A year ago, the exclusive deal sounded like Nintendo was doing a solid for its rival from the old console wars. A year later, the reverse seems more true; the Wii U could really use any game made for it and only it by anyone not named Nintendo. Sega has delivered two Sonic the Hedgehog games so far and a third — Sonic Boom — arrives later this year.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric doesn't figure to be a lifesaver for the Wii U when it launches in November. (A different version, called Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal, will launch on 3DS at the same time.) It still does all of the things a Sonic the Hedgehog game should do, particularly one taking the 3D adventure format that seems to divide the series' implacable fanbase.
"If you're a classic Sonic gamer, a 2D fan, you have an appreciation for the platforming," Frost said. "This game has quite a bit of that classic platforming. I think these levels inspire some of that feeling for the old places that Sonic went back in the day."
Sonic Boom makes a reasonable, if conservative, use of the Wii U Gamepad's capabilities, but its appeal will still be strongest to those who already have an investment in the series. Apostates won't see much reason to return, and newcomers aren't likely to see Nintendo's special hardware adding much value.
Sonic Boom on the Wii U is a 3D platformer. That label covers nearly 80 percent of what I saw in the hands-on time I had with it at a pre-E3 event. There are some speed challenge stages that I did see, and some hub world interactions that I didn't, that account for the rest, but this is largely a game of exploration and collection, jumping puzzles, set pieces and boss battles, the meat and potatoes of the 3D platform genre.
The Wii U gamepad's greatest value will be seen in local multiplayer. In singleplayer, most levels will feature a branching path that only one specific character — you're presented with a choice of two per level — can take, necessitating a selection on the Gamepad's second screen. Hub worlds and speed levels will make use of Sonic Boom's full roster in the more limited arenas they present. For the most part, the only reason to specifically select Sonic, Knuckles, Tails, Amy Rose or new character Sticks the Badger is to see and finish their specific path. The rest of the levels I played presented a challenge that any of the characters could overcome equally.
When two local players are in the same game and the time comes to split up, player one runs a character with the Gamepad on its screen and player two uses a Wii Remote or Pro controller for their character on the television. Developing studio Big Red Button Entertainment thought hard about adding split-screen local multiplayer — either to bring more human players to the game, or to let the Wii U gamepad perform other functions for them. Ultimately, they found traditional split-screen play incompatible with the ideal of exploration they'd set for Sonic Boom.
"We had, for a long time, considered split-screen play," said Stephen Frost, the Sega producer for the Wii U edition. "And it just didn't feel as special. If we're out in real life, and we're off exploring, we have our cell phones and cameras out, we're calling each other and saying, 'Hey, you should see what I'm seeing.' We wanted to have that sharing.
"Split screen doesn't really do that because you're constantly staring at the other person's screen," he said. "That sense of wonder, of what the other person is doing, is gone."
The game is distinctively illustrated — yes, even if the character redesigns took some ribbing from fans when Sonic Boom was announced — with appealing style and themes to all levels. In the game, Sonic and his cohort are exploring an ancient, unknown island, Eggman has, true to form, sought to exploit an ancient evil being named Lyric, and of course it's turned out to be more than he can handle. Eggman isn't supposed to be a bumbler — "he's still got that fun personality, but his presence overall is more formidable," Frost said. Still, Sonic's principal concern is exploring the surface and neo-Atlantean ruins and beating up the danger lurking within.
Sonic Boom is one part of a multi-pronged strategy to reinvigorate Sega's top character. Cartoon Network will launch a series under the same name around the time of the game's launch and a toy line will support both. Canonically, what you see in Sonic Boom will precede the storyline introduced by the cartoon. Sonic and his pals have gone through a much-discussed redesign, but they still retain their familiar character traits — Knuckles, for example, can climb rock walls in sections specific to him, while Tails can hover on air currents and ride them to his goal.
All characters are equipped with an "enerbeam" which, in addition to grappling and moving pieces in puzzle levels, can lasso and toss foes into one another (and in some boss battles that will be required.) The enerbeam was useful but it highlighted a nagging problem with the 3D Sonic adventures — the third-person camera, which still tracks poorly; some set pieces will also fix it to one angle without much warning, even as the action begins.
The 3DS' Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal, is more of a traditional 2D, scrolling platformer, lacking the multiplayer aspect, which frees the player to swap between characters on the 3DS touch screen and to solve multiple platforming puzzles, specific to their talents, within the same level. Sonic Boom on 3DS features its own story and another entry point into the canon. Sega's strategy is, sensibly, that wherever someone's interest might be piqued — the cartoon, the Wii U or the handheld game — they may find something different in the other two.
"The thought is, we can only show you X amount of the world, and the others can show you even more," Frost said. "By virtue of the cartoon, the toys and the games, you can see this big cohesive world."