Should time travel ever become a reality, you can send us straight back to the early ’90s so we can tell all those people who wrote into the game magazines of the era that they were right. OK, back then they were making it up – their friend’s dad never really was an industry insider – but here we are: a new Sonic The Hedgehog game, exclusive to Wii U and 3DS, that’s published not by Sega, but Nintendo. Sadly, neither Sonic Team nor the blue hedgehog himself have much clout these days, and Sonic: Lost World is a far cry from the game those ’90s dreamers had in mind.
Continuing the Hell-freezing-over theme, series antagonist Dr Robotnik – sorry, Eggman – spends most of Lost World as an ally to Sonic and Tails (although the latter only appears in the cutscenes that bookend the lengthy levels). Eggman’s still the bad guy at the outset, capturing Sonic’s furry friends and encasing them in his various deadly robot designs. It’s in pursuit of their moustachioed aggressor that Sonic and Tails crash land on the otherworldly Lost Hex, a planet made of hexagons serving as Eggman’s new base of operations. The villain’s not just there because of the planet’s platformer-friendly climates and varied topography, but to enlist the services of The Deadly Six, a native band of cartoonish ne’er-do-wells and Lost World’s bosses.
But Eggman being Eggman, he’s not recruited them so much as enslaved them using the song of a mystical conch. When Sonic knocks it from his hand, the Six are freed, and Sonic and Eggman are forced to work together. Despite this unlikely union, this is definitely Sonic’s game, and any external influence on proceedings has come not from within the Sonic universe, but another platform holder’s mascot with whom he jostled for prominence in the 16bit era.
This isn’t quite Sonic Galaxy, however. OK, some levels send you ping-ponging from one small sphere to another, but they’re the exception, not the rule. The bulk of the action switches between traditional 2D sidescrolling and into-the-screen 3D in the style of Wii’s Sonic And The Secret Rings. The latter sections feel more Super Monkey Ball than Super Mario – you’re not moving Sonic around the level but the ground beneath his feet, something that’s put to smart use in one instance by letting you send oncoming boulders careening off course and into the abyss. It can, however, be disorienting, especially when control is abruptly returned to you after the automatic forward momentum from a chain of boost and jump pads runs out, leaving you upside down and perilously close to a fatal drop. Such moments are rare, but do contribute to the game’s fractured pace. Sonic is built for speed, but only really shows it in moments when control is wrested from you. There are so many traps and enemies that you’re best off taking it slow anyway, although you’re given a wide set of tools to compensate for all the danger.
While Sonic’s traditional moveset remains – a jump, spin attack, dash and the homing attack introduced in Dreamcast outing Sonic Adventure – he has a few new tricks at his disposal. Results are mixed. He can run up walls briefly before gravity kicks in. He can pull himself up ledges, too, though the laborious animation further breaks up an already stuttering pace. Deliberately placed power-ups give brief access to GamePad trickery, using the touchscreen to drill below ground, for instance, or the gyroscope to point a crosshair at a nearby landmass in one of the more overt nods to Mario Galaxy.
There’s a double jump, too. It’s smartly balanced in theory – it takes you out of your spin state and the invincibility that comes with it, making you vulnerable to enemy attacks – but it’s botched in execution. It’s mapped to the same button as the homing attack; lose a lock-on and rather than dive in for the kill, you’ll jump briefly into the air before falling on your intended quarry. The reverse can happen, too, when a lock-on you didn’t want sends you plummeting to your doom chasing an enemy that’s just fallen off a platform, or right onto the spiky exterior of a foe, knocking you back, your collection of rings scattering around you.
In fact, you’ll be hit so frequently that you’ll soon decide to ignore rings almost entirely. Whether you’ve got one or a hundred, you’re only a single mistake away from losing the lot, and then another hit from death. Unless you’re chasing a leaderboard spot, one ring is all you really need. There’s the same satisfaction to be had from following the developer’s breadcrumb trail of rings through a level as you get with Mario’s coins or Rayman’s Lums, but satisfaction is the only reward on offer, with no extra lives for collecting a certain amount.
And it’s here that Lost World falls apart. While Mario games spit out 1-Ups with such frequency that you question whether the lives system needs to be there at all, Lost World takes the opposite tack. There might be the odd extra life hidden away in a level, but its stages are so long (the timer frequently ticks down from 15 minutes) and its use of trial and error so extreme that you’ll quickly become closely acquainted with the Game Over screen. Stages are best thought of as four or five levels stitched together. Fail on the fourth or fifth, and you’re sent back to the first. Die once or twice early on in a stage and the most efficient course of action is to lose your remaining lives as quickly as possible.
Sonic games, and platformers in general, have always been about memorising the lay of the land, but rarely have mistakes been so costly or heavily punished, and it says much that one retailer’s preorder bonus consists solely of 25 additional lives. This isn’t a question of difficulty, but of design: unfortunately for Sonic, people who have grown up with Nintendo hardware have come to expect much better than this.
Sonic: Lost World is out now in Europe on 3DS and Wii U. It will be released in the US on October 29. Wii U version tested.