Games 2/21/07: Sonic and the Secret Rings, Wii Play

Sonic and the Secret Rings
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Sonic Team/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Cartoon Violence)

Few video game mascots have had a rougher 21st century than Sonic, who has been party to one three-dimensional letdown after another since showing promise seven years ago on the Dreamcast.

With “Sonic and the Secret Rings,” Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog finally gets his intervention. The Wii’s unique controller all but forces Sonic to go back to the gameplay style that made him famous — blazing forward, jumping with precision, grabbing rings and busting some heads in mid-air for good measure. Boring exploration, pointless mech levels, contrived teamwork garbage, a bewildered camera that doesn’t know where to point … all gone, replaced by a fast, single-minded, streamlined adventure that employs the Wiimote’s motion controls with sterling results.

“Rings” plays as much like a racer as an adventure game, and it’s laid out like a cross between the two as well. Each locale features a collection of levels akin to tracks in a race. Some merely ask you to stay alive, while others sport more clever objectives (don’t break any jars in your path, beat x number of enemies before reaching the goal). Levels from different areas often become available out of order, and you’re free to complete any open challenge, increase Sonic’s abilities, and use that boost to tackle levels you previously couldn’t lick (or simply replay completed levels in hopes of achieving the top ranking in each). The best of both worlds are here: You get a decent enough story to glue the adventure together, but you also get plenty of motivation to replay levels long after you see how the story ends.

“Rings” scores additional points by tacking on a multiplayer party mode other developers might attempt to pass off as a standalone game (“Fuzion Frenzy 2,” anyone?). There are 40 mini-games here, and “Rings” offers multiple ways to play them (board game style, treasure hunt style, tournament style) and support for four players (or computer opponents of adjustable difficulty to fill in when necessary). Some of the mini-games are sloppy to the point of broken, but most are fun and quite a few of them are really inspired. Not bad at all for what essentially is a cherry on the sundae.

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Wii Play
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (Mild Cartoon Violence)

Everything the Wii is today, it owes to “Wii Sports,” a freebie collection of sports games that everyone assumed would be a temporary diversion but instead materialized as the system’s first killer app. Who can blame “Wii Play” for wanting to ride the same wave into people’s collective consciousness? The price certainly is right: “Play” costs $50 but includes a $40 Wiimote, so it’s essentially a $10 game if you have some use for an additional controller.

“Play” features nine mini-games which aim — in case “Sports,” “Rayman: Raving Rabbids” and “WarioWare” weren’t convincing — to demonstrate just how versatile that Wiimote really is. To that effect, it certainly succeeds. Games range from a “Duck Hunt”-style shooting gallery (point and shoot, Zapper-style) to billiards (hold the Wiimote like a pool cue) to fishing (fishing rod) to “Pong”-style air hockey (paddle) to table tennis (ditto).

In terms of quality and control, “Play” aces every test. Billiards feels like billiards, fishing feels like fishing, and the stranger games — which include cow racing, a “Where’s Waldo”-style game involving your Mii characters and a fantastic little “Battle Tanx” knockoff — are great fun.

Feature-wise, though … yikes. While “Sports” certainly didn’t do all it could in the options department, it did enough. “Play,” however, offers next to nothing. The billiards game features only one game style, and the table tennis game only ends if you complete (or fail to complete) a 100-volley rally. There’s no scoring. Since the only object of each game is to obtain a gold medal-worthy score, options (or even varying difficulty levels) aren’t allowed. Once you’ve gone for the gold, little motivation exists to go further.

Some issues resolve themselves with a second player: Table tennis features scoring, while the games in general are more challenging and unpredictable. But that’s not enough to keep “Play” from feeling like a giant tease. It’s easily worth the $10 if you could use a new Wiimote, but you’ll wish you could pay four times that for a billiards game that combines this level of control with some real depth. Nintendo has made its case for the Wiimote’s versatility; now it’s time to make some games that speak to ours