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Wait a second? Is that title correct? First I review Sonic 3D Blast, then I reviewed Sonic The Hedgehog: The Movie and now I’m reviewing Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1? That’s three Sonic reviews in two months. I guess with the recent push that the Blue Blur has been getting because of his 20th anniversary, I guess I just have Sonic on the brain. Besides, I just finished this game recently and I want to write the review while the initial impression is still fresh. With that said, here’s my review of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1.
Before we get started with this review, let’s rewind time to about 16 months ago, shall we? In September of 2009, Sega announced a project that would capture the imagination of long time Sega fans for the six months leading to its official reveal with this now infamous trailer.
Finally on February 2, 2010, Sega revealed that the game was in fact Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and the Sonic fanbase went absolutely ape-shit with glee. Sega finally decided to continue the original Sonic trilogy and all of the unnecessary Sonic characters would be removed. Not too mention that it was a 2D platformer in the vein of the classic games.
But the excitement quickly wore off for some of the more hardcore crowd as soon the reveal trailer took full effect. Some complained about the game being in 2.5D, others complained about the running animation shown in the trailer, the use of the name Dr. Eggman and others made the completely shallow complaint about Sonic’s eye color. I shit you not. They complained that Sonic Team was using the current gen character designs, rather than the younger ones from the Genesis days and part of that compliant was the whole “OMG! Sonic’s eyes are green! What blasphemy is this!” bullshit. This trailer split the fanbase in half. The sane Sonic fans who wanted to wait and play the game before passing judgment (like any sane person) were on one side and the critics who said they would buy copies of Sonic 1 in protest (like a complete simpleton) on the other.
Months later the game itself was released. The fans played it and the divide was (and is) still there. Some view it as a fantastic tribute to what the series used to be and maybe even a possible rebirth. Others see it as lazy and filled to the brim with flaws. Which side is right? Read on to find out.
(Sonic can now hone in on enemies with a new homing attack)
First off, let’s talk story or the few plot points that pass as the game’s story, shall we? The game takes place almost instantaneously after the Death Egg crashed down after the whole Angel Island incident that was covered in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Sonic is triumphant in his attempt to take down the evil Dr. Eggman (he’s called Eggman here, so that is the name I’m using), the Chaos Emeralds have been returned to their proper places and Angel Island is still soaring above the clouds. Knuckles decides to head back to Angel Island and Sonic and Tails decide to go on their own adventures, thus splitting up for the time being.
However, Eggman has managed to survive the crash and has vowed to destroy Sonic once and for all by re-creating his greatest inventions (once again powered by captured animals) and giving them a few deadly upgrades. Just as soon as Sonic begins exploring new areas, he winds up in Eggman’s cross hairs and must (once again) re-collect the Chaos Emeralds to prevent Eggman from obtaining their power.
Since I can’t evaluate the story as whole since this is only the first part of the game (episodic content remember) but I can talk about what I think of the story thus far. It’s not too bad and even resembles the plots of the classic games in the sense that those plots were also basic and not overly complex. With Sonic 4 being a continuation of these games, the simple plot is a pretty good idea. I also think the whole thing with Eggman updating his older designs is a good way of excusing the re-hashing of enemies and boss battles. The ending also provides some nice groundwork for the eventual second episode. My only suggestion would be for Tails and Knuckles to have their own episode/s rather than just joining up with Sonic right away. I mean, why would Eggman only go after Sonic? Does he not have the expandable resources to handle the threats of Knuckles and Tails? Maybe the Robot Eggman from Knuckles’ part in S&K can go after Knuckles and maybe Tails can deal with Scratch and Grounder or the Battle Kukku Army from Tails Adventure, or even Wendy Witchcraft from Tails Sky Patrol? That’s my pitch Sonic Team. Do with it as you wish.
Music wise, the game is OK. Sure you have great tracks like Splash Hill Act 1, Mad Gear Zone Act 1 and Lost Labyrinth Zone Act 1 (which can be downloaded free of charge on the game’s official website) but the rest of the soundtrack is fairly average with nothing overly memorable. I like the fact that each track uses sounds similar to those of the Sega Genesis (that’s the Mega Drive for you European gamers) and added a current-generation flavor to them. But sadly, the majority of the tracks just come off as mediocre and the boss themes are just lame.
(Sonic lighting the way in the Lost Laybrinth Zone)
Graphically, the game looks fantastic. Just like New Super Mario Bros. before it, Sonic 4 is really benefiting from the 2.5D style. It has the 2D perspective, which is perfectly reminiscent of the old school Sonic titles, as well as giving a solid looking 3D upgrade in terms of backgrounds and character models. Sonic, Eggman and the vintage badniks look great with their 3D facelifts, even if Sonic’s and Eggman’s character designs don’t fit the game’s time-line. But I can understand this, since Sega is trying to appease both old and new school Sonic fans with this game. Oh and more thing. The character animation is good and I like the strange, cartoony way in which Sonic runs. I know a lot of the fanboys didn’t like Sonic’s running animation but I thought it was pretty good and reminded me of Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Now let’s talk about the most important aspect, the gameplay. Does Sonic 4: Episode 1 play just like the old school Sonic titles it was influenced by? With the exception of a few new ideas that have been incorporated into the game, yes. Yes it does. The objective is just as it was in the classic trilogy. Sonic must clear a number of zones (in this game it’s four), each of which has a number of acts (three being levels and one being a boss battle) as fast as he can and save the captive animals at the end of each boss battle. Along the way, he will smash open badniks to free the animals that dwell inside, as well as TVs that contain power-ups.
Sonic Team has also kept another important aspect intact (some would argue that this is the most important aspect) and that is the emphasis on speed. Like in just about every other Sonic game, Sonic can run through the levels at high speeds after gaining a bit of momentum. Of course you can speed up this process by curling up into a ball and performing the spin dash attack. To see Sonic run like this is as much fun as ever (especially when he goes through the loops) but there is a bit of a problem with this in Sonic 4. Now, I’m not going to make the same complaint that many fanboys have made about how it takes too long to build the needed momentum or how he is not fast enough because these arguments are crap. Sonic takes about as much time to build momentum here as he does in Sonic 1 and runs about as fast. No. My complaint is the fact that either by slight movements of the joystick or some sort of glitch, Sonic’s momentum can seemingly be killed instantly. There were plenty of times where Sonic would be running and he would suddenly slow down or stop in his tracks entirely. It could have been due to human error but either way it was frustrating. Of course there is also the weird glitch that has Sonic standing perfectly still in the middle of a slope, which defies all laws of physics. I’m not really complaining too much about that one, since it was the source of a few laughs. Speaking of which, Sonic can also calmly walk up the steepest of slopes without falling over. I guess Sonic never studied law.
Another new feature (which I happen to find really helpful) is the world map screen, which is something I haven't seen in a Sonic game since the Sega Master System version of Sonic 1. The neat thing about it is that you can choose to play just about any level you want once you clear the first level. Kind of like Mega Man.
("Treadmills. My one weakness!")
The Special Stages from Sonic 1 make a comeback as well. You know those really lame and overly difficult ones where Sonic is free falling and you have to tilt the environment to make sure he reaches the Chaos Emerald. I have always hated these levels because of how easy it was (and still is) to fall into one of dead ends that would immediately end the level. This time, Sonic Team decided to add to the frustration by means of an overly short time limit (60-30 seconds usually). The fact that you are now forced to rush through a level that requires a lot of careful pacing is just unfair. Why couldn’t they have brought back the turn pipe levels from Sonic 2 or the Blue Orb levels from Sonic 3 & Knuckles? These friggin levels are the sole reason why I spent about 10 hours playing the game. I wanted to get all of the emeralds so I could see the true ending. Well, that and the fact that when I was about three hours in my save file somehow became corrupted and I had to play through the entire game again, which of course included re-collecting the emeralds I already had. Did this happen to anyone else?
Sonic 4 (thus far) plays like a classic Sonic game, that doesn’t mean Sonic Team hasn’t thrown in anything new. For instance, Sonic now has a new move added to his arsenal. This move is a homing attack, which he can use to target enemies while in the air mid-jump and kill them with a slight burst in speed. Sonic can use this to wipe out several enemies at a time and even increase the distance of his jumps. So, as you can imagine this maneuver can come in handy from time to time. But I have found that this move can at times not work in the way that you would want it to. There were plenty of times where I would get Sonic killed because the homing attack would cause him to either over or under take jumps. There were even times where there would be a weird momentum change and the attack would just abruptly stop before hitting the enemy, thus causing Sonic to take damage.
Speaking of new and fresh, lets talk about the levels. Which is the opposite of that. They are pretty much imitations of past Sonic levels. For instance, the Splash Hill Zone is similar to the Green Hill and Emerald Hill Zones from Sonic 1 & 2. The Casino Street Zone is exactly like the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2 and it even has the same slot machines and pinball theme in the first act. The Lost Labyrinth Zone is very similar to the Labyrinth Zone in Sonic 1 and it even has an annoying water level (Act 3). I also find LL Zone to be slightly similar to the second act of the Sandoplois Zone (Sonic and Knuckles) in terms of level design. The Mad Gear Zone looks like a combination of the Scrap Brain Zone (Sonic 1) and Metropolis Zone (Sonic 2). Now to be fair, Sonic Team may have rehashed some of levels from past games but they are still fun to play and some interesting new tweaks were added to keep the platforming aspect of the gameplay interesting. For instance, in the Splash Hill Zone you can swing on vines and fly over canyons on zip cords. In the Casino Street Zone, you can do some cool things with playing cards like use them as platforms or dash through several rows of them and like the slot machines get power-up or extra lives for every three of a kind, which in a weird way resembles a poker hand. Perhaps the most stunning visual in the game is Sonic being able to fly above the casino by shuffling a deck of cards with his feet. In the Lost Labyrinth Zone, Sonic will use a torch to light his way and to set off dynamite fuses to blow up obstacles that block his path and he can also ride around in a mine cart in similar fashion to that of Donkey Kong Country.
Boss battles are like this as well. They would be the exact same boss battles from the Zones that the game is rehashing if it wasn’t for the fact that Eggman changes his attack pattern in the middle of each fight. This would prove challenging if it wasn’t for the fact that you can defeat him pretty easily by spamming the homing attack. But this strategy doesn’t seem to work on Mecha-Eggman who is tough as shit because he does not die (OK. He does, but it takes a while) and he is constantly changing his attack pattern. It was one of the most frustrating boss fights I have played in quite sometime. Luckily, Sonic Team decided to be incredibly generous with the extra lives this time around, making it seemingly impossible to reach the continue screen.
(It's like some kind of crazy deja vu)
Is Sonic 4: Episode 1 a good 2D(ish) Sonic game? Despite its flaws, yes. It is a good/fun platformer and a hearty reminder of why so many of us gravitated towards the Sonic franchise in the 16-bit era. However, it is also too expensive for its own good. For a game that is this short (It can be beaten in two hours or maybe even less), it is not worth 15 dollars. Remember, you can buy any of the classic Sonic games for five bucks each or Sonic Adventure for 10 bucks. These are games are either just as long or longer and are even more fun to play. Well, I don’t know about Adventure. I haven’t played that one yet.
If you didn’t like the older Sonic games, you’re sure not going to like this one. If you are new to the series, I would recommend checking out the original trilogy first. If you are a long time Sonic fan (either old or new school) I would say download the demo and if you like it, wait for it to go on sale again. Sega has laid out a good foundation here and hopefully they will expand it while fixing the flaws and giving us something new, rather than just going back to the past. Oh and it should be longer or cheaper.
Final Score: 7/10