Sonic, everyone's favourite blue hedgehog, celebrated his fifteenth birthday this year. When his first adventure appeared on the Mega Drive in 1991, it was a revelation. The insane speed and the edgier attitude was the perfect answer to Nintendo's rotund plumber, and helped Sega gain a strong foothold in the 16-bit console generation. Since those heady days, however, Sonic has become something of an anachronism. What made him edgy and exciting in the early 1990s, appears tame in a generation where gamers count Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid as some of their favourite franchises. Sega's handling of the franchise hasn't helped either. Their apparent obsession with pairing him up with less iconic buddies, and endless adventure sequences, has diluted what made everyone love the original games. That said, Sonic still has a strong nostalgic hold on many gamers, and Sega appears to have finally got the message. Sonic and the Secret Rings features Sonic running solo, just like he should be.
The Secret Rings is set inside, quite literally, the classic book Arabian Nights - the source of such tales as Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. In the game the last three pages of the book have gone missing and the Genie, the central character of the book, transports Sonic into it to help retrieve the missing pages. It seems like an odd premise for a Sonic title, with barely a chaos emerald in sight, but then story has never been important to Sonic games - It's how he does things, not what he does, that's important.
The demo shown at Nintendo's Wii launch event was exactly as shown at E3 earlier in the year. The level, which takes you through sumptuously designed ruins and waterfalls, was totally linear, on rails, and very, very fast; a fact that will no doubt delight the purists out there. Indeed, it would be far more accurate to call the demo a track rather than a 'level'.
Control in the Secret Rings takes full advantage of the Wii Remote. Holding the controller horizontally, like a steering wheel, you steer Sonic through and around obstacles, collecting rings and wild fire orbs - the latter filling up your wild fire gauge. Once that gauge fills up you can activate a massive boost by flicking the remote forward. Jumping, is the only function that is still controlled using a button, the 2-button in this case, and allows you to perform two kinds of jumps. Tapping the button will perform a small jump that maintains Sonic's speed, whilst holding it down will slow him down and charge up a larger leap. Whilst in mid-air a forward flick of the controller will perform a locked-on attack, which you can use to dispose of enemies.
Initial impressions on this direct approach are very positive. It's good to see Sega taking Sonic back to his origins: it's all speed, speed, with some extra speed for good measure. This may sound very simplistic, and it is, but simplicity can be indecently fun when done right. If you've despaired at the sedentary feeling of recent Sonic titles then this will prove a good tonic. The only concern at this point is whether the Wii Remote is the right mechanism for fulfilling this experience. The steering is great; in fact it's better than great, it's perfect. For on rails action it's the most intuitive and natural way to direct Sonic. There were, however, occasional problems when trying to perform attacks or activate the wild fire boost. Both these actions require a similar flick of the controller to pull them off, which can be easy to miss when under pressure. Hopefully it's a problem that will be sorted prior to release or something that becomes easier once you've had some extended time with the controller. Either way, it's not enough to cause too much concern at this early stage.
If the use of Wii Remote is still in question then, the use of Wii's hardware certainly isn't. The Secret Rings is one of best, if not the best, looking game we've seen for Wii so far. The Arabian Nights setting certainly helps, providing a colourful and varied environment to play in, with Sega's use of lighting effects and water reflections proving particularly effective. Considering the Secret Rings is not due for release till spring 2007, there's still plenty of opportunity for even more graphical enhancements.
If the final game continues in a similar vein to the demo then it could be a very exciting game indeed. We'll be sure to keep you informed of any further developments as they occur.