Sonic Cafe series
Developer(s): Sonic Team
Release Date: 2001-2007
It would be no stretch to say that Sonic has been around. Featured in games of all genres and on almost every platform under the sun since Sega’s exit from the console business, Sonic can claim to not only to be the fastest hedgehog in the world, but one who has tried out a ridiculous amount of sports and activities, including some that even his red-capped rival has yet to attempt – and he’s been in more than his fair share of spin-off titles.
Now at this point, you may possibly be questioning how one of the most famous video game characters in history has managed to appear in so many weird and wonderful spin-off titles with very few people having ever heard of them. Well that’s because some of Sonic’s wackiest ventures have been exclusively released exclusively on mobile, and not the kind most people would immediately think of. Whilst the idea of internet access and video streaming on phones in the pre-smartphone days may be an alien concept to many, souped up flip phones referred to as “garakei” had made this a reality for many in Japan since as early as 1999. Notably, telecommunications company NTT Docomo’s ‘i-mode’ and ‘i-appli’ platforms greatly expanded the number of features available to garakei users, including the support for and ability to play specially developed games – this is where Sonic comes into the picture.
In 2001, Sega introduced a new service for i-appli devices called ‘Sonic Cafe‘, a subscription-based program that allowed users to access a library of Sonic Team-developed games, as well as ports of classic Mega Drive and arcade titles, for ¥315 a month. The games made use of many beloved Sega IP old and new, with Sonic leading the charge in 37 of his own titles that spanned a whole host of genres, including some that feature subject matters seldom covered in games as a whole. Few games in the lineup were available outside of Japan, with several of the exclusive titles noteworthy for simply being bizarre in both concept and execution.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at a handful of the games on offer to Sonic Cafe subscribers.
Release Date: January 28th 2002
One of the earliest of many sports titles released as part of the Sonic Cafe service, as well as one of several which thematically aren’t afraid step on Mario’s toes. Sonic Golf is a very basic game (simple games are the theme here – after all, phone keypads weren’t exactly built with any kind of complex manoeuvring in mind) that is actually fairly reminiscent of early Nintendo golf offerings such as NES Open Tournament Golf, both visually and in its gameplay. 9 holes are available to play, and online leaderboard support lets you compete for glory on a national level by sharing your scores. An updated version called Sonic Golf 3D was released in 2006, adding in improved graphics, extra downloadable courses and the appearance of a seemingly redeemed Eggman, who looks to have given up his evil ways in favour of selling Sonic upgraded golfing equipment.
Release Date: March 25th 2002
The presence of fishing in a Sonic game may come as a bad sign to some, especially fans of the Sonic Adventure sub-series, in which fishing stages centred around Big the Cat were regarded some of the most frustrating parts of the entire experience. If the grating sound of Big crying out for his friend Froggy has left you in permanent avoidance of anything combining the Sonic franchise and fishing, you may be happy to know that bar the game’s title screen and a variety of fishing lures inspired by Sonic and his friends, the game is relatively Sonic-free – something of a bizarre trend in a fair few of the Sonic Cafe titles. Simply tasking you to catch the biggest fish possible over three stages, this one’s hardly likely to keep you occupied for long, but prides itself in being a game that allows you to “enjoy fishing any time” thanks to a day-night cycle that makes use of the real world time recorded on your phone, for that extra bit of immersion.
Release Date: April 22nd 2002
Every so often Sonic decides to trade rolling around at the speed of sound for something a little more… laid-back. As a matter of fact, you’d think that Sonic is the last person who’d want to sit down for a relatively slow-paced game like billiards, but then again, Sonic was never one to conform to expectations. Multiplayer support and the return of the national leaderboard seen in Sonic Golf allow you to share the “hustler mood” (as the game’s official description puts it) with your friends, and some kind of RPG-like levelling and experience mechanic help to measure your billiard abilities as you play. Who would’ve thought that someone as excitable and energetic as Sonic would get off on sinking a few now and again?
Release Date: July 22nd 2002
If it hasn’t become clear by now, Sonic has tried out quite a few more sports than most would realise. Sonic Bowling continues the trend of easy-to-play titles featuring some activities generally under-utilised in mascot sports games – the basic, time-killing nature of these games make them perfectly suited for play on mobiles. Up to four players can take part on a single device by simply passing it around and taking turns, which brings to mind the single Wii Remote option in Wii Sports‘s bowling. In 2009, a major expansion on the Sonic Bowling concept was released under the same name, adding in full 3D graphics, four characters with completely unique bowling styles and a mission mode which sees Sonic bowling against Doctor Eggman across 10 stages. Judging by the quite frankly supernatural abilities wielded by Sonic and his friends, I feel deeply sorry for any pins on the receiving end of their throws.
Sonic no Jirai Sagashi Game (Sonic’s Mine Sweeper)
Release Date: October 21st 2002
OK, now I know Eggman’s not supposed to be a nice guy by any stretch of the means, but planting land mines seems a bit out of character for the ol’ Doc, even for a man who turns baby animals into killer robots. There’s no two ways of looking at the fact that Sonic’s Mine Sweeper is, as the name would imply, merely a clone of the Minesweeper game that has come packaged with Windows software for years. Two modes are available; a timed game with gradual difficulty as you proceed through each stage, as well a “landscape mode”, which simply removes the timer for a more lenient experience. A ranking system aims to bring appeal to gradually working your way through the levels, which come in multiple different sizes, but beyond this there’s nothing particularly noteworthy or new here – it does, however, serve testament to the fact that in the Sonic Cafe series, Sonic’s face can be slapped on almost any game you can possibly imagine.
Release Date: April 21st 2003
For the most part, Sonic and Shadow don’t get on, but it’s comforting to know that they both have enough decency to avoid fighting and settle their differences through one of the world’s most athletic sports – darts. Yes, even darts has received the Sonic Cafe treatment. Various score types and local multiplayer serve as the main attraction in a game that, as Sonic Team put it, allows you to battle it out with your friends at darts “anytime, anywhere”. The comparatively clunky control scheme offered by most mobile phones is likely a key reason why slower-paced, more methodical sports are the ones that transfer best to the platform, regardless of how starkly this contrasts with the Blue Blur’s usual affair of going fast. Only time will tell if darts will eventually replace adventuring as Sonic and co’s main venture, and if we’ll be able to watch as they devour Pukka Pies and gradually have their arms plastered with tattoos advertising online bingo. On second thoughts, the moment has probably already passed…
Amy no Page One (Amy’s American Page One)
Release Date: 2005
Amy’s American Page One is one of several card games featured in the Sonic Cafe series, many of which revolve around Japanese card games that western players have most likely never heard of, myself included. Whilst I’m not exactly sure what’s so American about ‘Page One’, a card game described as a cross between Uno and Crazy Eights (you can read up on the rules for yourself here), this particular title is significant in its own right for a number of reasons, not just as a title in the Sonic Cafe lineup, but as a Sonic title full-stop. Not only is this the first game to star Sonic’s relentless admirer Amy Rose as its protagonist, but the only Sonic game to date featuring an all-female cast. Competing in online national rankings earns ‘prize money’, which is necessary for playing the regular game (although an allowance of three rings per day is provided to get you started). The Sonic Cafe website suggests that this is the idea game to play whilst drinking afternoon tea.
Sonic Kart 3DX
Release Date: October 20th 2005
Sonic’s no stranger to racing, both on foot and in vehicles. However, whilst cars have made a number of appearances throughout the Sonic series, go-karts are different territory altogether, one firmly dominated by a certain mustachioed plumber. In fact a recreation of an earlier Sonic Cafe title simply titled Sonic Racing Kart, albeit with brand new 3D graphics, this kart racer undoubtedly lacks the breadth and complexity of its Nintendo-made counterpart, with the absence of multiplayer coming as a particularly big blow for a game of this genre. What is on offer are single-player grand prix and time trial modes that allow you to challenge either computer-controlled players or the ghosts of players across the country who have uploaded their fastest times to the online leaderboard. Whilst Sonic Kart 3DX is far from groundbreaking as far as kart racers go, it serves as a nice demonstration of the technological progression of garakei phones over the years.
Release Date: 2006
Another game in the lineup that lets Sonic put his feet up and take a back seat whilst someone else does the dirty work. Shadow Shoot is clearly inspired by 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog, which saw the titular character starring in a game that tried to put a darker spin on Sonic with guns and swearing, making use of its gunplay mechanic in this interesting take on what would now be considered a running game with continual movement and player interaction to avoid obstacles and enemies. At the time of release, this was one of the more fleshed-out games in the Sonic Cafe series, despite reusing assets from both Sonic Advance and Sonic Battle on the GBA. Some fast reaction times will be required if you want to max out your score and top the national ranking. When it comes to story, this is definitely intended to be one of the more serious and traditional Sonic Cafe games, and arguably the closest to an actual mainline Sonic series game.
Sonic no Jigen Ressha (Sonic’s Time Limit Train)
Release Date: 2007
Whilst less radical than some of the other trains Sonic has had run-ins with over the years, the train featured in Sonic’s Time Limit Train has some pretty sinister intentions, namely to kidnap animals required by its malevolent creator, Doctor Eggman. Sonic only has limited time at each train stop to carefully navigate through dangerous obstacles and destroy enemies with his homing attack, in turn allowing him to keep up with the train and bring this nefarious rail-based scheme grinding to a halt. Quick-fire challenges spread across seven levels offer a bite-sized portion of puzzling action and, once again, the ability to compete on a national leaderboard by uploading your best times and scores that’ll do well to keep you occupied in short stints. Why a train was chosen as the focal point for this game will likely remain an unsolved mystery, but it certainly gains it points for sheer conceptual originality.