Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 Review (XBLA)

Game Review: Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode 1
Release: 10/13/10
Genre: Platformer
Available Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, iOS
MSRP: 1200 MS Points
ESRB Rating: E For Everyone

Blue streak speeds by. That means only one iconic video game character is on the TV. Sure, he’s had a… rather strained… history of video games recently, but we’re always (a little too) willing to give him another shot. SEGA’s thrown the first part of Sonic The Hedgehog 4 on each console’s download service, complete with four full Zones. Does the Hedgehog reclaim his former glory, or is more of the modern same (and shame)?

If you’ve never played a Sonic game that wasn’t exclusive to a SEGA system, go back and play Sonic 3 And Knuckles, or Sonic 2. These are some of the best games ever made, without argument. Sonic’s speed is a hallmark of the franchise, and the level design knew when to slow you down or let you hit full throttle. The games kept it down to three playable characters in the latter stages, and each had their strengths and weaknesses. Sonic The Hedgehog 4, set soon after the ending to Sonic 3 And Knuckles, tries to ignore everything that’s come sense (minus some visual designs from Adventure), and act as if Sonic got a true sequel on a high definition console.

For the most part, traditional Sonic gamers can rejoice. We’re back to Sonic and Sonic alone (although Tails’ does make a late-arriving cameo in the form of some of his machinery) fighting Dr. Eggman. There are four main zones, each with three level acts and one boss act, a final boss act, and seven special zones to acquire Chaos Emeralds. There’s no Chao minigames to distract, there’s no awkwardly-playing tertiary heroes that you’re forced to use (although the absence of Tails and Knuckles leads to the fear of them being tacked-on DLC). The advances of times have helped Sonic, as the game feels more 2010 than 1995. Save games, level select, world map, leaderboards, time trials, Achievements… this is all tech that we’d feel would be missing from a title like this. The chunk of levels will give you a good hour or two at least of gameplay, and the final boss took 20 of my lives without being beaten, so it’s not a walk in the park. For the most part, level design works, although there is one puzzle that lead to searching YouTube for answers. The game does have some odd-for-2D-Sonic additions, such as the bemoaned mine carts, but the torch to light the way is tolerable, and even a cool visual trick. The issue arises, though, that this is only Episode 1, and not really a full a game. This can be allayed with the cheap price (they’re not charging you $60), but it’s over mostly too soon.

Visually, the game is an odd combination. The design is almost whole-heartedly ripped from earlier Sonic games, with Mad Gear Zone being nothing more than Metropolis Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone reminiscent of Tidal Tempest Zone, Casino Street Zone for Casino Night Zone, and Splash Hill Zone a fusion of Green Hill Zone and Emerald Hill Zone. Sonic and Eggman’s designs are straight from the more recent, post-Adventure titles, but the levels and badniks are old school Genesis. If anything, the only major annoyances of the visuals are products of it’s High Definition age. Rings seem a little too large, Sonic seems a little too slow (if only from the additional frames in a running animation).

That’s not to say that those are the only weakness. Megaman 9 and 10 did right to old school gameplay, by following in their traditions, but still advancing and being creative. New Super Mario Bros. took it’s level design cues, but added new weaponry, enemies, and themes for it’s levels. Sonic 4, on the other hand, decided to base each of it’s levels heavily off of already-existing elements. Even with these levels being homages to earlier titles, you get the issue of enemies. Badniks can each be identified as earlier from games, and all of Eggman’s ships and initial techniques are from previous boss battles; sure, he throws in new attacks here and there, but it’s all been done before. Instead of inventing a new special stage design (like most Sonic games had in the past), the Special Stages are based off the first game’s, just with the maze being controllable instead of Sonic.

Finally, the most important and notable issue of the gameplay, is the physics. Sonic retains his spin dash (yet the Sonic CD Super Peel Out continues to remain absent), which works as tradition holds. He also gains the Sonic Adventure concept of Homing Spin, by tapping jump again in mid-air. This move works fine for the most part; it has it’s positives (many badniks are set up in a way for you to home across difficult areas), and negatives (you get a farther throwback from bosses and the like). No, the greatest issue lies with Sonic’s shoes: they have absurd grip. Sonic, much like anyone in reality, could walk up an incline to a certain point, before sliding or falling backwards. In this game, you can have Sonic stand nearly horizontal with no issue. In fact, this becomes part of the game at one point; Spin Dashing won’t allow you to get up a wall, but walk backwards, gain slightly enough momentum, and Sonic can just jog up it instead. Additionally, some jumps off springs take away Sonic’s momentum too soon, leaving you to drop like a dead weight, but this is rare enough that it’s not too much of an issue. This grip factor almost feels like it contributes to the “Sonic moves too slow” visual issue, but the game does move at a decent enough pace; it just feels like Sonic has gum stuck to the bottoms of his shoes.

Sonic The Hegehog 4: Episode 1 is an admirable attempt at going back to Sonic’s roots… and it does so, possibly a little too much. The game doesn’t attempt to innovate new level designs, nor break too much from a platformer tropes. If you’re looking for a true Sonic The Hedgehog 4, complete with new stylings, you’re missing out, but if you’re looking for a love letter to those original games, this is right up your alley.

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  • Great, have been waiting for this game