Review – Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Yes, SEGA hears the ravenous Sonic fanboy rants. A retro-styled 2D Sonic game has been in high demand ever since the blue blur made his 3D debut on the Dreamcast back in 1999. Before that, even, as many fans were disappointed with Sonic 3D Blast for the Genesis. With the release of Sonic 4, SEGA hopes to silence at least some of these forum sirens. As the first SEGA Sonic title to revisit the run-real-fast-from-left-to-right model, Sonic 4 will undoubtedly be put under the microscope. Even more skepticism will likely surround the title because of its episodic release structure. So, what’s the verdict of episode one?
It’s good. Sonic 4 does so many things right that only under extreme scrutiny fueled by purist fanboy whining was I able to find any faults in the game. The first episode is broken up into four zones, each with three acts and a unique boss fight. The first noticeable change in the game is its 2.5D graphics. Rather than reuse the 16-bit graphical style of the original title (as Capcom did with its 8-bit Mega Man 9 and 10), SEGA opted to toss a fresh coat of paint on the entire project. This decision worked out for the very best, because in short, the game looks outstanding. I was wowed on several occasions regardless of if I was playing or watching. The biggest gameplay departure from the early games is the implementation of a homing double jump. More on this later, as I will defend this mechanic with my biggest, best words. Mix in just the right amount of nostalgic solvent and you’ve got a serum worthy of curing Sonic stigma syndrome.
Upon highlighting the game on the XMB, you’ll be treated to a bright screen and an upbeat, Sonic-y jingle (complete with 4 ring get sound effects and those iconic snare drums). Starting up the game will send you back to the early 90s when the old-school SEGA screen flashes and that classic voice announces, “SEGAHHH!” The options menu contains a “How to Play” tutorial which is at once laughable and extremely helpful for the first time Sonic player (whoever you are). “New Game” brings you to an overworld, a first in the Sonic series if memory serves me correctly. From the overworld, you can choose to begin playing in any of four familiar zones: Splash Hill Zone, Casino Street Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear Zone. The upstanding Sonic player will start where he’s supposed to, on Green Hi… err, Splash Hill Zone, Act 1.
What initially blew my mind is how good the game looks. Chris and I checked it out at PAX Prime back in September, and I don’t remember it looking half as good. On an HD TV, Sonic 4 impresses on all fronts. Besides for a negligible amount of slowdown during the final boss fight, all of the animations are fluid. Sonic’s dreads blow behind him as dust rises from his footsteps and a blue tinted blur trails him at high speeds. The foregrounds and backgrounds both pop. The background in Casino Street Zone, for example, is packed with skyscrapers and search lights swaying back and forth. Its foreground is bright and bustling, and features magic cardpet riding sequences that are pretty cool to watch. In the Lost Labyrinth levels, the detailed cryptic backgrounds give the sense that you’re actually racing through a vast underground catacomb. What makes these graphics increasingly enjoyable to watch is how the game plays.
Enter the homing double jump. We editors at PSNStores have been playing and talking about Sonic 4 a lot, and I think Chris put it best when he said the game would be unplayable if it weren’t for the double jump. The way it works is if you press the jump button while in midair and near an enemy, Sonic shoots forth and pops him. If there’s no enemy in site, however, Sonic simply boosts forth. The boost immediately gets you going whereas running on foot is an initially slow ordeal. At PAX I tossed it aside as a dishonorable attempt to attract more customers, but after playing through the game I realize that practically every aspect of it was designed around the double jump. Sonic purists are sure to reject it, but the fact of the matter is that it works. Once you get that through your head, your next task is to find the path that will get you through the acts fastest; aka play Sonic The Hedgehog.
In true Sonic spirit, each act has multiple paths to take in order to complete it. The quickest path will make fast and full use of the double jump, so be ready to homing boost into lines of conveniently placed enemies. I’m really impressed at how differently each one of the zones plays. The Lost Labyrinth Zone, for example, requires a more slow, calculated playstyle than the quick-paced Casino Street acts. The bosses at the end of each zone are equally diverse. There even exists variety within the zones. The second act of Splash Hill Zone plays around vine-swinging while the third act is littered with zip-lines. This is the case for each of the zones; each act will basically be centered around one type of device. The Lost Labyrinth Zone even includes some puzzles (!) and minecart sequences. The first seven acts that you finish with 50 rings or more will send you to a special stage with the opportunity to procure a chaos emerald. The special stages work in the same way that they do in the original game, with a few minor differences. The biggest difference is that there are no (R)’s that reverse the stage when you touch them. Rather, you’re in full control of rotating the stage left and right. There’s even an option to use the DualShock3’s motion controls to move the level. These levels range from easy enough to controller-tossingly tough. As a fail safe, though, and if you’re quick enough to press the start button before you hit those (!)’s, you can at any time restart the special stage from the beginning. That brings up the question of difficulty in the game.
After getting used to the double jump and the newish level designs, the game becomes rather easy. By the end of the first zone, I had 20 lives. By the end of Casino Street (the second zone in order), I had received the trophy for having 99 lives. I currently have over 200 lives, all 7 chaos emeralds, and have beaten the final boss. That being said, I’ve played the game a lot since its release. Running straight through the game won’t get you much play time. Obtaining the emeralds, unlocking Super Sonic, replaying through levels as Super Sonic, and going for high scores/fast times will stretch the game to perhaps 6-8 hours worth of content. Even so, there is essentially only one way to play the game: Single player, zooming through each act as fast as you can while grabbing as many rings as possible. The addition of a 2-player race mode would have substantially boosted this game’s replayability. The bottom line is yes, the addition of a homing double jump changes the game. The ultimate triumph of Sonic 4 is that it manages to make these changes while retaining the Sonic-ness of the series’ original classic titles. There are three more episodes on the horizon. Here’s hoping for online races and a course editor.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here. This review is for the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
What I Like:
- Graphically impressive
- Top notch level design
- The homing double jump works, trust me
- The right amount of nostalgic elements
What I Dislike:
- Essentially only one play mode
- A bit too easy