Sega's plucky blue hedgehog has been struggling. His console titles seem to be forced to reinvent themselves with every release and while his recent handheld outings seemed to please the casual, few long-time fans felt they were worthy of the his 16-bit glory days. With Rush, Sonic Team conspires with developer Dimps for their fifth handheld collaboration and the results surprisingly transcend all of their previous efforts. For the first time since the turn of the millennium Sega has come close to recapturing everything that helped this franchise build the Sega Empire.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Blue
Sonic Rush's visual design has been reinvented since the Advance titles. Gone is the chintzy background art with its amateurish palette gradients, and in its place is a more detailed, less abstract style. Some of the series trademark surrealism is lost in the switch, but the new look is more polished. These backgrounds don't really look like anything the GBA couldn't handle, but for what they are they are well-realized. Sonic and Blaze are now 3D models with a pseudo-cel-shaded style that might appear a tad awkward or undetailed in stills but animate beautifully, and look great in motion. I'm not sure that this kind of animation detail couldn't have been matched with traditional animation given the amount of space availible on those DS cards, but the look is pulled off with style regardless.
The new direction of the music will likely be more controversial. The classic Sonic games had 2 of the best composers to grace the YM2612, Masato Nakamura and Tokuhiko Uwabo. Even the Advance titles had some great tunes. What you'll hear in Rush bears little resemblance to any of them. Gone are the feel-good melodies of old, replaced with hyperactive beatwork and abundant incomprehensible vocal samples that wouldn't be out of place in a Jet Set Radio game (unsurprising since the bulk of it comes courtesy of Hideki Naganuma, who scored most of JSR's music). Most of it is very funky and fits the action just fine, but I can't say I prefer any of it to a more traditional Sonic score.
Although Sega has made some changes to take advantage of Nintendo's experimental hardware design, Sonic Rush never strays far from the classic formula. Both screens will display the action as if they are continuous (i.e. the top one will show what's above the bottom one), but levels have been carefully designed so that the action will usually stay focused on one or the other. But despite the vertical expansion and the new artistic and musical style, this is the same kind of fast paced platforming fans know and love. Sonic and newcomer Blaze will still be barreling through loops and corkscrews while ricocheting off of springs and ramps at breakneck speed. In fact, Rush may be one of the fastest Sonic titles yet, thanks to the new Tension Meter, which allows Sonic or Blaze to use a save up a short burst of super speed. It's a nifty mechanic that fits in well with the level design, and adds a bit of strategy, as well.