique abilities of your selected character. For example, being able to fly for short distances as Tails or Knuckles definitely makes some of the precision jumping you'll be forced to do when playing as Sonic or Amy less of a concern. On the other hand, Sonic's momentary invincibility during a jump and the wide arc of attack provided by Amy's hammer offer some advantages when facing some of the other obstacles you'll encounter in the game.
Sonic Advance looks and sounds very good, offering nicely detailed levels and retro tunes. Sonic and the gang's character sprites are all modeled after their current incarnations in the Sonic Adventure series for the Dreamcast and GameCube. Their various moves are all well animated and very well done, as are those of their enemies. Their various idle animations are well done and faithful to what fans have come to expect from a Sonic game. The music in the game is an equally comfortable fit, featuring tunes that stay true to the catchy spirit of the music found in previous Sonic games, as well as the familiar themes for when you've picked up an invincibility power-up and when you're running low on air while underwater. The game also makes use of familiar Sonic sound effects, including the sound of rings scattering when you're hit and Sonic's spin dash.
In addition to the single-player game, Sonic Advance will offer players a few other modes to play around with--one of which makes good use of the GBA's connectivity to the GameCube. You'll find a versus mode that will let you compete against friends via the GBA link cable, a time attack mode that challenges you beat a level's existing speed record, and the tiny chao garden. While the other modes are fairly standard for Sonic games these days, the chao garden is something new. Using the GBA-to-GameCube link cable, you'll be able to download and upload chao between the GC and the GBA. The new feature allows you to interact with your chao via your GBA, much like the chao adventure minigames Dreamcast owners could download to their VMUs. It's a cool feature and one that allows you to carefully monitor your chao's evolution.
But, in spite of solid graphics, sound, and gameplay, there are a few things that keep Sonic Advance from offering the level of polish that would put the game on par with the best games in the Sonic series. You'll find yourself the victim of more than a few cheap shots from offscreen enemies and hazards such as spikes that shoot out from the ground. The game's quasi-3D bonus rounds, which have you falling down a tube collecting a certain amount of rings in order to earn a Chaos emerald, sometimes make it difficult to determine when you're lined up with the rings or out of the path of obstacles. You'll also find it's not as easy to just barrel through a stage by curling into a ball and plowing through at high speed. After getting nailed a few times while trying to blaze through a level Sonic-style, you'll probably end up playing more cautiously.
While it lacks some polish, Sonic Advance is still a strong entry in the GBA library. Its connectivity to the GameCube and retro gameplay definitely make it a game that Sonic fans and GC owners can appreciate.