Pity the poor bootleg! Old Spider-hero and SpongeBob Rhombus Pants aren’t inherently bad toys compared to their brightly colored, brand-name inspirations. Those Transmorphers don’t click into place quite as nicely as the Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Tortoises have pastel bandannas and the wrong weapons, but that’s their only crime. The bootleg versions of cartoon icons aren’t necessarily bad—just a little off.
So it is with Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric, the latest Sonic The Hedgehog game pushed out on Wii U with Sega’s name on it. Sonic Boom isn’t the worst game ever made. Not even close. In fact, there are times when it’s downright inoffensive. Those whiffs of competence don’t amount to much, though. Boom’s developer, Big Red Button (not Sega’s Sonic Team), wasted Sonic’s greatest asset: its lush art production. Instead, it produced a shaggy imitation of the real thing while simultaneously repeating some of the series’ worst mistakes. The difference between Sonic Boom and more recent oddities like Sonic Unleashed: It’s just off.
Billed as a new series that ties into a cartoon of the same name, Sonic Boom isn’t very new beyond some minor tweaks to the characters. Sonic’s still a fast blue hedgehog who hangs out with an inventor fox, a tough-guy echidna, and a lady hedgehog with a hammer. An evil roboticist named Dr. Eggman is still hassling them. This time around, Eggman’s weirdly muscular rather than pot-bellied, Sonic’s wearing a One Direction scarf, and there’s an evil snake-man in a robot suit named Lyric causing some trouble. That’s about it for the changes.
Same goes for Boom’s structure. As in Sonic Adventure from all the way back on Dreamcast, much of Sonic’s time is spent wandering open areas—like a tropical island or a mining operation—finding hidden pockets of gold rings, and wandering into multi-part action stages. Each stage comes complete with long stretches of Hot Wheels-style track to run down, platforms to jump over and blocks to break for accessing new areas, and robots to fight. Those fights—repetitive button-mashing nonsense in closed-circle arenas—call back to the rightfully loathed Sonic Unleashed. Even the fact that you can regularly switch between the characters, either all four or often paired off, goes back to 2004’s Sonic Heroes. Like a lot of bootlegs, Sonic Boom is cobbled together out of recycled parts.
Unlike most of those Sonic Team games, though, Boom’s got the right idea a lot of the time. Whenever you’re fighting through a stage, trying to get your hands on some magic crystals so Lyric doesn’t, Boom separates the characters for brief periods so you can get to know their unique moves and personalities. Acrobatic Amy can jump three times in a row and gets along with the somewhat doofy Knuckles who can climb rocky, red walls. Rather than drawing these levels out over insane lengths like more recent Sonic games, they’re broken into digestible chunks, so you get through hanging out with Amy, then Knuckles goes off with Sonic. They bicker convincingly like teenage rivals, sniping and boasting. When Sonic starts slipping off a crumbling rock ledge and Knuckles saves him only to realize he’s about two inches off the ground, it’s legitimately chuckle worthy.
Big Red Button has a better sense of pacing and three-dimensional structure than Sonic Team has managed to learn in more than 15 years of design, but the control still isn’t perfect. Sonic and his pals are prone to inexplicable deaths in shallow ponds, and the electrical whip-grappling hooks they each carry don’t always connect with enemies you’re trying to lasso. For all that, it’s a sight better than last year’s almost unplayable Sonic Lost World on Wii U.
What dooms Boom, despite its sound foundation, is sloppy execution. Every fight against a gaggle of generic robots, one-eyed automatons looking like escapees from an infomercial about choking hazards, is an exercise in dull repetition. The areas where players need to jump from one platform to the next don’t require precision, nor do they take advantage of the fact that the characters have unique abilities. If one route requires Tails’ robot helper for flipping switches and another needs Sonic’s spin dash, it doesn’t matter which one you take. The other character will just be waiting at the top after you’ve gone through the motions unchallenged. In the running sections, you can just set down the controller, letting Sonic run into most obstacles. He’ll still get where he’s going.
These aren’t new problems for Sonic games either, but the reason stinkers like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Colors maintain a following is that they’re captivatingly bizarre and often gorgeous to behold. For the better part of a generation, Sonic Team has created its games like people living in a bio-dome. Cut off from every other modern game design convention and trend, they’ve made inexplicable games where, for example, a morbidly obese cat chases after frogs. It might feel like you’re trying to steer a bouncy ball through a field of explosions and cotton candy, sometimes literally, as in Sonic Colors, but at least the spectacle is grand.
Boom’s world, meanwhile, is a wash of muddy browns and chunky ill-fitting blocks. Even tropical islands look like lumps of dried-out clay. The only primary-colored objects in the whole game are its lead characters, looking weirdly out of place wherever they go. All of this is odd considering who was at the game’s helm. Big Red Button’s art director and co-founder is Bob Rafei, who helped create the vibrant cartoon worlds of Crash Bandicoot and Jak And Daxter at Naughty Dog. Why he and his team chose to make a drab thing like Boom when given one of the most recognizable cartoon icons around is inexplicable. But here it is, the Wii U’s very own off-brand Sonic game. Maybe a better name would be Sonic The Spine Mammal.
Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric
Developer: Big Red Button
Platform: Wii U
Rating: E 10+