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Review: Cute Critters Still Kick Butt in Latest Games

Back when games were regarded as kid stuff, there were plenty of furry mascots hopping around.

But the heroes of today's biggest hits — "Halo," "Gears of War," "Grand Theft Auto" — are decidedly un-cute humans, and if they see any animals running around, they'll kill 'em.

Still, there are a few animal survivors.

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Take Sonic the Hedgehog. Since his debut in 1991, Sonic has been one of the most-popular characters in industry history.

Alas, most of the Sonic games since the turn of the century have been dispiriting affairs, adding all sorts of extraneous gimmickry and downplaying Sonic's distinguishing feature: his speed.

Despite a string of misfires, however, there's still some life in the spiny speedster. Indeed, he may be at the vanguard of a renaissance for video-game critters.

— "Sonic and the Secret Rings" (Sega, for the Wii, $49.99): Sonic returns to his roots in this stripped-down adventure for Nintendo's new console. As he travels through the world of "The Arabian Nights," Sonic starts fast and doesn't slow down.

You tilt the Wii remote to move left or right, shove it forward to attack enemies and push a button to jump. The controls are so simple and the action so speedy that, at first, "Secret Rings" is a little disorienting, but once you get the hang of it you'll enjoy the headlong rush.

As you make your way through the game's 100 levels, you'll discover wacky new uses for the remote and earn power-ups that let Sonic go even faster or slow down time.

Sonic's Wii debut is marred by the addition of a slapdash collection of multiplayer minigames, most of which are pretty dull; if the whole family wants to join in, you should stick with the excellent single-player adventure and take turns with the controller.

Three stars out of four.

— "Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters" (Sony, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): Ratchet and Clank starred in three first-rate platform games for the PlayStation 2, but when Ratchet, the animal half of the team, went solo in 2005's "Ratchet: Deadlocked," it was a big disappointment for fans of the franchise.

Happily, the boys have reunited for one of the best games yet to appear on Sony's portable system.

This time, their intergalactic search for a kidnapped girl encompasses all sorts of gameplay. Most of the time, you'll be running, jumping and shooting, but occasionally you'll need to compete in hoverboard races or fight aliens in outer space.

As usual, "Size Matters" serves up an impressive arsenal of weapons, from your basic flame thrower to guns that squirt out bees or killer robots. The characters and weaponry look great on the PSP, and the winning formula of the PS2 games only suffers slightly on the smaller system.

Three and a half stars.

— "Diddy Kong Racing DS" (Nintendo, for the DS, $34.99): Diddy Kong first appeared in "Donkey Kong Country" in 1994, about a decade before Sean Combs became P. Diddy.

"Diddy Kong Racing DS" is a translation of his first solo project, released in 1997 for the Nintendo 64, and it holds up fairly well.

The core of the game is its "adventure" mode, in which you earn balloons whenever you win a race; the more balloons you collect, the more races you can enter. There's a decent amount of variety to the tracks, and you get to drive three different vehicles — a go-kart, a plane and a hovercraft.

"DKR" stumbles, however, in the new material added to take advantage of the DS touch screen. In some levels all you do is pop balloons, while in others you have to steer and accelerate with the stylus; one task is much too easy, the other nearly impossible.

DS owners who want a more straightforward racing game should stick with "Mario Kart."

Two stars.