Don't call it a comeback. Though the blue blur delivers more misses than hits, he churns out more releases than anyone but Mario and crew. Will this finally be the game that erases all the heartache, or another groaner that makes us question why we keep coming back like abused hedgehog wives? Check our verdict on the original series sequel 16 years in the making.
- Prettified throwback levels
- Surprise modernized moments
- A trip down memory lane
- Awkward physics
- Cheap tricks
- Not much bang for your buck
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 Review:
They say you can never go home again. For me, home means the early ‘90s, sharing a Genesis controller with my best friend and we had Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic was one of those rare, immediately essential titles that affected gamers physically. With only 16 bits, Sonic made our stomachs drop out on loop-de-loops and our hearts race as we sped through scenery so fast its design was all but lost on us.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is Sega’s appeal to fellow nostalgic gamers with a “true” sequel to the original sidescrolling series. But can the timed 2D platformer still hang?
Sonic 4 retains the shape and style of its elders, splicing speeding through a timed platform course with puzzle elements. There’s always more than one way to get from the left side of the level to the right, and a bit of exploration can lead to extra rings and a faster time. There are four zones with four short acts apiece. Each zone is familiar Sonic territory (casino, ancient ruins, factory), with the most recognizable being the Splash Hill Zone, a sexy 2.5D HD rehash of the first ever Sonic level, the tropical Green Hill Zone.
Though the nod to longtime Sonic fans is an appreciated tribute, the minimal aesthetic requires dead-on physics. Sonic 4 does not deliver on this front. The action can be jarringly stop-and-go, like a rickety rollercoaster struggling to get up an incline. Sonic is at his worst when not at top speed. When walking or underwater, his awkward motion makes the timer running on-screen feel like a huge tease. At the end of each Zone, you’ll take on Eggman in boss battles that range from painfully simple to simply painful. A common theme for this title, Sonic suffers greatly for not being able to find the sweet spot between classic and contemporary gaming.
The homing attack, which can be activated when an enemy or environmental element lights up with a red reticule, is a theoretically enjoyable addition from the 3-D games that would be very welcome here if it were to operate sensibly. When it does work, trouncing Eggman’s animal slave-bots from on high is sharp and satisfying. Unfortunately, reticules often show up when they shouldn’t and don’t when they should, often leading to split-second, unavoidable miscalculation or dropping like lead to a frustrating death.
Frustrating deaths don’t have to be a bad thing—look at downloadable contemporary Super Meat Boy. This game’s masocore levels are punishing, but beating most of them involves a satisfying “a-ha!” moment that makes the struggle worthwhile. Instead of hiding elegant secrets, Sonic 4’s levels rely on cheap tricks like unforeseeable bottomless pits and moving walls that seem to jump to your position at the worst possible time no matter how far ahead of them you get. This isn’t to say that this is a departure from series roots—the original Genesis games gave me plenty of agita as a little girl—but our medium as a whole has evolved past cheap tricks for a reason, and even the most retro-fetishist sequels should fall in line.
A Grim Future
In order to future-fy the otherwise retro homage, the gentle fatty of the original Genesis titles has been replaced by the newer “extreme” Sonic, a slender bro hog with wicked dreads. It’s a design choice I could happily do without. There are some neat modern twists, however, that serve as high points. I dug taking a ride on a bridge of playing cards that arced across the screen like a Vegas dealer spreading out a deck, and was happily taken by surprise when I was able to rotate the screen to pour Sonic out with a roomful of water.
Though it isn’t without winning moments, you need to know that this installment of Sonic 4 is short and often confused. Most of what you will enjoy about this game is directly related to how much you may have loved the original Genesis titles, which is a credit that should be given to them and not Episode 1.
Instead of dangling Sonic’s bloated corpse in front of us, Sega either needs to pump him full of re-animator juice or lay him to rest in the exotic pet cemetery. The more mediocre Sonic games Sega releases, the more I want to be left alone with my happy childhood memories.