It’s been eight years since I really enjoyed playing a new Sonic the Hedgehog game, and after having played Sonic and the Secret Rings, I must sadly report that this is still the case. For me, what made the original Sonic games so compelling was their mixture of solid platforming combined with incredible bursts of speed. Watching Sonic cruise around loop-de-loops, shoot off springs, and zip through chutes and tunnels was just plain fun. While Sonic and the Secret Rings certainly contains many such fun moments, the overall experience is derailed by shoddy controls, a ridiculous story, shameless recycling of levels, and a cumbersome and incongruous RPG-style system for gaining experience and abilities.
The story is set in motion by a genie who summons Sonic to enter the book of the Arabian Nights in order to save the story-world from being erased by the evil Erazor Djinn. While the game is in 3D, the story portions are told in storybook style via 2D panels. As the plot unfolds, familiar characters from the Sonic universe pop up as characters from the original stories (e.g., Tails as Ali-Baba and Knuckles as Sinbad). I am not intimately familiar with the Arabian Nights; however, I am almost certain that the story in Sonic and the Secret Rings is really, really bad. It is so ridiculous, in fact, that after a while it was easier to just tune it out.
The main game consists of seven racetrack-like stages, each with a distinct style and names like “Sand Oasis” and “Pirate Storm." In the “Dinosaur Jungle” stage, Sonic runs from a pack of Triceratopses, cruises down a river, and speeds along the necks and backs of several Apatosauruses. In “Evil Foundry,” he sprints through a castle, dodges spiked traps, and hops over pits of lava. In "Levitated Ruin," he dashes over airships, shoots across zip-lines, and even zooms through the sky along the wake of a flying beast. Although Sonic always remains on a fixed path, the way he moves through each course has a fairly fluid and organic feel to it.
The first and last missions of each stage always consist of a run through the entire course for that level and a final boss fight, respectively. If the developers had left it at that, then I might have been happy. Unfortunately, each stage also crams in a dozen or so challenge missions that reuse and recycle small sections of the larger course. These challenge missions include objectives such as beating a timer, collecting a certain number of rings, and getting to the end without destroyong any enemies. Not all of the missions are bad, but their repetitiveness drags things down, and I would rather have skipped over most of it.
Guiding Sonic through the stages feels in many respects like playing a racing game. Players control Sonic by holding the Wii remote horizontally (the nunchuk attachment is not used at all) and tilting it left or right to steer him one way or the other. By default, Sonic always runs forward at a medium pace. Tilting the controller forward speeds him up, while tilting it back slows him down or moves him in reverse. Although the core gameplay resembles a racer, the courses are often punctuated by short sections that require Sonic to jump between platforms, leap over traps, destroy enemies, or use mechanisms such as springs, catapults, and turbo pads.
Unfortunately, the motion-sensing controls seriously hinder the experience. Like most Wii games I have played so far, the remote’s motion sensing feels far too loose when compared to the precision and sensitivity afforded by standard controllers. Often, it seems almost impossible to make any fine or subtle movements. When the situation requires Sonic to stop or make a precise jump, the controls behave erratically. I can’t count the number of times I died simply because Sonic was spasmodically jerking around when I merely wanted him to stay still. There are a few rare instances where the game’s motion-sensing actions feel well executed (e.g., tilting the controller forward to do a homing attack), but on the whole the controls seriously get in the way of the game.
Further diluting the experience is an ill-fitting RPG-style leveling up mechanic. After completing missions, players are awarded experience points and access to new and enhanced abilities (e.g., better jumping, turbo starts, speeding or slowing time, etc.). These skills are equipped via four customizable rings. The more experience the player has, the more abilities can be equipped to a ring. For me, this entire aspect of the game felt hideously out of place. If it were simply a matter of gaining experience and acquiring new abilities without the added step of selectively attaching the abilities to rings, then I might have accepted it. But asking players to sit around and mix and match abilities is too removed from what this game should be about—namely, going really fast. Such messily implemented RPG-like features do not fit well in a Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Another somewhat gratuitous feature is the multiplayer "party" mode, in which up to four players can compete at 40 different mini-games. The games are extremely simplistic, and most of them try to utlize some aspect of the Wii's motion-sensing capability. One such game has the on-screen character drifting through the air with an umbrella while the player tilts the controller left or right to steer the character into as many floating coins as possible. There is a modicum of fun to be had playing some of these games, but for the most part, the multiplayer struck me as a rather trivial distraction.
About the only thing that is consistently good in this game are its graphics. The colors are crisp and vibrant, and the environments are fun and interesting to look at. When things are going smoothly, there is an undeniable visual appeal to watching Sonic speed around through the various unique stages. While there is nothing in the game that seems as though it couldn't have been done on the GameCube, the visuals are quite impressive nonetheless.
In the end, there are far too many problems with this game to make it worth recommending. From its incongruous RPG-style leveling up to its endless recycling of levels to its utterly ridiculous Arabian Nights-themed story, Sonic and the Secret Rings feels horribly padded from top to bottom. To top it off, the sloppy controls make the game way harder than it should be. There might be a serviceable game buried somewhere in here, but I don't think it's worth anyone's time to try and find it.