Since the passing of the 16-bit era Sonic has been struggling to find an identity. The “impatient hipster with ‘tude” motif which he was adored for in the early 90’s just doesn’t cut it in this new millennium. And so, Sonic Team have been frantically exploring new ways to make their mascot relevant once again. They’ve tried adding adventure elements (Sonic Adventure), team based mechanics (Sonic Heroes), borderline racism (Shadow The Hedgehog) and at times they just stopped trying altogether (SONIC/Sonic Unleashed). It soon became apparent that the only time the ageing Hedgehog could produce a game worth playing was when he dabbled with new genres or took his business to a Nintendo handheld.
Based on this first episode, Sonic 4 is a pretty misleading title. The name suggests that this is a continuation of the 16-bit games but in reality this is more of a redux. The game features four different worlds (known as Zones), each of which contains three levels (Acts) and a boss fight. You can choose to play through the Zones in any order you like, however each Act must be completed sequentially. Each Zone has clearly been designed to tug at you nostalgic heartstrings but the knock-on effect means that there is a distinct lack of originality here. Three out of the four Zones feel like they were airlifted straight from the first two games, with The Lost Labyrinth being the only exception.
Despite its familiarity, Sonic 4 is still one of the best platformers to grace a non-Nintendo console in years. Your initial play-through may be slightly frustrating due to the games trial and error nature but once you’ve mastered each Act you’ll enjoy revisiting them. The levels are designed like roller coasters and providing you hit the right jumps and take the correct paths you’ll enjoy the ride. Sonic 4 also has leaderboard support so your fastest Act times can be posted online and compared with others around the world. For that reason the timer in each level now counts up instead of down which incidentally grants you the freedom to fully explore each level.
The fundamental gameplay hasn’t changed though; you still run fast, collect rings and tussle with the evil Dr. Eggman… except this time in stunning HD! The only new ability Sonic has is an Air Dash which can be used to auto-target both enemies and objects. The Labyrinth Zone introduces a few unique gameplay elements and serves as a reminder of why we loved Sonic in the first place. On the other side of the coin, Casino Street reminds us all why Mario will forever be superior. The casino Acts are cluttered with tangential objects which continually slow down your momentum and grind the action to a hault. This is especially disappointing given the iconic stature that casino-themed levels have.
Also disappointing are the uninspired boss fight. Each encounter with Eggman feels like a rehash from the previous games, only with the difficulty level turned all the way down. I also took issue with the games Price:Length ratio. Paying $15 for a game that you can blast through in an hour is ridiculous, so unless you plan on chasing high-scores you might want to think twice before parting ways with your cash.
Sonic 4: Episode 1 is the Sonic game we’ve all been waiting for, it’s just unfortunate that Sega has played their cards so close to their chest. Sans the beautiful graphics this feels like the same game we’ve been playing for the past 15 years. I really hope that from Episode 2 onwards, Sonic Team will take more risks and give us something that we haven’t seen before. Still, if you love Sonic, or platformers in general, you could certainly do a lot worse.