I can tell you the exact point that I stopped playing Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS.† Night Carnival Zone, Act 2.† Thereís a part of the level where you hit a switch and go stand on a ledge.† To one side of you, thereís a bottomless pit (one of the horrible staples of almost every single platformer in existence), to the other is the way you came – and above you are a series of tantalizing platforms that you canít jump high enough to get to, and which the game leaves absolutely no clue as to how youíre supposed to get up there.† And believe me, I tried – I hit just about every single button I could think of in conjunction with the jump button, tapping the up arrow like mad in a vain attempt to get my character to jump higher.† It was about then that I reached that point – the point where the game was so frustrating that there just wasnít any fun to it anymore.† In a rage, I popped the cartridge out of the DS, threw it in a drawer, and it has been there since, except for one brave foray where I fired it back up, got to the same point, slammed my head against my desk, and gave up on it once again.

So it was, with some trepidation, that I spotted Sonic Rush Adventure on a rack at a GameStop I happened to be walking past in the mall (yeah, I know, but just try finding a locally owned game store around here).† All of a sudden, my memories of Sonic Rush came flooding back, and I hesitated – but I also recalled my time exploring and having quite a bit of fun playing the original Sonic Adventure.† Eventually, curiosity (and the fact that it was a few bucks cheaper used) won out, and I ended up bringing it home.† Upon putting the cartridge into my DS, however, I was hit once again with that feeling of trepidation – would I get partway through, only to be flummoxed once again?

Well, a number of hours of gameplay later, and Iím currently getting my ass handed to me, piece by piece, by Sky Babylon Act 2, but overall, Iím still happy – the reason being that Sonic Rush Adventure has a number of gameplay advantages over its predecessor.

First and foremost, in SR:A, when Iím ready to get back to the challenge, I can just open up the menu and select Sky Babylon Act 2.† In the original game, when I would bomb out on the second act, Iíd have to start over from the first – only when you completed both acts were you able to save your progress before taking on the boss.† This made for a good bit of frustration, from having to replay a whole act just to take another crack at a part that was giving you grief.† Admittedly, the checkpoints in SR:A are still a bit too sparse for my taste, but not having to replay entire acts is a big improvement.

Another major enhancement is the inclusion of actual tutorials for the various gameplay modes, which walk you through all of the various moves that Sonic and his vehicles can complete.† Having a handle on Sonicís moves is especially useful, as you have at least an inkling of what to do in difficult parts, instead of being completely at a loss.† As a result, I have yet to encounter a single level where I didnít have even a clue as to what I was supposed to do next to advance (my current troubles have more to do with my complete inability to handle jumping sequences involving many tiny platforms than any particular lack of knowledge).

Another advantage is the plethora of other activities that you can do if youíre interested.† If Iím frustrated with a particular level for a bit, I can take a break, playing one of the vehicle mini-games, looking for new islands, trying mission challenges, and so on.† You can choose to do anything you want, at any time.† This is the bonus of having ďadventureĒ in the title, I suppose, but it makes for a much more enjoyable experience than a linear series of acts.† I mean, címon, Sonic Advance had the chao garden thing, at the very least – youíd think they could have done something in Sonic Rush to give you a break from wanting to slam your DS into a wall.

Another thing that I personally appreciate, at least from a morale standpoint, is that there isnít any big drama once Sonic has lost that last life to yet another stupid bottomless pit.† The original Sonic Rush takes the standard platformer attitude – flash up a quick ďgame over, sucks to be you, then kick back to the title screen and make you start everything all over again (at the very least, you could start up from the latest zone, unlike previous Sonic games where you had to start at the very first act all over again – which was a much, much greater pain, and usually led to me dropping the game even earlier than I did with Sonic Rush). In SR:A, thereís no gloom and doom, no humiliation of being kicked back to the splash screen to start all over again.† Instead, you simply show back up at your ďhouse,Ē where youíre given the opportunity to try again or move on to something else.† Within the game narrative, the characterís ďdeathĒ is reduced from the end of the game to a minor setback, encouraging you to continue your efforts even if you are momentarily stymied by a particular level.

Now, this isnít to say that SR:A is perfect – you will have to play through a number of difficult levels to advance the storyline, and without such advancement, youíre still limited to a subset of the game – a much larger subset than with Sonic Rush, admittedly, but itís still a bit of an arbitrary limit to exploration.† Given the way the storyline works, however, such linear progression might still be necessary, but it does mean that less-skilled players will have no way to fully explore the in-game world.† And while there are some difficulty-level settings which allow you to take all the time you want on levels and mercifully takes the boss difficulty from painful to just barely manageable, the platforming acts are significant hurdles in and of themselves.

Of course, this is one of the harder things to get around in terms of game design.† Platformers are on of the more ďpureĒ games of skill – either you have it or you donít.† The main struggle in such games is often you versus that bottomless pit, and without radically changing the layout of the level, or having different actual level designs based on different levels of difficulty (a la Sonic Heroes) taking up much more space on a limited cartridge, resolving this situation is often difficult.† Make the levels too easy, and the hardcore gamers complain that the game isnít worth playing, but make it too difficult, and the rank-and-file gamers have a hard time making it through. †

I think one of the best solutions in this realm was first brought forth in the Prince of Persia series – the ability to rewind time a few seconds back, before you fell into that bottomless pit (or, in PoPís case, a pit full of impaling spikes).† This would remove frustration greatly, and allow players to easily and quickly retry that difficult sequence of jumps without having to fall back to the checkpoint and play through a bunch of already-covered terrain to get back to the tricky part.† Of course, this makes things somewhat ďeasierĒ without actually reducing the difficulty of the level, and certain challenges could stymie certain players no matter how many attempts they took, but itís a step in the right direction.† You can even appease the ďhardcoreĒ folks by making the rewind function optional, or giving special bonuses for completing a level without a single rewind.† For the majority of gamers, though, it would remove the annoyance of missing that one tricky jump considerably.

Overall, I think that Sonic Rush: Adventure is a step in the right direction – learning from the frustration of the original game, they added in a number of elements to ease some frustration and make for a more enjoyable experience overall.† While perhaps they didnít go quite far enough, itís a vast improvement over the vexing original.

P.S. On a personal note, I didnít think that the original Sonic Rush had enough of a true ďsonicĒ feel to it – and while the new adventure takes place in a completely different world, the levels on the whole had a much better design, focusing a lot more on speed and fun versus tricky puzzles, making especially the earlier stages a lot of fun to play.† Machine Labyrinth, especially, reminded me of a mix between the Chemical Plant and Metropolis zones from Sonic 2, which still remains my favorite game in the series, and the Coral Cave zone is a bit reminiscent of the Lava Reef zone from Sonic 3 & Knuckles.† Oh, and Marine is one of the most annoying sidekick I have ever seen.

Update 8/31/08: †As a result of the improvements, Sonic Rush Adventure is the first platform game that I have completed (from beginning to credit roll) entirely on my own merits. †I’m not sure what that says about my game-playing abilities, but it does indicate that a lot more thought and balance went into this game in terms of overall playability across multiple skill levels.

Update 9/15/08: †Somehow, building upon skills and ideas that I acquired in SR:A, I have now completed both main campaigns in Sonic Rush, from start to finish (albeit with a bit of Action Replay “unlimited lives” assistance, as it took me about twenty attempts each to get through the last couple of two-act sets). †And, oddly enough, despite all of the bottomless pits and cheap enemy placement, the game is starting to become fun again, now that I’ve got more of a handle on it…