Review: Sonic 4 – Episode 1

When Sonic 4: Episode 1 was originally announced, it was referred to as “Project Needlemouse.”  This was significant, given that “Needlemouse” was the codename Sega used internally while developing the very first Sonic the Hedgehog game.  The idea behind it was a recapturing of what made the very original Sonic great.  From its very conception, Sonic 4 is an attempt to bring nostalgia to the forefront and please fans who’ve been waiting for a great Sonic game since the Genesis days.  This past week, after years of waiting, the game was finally released via download to the three major consoles.  Here’s my verdict.

 

 

I'm baaaaack!

 

 

First off, an explanation.  I’m a huge Sonic fan.  Sonic the Hedgehog was the very first video game I ever played.  I’ve devoted more hours than I care to admit to the games that were released on the Sega Genesis (In fact, I was still playing through Sonic 3 for the umpteenth time when consoles like the N64 were no longer new).  I know the first four Sonic games backwards and forwards (yes, there were four Sonic games, as Sonic & Knuckles was a direct continuation of Sonic 3).  I’ve memorized every level layout, every enemy’s method of attack, and the location of every special stage (In short, I have/had no life).  If anyone’s going to hold Sonic 4 under strict scrutiny, it’s me.  After all, the title of the game puts itself in the same vein as the Genesis originals.  Is this a fair comparison?

Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty tough to answer that question.  At times, Sonic 4 feels like a simple retelling of the first two Sonic games, and at other times, it feels like a real sequel.  Visually, the game looks amazing.  The art style is that of the classics, but it utilizes much more advanced graphics.  The PS3 and XBox360 versions look especially gorgeous.  Interestingly, the sound design is exceptionally close to the originals.  All of the familiar Sonic sound effects are there, and the music even sounds like it could be played on a Sega Genesis.  I honestly wouldn’t have minded a more advanced soundtrack (as long as the 80’s guitar riffs stay out), but it fits the game well and definitely helps the nostalgia factor.  Occasionally, the soundtrack is a little too peppy and cheerful (mostly during the boss fights), but it works very well for what it is and I’m pleased with the creator’s decision to include it.

Of course, factors of visual appeal and sound design mean very little compared to gameplay.  Overall, the gameplay is the same great Sonic we know and love.  In terms of level design, Sega finally nailed it.  The levels encourage both speed and platforming, something all of the modern games have missed.  A common misconception of Sonic the Hedgehog is that it’s all about going fast.  In fact, it’s not.  Classic Sonic encouraged going blazingly fast, but it wasn’t like you could just hold the right button and finish the level.  Sometimes, clever and downright challenging platforming had to be overcome.  The same is true in Sonic 4: Episode 1.  The levels are massive and encourage multiple play-throughs in order to find every path.

 

 

"Lost Labyrinth" particularly has some great platforming elements.

 

 

In terms of controlling Sonic, however, things get a little hairy.  The physics of this game is noticeably different from the original games.  It’s not bad physics, per se; it’s just different.  There is quite a learning curve for those who have played the originals and are used to those controls.  Of course, once you finally understand the physics, it works well most of the time, and I only have a few minor complaints.  For instance, in the classics, if you press down while running, you would curl into a ball, which not only destroys enemies that touch you, but it would actually speed you up when going downhill.  That is not the case in Sonic 4, as it will noticeably slow you down until you no longer move.  It doesn’t make the game unplayable, of course not, but it’s a habit I have from playing the originals that often inhibits my movement.  Given that all the Sonic games prior did this, it’s strange the creators would decide to eliminate it from Sonic 4.  My only other complaint about the physics of Sonic 4 is that it takes a long time to get Sonic up to speed.  In the classics, Sonic was always pretty sensitive.  If you just lightly press forward on the directional pad, he’d take it slow, but if you slam it down, he’d take off like a rocket.  In Sonic 4, this sensitivity is lost.  Sonic starts out at a very slow walk no matter how much pressure you put on the D-pad.  Granted, Sonic controls fine once you’re moving at top speed, but it takes a lot to get there.  It’s a somewhat frustrating experience – the only one that markedly separates Sonic 4 from its Genesis counterparts.

 

 

Sonic takes longer than he should to get moving in this game, but once he does, it's smooth sailing.

 

 

One final gameplay note is the inclusion of a homing attack.  It’s the only new move to be added to Sonic’s repertoire.  At times, it feels cheap and out of place, but, for the most part, it’s very cleverly worked into the level design (it’s even required in a few places).  In fact, the homing attack often works to correct the shortcomings of Sonic’s physics, which is the primary reason for using it.

I mentioned earlier that, at times, Sonic 4 feels more like a re-imagining of the first two Sonic games than a true sequel.  This is due to three reasons.  First, the levels, while still brand new in terms of layout, are based visually on levels of past games.  Fortunately, those comparisons stop there, as each level offers something new to the series.  They’re not always particularly groundbreaking, but the levels do offer something besides an HD version of levels we’ve already seen.

 

 

The levels are meant to look like classic Sonic levels. Fortunately, they still have plenty of new elements.

 

 

Additionally, the enemies are all HD versions of enemies from previous games.  This is both good and bad.  For one, it’s awesome to have badniks again.  No more of those humanoid, take-more-than-one-hit-to-die robots.  We’re back with robots that release animals when you destroy them!  However, despite all this, I would’ve liked to have seen at least a few new enemies.  It’s nice to have the old enemies back, but is it too much to ask that we get new enemies, but in the same vein as the old ones?  I feel like a real sequel would’ve had that.

The biggest area, however, in which this game feels like a re-imagining rather than a true sequel is in the boss fights.  Unfortunately, Sonic 4 doesn’t technically see any original boss fights.  Of the five bosses in the game, every single one of them is based off a boss from the first two Sonic games.  They do, however, have glimpses of originality.  Each boss fight is divided into two parts.  The first part of every boss fight is exactly the same bosses we’ve beaten a hundred times over.  The second part, however, is where Robotnik breaks out something new.  I understand that the creators wanted to invoke a feeling of nostalgia, but I would’ve liked to see some new boss battles instead of some remixes of past bosses.

 

 

If this boss looks familiar, it's because you've already fought him.

 

 

All in all, however, Sonic 4 gets more right than it does wrong.  While there’s the occasional, minor quibble that keeps me from really thinking of this game as a true Sonic 4, it’s a HUGE step in the right direction for Sega.  Most of all, Sonic is fun again.

 

Pro’s

  • Some of the best level design since the Genesis days, beating even Sonic Advance.
  • Looks Gorgeous
  • Classic, side-scrolling Sonic.  Need I say more?

Con’s

  • The physics have a bit of a learning curve, as they are different from the originals
  • Unoriginal boss fights make it feel more like a re-imagining than a true sequel.

 

Little Things I (as an old-school Sonic fan) Noticed:

  • During Sonic’s running animation, Sonic keeps his arms up front, not straight out behind him.  We haven’t seen this since Sonic & Knuckles on the Sega Genesis.
  • When you start the game, a familiar chorus sings “SEGA!” as Sonic runs by the Sega logo.  If that doesn’t make you happy, you were clearly never a child.
  • I was secretly hoping Sega’s focus on nostalgia would lead to them calling the main villain “Dr. Robotnik” again.  Unfortunately, he still carries his Japanese name of “Dr. Eggman.”
  • Gloriously, this game has absolutely no voice acting.  No “Ha!” when you attack; Not even a grunt when Sonic dies.  Hallelujah.
  • Much like last year’s New Super Mario Bros., this game proves that you don’t need a complex plot to have a great game.
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~ by digitallysmitten on October 13, 2010.

One Response to “Review: Sonic 4 – Episode 1”

  1. Tim, I will absolutely never play this game (just because I’m not a gamer), but I still read the whole thing simply because you’re an interesting writer. Keep up the good work.

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