There are two kinds of Sonic the Hedgehog fans in the world: Those who believe the Blue Blur's best work was in the 16-bit days, and those who were born after 1996. Those who have read my game reviews on a consistent basis know I'm a vocal member of the former camp.
A major part of the problem is that, ever since Sega FINALLY figured out that those horrid search levels from the first two Sonic Adventure games weren't popular, Sonic has been engaged in an ongoing search for a suitable identity in the 3D video game generation. Since Sonic and Knuckles, he's gone pseudo-3D, gone actual 3D, turned into a werewolf, starred in an RPG, gone on search missions for emerald pieces, exchanged blows in a battle arena with Mario, exchanged blows in a battle arena with other Sonic characters, and attempted to recapture his 2D glory. He's also had a million new regular characters introduced, a lot of whom you can play as at various points throughout the series. (It's not as if you were offered a choice most of the time.)
Sonic the Hedgehog in portable form has been deferential to the Genesis past, but still been criticized because of short, one-track levels. Eventually, the Nintendo DS saw this game, Sonic Rush, the closest Sonic has yet come to revisiting his old glory years from the Silver Era. Yet, it is also a bitterly ironic proof that the old Sonic the Hedgehog we Sixteeners grew up with, knew, and loved is now forever gone.
Why is that? Because Sonic Rush is still flawed and the gameplay is still noticeably different than it was in the Genesis games. As I open my last review, it's the level design, stupid! Those old Genesis games happened to be played at a fast pace, but the levels were more centered around exploration. Certainly you had the option of skimming through right to the end of the level, but doing so deprived you of a lot of exploration rewards. The REAL fun in the old Sonic the Hedgehog games came when you hit the brake and took a good hard look around the immediate area you happened to be in. Yes, those old games had occasional speed levels, in which all of the ramps and forward-facing springs and loops were placed in a way to get Sonic running as fast as he could, but even those levels offered a choice of several paths to keep things interesting.
Sonic Rush plays out like one giant speed level. Everything in the game is laid out in a way that encourages you to get Sonic going right off the bat and keep him going as fast as possible for as long as possible. Stretches of land are a lot bigger, and there are countless points where Sonic will be running downhill or grinding on a rail of some sort. It's an entire game made up like one of those levels in which the thing to do is hit the spring or the spinner and let Sonic ride out his next speed wave. It's zippy and fun, but it lacks the depth and sense of adventure you get when taking Sonic through a slow, difficult path with a lot of rewards.
This might not sound like such a bad thing at first, and for a large extent, it really isn't. But the problem with designing levels on such a massive scale of girders and flats is that there are a lot of leaps of faith to be taken, and instead of placing the levels on actual bottom foundations, Sega placed them in the middle of the air. It's bottomless pit time, and we all know what happens when Sonic takes a swan dive into a gap he can't go down - instant death. There are countless points in Sonic Rush where you'll be leaving your fate in the hands of the video game gods, having no choice but to make a leap into the wild unknown, hoping to Miyamoto there's a platform below for Sonic to land on.
How big is this game? To put it plainly: The levels are aesthetically so massive, they require the use of both DS screens, a feature which, by the way, is well-done and doesn't feel nearly as gratuitous as the advertising would make it seem. But despite that, you'll still have to make a lot of faithful leaps because you won't know without extensive experimentation and memorization if there's a platform beneath certain drops to land on. This gets to be a real pain after you've suffered a long string of falling deaths.
Some aspects of certain levels are really cool - the water geysers that pressure-lift Sonic in the underwater level, the hands that Sonic rides to open up other parts of the desert level - but otherwise, creativity feels rather sparse and ditched in favor of more speed. Remember the stone block rides through the lava lakes in the original Sonic's Marble Zone? Or flying up, down, and around the water slides in Sonic 3's Hydrocity Zone? Taking a gamble for rings in the slots of the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2? You won't be seeing a whole lot of things like that in Sonic Rush. This is just a very expansive open world with a few clever obstacles here and there. It doesn't challenge your perception of video game obstacles or level design.
The boss battles make use of the 3D feature, and they're a bit more complex than just waiting for the open spot and hitting Dr. Robotnik (I REFUSE to call him Dr. Eggman). There is a certain way you have to fight him in each and every encounter. It can be a real pain waiting for him to become vulnerable, though.
Sonic is just Sonic this time in his own game. You can choose a new character named Blaze the Cat who has a whole different storyline. But she is basically Sonic from a different angle. Her levels are the same as Sonic's, but in a different order. Her moves are the same as Sonic's too, they only look a little bit different. Much as people hated Big or Charmy, they at least felt different from the main characters, and in a few games, they had an all-new set of levels to run through. Blaze the Cat in just in Sonic Rush to pad the game, adding replay value without really doing anything different.
The graphics are good but not eventful. They're detailed, but I don't get the feeling the animators were trying, outside of Sonic and Blaze. The enemies look plain and they barely have any animation. The levels proper can have clever things incorporated into them, but the backgrounds are mundane. The levels all seem to be rooted in a single color scheme, as opposed to there being lots of different colored elements in levels that just happen to be dominated by one color.
The music is good, but pretty generic, especially when compared to the 16-bit masterpieces of the Silver Era. Most of it is rocking but otherwise unremarkable work done in tones or rock or dance music. You know, I recently learned that the composer of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 soundtrack was Michael Jackson - yeah, THAT Michael Jackson - who created a tremendous, bumping, danceable soundtrack to the game. And that soundtrack was the worst in the 16-bit games! That's not a knock against Jackson here, but a salute to the talent of the composers of the other games. The Silver Era Sonic series had some of the best music of the time, but the quality has taken a real dip. Sounds are otherwise Sonic sounds.
The gameplay is fantastic. My only complaint is that the Spin Dash Attack doesn't rev Sonic up nearly as much as it used to. These days, it's actually faster to get Sonic going faster without it, and the Spin Dash Attack is slower! The fact that Sonic hits his top speed after running for maybe a second adds to the speedy emphasis of the game, and it also makes jumping for distance a lot easier.
Sonic Rush is Sonic the Hedgehog being created by the average workingman instead of an extraordinary video game designer. Yes, it's fun and you won't regret picking it up if you're a Sixteener looking for a game with a semblance of Sonic's best days. But it's time to acknowledge a painful truth now: Sonic the Hedgehog is officially FUBAR.