Sonic Rush Feature Preview
We get an exclusive run through what's shaping up to be the best Sonic game in nearly a decade.
Let's face it--Sonic the Hedgehog has had his fair share of ups and downs since his debut on the Sega Genesis in 1990. Though the speedy blue hedgehog has been in a variety of different games that have spanned numerous genres, not all have lived up to the high standards set by the early 2D titles that helped Sega unseat Nintendo and Mario from the gaming throne for a short time. The advent of 3D has, for the most part, seen the loss of many of the hallmarks that served as the essence of a proper Sonic game--speed and simplicity, addictive gameplay. New characters, convoluted stories, bad gameplay decisions, questionable visuals, and a touch too much experimentation have resulted in the little guy losing a good measure of his edge over the past few years.
Thankfully, a group at Sonic Team is busily crafting a cracking return to form for the blue blur that balances the core 2D elements that made his name with fresh gameplay mechanics and visuals. We first broke word of Sonic Rush for Nintendo's DS at this year's E3; we were smitten with the promise of the game's slick presentation and new twist on the classic 2D gameplay that took advantage of the DS' dual-screen display. Our subsequent looks at the title at the Tokyo Game Show have continued to impress as the title takes shape. Our latest exclusive look at the title let us get a crack at a near-final version of the game, which appears to be capably living up to the promise of its first impression. Sonic Rush appears to be serving up a winning distillation of what you'd want out of a proper Sonic game.
One of the key faults of the recent Sonic titles has been a predilection to get hung up on a story, which has often bogged down the game experience. Sonic Rush keeps it real by sticking to the basics. The game finds our hero hot on the trail of his nemesis, Dr. Eggman, who is once again hot for the mystic Chaos emeralds. However, Sonic's normal routine of stomping Eggman is thrown off by the appearance of two individuals, the mysterious Blaze the Cat and Eggman Nega, a swarthy villainous type who looks an awful lot like Sonic's own Eggman, albeit a bit more polite and well spoken.
Who are these people? What the heck is going on? And why the heck is the mysterious pair duking it out over the mystic items known as Sol emeralds? All is revealed as you play through via blessedly brief story sequences that keep things good and simple. Basically, the only thing you need to sweat is stomping the bad guys and getting friendly with Blaze; the rest sorts itself out as you go. The appearance of some familiar faces--perennial Sonic sidekick Miles "Tails" Prower, Cream the Rabbit, Amy Rose, and Knuckles the Echidna--give the story roots in the Sonic universe.
The gameplay in Sonic Rush takes a similar back-to-basics approach and revolves around what Sonic and Sonic Team do best: tearing through 2D levels at high speed and facing off against challenging bosses. You'll access different stages by navigating a world map, which lets you move Sonic to new areas you've opened up, or go back to areas you've cleared to replay them. One of the new twists to the experience is that you'll wind up playing as both Sonic and Blaze, who, while both are speedsters, feature their own unique touches. The core gameplay remains the same for both; your goal is to tear through each level and get to the end as quickly as possible, with as many rings as possible, to earn yourself a high letter grade. You'll have the opportunity to enter bonus levels where you can earn yourself Chaos or Sol emeralds, depending on which character you use, as well as perform assorted tricks to rack up points along the way.
Though both characters have a few differentiators, they share the same basic handling. You'll move left and right with the D pad and jump with A or B. Holding down the D pad and A or B will let you rev up and perform a dash move. The right trigger on the DS will let you perform a dash as Sonic or a hover jump as Blaze. The X or Y buttons will let both characters perform a powerful boost move that draws power from the new "tension gauge," a meter that you'll be able to fill up to 300 percent by defeating enemies or performing tricks. The boost move will let you tear along at even greater speed for as long as you hold the button down, and it's key to accessing the special bonus stages. The trick system lets you perform some splashy moves as you grind on rails or sailing through the air after a jump. Performing tricks will not only fill your tension meter but also earn you points. You'll find a modest array of moves to bust with both characters by using a combination of the D pad and the R trigger and B button. You'll need to mix things up; if you bust the same trick repeatedly, you'll earn fewer points.
The levels you'll be tearing through will feature the same motifs you'd expect from a Sonic game, so plan on tearing through a grassy area with hills, a watery temple, a casino, an air level, and so on. The levels feature some fresh designs, thanks to new elements such as bungee ropes that drop you and shoot you up into the air; winding ropes that whip you around and fire you off into the ether; underwater mines you'll need to ride for short periods before they explode so you can access new areas; and massive waterwheels that spin you around to new areas while you're swimming, to name a few. You'll also find old standbys, such as loop-de-loops, assorted power-ups that confer various shields, ring bonuses, and invincibility. The action is given a very cool twist by extending the playfield on to the DS's second screen, which keeps you on your toes.
Really Super Sonic
In addition to this core gameplay, you'll find two other gameplay types to master as you go through the game: special stages and boss fights. As in previous Sonic games, you'll encounter specific points where you can access special bonus stages that give you a chance to earn an emerald. In Sonic Rush, these points take the form of special generators you hang on to and use your boost to spin around fast enough to open a portal that sucks you in. Once in the stages, which are in line with the third-person tube runs introduced in Sonic 2, you'll need to bust out your stylus and control Sonic by sliding it in a half-circle area within the tub.
You'll obviously need to guide Sonic to the rings laid out before him, while avoiding spiky hazards--the two-part runs require you to collect a certain amount of coins by the time you reach a checkpoint to continue. Along the way, you'll be able to collect special pickups that yield bonus coins; to complete the action and earn bonus rings, you'll hit special trick points that require you to tap on numbered points on screen before time runs out. If you manage to collect enough coins by the end of the run, you'll be rewarded with an emerald for your collection. As always, you shouldn't plan to see the game's real ending unless you've gone through and collected every emerald.
The boss fights offer yet another change of pace from the core game, thanks to a cool variation on the standard Sonic boss battles. The duels will take place on the top DS screen and offer some pseudo-3D action in confined areas. Your goal, which will be displayed in the lower screen, is to bop each boss a set number of times to defeat them. However, you'll have to work a little harder after the first two bosses in the game, because the third boss marks the start of having to figure out how to damage your foe--a recurring theme as you progress in the adventure.
Besides the single-player action we've just covered, which will also include the de rigueur time-attack mode, you'll also find some multiplayer options in Sonic Rush that let you take on a friend. The battle play option in the game will offer you two options for facing off against a friend: wireless battle and download play. Wireless battle lets you face off against a friend if you both have DSes and copies of the game, while download play will let you have a multiplayer experience with just one DS and copy of the game. The competition is basically a race to the end of a level. The action on your DS will play out on the top screen, while the bottom screen will show your opponent. You'll find some unique power-ups in the mode that will let you trip up your opponent and help you get the winning edge. The slow power-up will slow down your opponent for a certain amount of time. Confusion will muck with their controls for a short period of time. Finally, attract will pull your competitor back to wherever you are, which is the perfect thing for anyone in last place.
The visuals in the game are outstanding and make good use of the DS' unique rendering qualities. The stages, backgrounds, and basic enemies for the main game are done in sharp, colorful sprites that are rich with detail. Sonic, Blaze and the bosses you'll encounter are rendered out in polygonal form. Sonic and Blaze have the added sheen of cel-shading to their appearance, which makes for clean look that's great. The character animation for Sonic, Blaze, and the bosses is extremely well done and seems to find the right balance between speed and fluid animation. The graphics in the special stage runs are nicely done and feature a psychedelic color palette that's well in line with what you'd expect from the visuals for such a stage in a Sonic game. Finally, the boss fights are set in polygonal areas that feature some 3D elements to them, whether it's camera angles or a circular layout, that are nicely done. The best part of all is the blistering speed the game runs at.
The audio actually matches the slick presentation in Sonic Rush, thanks to a robust and technically impressive assortment of sound, voice, and music. You'll hear a hefty amount of audio from Sonic and the gang, which is pumped out with respectable clarity. The sound effects are all in line with the classic chimes that have been ingrained in our minds. However, the hands-down best part of Sonic Rush's audio is its soundtrack--a stellar, catchy mix of music and sound samples that are great. Though the tunes aren't quite in line with the J-poppy Sonic-style tunes we've come to expect, in fact, they actually call to mind Jet Grind Radio's beat-heavy soundtrack (for those who remember it); they suit the action and this new take on Sonic to a tee.
Based on what we played so far, we feel safe in saying that its doubtful that Sonic Rush is going to disappoint. The game makes good use of the DS hardware, and most excellent use of Sonic himself. The gameplay feels good, and the presentation has a winning charm that's hard to deny. Though the DS is going to have a fall lineup full of many highlights, we expect Sonic Rush to stand out as one to look for when it ships for the system this November. Look for our full review in the coming weeks.
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