The year was 1994, Mariah Carey had the number one hit single in ‘Without You’, ‘The Lion King’ left movie-goers amazed, Tonya Harding was caught out clubbing (literally) and Sonic fans enjoyed two of the blue blur's finest adventures in Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and its expansion/sequel Sonic & Knuckles. Sixteen long years and many disappointments later, fans of Sega’s mascot were beginning to give up hope that Sonic would ever re-capture the glory days of speed, fun, and blast processing. Well you can put those fears to rest as Sonic is back in a big way with Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1.
The first thing you will notice about Sonic 4 is how closely it resembles the first two Sonic titles; in fact most of the game is directly inspired from those early games, with all four zones (Splash Hill, Casino Street, Lost Labyrinth and Mad Gear) being re-imaginings of zones from the original Sonic The Hedgehog. However most of these have received enough changes to make them feel fresh, like the Lost Labyrinth’s use of torches to light dark hallways or Casino Street’s crazy slot machines and bonus-supplying poker hands. Still this is a game that is more remake then sequel and would have felt right at home on the Genesis in the mid-90’s.
Anyone who has played the original Sonic games will be able to immediately pick up the controller and start zooming through loops and spin dashing through obstacles. For the most part, the game emulates the classic Sonic gameplay quite well. The often-criticized (by Sonic purists) addition of the lock-on attack actually improves the gameplay by adding a whole new way to explore the branching paths and to defeat enemies, It’s when things slow down and the game requires some more precise platforming that some control issues make their presence known. The most glaring of these is the lack of control when controlling Sonic mid-jump, which makes for some tricky landings when attempting to get onto a tiny ledge. Issues aside, the game still ‘feels’ like a 2D Sonic game should and captures the play style of the classics in almost every way while adding just enough to keep things from feeling like déjà-vu.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is not a terribly difficult game, mostly due to the fact that those familiar with the series' style of fast-paced platforming will know instantly what the game expects them to achieve and how to reach to the goal. But just like those classic Sonic games from the early 90’s, the game is ripe with cheap deaths and traps that will rob you of your precious collection of rings. I can’t count the number of times I was speeding along, with literally hundreds of golden rings in tow, only to hit a bumper and go careening into a bottomless pit with no warning.
The second the game loads and the classic ‘SEGA’ chant is heard, gamers will know that they are in for an experience pulled straight from a Genesis cartridge, and Sonic 4 sure does look that way. With an art style that is directly inspired by Sonic The Hedgehog 1 and 2, complete with level introductions and end-of-stage sign spinning shenanigans, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 wastes no time taking the classic Genesis look and upgrading it with high definition flair and polish. Even the Wii version is surprisingly sharp and runs at a constantly solid framrate that never suffered even with Sonic pushing the sound barrier and enemies crowding the screen. The background work also deserves merit. With environments that come alive with all sorts of wacky animations and details (the Mad Gear Zone is a sight to behold) this is easily one of the best looking downloadable games across all three platforms.
It’s not all roses and rings however -- the music, while inspired by and sounding like the original 16-bit tunes of the Genesis, don’t hold a candle to the classic Sonic themes and most seem to fade into the background and remain unnoticeable throughout the adventure. Also the animation on Sonic is sometimes slightly off, notably when he begins to pick up speed. At this point, his feet seem to be moving too slow for how fast he is going, which creates an odd looking effect, as if he was taking giant strides.
Every zone in Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 features three acts, for a total of 12 levels (all of which are unlocked after you complete the very first act) and a boss battle per zone once all three acts are completed. Every level has multiple paths for you to discover and the levels are significantly longer than those featured in previous 2D Sonic titles. The game also features a Time Attack mode where you can take your supersonic speed skills (alliteration wholeheartedly intended) online and compete for a top spot in the online leaderboards as well as a few unlockables once you take down Robotnik Dr.Eggman once and for all.
Despite all these features, Sonic 4 still adds up to being a very short game, clocking in at just less than 3 hours for a total playthrough. While the promise of future episodes (if there’s an episode 1 there must be a 2 right?) is a very positive sign for a series that hasn’t seen many recently, I still wish that more would have been added to help the game justify its $15 price tag. Something like two-player co-op would have gone a long way towards that end, but I’m almost positive they're saving that for Episode 2.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a fantastic return to form for one of gaming’s most venerable characters. It brings gamers back to a time when the name Sonic meant 2D platforming with attitude while finally giving the series a push in the right direction. I just wish there was more of it, the game feels half finished and to be charged a premium for the first ‘episode’ of a game that won’t last the time between lunch and supper is a definite no-no in my book. Still, if Episode 2 can right these wrongs and deliver both the gameplay and value that gamers expect for their money, then Sonic is definitely a hedgehog redeemed.