Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
by Polly

Numbered sequels. Hey, those are pretty important these days, right guys? During the journey down the golden-bricked road toward their next numbered installment however, some franchises tend to get lost along the way. Sometimes they just drop off the face of the Earth because the developers just don't care, other times they find themselves iterated to death with countless money-sucking update patches disguised as full products, and some just find themselves homeless, cold, and hungry in a dark alley whoring themselves out with bad idea after bad idea trying to find themselves again.

Let's take Contra for instance! (Because everything in the world is tied to Contra.) Contra III: The Alien Wars was released in 1992, and it wouldn't be until 2007 that the series would see its next numbered sequel. Other than Contra: Hard Corps, the intervening 15 years would see the series fall into a deep, dark, decoy-smelling pit of awful ports and terrible 3D takes on the series, all pawned off on other developers so that Konami could rake in a few extra bucks on the name alone. It wasn't until Konami reigned in the series again with Shattered Soldier that the series could finally be deemed worthy of being granted its much-deserved official numbered sequel (AND IT WAS AWESOME!)

Sonic The Hedgehog's story goes much the same. After Sonic The Hedgehog 3, the series broke off into countless side stories, bad games (who honestly likes Adventure?), and seemingly hit the jackpot in the Bad Idea Lottery while trying to adapt to new technology as well as the fact that Sega had been forced to bow out of the hardware business. In 2009, Sega finally backpedaled a bit on their "only release Sonic games that feature dumb ideas" policy and declared that a Sonic The Hedgehog 4 was finally happening for really-reals, and that it would be the sequel fans have been yammering about for years.

Well, is it?

Well...Yes and no. On the surface, Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 looks about as phoned in as a yearly roster update in a sports franchise. Just looking at screenshots, one would think they may as well have called it, Sonic The Hedgehog: Here's This Old Shit Again, You Guys Like Green Hill Right? Fuckin' Here Ya Go!, but something tells me that wouldn't be very friendly for database and online store entry, and STH: HTOSAYGLGHRFHYG really doesn't roll off the tongue as a buzz-worthy shorthand acronym. (I took business classes in high school, trust me, I know these things.)

Still, even with the enjoyable gameplay aspects which I'll delve into later, it's hard to justify how Sonic 4 is in any way a sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. All five zones in the game are just renamed and prettied-up HD re-imaginings of areas from Sonic 1 and 2, all the enemies are the same, and the bosses are hardly what anyone would call different or new. And if this is a sequel, why the hell would Dr. Robotnik go back to using the same old devices, traps, and tricks that failed in the first place? Where the hell are Tails and Knuckles for that matter? How the hell is there an almost exact replica of Green Hill hanging around, only now it's called Splash Hill?

The answer is just sheer laziness. The entire experience feels almost like a weird test bed for Sonic Generations ideas, which would have been fine and wouldn't looked as stupid had they gone that route instead of touting this as the sequel true hardcore fans were wanting.

Even so, there's more to this package than just the surface level. What matters most is how the game plays, and for the most part they've done a fairly good job.

It doesn't take much to make a good Sonic game when you think about it. All you need is some tight platforming, some simple and effective enemies and obstacles, level design that encourages exploration and hunting for faster routes, and of course, speed. Sonic 4's five playable zones deliver on pretty much all those prerequisites, adding just enough to the mix so that even if the game looks like a bad rehash, at least the gameplay is pulling its weight in trying to make that 4 seem like it was earned with some interesting changes to the popular formula.

The first big change, and source of much bitching from the hardcore crowd, is that Sonic has retained his homing attack ability, which has been featured heavily in the series since Sonic Adventure. During a jump, a red reticle may now appear over enemies and obstacles allowing Sonic to quickly charge into them once the jump button is pressed again.

In 3D Sonic games, this mechanic made sense because lining up jump attacks in 3D space isn't always the most precise thing to try to be doing with fidgety cameras, and it kept the focus on the speed and style the series was known for. Moving this mechanic to a 2D game was a bit of a gamble, because the risk then is that the game would become too easy. This is true for most of the early parts of the game, however later enemies and obstacles appear that are able to counter the homing attack by either repelling Sonic or shoving hot spiky death through his stupid blue skull. It's a fun mechanic that's easy to go overboard with when you start out, but you'll quickly learn that an itchy homing attack trigger finger may not always be the best solution if you're looking to hold onto those precious rings or lives.

Though the homing attack is an almost over-powered offensive tool, its chief use lies in utilizing it correctly to trounce through a series of enemies in order to reach new areas that otherwise would be inaccessible. This is where Sonic 4's strength in level design and twitch gameplay kicks in, and also the part of the game that will have many players dashing for that "Retry" button in the pause menu to try timing that series of homing attacks again to reach that coveted, and often speedier upper path.

Like Sonic games of old, every Act in a zone has fairly distinct "top" and "bottom" paths. Top paths tend to always be the faster route through a stage, offering fewer obstacles and more opportunities for speed, but are more difficult to access and stay on, while bottom paths are slower and feature more hazards and enemies. Getting to and staying on the top paths is the optimal way to play through each area, and one can enjoy a good amount of replay value trying to nail down every Act as perfectly as possible. Sonic 4 is clearly a game that was built with speed and high score running in mind, but that in no way means that hitting the bottom paths dooms the player to Super Un-Fun Land, because the stage designs and themes go beyond just requiring you to play perfectly.

That constant air of freshness is in gimmicks. Now, I know what you're thinking, "Polly, you big dummy, Sonic has always been gimmicky! Look at all those pinball bumpers and shit!" You're not wrong! The series has always played on gimmicks in stages, but I don't feel that they've been handled quite as well or delivered in the quantity that's presented here.

Sonic 4 is literally always throwing something new at you. Every act of every zone features a new gimmick you're required to utilize in conjunction with regular platforming and speed to reach the goal post. Where most games would base their entire premise or a full in-game world around a certain gimmick, Sonic 4 is happy to present you with one to play around with for five minutes or so at a time, and then just tosses it out the window the moment you enter the next act. One minute you're speeding around a casino-themed area flipping cards to win prizes, the next you're carefully working your way through a sparsely-lit labyrinth with only a torch, and then next you're running on gears to open doors and trying to shoot through them before they close again. It's surprising that none of the gimmicks feel under-developed or like an afterthought, and are almost always fun or help sell the theme of any given zone in some unique way. It's hard to see how fans of the Genesis-era games couldn't be happy with the thought put into level design.

What some fans are understandably unhappy about however is Sonic's movement. The series has always billed itself as "momentum-based platforming," and strangely Sonic 4 doesn't seem to have any momentum behind its movement at all. As soon as you let go of the D-Pad or Analog Stick, Sonic loses all forward momentum. While this can make for more precise platforming, it definitely doesn't feel very Sonic-like. There's also the issue of speed, or more accurately, Sonic's acceleration. It can take what seems like forever for the little blue blur to...well...become a blue blur, and even the signature Spindash doesn't quite get the job done. From a stationary position, Sonic feels as if he's stuck underwater trying to gain speed, and stage designs take shortcuts around this by featuring loads of springs and speed strips to keep things going, making them feel more in tune with the Rush and Advance series than the Sonic games of old.

It seems that instead of building up speed gradually and at a decent pace, the designers put a heavy focus on air-dashing to reach top speed quickly. A couple of quick taps of the jump button (provided there are no enemies around) gets Sonic to moving at speeds players should be familiar with. Furthering my notion that the designers fully intended this to be your main method of gaining speed is how vital it is to speed running and that certain Acts absolutely REQUIRE it in order to escape a few death traps.

I can personally see Sonic's new handling, reliance on homing attacks, and air-dashing to gain instant speed as simply a new approach to an old formula, but it's understandable how some will feel that this game somehow "ruined" what wasn't really ever broken with older 2D Sonic titles. To people that bitched about Sonic's eye color and other trivial shit though? Fuck off.

Sonic 4's presentation is exactly what any fan of the series would want from it. Bright, vivid, and surreal landscapes with lots of excellent details in foreground and background objects that don't necessarily make the game world look "alive," but instead make it pop out at you in the way you want a videogame to, or more specifically, the way you'd want a Sonic game to. There's also a nice bit of detail tucked away in all those backdrops with some really nice looking water effects and the way you can see the horizon's curvature in the distance. The models all have a neatly polished and sleek look to them, animating as well as they need to for this kind of game, rounding out what is a very solid-looking package for a downloadable game.

Long-time series composer, Jun Senoue took an interesting approach with the game's soundtrack. Rather than going the route of most modern Sonic games, which feature full bands and poppy arrangements, Senoue takes us back in time a bit with a distinctly Genesis-sounding soundtrack, complete with drum samples from Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (though not as compressed here) and synths that come pretty close to mimicking the Genesis' FM channels. The results as you can tell are pretty spot on with what you'd want from a Sonic game, and would all sound right at home in any of the older series installments.

Aside from the various bitching about physics and which Sonic the player's actually controlling, the biggest criticism one can levy against Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is that it's simply undeserving of being a numbered sequel. The variety exhibited in each individual stage and new gameplay mechanics go a long way toward creating a fun and worthwhile experience, but this isn't in any way the culmination of work or progress from previous installments in the series, nor is it anything Sega promised. On its own merits however, Sonic 4 is a fun little ride that will surely provide some entertainment value to both Sonic fans without a gigantic stick up their butts as well as anyone looking for a quick and cheery platformer to waste an evening with.

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