Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Poor Dr. Robotnik. After nearly two decades of villainy, he’s gotten absolutely nowhere. The problem is that he never learns from his mistakes. That’s pretty sad, considering that he’s a genius. Think about it. The guy is an expert advanced robotics and manufacturing; he has a fleet of airships and an army of cyborgs under his command. Every industry known to mankind would kill for that kind technology. If Robotnik focused his efforts on developing his inventions for common use, he’d be so rich and influential that his plans of world domination would seem utterly trivial. It’d be ridiculously easy for him to accomplish, but he can longer comprehend something so logical. He only cares about one thing now: destroying Sonic the Hedgehog. Years of bitter failure and humiliation has made him question his most recent schemes. He’s decided to go back to the basics; he’s recovered some of his deadliest creations and added a few upgrades. Armed with newer weapons and a firm resolve, he intends to annihilate his nemesis once and for all…
He’s going to fail miserably.
Sonic has returned to older strategies as well. Since Sonic 4 is a throwback to its predecessors on the Genesis, most of the mechanics and strategies from the last few games have been tossed aside. Instead, they’ve been reverted to a simple run and a spinning dash. Sonic zooms and leaps through various stages, discovering alternate routes while collecting rings, bouncing off of springs, and plowing through cheaply placed Badniks. He’s still as fragile as ever; a spiky floor, laser blast, or mere contact with an enemy will send him keeling over if he‘s not holding any rings. If he manages to find an energy shield, speed sneakers, or a rare temporary invincibility pickup, he might survive long enough to make it through a stage unscathed. But if he performs well, he’ll gain access to a special stage and one of the seven Chaos Emeralds that is hidden within. A few showdowns with Robotnik later, and the world just might be saved.
Sound familiar? You can almost hear the old school fans squealing in delight. While Sonic 4 does make an impressive attempt at reliving the glory of the series’ 2D days, there are a few issues that drag it down. It doesn’t seem quite as fast-paced or responsive as before. Sonic takes much longer to accelerate to his full running speed. His momentum has been reduced as well, which messes up the fluidity of his movements. Such sluggishness might sound like a minor gripe (you’ll probably just do a spin dash anyway), it makes a huge difference when you’re trying to run up a curved floor or make a longer leap. The physics are made further complicated by the Homing Attack, which has been carried over from the 3D games. This attack lets you smash directly into enemies and objects depending on your proximity to them. The problem is that it’s inconsistent; the game lets you know if you’re able to perform the move by highlighting the given target, but it occasionally doesn’t activate. You perform the command, then watch Sonic go careening into an enemy, lose all of his rings, and probably fall into some bottomless pit. Given how often you’ll have to rely on the Homing Attack to progress through a level, it can get annoying.
It’s not like you’ll have any problems beating the game, though. Sonic 4 is pathetically easy. Stocking up on lives is a ridiculously simple, if not outright broken process. The sheer abundance of rings and extra life pickups is astounding. The game lets you play most of the stages in any order, which means you can revisit easier areas and abuse the system as much as you want. The second Act on the Casino Street Zone is so crammed with bonuses and extra lives that you’ll probably never see the Game Over screen. Instead of worrying about dying, you’ll spend more time exploring, racking up bonus points, and discovering new routes through the levels. The online leader boards provide a good incentive for you to keep trying to break your old high scores. More importantly, it gives you the chance to focus on unlocking the special stages and collecting the Chaos Emeralds. These areas are taken straight out of the Cameltry-based bonuses from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s an option to use the Wii Remote to tilt the stages, but it’s much easier to use the directional pad. While the designs seem simple, finishing these might prove a decent challenge.
But if you’re not going for a full completion, Sonic 4 will get old fast. This game is only a fraction of the length of its predecessors. There are only twelve stages, nearly all of which are revamped versions of levels from Sonic 2. To their credit, they are absolutely gorgeous. As you leap around collapsing ledges and spin around spiraled ramps in the Splash Hill Zone, you’ll notice the lively animations of the flowers in the background and the beautiful color scheme of a sunset. The Casino Street Zone looks like a giant, flashing pinball machine, complete with a deck of flying playing cards for makeshift platforms. The Lost Labyrinth shoves you into the middle of a pitch-black ruin, forcing you to use a small torch, dynamite, and a rickety mining car to get you through. There’s even a whole level dedicated to escaping a water-filled maze, complete with the classic drowning tune. The Mad Gear Zone is crammed with all kinds of whirring gears, pulsing lights, hissing steam, and the most fearsome Side-scrolling Wall of Death you’ll ever see. Even if Sonic seems slower than before, his running animation turn his feet into a blur of red and white. Robotnik’s new battles look awesome, even if they only last a couple of extra seconds. If you think you can take his old ball and chain machine lightly, you’re going to be in for a few nasty surprises. While the last stage is nothing more than a simple boss rush, the final showdown more than lives up to the original version.
That’s what Sonic 4 is all about: trying to be new while recapturing those fleeting moments of brilliance from the old Genesis titles. Sega nearly succeeded in doing so; this game retains all of the basics while giving them a fresh coat of paint and some new animations. You still run and jump through complex levels, uncover new routes, nab rings, and destroy giant robots. It’s good, clean fun. It’s not perfect, though. The acceleration and momentum mechanics seem laggy, and the newly-added Homing Attack ability is occasionally inconsistent. It’s nothing game breaking, but it’ll make some parts of the game needlessly tedious. The ease of the levels and overabundance of extra lives makes beating the game a cakewalk. You’ll spend more time worrying about getting a high score than you will on making it through a given level. Unless you’re a diehard fan trying to get all of the Chaos Emeralds, these dozen levels probably won’t last long enough to justify the money you spent on them. Instead, you might want to consider sticking with the originals. You’ll get more out of them.