Sega fan since grade school, yo. And that's a long, long time ago. So it's clear to see why the appeal of an attitude-laden hedgehog was a stronger call than the pipe-surfing escapades of a stocky Italian man. Don't get me wrong, I loved both, but Sonic had the charismatic edge. So why is it that Mario games continue to sell well while the Hedgehog series just can't seem to hit the mark? Can Sonic 4 change the series' fate of late? Can a return to 2D reinvigorate the franchise? Can I haz speed?
After over a decade of 3D Sonic titles with diminishing returns, Sega has finally decided to take its mascot back to the dimension that started it all, and a few years too late, I might add. With the good old gameplay we remember from the Genesis days, coupled with an HD facelift, Sonic 4 takes you through 5 accelerated stages of varying appeal and difficulty in an attempt to win your heart (and wallet) to latch itself back onto the series, no doubt for Episode II onward, that should be releasing sometime in the near future.
For Sonic 4 to model itself after the 2D Sonic games that came before it, there are some significant play adjustments that might catch a Sonic fan's eye. However, At it's core, Sonic 4 remains mostly unchanged: You run, jump, and spring your way through 2 acts, then face off against Dr. Robotnik at the end of the third act before moving on to a trio of new stages, set in a different environment from the last.
Now let's talk differences. To start, let's go over the community's main gameplay concerns. One of Sonic's added moves is his homing attack, triggered after a jump, which he retains from most of the 3D titles in the series. Like it or not, the homing attack exists to offset one of the biggest changes since classic sidescrolling Sonic, the momentum.
Yes, Sonic loses him momentum much easier than he did in the past. A launch, classically, would see the blue wonder work his legs, or spin, throughout his freefall, allowing him to hit the ground running. Now when you enter freefall from a launch, Sonic opens up and kinda flails his limbs wildly, forcing him to lose all momentum. It sucks that he's regressed, but it makes the game a little more challenging and requires more thought. Instead of just holding the directional pad forward, now you need to use your homing attack at the right time, either to launch yourself off the nearest enemy, or for a push of speed to assist you once you hit the ground. It's not all bad.
The physics are a little reworked as well. Stand on a slope in the past and you'd slowly move down the hill. Now, Sonic seems to have gotten new soles, because he stays solid on an incline. I can live with that. One of the things that bothers me though; when coasting in ball form, you slow down incredibly easy. Try hitting a loop in ball form without being freshly propelled by a springboard. Speed buzz, man. The adjustments have all been made to add an extra layer to the gameplay, which I think works well, but I don't want my speed fix to be watered down.
Unfortunately, the game goes by pretty quickly, but it's Sonic, what do you expect? Only four zones, consisting of three fairly quickly completed acts. The first zone is a bit of a bore, the second amps it up a little, and the final two zones are pretty good fun, and a decent challenge. Robotnik, who is now being referred to by his original Japanese name Dr. Eggman, in his final zone is a pain in the ass. He'll effortlessly whittle down your way-too-easily-earned extra lives as you try to adjust yourself to his steep learning curve. I beat the game in under 4 hours, which I'm still hesitant to consider worth 15 bucks. There's no way around it, experience felt short.
And don't even get me started on the vertigo-inducing bonus stages. To get an alternate ending (and a peek at Episode II), you need to collect all the Chaos Emeralds, and to do that you need to successfully navigate all 7 bonus stages. Instead of sticking with the trusty and always awesome half pipe, the Chaos Emeralds are now held at the end of a low gravity, tumble dry, headache waiting to happen of a maze. Felt like more of a chore than a bonus stage should be, isn't it supposed to be about fun and speed?
Unfortunately for Sega, Sonic 4 was released around the same time as a fan remix of Sonic 2, which is absolutely gorgeous. The fan remix looks much better, but at what cost? With so much more happening on the screen at any given time, it's harder to keep track of remixed Sonic. The busy environments seemed to be the main culprit in causing me to lose my rings.
That said, Sonic 4 doesn't look bad. The first zone is a little plain, but show me a classic Sonic game that doesn't have a boring opening set. It's supposed to be about moving so fast that the environment all becomes a blur anyway. And as the game progresses, the zones become much more interesting and interactive. Though it would've been nice to see graphics at the level of the fan remix in a game created by the professionals. O, sweet irony.
Sonic makes the same awesome sound he used to when he's underwater and sucking in a bubble for air. That's all that matters to me.
To accompany the perfectly nostalgic sound effects, is a disappointment of a soundtrack. Sonic's music was always an above average affair, especially when Michael Jackson is involved in some capacity. Even without the King of Pop however, the Sonic games were always easy to groove to. Veteran series composer, Jun Senoue, seems to have mailed this one in. I'm keeping my fingers crossed Episode II will step its music game up.
On one hand, Sonic 4 Episode I doesn't deserve the criticism it's been receiving from the community. On the other, I'm not sure it deserves the $15 price tag either. It's a fun title, albeit a little on the easy side, and a lot on the short side. I suppose the positive about episodic releases is that you can take feedback and apply it in the near-future's installments. Right, Sega?
Buy it if: You have $15 you've been looking to spend on a digital download, you're a Sonic fan
Don't buy it if: You want bang for your buck, you're a Sonic critic
The Score: 6 outta 10 blasters!