Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

The Sonic the Hedgehog craze of the early-mid 90’s caused a lot of things: Television shows, parade floats, and, of course, an immense amount of imitators. The “anthropomorphic animal with attitude” template was easy and adjustable enough to create that any game company under the sun could easily create their own in their attempts to rival the blue hedgehog. We frequently talk about the more ridiculous offsprings of this period of time—Awesome Possum, Zool, and Aero the Acrobat spring to mind–but the large number and generally forgettable nature of these titles have caused some to fall by the wayside in the public’s memory. One of the more overlooked ones of these also happens to be one of my favorite games on the Genesis.

The game I am talking about is Socket. I can perfectly understand why it reached such a neglected status, though: It was one of the most shameless, uninspired, SEGA-licensed Sonic knockoffs in existence, with the lead character’s design and name alone being enough to write it off immediately. While the ad campaign for the game was low-budget, it was just as obvious of a cash-grab.

But possibly the biggest reason that Socket isn’t particularly well known is because of its developer, Vic Tokai. While it was pretty prolific in producing games during the 8 and 16 bit eras, it never gained the name recognition of the likes of Konami and Sunsoft. Which is probably why they stopped making games and became solely an electronics company later on.

I could go on about why Tokai is possibly my favorite company of that era and how I think they were able to subtly challenge popular genre conventions, but that would take much longer than I intend for this piece to be. Plus, you’ve probably already seen reviews of some of their best games already, like Golgo 13 and Clash at Demonhead.

Anyway, back to Socket.

Socket himself is probably the definition of an early 90’s video game protagonist, almost cringe-worthily so. He is a cyborg duck, as shown by the literal socket he has for a tail. His ensemble consists of a baseball cap, a brightly colored striped tee shirt, and some pumped-up kicks from which he can shoot blasts of electricity. Unless he’s is in his hit animation, Socket’s face is constantly adorned with that typical smirk shared by all of the Sonic knockoffs.

So, if I think it’s such a terrible cash grab, then how could I possibly enjoy this game? Hopefully this run-down should clear things up.

The narrative is fairly simple. An evil bat mastermind named the Time Dominator (also the game’s namesake in Japan) has started to jump across time periods and wreak havoc. In every level, you as Socket must give chase, fix the problems he’s caused, and take him down. Like most games of the era, the story is minimal—but here, this works to Socket’s advantage. Time travel stories are frequently chastised for incoherent continuity, but the fact that Socket’s tale simply has him hopping from one point in time to the next makes that a non-issue.

Each time period, or world, consists of three separate stages: A High Speed Area, an Athletic Area, and a Labyrinth Area. The High Speed Areas are most like Sonic levels, with emphasis being on speed boosting items and environmental obstacles. Athletic areas are more akin to Mario stages, focusing on precision platforming. The Labyrinth areas are the most unique, though, featuring puzzles to solve and bonus area doors to find that will take you to a very challenging. I think that this division of gameplay mechanics per level is very smart, as in a game like Sonic, the introduction of tight platforming sections and puzzles in between going insanely fast is very abrupt, and while in some levels it does click, there is this lack of preparation you feel upon reaching one. A type of preparation which Socket aptly gives you.

The controls aren’t too janky, and the enemies are pretty well-balanced. This makes the difficulty fair. Extra lives and invincibility power-ups are more common than in other games, for better or worse.

But where this game possibly shines the most is in its soundtrack. Tokai spared no expense in making an expansive soundtrack that thematically fits each world. To do this, they hired not one, not two, but three incredibly talented composers: Fumito Tamayama, Yoko Suzuki, and Shigenori Masuko. There’s no song on the soundtrack I dislike, as they’re all very catchy and memorable themes.

The Genesis soundfont was a very difficult beast for composers to handle, with most games having a very polarizing twangy sound to them. But Masuko, Suzuki, and Tamayama really got creative with their use of it -- the upbeat clapping of Emerald Forest, the eerie yet heavy-beated Olein Cavern, and the magical bell chimes of Special Zone 2 are just a few examples of this.

On top of having such an inventive soundtrack, Socket also features an incredibly unique gameplay mechanic. This comes in the form of its life energy system. Since Socket is a robot, he is unable to go on for so long without charging himself with electricity. So rather than your usual timer on the upper lefthand corner of the screen, Socket’s life energy dwindles down over time. To make this mechanic more believable, Socket also loses energy upon attacking enemies or receiving damage from them/environmental hazards. This has been cited as the main issue with the game, but I feel it brings something that many games lack: a sense of urgency.

Sure, Sonic the Hedgehog always claims he’s “gotta go fast,” but rarely in his games does he truly need to. While going fast in Sonic feels more like an adrenaline-boosting increase of pace, going fast in Socket feels integral to surviving.  There are lightning bolt icons scattered throughout each level, and they can provide you with additional energy, but as they do not respawn they’re limited resources. So if there is one thing I could applaud the developers for the most, this energy system would be it.

For these reasons, I think that Socket is a cut above the rest of the Genesis games marketed to compete against Sonic, even if that’s a position people feel Rocket Knight Adventures will consistently take. I guess you could say that it’s a great book despite having one of the most garish, shameless, and mockable covers in 16-bit history. For collectors, the game isn’t particularly easy to find in the wild, but a CiB copy is very cheap.  So go get it already!

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Jared Ettinger is a video game guy who hosts a weekly radio show about chiptunes and gaming news called Pixel Pizza. You can follow him on Twitter @mrjettinger if you want.