Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 Review

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 (Available on XBLA, WiiWare, PSN, and iPhone)
ESRB Rating: E
Players: 1
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date: October 7th (iPhone), October 11th (WiiWare), October 12th (PSN), October 13th (XBLA)

Parent Talk: Sonic the Hedgehog is a vibrant, family-friendly platformer.  Not a single game in the series is inappropriate for children; spin-off Shadow the Hedgehog being the sole exception.  Parents, you need not worry.  It’s Sonic!

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a throwback to the original Sega Genesis hits, similar to other retro-revivals like Mega Man 9, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and Konami’s Rebirth games.  It’s a nostalgic run down memory lane, filled with pleasant memories of everything that made Sonic so appealing in the 16-bit era.   Though Sonic’s latest skills, like the homing dash, are now present, the design is much closer to the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

The Great: Classic Sonic.  Gameplay is simple and sweet, bringing the franchise back to basics.  A wasteful plot is nowhere to be seen, and secondary characters have taken a hike.  The game instead focuses on play, which rejuvenates the magic of the 16-bit era–the opening screen even has that classic “SEGA!” shout.  There’s great satisfaction in finding hidden routes, acquiring Chaos Emeralds, and beating up Eggman/Robotnik.  Modern games may suffer from being pretentious and drawn out, but not this.

The Good:

+ Visuals.  Sonic the Hedgehog 4’s art style keeps with the modern Sonic games rather than the classics, but that’s fine.  The different zones are brilliantly colored and well-drawn, although the XBLA and PSN versions edge out the WiiWare version thanks to a higher resolution.  Everything runs well and smooth, with a constant framerate and solid presentation.  The level of detail is excellent.  StH4 represents what the classic games would look like in HD.  Nice going Sonic Team!

+ Multiple pathways.  Several stages hide alternate routes, which adds incentive to replay the game several times.  Some are easier to find than others, so there’s always a nice sense of accomplishment after finishing a level a new way.  There’s also the drive to collect the Chaos Emeralds.  The Bonus Stages are taken directly from Sonic 1, where Sonic behaves like a pinball in a free-fall.  I didn’t like some level design aspects, but more on that later.

+ Decent music.  The soundtrack isn’t as quality as classic times, but the tunes are still solid and surprisingly catchy.  Sonic Team ditched the hair metal from the 3D Adventure games and chose music that’s more appropriate for a retro revival.  The Lost Labyrinth Act 2 sports a particularly cool stage theme and the Mad Gear Zone Act 1 stage is sweet too.

+ New abilities.  Sonic Team clearly tried to implement Sonic’s homing dash into the older Genesis gameplay.  For the most part, this works beautifully.  There are portions where executing consecutive homing dashes can help you reach unfamiliar territory or nab secrets.  It’s fun to use makes an already fast game even faster.

The Bad:

– Easy.  Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is, without question, ridiculously easy.  Without breaking a sweat, I amassed about 50 lives before the final showdown with Eggman.  The low difficulty would definitely help newcomers to the franchise (which is likely Sonic Team’s intention), but veterans may scoff at the lack of challenge.  The game is fun regardless, but fans expect Sonic games to put up some kind of fight.  There may be a tough area, but it’s a bit of a cheap shot.  In the final battle against Eggman, the ground eventually gives out and you have precious seconds to attack him—this completely catches you off-guard the first time.

– Design conflicts.  I said above that the homing dash is a valuable skill, but that isn’t always the case.  Sometimes the homing dash doesn’t fit appropriately and is more disadvantageous than anything.  For example, facing Eggman the first time and using the dash from a distance works well, but the recoil sends you into harm’s way.  Most boss encounters end up this way, with the homing dash being the less advantageous attack.  Considering how fans would undoubtedly want to use it heavily, it’s possible the developers did this on purpose to prevent them from relying on it too much.  It’s a minimal complaint.

– Lack of co-operative play.  Even though the design of the game went back to basics, it’s strange that there is no two-player option from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3.  It doesn’t impact the game negatively, but it would have been nice to see.

– Short.  There are four main zones: Splash Hill, Lost Labyrinth, Casino Street, and Mad Gear Zones.  Each has three stages.  There are seven special stages and the final showdown with Eggman.  This sounds time-consuming on paper, but Sonic games are all about speed—so levels end quickly.  Compare that to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which had 10 main zones and the final showdown at the Death Egg.  Sonic the Hedgehog 1 featured six main zones, each with three acts.  Granted, StH4 is only “Episode 1”, so more stages will come, but that doesn’t lengthen the game.

The Lowdown:

While not as quality as the Genesis games, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a fun throwback to what made the franchise so attractive.  It’s short and really easy, but the gameplay is simple and engaging enough to warrant a purchase.  It’s a proper revival for Sonic the Hedgehog and reminds us why he was such an icon in the 90s.  This one is a must-download for the fans.

5 thoughts on “Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 Review”

  1. I was afraid that Sega might screw this up, but I agree with you that it’s a pretty good revival. You summed it up well in your review. Beautiful visuals, fast gameplay, excellent level design, and nostalgic references to boot. Unlike other critics, I loved each and every time the game mixes it up a notch from the typical Sonic 2 formula. The Lost Labyrinth puzzle sections were really cool for example. It’s such a darn shame that this is the shortest Sonic game I’ve ever played. I literally had to hold myself from finishing it just to get more value off the game. I downloaded it on day 1, but just completed it today.

    Now for my personal nitpicks. I’m kinda on the fence because this game is mostly based on Sonic 2. I was so looking forward to some of the complexity introduced in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with more shield types, Tails and Knux as playable characters, etc. We might get that in Episode 2…hopefully…

    The music in the game is also disjointed. At times sounding catchy and appealing, but oftentimes the instruments sounding very annoying (Eggman’s Boss Battle music for example). Instead of trying to mimic 16-bit Genesis music, why not use the Genesis’ own sound-box for some true chiptune music?

    Finally, I really don’t like the Chaos Emeralds Bonus Stages. I know the design is based off Sonic 1, but man they’re just so difficult and confusing. I currently have 5 out of 7, getting the 5th one by pure luck. Don’t think I’ll be able to get the final two. :(

  2. You know what? As much as it sounds awesome to bring back classics, it’s like…. once you start playing it, you realise that it’s an old game. It’s a good thing it has trophies because otherwise you’re just playing an old game that is NOT, next gen.

    I think the worst part though is the fact that SEGA is gonna milk this with their episodic BS at full downloadable price per episode.

    1. Well at least it’s better than playing a next-gen Sonic game. Last one that impressed me was Sonic and The Secret Rings. Every other 3D Sonic game is just a broken mess. However, you do have a point. While I’m a sucker for anything nostalgic, it’s so obvious that this game is based off Sonic 2 most of the time. With Mega Man 9, for example, not so much. Yes it’s based off Mega Man 2, but the developers did a good job in giving the game its own flair.

      Also, to be fair, this isn’t a full retail product which is why I don’t mind playing it for nostalgic purposes. The downloadable space doesn’t need to be next-gen all the time.

      This is why I’m looking forward to Sonic Colors, which packs more than enough new as the next entry in the series. After all the positive reception it’s been receiving, I’ll be really pissed if critics don’t score it decently. Almost everyone who has played it, including COE, had a lot of nice stuff to say about it.

    2. Well, I don’t disagree with you, but sometimes I prefer the old games. I’m really drawn to a lot of retro games because of the focus on simplicity and fun, rather than modern game design’s obsession with narrative. I just don’t think “retro” should automatically equate to good or bad, just, well, retro. The same applies to next gen.

  3. Sonic 4 looked like you would want a contemporary follow-up to the old Sonic games. Moreover, there are good enough moments in Sonic 4 to demonstrate that an update of the classic Sonic games has the potential to be great. Though, i would play this game any time of the to draw sonic

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