Sonic Rivals 2
To the sound of happy tinkly electronica made out of Yamaha DX7s and rainbows:
"Can you see? The sun is shining on me. It makes me feel so free! So alive! It makes me want to survive. And the sky - it makes me feel so high! The bad times pass me by, cos today, is going to be a brighter day. Can you feel the sunshine? Does it brighten up your day? Reach out for the sunshine, forget about the rain! Just think about the good times, and they will come back again."
To the sound of horrible screeching guitar music made out of Blink-182 B-sides:
"I always race to win, keep running to the end. I'm going to move it, stay one step ahead. Sit back and watch me go, the only way I know, cos nothing's going to slow me down. Not going to look back cos I don't want to see. Not going to worry who is gaining on me. RACE TO WIN. RACE TO WIN. RACE TO WI-IIIN. I always RACE to WIN."
These pieces of music exemplify what Sonic games once were and what they have become. From life-affirming plinky music to men shouting over guitars, from whizzy 2D environments to tortuous 3D messes, from silly old Dr Robotnik to a hedgehog who must be bad because he's black... We've been thinking about the good times for years now; when, oh when will they come back again?
Not just yet. But today is certainly a brighter day, although you can except some cloud and scattered showers as we head into the evening. Because, hateful theme tune and a few other issues aside, Sonic Rivals 2 has more in common with olden days Sonic games than their rubbishy modern counterparts.
Like the first Sonic Rivals, the game focuses on what made the original Sonic games so much fun - the thrill of zooming round pretty environments, defying the laws of gravity and physics. There are rings to collect, spikes to avoid and enemies to bop. There are corkscrews and loop-the-loops, jump pads and cannons, vines to climb and gliders to fly.
But this is a racing game, not a platformer. The objective is not to survive the run through these environments but to do it faster than your opponent. And although the gameplay feels 2D, the environments look 3D. The camera does a superb job of capturing this, always tracking the action but occasionally zooming out or twisting to the front so you can see exactly how far away your opponent is.
The difficulty level is a bit high. It often feels like a tiny error, such as taking a single enemy hit, will cost you the entire race. Your opponents almost never make mistakes and it can be impossibly hard to catch them up. Particularly in the Act 3 race of each zone, you must not only avoid mistakes but take advantage of every single shortcut and boost zone to have any chance of winning.
This means you have to play through tracks again and again until you've learned where everything is. Of course many great racing games are based around this principle, but the races in Sonic Rivals 2 run at a terrifically blistering pace on a small screen, so you must react to certain elements well before they're even in sight. There are plenty of gamers who will enjoy this sort of challenge, but it's likely to leave younger players frustrated.
There are power-ups to collect, like the magnets which attract rings to you, and weapons such as blocks of ice. But these are generally a distraction as your attention is focused on taking the best route through the level. In addition, each character has their own special ability which you can use once you've collected enough rings to fill up the meter. These vary in degrees of usefulness. Sonic's speed burst comes in extremely handy and is great fun to use, while Tails just does his stupid flying thing at a painfully slow pace.
The races are undoubtedly the highlight of Sonic Rivals 2. Unfortunately unlocking them for Free Play (where you can explore levels at will, winning rewards for finding hidden Chao) and Circuit Cups (Mario Kart-style series of races) involves playing through Story mode. After every few races you have to compete in battles, which are tedious without exception.
Take the Knockout battles. Here you face an opponent in an arena full of platforms. The objective is to bounce around smashing into your opponent so they lose their rings. If you score a smash while they're completely ringless you knock them out and win one round. It's best-of-three and opponents tend to be quite skilled, so this can take ages. Shame, then, it's fundamentally boring.
The Boss battles are also poorly designed. You and the rival you've just raced compete to see who can kill the boss, the winner being whoever can score six hits first. This means you have three things to worry about - being attacked by your rival, preventing them from attacking the boss, and attacking the boss yourself. Why can't we all just be friends? And why, when your opponent defeats the boss, does he magically come back to life so you're forced to do it again?
Sonic Rivals 2 allows two players to compete using one copy of the game, but you can only compete in the rubbishy battles. There are other kinds of these, including one where you have to collect the most rings and one where you have to be the first to find a Chao. However, none are any better than Knockout and Boss. The races and the bonus trading card game (played using cards you've earned in Story mode) aren't available if you're game sharing. In other words, you'll need two copies of the game to get any real enjoyment out of multiplayer.
But as a single-player game, Sonic Rivals 2 is brilliant fun. It's fast and exciting and pretty and happy, just like the old games. And like the old games, it's a bit hard. It could have done without the silly battles but the races are so good they're worth putting up with. So is the music, just. Not quite a full return to form, but the outlook is definitely sunnier.