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'SONIC HEROES'

Zip and zap — Sonic’s back

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“Sonic Heroes,” a very entertaining new arcade adventure from Sega for GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2, has four background stories — and not one of them make sense.

Don’t worry about it, though. All you really need to know is that an evil inventor named Dr. Eggman has returned and all the cute animals from Sonic’s world want to get him. That includes Sonic, Sega’s world-famous blue hedgehog.

This time, Eggman’s enemies are after him in teams. Sonic, for instance, is traveling with Tails, a two-tailed flying fox, and Knuckles, a red echidna with dreadlocks. If, for some reason, you do not wish to hunt Eggman with Team Sonic, you can choose to hunt him as Team Rose (a female hedgehog, a rabbit and a cat), Team Chaotix (an alligator, a chameleon and a bee), or Team Dark (a synthetic hedgehog, a robot and a female bat.)

I believe all of these characters will be familiar to hard-core fans of Sega’s long-running Sonic series. I remember many of them, but not all of them — and I’m a Sonic fan.

The adventure is the same no matter which team you choose. I played with Team Sonic and Team Dark, and it seemed like the robot was more powerful than Knuckles. Each team also has a speed “leader,” a flying “leader” and a power “leader.”

Sonic, Shadow the synthetic hedgehog, Espio the chameleon, and Amy, the female hedgehog, are speed leaders. Knuckles is the power guy on Team Sonic and while I found Omega, the robot on Team Dark, more powerful than Knuckles, that could also be a function of my using Team Dark on my second run through.

As you zip through the various levels of “Sonic Heroes,” you will come across paths that test each leader’s skills. Your speed guy can climb poles, grind rails and zip through cork-screwing roads. Sometimes, however, you come across elongated jumps or flying enemies. You’ll want your flying leader in those situations. And when the road is blocked or there are scads of enemy robots, your power guy is the leader of choice.

One thing about Sonic games — they are fast. These are games in which your real goal is always to sprint from point A to point B in record time. Killing enemies and gathering keys and rings is just a side note.

But there is an exception to this. There are boss levels in which Eggman comes out with some new contraption and you must avoid being shot or pulverized as you figure his weapon out and attempt to combat it.

Basing games around speed is generally a sure-fire trap; but in the case of “Sonic Heroes,” it works.

The game however, does have some blips and flaws that make the speed a bit problematic at times. Sometimes the camera gets lost behind pillars or buildings and you lose sight of your team. This is often fatal.

As the last few Sonic outings had even worse camera problems, and I have a weak spot in my heart for Sonic, it’s nice to see a game that shows why Sega’s rodent once ruled the gaming world with an iron paw.

Sonic games have always taken place in surrealistic, kid-friendly, almost Dali-esque worlds populated with looping roads and mysterious pinball bumpers. If you can accept these contrivances, “Sonic Heroes” has a lot to offer.

Just a historical note. In video games, Sonic The Hedgehog is the only character ever to rival Nintendo’s Mario in overall popularity. In the mid-1990s, surveys showed that more American kids recognized Sonic and Mario than Mickey Mouse or Abraham Lincoln.

“Sonic Heroes” is just the game to remind us why Sega’s hedgehog was once more popular than Disney’s mouse.