Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I
Sonic the Hedgehog‘s demise is a well-documented affair in gaming , whose timespan probably outlasts that of when it was a thriving Sega Mega Drive platformer. The transition to three dimensions led to years of mediocrity, followed by a disastrous debut Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and an average Sonic Unleashed two years later failed to resurrect the ailing hedgehog. Behind the scenes though, the classic two-dimensional Sonic was still quietly succeeding on handheld consoles. By conservatively sticking to the functional side-scrolling formula and claiming a true sequel to Sonic 3 on the Mega Drive, surely this had to be the definitve return of the blue hedgehog that was sorely missed.
“Classic bosses and enemies make a resurgence”The determination to recreate the classic experience is most evident by the levels on offer. Each of the four zones are heavily borrowed from the Mega Drive series; the opening zone is remiscent of the original’s Green Hill, and the taxing underwater Labyrinth zone has received a pleasant shake-up. Its sequel has received some homage too, with the gear grinding and exploding stars of Sonic 2‘s Metropolis Zone and the bright lights of Casino Hill both returning under a thinly veiled guise. Even the special stages, accessible upon finishing a level with fifty rings, rework the original’s revolving maze to collect the chaos emerald at the finish. Many classic bosses and enemies make a resurgence, so veterans of the series won’t be encountering many surprises here.
The obvious rehashes do tarnish the games credibility as a sequel, but at least this reinstills classic features such as multiple routes in levels, a smooth flowing pace and secret passages. A few novel features have been thrown in as well. Navigating hand-railed boulders or gears, tilting the level to guide Sonic from a water-trap and flying on top of cards were certainly out of the quesiton on 16-bit consoles . Some are less successful though, guiding Sonic through a darkened Lost Labyrinth level is more frustrating than exciting. The lock-on homing attack introduced in the 3D games has returned, but fortunately this doesn’t significantly diminish the difficulty. Enemies have other punishing attacks, whilst strategic lock-on combinations are a necessity to jump over bottomless pits in levels or get to a high platform.
“Unnecessarily punishing aspects”However the most significant change Sonic 4: Episode I sees are his physics, attempting to be more realistic but they do seem sluggish starting off. This just needs getting accustomed to. Although the original physics still have the edge, Sonic’s movements are mainly different rather than being significantly worse. Episode I‘s most significant drawbacks though are by unnecessarily punishing aspects of the level design. Lives can be easily lost, only compensated for by bland levels where extra lives are easily acquire. Poorly indicated falls along with badly placed enemies and obstacles make many deaths a consequence of bad luck than merit. In emulating the 16-bit era, their own imperfections have been carried over as well. The classic series is far from perfect today, suffering themselves from unnecessarily problematic obstacles that have somewhat worsened in this outing.
Sonic’s ‘successor’ to the Mega Drive series is certainly not fatally broken, and can be entertaining. Its a smooth retro-style platformer to casually jump around in, with varied levels and a few interesting twists. The sprite based visuals have a peculiar hand-drawn watercolour edge with some lovingly crafted backgrounds, but the music is a disappointment, lacking the hard synthesised beats from yonder to supplement the action. The imitation of the classic zones and bosses feels lazy and puts the game into the shadow of its Mega Drive title, and although the more succesful Sonic Generations did the same, it was at least more open about its intentions in remaking levels. The new physics also makes things slightly worse, but clumsy design decisions and some uninspiring levels prevent this being the ultimate Sonic return. It’s far from poor, but its not one to get hugely excited over.