Friday, March 1, 2013

Wii Retrospective Reviews: Sonic and the Secret Rings

Sweet Lord, have mercy on my soul.

I suppose it was only fate that this game and I would cross paths again, one day. Perhaps, in the end, I have brought this tragedy and many more upon myself by choosing to show my dubious appreciation for the Wii in this way, but I guess it had to happen eventually. Most of you here are probably weary travelers of the ever-growing expanse known as the Internet who have only stumbled upon this small, lonely blog of mine as an irrelevant result from a Google search. The majority of you will probably immediately hit the “Back” button on your browser, be it Firefox, Chrome or Opera, once you realize that this isn’t the romantic Shadow and Amy  fanfiction you were looking for, featuring exquisitely polished grammar, emotional dialogue and prose that reflect only the influence of our beloved and talented Stephenie Meyer, and gratuitous references to deep and meaningful lyrics from some of alternative rock's greatest artists.
Only the greatest.

But should you choose to stick around, O Visitor, there is one thing I want to make very clear: I think Sonic is awesome. Sonic introduced me to video games. Sonic is more or less the reason I love video games. Sonic is the reason why I write walls and walls of text about video games on a small blog that almost no one reads. And I would be the first to tell you that the franchise hasn’t just picked up in recent years; it has soared. Sure, Sonic 4: Episode 1 was a bit disappointing, but who could possibly care when it was directly followed a mere month later by Sonic Colors, which is in my humblest opinion the finest platformer exclusive to the Wii that isn’t called Mario or Donkey Kong. And Sonic Generations? That’s probably one of my favorite platformers, period. Personally, I didn’t even think Sonic 4: Episode 2 was half-bad, even if it could have been better. So that’s why it always hurts to revisit that dark, depressing stretch between 2001 and 2010.

*sigh* Poor Sonic, his reputation has been irreparably destroyed, and not even some absolutely stellar games can fix it just yet. Thanks to a constant stream of absolutely miserable titles released after the move to multiplatform, starting with the mediocre-at-best Sonic Heroes in early 2004, the series and its fans have become a massive joke amongst the gaming community and that persists to this day. Sonic is pretty much viewed by the grand sum of gamers as gaming’s own Nickelback, only receiving continued success thanks to the efforts of deluded fanboys and mindless idiots who would play anything. It’s really sad for me to see how Sonic still can’t seem to shake this reputation, but considering just how much the series sucked and for how long, it really doesn’t surprise me. And let it be known that as a young, na├»ve child, I was most certainly one of those deluded fanboys. I own every Sonic game released from 1991 to 2009 for a home or handheld console in some legitimate form with the only exceptions being Sonic Advance 2, Sonic Pinball Party and the original Sonic Rivals. I’ve played almost all of them. I’ve seen this franchise at its absolute darkest, most painful, most revolting moments, and the symbol of it all for me is not Sonic 06, funnily enough, but Sonic and the Secret Rings.

The zero people following my blog would probably notice that this actually contradicts what I stated in my review of Sonic 06 – which I’m honestly not particularly proud of, anyway – but when I wrote that review, it had been a few years since I had suffered this…thing.  See, in my Elebits review, I mentioned that my standards as a child weren’t exactly very high. When I was 11 and 12 years old, I could somehow find ways to squeeze some enjoyment out of Shadow the Hedgehog and even, much as I hate to admit it, Sonic 06. It wasn’t until around age 13 that major changes began taking place and I started to realize that, hey, these games are actually really, really bad. But phenomenally low standards as a child didn’t protect me from Sonic and the Secret Rings and its special brand of suck. Yes, this was where even my childhood self started doubting the series, to the point that I was even turned against Unleashed, a game that I would surely have loved back then otherwise. Years passed and I sort of forgot about that, using my newfound maturity to gratuitously dissect and criticize Shadow and Sonic 06, which, for the record, I do still believe is objectively the worst Sonic game. Still, in many ways, Secret Rings actually offends me more deeply both as someone who loves Sonic and someone who loves video games in general, and I honestly find it to be a worse experience.  So, with that senselessly long introduction behind us, let’s tear into this gargantuan piece of interactive excrement. Sonic and the Secret Rings, everyone. It’s time.

So, let’s start this *ahem* incredible journey with the story. Sonic is woken up by Shahra, the Genie of the Ring, who comes straight out of the book of the Arabian Nights. She explains to Sonic that the evil Erazor Djinn is erasing pages of the book and slowly growing more powerful. Should the pages be completely erased, the Erazor Djinn will be able to enter Sonic’s world, and that’s terrible. Sonic, being the hero of destiny – of course – must go into the worlds of the book with Shahra’s magic and stop him. Naturally, Erazor confronts the two of them shortly after Sonic’s arrival, asking Shahra to bring him the Seven World Rings. When she declines, he shoots an arrow of flame into Sonic’s chest, and should it go out before they find the World Rings, he will fall down dead where he stands. How lovely. So, now Sonic and Shahra must go on an amazing adventure through the Arabian Nights, meeting several…eerily familiar faces along the way.

Now, I will give credit where credit is due here: I do like the concept. It’s pretty silly, yeah, but this is a game about a talking blue hedgehog, so anything goes, really. If the execution had been anywhere near passable, everything could have come together into something quite fun. Unfortunately, it seems we can’t have nice things. Typical series problems persist: lame and awkward script, awful voice acting, but the problem runs deeper than that. This story is just boring. The friendship between Sonic and Shahra never really develops even though the game tries to pretend it does, the whole “arrow of flame” thing goes nowhere aside from giving Shahra a few scares at specific moments in the plot, Erazor Djinn is such a generic villain it hurts,  and in general, nothing really interesting happens. What’s really baffling is that towards the end, the story actually starts trying to be really emotional and deep, and the end result is not only pretentious but also hilarious. Trust me – the ending will have you in stitches.

Admittedly, there is one thing I quite enjoy about this game, and that is the visual presentation.  Art design for all of the game’s levels is very inspired and quite frankly gorgeous. The framerate is excellent throughout the game’s entire duration and the cutscenes are charmingly stylized to look like pages of an old book, using a lightly-animated comic book panel style to tell the story. Aural presentation, though, is…I…I don’t even know what to say about it. Actually, no, never mind. I do know what to say. Why? Why oh why, Sonic Team, did you hire only the most untalented vocalists to sing your cringe worthy lyrics? Why did your lyricists write these lyrics to be so cringe worthy? Why did you, in all of your infinite wisdom, decide to make every song in the game vocal-based? Why is the composition for each level’s theme so bland and dull? Why did you decide to make the terrible, terrible main theme follow the player through literally every menu in the game before insulting you one last time by playing in a completely unaltered form for the final boss fight? Why is the entire soundtrack a focused, intense and constant assault on the ears? It really is just…disturbingly bad. Disturbingly so because even a lot of the worst Sonic games out there have stellar soundtracks. This is one of the worst soundtracks in the entire series by far.
 It's just...terrible.

And with all that out of the way, let’s get down to the grit: How’s the gameplay? Well, it’s complete tripe, but if I was to stop there, we wouldn’t have much of a review, now, would we? No, this game deserves a thorough, detailed analysis as to why it’s so horrendous, starting with the very concept of the gameplay. Secret Rings revolves around the idea of taking Sonic – a fast platformer – and putting it mostly on-rails. Sonic moves forward of his own accord and the player is in charge of controlling left and right movement with the Wii Remote’s motion sensor. The Wii Remote is held sideways to accommodate this style of play and the only other significant player inputs include braking with the “1” button and jumping with the “2” button. Okay, so, there are two major fundamental problems here that are impossible to ignore and prove that no one at SEGA was in their right mind when this game got green-lit  I’ll start with the most obvious one: you’re putting a Sonic game, which is a platformer, a game based around running and jumping to clear obstacles with precision, timing, and finesse…on rails. I mean, let’s just take a reeeeaaaally close look at exactly why this is one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever seen, because everything that could have gone wrong here? It most certainly did.

Okay, well, first, let’s look at what “on rails” means. It means that, typically, you don’t stop moving forward and your range of movement in all other directions is very narrow. Stopping is difficult and when you stop, you don’t just stop all forward movement – you stop all movement, period. Preparing for big jumps, which this game is oh so lovingly littered with, is hard, but the developers have accommodated for this by…allowing you to pull the Wii Remote back in order to have Sonic walk backwards. No. I’m completely serious. This is an on-rails game that makes you stop and back up. Frequently. The camera doesn’t even turn around while you’re doing this, giving you no idea whatsoever as to what sort of danger you’re backing up into. But this is not only used for backing away from certain death, oh no. Backing up is most often used to find missed objects. See, for a game so intent on driving you forward against your will, it wants you to do quuuiiiite a bit of looking around, be it for the switch that opens the next door, the objects you need to find to complete a mission, or the enemies you need to kill to do the same. A lot of missions require frequent and even constant use of this mechanic, making it not only awkward and contradictory to the gameplay’s concept, but also frustratingly overused.

Of course, those are only the problems that arise from this being a platformer period. Factor in that this is a Sonic game, and a whole slew of other problems crop up. Sonic is a series about fast platforming and while logic would dictate that this would be one of the fastest-paced Sonic games yet, what with it being on-rails and all, this game actually prefers to throw that speed directly out the window. There’s so much starting and stopping in this game that it puts Shadow the Hedgehog’s despicable mission structure to shame, and that’s not even just thanks to this game’s own frustrating mission structure. The platforming itself - which is in great abundance - always requires you to come to a complete stop and that’s partially due to the fact that your jump has to charge up. So, not only is it awkward, but it’s also really dull and there’s no sense of accomplishment as you skillfully tread through an entire platforming segment without losing your speed or momentum that there might be in a good Sonic game.

But since it’s on-rails, you’d think that the game would be more focused on dodging obstacles in your way rather than platforming, and while that stuff is certainly there, it’s…well…it still sucks. During such moments, the camera is almost squished directly up against Sonic’s back and the angle often makes the perspective awkwardly curved, making some obstacles difficult to perceive and others’ positions relative to Sonic's hard to judge. Lots of cheap moments result from this, but even when it’s not cheap, it simply isn’t fun. Limiting the player’s range of interaction with the controls simply to moving left and right negates any sense of forward motion and, thus, there’s no sense of speed. You’re just watching Sonic run while tilting the Wii Remote every now and then. But the biggest problem that arises from this is that this approach doesn’t feel like it’s providing a new and unique take on the Sonic gameplay like it thinks it’s doing: it’s only taking away from what’s there. By restricting movement to just two directions, all you’re doing is simplifying, and to a gross degree at that. All legitimate challenge is removed from the game because literally all you can do as the player is move left and right. There’s no substance to this play style whatsoever, no sense of difficulty aside from cheap deaths provided by the bad level design, and most of all, no fun to be had.

Of course, you may be thinking that the uniqueness comes from the motion-based control scheme, but that brings me to fundamental problem number two. Repeat after me: Designing your game around motion controls does not automatically make it unique or interesting. Good. Lord.  This is one of the main problems that plagued the Wii’s much maligned third-party library. Motion controls are not interesting in and of themselves. They’re great if they’re used to provide a genuinely unique gameplay style that couldn’t be done well otherwise, such as in Elebits. And sometimes, if they’re so well-executed that the game experience is actually better for it, then they can do a good job of replacing traditional controls, such as in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, a game I’ll be reviewing later on. Using them as nothing more than a cheap gimmick just makes the game feel soulless, and using them as an excuse to simplify the gameplay to a ludicrous degree is just wrong. And sure, maybe this didn't seem quite as stupid in early 2007, back when motion controls were still brand new and we weren’t sick of games like, well, Sonic and the Secret Rings.
No, Sonic. Put that down.

But here’s the thing about that: the motion controls are so poorly executed that they actually serve as a detriment to an already unsalvageable experience. Moving left and right while going forward, admittedly, works okay. Doing it while walking backwards, on the other hand - which, again, you will be doing a lot - is awkward as can be. The homing attack is done by thrusting the Wii Remote forward while locked onto an enemy in mid-air, and on occasion, the game decides it just doesn’t want to do it. It works most of the time, but there were moments that it didn’t, and those were a few too many. Switching rails while grinding is the most offensive mechanic of all; I literally cannot get it to work consistently, if at all. Usually, I end up either overshooting the rail or flying in the exact opposite direction of the rail I intended to jump on.

And it’s not just the normal movements that are controlled with the Wii Remote, oh no. Sonic and the Secret Rings never, for even a second, wants you to stop moving that Wii Remote to and fro like a moron. Secret Rings has all kinds of motion-based mechanics and gimmicks that you encounter throughout every level. Expect to be slowly, meticulously sidling along precarious ledges in the most Sonicy of ways, which doesn’t feel the least bit awkward or imprecise. You get to maneuver logs floating along rivers, makeshift surfboards, cannon bullets, zip lines and magic carpets, all with the wonderful Wii Remote. Swinging on ropes requires you to rhythmically shake the Wii Remote left and right. This does not work very well, to say the least. You also get to shake the Wii Remote continually in order to…cause a winged jar to ascend – oh, and you have to steer it, too, by the way. The shaking mechanic is also overused in the final boss fight literally to the point of causing physical pain. And yeah, I’d spend another paragraph ranting about how awful the bosses are, but hey, the whole game doesn’t work, so why rant about that in particular? Anyway, with all of these increasingly vapid, uninteresting and occasionally somewhat frustrating mechanics the game has that use the innovative control device, in spirit, this game actually feels a lot less like a Sonic game and more like one of those crappy shovelware mini-game collections the Wii became almost infamous for.

And it’s funny that should be, because this game includes a legitimate party mode, complete with actual mini-games. And I’ve got to say, I’m kind of impressed. For as blatantly bad as this game is, someone out there put real soul and effort into it – at least enough to include a crapload of unlockables, a butt-ton of optional extra missions to play after you’ve beaten the game, and an entire extra game mode. And you know what? The party mode is…probably the best thing in this game. Oh, it’s not good. None of the four boards are interesting, the mini-games are monotonous and half the time the motion controls work about as well as in the actual game. Also, you have to unlock new mini-games by collecting Fire Souls in the main story, which is also a massive detriment to it. But, at the very least, the mini-games I played showed at least some inventiveness and creativity with the Wii Remote that I didn’t see in the real game, even when they didn’t work. Some of the mini-games were almost…slightly enjoyable. But maybe that’s just because it makes me feel nostalgic for Sonic Shuffle. Ah, that game was so…bad.
Such sweet, painful memories.

Anyway, to conclude, what can I say? Well, Sonic and the Secret Rings is a lot like a wrecked train that for whatever reason just doesn’t stop chugging along. It falls flat on its face again and again, sucking so consistently and so thoroughly that it’s almost amazing. Whether through the paradox of contradicting ideas that mar its concept or through the phenomenal failure of its motion controls, Secret Rings always finds a new way to suck, and it goes all the way. From an objective standpoint, Sonic 06 is certainly the more incompetent game, but with the way the very fundamental idea Secret Rings runs on destroys itself and how it uses motion gaming as an excuse to use that very idea, I can’t help but despise it even more. The game is about six years old now and has sold a couple million copies, as far as I’m aware, so it’s a bit too late to save anyone – not like I have enough of a readership for that, anyway. I’ll just say this: if you ever see it in the bargain bin, just run away as if you were Sonic the Hedgehog himself.

Okay, I need a real palette cleanser after that, but it seems like I got a bit ahead of myself by skipping straight to Secret Rings after Elebits. There is one rather notable game that saw its American release a few weeks prior to Secret Rings, so I’ll have to tackle it next to make up for that. That game is…


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