With apologies to the Retro Pals for stealing their mascot platformer bit, they've covered Socket in their Mascot Friday series of streams.
You can't show Gaming Hell a game with an electric duck and expect us not to look into it!
Also, we don't own a copy of Socket so we're doing this on emulator. No re-releases for it, don't you know.
It is the '90s, and there is time for the mascot platformer. All the mascot platformers.
Here's one from our pals at VIC Tokai, one that doesn't star a witch or a reanimated corpse.
VIC Tokai had a fair few platformers under their belt, including the unofficial Kid Kool trilogy (Kid Kool, Psycho Fox and Decap Attack / Magical Flying Hat Turbo Adventure), the Metroidvania Clash at Demonshead / Dengeki Big Bang!, and
Mega Man with witches completely original platformer The Krion Conquest / Magical Doropie. Depending on your standpoint on the hotly-debated subject of what is and isn't a mascot platformer, though, these all came out before the animal mascot boom ushered in by Sonic the Hedgehog, and with the possible exception of Chuck D. Head, feel they're lacking in that all-important element, 'tude. Long after these efforts, though, VIC Tokai would go after Sega's favourite hedgehog son aggressively, with the release of Socket (known in Japan as- no, not making this up- Time Dominator 1st). Here we go, the quintessential mascot character- he's an animal (in this case, a robo-duck)! He's wearing a baseball cap! He folds his arms and grins when he's left standing still! Now that's a mascot you can depend on for a good old-fashioned jump-around, although we must voice our concerns about the electric plug coming out of his jacksy.
With no in-game intro to speak of, and no English manual to hand- surprisingly, this is one that only saw a release in Japan and the US, not Europe- we'll have to work from the little blurb of English found on the back of the Japanese manual. I feel I must present at least the first line in full: "It is the year 2902. It has not been a very good year and things appear to be getting worse" (feel free to replace 2902 with your year of choice). The Time Dominator of the Japanese title isn't our hero, but the villain, an evil ruler who's been travelling back and forth through time, stealing treasures and goods from the past, messing with the flow of time. The Time Warp Patrol, concerned about the damage done to the time stream, send our hero Socket (Minutes in the Japanese version) off on his mission, to travel through time, encompassing 21 stages across 7 worlds, and destroy the Time Dominaotr before he can do any more damage to the flow of time. Run! Jump! Kick! For such moves are the essence of this electricity-powered robo-duck.
Now, looking at the screenshots before you, I know what you're thinking, and yes, this is absolutely, 100% a Sonic the Hedgehog clone. One of the more brazen, to be honest! The appearance of half-pipes and loop-de-loops is especially galling, but the mechanics and general feel of the game are quite different. For a start, Socket has collectibles similar to Sonic's rings in the form of lightning bolts, but rather than drop them when hit, they add to Socket's energy meter. He's an electro-robo-duck after all, so he's running off electricity in the form of a meter at the bottom of screen that's constantly draining, Adventure Island-style. Luckily, we're not playing by Bubsy rules, so Socket can take a few hits, just knocking a few pegs off his meter, and generally the rate of energy loss is quite generous. The problem here is, as we'll see, some of the levels are not designed to be as friendly with this energy meter in mind, focusing on exploration and limiting you to a finite source of electricity (unlike Adventure Island, where you're always moving forward and food is always spawning), and also that it does that incredibly annoying thing of beeping like a shrill car alarm or a dying Tamagotchi when it's starting to get low. I know, I know, Socket, that it's low. I am aware, video game, please don't.
Ahem. The other big change is that Socket is a two-button game as opposed to Sonic's one-button setup, with a jump and a kick button. On the surface, this presents its own problem from the off- one of the things a lot of Sonic clones get wrong is that they focus on speed but forget that Sonic's jump also being his attack helps to facilitate going fast a lot easier than any sort of standard attack. Socket kinda gets away with it, just about- kicking works different from how you'd think, as it kicks out a lightning bolt in front of Socket (you can also kick upwards which is basically a game-breaker in boss battles) and it raises him off the ground a little. That last point actually allows you to hop over certain gaps when you're at max speed, allowing you to keep going and hit any enemies on the other end of the gap! Sadly, the levels are rarely designed with this in mind, so you don't get to use it that often, but it's nice they were thinking at least. As for the physics, they definitely feel like Sonic, but much cheaper and less refined, lacking the fluidity of Sonic and feeling a little more slippery and 'off' overall- half-pipes in particular often feel tricky to get out of- but things are serviceable here.
What's more critical here is the issue of the levels, as Socket wants to have it all ways. As we briefly explored in our little look at Sonic the Hedgehog on Mega Play, something that's often said about the original Sonic is that the Marble and Labyrinth Zones, being more exploratory, slow the game down too much. Socket takes this and actually runs with it, dividing each of the game's six worlds (with the standard themes like forests, castles, lava, etc.) into three areas- High-Speed Areas (which use a different tileset from the themed worlds and are rollercoaster-like affairs), Athletic Areas (which are slower but more left-to-right romps) and, finally, Labyrinth Areas. Yes, mazes! In a game with an ever-dwindling energy meter, this approach is less than ideal, and while they start fairly basic, later mazes are easier to get lost in and force you to enter bonus stages to progress to get to the right area. I say 'bonus stages' but these are actually some of the hardest parts of the game, serving as charming little difficulty spikes (most notably the one where you have to ascend an Amedakuji board littered with saw blades and spikes, and the lava spiral staircase in the final world) and lives lost in there count as actual lives lost. Some bonus, huh. At least they're not full-on teleporter mazes, but they're easily the weakest part of the game- very much at-odds with the rest of the game, even more so than you could argue Marble and Labyrinth are to Sonic 1, and those slightly 'off' controls feel their worst here as you just want to make it to the end.
Not that the High-Speed and Athletic areas are beyond reproach- there are more than a few places where you'll hit a speed booster to land right in an enemy's face with little chance to react, and Antiquity introduces long water segments that don't really work very well as you're slowed down and your jumping becomes much, much worse. For the most part though, they suit the mechanics a lot better than the maze stages, as while those controls and physics still feel a little iffy, they suffice for what you're asked to do in these stages. If nothing else, Socket has fairly plain level design, in a sense- each different themed world has perhaps one gimmick to its name (Olein Cavern has mercifully slow mine carts where you need to kick switches to alter their path, and Future has upside-down sections) with earlier ones not even having that, and while it may be just my personal taste in platformers coming through, it's nice to know that at least two-thirds of the game's levels aren't super-huge and daunting as you can see in other examples of the genre around this time. They're pleasant to speed through, is what I'm saying, and the fairly generous energy system lets you screw up a little in these parts at least. The only other bit of level design worth mentioning is the boss fight at the end of every Labyrinth Area, and these bosses are so unmemorable (except for the dinosaur boss) and easy (except the final boss) that they don't even need much discussion beyond this one sentence. Sorry, Time Dominator, even Eggman puts up more of a fight than you. Indeed, beyond the Labyrinth Areas, that's something that goes across the board- this is a pretty easy game, and with continues given out every time you clear a world, you shouldn't struggle too much with it beyond those bloody mazes.
So, at the very least a third of the game's stages are a wash, and yet I did take the time to finish Socket, even having a few cracks at it. At least part of that is to do with the visuals and the music. While Socket himself is definitely a character design that you'll either find endearing or a grim reminder of the mascot platformer era and the design trends that brought with it (I will admit, him leaning against the charging station at the start of each stage is a neat touch), the environments themselves, as you can see from these screenshots, are really vivid and colourful, especially the High Speed Areas. It certainly looks a lot more striking, palette-wise at least, than other contemporaries such as James Pond II, which does help egg you on to keep going. My one real criticism here is that the enemy designs aren't particularly memorable, and some stage elements like item boxes and springs can be lost in the background as they're transparent- it would've been nice if they had some contrasting colours so you could see them better. The music, though, is harder to fault, sharing a sound team with Battle Mania Daiginjou (Fumito Tamayama, Yoko Suzuki, Shigenori Masuko and Yasuyuki Hamada- ta, MobyGames!), the tunes are perhaps a little short when used in the Labyrinth Areas but they're very catchy and some of the Mega Drive's best, especially Treasure Castle and Stone Age, and there's also some rather satisfying sound effects for collecting bolts and hitting springs (that last one's from Decap Attack, in fact!).
As far as mascot platformers from this era go, then, Socket sits rather comfortably in the middle in our estimation, certainly above games like Awesome Possum (not a high bar to clear, I know) and Bubsy. The physics are a little wonky and it really could've done without the Labyrinth Areas, but it's less abrasive and obnoxious than it could have been. It avoids many of the sins that plague platformers of this era, such as turning things into a collect-a-thon or committing the sin of combining high-speed with one-hit kills. It's just it doesn't really do anything particularly outstanding in the genre, and I suppose if not for its excellent colour palette and music, it'd be otherwise unremarkable. As it is, it's a decent enough game, fairly generic and by-the-book, but it's light and breezy enough to warrant a look if you want something very easy-going and friendly. Perhaps a little too easy-going, indeed, as you won't really be struggling with this one beyond the mazes, but it's decent enough to scratch the mascot platformer itch without seeing you resort to the likes of Alfred Chicken or, I dunno, Zool.
For just, you know, being itself, Socket is awarded...
In a sentence, Socket is...
An average, inoffensive '90s platformer.
And now, it's that time, folks!
As a little extra, there's a Level Select cheat if you really want that sort of thing.
Via The Cutting Room Floor, on the opening menu hold Up, Right, A, B & C, then press Start.
Weirdly, even if you're playing the US version, it still says Time Dominator on this menu.
Now, we mentioned the sound team of Battle Mania Daiginjou up there, who also worked on Socket.
As it turns out, Socket makes a little cameo in Daiginjou!
On Stage 5 of the game- a highway battle against a huge enemy battletruck- a sign with Socket appears very briefly, and it's then followed by... A squadron of flying Marios? As explained by Kid Fenris (which is where we found out about this), the division of Vic Tokai who made both Battle Mania games (Studio Uchuu Tetsujin, translated by Kid Fenris as Studio Space Iron Men) were ticked off at their parent company supporting the SNES, and so included a few jokes at Ninty's expense, including a secret screen of Madison / Maria stomping on a SNES in the first game. This set of caped Marios is a continuation of that joke.
... Oh, and Socket appears near the end of the squadron. That's... That's the point.
I mean, you can see him up there, can't you? Sorry, I got carried away talking about the Nintendo thing.
It's funny, you could say Gaming Hell's area of interest is 2D action games, yet we barely cover mascot platformers. We should do more!
Wait, no, I take it back, don't make us play Zool, please, no!