Sonic games are for kids. Sonic games aren't for hardcore gamers. Sonic games aren't very good, and Sonic games sell millions. This is the way it is.
Should we settle for this most depressing of situations? Should we accept Sonic's modern day mediocrity? Should we, as fans of the early Sonic games, simply get over it? No. Of course we shouldn't. If Nintendo can make Mario games that sell bucket loads and score 9/10 in reviews, then why can't SEGA do the same with Sonic? If Nintendo can make a game as good as Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, why can't SEGA do the same with Sonic? If Nintendo can resist giving Mario a sword, a sword!, then why can't SEGA resist giving Sonic a sword?
This is the inescapable question that presents itself about a half an hour into Sonic and the Black Knight. You've learnt the basics. You've discovered that the sword play requires nothing more than repeated flicking of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. You've realised that any attempt at actually playing the game properly, with deliberately timed actions, is futile. And, most depressing of all, you've come to accept that Sonic will never be what you want him to be.
It's a shame, really, because The Black Knight offers glimpses of promise and snapshots of quality that suggest the Sonic game to please the mainstream and hardcore alike is buried somewhere deep within the confines of Sonic Team's perplexing towers. There are moments, usually during a clear stretch of enemy-less road, when you put your foot down and it's almost, almost like Green Hill Zone in 3D should be. But these fleeting bouts of pleasure are few and far between. As quickly as they come they are ruined by the frustrating platforming, the soul-destroying combat and that bloody sword.
It's not that giving Sonic a sword and having him swing it about is heresy or anything. We're way past that now. Indeed criticism of the fantastical Camelot premise - Sonic has been sucked into the book of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by a cute sorceress named Merlina, given a talking sword and tasked with taking down the power mad, Excalibur-wielding King Arthur - is pointless. It's the actual implementation of this latest gimmick that irks.
With the camera positioned directly behind Sonic, The Black Knight at first bears a striking resemblance to the day levels in Sonic Unleashed, you know, the levels that were actually pretty good. Running is momentum based and controlled with the Nunchuck stick. Jumping is governed by the A button on the Wii Remote. Pressing the A button during a jump makes Sonic jump dash. Sonic tears through loop the loops and sheer wall drops at a tremendous speed. Yes it's hands-off, yes it's linear, yes it's very much on-rails, but it's fun. So far so good.
Then the actual game gets in the way, and The Black Knight reveals itself to be yet another Wii game that suffers from frustrating and imprecise controls. To attack with the sword you need to flick the Wii Remote. To guard you press and hold the Z button. There is no challenge here - simple, mindless waving of the Wii Remote is enough to get the job done, at least for the first two thirds of the game. All the endless stream of spawning enemy knights do is get in the way of the enjoyment of speeding through the levels. They interrupt your flow. They're like speed bumps on a Formula 1 track. If you're going to give Sonic a sword, you'd better make it fun to use. Unfortunately, here, it's not. In fact it ruins the game. Yes, you can press the B button to lock-on and flick the Wii Remote to do a Soul Surge special move, which allows you to hurtle towards an enemy and hit them one after the other while remaining airborne, but this ability is governed by a meter that eventually expires, so you can't do it at your leisure.
The stop start nature of the game doesn't end with the enemies. Even the very people you're in Camelot to save get in the way. Certain missions ask you to perform Acts of Chivalry, which usually take the form of giving rings to townspeople. What you have to do is stop, walk up to them, press Z and complete a short quick time event that involves mimicking on screen control stick movements. Examples like these litter Sonic and the Black Knight, a game that seems hell-bent on stifling the one thing you want to be doing - platforming at speed. And it's no accidental by-product of a series of unfortunate events. No. This is deliberate.
Beyond the main story mode, which sees Sonic move from level to level and zone to zone, completing mission objectives (perform 10 Soul Surge attacks while airborne, give 80 rings to townspeople, complete the level without taking damage, to name a few), there's a mind-boggling number of unlockables, including hidden characters, items, illustrations, movies, books, background music, banners and even voice overs to fuss over. All these extras will satisfy anyone's "100 per cent complete" hunger, but getting a five star rating on every mission will be the ultimate goal. Replayability is further extended with impressive online support, unlike so many Wii games: online leaderboards let you pit your mission rankings with players from all over the world. And while you can't play the four-player top down 2D Battle Mode online (you won't want to), you can send items to your friends via Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which is a lovely touch.
But it's the brilliant presentation that makes The Black Knight such a frustrating "what could have been" game. The levels look gorgeous. The horizons and backgrounds, while overly reused, are shining examples of what can be done on the Wii. The animated watercolour story scenes have a subtle charm that fits the Camelot setting perfectly, the CGI cutscenes bear the quality of the Final Fantasy series and the voice acting is as good as the Pokemon-esque dialogue allows. In short, Sonic Team clearly wants for nothing when it comes to backing from SEGA.
So why can't the gameplay match the visuals? While the Sonic games continue to sell well this may be a question that goes unanswered. But it's a question we need to keep asking. Sonic deserves better. Even if you accept that the Sonic games aren't built for hardcore gamers, that they're now designed to appeal to the mainstream, that's no reason to accept shoddy gameplay. Back in the 90s the Sonic versus Mario debate raged across the planet's playgrounds. Nowadays, there is no argument, and it's because of games like Sonic and the Black Knight.