It's been a pretty sad anniversary for Sonic the Hedgehog. Nearly every game carrying the "15 years of proud service" badge has been a steaming pile (by our count, only Sonic Rush is worth the cash), and the latest title, the 3D adventure game on PS3 and 360, is the worst yet. Thus, it's a little hard to expect much out of a simple, side-scrolling racer featuring Sonic and his fleet footed pals.
But ironically, it's Sonic Rivals' simplicity that makes the best Sonic game in a year. With nothing to do but run through loops, corkscrews, catapults and icicle-spewing caverns, the focus is totally on sweat-dripping gameplay. No crazy side missions, no hard-to-navigate worlds, none of that junk. Just you, your spiky-haired rival and the rollercoaster course laid before you.
Rivals plays just like the classic Genesis titles (or the Game Boy Advance ones, if you're a little younger). Just run, run, run to the end of each act as fast as possible, grabbing power-ups, rings and soaking in the sights of Sonic's colorful world. The twist here is that now you've gotta do it before someone else makes it there first. It's such a stupidly minute addition, really, but knowing Knuckles, Shadow or Silver is coming up on your tail really makes you want to step on it. And with multiple paths to the finish line, there are plenty of opportunities to cut ahead of your rival racer or dish out some fist-in-face punishment from behind. A wide range of offensive and defensive power-ups make the back-and-forth racing even more intense - too bad they couldn't be a bit more diverse.
While there are plenty of ways to freeze, electrocute or incinerate your rival, they all perform the same function - stopping him in his tracks. Similarly, each of the four hyperactive racers handles the same. There's no reason to choose Shadow over Silver at all, and their "unique" moves do little to make them feel like legitimately different characters. And while we're at it, isn't Silver supposed to be a whole lot slower than Sonic anyway?
The limited power-up system doesn't keep the action down, though. You'll never once be bored vaulting over logs onto different paths to overtake your opponent, or bouncing off his head to finish in first by nothing more than a hair's breadth. But, the same general issues the series can't shake are still present - namely, a huge amount of guesswork and unnecessary deaths.
Most of the time you're traveling so fast it's hard to see what's coming (made even worse by the PSP's usual screen blurring), so a trip or 10 into a bottomless pit is not matter of if, but when and how often. Why some areas are instant deaths and not just deterrents isn't clear either. Why would this river cause Sonic to die and the next merely slow him down? It makes snap judgments extremely hard to nail down. And as with other Sonic games, slowing down at all almost completely breaks the whole thing. These guys are built for speed, not careful jumping from floating platform to miniscule spring pad.
As the name suggests, Rivals plays well against a friend. Racing the computer is cool, but costing your bud the race with a last-minute cheap shot is a whole lot better. Throw in some pounding tunes (reminiscent of the excellent Sonic CD soundtrack) and a closet of shockingly ugly costume changes and you've got a side-series with serious legs. Just stop with the story already - we can't take much more of this "Who are you? Let's race!" nonsense.