Review by Blue Blob
"Whilst not amazing, this is the fan-pleaser SEGA really needed to get out there"
Sonic the Hedgehog 4
Anyone who's into videogames will know that Sega's boss hog hasn't been in good shape lately. The last decade, especially, hasn't been too kind to him (especially if you take into account the absolute disaster that was Sonic 2006). A lot of people theorize that Sonic just wasn't meant for 3D gameplay, which has been prominent in the industry ever since the N64 and PSX blew everyone's minds back in the mid 90's. Although the Dreamcast games were competent and even enjoyable in places, they were still peppered with problems (not just in gameplay but in general ideas - Sonic Adventure 2 essentially only had a third of actual 'Sonic' gameplay) and were the precursor to the navy rodent's downward spiral into mediocrity.
That's not to say that some of the more recent Sonic games weren't worth playing. Sonic Rush was a great revival of the core 2D gameplay with a bigger emphasis on speed, the Sonic Advance games were predictable but at least well programmed, attractive and entertaining, and Sonic Unleashed's main problem was honestly just the 'werehog' gimmick. But amidst these rare diamonds in the rough, the franchise went through endless fan backlash, most likely starting with 2003's failed 'back to the roots' attempt Sonic Heroes. The blue fella was cursed with having 3 great debut titles on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and this set a definite bar for the fans.
After 10 years of bad 3D cameras, gameplay glitches, needless new characters (Big the Cat), bread-and-butter spinoffs (Sonic Riders, Sonic Rivals), a laughable 'dark and mature' game (Shadow the Hedgehog), downright weird storylines (Sonic 2006) and more videogaming atrocities (bad voice acting, tacky gimmicks), the fans were sick and tired. And like most displeased fans, they moaned infinitely about it on internet forums. Sega finally saw this and responded with something their fans had been dreaming about for years: a back-to-the-roots 2D platformer starring Sonic and only Sonic, with no cutscenes, no convoluted story and of course, Dr. Robotnik as the main villain. Not only that, but it would purposefully be a sequel to the Megadrive/Genesis titles. It worked for Mega Man and Mario, so it should work for the icon that is Sonic, surely?
However, were Sega so afraid of disappointing fans that they wouldn't let their new game try anything new and thus actually be pointless as a sequel? Are the stages well designed or just 'hold right and jump to win'? And most importantly, did they actually get the gameplay right? Let's find out.
Sonic 4 is a fast 2D dash n' jump platformer akin to the games that made the blue hog famous (and actually respected) in the first place. It balances speed and platforming well, and the addition of the homing attack from the Dreamcast games is actually surprisingly welcome, enabling you to lock onto enemies and the various stock platfomer objects that litter the corkscrew routes of Sonic's world (item boxes, springs, you know the drill). As mentioned previously, Sonic is the only character available, and thus the stages are tailor made for a streamlined experience suited to his gameplay only (as opposed to more open levels that would cater to his friends Tails and Knuckles).
The game comes with different physics compared to the Megadrive titles, which takes some getting used to but actually works when things get going. The main problem is when they don't work. More often than not, if you're not blazing through a level smoothly and generally having a good time, you'll have frozen to a halt due to getting hit by an enemy, and then be trying to work your way up a hill without the speed to do so. To counter this - and I noticed this a LOT in the first zone - there is an abundance of springs and speedboosts in areas requiring speed to get you back up and going. However, Sonic's signature move, the spindash, provides this anyway, so I don't really see the point. One or the other would have worked to be honest. I mean, this game is targeted at veterans of the franchise, so surely they'd know the spindash's purpose.
Minor problems aside, Sonic 4 plays well. If you've ever played Sonic Rush on the DS (great game, by the way), I'd probably compare it to that more than the original Sonic games - mainly due to the emphasis on speed. Another plus is the game is actually challenging without being completely unfair (even if there are some spike pits that you'll sometimes charge into blindly, but Sonic 2 had plenty of those and nobody complained, right?). I'd say the difficulty starts picking up at the Road of Cards stage and then it gets steadily harder. It's refreshing compared to the absolute cakewalk that was Sonic Advance.
The special stages return, and are fairly similar to the ones found in the very first game. You don't actually control Sonic, rather you control the trippy maze that he's encapsulated in. You can do this either by tilting the Wiimote or just using the pad (the latter option being much less likely to cause a tantrum). Whilst challenging, I'd rather have seen a new idea for the special stage.
However, whilst Sonic 4 doesn't really do anything wrong - following the original games' philosophy down to the very last loop-de-loop - it doesn't really try anything new either. There's nothing here that you haven't seen before, down to most of the enemies and the zone themes (tropical, casino, ruins, Robotnik base). Whilst 'trying something new' doesn't mean you have to add a horribly lame gimmick such as guns or a werewolf alter-ego, it would have been nice to have at least an element that would make Sonic 4 come off as a genuine sequel rather than a crowd-pleasing tribute. If anything, Sega played it a little too safe.
You're a blue bipedal cartoon hedgehog named Sonic. You're really fast. An obese mad scientist is turning your friends into robots and wants to take over the world. Stop him. This is all the story that Sonic has ever needed, and I'm glad they've ended up going back to it instead of barraging us with a million cutscenes after a stage. As if Sonic ever needed an excuse to blitz through a stage, right?
Sega had two options when they had to determine how this game looked: make it look purposefully dated like Capcom did with MegaMan 9, or simply make the prettiest 2D game you could with all the power now available in 2010. To my surprise, they actually went with the second option, and Sonic 4 actually does look pretty great, especially for a download title. The lush greens of the stock 'tropical paradise' zone are now buffed with detailed palm trees and the casino stage is absolutely jam packed with detail, sometimes becoming almost dizzyingly busy with its torrent of neon lights and the endless rows of skyscrapers in the background. The character models are clean and vibrant enough to stick out from the backgrounds and Sonic himself is well animated. No complaints.
There is no voice acting. Thank God. Sonic 4 retains all the usual beeps and blips from the franchise's sound effects library and it all sounds pleasingly retro. The music isn't as catchy or cool as most Sonic music, but it definitely has an 'old Sega' vibe to it, especially with the drum samples used for the intro of each track. My only complaint really is that the music repeats too often, but other than that it does its job and never really annoys (unlike the music in New Super Mario Bros Wii).
Whilst Sonic 4 may have pandered to the fans a little too much and doesn't offer anything particularly new, its freshness is found more in the fact that we have a good Sonic game again! With Sonic Colours getting great reviews from critics, this might mean a comeback is on the cards for the spikey punk hedgehog - or at least, temporarily. If you like Sonic, get this - but more importantly, if you LIKED Sonic, definitely get this.
+Shows a lot of promise
+None of the elements that weighed down recent Sonics
-Physics mean that sometimes you'll come to a complete halt
-Nothing that makes it stand out amongst its prequels
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 10/20/10
Game Release: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (EU, 10/15/10)
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