Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: February 20, 2007
How times change.
Back in the days of 16-bit, Sonic the Hedgehog reigned supreme alongside Mario the Plumber as a video gaming mascot. His games were about speed, attitude and adrenaline—running from one end of a given stage to the other with little to get in your way, and as quickly as possible. In the days of sprites, he was great at what he did. A simple premise, along with consistently tight coding and level design, and the convincing illusion of "blast processing," made sure he stayed on top.
Enter the third dimension.
After an above-average first outing (the original Sonic Adventure on Dreamcast), Sonic began showing signs of wear and tear. Like a stranger in a strange land, Sonic seemed to be unable to adapt to the world of polygons. Glitches, rushed development times, questionable level design, a glut of unneeded supporting characters, and cameras that one would not wish on their worst enemy plagued subsequent Sonic releases. Eventually, Sonic's franchise stock only held any sort of value with small children and desperate hangers-on (such as myself) who still pine for a return to the old days of hedgehog glory. The bottom loosened with Shadow the Hedgehog, a mediocre game at best, and finally fell out with the release of the next-generation Sonic the Hedgehog, released for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Said game was repeatedly touted by the developers as Sonic's return to his roots, and the answer to the franchise's problems. In the end, it was a well-intentioned but incomplete mess and an overall embarrassment to Sonic fans everywhere.
By now, a lot of people out there are ready to give up on Sonic forever, if they haven't already. They shouldn't, however, because Sonic Team's just saved their namesake mascot in his darkest hour.
If you can find a Wii, and if you've ever liked a Sonic game in the 15 years he's been around, Sonic and the Secret Rings is one of the system's must-buys. I'll make no bones about it: I love this thing to death. Even now, I have to force myself to write this review instead of just playing it some more. Even given all of the things people would call "problems" and "hiccups," (all of which are minor compared to the previous 3D games) the overall product borders on magical. I've lost count of the number of times this game has made me feel like a 12-year-old all over again, sitting in front of my Sega Genesis, daring to make the little blue guy go faster than a Motorola 68000 processor would ever allow.
The setup for this Sonic game is radically different from most: After answering a personal distress call from a female genie by the name of Shahra, Sonic is sucked into the world of the Arabian Nights in order to save it from the Erazor Djinn, a genie who's really — nope, that would be telling. At first it's a fluffy comedic romp where Sonic meets characters from his universe cross-casted into the Nights; however, the plotline gradually gets darker and more emotional without losing its charm. It's certainly more appealing than the strange techno time-travel claptrap we've gotten lately, and this is coming from someone who likes techno time-travel claptrap.
Story aside, what makes Sonic and the Secret Rings so much more palatable than the other polygonal Sonic games up to this point is that the third dimension has been almost removed from the core of the gameplay. The free-roaming that caused so many camera and clipping problems has been excised. True to his character, Sonic continuously runs forward along his own path , and it's your responsibility to guide him to safety by changing his positioning on the ground and in the air. The controls are simple, using a combination of the d-pad, the 1 and 2 buttons, and tilts, thrusts and wiggles of the Wiimote. It's not intuitive on the level of Wario Ware or Wii Sports, but after going through the the five-minute tutorial with which the game starts off (which can feel choppy as heck, but bear with it, it's worth it), then playing a couple of stages, Sonic feels like an extension of your own two hands. It's great stuff. The engine is polished, and for once, doesn't feel unfinished in any way. Still, there are a few rough spots, which I'll get out of the way now.
First: Backtracking can be an odd point. Due to the "always go forward" motif of the game, the camera still stays positioned behind Sonic when trying to move backwards, say, to bop an enemy or pick up a ring you missed. A simple pan-out of the camera during back-steps would have worked wonders here, but as it stands, this will take some getting used to.
Second: The trademark Homing Attacks which have often made Sonic unintentionally fall into many a pit have been nearly fixed. I say "nearly" because, while the game now zeroes in automatically on the nearest object or enemy with surprising accuracy, there are times where having multiple enemies or objects on the screen will confuse the system. However, this doesn't happen very often, meaning that, for once, said attack works mostly as advertised.
Finally — and this was probably an oversight in playtesting — when Sonic crouches for a charged jump, he slides forward. That's fine, except that if he hits a wall while sliding, he loses his charge. This is frustrating, especially if you want to use the wall as a stopper before jumping to a new platform. You'll have to train yourself to jump sooner than you'd expect in these cases.
The game sports roughly 100 missions split up into eight worlds. Each of these eight worlds contains a main mission, and a smattering of side-missions based on the same territory as the main missions, but often just different enough (and with enough varying challenges) to keep things fresh. When one mission is finished, others are unlocked in a non-linear fashion. You'll be jumping around worlds a lot, and the game doesn't point you to the exact place you need to go to advance the story. It's up to you to find it. There are also a few boss fights which range from the easy to the unexpectedly frustrating. Even with all this, it's possible to rocket through the story mode in a few days if you're extremely dedicated. However, after doing so, odds are you've still got half the missions of the game to complete, along with golden medals for fast times, and hidden items for the game's unlockables (over 200!) which range from developer notes to historic Sonic music remixes to multiplayer party games. Look up in the sky: See that replay value? Thought you could.
Sadly, the party games (that is, the multiplayer portion of this disc) pretty much fall flat. There are over 40 of them, but few are intuitive or conducive to the easy multiplayer parties that they try to facilitate. Some of them — anything involving canoes or rolling balls — just plain don't work at all. If you're looking for a solid multi mode to entertain your friends with, you won't find it here.
Still, even without the multiplayer, all of the single-player game — its large amount of missions, the myriad ways to level up and customize Sonic, and the sheer amount of things to do before you've seen everything — makes Secret Rings one of the few Wii games currently available that actually feels like a full, cohesive title instead of a collection of easily short-lived party mini-games. Also, once one has gotten enough point experience and personal experience under their belt, they can have Sonic take off at the wondrous speeds they've dreamed of ever since having him run across fields in Sonic Adventure, without any technical difficulties to get in the way. It's at that moment that the player remembers just why Sonic became popular in the first place.
The graphics are some of the Wii's best to date. They're still not convincingly "next-gen" as what one would see on the PS3 or Xbox 360, but they get the job done and make you think twice about what Nintendo's little white box can do. Much of this can be attributed to good art direction — the environments are teeming with detail, and with its usually fixed camera, the game can present quite a few playable cinematic moments. Sonic runs across trails of light thousands of feet in the sky, surfs massive waves, rides freshly fired cannonballs for yards, and streaks across glass platforms set amongst a backdrop of stars.
The game is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes. It actually blends all of the Sonic soundtrack styles used to date. You've got the cheesy butt-rock in some (okay, most) places, influences of both Middle-Eastern style (to fit the theme) and the techno used in Sonic CD, and just a dash of the halcyon hop-and-bop tunes of the Genesis games. Every single musical piece featured in the game contains lyrics. I've heard people complaining about the soundtrack already, but honestly, I absolutely cannot see how. I've enjoyed every single song I've heard. To add wonder to surprise, the English voice casting actually does a great job here, particularly Sonic and Shahra. For those who want it, the Japanese voices (with English subtitles) are available in the options menu.
Sonic and the Secret Rings is a return to form for a hedgehog that's been trying to find his identity for over half a decade now. Note that it may not be the return that everyone was idealizing. It has points where you must grind for levels much like an RPG. It's also not for people with short attention spans, and its difficulty at times (just a touch below Sonic Riders's learning curve — you'll have to practice stages over and over to get them right) makes it not for people who give up at challenging games easily (poor folks). Still, none of these points makes this entry any less valid. This is the best Sonic game since Sonic Adventure, and for once, I can applaud Sonic Team for placing Sonic back on the right track.
Thanks, you guys.
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