Console gamers are suckers. They're forced to deal with some clunky, clumsy 3D renditions if they want to enjoy a new Sonic the Hedgehog experience. Not like us handheld gamers who get the "real deal" Sonic presentation. For the past few years, Sega's used the Game Boy Advance as its outlet to bring the tried-and-true sidescrolling Sonic the Hedgehog design to the gaming world, evolving the series across three unique adventures of fast-paced action. And once again the handheld gamer is getting a real treat: the Nintendo DS Sonic design, Sonic Rush, takes that 2D experience and blasts it onto the dual-screen handheld in what could be considered Sonic's finest hour.
Dimps, the team that was responsible for Sonic's Game Boy Advance designs, takes what it learned with those solid and fun side scrollers to build an extremely creative Sonic platformer for DS owners. The game starts out as classic Sonic gameplay, but it's clear after the first few steps out of the gate that this is more than the classic Sonic. The basics are here: speed running, huge drop-offs, loop-de-loops, and corkscrews are all a part of the level designs in Sonic Rush, as are the newer elements like grind rails linking from one platform to the next. The challenge in each level is to scoop up rings and get to the end as quickly and as unscathed as possible, and if you're lucky enough you might even earn a chance to score one of the hidden Chaos Emerald that will, potentially, open up more of the game's design. The two playable characters, Sonic and new cat babe Blaze, means multiple paths, levels, and endings to shoot for.
Right off the bat you'll see the biggest addition to the Sonic franchise: the developers have combined the top screen with the bottom screen to create a single vertical display. It's not a new technique for a DS game, as games like Metroid Prime Pinball and Bomberman DS have paired up the two screens in their designs. But because the action moves so quickly (a Sonic the Hedgehog staple), this technique is much more impressive on Sonic Rush because the developers had to create a "smart camera" to make sure that Sonic is in the best spot on either screen to see what's coming up ahead.
The dual-screen feature does take a bit to get used to, since most players are used to experiencing platforming gameplay on a single display. On occasion Sonic will zip vertically off the lower screen onto the upperscreen without any warning, and it'll take some eye and mental training to learn that moving off-screen in this game doesn't necessarily mean zooming out of play. For the most part Dimps does a fantastic job keeping up with Sonic and shifting him from one screen to the next, and the pairing of the two screens actually adds a lot to the exploration aspect of the Sonic the Hedgehog design; players can see a good distance above and below the character and make preparations
even if they're split-second preparations.
While the vertical aspect of Sonic Rush has been covered by technology, the horizontal has been taken care of by brand new gameplay elements. Sonic games have always been unfair in the sense that level designers encourage running through a level as fast as possible, only to be absolutely devious by throwing an enemy in the person's path so suddenly that there's no humanly way to react in time. The designers remedy this with a new "boost" mechanic that enables players to generate power and use them as speed boosts and attacks; when players speed down a straight speed strip, they can let loose a burst of speed and energy which can, and usually will, take out a bad guy that happens to be in harm's way. It's a brilliant addition that frees up a lot of the annoyances in past Sonic games because now players can deal with the enemies positioned purposely in a blind spot.
Past games have had an "extreme sports" influence by introducing rail-grinding into the platform mix, and this influence has expanded into a full-fledged trick system. By sliding on rails or going airborne, button and D-pad combinations will perform flip tricks that fill up that boost meter. It's a bit of a gaming cliché that seems a little out of place, but this trick system is admittedly an addition that works in the whole "hedgehog with attitude" presentation. More importantly, it actually adds quite a bit of energy to an already energetic presentation.
Sonic Advance games slowly evolved to encourage more exploration in the levels. Sonic Rush seems to go back to the old-school "Run Really Fast" style of level design from previous games, with tons of ramps and rails, zip-boosts and trampolines guiding players down the right path. But there are plenty of opportunities for skillful platform jumping, and in fact, much of the game's challenge is in navigating some of the tough jumps laid out in many of the levels.
Beyond the standard side-scrolling designs are boss battles for each of the levels. Where the normal challenges use 3D sparingly but effectively, the boss situations are entirely 3D based. Most are still 2D in design, but the 3D engine allows for a more dynamic camera system and more elaborate enemy construction. This action's relegated to a single screen in these challenges, and even though the jump from the two screen presentation makes the battles feel a little disjointed, they still look fantastic and play just as good as the 2D platforming levels. This 3D engine moves over to a cool touch-screen version of the classic Sonic 2 half-pipe level that uses the touchscreen -- pretty much the only instance of a touch element in Sonic Rush.
To complement the single player adventure, Sonic Rush also includes a rather cool multiplayer racing mode that only requires a single copy of the game. Here, players race through the unlocked levels but in a single screen environment -- the lower screen keeps track of where your opponent's located in the same map. There's also an option for multiple cartridge battle, and for players who don't own the game you can send them a single level demo for their downloading troubles.
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