As celebrity career paths go, Sonic the Hedgehog has been tiptoeing dangerously close to Baldwin Brothers territory lately. Last year brought the embarrassing Shadow the Hedgehog, a dark title in which Sonic's brooding alter ego wielded a gun, earning it the unflattering nickname "Grand Theft Hedgehog."
Still, at first blush, Sonic Riders, a new racing game starring the fleet-footed mascot, seems like a logical extension of the brand. It's hardly the stretch of, say, Super Mario Strikers (Nintendo's plumber plays soccer?) or Typing of the Dead (a House of the Dead game where you kill monsters with . . . typing skills!). And there's a precedent in Mario Kart, the Nintendo franchise starring Mario's gang in soapbox-derby-style races.
Unfortunately, Sonic Riders squanders this potential in baffling ways.
Start with the premise that you control the blue blazer alongside his animal pals, as they race hoverboards in villain Dr. Eggman's nefarious grand prix (titter!) to see "who's the best of the best with extreme gear!" Come on, Sega, wasn't that argument settled in, like, 1992 by Dan Cortese?
Knowing it will be compared to Mario Kart before it's even turned on, Sega was overly ambitious in trying to set Sonic Riders apart. You must not only race, but also sabotage opponents (à la Mario Kart), execute board tricks and rail grinds to maintain speed (what's up, SSX Tricky?), and do it all without overheating (holla, F-Zero). All this in levels designed to camouflage the actual race path (Er . . . Metal Gear 3: Snake Eater?).
With no in-game tutorial, you'll be dead last in the high-speed confusion until you pause the action and pick up the instruction booklet. Only then will you understand the joy of pushing "up" on the control pad for the entire game -- as if you'd want to go anywhere but "forward" in a race. Players who rent this game without receiving the manual are likely to tie Sonic Riders to a brick and heave it back through Blockbuster's window.
Racing games live and die on multiplayer mode, but Sonic Riders veers out of its way to trample gaming friendships. After your friends take a frustrating amount of time to figure out this "hard to learn, easy to master" game, they'll quickly realize it's not nearly as much fun as the various games it imitates. And partitioning the screen to accommodate three other racers only makes the busy, distracting backgrounds that much harder to navigate.
Sega's aiming this game at the kiddie set, and that's all well and good. But are kids still even into the "X-TREME!" trend? When's the last time you saw a tyke race-whiz down the street on a Razor Scooter, yelling "Snap into a Slim Jim!" while drinking Buzz Cola? Besides, it was much funnier when Poochie the dog did it on The Simpsons.
On the positive side, Sega may be willing to meet fans halfway with its next effort, getting back to basics with an upcoming Xbox 360 game simply titled Sonic the Hedgehog. That's right: not Sonic the Hedgehog Windsurfing Explosion or Sonic's No Limit X-Treme Upside-Down Texas Hold 'Em. A back-to-its-roots Sonic game, a new system, a fresh start . . . at this point, it's exactly what Speedy McAttitude needs.