Sonic the Hedgehog and friends return to the fighting arena in 2004's Sonic Battle for the Game Boy Advance. Having more in common with an RPG than a straight fighting game such as Sonic Championship or Street Fighter II, Sonic Battle allows for player to build their chosen character's levels, customize battle strategies, and other configure traits that aren't so common in fighting games. The game's storyline revolves around a mysterious robot by the name of Emerl that Sonic discovers washed up at the beach. It seems that Emerl is part of Dr. Robotnik's latest plan to snag the Chaos Emeralds and rule the world, so it's up to the blue blur and pals to figure out what's going on and save the day. The bulk of the game takes place in Story Mode which features plot segments and a series of events to follow, but other modes in the game such as Free Battle and Multiplayer allow you (and your friends if they also have Sonic Battle game paks) to skip all that Chaos Emerald stuff and get right to the beatings.

While there's the occassional map screen and story segments to be found, the heart of the game lies in beat-em-up carnage. Characters battle it out in 3D arenas, punching and kicking each other with such force that a well-placed blow will knock an opponent way across the screen as in the fight scenes from The Matrix. The library of fighting moves are divided into three categories: ground, aerial, and defense. These are each pretty much what they sound like: ground moves take place on the ground, aerial moves must be initiated while airborne, and defense moves allow defense against incoming attacks. While each character begins the game with a narrow array of moves, as the story progresses there are unlockable moves to be both found hidden away on the map and earned from defeating enemies. Before each fight you are allowed to choose which combination of moves you would like available. Each character has certain moves that "belong" to him/her, but Emerl is capable of learning any move that is used against him. This means that it's possible (and necessary) to train Emerl in whatever fighting style you prefer using any of the moves that Sonic and friends have acquired. Luckily the game keeps track of learned skills through a series of menus, so there's no need to take notes on what moves you have and which you do not. Techniques are earned through battles and can be taught to Emerl through the use of Skill Points which, thankfully, the game also tracks for you. The actual battle take place in a 3D arena where your 2D character battles it out with one (or more) opponents. The A, B, and R buttons engage in the various attacks with the match ending at a predetermined goal, such as "first one to nine wins" or "last man standing". Goals are displayed before each fight.

So now that we know how it all goes down in Sonic Battle, who is actually available to play? Let's have a look...

What makes Sonic Battle stand out from other fighting games on the Game Boy Advance is its use of 3D fighting arenas. Battles do not take place in a plain flat surface, but instead occur in locations based on past levels in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Each arena also features platforms to jump on, crates to bust open, and other interactive items. The only drawback to it all is that the arenas are rather small; you won't find the grand open spaces of Super Smash Bros. Melee's arenas here (not that I would expect to, but it is easy to be spoiled by arena size after playing that game), and while the arenas may seem of adequate size, you'll find that it's not easy to find a quiet spot and regroup your efforts. Characters move fast in this game and if you blink you may miss a chance to defend yourself. Thankfully you get to choose your respawn point so that you're not plunked down into the middle of a thrashing when your character regenerates.

Sonic Battle has a lot going for it, and while it's not a classic Sonic game like the Sonic Advance series, it's a fun diversion from the usual side-scrolling mayhem. Like most fighting games, however, it is a classic button masher. There's little strategy to be found in the actual fighting segments; it is the pre-fight technique selection that requires planning and preparedness. Replay value is extended through the discovery of hidden unlockable characters and mini games. Build your levels, prepare your techniques, and you may just stand a fighting chance.

* Denotes a hidden character.


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