When you boot up Sonic Rivals, you won't be disappointed by the sleek menu layout, quick load times, and impressive graphics. Sonic's Nintendo handheld offerings stayed strictly in 2D territory, making Rivals easily the best-looking handheld Sonic by far. The game manages to emulate the feel of the original games very well, especially in the first set of levels, as you run around green checkered levels. What's impressive is the sense of speed, and the dynamic camera angles. Sometimes, the camera will move at an angle, attempting to make Sonic's journey through the world even more dramatic. While there's still some framerate slowdown, and blocky backgrounds at times, the game's fantastic color palette and speed really make it an eye-catcher.
One of the surprisingly nicest additions to this game are the boost areas: you press circle to dash forward, or X to jump up. It's simple, but learning to make the right choice at a moment's notice will certainly take some practice, and some memorization. The later levels come up with challenges that revolve around simply pressing the right button, and it's strangely satisfying.
Another great aspect of the game are the boss fights. Although the encounters are short, they change up the formula slightly, and usually take place within a circular arena. It's your goal to land successful hits on top of the enemy's weak point, and the obstacles that prevent you from doing this easily can be engaging.
Although there are many great, fun, classic Sonic elements in the game, players will find themselves frustrated at many other poorly executed designs in the game. Firstly, the story: it's absolutely ridiculous, and actually detracts from the experience more than it helps. Dr. Eggman (Robotnik was a much better name!) for one reason or another turns everyone into cards, and through sequences of awfully written dialogue, you race as one of four characters to stop Eggman. The four characters, Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow and Silver, all have their own stories, but they're absolutely painful to go through. Thankfully, the text explaining the story is very short, and can be quickly skipped.
For some reason, it appears that the character you choose has no choice but to win in a race through the levels. This is the core premise of the game, and it's where many of the game's flaws become apparent. Each level is supposed to be a race, yet it will rarely feel like you're interacting with a character. The great branching levels in the game actually make it difficult for you to ever really be near your rival. This immediately removes a sense of competitiveness, and it also gets rid of any fairness. In later levels, you will find that a significant lead that you build over a character can mysteriously disappear nigh instantly. Characters will seemingly speed past you, and there's no way for you, as the player, to know why or how. Players will learn to simply restart a race if they find themselves falling behind: there's almost no way to bridge a significant gap in the way the computer seems to catch up to you.
There are power-ups throughout the level that can be used against your foes. Theoretically, this will allow players that are trailing to catch up to the leader. However, the large, branching levels, make it somewhat unlikely for your character to get affected. Unfortunately, you'll rarely see the effects of your mischief. However, if you get hit by a power-up, prepare to be annoyed: the effects can be severely race-destroying, as they send you to a crawl, last for a fair amount of time, and interrupt your progress through the level significantly. It's certainly not fun to get hit while racing up a hill. Not only does the power-up make you lose time, but you'll find yourself unable to progress further, without backtracking a bit too gain momentum yet again. The loss of time is significant; a mistake towards the end of the level nearly guarantees a loss.
Sonic Rivals is not a bad game. In fact, it builds potential for a great return to true Sonic form. If Sega approached the series with this engine and removed the racing aspect, Sonic fans would have a true gem of a game to celebrate. However, as is, Sonic Rivals is merely an entertaining, but also frustrating, romp that's a bit too short for its own good. Consider renting this one.
PSP Fanboy Score: 6.5