The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.
The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.
As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.
It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.
Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?
Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.
The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.
One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.
Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.
The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.
Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.
Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?
Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.
If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.
In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.