Sonic the Hedgehog: The Storybook Adventures

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The Nintendo Wii was a peculiar system, as those who have spent any time in its company will attest. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Rather, I’m referring to the fact that out of all the consoles in that particular generation of hardware, you were most likely to find completely unique games for Nintendo’s hardware rather than straight ports. Sometimes this happened due to a desire to make use of the Wii’s unusual control scheme; sometimes it happened as a side effect of the system’s lack of power compared to its Sony and Microsoft peers. It always resulted in games that are fascinating — not always the best, but definitely always fascinating.

And the Sonic the Hedgehog series was no exception to this rule.

Sonic’s first outing on the Wii was originally intended to be a port of Sonic 2006, but the team soon canned that idea after being presented with a development kit and discovering the disparity in power and graphical fidelity. Instead, Sega decided that the team working on Sonic 2006 should be split in two, with half continuing with the game for HD consoles, and half developing something entirely new for the Wii.

Sega made this decision on the grounds that they believed it would be too much work to port the ambitious HD game to a less powerful platform. In retrospect, it would probably have worked out better for them if they had just done that — or perhaps taken the approach they did with the later Sonic Unleashed, which had a version specifically for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and a somewhat different but related version for Wii and a near-death PlayStation 2.

Hindsight is 20/20, as the cliche goes, though, and instead what happened is that Sonic 2006 suddenly found itself with a development team half the size of what it started with, and a new subteam that needed to start a new project from scratch that would take advantage of the possibilities the Wii offered. The end results of both of these events had a somewhat mixed reception, to put it mildly — but they both remain exploring, as we’ve already seen with Sonic 2006, and as we shall see today with what would become 2007’s Sonic and the Secret Rings.

Producer Yojiro Ogawa, who had been placed in charge of the Wii project, began working from a starting point of Sonic constantly moving forward, and developed the idea from there. Speaking with Steve Thomason of Nintendo Power in March 2007, Ogawa noted that “when we first started thinking about it, the system was still called the Revolution, so we thought we should revolutionise Sonic. I wanted to do something that people haven’t seen in previous Sonic titles.”

The game was announced at 2006’s E3 event as Sonic Wild Fire, but it underwent several name changes during development, passing through Hyper Sonic and Sonic and the Secret of the Rings before settling on its eventual final title, Sonic and the Secret Rings.

Sonic and the Secret Rings deliberately drew aesthetic influence from popular games including Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, Ubisoft’s well-received Prince of Persia reboots, and Sony’s God of War. The decision to set the game in the world of the Arabian Nights was part of Ogawa’s attempt to “do something that people haven’t seen in previous Sonic titles,” and the team made use of Ageia’s PhysX engine (as opposed to Havok, which was used in Sonic 2006) to power the experience and include a sense of dynamic, physically interactive environments throughout the levels.

If Sonic 2006 is the “big budget movie” of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, then Sonic and the Secret Rings is the prog rock concept album. It’s experimental, it’s different and not everyone will respond well to it — but there are some really interesting things going on, both in terms of its mechanics and its presentation.

Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic sucked into the world of Arabian mythology by a genie named Shahra, who informs him that a villainous djinn called Erazor is destroying the pages of the Arabian Nights book — and gradually obliterating her world in the process. Sonic, being Sonic, agrees to help before promptly finding himself cursed by Erazor, doomed to die when the flaming arrow lodged in his chest is snuffed out unless he retrieves the “Seven World Rings”. Thus begins a quest to stop Erazor’s rampage, save Sonic’s life and restore the world of the Arabian Nights to how it should be. See what I mean? Pure concept album stuff.

Unusually, Sonic is the only character who remains aware of his “true” identity; other Sonic characters put in an appearance over the course of the narrative, but they’re all “playing a part” — Tails is Ali Baba, for example, Knuckles is Sinbad the Sailor, and Eggman is Shahryār. This is a relatively early example of an established game cast being used as “virtual actors” and stepping out of the context they are most commonly known in; these days, we see this happening relatively often with the spin-off titles for prolific series such as Neptunia and Senran Kagurabut at the time Sonic and the Secret Rings was released, it was a relatively unusual practice.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sonic and the Secret Rings is probably one of the most well-presented games on the Wii. Although only running in standard definition thanks to the console’s inherent limitations, the system is clearly pushed to the limit to render expansive, detailed and dynamic levels that are packed with detail and which are thrilling to explore — or perhaps more accurately, given the nature of the game, take a rollercoaster thrill ride through.

The game unfolds across seven environments, each of which is visually distinct from the others, and each of which is complemented by its own music, typically featuring lyrics that relate to what is going on with the story of the game at the time. While placing an emphasis on guitar-based rock as in many of the games from Sonic Adventure onwards, the Middle Eastern theme is incorporated into the music through the use of traditional instruments from the region as well as its compositional structures and harmonies. The result is something that has a very coherent sense of style about it, which further adds to the “concept album” feeling of the game as a whole.

In gameplay terms, the game is as much a racing game as it is a platform game. There have been elements of racing games in the Sonic series almost since its inception — though it was Sonic Adventure where they became more obviously pronounced — but Sonic and the Secret Rings really pushes them to the forefront. There’s a strong emphasis on learning the levels to complete them efficiently, and Sonic’s auto-running coupled with the idiosyncratic (but undeniably effective) control scheme further adds to the “racing” feel.

The controls are likely where some people will bounce off Sonic and the Secret Rings. Your only option is to make use of the Wii Remote by itself. No Nunchuk, no Classic Controller, just good ol’ vanilla Wii Remote with a healthy dose of motion controls. Holding the controller sideways, you can steer Sonic left and right by tilting it to the sides, you can brake by pressing the “1” button, you can jump by pressing the “2” button, you can land quickly (“jump cancel”) by pressing either button in mid-air, and you can use Sonic’s signature homing attack by thrusting the controller forwards. That’s essentially everything you need to know to play the game; the additional mechanics added on top of that are all variations on a theme. More on that in a moment.

It takes a little getting used to if you were expecting a traditional platform game, but it’s actually better to think of Sonic and the Secret Rings as something more akin to an extreme sports racing game such as a snowboarding sim. This is probably most apparent with the unusual jumping mechanics, whereby you perform a short hop if you tap the “2” button, but holding it down causes Sonic to start sliding and “charging” a higher jump, with this only being unleashed when you actually let go of the button.

Mastery of the jumping — and the “jump cancel” — is essential to progressing through the game, but it’s also important to get a feel for how Sonic’s homing attack works here. This was the first of the 3D Sonic games to make use of an actual targeting reticle for his homing attack rather than you simply tapping the jump button in mid-air, and while it was later refined considerably for titles such as Sonic Lost World, it works rather well here — and it ties in with the jumping. Hold that “2” button and a green reticle will appear on the nearest enemy or potential homing attack target. Unleash the jump and the green reticle will turn red, indicating Sonic has locked on and can use his homing attack on that target. As in most other 3D Sonic games, a successful homing attack causes him to bounce up in the air for a moment, providing ample time for another lock-on to smash through a chain of enemies.

There’s actually quite a strong sense of Sega arcade game DNA running through Sonic and the Secret Rings, and this is probably most apparent in its structure. Rather than a linear series of levels or an interconnected open world, Sonic and the Secret Rings unfolds as discrete missions, with several more unlocking when you complete one. Generally, the first mission you do in a newly unlocked level will involve running through its entirety to get to the goal, but after that you’ll have specific objectives to complete, usually while doing “laps” of a smaller area. Some of these will advance the plot, others will just be challenges to complete; the game doesn’t explicitly distinguish between them. In many ways, it’s an evolution of Team Chaotix’s stages from Sonic Heroes, with much shorter, snappier levels.

Those objectives challenge your skills in a variety of ways, and there’s often an interesting twist on what appears to be a simple formula. “Rampage” missions, for example, task you with defeating a set number of enemies — but there may be some puzzles along the way to make sufficient enemies actually appear for you to defeat. “Head to Head” levels, where you must race a wind spirit through part of the stage, generally involve spotting and making use of shortcuts as much as possible. And sometimes the objectives challenge you to go against your normal instincts, such as completing a level with no rings in hand, no enemies defeated or no scenery objects destroyed.

Despite its simple mechanics, Sonic and the Secret Rings actually becomes rather engrossing, thrilling and even stressful as its missions increase in difficulty. Once you get a feel for the controls, you can respond to situations with surprising agility, and the levels constantly make highly creative use of the the things you are able to do. The boss fights throughout are a particular highlight, emphasising careful observation and precise timing rather than demanding the sort of pinpoint accuracy or brute force you might expect from a confrontation like this in a more conventional platform game.

One of the interesting additions to the game’s overall formula is an RPG-style levelling and skill system. Upon completing a mission, Sonic receives experience points, and levelling up provides him with skill points, unlocks new skills and sometimes increases the maximum number of rings he is able to carry — effectively increasing his maximum “hit points”, since he drops rings 20 at a time rather than all at once in this game.

The skills can be equipped onto a ring, and each cost a certain number of skill points to do so, with more powerful or effective skills costing more. As such, while Sonic is of a relatively low level, he’ll have to be quite selective about the skills he makes use of, but this becomes less of an issue as he gains levels.

The skills themselves fall into several different categories, generally emphasising speed, defensive abilities or attacking abilities. The speed skills do things like increase Sonic’s maximum speed or acceleration as well as his agility in moving left and right in various situations; the defensive skills allow him to escape danger, soak damage or recover from mistakes more easily; and the fiery attack skills often allow Sonic to attack through otherwise benign moves as well as his homing attack. Four separate loadouts of skills can be saved, allowing for the creation of various Sonic “builds” appropriate for the different situations the various missions will present you with.

There’s a surprising amount of depth to Sonic and the Secret Rings, then. It’ll take you about six or seven hours to play through the story, but after that there’s the obligatory “true ending”, an array of other missions to complete, time medals to chase, scores to beat, levels to gain, skills to learn and additional content to unlock for the game’s “Special Book”. This latter feature contains all manner of interesting goodies ranging from movies and music from the game to developer interviews and concept art, so longtime Sonic fans would do well to check it out. There’s also a multiplayer party game mode; oddly, much of the content for this is unlocked through collectible items in the single player mode rather than simply being available from the outset, but if you have friends who might be up for playing the surprisingly varied minigames on offer here, you’ll want to spend some time mastering the single player challenges.

Or you could move on to Sonic and the Black Knight, the one and only follow-up to Sonic and the Secret Rings in what has become known as the “Sonic Storybook” series — and a game that those who found Secret Rings’ motion controls to be an insurmountable obstacle to their enjoyment will almost certainly find a lot more palatable.

Sonic and the Black Knight, as any Monty Python fans will have doubtless already determined, transplants Sonic to the world of King Arthur, a story which you’ve probably heard many different twists on over the years. In this particular instance, the titular Black Knight and King Arthur are one and the same; the monarch has been overcome by an evil spirit inhabiting the scabbard of Excalibur and has generally been causing a whole lot of misery for his people, so it’s up to Sonic, summoned from his world by a young elfin woman named Merlina (apparently Merlin’s granddaughter, not a genderbend), to sort everything out. In order to do this, he’ll have to discover the legendary sword Caliburn (who, it turns out, is a rather sarcastic and grumpy old British man at heart) and learn what it means to be a knight.

Once again, Sonic is the only character who appears to retain his own identity — with the script, the beautiful cutscenes by Media.Vision and Jason Griffith’s excellent delivery really emphasising the endearingly cocky side of his personality this time around — while other members of the supporting cast take on other roles in the story. In this case, Shadow, Knuckles and Blaze play Arthur’s knights Lancelot, Gawain and Percival respectively, while Amy gets the honour of being the Lady of the Lake. Rather delightfully, it’s clear in most of these cases that the cast are trying their very best to stay “in character” to varying levels of success, with Amy seemingly finding it particularly difficult to maintain the appropriate level of grace and composure one would expect of the legendary Lady.

In gameplay terms, Sonic and the Black Knight builds on Sonic and the Secret Rings, but abandons the almost total reliance on motion controls. Instead, movement is now handled by the Nunchuk’s analogue stick and jumping works more like how you would expect from a typical platform game. The only “waggle” aspect to the controls comes through the sword Sonic wields; you swing it by flicking the Wii Remote, with the exact move that comes out being determined primarily by timing and context.

The addition of more explicit combat than most Sonic games has led to the inclusion of some new mechanics too. You earn more points at the end of a stage for chaining together scoring events such as collecting items or getting the first hit on an enemy in rapid succession, and there’s a separate “hit” counter for defeating enemies with minimal delay between them. At the end of a level, you receive a star rating according to your performance, along with “followers” that are used to level up. You’ll also earn Achievement-like “titles” through your actions — these both reward good play and shame “un-knightly” behaviour such as hurting civilians or hitting enemies from behind.

Completing a level rewards Sonic with loot that must be identified using a limited stock of points that are accumulated with each successful mission. Some items are purely cosmetic, others unlock additional content in the game’s Gallery feature, and others still can be equipped by Shadow, Knuckles and Blaze when they become playable in the latter hours of the game. The game also offered the ability to trade items with friends online upon its original release, but the closure of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection service means it’s up to you and you alone to recover all 242 items if you want to “100%” the game.

The apparent main story of the game is extremely short; you can see the credits roll in less than two hours. However, there’s a significant amount of story still left to go after this initial “ending”, and, like Secret Rings, there’s also an arcade game-like sense that the game wants you to replay levels in an attempt to get better times and scores rather than just treat the game as a “once and done” sort of affair.

Sonic and the Black Knight eschews Secret Rings’ conventional experience points and levelling up system, instead allowing Sonic to grow in power according to a combination of his follower count and the total number of stars he has earned. Reaching new levels of proficiency (by earning stars) or levels of knighthood (by earning followers) unlocks new skills; unlike Secret Rings, these are all permanent upgrades rather than individual elements that need to be strategically equipped. However, later in the game, Sonic gains the ability to switch between balanced, powerful and speedy styles, each with their own independent proficiency level, and the three additional playable characters likewise have their own progression as well as equippable items that they are able to use.

Like Secret Rings, Sonic and the Black Knight is a game you can be done with relatively quickly if you want to be, but there’s plenty of replayability and longevity there if you do want to engage with the game’s deeper aspects. If anything, the game doesn’t really make its depth apparent early enough — it’ll be well after your first credits roll that you unlock the different styles for Sonic and the other playable characters, for example, and it’s not hard to imagine someone putting the game aside well before that, assuming that they’ve “beaten” it.

Ultimately, Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic and the Black Knight are some of the most interesting games in the Sonic the Hedgehog series. They’re far from the best, but they’re well worth a look for their uniqueness if nothing else — plus their blend of the Sonic characters with established, well-known mythologies makes them utterly charming, particularly for those with a fascination for the legends and fables of the real world.

They’re also, in many ways, the quintessential example of “weird Wii adaptations of popular series” — a phenomenon we probably won’t see again, what with Nintendo’s return to (relative) normality on the Switch. So if you have an interest in unconventional and creative games — or you’re just a die-hard Sonic fan — you’ll want to add these odd titles to your collection. They’ll be a prime source of some interesting “hey, remember when…” stories in years to come.

More about the Sonic the Hedgehog series

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