Review: Sonic 4: Episode 1

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 suppose.

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 be 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 there?).

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.

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