Game: Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Developer: Sonic Team and Dimps
Released on: XBLA, PSN, WiiWare, iOS (Reviewed on XBLA)
Remember the last good Sonic game? No, didn’t think so. With Sonic 4, SEGA are attempting to reignite passions lost many years ago by going back to the roots of the Sonic franchise and making a game based on what made the games so enjoyable to begin with.
Will Sonic 4 succeed where numerous other games have failed? Is Sonic 4: Episode 1 any good or has brand apathy claimed another victim? Read on to find out!
Aside from the new HD visuals, the first thing that you’ll notice about Sonic 4: Episode 1 (if you played Sonic 1, 2, 3 etc when they were relevant) is the jump mechanic and how strange it is. Sonic has apparently been fitted with the world’s best handbrake and if you remove your thumb from the stick or pad during a jump he will stop moving and fall straight down. Literally stop, mid air. It’s a shame to start talking about Sonic 4 with such a negative point, but it’s a hugely relevant one. Why is it relevant? Well, put simply, if you’ve played a Sonic game before for any decent length of time, this addition to the gameplay will feel extremely unnatural to you.
In addition to the oddity that is the new SonicJumpHandbrake(TM), the strange mid-jump attack is back, only this time it has a hand-holding mechanic! In the air, targets (enemies and springs) will have a red target appear on them, which means if you hit the jump button a second time, you will home-in on that target, but this feels almost as though it were there to remove focus from the bizarre way Sonic can now stop instantly mid-jump!
In theory though, this homing attack should be a good thing, because it’ll make the game more accessable to casual gamers (developers love those casual gamers!), but in practice it leaves veteran gamers feeling as though the game is playing itself. In a series that is based on speed, with predetermined routes and mechanics, all this does is leave you feeling a bit empty. The casual angle doesn’t really work either because whilst there are obvious visual similarities between Sonic 4 and the games that made Sonic so popular in the first place, the level design has actually moved on. It has become more difficult, with unseen enemies killing you unless you’ve already played the level beforehand and know their exact location.
Level design is where the game excels though and these levels feel like “Sonic The Hedgehog : The Lost Levels” with charming familiarity, yet enough difference to make them feel fresh. At the end of the first area you’ll fight Sonic’s nemesis, Dr Eggman (to me he’ll always be Dr Robotnik) and it starts as though it were lifted from the first time you ever face him…until he goes crazy-ape-bonkers and starts swinging his ball-on-a-chain at you like a lunatic!
The chaos emeralds obviously return and the levels are similar to the very first Sonic games, but in this new game you move the arena with the stick and guide Sonic to the emerald. You have to unlock gates by collecting a set number of rings along the way.
Sonic was never a game particularly heavy on narrative, but the seperation of stages in Sonic 4 removes absolutely any shred of narrative, boiling the game down to nothing more than a score or time attack title. Perhaps this was always the case, but to be so brazen about it, so much so that if you don’t tap “Y” (XBLA version) after you complete a level for the first time you will go back to the level menus, really takes something away from the experience.
Audio wise, the game sounds like a Sonic game should, although the music might not be to everyones tastes. The sound effects are definitely present and correct, but nothing about the audio really stands out.
When it works, Sonic 4: Episode 1 is actually quite good fun and does bring back those childhood memories of sitting at a friends house playing the game from start to finish whilst chomping on a Mars Bar (when they weren’t made for babies hands) or a packet of Golden Wonder crisps. Simply put, if you just want something throwaway that is a reasonable amount like the Sonic of old, then you could do a lot worse than Sonic 4: Episode 1.
However, given that the title is episodic then after all is said and done, the “full” version of Sonic 4 (all episodes) will cost a hefty amount (if the price point of 1200 points/£9.99 is kept consistent) and that value proposition has to come into focus. This episode isn’t long, consisting of 4 areas (3 levels and a boss) plus some other extras and as you are no doubt aware, Sonic levels aren’t usually very long. To get your money’s worth out of this game you’ll probably want to be intending multiple score/time attacks on the levels.
This is the Sonic we fell in love with decades ago, but he’s gotten a bit old and the gaming world has moved on. Whilst Sonic 4: Episode 1 isn’t a bad Sonic game (it’s actually a return to form of sorts) it isn’t actually a great title in general, being short and quite expensive. That said, it is nice to see Sonic doing what he does best, running from left to right whilst collecting shiny rings, and given the quality of Sonic titles we’ve had to endure this is a welcome return! Sadly though, the episodic nature seems an odd choice and further episodes don’t really seem neccesary.
Sonic 4: Episode 1 struggles slightly to find it’s own identity, at times feeling more like a remake than an entirely new title and if that’s what you want, then this is the Sonic game you’ve been waiting for. What it boils down to though is that this looks like a Sonic game, but doesn’t feel like one, with physics that feel absolutely wrong if you’ve ever played and loved a Sonic game before.
Aware of the inherent irony, I was left wishing Sonic had some new tricks (especially when it was the new tricks that we all disliked so much) and it’s with a heavy heart that upon getting the Sonic we “all wanted” I realised that I’d moved on and all the nostalgia in the world and “seygaaa” sounds upon starting the game can’t change that, which is a real shame.