The fact that I am fully aware of Sonic the Hedgehog despite having only taken a spin or two through the Green Hill Zone is a testament to his popularity during his early days. I knew the basics from playing that first level and watching the commercials and cartoons. Sonic is a blue hedgehog. He’s fast, has an attitude, uses gold rings, hangs out with a bunch of other furry critters, and Dr. Robotnik is the Big Bad Guy who wants to turn everybody into robots or something. Yes, I know he’s “Eggman” now but he’ll always be “Robotnik” to me. Besides, I can’t say “Eggman” without thinking that there is some kind of weird Japanese subtext involved, so there.
The fact that all of the Sonic games I have played have been spinoffs is a testament to how long it has been since he has jumped the shark. I’ve played the Sonic RPG game (Sonic Chronicles), the Sonic racing game (Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing), picked Sonic in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and in Sega Superstars Tennis, and even tried Sonic’s God of War game (Sonic Unleashed) with varying results. Thus, Episode 1 is my first “proper” Sonic game to play through. Episode 1 appears to be Sega’s attempt to ‘reboot’ the franchise by taking it back to its 2-D roots.
Episode 1 is the sequel to 1994’s Sonic and Knuckles, and is a “2.5D” game: the game takes place on a 2-D plane but is presented with modern 3-D graphics. Episode 1’s graphics look great and the game’s music evokes memories of 16-bit tunes. Sonic 4 also maintains the sense of speed that has been a hallmark of the series.
Except for the visuals and updated music, everything about the game is old-school Sonic. You run from left-to-right destroying badniks and collecting rings until you reach the end of each level. Sonic drops his rings if he gets hit, and if he gets hit without any rings, he loses a life. Collecting fifty rings and jumping through a giant ring at the end of a level opens a Special Stage similar to those in the original Sonic. There, you bounce Sonic around a psychedelic area in search of the Chaos Emerald at the end. The option to use the Dual Shock 3’s tilt function during the Special Stages is available, but ended up not being useful.
The addition of Sonic’s Homing Attack is the only nod to his more recent adventures. For the most part, the controls work well, but the game seems to be a little finicky with the Homing Attack. Even then, I had a blast zipping Sonic through the game’s twelve levels, with Casino Street Zone Act 2 being my favorite level of the game.
Just like any old school game, Sonic 4 has its frustrating parts, which would be less frustrating if the ability to retry a level quickly would have been available. When your lives run out, you get kicked back out to the level select screen which is quite annoying. It took me quite a few retries to get past the ‘being chased by a wall’ bits in Labyrinth Zone Act 3 and Mad Gear Zone Act 3. Taking out Dr. Robotnik for good in the E.G.G. Station required a consecutive run through the game’s four boss battles and Robotnik’s “final form” which my already sore left thumb did not appreciate.
While it would have been nice to see just a little more newness in its gameplay, Sonic The Hedgehog 4, Episode 1 is exactly what it says in the title: a new Sonic game that plays like the old ones. At fifteen dollars, the price is right. The game’s four zones and final boss battle provided about four and a half hours of quality gameplay for me, but I imagine that more seasoned Sonic players will zip through it faster. Levels can be replayed in either Time or Score Attack mode, both of which have online leaderboards.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4, Episode 1 is a good entry point for people that have never been exposed to any of his 2-D adventures. I think Sonic will pick up some new fans with this game, and I look forward to the next episode. In the meantime I may go back to play the games that started it all on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection. Indeed, those of us who are old enough to remember the days when Sega did what Nintendon’t will have a good time.