Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Sonic’s decline over the past ten years is often attributed to an unhealthy preoccupation with secondary characters and lack of focus on speed. The solution, as with most declining franchises, is often assumed to be a return to Sonic’s Mega Drive roots. It’s a fair assertion, and one that is accurate for the most part. But Sonic Team’s slow strangulation of their mascot isn’t so much to do with concept as execution. Without nailing the fundamentals of a good game – never mind a good Sonic game – a return to the franchise’s roots would be pointless. Nonetheless, Sonic 4 is a vehemently self-conscious effort to prove that Sonic is still relevant in modern times by, ironically, turning the clock back sixteen years. But, for a developer who has consistently failed its own mascot, the execution, as always, is key.
Opening with an homage to the familiar Green Hill Zone, Sonic 4’s intentions are all too obvious. The game’s visuals are colourful but not quite retro; the music almost manipulative in its 16-bit-esque allure; the physics familiar yet fundamentally alien. It’s clear that this is a compromise between new and old; the mutated result of rabid fans’ demands and SEGA’s obstinate refusal to abandon many of their recent changes to the Sonic franchise. This isn’t a pure return to roots, it’s modern Sonic on vacation in 1994.
The first thing that makes this abundantly clear is the way Sonic handles. His acceleration is sluggish, the way he reacts to jumping and rolling and his feeling of momentum have all been noticeably tweaked. Part of this is due to the addition of the homing attack. First introduced in Sonic Adventure, this ability served as an easy way of defeating enemies in a 3D environment. On paper it’s one of the most questionable additions to Sonic 4; but in practice it’s probably the most welcome.
At first it all seems wrong, and for the first act or two it doesn’t feel anything like the Sonic we’re all familiar with. But part of the appeal of 2D Sonic games has always been the unbroken flow that comes from speeding through familiar stages. The homing attack adds to this; allowing not only an effective way of cutting through rows of enemies without slowing down, but also adding a boost to your speed, acceleration and jumping range. Once the initial stage of adjustment passes you realise that the changes made to the physics aren’t particularly bad, they’re just noticeably different.
While the physics may be unfamiliar, the most important aspect of retro Sonic remains; the clever level design. One defining aspect that was lost in Sonic’s move to 3D was the huge, sprawling multi-routed levels. Sonic 4 manages to recapture this, with most stages featuring a large number of branching routes to take and areas to explore. Some stages also adopt classic gimmicks, such as giant cogs that must be moved by running on them and twisting pipes for Sonic to zip through. The most unfamiliar additions, however, such as a darkened stage in which Sonic must carry a flaming torch around and solve convoluted puzzles, are undeniably the low point of the game.
Much of the game’s appeal and longevity comes from the promise of finding the fastest routes through many of the sprawling stages, something that’s made all the more enjoyable by the leaderboards. It’s a good job, too, because Sonic 4 isn’t exactly brimming with content. Comprised of four zones consisting of three acts and a boss stage each, it just about breaks even with Sonic’s shortest Mega Drive outings. The usual promise of collecting seven Chaos Emeralds and unlocking Super Sonic of course extends the game considerably, but the frustrating special stages that need to be tackled in order to do this vary wildly in quality. As it is, the game certainly doesn’t feel like a rip off; but it doesn’t exactly feel feature-packed either.
Much of the problem stems from Sonic 4’s obsession with reusing content from past titles. The game’s four zones are all loosely based on familiar stages from previous titles, but it’s in the boss acts that things really begin to grate. Not only has every boss been snatched almost directly from the first two Sonic games, but they are even recycled within Sonic 4 itself. Sonic Team are obviously playing the nostalgia card, but this doesn’t seem to be what anyone was asking for. SEGA love nothing more than to re-release their old titles in various compilations and formats, so it seems inappropriate for them to rely on nostalgia in regard to games we have played (and indeed replayed) so recently.
On the one hand Sonic 4 constitutes an effort to drag the Sonic brand back into respectability through familiarity alone. Yet the game’s flaws are not without a touch of irony; by taking many of their fans’ demands too literally SEGA have created a good game damaged by its unhealthy preoccupation with their mascot’s golden days. Sonic 4 isn’t the messiah fans have been waiting so long for, but if we’re being honest they can hardly be picky. It’s a solid game regardless of its franchise, and for Sonic that’s as much of a breakthrough as anyone could hope for.