There's a pretty good Sonic the Hedgehog game lurking under the padding and sports tape wrapped around Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice for the Nintendo 3DS.
If people are wary of new Sonic the Hedgehog games given the franchise's hit-or-miss quality over the past couple of decades, they are doubly wary of Sonic Boom games. Of the two games released in 2014 based on Sega's animated television spin-off, one of them was a broken mess and the other was a dull slog.
The dull slog was Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal for the 3DS, a slow-paced Sonic game that felt like a quick and dirty licensed cartoon tie-in. That's because it was a quick and dirty licensed cartoon tie-in, based on the Sonic Boom animated series. Developer Sanzaru Games captured the tone of the show, but the essence of Sonic the Hedgehog was lost in the process.
Their second stab at Sonic is much more successful.
Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice sees Sonic and his animated friends Amy, Tails, Knuckles and Sticks attempting to foil Eggman's latest plot.
Said plot involves a strange new element that somehow bestows the properties of fire and ice to our heroes (Tails calls it "Science," so we'll go with that). Using these new abilities, the team goes island hopping, speeding through fast paced levels, shutting down hot-and-cold spewing geysers in order to save the lands from Eggman's stupid ambitions.
One of the main complaints about Sanzaru's first Sonic Boom 3DS game was that its pace was far too slow for a Sonic the Hedgehog game. That's a problem Fire & Ice does not have. Sonic and friends dash through the game's levels at a fine clip, only occasionally hindered by obstacles and puzzles requiring the characters make use of their hot- and cold-based abilities.
Hitting a dash pad or jump button launches characters into fits of superspeed, tearing through loops and being propelled between background and foreground. Though these sequences are generally automated, requiring no input from the player except to nail whatever jump or swing point awaits them at the end of the run, the overall feeling is not unlike the classic 2D Sonic games of old. It's just lovely.
Sanzaru could have stopped there and had a fairly nice Sonic the Hedgehog game on its hands. The graphics aren't dazzling and the environments are fairly generic, but the core gameplay is solid. The fire and ice gimmick is easy to grasp. The boss battles, though they are few and far between, involve massive robots that take up both of the 3DS' displays, a trick I wish more games would employ.
Still no 3DS capture ability.
Sanzaru Games did not stop there.
For players looking for a little more exploration in their Sonic the Hedgehog game, each basic stage in the game features branching paths, secret challenge areas and plenty of collectible nonsense, from trading cards to bits to create racing robots or change the colour of Amy's signature hammer weapon.
Mutant Knuckles can dig it.
Exploring levels rather than running straight through them brings the special abilities of Sonic and his friends to bear. Sonic has his air dash, Tails a laser cannon, Amy the aforementioned hammer, Sticks gets her guided boomerang and Knuckles can dig through special areas. Through their power combined, obsessive players will be able to collect all the little tchotchkes in the game.
The best part is, unlike in Shattered Crystal, the exploration is completely optional this time around. I only wish the game allowed players a more defined choice between the two, so my speedy runs weren't always capped off by a screen showing me all the things I didn't grab along the way.
So we've got solid Sonic the Hedgehog gameplay, along with some choice on how to play. Sonic's friends are playable, which rubs some fans the wrong way, but once they're introduced you only really need to use them during boss battles. That's a good stopping point.
But Sanzaru kept going. The game's map is dotted with optional mini-games. There's the fairly inane submarine and hovercraft missions, which can be skipped if you don't mind missing out on some collectible trading cards. Then there's the frustrating third-person runner levels, in which Sonic shifts from lane-to-lane, avoiding obstacles in a trial-and-error fashion that's more frustrating than fun.
At least those can be skipped. Throughout the game Eggman regularly challenges Sonic to race against increasingly annoying robots in unskippable three lap races through convoluted courses.
All I want to do is speed through stages and fight double-screen bosses, but no. I have to race these stupid robots over and over again until I win. After losing the game's third race on the final lap for the umpteenth time, the only thing keeping me from throwing my controller through the screen was the fact that it was physically impossible.
Sanzaru did good this time around, making most of the fluffy stuff optional, but the races took things just a step too far. They feel like a bullet point on a "Making a Better Sonic Boom Game" whiteboard that someone forgot to cross off.
Still, if you can handle a little (or a lot) of frustration and aren't too hung up on visuals, Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice isn't too bad. It manages to combine the wit and charm of the Sonic Boom animated series (your mileage may vary there) with the speed and simplicity of old school Sonic the Hedgehog in a way that doesn't completely miss the mark. Compared to the previous two attempts, that's quite a feat.