Rings that make you go, “Huh?”
The year was 1991. Nintendo dominated the home video game universe ever since the pre-historic days of Atari, and was seemingly unstoppable - releasing hugely popular title after hugely popular title featuring everybody’s favorite fireball-shooting plumbers and green-suited swordsman. Was there nobody out there that could break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the console market? Nobody at all?
[image1]Well, yes, there was in fact, and that… er, mammal… was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega had been nipping at Nintendo’s workbooted heels for years, but it wasn’t until the release of the Sega Genesis and its flagship character, Sonic, that they started to give the mustachioed giant a run for its money. With its popular hyper-speedy, ring-chasing, cobalt blue, nocturnal insectivore as its mascot, Sega - and Sonic - had arrived.
Fast forward to 2008. Actually, let’s not. Can’t we just take a moment to think back to a happier, simpler time when Sonic brought joy and high velocity to boys and girls around the world? Do we have to look at him now and see what he’s become? Because frankly, my friends, Sonic isn’t looking so good these days. Like an aging actor starring in progressively lamer films, Sonic has been featured in a number of sub-par games in recent years. His latest offering is Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity, and to be honest, it’s like listening to Orson Welles try to sell frozen peas. It’s downright embarrassing.
Zero Gravity starts out on the right paw with a nice-looking cut sequence. The back story is this: A strange blue ring falls from the sky and brings to life an army of robotic security drones. They’re not the only ones to have received jewelry from above, however, as another ring has shown up at Tails’ place. The robots, apparently looking for a matched set, suddenly appear behind the hovercar Sonic and Tails are riding in, prepared to take the pretty bangle by force. Sonic, of course, is having none of that. He orders Tails to gun it, and the chase is on. It’s an interesting beginning, to be sure, but ultimately the story starts to feel tacked on. It’s a racing game, for Pete’s sake - it doesn’t need a storyline. When the mission of every level is “get to the end before the other guys”, it makes you wonder why they bothered with missions at all.
[image2]What the story does explain are new, interesting game mechanics. Sonic’s mysterious ring grants him the power of - you guessed it - zero gravity, allowing our spiny friend to suspend all the rules of physics that Isaac Newton so nicely discovered for us. When he uses the ring’s power, Sonic stops in his tracks, hovering in place until he lets go and shoots forward in whatever direction he’s pointed. With the ring, Sonic can make a hairpin turn on a dime or point himself skyward and launch himself into the atmosphere. He can also smack himself into a brick wall or shoot himself straight off the edge of a cliff - with great power comes great responsibility. Used well, however, these kind of speed-conserving tricks are what fast, fun racers are made of.
The big problem here, though, is the controls. On the Wii, Zero Gravity’s default setting is the horizontal “steering wheel” Wii-mote position. (Note to game developers: If you’re going to make this the default, you might want to let your players know by the opening screen, so they don’t spend twenty minutes just trying to enter their name. Thanks, guys!). While this position is supposed to allow for more nuanced steering, it just doesn’t work very well, and you’ll find yourself caroming from one side of the track to the other as if it was Sonic Pinball. The vertical Wii-mote position setting isn’t much better, either. The only option that works halfway decent is using an old GameCube controller, which is similar to the PS2 control scheme. Again, not a classic controller, mind you, a GameCube controller. Is that some sort of ill-conceived attempt at revenge against Nintendo for smacking down your console dreams, Sega?
It’s too bad, because the game is otherwise put together well. The graphics are pretty sharp, and offer a wide variety of worlds to take in from a futuristic cityscape to a vine-covered jungle and a kung-fu palace decor. When you’re not moving too fast to take it all in, there’s a good amount of detail to look at. The music likewise is decent - a thumping, electronic beat which meshes well with the high speed, futuristic, metal-and-lights Sonic world.
[image3]The twists Zero Gravity places on the racing genre are innovative, though there just isn’t enough “wow” factor to keep you playing for long. You can perform tricks on your hoverboard, but the only trick you’re really performing is hitting a single button at the right time. Once you’ve mastered that challenge (which takes about four tries), you’ll quickly get bored of it. Likewise, the rings you collect (it is a Sonic game, after all) allow you to purchase on-the-fly “gear changes”, upgrading your stats or letting you do new tricks like rail grinding. The only problem with this is that the early levels of upgrade don’t make much difference, while the later, more powerful gear boosts require so many rings that you lose ground on your competitors just slowing slow down to pick up bling.
If you no longer feel the need for speed, you can switch over to several mini-games, all of which play off of the 'zero gravity' concept. It’s fun to shoot futuristic soccer balls into nets and flip wicked 180s and fire missiles at your buddies for a while - but only for a while. Sadly, the game doesn’t offer any remote play, so your buddies have to be sitting next to you. The only online aspect of Sonic is a leaderboard, which means you can have all the excitement of racing against other people without any of the, well, excitement.
It’s sad, really. Now that Sega’s console days have gone the way of the Colecovision, Sonic just doesn’t get the respect that he used to. I imagine that he’s got a mortgage to pay and baby hedgehogs to put through school, so he probably needs the royalties to keep starring in these mediocre games. But Sonic, please, if you’re listening, put the hoverboard down and take up motivational speaking or something. You’re embarrassing yourself.