Sonic and the Secret Rings
As with most Sonic games post Sonic Adventure (some would say post Sonic 2), Sonic and the Secret Rings suffers not from what it lacks, but from the various little extras that only serve to clutter up the experience. There are a great many wonderful things about this latest Sonic game (and it is by far the better of the next-gen Sonics), but, as usual, there are also plenty of bad. Let's get those out of the way first, then.
For starters, the music sucks. It sucked back in the '90s, when they first started putting it in Sonic games, and it still sucks today. And as far as I can tell, they haven't changed a note. Each level, menu and loading screen is punctuated by the same cock rock anthem, repeating the same chorus and the same eight bars of music in an endless, mind-numbing loop, surely designed by someone at the CIA's psychological warfare department in the early '90s as an alternate way to get Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad, that we've been listening to for 10 years. It's slightly reminiscent of Sega's artful arcade game soundtracks, except without the artfulness, and minus the relevance. An option to turn the music down (or better yet, change it) would be a welcome addition in the next game.
What also sucks is the labyrinthine menu system. In order to get from the end of one level to the beginning of the next, players must navigate five separate menu screens, select a chapter to play (first), then a level within that chapter (second) and finally select and/or modify a configurable "Skill Ring," which will give Sonic extra powers, before finally being asked "Are you ready?" at which point one feels as if any certainty at all on that point may be an illusion.
I can understand that a game with a number of levels (like this one) might be well-served by a system that, upon replay, allows the player to skip certain levels which he did not like the first time. However, one must first play these levels in order to know whether or not they're any fun. The option to skip them on the first play-through, therefore, is, I dare say, one of the stupidest interface gaffes I've seen in recent memory, and all of this "stuff" stacked up ahead of the actual game only serves as an impediment to the fun. Again, it's a design decision that has more in common with mental torture than great gameplay, and whoever fronted this idea should be drubbed out of the game industry and never allowed to work again. I'm not joking.
At this point, it's worth noting that the two annoyances I've mentioned are completely apart from the actual game itself; as is this next. Enter: bad, ubiquitous cut scenes.
Few would disagree that Sonic games began going downhill almost as soon as they allowed the little, blue creature to talk, and I am not among them. Secret Rings, however, sinks to new depths. For some mystifying reason, it was assumed at some point that a Sonic game needed a story arc to make it playable, and Secret Rings shows that Sonic's caretakers have yet to change their minds on that score. This time around, the gang at Sonic Team decided to blend Sonic the Hedgehog with The Arabian Nights. The result: a complete mess that gets in its own way more often than not. In fact, as I write this, a cut scene involving a genie, Sonic, Dr. Eggman (who is now the king of Arabia) and the insipid flying fox, Tails, is playing in the background, and I have no doubt I won't miss a thing when I return to the game.
What I do miss are the days of yore when Sonic was allowed to simply be Sonic, and zoom across the screen collecting rings and jumping his way to hedgehog happiness. Unlike most recent Sonic games, however, there is some of that in Secret Rings. It is, in fact, what the game is built on. You just have to wade through a whole lot of crap to get to it, and then be prepared to keep wading the whole way through.
In addition to the myriad level options, there's also a character-building element, in the form of the aforementioned skill rings that you can enhance with special powers using skill points earned by cashing in experience points. And if this sounds a lot like someone threw in a roleplaying element to a game that absolutely doesn't need it, that's because it's true. The added depth and complexity serves only to muddle what would have been a perfectly fine game experience without it. Again, Sonic Team is adding ingredients to the pot without a clear vision of what the final meal should taste like, and the result is an over-spiced mess.
The graphics are fine, just to get that out of the way. Secret Rings will not win any awards in that category, but everything is crisp, the camera is almost always where you need it and there is a convincing (if not revolutionary) sense of speed once Sonic really gets going, and that's about all you can ask.
The actual game play, however, is phenomenal, if only in few-minute-long bursts. The Wii's motion-sensitive controls allow one to guide Sonic in the way we've all become accustomed to in the past - jerking the controller this way or that when things get really heated - just with greater effect. To move Sonic from side to side, one simply tilts the Wiimote (held sideways, like a long controller) from side to side. To make him jump, you simply thrust the Wiimote forward. It's just that simple. There are a few more advanced moves, but the thorough (if frustrating) tutorial does an admirable job of introducing one to the complexities of those, and the control scheme becomes almost like second nature after only a few minutes. Sadly, that's about al the time you get between annoyances.
Tilting and thrusting my way through Secret Rings' various Aladdin-esque levels felt almost like I was experiencing a rebirth of the franchise, but the feeling was never quite allowed to take wing. It's almost as if what once made Sonic great is now a whisper on the wind, barely discernible before being whisked away, drowned out by the noise and forgotten.
I'd be lying if I said that, in spite of the game's many flaws, and owing to my nostalgia, I played it all the way through, because I didn't. In fact, I had a hard time playing enough of the game to call this write-up this a "review" instead of an "impression." I will say Secret Rings is something you should experience if you're a Sonic fan, and perhaps even if you're not, just to see what can happen when talented designers get their hands on Nintendo's revolutionary new control scheme. And it is fun at times, but not fun enough to continue putting up with its not-fun moments for any longer than a few hours. This one's a renter, or, if you can convince a friend to buy it, play his copy for a while, then go home and leave him with it while you go play something else.