16 years. It's been 16 LONG years since Sonic the Hedgehog 3 came out. Since then, we've gotten great games like Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD, but no Sonic 4. We've also had our fair share of subpar titles, which any casual or hardcore Sonic fan will be quick to remind you. After over a decade, however, Sonic Team has decided to bring its beloved Hedgehog back to his very solid roots; the 2D console game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 has been hyped as the game that will bring the Blue Blur back to his glory days, but can this new title live up to that near impossible expectation, or will it just leave more fans struggling to defend their favorite video game icon? Let's just say this: it certainly doesn't bring Sonic back to his days of old.
Upon selecting the title from your respective console's desktop, you'll be greeted with the nostalgic "SEGA!" soundbyte. If that doesn't get you excited to run from left to right at a blistering pace, we don't know what will.
Once you start the title, you'll notice the nice fresh coat of paint that has been given to the title. Looking at the graphics, the title looks crisp, but Sonic just looks like he sticks out off of the background. The way Sonic interacts with the environment is fine, but his motions seem very unnatural. When he flies through the air, the motion looks awkward, but the biggest issue comes with the way he speeds up.
Once Sonic starts moving, he picks up speed, but his animations look like he's still walking or jogging. This is also reflected in the physics, which are at the point that they are both awkward and a problem with the core gameplay.
The gameplay is the main issue that older Sonic fans will find with this title. The controls are very much the same as Sonic 2, which doesn't sound like a problem at all, but when combined with the new physics, the unimaginative level design and the strange inclusion of the homing attack from the 3D titles, it just doesn't feel right. In fact, even as you come to the end of this very short title, you still don't feel used to the gameplay mechanics. The best way to describe the gameplay has to be "counter-intuitive."
Creative level design is where the 2D Sonic games have always florished. One would think that in the nearly 15 years since the most recent 2D console release, Sonic Team would have come up with some original level designs that could have been used for the grand re-entering into the genre. Unfortunately, original ideas are few and far between. Nearly every nuance and challenge in each level has been lifted from a previous game in the series.
The game is incredibly short, consisting of only four Zones. The first zone is basically the typical Green Hill Zone-type zone from Sonic the Hedgehog. The second zone is essentially a rip-off of Sonic 3's Casino Night Zone. The third zone is he most original zone, but still borrows many elements from Sonic & Knuckles' Sandopolis Zone. The final zone, the Mad Gear Zone, is basically an amalgamation of every previous final zone found in a 2D Sonic title.
Each zone does have its own gimmicks, however, which gives the title a bit of a fresher feel. From running through a dark area lighting bombs and torches with a flame you carry, to overturning cards to gain items and rings, this is where the most original ideas come to life. There's even cart-based segments like those found in Donkey Kong Country, but they end up feeling too scripted and very brief.
Boss battles have also been a bright spot in the Sonic franchise in the past, as well. Unfortunately, nearly every element of every Boss Battle found in Sonic 4: Episode 1 has been taken from previous battles. The most infuriating moment came at the end of the final zone. Dr. Eggman (a name that desperately needs to go back to Dr. Robotnik) and Sonic blast into space and unlocks a new world. Sega bills this world as an epic "Final Showdown in Space".
All this amounts to is Sonic fighting through all of the previous boss battles from earlier in the game. Once you make it through this insulting final level, you are greeted with the most incredible slap in the face. The final showdown is none other than another boss stolen from a previous Sonic title, the final boss from Sonic 2.
The final straw for this game has to be the length, or lack thereof. Four zones is not nearly enough to justify the price tag, especially when long, enjoyable titles like Dead Rising: Case Zero are only $5. To put things in perspective, the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which was released in 1991, had six zones. There is no reason that Sonic 4: Episode 1 should be charging $15, the price of a premium Xbox Live, PSN or WiiWare title. The fact of the matter is, though there are save and level select features, it is incredibly easy to beat the game in one sitting. The only redeeming part of the game's length is the fact that the search for Chaos Emeralds are back, which can allow you to re-attain Super Sonic status yet again.
There is no doubt that Sega wanted this game to succeed. They put a lot of work into it and even delayed the title by a full season, but the game still feels empty and rushed. There's no reason that this title should play like this. Sonic used to be about precision and speed, but Sonic 4 strips those aspects from the title. The biggest travesty is the fact that nearly everything in this game has been seen before in previous titles. The game puts all of its eggs into one basket: nostalgia. Nostalgia was obviously what everyone was looking for when they went for this title, but it can't fuel a title on its own. There has to be some innovation and sense of progression in order for the title to earn the right to be called a sequel to the great Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles. To be perfectly blunt, this game is nothing more than a glorified remake.
Here's an idea: why not keep it to one release? Why bring it out episodically? There's no reason that they couldn't have delayed it until 2011 and made it one full title, much like the company's previous main competition, Nintendo, has done in the past with the New Super Mario Bros. franchise. Sonic 4 was supposed to reaffirm a sense of hope in the Sonic franchise, but instead all the game did was make the remaining believers question their faith. If you are still curious about the title, do yourself a favor and check out the trial version first.