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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 review

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We’re all too aware of how bad Sonic games have been on consoles since it made the jump to 3D in Sonic Adventure. The game was fine by 1999′s standards, but has aged considerably since. With each subsequent game the Sonic franchise was sullied until the once beloved hedgehog had become literally unrecognizable in 2008′s Sonic Unleashed.

Of course, 2D Sonic fans were able to find some respite in several handheld releases across the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, but weren’t quite as magical as the numbered entries on the Genesis in the early 90s.

Sega seeked to right the many missteps they took with the franchise by announcing Sonic 4, set to release a mere 16 years after the last numbered entry we all know and love.

Are we finally back on the fast track to the super Sonic games of our youth? Or did it crash and burn like so many of Robotnik’s machines? Let’s find out.

Story

The game is wonderfully lacking in this department. Gone are all of the irritating characters that Sonic befriended over the course of his 3D adventures, and even the less annoying Tails and Knuckles are absent.

Instead, Sonic Team and Dimps (developers of the above-mentioned 2D handheld games) boiled it down to the most basic fundamentals — Sonic chases Dr. Robotnik/Eggman (whatever you want to call him) through 4 Zones to stop him from conquering the world via his usual robotic nonsense. No more, no less. Wonderful!

sonic 4 sh3

Pretty game is pretty

Gameplay

In the time between the game’s announcement and it’s release, Sonic purists have been over-analyzing everything they’ve seen from the game.

“His running animation’s not right!”

“The physics are off!!”

“What’s with the auto-targeting?!?”

“His eyes are still green!!!”

The good news is that Sonic handles great. It’s a bit different from the games of old, but after just a few minutes you’ll be as comfortable as ever. Also in classic fashion, the game is as fast as you want it to be. Some played the Genesis/Mega Drive games at breakneck speeds, and the ability to play at what feels like 200 MPH lives on here. However, slowing down and allowing yourself the chance to explore is extremely rewarding as well.

The new targeting system is a fantastic addition, and plays a great role in exploring the game’s huge levels. To use it, you simply jump towards something — an enemy or a spring, for example — and a reticle comes over it. Press the jump button one more time and Sonic shoots across to hit it. It allows you to reach those out-of-the-way areas, while also opening up a ton of paths for those speed-running through the game. When all of this clicks, the game works wonderfully.

The game is far from perfect, however. While the level design in the opening Splash Hill Zone is superb, it feels hit or miss after that. The Casino Street Zone has a couple of odd jumping sections over bottomless pits, which grows stale quickly if you’re not careful and makes the Zone feel lackluster overall. Worse yet, though, is puzzle/platforming section in Lost Labyrinth Act 2. This part of the game is so counter-intuitive that it grinds the game to a halt while you figure out the timing and pattern to get past it.

Also worth mentioning are the game’s bonus stages. As in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, you have to navigate a rotating maze to get to the Chaos Emerald at the end. The twist here is that it’s left up to the player to rotate the stage, rather that it doing it on its own. You can do this either with the d-pad or with Sixaxis motion control. Using tilt control is far from awful, but the harder bonus stages require you to move quickly through them, so the d-pad is definitely the way to go if you’re looking to collect all of the emeralds.

Finally, the game is over in 2 to 3 hours. Each level has it’s own leaderboard for both time and score, so your play time will depend on if you’re the type to try speedrunning through levels to work your way to the top. If you are, this can easily extend the replay value into days or even weeks. At $15, though, it can be a tough sell for newcomers.

Graphics and Sound

While the gameplay can be a mixed bag, this is where the game shines from start to finish. The presentation is top-shelf stuff — a wonderful mix of old and new that sets to please the hardcore and newbies alike, and succeeds.

While the game’s environments are reimaginings of classic Sonic stages, they’ve been given an HD polish way above anything we could’ve imagined in 1994. The sunset hues in Splash Hill Act 3, the wild colors throughout Casino Street Zone, and the lighting in the caverns of Lost Labyrinth make you wonder what the hell took Sega so long to finally put out a 2D Sonic game in high-definition.

There are plenty of other nods to the numbered Sonic games that preceded it. The enemies should all be familiar to die-hards, and even the background for the Mad Gear Zone feels ripped out of the Flying Battery Zone from Sonic & Knuckles.

sonic 4 mg

Mad Gear Zone

Probably our favorite throwback comes audibly — all of the sounds effects are just as they’ve always been. Breaking open enemies and power-ups, collecting rings, charging up your spin dash, and blazing past the end of a level are instantly familiar, and that’s perfectly fine by us.

Last, but certainly not least, is the fantastic soundtrack provided by Jun Senoue, who was responsible for making the Genesis/Mega Drive sound much more capable than it really was with his work in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. The short-but-sweet title music, Splash Hill Act 1, and Lost Labyrinth Act 2 stand out the most, but it’s all reminiscent of the catchy tunes that helped make the original games such classics in the first place.

Conclusion

While the few flaws the game has can be quite glaring, it’s an absolute blast to play when everything is clicking. The game’s episodic format leads to a rather short experience, it sets up a rather promising outlook for Episode 2 (and hopefully 3 and 4). Series stalwarts will find this a worthy addition to the numbered series, although we recommend that newbies check out the demo first.

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