Sonic Rush Adventure (DS)
The Sonic the Hedgehog series has lost its way a bit in the decades since its start on the Sega Genesis. The blazing, split-second decision-making of the original 2-D adventures gave way to unnecessary RPG elements and slow, hard-to-control gameplay in the more recent 3-D incarnations. Luckily, Sonic Rush Adventure discards most of the detritus that has accumulated on the series over the years and brings back the focus on frenetic speed and thrill-ride atmosphere.
There is still a belabored plot, unfortunately. Sonic and Tails get sucked into an alternate dimension and find themselves forced to steal a magical scepter back from a robotic pirate with a ridiculously bushy white mustache. Along the way the story devolves into a largely incomprehensible mess of contrived and clich&eacure;d plot elements, complete with a cadre of largely disposable characters, including the playable Blaze the Cat and the largely comic-relief character Marine.
It's Marine that steals the show and somewhat redeems the mess of a story through some quality characterization. The irascible self-appointed leader of the group of heroes, Marine is at turns timid, adventurous, excitable, and foolhardy. Though there's no voice acting for Marine or any other characters, you can almost hear her cockney Australian accent come through in the quality writing. Her delusions of grandeur in the face of the amazing abilities of those surrounding her make the story sections a tad less interminable, though they still tend to drag on.
They're worth suffering through, though, because once you get to the gameplay it's pure Sonic like mama Sega used to make. Like the best games in the series, Sonic Rush Adventure is not about slowly exploring environments looking for hidden doodads. It's about running forward. Very fast. Occasionally the game can feel a bit like it's dragging you along a set path, with nothing more required of you than to hold down a directional button and watch the pretty flashiness. More often, though, you have to monitor your progress carefully and make the quick decisions -- a jump here, a dash there -- that make all the difference.
Continuing the tradition of the recent portable Sonic games, Sonic can perform spins and flips as he soars off springboards and grinds along ever-present rails. These tricks build up a dash meter that can be used to grant instant bursts of invincibility and speed, a necessary requirement for quick completion of a level. The trick system makes the game feel a bit like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Tony Hawk's Pro Skater at points, and adds another level of strategy to traversing the levels quickly and efficiently. Still, the trick controls are a bit simplistic and can get in their own way -- we can't count the number of times where trying to perform a mid-grind trick led to an unintended leap into a bottomless pit.
The high-energy pace of the main levels gives way to plodding bombast for the boss battles, though. Almost every one places Sonic on a small platform while a huge 3-D boss shows off his Nintendo 64-era polygons in the distance of the second screen. Besting these bosses is usually a matter of simply dodging repetitive attacks and then attacking exposed weak points. There's no real feeling of imminent danger or the direct give-and-take of a one-on-one battle -- it's all very sterile and removed, and not at all fitting for a Sonic game.
The game makes up for these depressing boss battles with a selection of touch-screen mini-games that are surprisingly deep and enjoyable. Each mini-game asks you to control one of four ships used to get between the game's island levels. The goals range from a simple race (complete with more tricks) to a shooting gallery, to a rhythm game, of all things. Each one includes the right mix of infectiously responsive tapping controls and some well-balanced, randomized, challenging level design. They're not enough to carry the game on their own, but considering how many of these types of games end up as throwaway extras, they are surprisingly fun.
While each of the game's levels is a relatively short (averaging two to three minutes) the game makes up for this with a wide variety of hidden levels and challenges. What's more, each of the levels can be replayed for a better time and ranking. Replaying levels in this way is more fun than it should be, largely because it's a joy to find new paths and new items and continue to experience the anxious thrill that comes with maneuvering by the seat-of-your-pants throughout the game. The familiarity bred from a replay makes it easier to throw timidity out the window and truly embrace Sonic's speediness.
There is one downside to this replayability, though, and that's when it is forced on you. Barely four levels have transpired before Tails first asks Sonic for more 'materials' to build a new ship, meaning you have to go back to the just-completed levels to find the stuff. This happens a few more times throughout the game, each occurrence requiring more and more backtracking just to move on to the new content. I'm all for revisiting earlier levels, but this should be considered a privilege after the initial completion, not a requirement to get to through to the end.
Despite this minor annoyance, you'll probably be coming back to Sonic Rush Adventure for a while. The game distills Sonic back to what made it great in the first place, and once again offers gaming's best mix of roller-coaster ride and platforming adventure.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.