For a while we thought Sonic was a goner, a blue hedgehog-shaped smear on the tarmac of gaming history. With Sonic Team’s every attempted step forward, his scores plummeted down. Multiple characters exploring 3D environments? Big the Cat? Sonic with guns? With Secret Rings, the team has finally realized that the only way forwards is backwards. At breakneck speeds.
Filter him down into his purest form - the original Sonic on Genesis - and you’ll find little more than the urge to move forwards. Speedily moving from the left of the screen to the right, Sonic was about distance covered and little else. In Secret Rings this purity of motivation has been gloriously rediscovered, with Sonic sent zipping along, jumping obstacles and bopping the occasional baddie on the head like it was 1991.
Despite the 3D expanses visible in these screenshots, the game dictates how you progress with an invisible racing line that Sonic doggedly, or hedgehoggedly, adheres to. At first this is slightly befuddling. Preparing for incoming landscape only to see the blue bullet veer off in a new direction makes you feel a bit helpless, and with control largely limited to tilting the remote to steer, a few suspicions are raised of how much actual game playing is going on.
Spend some time in Sonic’s well-worn boots and these suspicions are unfounded. Any developer trying to capture speed has no choice but to take some freedom out of the player’s hands; left to our own devices it’s unlikely we’d find the most aesthetically pleasing or challenging route through the landscapes - and this is what Sonic Team achieves by putting the game on the rails.
Secondly, gameplay is not a simple case of running from one end to the other. An objectives system akin to Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam is in place, forcing players to rerun particular sections of the overall track with different goals to complete. Collecting X amount of rings, killing a certain number of enemies, beating the clock - these objectives are the very challenges that gamers in 16-bit days would delight in imposing on themselves once they’d completed the game and wanted to stretch out the playing experience. In paying homage to the fan tradition of repeat runs, Secret Rings reveals itself to be the first Sonic title since the early nineties glory days to actually take the time to think about what made Sonic so popular in the first place.
Completely new, however, is the ability system. With an RPG-ish vibe Sonic can stock certain skills that affect how he handles. From simple speed increases to more minor tinkering with Sonic’s skidding distances, the idea is to equip Sonic before each task to give him the best fighting chance. While some tasks are impossible without certain skills - such as homing attacks to bop across an enemy-filled gap - outside of these move-set altering abilities, many of the 99 skills available feel slightly superfluous; minor adjustments that rarely affect gameplay. Once Sonic has amassed the core set of more obviously “useful” abilities he’s one powerful hedgehog - but a skill-slot-limiting leveling system does a good job of keeping such a combo out of your hands until you’re well into the game.
This isn’t to say that Secret Rings is a walk/blistering sprint in the park - another nod back to its Genesis roots is its old school challenge. Initial runs through the levels are easy enough, generous checkpoints and unlimited attempts easing us through. It’s with later objectives that things get nasty, requiring perfect memory of obstacle and foe layout to even think about nailing the unimpressive bronze medals and near-godlike skills needed to unlock golds. Levels become mere chains of moves with left-left-jump-shake-tilt-jump-right-right-jump etched in your memory.
Sounds anal? Well, it’s the secret to seeing the game at its best. Played by a perfectionist, Secret Rings is face-meltingly fast and beautiful to behold. It was designed to be seen at top speed and when he slows down Sonic looks plain wrong, his legs sluggishly slipping against the ground when they should be one continual blur. Likewise, nothing ruins the moment like missing a gate switch and having to stop and backtrack - albeit by only five meters - to hit it. Hitting the 1 button puts on the brakes and tilting the remote backwards makes Sonic reverse - a hideously clumsy action in a game obviously designed for going forwards. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it ruins that particular run. Hit restart and make it all better.
Just as the game gets better as you improve at it, so do the stunning graphics. As Sonic dashes along translucent neon corkscrewing air trails in Levitated Ruins or sprints past the truly gorgeous undulating waves and lashing rain of Pirate Bay, it would take a fool not to give Sonic Team its due and claim that this is the finest-looking Wii game to date. Sonic Team is happy to let these vistas pass in a flash - a testament to their confidence that what’s coming around the next corner is guaranteed to impress in equal amounts.
Single player mode is multiplayer friendly - the short task lengths welcome pass-the-remote play - and the 40 minigames designed specifically for four friends are a joy. Playing a violin with the remote, spiraling your remote like a canoe paddle and, our personal favorite, snatching away carpets when the genie on top leaps - you’ll love it trust us - make for a simpler, sweeter and more addictive set of games than offered in Monkey Ball. Like Sonic himself, Secret Rings has some pair of legs on it.
So where has this hedgehog been all these years? Wherever he was, it’s done him good. This release simultaneously strips Sonic down and bulks him up, reminding us of the gaming glory that once was.