Review – Sonic and the Secret Rings

Here is perhaps my most controversial review ever. Not because of what I have to say about Sonic and the Secret Rings, but because of the context in which I say it. I was unable to finish Sonic, not because of time constraints (it was a rental), but because I gave up on an increasingly frustrating game and control scheme. I have much to talk about, but the question is whether it means anything at all.

Secret Rings attempts to redo Sonic in 3d by limiting your movement capabilities in order to emulate, ironically, the 2d Sonics of yore. Sonic always moves forward (he can move backwards, but its only meant for backing up a few paces to retry something). All you have to do is jump and steer left and right. The game plays like the levels of Sonic Adventure 1, complete with blistering speed and “on rails” segments where Sonic just runs loops and hoops without your input. It is fast and visceral, emulating the feel of the 2d games in the complexity of 3d space. It’s all about nailing that smooth, fast, perfect run through a level, and after years of bullshit in our Sonic games, it feels great – when it works.

The truth about Secret Rings is that it doesn’t always want you to go fast. Sometimes it actually wants you to slow down or even stop. This shouldn’t be a bad thing; every Sonic game has its slow parts. But unlike Secret Rings, those games never limited your control, never kept pushing you forward with such force. In this game, when you have to come to a complete stop to charge up a high jump, it feels awkward. It destroys the rhythm of the level, and you have to constantly regain your speed. It might also kill you if you don’t stop in time and fall off a ledge. Other times Sonic will notice an item he has to pick up or an alternate route he needs to take, but by the time he’s done talking about it you’re a mile away. At that point you are either a) backtracking a long way, b) forced to loop through the level again, or c) royally screwed and probably dead again.

Why is Mickey Mouse learning how to use the wiimote?

It even makes you wait when attacking. Sonic can’t simply jump on his foes. He has to use a homing attack, which is only effective when you’ve locked on to something. The sluggish locking mechanism means that a hasty strike will fail, and if you happen to be bouncing from enemy to enemy to get across a chasm (which happens quite frequently), you’re going to be dead again.

None of it makes sense. When Sonic is chasing a flying bird circling a castle in the sky by running on the rainbow trail it leaves behind, Secret Rings is an absolute thrill. So why does the game have me stopping to collect dinosaur eggs and throwing switches? Half the time the game feels fluid and coherent, and the other half it’s a hodgepodge of different ideas thrown together to see if they stick. For as much as it strips Sonic gameplay to the bare essentials, Secret Rings still has a bit too much clutter.

I could forgive a lot of these errors if I could fully enjoy the speedier sections of the game, but at times, even these sections become impossible thanks to the controls. It all starts with the tutorials. Like the regular missions, they often get you running at top speed, and only when the hazards are upon you does it tell you what to do. By the time you’ve read the instructions you’ve messed up. You try again, and fumble with each new technique, because the descriptions on how to perform them are horribly vague and thrust upon you without warning. You may tire your arms thrusting the wiimote forward in order to attack, until you realize you can just tilt it forward to get the same result. Or, if you are like me, you’ll try to change rails while grinding and always end up jumping left (and dying more times than you can count).

Secret Rings is one game on a list of Wii titles that has me beginning to worry about the premise of motion sensing controls. Like those in Trauma Center and Dragonball Z before it, some of Sonic’s actions demand excessive precision in order to actually work. In the heat of a level, the last thing I want to check is whether the wiimote is parallel to the ground, though I’m not even certain if that was causing some of my issues. Things need to become a lot simpler and forgiving if Wii games are going to achieve their potential.

Triceratops may be slow, but Quadceratops are fucking fast!

The final straw for my control woes came when Secret Rings performed a major sin of gaming; it became something that you “have to play for two or three hours before it really opens up.” Like almost every character of the last three years, Sonic can now level up and gain new abilities. These skills do simple things like make Sonic go faster, turn better or stop on a dime. If you play through to the end, it surely makes all of the levels much more enjoyable, and may even open up new paths. But this kind of RPG bullshit also means that in the beginning you are stuck with a hedgehog that navigates like a cinder block, and once the control issues kick in there is little incentive to push forward and earn the abilities that make life easier.

So there you have it. Sonic and the Secret Rings is a fantastic concept that is ruined by modern day gaming fluff and major control issues. As much as it changes the series, it still fails for exactly the same reasons as all the recent Sonic games.

And so now we get to the controversy. I’ve read many scathing reviews of very good games where it was clear that the reviewer didn’t play the game past the initial levels, or they simply did not understand how the gameplay worked and what it was trying to accomplish. This always frustrates me, because it rarely seems to be the fault of the game when a writer doesn’t “get” it. If they can’t spend the time and effort to finish what they started, and to understand some basic concepts, then what right do they have to criticize?

So here I sit, not only having failed to finish Secret Rings, but wondering if during all that play I never really “got” it. Would it be different if I tried again? Does anything I say pass muster? Am I any better than IGN and their atrocious review of God Hand?

Considering how personal gaming experiences can be, perhaps I shouldn’t care at all.

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16 years ago

You seem to be in line with what all the other reviewers were stating about it, so I don’t think it’s the same case as Red Steel, where people just didn’t play it right. Everywhere you go they say the game is basically bi-polar: it can be really fun, but also really annoying. So your review sounds pretty accurate. And a startling revelation I’ve heard is that some reviewers don’t finish some of the games they review. IGN had a podcast about the most overrated games that the writers reviewed (Godhand was cited in that podcast too, but for opposite reasons), and some confessed to not having finished some of their games. And I can’t imagine a game changing for the better at the end. It might add something cool, but the majority is still what you find in the first half or three quarters. And, back to the review, it sucks that the game had a lot of potential and didn’t live up to it. I was looking forward to it, but I may try a rental.

16 years ago

Thanks for the info Matt. I haven’t read any Sonic reviews (I’ve only seen scores), so its good to know I’m not alone.  As for IGN, I’m both amazed and unsurprised that they’ve admitted to not finishing games before passing final judgement.  I know about time contraints and all that, but it still seems amateur.  If only more gamers realized the site is an overbloated fanzine :)

16 years ago

i think that a lot of reviews are written by people who have not finished the game.  most sites put a premium on being able to get their review out first, which not only leads to the incestuous relationship between publishers and reviewers (since reviewers want exclusive access), but also leads to crappy reviews since time constraints are such an issue.  one on hand, i want to know if a game has lived up to its hype immediately, but the better measure, and the one that makes me more likely to buy a game, is whether or not that game can endure the test of a little time.