Published on October 20th, 2010 | by Cameron Woolsey
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I Review
Sonic, it has been a long time coming, my friend.
It’s no secret that the past decade of Sonic games haven’t been too highly prized. And that’s really saying it the nicest way I can. Ever since the gradual fall of the series which began shortly before Sonic Adventure, Sonic fans in general have loudly voiced their frustration as the games went from bad to worse, plagued with terrible characters, poor design decisions, and, well, just being really bad. Yes, all hope seemed lost…until now. In collaboration with Sonic Advance developer, Dimps, Sonic Team has reinvented the aging mascot for the new age. Fully leaving behind the 3D stage and returning to the original 2D form, SEGA has released Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I which is both a remake and sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, a game that was released 16 years ago. I suppose the really big question is: is it any good? Well Sonic fans you can rest assured, Sonic the Hedgehog is back!
Right away the most noticeable thing about Sonic 4 is how closely it resembles the original titles. From the SEGA Scream as the game loads, to Sonic waving his gloved hand in the winged title, to the bright pastel colors and checkerboard pattern of the first zone, this game practically glows with the influences of Sonic games in the 16-bit era. But the influences don’t just stop at the aesthetic design.
Sonic 4, like its predecessors, is split up into Zones each with three Acts and a boss stage which brings you face to face with Sonic’s old rival, Dr. Robotnik. There are a total of four Zones in Sonic 4: Episode I which should be the same for the three following episodes. Each Zone in Sonic 4 is reminiscent of several Zones from the classic titles. Splash Zone resembles Emerald Hill from Sonic 1, Lost Labyrinth is similar to Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1, and Mad Gear Zone is an obvious homage to the Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2. I found myself really enjoying Casino Street which is like Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2 and still features all the pinball paddles and giant jackpot machines from the level its based on. However, though the Zones are similar in theme, don’t mistake them for exact copies. Each Zone in Sonic 4 is far different from the Zones they draw inspiration from. The only things that actually get replicated are the boss fights at the end–though each battle includes an additional action, making it more than just a simple copy. The addition of a world map is a new feature for the series. After beating a Zone, you will be given the option to move on to the next Zone but doing nothing will transport you to the world map where you can choose one of the featured four Zones or Special Stage (if you unlocked it). Now, unlike previous games, you can choose to play any of the other Zones without having to finish the Zone before it. You can also choose which Act to play in the Zone or even the boss stage, once they have been played through once.
SEGA made a very wise decision by removing other playable characters. Now I’m sure that Tails might have a small following, but one of my (and practically the entire world’s) biggest complaint was the unending plethora of terrible, terrible, side characters added to the series. The focus is where it needs to be: right on Sonic the Hedgehog who is the only playable character here, with the only other character being the good doctor himself. There are rumors (some might be true) that future episodes will contain a few of the other characters, but hopefully SEGA won’t push it. By now experience should have taught them that adding pointless characters does not a good game make.
Classic Sonic games have always been regarded for bright and colorful graphics and Sonic 4 gladly follows the style. The colors are crisp and clean and the lines are sharp. There are a few 3D effects that are added, such as breaking certain blocks and running the card road in Casino Street Zone, that look great when they pop off the screen and help to complete the overall look of the game. Each Zone has a unique theme and feel. The first Zone, Splash Hill, is green and grassy with a rippling sea in the background. Lost Labyrinth is dark and mysterious while Casino Night looks like it could have been taken right from the Las Vegas Strip. I especially enjoyed the theme of Mad Gear Zone which had a cold, mechanical background filled with whirring gears and pumping pistons. The multiple themes and designs of each stage make Sonic 4 a feast for the eyes; the game is nothing short of gorgeous.
The audio of Sonic 4 is enough to make any Sonic fan grin with delight. Every sound, the loud “bling” of grabbing a ring, to the “bong” of hitting a reflective bumper, to the satisfying pop of destroying an enemy, is taken directly from the style of past games. From another room, it would sound just like someone had just booted up the old Genesis. The only issue I have, however, lies with the music itself. Though I am happy that SEGA dropped the cheesy J-Pop rock of the recent 3D titles to the techno beats of the classics, I found that most of the songs weren’t that great. Many of the songs just sound too busy and can get a little annoying at times. But noisy songs aside, there are a few that sound great and fit the mood of the respective Zone well and like every Sonic song, they are pretty catchy as well.
It’s the gameplay side of Sonic 4 where the game seems to start having some issues. If you have been following my coverage of Sonic 4, you would recall that one of my concerns when playing the earlier E3 build was that the physics simply felt wrong. Everything from moving to jumping and moving through the air felt stiff—very unlike what we expect from the classic Sonic series which has been praised for smooth controls. The current controls are a little better than what I experienced with that build, but they still feel pretty stiff. Mostly it isn’t an issue until some precise platform jumping is needed—a good example being Mad Gear Zone which features plenty of pistons that will quickly impale your blue butt on a wall of spikes unless you get the jump just right. Another problem that came up was one of pacing. During Lost Labyrinth Zone, the game suddenly finds it necessary to force Sonic to slow to a crawl, where players must painstakingly navigate a pitch black area with only a torch in hand. Now, I don’t personally mind a little platforming in Sonic, after all, that’s the genre these games are classified as, but slowing Sonic to a complete crawl throughout a couple of Acts just doesn’t fly. Sonic is built for eye-blistering speed; leave the dungeon crawling to Lara Croft. Having to light dynamite to get through blocked passages is not fun either.
The difficulty of the game is also uneven at times. While most of the game is fairly easy to play while gradually getting more difficult as you reach the end, there are some enemies that are surprisingly difficult near the end. More specifically, those damn grasshoppers in Mad Gear Zone. No other badnik from my memory could spark a sudden feeling of fear to boiling rage trying as I try to quickly destroy one before it throws it’s hedgehog-seeking and nearly unavoidable claws my way. But that’s really more of my own problem, the true offender lies with the final boss itself. Like I said, Sonic 4 can get challenging near the end, but there is just no shred of logic that can justify the shockingly difficult final boss fight. I don’t want to spoil the fight so it is hard to really explain without giving any information, but I cannot believe that SEGA could have had a play tester try and fight this boss and feel that the sudden difficulty spike is just perfectly acceptable. Well, it isn’t. While not impossible, just be warned, you are in for the long haul.
Thankfully, there are ways to make things a little easier (but not for the final boss, sorry). Returning to the series are the Chaos Emeralds, seven mystical gems that once gathered will allow Sonic to transform into Super Sonic who can run faster, jump higher, and take no damage. Collecting the gems is done through the Special Stages which mimic the same style of the onces in the original game. In a Special Stage Sonic is constantly dropping and you must move the stick to rotate the stage while collecting enough rings to pass through doors and finally grab the elusive Emerald. Plus hunting for the Chaos Emeralds adds some extra challenge and game time to a relatively short experience.
When all is finally said and done, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I may be far from perfect, but it is also the best official (that is, not counting the handheld games) Sonic game to come out in years. The incredible graphics, audio, and blazing speed all come together to create a short-but-sweet, fun, and nostalgic Sonic experience. The time has finally arrived. I can finally rise up from hiding, and be proud to be a Sonic fan once again. Welcome back, Sonic, we missed you.
+ Great graphics
+ Nice use of classic sound effects
+ Amazing sense of speed
+ Good Zone design
+ No irritating side characters
– Some of the music is noisy
– Controls are still a little stiff
– Why is the last boss so hard?