Poor old Sonic. Two decades ago he was a leading mascot figure on the face of every lunch box, defining SEGA and spawning one of the greatest rivalries in the industry. Since then, teary-eyed fans have watched as their beloved blue hedgehog became a shadow of his former self in the transition to 3D, resulting in a seemingly endless supply of dismal games that didn’t do the license justice.
It’s only taken them 16 years too long, but SEGA has finally seen sense and are gladly dismissing that anything after the original Sonic trilogy ever existed. Enter Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, a high definition revamp of the classic 2D formula that aims to finally redeem the faltering franchise. Is this the game that Sonic fans have been patiently yearning for?
Early signs are evidently promising: it’s as if it’s 1991 all over again. Booting the game up will no doubt result in a waft of nostalgia when you are greeted with the familiar retro sound of collecting rings before the utterly timeless “SEGAAAAAA” chimes benevolently. Ahh, those were the days.
Staring at the menu screen however will do well to scald this nostalgia as Sonic is presented in his modern-day sinful self, complete with disproportionately lanky legs. Go away you imposter, you’re not the Sonic we all knew and cherished in the 16-bit days.
Another aspect you will most likely notice from the outset is the soundtrack, which absolutely pales in comparison. The games in which Sonic 4 is trying to emulate were known for their infectiously catchy hooks that made playing the game such a pleasant and engaging experience, but here it has the opposite effect. It tries to emulate the archaic soundtracks but becomes all too repetitive on some levels, and is ultimately generic and unmemorable.
Then there’s the physics, which, given Sonic’s fundamental need for speed and agility, feel far too sluggish. As Sonic limps at walking pace in an unenthusiastic, robotic animation, the environments feel as if they have been draped in copious amounts of treacle as it takes an absolute age to gain momentum before you can embark on a speed run. You would think that this was perhaps due to Sonic’s now elderly age, but then it’s not as if he doesn’t have the stamina: he can even now inexplicably walk up 90 degree walls without the need to run.
When you do eventually get up to speed, Sonic 4 finally begins to shine. As you whiz through each colourful level with the sole objective of racking up as many rings as quickly possible in a bid to rescue cuddly creatures from the evil Dr. Eggman, SEGA’s intentions to adopt a back-to-basics approach that harkens back to the original Megadrive classics start to come into fruition. There’s no embarrassing voice acting, and all of the feckless friends that Sonic made in recent instalments are nowhere to be seen, thankfully.
Sonic 4 is divided into four separate zones, each with three main acts and an additional boss battle against the podgy Dr. Eggman and his callous craft. This is a game that is rife with more deja-vu than nostalgia due to the fact that the levels in Sonic 4 are, by and large, rehashes of previous levels from the original Sonic games: even the new pristine HD graphics can’t disguise the fact that that the introductory Splash Hill level is quite clearly Green Hill from the first Sonic game. Despite the ropey walking animation and 2D aesthetic, Sonic 4 glistens with a high definition gloss and extravagant colour palette, while still remaining faithful to the originals.
Other stages that are revisited include the night time Casino zone (a staple from every Sonic game of the era), Lost Labyrinth which once again takes Sonic underwater while scrambling for precious air bubbles and a final showdown in Dr. Eggman’s brooding fortress. Each can be played in any order from a fancy selection screen upon completing Splash Hill and the bonus Special Stages also make a return if you manage to retain at least 50 rings at the end of a level. You know the drill: once again, Sonic must navigate rotating mazes that become increasingly challenging in order to collect the hidden Chaos Emeralds. And yes, don’t worry, collecting them all will unlock Super Sonic.
Sonic 4 does at least introduce a few novel twists to spruce the otherwise familiar levels up a bit. The casino acts rely heavily on positioning firing cannons and also has you surfing along trailing decks of cards in a glorious 3D effect. Similarly, Lost Labyrinth features a brief mine cart section, and another scenario requires you to slowly light up torches in the dark in order to solve a puzzle. It’s a surprising change that arguably undermines the otherwise blistering pace of the game, but it remains a unique addition nonetheless. The aforementioned Special Stages have also been tweaked, this time giving you direct control over the orientation of the camera while controlling Sonic which can be an increasingly difficult task indeed.
Another new addition is the inclusion of a homing attack that allows Sonic to instantaneously lock onto enemies in mid-air, before swiping them in rapid succession. Previously introduced in the 3D incarnations, it quickly becomes a central gameplay mechanic as it allows you to dash through levels without a break in speed and also often saves you from falling into traps. This makes the game feel a tad too easy at times however, as it takes away any element of precision.
For the most part, Sonic 4 is a largely straight-forward affair and Sonic veterans will blitz through the early levels, but there are times when the game abruptly decides to ramp up the difficulty, from the bottomless pits of the Casino and spike traps that seem unavoidable on first try. I’ll openly admit that I’m not the most adept Sonic player in the world, and had to repeat the card jumping segment of the Casino zone more times than I care to admit.
Honestly though, nothing compares to the harrowing ordeal of tedium that is the final boss battle. In an incredulous move by the developers, the climactic level situated in space lazily rehashes all the previous boss battles and is relentlessly difficult – racking up lives is therefore an essential requirement. It’s a punishing end to an otherwise simple yet enjoyable experience.
To alleviate the frustration, the game doesn’t insist on you starting from scratch should you perish and run out of lives. Purists may well grumble at this, but in all honesty the idea of having to restart the game all over again to get to the same boss battle doesn’t sound all that appealing in this generation of auto-save points.
SEGA’s decision to make Sonic 4 an episodic series has also been scrutinised, and I must say I agree with the general fan consensus. Other than a cynical money-making ploy, splitting it up makes little sense since Sonic 4 deliberately doesn’t have much in the way of a plot. Considering the number of levels and the speed in which they can be completed if you know what you’re doing, it’s hard not to feel somewhat short-changed. Granted, there is some replay value to be had by finding alternate paths and collecting the Chaos Emeralds, but there isn’t even any co-op multiplayer included – reprising Tails for some fast-paced co-op multiplayer feels like a golden opportunity completely missed.
Overall, Sonic 4 is a disjointed package. It wants to be treated as a true sequel, but the reality is that it feels more like a direct homage of the originals which diminishes any shred of unique personality. Nostalgia is clearly the game’s biggest selling point: fans will instantly lap it up and, to be honest, who can blame them? SEGA has deprived us of the core Sonic experience for so long that it is only natural. Episode 1 therefore feels more like a warm-up for Sonic’s marathon, so hopefully Episode 2 can bring some needed innovation to the table.
The high definition makeover compliments the retro presentation, although the backdrops could be improved.
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The back-to-basics approach is certainly reminiscent of Sonic's glory days, but sluggish physics and deja-vu level designs lessen the thrill.
No matter how hard it tries, the musical score cannot live-up to the 16-bit classics.
With only four zones to play through and no co-op multiplayer, Sonic 4 seems to be a bit on the pricey side at £9.99.
As a nostalgic throwback to Sonic's early days, Sonic 4 provides enough fan service, but as a true sequel it falls short thanks to some uncooperative physics and stark price tag for what is little content.