Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Yes, the fourth Sonic The Hedgehog game, at last. There have been no others. Ever.) comes at a strange and somewhat appropriate time in games history. In the past couple of years, there’s been a strong nineties resurgence with titles like Street Fighter 4, Megaman 9 and 10, New Super Mario Bros, and the upcoming Mortal Kombat game, all hearkening back to their early-90s ancestry. Sonic The Hedgehog continues this trend with Sonic 4, and not a moment too soon. It’s no secret that the Sonic franchise has been in the gutter for the past decade or so, with the amount of time and the number of games featuring Sonic that have been panned now outnumbering the hallowed classics. Sonic 4 stands as what could be the last chance for the franchise to earn back some respect among the video game populace, and have a breath of fresh air amongst all the waste the brand has been excreting, but is it enough? Does it live up to its golden (Or should I say royal blue) forefathers?
The story of Sonic games since the late 90s has been a bit of a laughing point for any self respecting human being over the age of 13. The games have slowly taken on more and more ridiculously self serious tones, culminating in 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog, in which Sonic died. Not permanently, mind you, but the fact remains that Sonic fucking dies. Sonic 4, thankfully, does away with any trace of a plot past the mid 90s and graces us with a very simple narrative: Eggman (hereby referred to as Robotnik, because I am a giant retrofag.) is up to no good. Make him cut it out. The game itself doesn’t even really touch on the story, and sends you right in to the first zone when you pick ‘start’. Just the way I like it.
From the get-go, the fact that this is an attempt to hearken back to the days of 16 bit, 2-D sidescrollers is immediately apparent. You’re treated to an old school level title card, some midi-sounding music (None of which is very memorable, I have to add, as a side-note), and a landscape very reminiscent of Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone. Including that motobug, right there. And those piranha things… And that spring… Wait a second, you might think, feeling utterly duped; This is Green Hill Zone.
Well, yes and no. See, that’s kind of Sonic 4: Episode 1’s shtick. The story that wasn’t touched on earlier? It’s basically “Robotnik is recycling his old creations, ’cause he’s out of ideas”, and it echoes in the zones. Every single one of them, save for the final zone, is extremely reminiscent of an earlier, 16 bit counterpart. Namely; Green Hill Zone and Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1, and Casino Night Zone and Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2. That’s not to say these levels are carbon copies. Though the level art evokes the feeling of “What you remember this level looking like”, there are new elements to the re-imagined 3D art, and new gimmicks in the zones themselves. That said, there are also some old gimmicks, so all and all these end up feeling more or less like remixed locations that you’ve already tread if you’ve played either of the first two games of the series.
The level design itself isn’t bad, especially in comparison to other recent entries in the series, offering the branching paths and speedy venues that made the original Sonics so fun to explore and tool around in, whether you like to see how blisteringly fast you can make it through each stage, or poke around at a more methodical pace to see what secret items and areas you can find. The most offensive lapse in good level design is a liberal smattering of chains of enemies to homing attack in order to reach the upper-most areas of a level. These are almost never necessary to actually traverse a stage, but it would be nice to be able to reach these higher paths without spending most of your time airborne, pressing Jump.
On that note, (rough segue!) the physics in Sonic 4 all-together feel a little ‘off’. Now, I’m not gonna go in to anal-retentive recitals of algorithms and slope angles like some of the more obsessive Sonic fans out there, but it doesn’t take a hardcore fan to notice things feel a little floaty. Sonic’s movement lacks any sort of momentum or weight, to the point where often times it is possible to stop on a dime by jumping, which seems to completely cancel out any existing movement if you’re not holding a direction down. While this can be a live saver on particularly perilous platforming parts (Quadruple alliteration. I’m quite proud.), it feels clunky everywhere else. When you’re in the air, or moving at high speeds, the game flows quite well, but the problem is that spending half your time with your feet off solid ground, chaining homing attacks just isn’t fun after a while.
Despite some rough areas that could use a loving touch and some polish to bring out what I feel could truly be a good game beneath its flaws, Sonic 4 still manages to exude some of the charm present in its predecessors, due in no small part to Sonic’s reduction to a small character that communicated entirely with motion and doesn’t spout forced one liners and “YEAH. WAHOO” every three and a half seconds. It’s also nice to see the good Doctor as a main antagonist again, instead of a catalyst for a bigger, likely supernatural baddy to come and take the spotlight, as has been the formula for the last ten or so years. The nostalgia comes at a cost, though, ending up making S4E1 feel more like Sonic 1&2: Homing Attack Edition than anything else at times.
Outside of the linear story progression, there is time attack mode that can be accessed at any time after the first stage that acts as a fun distraction for anyone wanting to test their twitch reflexes in speed runs of Sonic 4’s levels. It’s not exactly a game maker or breaker, but it’s a plus.
All in all, Sonic 4 isn’t the glorious return to form some people were hoping for, no. It’s not anything particularly revolutionary, either. The game is, in short, average. If you’re a long time Sonic fan, you’ll eat it up. If you’re not, you probably won’t find anything to convert you in this game. It won’t break your heart, but it won’t make you fall in love again, either. There is an ending teasing Episode 2 if you get all the Chaos Emeralds that leaves me personally excited for the next chapter, though, and hopefully with that next chapter will come some changes to make the game more accessible. Until then, it’s not a terrible product by any stretch… but it’s just not quite enough to restore any permanent faith in the series.