Games: Sonic boom: Sonic 3 is about to be released to an expectant sonic youth. Rupert Goodwins goes the whole hog over the spikadelic icon

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The Independent Culture
Sonic the Hedgehog is out of hibernation with a fanfare of publicity that wouldn't disgrace the second coming. On the face of it, this third game in the series is more of the same. Dr Robotnik, Sonic's moustachioed rival, is still bent on total world domination; there are still gold rings to collect, monsters to destroy and synapse-stretching manoeuvres to perform. What distinguished the original Sonic from Mario Brothers, Nintendo's rival cutesy platform-hopping hero, were detailed graphics and tons of speed. The new version, sensibly enough, improves on both without abandoning the basic formula.

The spikadelic icon piles on the mph, careering through gorgeously coloured jungles, snow-capped mountains and underwater mazes. With six zones in all, each with two areas, the total is some three times larger than the original, but where the older Sonic games were mostly a matter of getting from start to finish by the shortest route, the new areas are much more complex. A procession of traps, tricks and diversions engage our insectivorous chum, with more rewards for slow, careful exploration of the artificial world than for a full-tilt dash to the end. As a finale to each level, one of Robotnik's many machines materialises and unleashes automated mayhem, occasionally incinerating the countryside in the process.

During his explorations, Sonic comes across computer monitors which dispense special powers when smashed. Some are straight steals from earlier games, but others are brand new. A particularly nice one sucks the rings from the landscape as Sonic breezes through, while the water and fire protection extras are necessary for completion of various aqueous or incendiary tasks.

Two other characters add flavour to the proceedings. Knuckles is a misguided pink rasta echidna - stop complaining, you believed in a blue hedgehog with a Mohican - persuaded by Robotnik that Sonic's up to no good. Psychologists will doubtless argue into the night about this subtle variation in videogame ethics, but whatever the pastel monotreme's true motives, his actions are unambiguous; whenever he pops up, he activates bits of machinery that complicate Sonic's task something chronic.

Tails the Fox is on Sonic's side, a small orange fox who normally just tags along for the ride and whose party trick is to fly by twirling his tail. Sometimes this comes in handy to airlift his pal from certain death, but it's only a bit part.

Two bonus levels are included with the game proper: one, a three-dimensional dance around a rotating sphere where Sonic has to grab the blue balls and avoid the red; the other, a giant bubble-gum machine which dispenses extra lives. Both are much more impressive to look at than they are to play.

The whole caboodle oozes class. It's worth using the pause button just to take in the details of each level. Ruined cities in the depths of the rainforest and distant waterfalls just visible through gaps in the foliage add almost subliminal layers of depth to the game. And yes, that is York stone-cladding on the walls in the Marble Garden zone. Each character is carefully animated with lots of imaginative, three-dimensional quirks; as Sonic scowls, grins and panics his way across the screen, it's clear that he could out-emote Roger Moore and would even be a good choice for the next Bond. Mind you, the same could be true of the stone cladding.

Hardened gamers have always considered Sonic a little too easy to take seriously. There was little playground cred in completing the first couple of games. Sonic 3 is considerably more difficult and, with the facility to save games for later completion, should keep you busy for a good few nights. Just as well, since the cartridge is being sold at a considerable premium.

Sonic the Hedgehog is Sega's Mickey Mouse - universally recognised, endlessly exploitable and, with care, a money-spinner for years to come. On the evidence of Sonic 3, Sega knows how to keep the pig laying the golden eggs. There's life in the old hog yet.

Sonic 3 on Sega Megadrive, approx pounds 59, released 24 Feb

(Photograph omitted)