Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 (Available on XBLA, WiiWare, PSN, and iPhone)
ESRB Rating: E
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.
+ 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.
– 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.
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.