I may not have had a chance to experience the wonders of the Dreamcast during
my childhood (I am now!), but I certainly was the proud owner of a Sega Genesis.
And of course, I had many a Sonic the Hedgehog release. I never could master
them completely, but the characters, the colors, and the pure speed kept me
coming back. Mmm, sweet speed. To this day, that's still my favorite thing about
the original series of classic Sonic games. They feel "right." Sure, sometimes
finding the right way to go without jumping into a pit of spikes is infuriating,
but so is a one-hit kill as a small Mario.
That's probably why I'm so excited about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode One.
Sega was smart to team the developers behind the portable Sonic Advance/Rush
games, Dimps, to work their capable magic here, and while I'm excited that Sonic
4 even exists, I'm not so hot about the episodic manner in which this
potentially colossal release is being digitally distributed. I was given the
chance to play the first episode, which contains four worlds (really five, if
you count a final zone) each with four levels: three regular "exploratory"
levels and a fairly epic boss showdown with Eggman. Big surprise, right? As a result, you
get a painfully short release that could have been packaged together with the
rest of the other episodes to create what could have been the best Sonic release
in, literally, years. But at least it's available in one form or another, I
Sonic 4 feels like being dragged through time to a Saturday morning of your
childhood, sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of sugary cereal, chowing down through each
'SONIC passed' screen and raging when you miss the giant ring signifying an
opportunity to pick up a Chaos Emerald. Aside from the obviously updated visuals
lending that strange "watercolor" feel to Sonic and the environments, this game
almost feels as if it could have been released in the heyday of the Blue Blur.
The only real 'new' gameplay element is Sonic's homing spin-attack (borrowed
from Sonic Adventure), which adds aerial attacks to the standard jump, spin,
repeat mechanic and makes coordinating enemy hits a lot easier. Purists
can complain, but I love it, for the most part.
From the Casino Zone's speedy playing card shortcuts to the pure
nostalgia-ridden trip of the Eggman boss stages, everything feels familiar.
Special Chaos Emerald stages return from the earliest Sonic games, with the same trippy
spinning backgrounds and
disorienting peppermint wheels as you remember. Sonic runs like the wind through
appropriately peppy stages with varied environments, each level with its own
gimmick as described in their corresponding title. Some additions to the
standard running and jumping include Sonic zipping through mines on railcarts or
navigating unlit stages by torchlight (on the Wii, XBLA, and PSN versions), but
for the most part it's pure Sonic 16-bit goodness, circa 2010.
Of course, as perfect as this likely sounds, there are some pitfalls that I
found playing through each level. For one thing, there is some decidedly iffy
level design. More often than not it's too simple to fall to your death simply
because deciphering where you need to aim your jump from, say, a cannon is too
difficult. For this reason you can fly through tens of lives in no time. It can
more frustrating than entertaining at times, and while this was a prevalent problem
throughout Sonic's history, you'd think it could have been altered some here.
That's the thing - in fact, most of these levels feel like direct implants
from games past. I'm sure that was deliberate, but it feels exactly like a
'greatest hits' of earlier Sonic offerings and less like a completely "new" entry into the series.
That's precisely what I loved about the Sonic Rush departures - they felt old
enough to please classic Sonic fans, but masterfully blended newer elements and
graphics to sort of get with the times. Sonic Rush was home to some varied
levels that showed me a few things I hadn't seen from Sega before, but I didn't
always feel that with Sonic 4, and that's really disappointing. If I wanted to re-play Sonic the Hedgehog I'd just do that rather
than dropping the cash on these serial releases.
Furthermore, what's with the music selection? This has always been a
series that, even in its darker days, has always been able to pump out thrilling
soundtracks and catchy themes that kept you buzzed throughout each level and
beyond. Familiar tunes don't exactly abound here, and the strange tracks
chosen to accompany the stages only ended up grating on my nerves rather than
keeping me pumped about completing what amounts to a ridiculously short
Sonic adventure (see what I did
While the WiiWare, XBLA, and PSN versions of the game are virtually identical
in the visual and gameplay departments, the iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch) version has
some a few glaring differences worth mentioning. The visuals have been
reduced slightly to reflect the lower-spec hardware, and I was disappointed to
see the game lag on my iPod Touch 2G; it still looks and generally moves well,
but never feels as 'complete' as the home versions. And there's no getting
around the controls, as they do an admirable job in transforming Sonic's digital
controls to the button-less touchscreen, and occasionally they failed to
register direct left/right movements accurately (bye, bye Sonic). On the
plus side, it does feature some well-implemented accelerometer gameplay on the
bonus and railcart levels that works really well and were fun to play.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a mixed bag. One
one hand, its as if a long-lost 'good' Sonic title was left to defrost in today's modern HD,
graphics-hungry world. And on the other, it's depressing how little
work was put into making this an entirely 'new' mind-blowing experience as it
could have been for the longtime fans, many whom stuck by the franchise when it
had been left for dead. Still, it's classic Sonic through and through, and if you have the time,
the money, and the desire to check out Sonic in all his modern glory throughout
what are still brand-new stages, I'd recommend at least playing through once, if
not twice just to see Super Sonic in action. After all these years, it's still
cool. I just wish I could say the same about Sonic's apparent waning appeal.