Sonic Rivals is the worst Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made.
Yes, it is also the worst Sonic the Hedgehog game made in 2006.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 is a bad game. Heck, just using the word “bad” seems like a disservice to other bad games. Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 is right up there with the likes of Primal Rage for “how did someone think this was okay?” Was it poor coding? A complete misinterpretation of the appeal of Sonic the Hedgehog? A burning desire to shoehorn a balrog (not that kind of balrog) into a fuzzy animal universe? Designers who had never heard of the concept of momentum? Whatever the case, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 was ridiculously bad, and was a failure in nearly every way. It seems to have literally been wiped from the Sonic canon at this point, and that’s probably for the best.
And yet, I will still say Sonic Rivals was worse. Why? It’s simple. It’s because Sonic Rivals does so much right, and then throws it all in a dumpster fire, presumably just to watch it burn.
Let’s review this game, and I’ll let you know exactly where it goes wrong.
First of all, this game only features the prime runners of the Sonic franchise. Your choices are Sonic the Hedgehog (he’s gotta go fast), Knuckles the Echidna (do you even run, bro?), Shadow the Hedgehog (the coolest character in the franchise), Silver the Hedgehog (at least he’s a hedgehog!), and Metal Sonic (literally built for speed). Completely absent from gameplay are Tails, Amy, Cream, Big, Charmy, Mighty, Fang, and every other one of Sonic’s hangers-on. This means that the gameplay is 100% Sonic the Hedgehog, and there isn’t a random shooting stage, “find the emeralds”, DDR flying, or fishing stage to be found. This is great! It’s a Sonic game with Sonic the Hedgehog! Hooray!
Speaking of which, it’s a pretty straightforward Sonic plot, too. Yes, for like the billionth time in the franchise, it turns out it wasn’t Dr. Robotnik behind the caper, but his nefarious and generally calm descendant, Eggman Nega. It’s stupid, but it’s a Sonic kind of stupid, and no one stands around for hours contemplating paradoxes or worrying about the space time continuum, they just move on to the next level, and recycle any and all egg-puns. As a result of this forthright plot, Sonic never has an occasion to makeout with a human, and the world is better for it.
Oh, and the whole thing is “classic” 2-D, too. That’s always a plus.
So, by all accounts, we should have a good Sonic the Hedgehog Game on our hands. It might not be Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but we’re looking at a portable game that features the things that the Sonic Franchise is actually good at. 2-D run ‘n jump gameplay is what made that blue hedgehog a star, so anything that retraces those steps with any kind of attention to detail should be a good game.
It really, really should.
Sonic Rivals has one new twist on the Sonic formula: every level is a “race”. This isn’t a completely new concept for the Sonic Franchise: even if you ignore the myriad of Sonic racing games, you’ve still got 2-D “Sonic Gameplay” racing going back as far as Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Sure, a lot of people ignored it, but there was a competitive 2-player mode, and I will admit that I had a lot of fun with friends racing Tails against Sonic back in the day (how many competitive 2-player games were on the Sega Genesis, anyway? Ignoring Sports titles..). This game is that optional mode writ large, with every single level a competition in one way or another. The first two stages of each Zone are a race, and then the third stage is a boss battle wherein you have to score more hits on the Egg Device than your opponent. It’s an easy to grasp concept, and it makes the “Rivals” portion of the title more relevant. Everyone is working toward the same goal, but they’re rivals, so let’s see who can save the world the fastest.
Except there’s one giant fly in the ointment: You must not lose. And, again, this does make a certain kind of sense. It’s your chosen mammal against the other three, and, yes, of course the game wants you to “win”, that’s how video games work. But… it’s a one-on-one race. There’s first place, and then there’s the loser, and that’s all that’s allowed. If you lose, there’s no “best two out of three” for the zone, you simply lose, and have to play the level again. From the start. And, of course, it’s a Sonic Game, so there’s no kind of EXP or other helpful prizes rewarded to the loser, you’re right back at square one. A loss is, effectively, death, and there are no checkpoints.
What does this all mean? Welp, looks like Sonic Rivals is the game where you could spend an hour attempting to get past the first stage, and not have anything to show for it.
Now, this could be true of any game. Heck, on my first introduction to Super Mario Bros., I probably scored a Game Over before seeing my first flagpole. However, it’s possible to make progress, even if it’s slight, within Super Mario Bros 1-1, even if you’re terrible at the game. There are checkpoints, 1-ups, and even a shortcut that will aid a neophyte’s journey. In Sonic Rivals? Nope. It’s a racing game with a brutal AI, so your only hope is memorizing the “track” from start to finish, and utilizing every powerup along the way. Lose, even by a quarter of a second, and it’s back to the beginning all over again.
Even Sonic the Hedgehog 1 had checkpoints…
It gets worse: the AI cheats. Okay, maybe it doesn’t cheat per se, but it certainly seems to have stacked the deck against the player. This is actually a problem you see a lot in modern Mario Karts: you’re flying over a random lake, gleefully enjoying being in first place, and then, whoops, someone used a lightning bolt, and something that would mildly inconvenience you in any other situation causes your racer to drop like a rock, and, whoops, you’re in fifth now because Lakitu took his sweet time fishing you out of the bog. This happens a lot in Sonic Rivals. Get anywhere near a bottomless pit, and your opponent will use a fireball, iceball, or similar ball of death, and your digital avatar will plummet to an entirely too slow death. Yes, you respawn quickly, but not quick enough to ever catch up again. Technically, you could use this same technique against your opponent, but it’s incredibly rare for both racers to be on the same screen simultaneously, so good luck knowing exactly when that ‘hole is over a hole.
And then there’s the boss stages. While the main stages are 100% races, the battles against Eggman Nega are in arenas that are much more like “classic” Sonic stages, with floating platforms and barrages to avoid. This would be good, except these stages highlight how the race stages modified Sonic’s physics, and forgot to turn ‘em off for slower stages. Sonic Rivals Sonic is no longer so great at precision platforming, as the slightest momentum will send the hedgehog blasting into the next county. Now try using that kind of control to hop up small platforms to nail an Egg Jet. It’s not so great.
This all adds up to an incredibly frustrating experience. While there are no real “lives” or “continues” to manage, repeating every stage over and over again is nowhere near fun. These are Sonic Zones, they’re not meant to be memorized and overanalyzed, they’re meant for hurtling past and never seeing again. In my memory, even my favorite Sonic the Hedgehog Zones are blurs, because that’s exactly the feeling you’d experience if you were zooming around at the speed of sound. Sonic Rivals practically wants Sonic to be Super Meat Boy or some other “precision” experience… except the controls aren’t built for that. At all.
The good news is that the franchise got better. Sonic Rivals 2 introduced “free mode”, and now a neophyte player could actually play the damn game, as opposed to the first level over and over again. Though that just raises more questions: did no one that playtested Sonic Rivals 1 acknowledge that maybe being forced to play the same level over and over again was a bad idea? Were all the playtesters Sonic savants, or did they all meekly believe their own skills to be inadequate, so it was their own failing? Or did no one play this game before release? Who knows? What’s important is that the people behind Sonic Rivals realized that there was something wrong with Sonic Rivals, they just didn’t do it before they released Sonic Rivals.
And, ultimately, that’s why Sonic Rivals is the worst. It’s so close to being a good (even great!) Sonic the Hedgehog game, but it zigged when it should have zagged, and we were stuck with a game that is practically impossible.
I’ll take a ridiculous failure over a damaged masterpiece any day.
FGC #125 Sonic Rivals
- System: PSP, though also available for download on the Vita.
- Number of players: Two, and it’s probably the reason this game exists. There was this big push on the PSP for multiplayer games practically from the system’s inception (let’s all play Darkstalkers together!), so I’m going to guess the game blossomed out of that desire (and Sonic is always eager to please).
- Favorite Hedgehog: In this situation, it’s Sonic. I usually prefer whichever character is available with the most cool moves, but everyone is practically exactly the same in this. Metal Sonic might be the winner if I could tolerate this game long enough to unlock him (it?).
- Favorite Power: Shadow has a special move that screws up the rival player’s screen. Again, it’s hard have eyes on the AI at any given moment, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that this does absolutely nothing against the computer. Silver can also fubar your controls, and I’m guessing that falls into the same category, but without a cool visual effect.
- Ring is the Thing: There’s a special attack that transforms rings from, ya know, rings into electrified death traps. Anyone that makes rings “bad” in a Sonic Game should be shot. Looking at you, romhackers.
- Did you know? Eggman Nega has a very confusing backstory involving either being an alternate dimension version of Eggman or his descendant from 200 years in the future. I want to say the alternate dimension explanation fits best, as I don’t see Eggman hitting up Match.com anytime soon.
- Would I play again: Noooooooope.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Adventure Island 2 for the SNES! Wow, we’re really on a 2-D kick all of a sudden. At least we’ll be seeing the game where Master Higgins finally scores a shirt. Please look forward to it!