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Sonic Speed Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1

October 18, 2010

He’s baaaaack!

Before we begin, a quick run down for the psychos among us that have been living in a thirty-foot deep burrow these past sixteen years. Sonic the Hedgehog invaded into the infantile gaming industry in 1991, displacing the reigning king and hammering his dominance twice more in the early 90’s. However, then tragedy struck, and the world could only watch in horror as Sonic slid down into the mud of mediocrity. In response, eventually, SEGA pouted they would be returning the hero, who seemed to somehow remain in the hearts of many despite going through the gaming equivalent of an adolescent breakdown, ‘to his roots’. Well, Sonic hunted for these woody tips for a good many years –  and, nada. But, of course, they never went quite far back as they have done with Sonic 4 Episode I, a glossy, HD version of the old retro days and continues from where Sonic 3 and Knuckles left off. The beauty of it, is that it tries to be nothing more than what Sonic used to be.

Regardless of what you and I thought of the many characters introduced to the series over the years, the long series of detours and the mass array of average scores received from said tangents, Sonic 4 discards them all. It’s just Sonic, Robotnik, 7 Chaos emeralds and a bunch of fluffy animals trapped inside some familiar looking robots. There isn’t a ‘plot’, per say, more like a linear, predicted assumption. It’s a continuation from Sonic 3, so take that knowledge, copy and paste it just before Sonic 4, then copy and paste the ‘plot’ to Sonic 1 over what was called Sonic 4, and you have your story. It’s a bit disappointing considering the effort that’s been put into the storylines of Sonic games these past few years, but we can let it slide as it’s an arcade game and it’s the gameplay we all want anyway. It sure tugs on your heartstrings at the beginning when you hear those thumping drum beats, and then a second later Sonic pops up in his little banner, waggling his finger at you as if to say ‘what, did you think I was gone?’ A little patronising, I for one do remember you making me howl in 2008, buddy. But it’s some fan-service nostalgia, so who cares?

I’m beating around the star-post. Sonic 4: Episode I is composed of four zones, each with three Acts and a Boss Battles, seven ‘Special Stages’, and a secret little Act at the end I’ll let you figure out. Point of the game – run to the right, and reach the end of the levels. Collect some rings if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else is necessary. Nobody is really going to run into any real trouble until about the last Zone, Mad Gear Zone, which is still an easier version of previous levels we rock ‘n’ rolled through sixteen years ago like Scrap Brain Zone. Now, finally, finally, this game seems to have rediscovered the balance between speed and platforming that made Sonic such a smash in the first place. There is a slight kink in the physics that sets it apart from the old games, but it’s so specific it’s barely worth mentioning and certainly won’t obstruct the fun once you’ve got through to Zone 1 Act 2. You see, you jump, but instead of flying forwards on the basis of the length of time you hold down the jump button and the speed you were going, the player can drop the angle of the jump completely if they let go of the ‘forward’ emote. This can result in a few accidents where Sonic inexplicably drops out of the air mid-jump, but if you wanted the game identical to Sonic 1,2 and 3 go and buy the numerous collection sets released on nearly every platform. The game’s close enough to a twin as it is, which isn’t always a good thing.

The Acts twist and turn, the level design offering many alternate pathways (a crucial element of the ‘Sonic experience’ that most of the 3D games ignored) that encourage the skill and fast-reflexes needed to incorporate both a sense of speed and accurate platforming into your technique. And this is fun, and it makes you want to go back and play again and again in an effort to increase your score and decrease your time. Sonic destroys his enemies by jumping on them in his Sonic Spin or using the homing attack. The homing attack was not part of the original formula, but it’s a difference that does not handicap the experience. Simply said, the levels are a blast to play, especially the third or fourth time when you’re a little more confident and able to really rev your sneakers. There isn’t a massive play-time, but there’s a pivotal component in the game that cancels that out: replayability. Replayability from a simple but fun formula. That’s the sort of stuff arcade games are built from, so, brilliant!

The ‘badniks’, as they have been nicknamed, are recycled from Sonic 1,2 and 3 (even those dreaded starfish…), and though have a next-generation shine, I’m not sure if this is fan-service or laziness. The Zones are all polished to a HD, 2.5D gloss, but what they look like is going to tickle the fandom in half. Thing is, while the newer generation of games still stick to the concept of starting out in pretty green environments, steadily making their way forwards into dangerous, metallic leviathans boasting inexplicable lakes of lava, acid, bottomless pits etc, they tried to manage a bit of originality. Some are going to argue that it was the theme of the retro games and Sonic 4 was custom-tailored to appeal to those desiring a 2D Sonic experience for their starving nostalgia nostrils, but isn’t it getting a bit boring having Splash Hill Zone on the ‘heels’ of Emerald Hill and Green Hill?  At least Mushroom Hill made a point of having, you know… mushrooms. You probably won’t be guessing Splash Hill it apart from Emerald Hill, and the other three levels from there own borrowed counterparts. Mad Gear is the only one that really makes an effort to stand out.

Now I've seen this somewhere before... nup, can't quite put my finger on it.

Now, that’s a big complaint. It doesn’t necessarily make it a ‘bad’ game, it’s not – you all know it so stop questioning it, Sonic 4 was custom-made to be nothing more than a retro-game wolf in a modern HD sheep’s clothing, and it does it especially well. The game isn’t about taking new directions, but it had to juggle with being a glorious return to roots and being a reheated leftover. It’s not the latter, thanks to the odd refreshing, magical touch, but it’s sure not the former either – and the soundtrack doesn’t do especially good for its chances. Once the initial blast of wonderment and the gratitude that we’ve got our hero back recedes, you realise that you’re bouncing to the theme of… Emerald Hill Zone? Wrong theme, wrong game, probably due to a mixture of my earlier pompous grumble at the beginning of this paragraph and the fact that the music’s a bit flat and much less shiny than the visuals; which is a disappointment. After head-bobbing to Mazuri from Sonic Unleashed and the mind-numbingly awesome rock-tunes the series has touted over the years we’ve come to automatically develop high-standards for the melodies. This makes a little bit of sense when you consider our day and age and the technology musicians have at their disposal, versus the simple tools they were restricted to sixteen years ago, forcing them to focus on making tunes that needed to be both good and simple, because that’s all the old 8 to 16-bits could work with. And, of course, simple melodies are the ones we remember best.

The iPhone version has it’s own quirky differences from the XBLA version that often make the game a better fit to the platform (except if you don’t like the tilt function, like me), but they’re mostly the same thing. And that final modern touch is, of course, leaderboards – only the addicts make it on, but it’s fun to see where you stand and work to knock people out of your way on your ascent to glory. No online multiplayer, or multiplayer of any kind, which certainly is a shame. Without it, the game does feel unfinished. If Sonic 2 could have 11 zones, seven special stages and multiplayer Sonic 4 Episode 1 isn’t left with much of an excuse.

Weighing up the pros and cons, let’s make a decision here. If we can pull down Sonic games that looked great, sounded great, but played jaggedly, then we can certainly hold up Sonic 4: Episode 1 as arcade gold on the simple foundations that it fits our gaming thumbs like Master Chief fits his MJOLNIR armour and moves like Casey Stoner with Rossi on his exhaust pipe. Now, for the record, my complaints of this game feel a little bit… irritating, the sort of thing that is going to make even me pull my hair out – because this is a good game. You’re going to love it to bits, especially if you first met Sonic in 1991. But, it could have been done 16 years ago, so it’s not like we can cut it a break. The younger fans might be better off with newer games, such as Black Knight or Unleashed, but for those of us who were introduced to Sonic in the days when his sneakers were buckle-less, the cash necessary for this arcade buy is well-worth the spend.

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