Sonic 4, then. Hyped as the true return to 2D form for the blue blur, unleashed at last upon the fanbase after a year-long wait that was riddled with delays and controversy. Does it live up to its promise? Is it worth your hard-earned Sonic wonga? Read on and find out, in TSS’ Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 review.
There’s really nothing to say when it comes to the game’s premise – it follows the formula of the classic games to the letter, seeing Sonic race through levels to rescue his animal friends from Dr. Eggman’s capture. As it continues on from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, there’s something of a bare bones plot – the evil doc, still smarting after the chaos that ensued on the Death Egg, is trying once more to bury the planet with his league of robot badniks. Of course, with the recession and everything, he’s on the back foot, forced to recycle only the best of the baddies from past games. Obviously, Sonic’s having none of it.
With no cutscenes or any other guff to endure in-between levels, Sonic 4 does a great job of keeping the focus on what really matters – 2D platforming and fast-paced action. There’s a lot to be said about games that just let you get on with the game and just play – and Sonic the Hedgehog is such an accessible game that jumping in is a total cinch.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE SCENE: As it should be – the ending sequence.
Sonic 4 is simply gorgeous. SEGA has brought the 2D games bang-up to present-day, and although the 16-bit sprites had a bit more charm to them, you’ll still be able to appreciate the detailed locales and intricate designs implemented here. With 3D models, special effects such as card-based paths looping in and out of the screen, and traditional items such as pinball bumpers and loop-de-loops covered in foliage, Sonic 4 does what the original Sonic the Hedgehog did in 1991 – create a graphical presentation that can truly wow kids.
All that being said, there’s something of an obvious pattern when it comes to the design of Sonic 4 – it’s not entirely original. In fact, it could be argued that it’s not original at all. Each of the four major zones (and the concept of the Special Stages) are re-imaginations of levels already seen in the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The multi-tiered and engaging level design helps break the argument that this is but a mere rehash, but it is fair to say that this initial episode does feel more like an homage rather than a true sequel. Maybe some fresh ideas for the next episode, SEGA?
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up
FAVOURITE BIT: The all-too familiar looking Splash Hill going from daylight to sunset.
When you think of the music behind classic Mega Drive Sonic games, one of the most distinctive elements you would pick out would be Masato Nakamura’s deft use of percussion. Jun Senoue, a veteran who has been involved with the series’ soundtrack ever since Sonic 3, has tried to replicate that to mixed success. Oftentimes the background music sounds like there’s a 16-bit woodpecker knocking against your head. At other times, tunes are barely memorable – try humming a Sonic 4 song two hours after playing it.
There are some blinding gems that show Senoue’s skill, like the pumping theme to Mad Gear or the absolutely delightful Act 3 music to Splash Hill Zone. But we all know what the man’s capable of when given a Mega Drive – 1996’s Sonic 3D Flickies’ Island is testament to that. Ultimately, I can see exactly what Senoue was going for here – it’s just a shame that the overall result is a bit hit-and-miss.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Splash Hill Zone Act 3, Mad Gear Zone Act 1
This really is the heart of the debate – whether you rate Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 as a good or bad game depends entirely on what you perceive the game to be (ignoring SEGA’s constant marketing natter about ‘back to the classics, fo’ real homes’). Do you focus more on what the game should be, or what it really is? Here’s my take – Sonic 4 is a lot of fun. With some caveats.
When you start playing the game, a lot of the hangups in the physics department appear glaringly obvious – and if they don’t, then you’ll be blitzing through the first few stages thinking subconsciously that something isn’t right with this picture. As it turns out, Sonic Team (for whatever reason) did not decide to build on the Mega Drive codebase but instead created as close enough a replication as it could. For some, the bits it got wrong are a deal-breaker.
Jump to the side and let go of the analogue stick/D-pad, and rather than letting momentum take its course, Sonic stops moving and drops in a vertical line. Closer inspection shows that the same is true for other midair activities, such as being shot out of a cannon. Elsewhere, the game doesn’t seem to encourage the use of the spin attack because every time you use it, you slow to a crawl. Even on the Casino Street half-pipes – where in classic Sonic games, spin-attacking would actually make you go faster than running, the opposite is true in Sonic 4. For those used to the physics of the originals, it’s baffling.
But if you stick with the game, you’ll get used to those setbacks and enjoy the game for the short, enjoyable ride it otherwise provides. Running around curves and bouncing off of badniks really takes you back to those halcyon days sitting in front of a Mega Drive as a kid. The level design – multiple tiers and with several routes for time-attacking – is a triumph compared to those found in recent 2D Sonics.
And the sole addition to the blue blur’s attack roster, the homing attack, is far from a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card, but instead offers access to alternate paths and feels just as natural as a classic power-up should. Sonic 4 is a game that divides opinion like no other – just as I feel there is a lot of fun and gameplay worth to the game despite its setbacks, others may feel that the physics is enough to fail the game entirely. The strange thing is, both opinions are correct.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Up (Your Mileage May Vary)
FAVOURITE PART: Running like a madman to escape the chaos in Mad Gear Act 3.
You won’t really get a lot of bang for your buck here – you’re buying entirely into the nostalgia trip that you may (or may not) receive when Sonic 4: Episode 1 first loads up. To compare the number of zones to past Mega Drive games is silly – Sonic the Hedgehog came out in 1991 with six zones for around £40. When you consider you’re only losing two for a tenner that’s not so bad.
What can’t be argued is that you can easily beat Sonic 4: Episode 1 in the space of an hour or so (minus chaos emeralds – it will take you an extra couple of hours to grab them). When there are other premium games on downloadable services commanding at least four times that for about £2 less, you start to ask a question or two as to whether the longevity is value for money. It will be interesting to see how that might change if it has the ability to ‘lock on’ with future episodes, however.
JUDGEMENT: Thumbs Down
FAVOURITE TIME-WASTER: Time-attacking – the homing attack has some nice uses in speed running.
+ The sublime level design.
+ All of the beautiful backdrops.
+ A fresh challenge, wrapped in a familiar setting.
+ That you can still have fun despite its drawbacks.
+ The homing attack. Yeah, I said it.
– The rather naff jump and spin physics.
– A rather forgettable soundtrack.
– That it’s over far too quickly for your money.
– It’s more of an homage than a fully-blown sequel.
– One or two gimmick-specific stages.
NOTE: A score was not given at time of original publication. To align with our 5-star rating system (introduced in 2022), we have given it a posthumous grade that best represents the original intent and sentiment of the overall article. This is not a re-scoring of this review.