When Sonic was at the height of his popularity in the early '90's, the blue blur could do no wrong. For a while, he was the most widely recognized mascot in the world, and his Genesis titles (among others) led the console to bigger sales numbers in the United States than the competing SNES. If only that winning streak had carried on into the 2000's, we'd likely have a variety of top-notch Sonic titles to choose from, but that simply didn't happen. Sonic's fans and enemies alike know how lackluster games like Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog have perhaps forever tarnished the reputation of the fastest thing alive.
A tragic side-effect of those console releases doomed the stellar GBA Sonic Advance series to go unnoticed by the general populace. As adults and unknowing gamers everywhere are choosing garbage over such quality, it may be true that even if Sonic started doing his best, no one would notice. A future of misadventures on the scale of Sonic Heroes may be all that's left for us, as a result of Sonic Team's careless descent into mediocrity and Sonic's resulting loss of cred among gamers. If so, at least there's Sonic and the Secret Rings to remind us of what Sonic can do when he's trying to succeed.
This isn't the masterpiece to dethrone Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Sonic CD, and we may never see something that exceptional in our lifetimes.
This isn't the masterpiece to dethrone Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or Sonic CD, and we may never see something that exceptional in our lifetimes. Ignoring their looming shadows, Secret Rings goes its own way and tries hard to be great. What separates this from Sonic's past adventures starts showing early on, one sign of this being its unique storyline. Illustrated through striking cutscenes (styled like paintings), it's above Sonic's usual, in-game rendering treatment. We're talking RPG-quality artwork, and if you've set the spoken language to Japanese (a feature that's been sorely missed in the last few Sonic games), it's accompanied by excellent voice acting. It gets you into the unusual concept of restoring a besieged storybook, and then, primed with purpose, you're sent running – only to realize that you're actually walking, as Sonic's acceleration can't rival that of a school bus.
In another form of RPG reminiscence, Sonic's assortment of abilities must be unlocked, and “Quick Start” running is among them. Just as you'd expect a knight to know a myriad of skillful attacks already, one would think Sonic already understood sprinting, and how to move more fluidly than a semi truck. His sluggish beginnings are the system's only flaw, but they're magnified by the intentionally clunky controls.
Yes, strange as it might sound, Sonic is difficult to control by design -- at first. He's slow, he turns awfully, his jump range is limited, and overall, he behaves as if someone clubbed him in the head and legs before he sauntered into that storybook. While it's true that he should've never been so athletically challenged, it's entirely worth putting up with those limitations for the short while they last. The only unfortunate thing is that some gamers disenchanted with Sonic may have already given up on him by the time that's all through. Regardless, a few levels and upgrades later, Sonic's moving like he should.
By the fourth or fifth stage, Secret Rings goes from an average 3D platformer to a fine showcase of what daring to be different can produce. Once inhibiting, the enhanced Wii controls (improved by Sonic's larger ability arsenal) become second nature – flicking the remote to bop baddies turns easy once your range is increased, for example – and you're well on your way to plowing through a set of lush, fast-paced worlds. Ignoring the mostly miserable and completely out-of-place “Dinosaur Jungle”, stages like “Evil Foundry” are worthy of anticipation; they're fast-paced, fun, and adequately challenging showcases of rather good 3D platforming. If you're not enthralled by the time you reach the fantastical “Levitated Ruin”, the allure may never capture you.
While you're on that journey from level to level, you'll gain abilities beyond the basics (hence the aforementioned arsenal of them). You'll learn quickly that you'll have to pick and choose which ones you take with you. Before each stage, you can visit a menu that lists all of the options Sonic can equip. From replenishing you with a small cache of rings when you're hit, to making Sonic run so fast he can't possibly be well-controlled, they have quite a range of things to offer.
Many games with similar systems fail because only one or two options are useful in practice, but Secret Rings doesn't fall into that trap. Some selections are about useless, but those few duds are easily forgiven. While trying to get the best times or hidden items on one of many missions (each stage has a lot of them), you'll oft find yourself staring at that screen, switching things on and off as you try to choose the combination that will best suit your efforts. Defense, offense, speed, control-tightening, loot-grabbing – they're represented in all kinds of ways, and you can mix and match them as you please.
Even with these fun new features kept in mind (and the so-so multiplayer minigames considered a decent accompanying gift), Sonic and the Secret Rings is more truthful to its 2D origins than any of the series' 3D titles. By locking Sonic to rail-like paths, the focus is on speed, and as you progress further through his latest journey, your reflexes are properly tested.
If you were around for them, think of the early days of the blue hedgehog's platforming. If you weren't there, indulge me a bit. Back then, you'd rocket through a stage at full tilt, and then watch as Sonic went running on his own through a spiral – relate that to your controlling him through a pathway in Secret Rings before he blasts up a wall on his own. Moments like that represent Sonic doing what he does best, and they should suffice for old and new fans alike. You just have to give him time to get up to speed, first.