Version tested: DS
Bad news, Internet. After years of unspoken understanding that if a Sonic game is going to be rubbish they would put "Adventure" in the name, whack a few jet-skis in it or make half of it 3D, Sonic Team has betrayed us all with this week's Sonic Rush sequel - a damn fine DS game that does all of the above. So where did it all go right?
Certainly not in the opening scenes. After Sonic and Tails crash-land on a beach, they find themselves having to collect rocks and minerals from a string of islands in the middle of the ocean, building various watercraft so they can scour further and further afield.
So far so what, but before long they become entangled with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar and unbelievably annoying talking animals who, in that immortal phrase, make the Ewoks look like f***ing Shaft. Marine, some sort of remedial woodland possum, has been written as an Australian and her dialogue gives the impression of a writer who heard the accent down the pub and then tried to remember how it all went. Dinkum! Strewth! Crikey! Bugger!
Grin and bear or skip the cut-scenes though and the rest is either good or really good. When you find a new island, you use the stylus to draw a route on a watery map and then set off on waterbike, yacht, sub or hovercraft. Each is played out as a specific mini-game - you control the waterbike by dragging it from left to right to collect rings, and leap off ramps and perform tricks by matching stroke prompts, for instance, and the sub game is a stylish little rhythm-action number.
When you land, you get to do traditional Sonic platforming - blasting your way across 2D levels that put more emphasis on speed and reactions than Rush perhaps did, absorbing a lot of its better ideas in the process. The subtle use of 3D graphics and perspective switches is welcome - drums bounce you towards the camera to dodge past walls, fishing hooks catch you and hurl you into the air - and call to mind New Super Mario Bros' unpredictable visuals.
Like Rush, the game regularly switches the action between the top and bottom screens. This can seem a bit random to begin with, but you later realise that it's helping you to see what's coming or what's likely to fall, and the designers also use it as a foil for little visual flourishes - like a Kraken boss who starts of fighting you up-top and then drags the whole arena over the hinge and into the water when he gets cross.
The 2D stuff, meanwhile, is as good as Sonic's ever looked, with lively new environments like a watery world resplendent with vibrant coral and tons of interesting enemies, which are more Castlevania these days than Green Hill Zone. The frame-rate's smoother than Blaze the Cat's fur, too, although it gets a bit hissy during some of the 3D boss fights.
Navigating the environments is slightly more complicated than old-days Sonic, as Rush fans remember, with dash functions and tricks to power up the returning tension meter (a good tool), along with a double-jump that you can use for certain jumps, but you never feel out of control as you dart through steamy mechanical worlds or hidden zones full of barrel-tossing monkeys, as the design beckons you this way and that along lots of cleverly intermingled tangents of exploration.
Getting the most out of Sonic's sprawling, complicated levels was always tricky because, certainly on the first visit, you often missed things due to slow reactions. But with Tails on the hunt for lots of materials, there's often good cause to return to levels you've already finished, and they keep on giving. You react faster than you did before, taking you down new paths, and make interesting little discoveries - topple down a bottomless pit in a mine-cart, for instance, and you end up in a spooky 3D underground mine-cart game or jumping over explosives before rejoining the 2D level. Once you've done an island's levels, you can hop back to them at any time, too.
From Marine's house, you can also tackle various unlockable Missions and Time Attack levels, while a pirate called Johnny will occasionally challenge you to waterbike race for control of a chaos emerald, and there are various multiplayer options, like Battle mode, that can be played locally with one or two copies of the game, and over the Internet, with best-time leaderboards and everything.
It may be a bit repetitious, then, but in contrast to the likes of Mario games, which were always precise harmonies, that's actually something of a boon. Sonic was always jazzier, and one of the criticisms you could level at it was that the older games sometimes did a poor job of harnessing the inherent replayability that really stood them apart from their genre-mates. Rush Adventure comes up with the best way in a while to encourage and capitalise on that, proves less harsh than the first Rush did (the midair dash doing a better job of mitigating against bottomless-pit death), and, apart from a couple of duff watercraft bits, does it all satisfyingly. All in all, a bit of a must-have.
8 / 10