Sonic games have always had a love-it-or-hate-it following.
The "hate it" crowd will claim that the games are overly simplistic roller-coasters that require little more than pressing right on the D-pad and periodically jumping, and that they just don't see the appeal, especially when compared to the gameplay standards of today. The "love it" side will generally say the same thing, but place it in a positive light: All you have to do is press right on the D-pad and periodically jump! That's it, that's the whole game! How can that not be appealing?
Of course, that's oversimplifying things a bit -- anyone who's played the classic Sonic games knows they're not nearly as easy as that -- but the streamlined nature of the games is certainly part of the appeal. Sonic games are at their best when the player is constantly in motion, zipping through the levels and navigating the trademark loops and springs in as stylish and effortless a manner as they can. It's the same very specific sort of appeal that draws gamers to titles like Katamari Damacy, where you take a single basic concept that anyone can play with a minimum of fuss, and then refine it to an almost zen-like experience.
In fact, the series derailed spectacularly when it deviated from this formula by introducing new characters with radically different gameplay mechanics, starting with the 3D Sonic Adventure titles. While Sonic's basic concept translated perfectly well to the third dimension, somewhere down the line the series creators decided that simply running through the levels wasn't enough. Suddenly, you weren't just looping through hills at high speed as Sonic, you were going on scavenger hunts as Knuckles the Echidna, bopping enemies with a hammer as Amy Rose, shooting lasers as Gamma the robot, and...fishing, as Big the Cat. It wasn't quite so bad in Sonic Adventure 1, where Sonic's levels still made up a majority of the game, but in the subsequent Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes (and to a slightly lesser extent in the recent Shadow the Hedgehog), the formula became increasingly muddied and distant from the roots of the franchise.
Turns out it may have just been that pesky third dimension getting in the way all along.
With the release of Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS, Sega and Sonic Team seem to have re-embraced their inner speed demons: Rush is the first game in the series since 1994 that manages to feel like an honest-to-God Sonic the Hedgehog game, and not a generic platformer that happened to have Sonic in it.
Things kick off the instant you choose to start a new game, with Sonic ejected, full speed and with no warning, into the traditional Green Hill-style first stage. This serves as the game's introduction and sets the breakneck pace that will be maintained from here on out. If you're used to the older games, don't get too comfortable; despite the return to the speed-oriented 2D layout, there's a healthy amount of additions to the formula. The difference here is that that almost all of them are for the better.
The first thing veterans will likely notice is that the stages are much larger here than in any other Sonic game, but are comparatively free of enemies. Everything is focused on maintaining speed, and as a result there's less of an emphasis on fighting and much more of a focus on being able to react quickly to the layout of the stage itself. What few enemies exist are usually strategically placed as to require fast thinking to take out, commonly showing up at the base of a ramp or some other precarious location where someone who isn't paying attention is likely to get hit by them.
The stages are also loaded with what the manual refers to as "gimmicks". These are simply objects strewn about the level for Sonic to interact with, which is a longstanding series tradition. Sonic 1 had blocks that needed to be pushed into lava and then ridden, Sonic 2 had seesaw springboards used to climb up high cliffs, etc. Here, the gimmicks are far more elaborate and frequent, and more often than not are based on how much momentum Sonic has going into them. Uphill zip lines, trampolines, water slides, and even hangliders all show up, and each stage will usually have a different set of gimmicks in it, which places much more emphasis on maintaining a top speed and finding the most expedient way through a level than previous games in the series. While Sonic 2 would allow players to skillfully race through its stages, Sonic Rush essentially mandates it: Thanks to the reliance on gimmicks to progress, going too slowly is fatal in many situations, particularly in the final few stages.
All this translates into a surprisingly challenging game. Sonic Rush easily ranks as one of the most difficult Sonic games around, and there are a few spots where it might be a little too hard. Cheap, easy deaths abound, and it will usually take you at least two or three times through a level to be able to complete it without nosediving off of a cliff at least once because you jumped when you shouldn't have. The hoary old platformer staple known as the Bottomless Pit may have officially gone out of vogue a few years back, but apparently nobody told Sonic Team about it. Bottomless pits are everywhere in Sonic Rush, and by the end of the game you'll probably feel as though you've fallen into every single one of them.
To offset this a bit, the game is extremely generous with extra lives and allows for infinite continues. Worst case scenario, you get dumped back to Act 1 of the level, which can be a little frustrating, but usually you'll be having too much fun to stay irritated for long.
Boss fights are now a separate stage entirely, and it's worth noting that if you make it through an act only to perish fighting the boss, the game will allow you to continue from the boss fight itself without having to run through the stage again, which is nice. The boss fights themselves revert to a more 3D playing field where Sonic can usually circle around the boss at will, but also must be wary of attacks from above and the sides. The battles can sometimes be very hard; these battles return to the eight-hit system from the earlier games, except now the bosses will drag out new attacks as they take more damage instead of repeating the same pattern over and over. Right when you think you have the pattern down, the boss will pull off some new attack and catch you flat-footed.
The final spike in the Sonic punchbowl is the addition of some trick moves that can be pulled off with the A, B, and R buttons while Sonic is either airborne or grinding down one of the many rails in the game, as well as a Boost meter that lets him instantly dash forward at top speed and maintain velocity for as long as the boost meter holds out. This addition is useful for getting up steep inclines and dispatching groups of enemies, though it makes the classic spin-dash maneuver completely obsolete in the process. Performing tricks or defeating enemies will refill the boost meter, which in turn allows for more air, which leads to more tricks, and so on. Interestingly, these are completely optional for many of the early stages. Anyone who's used to the classic style will probably completely ignore this feature up until about halfway through the game, when they become increasingly necessary to get through the stages at anything other than a snail's pace.
The Boost meter is also used to gain access to the Special Stages, and it's here (and only here) that the game makes use of the more unique aspects of the DS platform.
Special Stages are almost identical to the bonus stages from Sonic 2, where the camera sits behind Sonic as he runs forward down a lengthy half-pipe, collecting rings and avoiding bombs to try to earn a Chaos Emerald at the stage's conclusion. The difference here is that Sonic is controlled with the stylus, which is a neat concept that for the most part works like it should. It runs into a few snags on the ridiculously hard final two stages, where the stylus placement has to be almost impossibly precise, but super-difficult bonus stages are a longstanding series tradition, and the game does make a small concession by allowing you to re-enter the stages more or less indefinitely until you can get it right.
The only other DS-oriented design mechanic in the game is the fact that the action is spread out over both screens, but this winds up being fairly inconsequential in the long run. Some of the later stages are more vertically-oriented than they might've been otherwise, but nothing here really necessitates having two screens. Sonic can freely move between the two, and it initially takes some getting used to in order to train your eyes to follow him properly, but once you do, it feels perfectly natural. The dual-screen aspect may not have been critically necessary but it never really gets in the way, either.
The game makes use of the DS's graphical prowess, however, and the results are impressive. Sonic is rendered with a 3D model that has been cel-shaded a la Jet Set Radio, and it looks perfect. The few fully-3D rendered scenes are usually just cutscenes; the only time Sonic ever moves on the Z-axis is during the boss fights. Everything else is flat, but extremely pretty. The separate levels each have their own distinct designs, and the whole game keeps up a very Sonic-esque presentation, with the exception of one drastic change: the music.
While the game has a tangential resemblance to Jet Set Radio in the graphics department, it has a much more direct relationship when it comes to the music. All the tunes in Sonic Rush were done by Hideki Naganuma, the Japanese composer responsible for the entire (quite legendary) JSR soundtrack. The result is a completely different feel unlike any other Sonic game, replacing the jazzy tunes Masato Nakamura composed for the earlier games in the series with a funk/hip-hop/techno fusion that's heavy on the vocal samples and fantastically upbeat. Purists may be put off by it initially (as I was), but by the end of the game it's hard not to have fallen in love with the new songs. They're vastly different from the music you'd expect a Sonic title to have, but once you get your head around their newness, they fit like a glove.
As for the game's plot, well...it's a Sonic game. Like Mario, Castlevania, and all the other classic platformers from the early nineties, Rush’s plot is completely peripheral to the game itself. The story revolves around Dr. Eggman discovering a way into another dimension that houses the Sol Emeralds, sort of a polar counterpart to the Chaos Emeralds from the earlier games. Eggman (and his evil twin from the alternate dimension, Eggman Nega) are now in possession of the Sol Emeralds, and are looking for the Chaos Emeralds so they can combine the powers of the two and, naturally, rule the world. Like every other game in the series, your goal is ostensibly to obtain the Chaos Emeralds, but you don't actually have to; you can still finish the game, but you'll be unable to enter the secret final level until all the Chaos Emeralds are in Sonic's possession.
The plot also introduces the other playable character in the game, newcomer Blaze the Cat. Sonic and Blaze each have their own plot they follow, and the two stories intertwine at various points. Blaze is selectable after the first stage has been completed, and plays the same levels as Sonic, but in a different order. While Sonic must complete the bonus stages in each level to get the Chaos Emeralds, Blaze merely needs to complete the level itself, gaining back a Sol Emerald for each boss she beats. Finish the game with Blaze and a fully-loaded Sonic, and the customary "Super" final stage opens up.
Blaze herself will probably be a point of contention between players because she plays almost exactly the same way as Sonic. There are a few differences: Blaze has a hover-like ability, and her mid-air tricking launches her significantly higher than Sonic's, which lets her reach places he can't and changes the possibilities for level navigation a bit. She's also a bit slower and, oddly, less attack-prone. While Sonic can curl into a ball while running and mow down enemies, Blaze loses a ton of speed if she tries the same thing. Other than that, though, the two are more or less interchangeable. Blaze gets some remixed music for her stages and that's about it. Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more done with Blaze, but there's enough different about her that her runs through the levels are still interesting. While she may not add a whole new dimension to the gameplay or anything, she certainly doesn't detract from it either, so I'm not going to complain.
The bottom line is that this is the best Sonic game since Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and if this is any indication of where the series is headed from here on out, then there are going to be many happy Sonic fans indeed. Hopefully those who've passed on the series before will give this game a shot as well, because this really is the kind of game you just don't see too often these days, and certainly not done this well. A few level-design kinks need to be ironed out before we're going to have a genuine classic on our hands, but the game gets so much of it right that it's easy to overlook the few things that could still use some tweaking.
All in all, Sonic Rush is a thrilling return to form for Sega's Blue Bomber. Welcome back, buddy.