It's hard to believe that the franchise is approaching two decades with over fifty main games and spin-offs. We’ve seen Sonic and friends jump, glide, fly and spin through various platforms, some critically acclaimed and others far less memorable. The group have driven cars, hover-boards, wielded swords, played various sports and even exchanged fists in the arcades. The hedgehog has done it all. But amongst the genre mix-ups many fans had questioned the franchise’s direction, even proposing a “Sonic cycle” where hype is intertwined with gimmicks to the point where anything could be tagged onto the good Sonic the Hedgehog name.
That said the journey hasn’t been all that bad and although there are many who were disappointed a majority of the last decade’s efforts, there have been some far more successful attempts at cooking up a modern Sonic game. Sonic Adventure was the first step, introducing a richer story and dialogue to the otherwise quiet plot. It was a smooth launch to Sonic’s 3D career, offering plenty of variety and recruiting newer players along the way, but since strayed too far from what made the concept fresh and unpredictable. In more recent outings developers had experimented with different art directions, themes and although we’ll give credit for attempting to expand, the gameplay mechanics and poor controls soiled the otherwise potentially inviting experience.
"Will they ever do another purely 2D platformer?” asked legions of Sonic the Hedgehog players. The answer came with a well received run on Nintendo’s Game-Boy Advance and DS, proving that the demand for side-scrolling Sonic was still strong. Whilst coming close, these games are different from their console predecessors, utilising a new physics engine and style. Fans still had a thirst for more: A new 2D sonic game on the living room TV.
SEGA’s solution was to create the direct sequel to the original Mega Drive/Genesis games, dubbing it Sonic the Hedgehog 4. The project is split into numerous episodes, the first of which is made up with four zones (worlds), each spanning three meaty levels and a boss stage.
The opening scene, Splash Hill Zone, starts things off with the almost obligatory cocktail: a sweeping grass stained forest with plenty of checkered hills, lush trees, leaping fish and bomber bees. It’s 1991 all over again, and it’s a glossy, fun start with a healthy dose of nostalgia spread. The trend continues with the remaining four worlds, we’ve got a casino, Aztec styled labyrinth and Eggman’s robot supermarket. All these environments are an almost pixel perfect rendition of some of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 stages, with the addition of a handful of unique, fun but occasionally painful twists. In one moment you’re cruising in Donkey Kong Country-inspired Minecarts, casually leaping over endless and the next you’re carefully leaping over folding cards. These additions to the core Sonic design enrich and vary the experience and coupled together with a classic level design do provide a potentially solid canvas for our hedgehog to do his thing. Potentially.
We’ve got all the hills, pipes, bridges, cogs and springs that you can ask for, but the what lets down the game is control. The way Sonic moves and interacts with his environment is key to the platforming formula. You can’t have Nintendo’s Mario toppling over as he jumps or Yoshi’s tongue failing to work - and that’s the case with Sonic the Hedgehog 4. It's an unreliable experience. We're not talking about the odd wall not working or a a pixel out of place, Dimps and Sonic Team have done a solid job of crafting together a working environment but it’s Sonic’s tendency to slide about too much, homing attacks not working every time and boss battles unresponsive.
New to the running, jumping and rolling is the homing attack. Ported over from the 3D games, the move allows players to lock-on to anything that Sonic can pounce his prickly spikes onto, or well, into: power-up boxes, springs, enemies and even Eggman himself. The addition hasn’t been adopted well by some fans, and here it’s both an advantage and a curse. In general when you can see your target in good time, a double tap of the jump button and you’re there. It’s quick, it’s easy and is a useful addition when it isn’t forced upon you. However when quicker reactions are needed or there’s a need to home in on enemies to avoid specifically-designed traps, it’s far trickier and less convincing.
Another inclusion what we’d like to call ‘uncurling’. Whilst we like to adapt to change and embrace the new, a core function from past 2D games has been brutally shafted to one side and instead replaced with a potentially game-breaking change. Previously after coming off ramps or being propelled off springs Sonic would keep to his ball shape, allowing you to attack most incoming danger, but now he ‘uncurls’, leaving him open to the complete opposite - almost anything can now cause damage. Coupled with an unpredictable homing attack and we’ve got a recipe for disaster. Again having to compromise to make the core gameplay work.
Aside from the control flaws it’s all a visually impressive treat. Whether your a fan of old or a newcomer to the series, Episode 1 has had a healthy amount of love and care in it’s presentation. Although the original Sonic the Hedgehog games had their own individual look and style, there was a recurring design that’s been carried across without overly complicating or dampening the feel. Checkered backgrounds, lush orange, greens and blues carefully stirred and delicately painted across a new canvas. Press play and the world comes alive with neat visual treats: subtle sways in the wind, dust and other particle effects add to the already vivid look - keeping in line with the old, but with a splash of the new. That said, for a sequel it there perhaps is a lack of expansion in the design. Though it’s always good to inject references into sequels, we’re finding Episode 1 lacking that bit of originality and progression, as if we’ve seen much of it before. Granted it all looks nicer, bigger and bolder than its predecessors, but can ware off after the initial excitement.
Music and sound effects are also key to the Sonic the Hedgehog formula and with a tight soundtrack to live up to, we came away disappointed with an irritating, continually pulsating beat pounding in our heads. There are a handful of standout tunes, particularly the Labyrinth and Mad Gear selection but in general offer weak compliment to the on-screen action, looping over and over to a painful effect. On a more positive note all the jumps, bounces, flicks and switches are brought back, keeping the original effects intact for a more authentic feel.