Review by David Newton
"It's the latest sequel alive"
I went back and forth on Sonic 4 more times than you would reasonably expect given its short playing time. It's being billed as "Episode 1" of a game of as yet unknown length, and in this first instalment you have to guide the smug little blue fellow over sixteen levels spread across four different types in his everlasting quest to free the animals from Jamie Hyneman and his moustache.
Games have now reached the age where nostalgia service is possible in them - from the start, when the chorus of "SE-GAAAA" booms out followed by the Megadrive-styled music accompanying the scrolling sea and wings logo on the title screen, this is taking great care to play in to memories of how amazing it was to see four-way scrolling levels speeding by on the Megadrive. Start it up and you're given a classic flying-text transition into <strike>Green</strike> <strike>Emerald</strike> Splash Hill, populated with all the oddly rotating flowers, inexplicably chequered mountains and metallic enemies that you remember.
Then you start moving, and it all goes a bit wonky. The sense of momentum is... completely different from what you would expect, being able to stop much more quickly than before even in mid-air. Arguably this is to make the controls tighter, which you rather need on some of the more difficult platforming sections, but it really feels hopelessly off when you first start it up. It's easy to overlook just how complex the Sonic physics are compared to more standard platform games, but the morbidly insane fangame community for it has produced movement more true to the original with MMF2 (and with no technical support either, seeing as 99% of them pirate it). You get sort of used to it after a while, but it still feels slightly like a more standard platform game that happens to have Sonic models in it - especially as they now seem to enjoy putting you in more self-contained almost puzzlish rooms that can take a long time to get through (the average level time is about five minutes now, as opposed to 1 or 2).
You can't rely on your spin attack to get you through, either - instead of being in it whenever you're in the air, springs will cancel your spin, along with several other obstacles, so you really have to watch what you're doing. In a sort of attempt to make up for it, you're given a homing attack that makes an attempt to zoom to the nearest enemy on-screen if you press Jump again when you're in the air, but apart from the obvious chains of enemies that are used as a new way of getting around the levels, it isn't often completely reliable.
I was mostly undecided on how innovative the game was being - the balance that it has between taking things wholesale from the earlier games to please the fans, and introducing new elements. At first I thought that they were ripping off earlier levels' styles too much - the zones are roughly analogous to Green Hill, Labyrinth, Casino Night and Metropolis, and at first I thought that they had over-got the message from their recent failures to make anything enjoyable and were sticking a bit too closely to what had come before. Then, after a while, I realized that they were following a pattern of staying in "classic mode" for the first level of each zone, and then adding new ideas for the last two - every level is now more or less based around one specific type of obstacle, which feels ironically Mario-like sometimes.
As for other things, the music starts off well like I mentioned above, with a sort-of emulation of the Megadrive's style on the title screen. The in-game stuff never quite reaches the same simple catchiness of the first few games, though, and once I had noticed the uncanny resemblance of one of the phrases of the casino levels' music to The Internet Is For Porn from Avenue Q, I could never un-notice it. I dreaded the water levels (all acts now have names, and one in Lost Labyrinth is something along the lines of "Escape from the Water Temple"), but they've actually come up with something even more stressful than those in the form of crushing wall sections, which require twitch reactions to avoid getting stuck and can go on for what seems like ages. The special stages are Sonic 1's, with the twist that you now control the rotation of the maze instead of trying to bounce around inside it - control problems therefore rear their tentacles again here because you feel that pressing a direction should send you the opposite way from where you actually ping off to when you do so, but I was able to successfully get around them by the method of holding the controller upside-down for the duration of the levels.
Eventually, the question of whether this level of innovation was good or not was answered for me in the form of the game bosses. It's obvious where the inspiration for them all came from, but they at least tried to add new phases to them in the main game - however, once you've finished all of those, you go to the obligatory space level, and are given a last challenge in the form of just having to defeat every single sodding one of them in a row again. Then you eventually get to the end of the space station - are you going to be given something new as a grand finale? No, it's just the horribly annoying boss from Sonic 2 again, with the number of hits he takes ramped up to about fifty.
I suppose that if this had more new ideas in it, it would feel more like a welcome attempt at a nostalgia-laden sequel. Instead it feels slightly like a flawed remake - a game that we've all played before, except done slightly less well.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 10/18/10
Game Release: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (US, 10/12/10)
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