Developer: Sonic Team
Console(s): XBLA, PSN, Wii Ware, iPhone
Reviewed on: PSN
ESRB rating: E (Comic Mischief)
BMR rating: E (No Descriptors)
Genesis-style gameplay returns - Great soundtrack - Sharp visuals - Challenging to collect everything - Sense of speed and pacing is to be commended
Plays it very, very safe - Pushes the limit on the price/content ratio
In the wake of Mega Man 9's shocking return to the NES days of yore, I couldn't help but to wonder if the trend would catch on. What other series would launch itself into the past and craft a new game in the long-dead trail of its earliest efforts? When the name Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 bounded onto the scene, I was joyously excited. What better choice could there be? Fans have been clamoring for a return to the Genesis games for sixteen years, and despite successful forays into two dimensions such as Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush, the speedy hedgehog hasn't quite managed to capture the feeling of those glory days. But with such an endeavor comes heavy responsibility and high expectations; after all, sixteen years is a long hiatus. Most people are ready to hold Sonic's head underwater until the timer ticks its last death note, clearly not in the mood to be receptive of Sega's mascot. But wonderfully enough, Sonic Team has done an admirable job of emulating the old formula while tweaking things enough for them to feel fresh again. It's time to slip on the red sneakers and embark on a brand new adventure!
The story in Sonic 4 is simple. In fact, it's nonexistent. The game makes an invested effort in keep all voice acting and anything resembling a plot far, far away and that works out just fine. Although Sega has claimed that the story from Sonic & Knuckles is continued here, the first episode doesn't seem too keen on fleshing it out. Rather, Sonic dashes through crazy lands with reckless abandon as he attempts to thwart the mad Dr. Eggman's evil scheme, which is more than enough context to get things going. Episode 1 includes four zones to master, each containing three stages and a boss. There's Splash Hill, a tropical world of grassy slopes and blue skies; Casino Street, a flashy casino packed with all sorts of pinball flippers and playing cards; Lost Labyrinth, a collection of ancient ruins with more traps than a jaunt through Limbo's forest; and Mad Gear Zone, a dizzying array of mechanical mechanisms and deadly doodads. Seven bonus stages (one for each Chaos Emerald) will also occupy your time. None of this is new ground for the franchise; Sonic 4 is obviously playing it safe. Nevertheless, the familiar zones ensure players that they'll feel right at home and it's hard to argue with such proven success.
Everything you remember from the old days is alive and well here. Sonic can roll into a ball and barrel through opponents with his trademarked spindash, springs will fling him through the air with a giddy sense of momentum, rings will spin and glow temptingly all over the multi-layered stages, and badniks will try as they might to knock the shiny prizes from Sonic's grasp. It all feels great, and despite the new engine and over a dozen years' time to get out of shape, Sonic 4 plays remarkably like its predecessors. The one major new addition is the homing attack, an established move of the hasty hedgehog's repertoire since the release of Sonic Adventure. Pressing the jump button while in the air will boost Sonic forward, and if an enemy or object is properly auto-targeted, send him flying towards the target, swiftly launching him back into the air after the impact. This is a surprisingly tactile addition, allowing players to chain combos together without the nuisance of hitting the ground, as well as offering some extra momentum for those tricky jumps. It doesn't make the game too easy, but instead creates an interesting aspect that keeps the flow moving in a satisfying manner. When I fired up the old Genesis games for comparison, I found myself instinctively tapping A in order to utilize this feature only to miss my objective and dilly about while I readjusted my pace. It's a small inclusion, but a noteworthy change for the better.
The stages are well-built and rife with alternate paths. Loops and runways are appropriately madcap and only those with quick wits will reap the benefit of the fastest routes, proving that practice and a sharp eye will go a long way to finding all the shortcuts. Like the Genesis tiles, Sonic 4 knows when to slow things down for some momentary puzzle solving and platforming. A couple of the more creative sequences have Sonic wielding a torch to light a darkened temple and matching cards to earn bonus rings and lives, gracing the game with a well-placed dose of variety and strategy. There are a few frustrating moments that force players into blind jumps or confuse them with odd geometry, but as a whole, the brief moments of precision help to create a well-rounded experience instead of a one-note speedrun. The most impacting example of this comes in the form of the bonus stages, obtained after completing a level with at least fifty rings. These levels greatly resemble the first Sonic the Hedgehog's bonus stages, except for the fact that one must now rotate the stage itself instead of simply moving Sonic around the abstract arena. Also, the visuals are less blackout-inducing. And the music is no longer terrible. And it's actually fun. The goal is to tumble Sonic through a floating maze and to a coveted Chaos Emerald, collecting enough rings to pass through toll gates and competing against the clock. These sections can become extremely challenging, especially when the dreaded end-all walls appear. With a single touch, these menaces throw the unhappy hedgehog out of the entire stage and require him to beat a level all over again for another shot at success. The final stage is especially maddening, almost to the point of cruelty. Nevertheless, this challenge is tense, delicate, and ultimately rewarding. If one manages to nab all seven of the emeralds, there's a special prize waiting to be collected. Trust me, it's well worth the effort.
But don't let the deceptively calming melody of the bonus rounds fool you: Sonic 4's soundtrack is upbeat and entertaining to listen to. The synth-heavy songs don't possess the same versatility and overall awesomeness as did the Genesis masterpieces of the '90s, but there's a contagious energy that drives the music a level far above mere competence. It's unfortunate that the style chosen causes most of the songs to sound overly similar to one another, but at least it's a good sound in the first place. Besides, the snappy drum samples and catchy tunes do a great job of keeping the classic format alive. Speaking of sounds, you'll hear all the beloved dings and boings your brain can recall from past Sonic products, including the iconic "BOIP" of jumping that is so tragically missing in some of the recent games. The visuals are bright and vivid, fully HD and prepared for this generation of fancy TVs. Sonic 4 does a good job of recalling the proper vibe of the series but doesn't try to directly recreate it (unlike Mega Man 9). Expect to see a hedgehog built up of polygons mingle with a happy mixture of parallax scrolling and 2D planes. It's a sharp-looking game that carries on the tradition of beautiful backgrounds and thrilling speed. The entire presentation feels like an authentic Sonic experience through and through, spruced up for a new age of technology. It doesn't take any risks, and does slip a few inches into the pit of genericness, but it all works out in the end.
For $15, twelve stages, four bosses, seven bonus levels, a smattering of Achievements/Trophies, and a couple of other things I don't want to spoil aren't bad. Considering that this is the first episode in a series of games, it would have been nice to have a friendlier opening price, but it's hard to complain when Sonic Team directly delivers the fondest dreams of every gamer that ever enjoyed the Genesis. A time trial mode and leaderboards make for a more complete package, giving people a reason to go back and improve their form. Beating all the levels isn't especially difficult and it certainly won't take more than a an evening or two to do so, but this is a fantastic start (or, to be technical, continuation) to what promises to be an amazing series. This first installment seems to lean on the original Sonic the Hedgehog both functionally and stylistically, so one must wonder what the next episode has in store. Will we get the chance to torment Player 2 as he desperately yells at Tails to catch up? Will half-pipes make an appearance during the bonus stages? Will Sega release lock-on technology for $10 DLC, thereby losing all the good will previously built up among the community? These unanswered questions tear at my soul in the darkest hours of the dawn. But regardless of what the future has in store, a "new old" Sonic game has finally been delivered and the unspoken words can at last come forth: Sonic the Hedgehog is back.