IGN Review of Sonic and the Secret Rings
Along with icons like Mario or, if you're a TurboGrafx-16 fan, Bonk, Sonic the Hedgehog is remembered even today as one of the greatest 2D platformer franchises of all time. However, the transition to the third dimension has not been kind to SEGA's mascot extraordinaire. The speedy blue one jumped into 3D almost a decade ago on Dreamcast with sloppy level design and an even clunkier camera system and, despite several sequels and spin-offs, the Sonic games have not changed since. Dazzled by 3D so many years ago, critics and gamers were more forgiving of these issues - hell, we even went easy on the GameCube iterations, which had their share of problems. But in today's market of polished 3D experiences, there is just no excuse for anything that falls short. Case in point, recently released Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hedgehog games boasted next-generation graphics, but were regardless ruined by the same design and technical shortcomings that have cemented Sonic firmly in mediocrity for years - and they received incredibly low ratings to prove it. Now, the hedgehog has made his way to Nintendo's new Wii console in Sonic and the Secret Rings. There is thankfully some good news to report. The fresh play, which capitalizes on the fundamentals of the Wii remote, is sometimes a success, which makes this the very best 3D Sonic ever created, in our opinion. But with that noted, the mascot still has a very long way to go before he can once again take his place next to competitors like Mario.
Developed by Sonic Team, Secret Rings thrusts players into a new storyline that revolves around the pages of the classic Arabian Nights book. The pages from the story are being erased by a villain known as Erazor Djinn and Sonic must literally travel into the book in order restore the tale. The theme, which seems inspired by everything from Sinbad and Aladdin to The Neverending Story, marks a fresh departure from the franchise norm. Although classic allies like Knuckles and enemies like Eggman are still featured in the storyline, they are at least initially playing the parts of different characters. The title features an impressive opening cinematic, which comes to life through CG animation. Unfortunately, the story sequences that follow are all designed to look like pages out of a book, which is far less aesthetically appealing. Still, Sonic fans looking for a tale will find one in Secret Rings that is deeper than average, and to be fair the mission-based cinematics, while not grandiose, are plentiful.
We had the misfortune of playing the abysmal Sonic the Hedgehog projects for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and can state with the utmost confidence that Wii's Secret Rings is an entirely different - and much more coveted - league than these games. The title is designed to be simpler and more straightforward, which is a plus. Gamers turn the Wii remote on its side and steer the hedgehog through a series of missions that span seven diverse worlds. The game feels like a platformer and a racer in one, which is exactly how it should be. After all, the original Sonic titles - those classic 2D endeavors - felt almost the same way. Furthermore, because Secret Rings unfolds largely on a set path - Sonic is always running forward and players tilt the controller left or right to veer into the respective directions - most of the frustrating, game-ruining glitches and oversights that have interfered with the enjoyment of other hedgehog games is absent. For instance, rarely will Sonic fly stupidly off a ledge to his doom in Secret Rings. Some will call it a limitation, but for the lightning-paced Sonic series, this imposed linearity becomes a necessity to the enjoyment of the experience. If nothing else, Secret Rings proves that.
Sonic and the Secret Rings starts off slow - literally in Sonic's case. Players expecting to blaze through the first level at breakneck speeds will be disappointed because the hedgehog is only later able to accomplish those spectacular feats. The game employs a surprisingly comprehensive character-building element that compels players to keep at it so that they can unlock new skills, apply them to Sonic and make him quicker, stronger and all around better. This component could have been tedious, but it's not. Quite the contrary, the RPG mechanic creates a harmony between the various levels, sub-missions and Sonic himself, who gradually becomes more capable as more stages are completed and more points unlocked. Gamers can take their earned skill points and buy new abilities. For example, the Mini-Turbo, which costs three skill points, gives the hedgehog a boost at the beginning of levels if gamers shake the Wii remote forward during the countdown from three. Aegis Slider, meanwhile, costs 10 skill points, but increases Sonic's defensive power when he's sliding. There are more than 100 different upgrades that simultaneously give players something to reach for as they continue to boost the mascot's powers. Some of the missions cannot be completed until certain attributes become unlocked and applied, which is actually a very clever design mechanic.
At only seven worlds, the game's level selection may seem slim, but Sonic Team has done a lot with it. For starters, each of the areas has a drastically different look and style, which helps break up any monotony that may have sprung up. The deserts in Sand Oasis will never be confused with the lush tropical locales in Dinosaur Jungle and neither will the beautiful rainy Pirate Ship be mistaken for the impressive floating runways of the Levitated Ruin. Furthermore, each world locale is divided into a series of sub-missions, some more challenging and rewarding than others. After defeating the main stage, which is always comprised of a race to the finish, gamers will take part in subs ranging from collecting 99 rings, defeating 10 enemies, smashing certain objects, or even going head-to-head against character Uhl in test to see who can reach the goal first. The latter objective is usually a hair-pulling, frustrating-to-the-max undertaking because Uhl will sometimes win by a hair - and for all the wrong reasons, as we'll get to below.
Let's get to the real question, though. For all of these additions, is Sonic and the Secret Rings actually any fun? The answer is yes, it is. The title is easily most enjoyable when Sonic is speeding along at a good clip and players can clearly see any environmental obstacles and enemies in their immediate path. It's during these moments that Secret Rings truly feels like a 2D Sonic game in 3D and players who can appreciate that will certainly find a lot to love about this Wii project. On top of that, some of the new Wii controls deliver a greater sense of satisfaction when performed. For example, when Sonic is soaring through the air and players shake the remote to send him hurling at a targeted enemy, it feels great - much better than pressing any button. We've played them all and Secret Rings is our favorite 3D hedgehog game to date for the reasons above. When it works, it's a lot of fun, and it doesn't hurt that it also happens to be one of the prettier games to grace Nintendo's new console. Not only does the title run in 480p and 16:9 widescreen modes, but it dishes out a variety of distinct and sometimes beautiful play environments complemented by a host of better-than-GameCube visual effects, from shimmering transparent waters to some truly gorgeous particles. True, the cheesy 80s guitar riffs and even cheesier pop vocals still seem ridiculously out of place, and the voice acting is just as grating on the senses, but we've come to expect nothing less (or more) from a Sonic game. So before you continue reading, keep all of these compliments well in mind for if you really enjoyed any previous 3D Sonic then we think you will find double the pleasure in this Wii endeavor. But that doesn't give Secret Rings a free pass on its drawbacks, which are more frustrating and less forgivable by today's standards than they were in the title's predecessors. Players will fail to complete levels again and again in Secret Rings not because they lack the skill to progress, but because the control mechanics are too loose and unresponsive, the camera is too stupid to shoot the action accordingly or, worst of all, the level design is simply poor.
Sonic is part-racer and as if proof of that, the mascot is in Secret Rings always moving forward, kind of like a supercharged car on a one-way course. This would not be an issue if certain objectives did not call for gamers to press a button or pull back on the Wii remote to make Sonic go in reverse. We have no idea why Sonic Team would intentionally bring its mascot character, founded on "blast processing" and blazing speeds, to a screeching halt, but we could overlook even that questionable design choice if the camera did not also ignore it. For inexplicable reasons, the camera system remains unchanged and continues to shoot the action as if nothing has happened, even as players attempt to guide Sonic backward. The result is a situation that feels very much like putting a car in reverse during a racing game, except that racing titles show off more of the play field; in Secret Rings, players will usually not be able to see anything behind them and are instead left to pray that they don't either bump into an enemy or fall off a ledge lurking in the areas that cannot be viewed. It's uninspired and unintelligent execution. The thing is, gamers will frequently encounter situations where Sonic will need to come to a stop and jump backward; in fact, there are even entire character upgrades built around the function.
Other nonsensical design choices occasionally rear their very ugly heads. In most cases, these issues could have been solved easily with an improved camera. For example, in a few stages, Sonic will be speeding along a spiraling mountain and he will suddenly come to a complete stop because he's crashed into an obstruction such as a fallen tree branch - which, we might add, coincidentally happens to be placed right before a major chasm. Had the camera been pulled back, there would be no need whatsoever for this branch because players could have clearly seen the approaching chasm and prepared for it. Instead of tweaking the camera, however, the developer opted for the easy way out and placed the branch right in front of Sonic's path, intentionally interrupting the flow of the game.
Sadly, there are some mishaps related to control, too. Sonic feels loose and moving left and right with any degree of speed has an air of sluggishness to it. Players will quickly cope with this control setup, however, and even become pros. The bigger problem is that the Wii remote has not been fully utilized, in our assessment. Sonic is always running forward, but pulling back on the controller will not send him precisely skidding to a halt, as it should, especially since certain play situations call for it. Rather, Sonic Team has assigned a stop mechanic to the 1 button on the Wii remote, which is downright clunky, if not overly complex for an experience that aspires to be simple. As Sonic runs through environments that require precise timing - jumping from a ledge to a floating box, for instance - gamers will actually have to tap the 1 button as the hedgehog flies over the box in order to land safely atop it. Huh? Meanwhile, while the lock-on mechanic is much better than it has been in previous Sonic outings, it's not always reliable, which is why the mascot will very occasionally miss an enemy altogether and instead go careening into the water below.
Despite the aforementioned issues, which are really quite offensive at times, Sonic still has a wide assortment of quality moments and it does, to its credit, deliver some old-school challenge. Some of the sub-missions in the title are difficult and not recommended for the casual crowd, but they are also rewarding in that gamers who successfully complete them will walk away with a real sense of having accomplished something. These missions definitely extend replay value and they are complemented by some 40 mini-games, all of them shallow, that are designed for up to four players. These mini-games remind us in many ways of the offerings in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz - in other words, only a handful of them really stand out and some are downright pointless, but overall gamers will probably be happy that they were included. That noted, Sonic fans will definitely want Secret Rings for the main attraction, which is unarguably the single-player experience.
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