Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: January 8, 2008
I love the original Sonic Riders.
I still remember the night I got the review code a couple of years back. It came with a heartfelt letter from Sega — as heartfelt as you can get from a corporation, at any rate. The letter said, in essence, that they were trying something new, and that this game was something that shouldn't be played as if it were an installment of certain other video game franchises. Fair enough, I said, not expecting too much from a Sonic the Hedgehog racer that didn't even see fit to have Sonic racing on his own two feet.
By the time the game hit store shelves a month and a half later, I was sick of it. This was because, for that month and a half, I'd been completely unable to put down the disc. Sonic Riders had delivered on its promise of a unique, enthralling racing experience that was unlike anything else on the market, and playing it for a month and a half straight had left me burned out. It provided a racing game with intriguing level design, shortcuts galore, and the feeling of riding on the wind. The last is especially important, since going as fast as the wind is essentially what Sonic the Hedgehog does and is. There were some rough spots, to be sure — the computer AI was a little too good, and working the Speed and Flight shortcuts were tricky (grinding, especially, flat-out didn't work unless you landed on a rail dead-center; there was no leeway whatsoever.). Still, it was a wonderful game, and I stick by all of the words I said about it in 2006, particularly in the face of people who tried to play it as if it were Tony Hawk or SSX, wondered why they kept losing, and consequently decided to slam it in reviews.
It may seem hypocritical, then, that I'm about to slam this game in a review, mainly for the fact that Sonic Riders Zero Gravity doesn't play like its predecessor at all. The thing is, after giving this replacement racing system its fair shake, it still came up as Not Fun. I can get first place in this game, too, but the feeling of euphoria is nowhere to be found.
Simply put, this game is the Sonic Riders for everyone who found the original too daunting. Everything is simplified — no, dare I say, neutered. Everything that could have even masqueraded as "technique" has been thrown to the wayside, such that the game almost plays itself outside of making turns. Multiple tricks in midair? Gone. Strategy via fuel tanks? Made moot. Specialized shortcuts? A shadow of its former self. Riding on air currents? Gone. A boost button, the staple of every racing game under the sun? Gone.
It's that last one that really hurts, because due to the lack of any sort of quick boosting, Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity has ironically become one of the slowest racing games ever put on the market. There is a mechanic in place for allowing one to go faster than the default board speed, but we'll come back to it in a second, because I'm getting ahead of myself.
Zero Gravity eschews its Turbulence (the aforementioned "riding on air currents") system for the Gravity system. Each board is now capable of a couple of moves that involve the negation of gravity itself. The first is the Gravity Drift, which allows characters to almost stop time, ideally at a turn, and rotate themselves in midair for that perfect placement down the next straightaway. It usually works well enough, and it's also essential for busting open pieces of the track for shortcuts.
The other move is the Gravity Dive, which stops your characters for a period of time as they charge up gravity power, before having them zoom down the track and rain down destruction. This destruction usually comes in the form of debris that one can bounce off of for a speed boost — said technique is known as a Meteor Smash. Gravity Dives are where you can really see the power of the graphics engine at work, and the debris is nice and big, it's ripped off of the environment itself, and it's everywhere.
So, then, all's well and good, right? Not quite. The problem with both of these moves is that while time stops for the rider initiating them, it does not stop for the other racers. Do a Gravity Drift, and it's actually a viable strategy for opponents to just try and make a turn under their own power rather than risk stopping themselves. What's worse, though, is a Gravity Dive, which stops you for so long that other racers who were already behind have time to pass you, and you then have to pray that your speed boost (which isn't much faster than your standard board speed, even with Meteor Smashes) is enough for you to catch up again, much less overtake the racer you were trying to pass in the first place. Yes, folks, we now have a boosting/nitrous system that works in reverse! I can't begin to tell you how happy this makes me. Such innovation!
A final extra kick in the pants for Wii owners is that there is absolutely no reason to pay extra money for this version outside of some slightly better graphics. There is no online racing, and the Wii control schemes are downright broken. They do not work. Period. Tilting the controller, which seems to work in all other Wii games that require racing, does not work here, despite what the instruction book and lengthy interactive tutorials (which actually don't do their jobs, unlike the single video from the first Riders, which told you everything you needed to know in a single minute) would have you believe. Maybe I'm playing it wrong, I don't know. All I know is, after 15 minutes of erratic movements, I switched to the GameCube controller and was finally able to play the sucker. Why no Classic Controller support? Beats me.
At least rail grinding works like a charm now.
The one thing that seems to have been upgraded is the aesthetics. Zero Gravity's been given a much sleeker art style overall, and the level design maintains the uniqueness of the original. The whole thing's been filled out with the usual epic Sega-style '80s rock and CG cut scenes. A budget production this was not.
Given the profile of the average Wii gamer (Do you own a copy of Mario Party 8? Do you actually enjoy it? Then I'm talking about you.), I'll have to recommend this as a rental to see if it's to your tastes. The racing has been so simplified that it may find a much larger audience than the original did. It's not for me, though. I like technique and speed in my racing games, unless we're talking something like Outrun 2, and even that has a drifting mechanism that makes a modicum of sense. I've noticed people have had an easier time with this game than the first; as for myself, I just kept seeing misstep after misstep for a franchise I once loved.
So this is what heartbreak feels like.
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