For a while we thought Sonic was a goner, a blue hedgehog-shaped smear on the tarmac of gaming history. With Sonic Team's every attempted step forward, his scores plummeted down. Multiple characters exploring 3D environments? Say hello to the 70s. Big the Cat? It's the 60s for you. Sonic with guns? He's practically hibernating in a nest of 50s. With Secret Rings, the team has finally realised that the only way forwards is backwards and - not to come over too Riddler-like - in Sonic's case the only way backwards is forwards. At breakneck speeds.
Essence of hog
Filter him down into his purest form - the original Sonic on Mega Drive - and you'll find little more than the urge to move forwards. Speedily moving from the left of the screen to the right, Sonic was about distance covered and little else. In Secret Rings this purity of motivation has been gloriously rediscovered, with Sonic sent zipping along, jumping obstacles and bopping the occasional baddie on the head like it was 1991.
Despite the 3D expanses visible in these screenshots, the game dictates how you progress with an invisible racing line that Sonic doggedly, or hedgehoggedly, adheres to. At first this is slightly befuddling. Preparing for incoming landscape only to see the blue bullet veer off in a new direction makes you feel a bit helpless, and with control largely limited2 to tilting the remote to steer, a few suspicions are raised of how much actual game playing is going on.
Spend some time in Sonic's well-worn boots and these suspicions are unfounded. Any developer trying to capture speed has no choice but to take some freedom out of the player's hands; left to our own devices it's unlikely we'd find the most aesthetically pleasing or challenging route through the landscapes - and this is what Sonic Team achieves by putting the game on the rails.
Secondly, gameplay is not a simple case of running from one end to the other. An objectives system akin to Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam is in place, forcing players to rerun particular sections of the overall track with different goals to complete. Collecting X amount of rings, killing a certain number of enemies, beating the clock - these objectives are the very challenges that gamers in 16-bit days would delight in imposing on themselves once they'd completed the game and wanted to stretch out the playing experience. In paying homage to the fan tradition of repeat runs, Secret Rings reveals itself to be the first Sonic title since the early nineties glory days to actually take the time to think about what made Sonic so popular in the first place.
Completely new, however, is the ability system. With an RPG-ish vibe Sonic can stock certain skills that affect how he handles. From simple speed increases to more minor tinkering with Sonic's skidding distances, the idea is to equip Sonic before each task to give him the best fighting chance. While some tasks are impossible without certain skills - such as homing attacks to bop across an enemy-filled gap - outside of these move-set altering abilities, many of the 99 skills available feel slightly superfluous; minor adjustments that rarely affect gameplay. Once Sonic has amassed the core set of more obviously 'useful' abilities he's one powerful hedgehog - but a skill-slot-limiting levelling system does a good job of keeping such a combo out of your hands until you're well into the game.
This isn't to say that Secret Rings is a walk/blistering sprint in the park - another nod back to its Mega Drive roots is its old school challenge. Initial runs through the levels are easy enough, generous checkpoints and unlimited attempts easing us through. It's with later objectives that things get nasty, requiring perfect memory of obstacle and foe layout to even think about nailing the unimpressive bronze medals and near-godlike skills needed to unlock golds. Levels become mere chains of moves with left-left-jump-shake-tilt-jump-right-right-jump etched in your memory.