Review by Gameboyguru
"All right, Sonic. You've got my attention."
Hyped up, down, all around, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 promised to be a return to form for the estranged franchise. Does the game live up to the positive hype? Sadly, no. Does it live up to the anti-hype? Not quite THERE, either.
Up front, the people in charge of this project said that they were going to listen to fan feedback and apply it in future episodes. I hope they weren't lying through their teeth when they said this. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 is full of old habits that Sonic Team and Dimps need to deal with in order to create a great game. There is a whole lot of potential contained in this game, and not everybody is patient enough to see it.
There is no applicable score because there is no real plot to grade. After the fall of the Death Egg in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Sonic and his friends return home to relax. Unfortunately, Eggman returns with some rehashed machines to end Sonic once and for all. Cut and print.
There ARE some fun little immersion touches, such as the clear homage in design for every zone and the way Eggman looks at the camera during boss fights. In the end, the plot is as thin as an old-school Sonic game's should be. If I had to attribute some feeling to the way this game presents itself, I would call it positive overall.
I found this to be a very pretty game. Everything is nice and colorful and I was only distracted by the 2.5D for only so long. As long as I'm able to get into the game without constantly pausing to gawk at the 3D-textured graphics, then it's all good.
Designs, however are all mostly borrowed. The stage's themes and aesthetic all borrow from the previous Sonic games without offering anything new. Badnik enemies range from directly lifting from the old-school to owing too much to the new-school and looking out of place. When all is said and done, this lack of originality is overall harmless and forgivable.
In one word: Derivative. Sounds such as collecting rings, jumping, hitting bumpers, and busting badniks are lifted directly from the old-school Sonic, which is expected. The real subject of gossip is Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1's music.
I, for one, found nothing necessarily WRONG with this game's music. If you play through to the game once and only once, then sure, it's easy to roll your eyes and scoff at how these themes sound too much like tracks from Sonic's past. If you give the various level tunes a chance, though, you'll find that they stand on their own. When I gave the game several runs through, I actually found that the tracks stuck with me. I just couldn't shake that feeling that these tracks, like much of this game, ride on the coattails of Sonic's past star power. I CAN imagine these tracks getting fan remixes, and that counts for something.
The funny thing about playing on the Wii is that apparently this version of Sonic 4 Ep 1 uses Midi music instead of the intended tracks. The more simplistic result actually ends up sounding more like authentic Genesis music instead of 'real' music paying tribute. I'm a sucker for old-school, so it worked for me.
If Sonic Team just dug into the vault, grabbed the physics out of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and put them in for this game, I believe nobody would have complained. That would have been a matter of consistency over rehashing. Unfortunately, the creators of Sonic 4 Episode 1 opted for something more closely to what we've seen in the Rush series.
First and foremost, it IS a solid control scheme. Since this game is a sidescrolling platformer, you move with the D-pad, jump with 2, and are able to pull off a homing attack if you hit 2 while in the air. Actually getting Sonic to do things is fine, but I have to question some physics calls.
Right when I started the game, I noticed Sonic did not keep momentum when he jumps. That means if you were running along at a high speed, jump, and let go of the d-pad, then Sonic will stop moving forward and just go up and down. If you're trying to play this game the same as a Genesis classic, this will stop you right here. In the grand scheme of things, this design decision is different rather than inferior, but I just can't get over it. Favoring absolute control when jumping is something I expect from other platform games, but not Sonic.
Let's start with the good, shall we? Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 is a step in the right direction. The game is far from a return to form, but I saw an honest effort contained in this game. Misguided, but honest.
Stages are selected from a menu, but in a brilliant move, this game allows you to opt to start from one stage and immediately start the next in the sequence. Thus, the artificial feeling you get from selecting each stage before you start can be skipped over. Options are nice.
Unlike every Sonic game since Secret Rings, this game makes a noticeable effort to contain an element of exploration. The stages are bigger and multilayered with branching paths to several degrees. In execution, it's a very simple choice of going to one controlled path or the other, often with some quick reflex as the deciding factor. I refer to this sort of thing as falling into old habits.
Though Sonic Team and Dimps want to improve the Sonic experience, they keep things which make Sonic stagnant and subject to ridicule. This includes inconsistent physics that's riddled with bugs, tacked-on gimmicks which add nothing to the core gameplay, and action stages which are far too linear to be considered good game design. When I feel like I'm merely going through the motions of getting from point A to point B in a game, the game plays more like a series of extended quick-time events instead of an open platformer with experiences unique to every player.
That said, Sonic 4 Ep 1 does indeed fall into these old habits. The controlled paths are still there, the physics, which I have gone over, are ill fitting for the 2D speed-focused experience, and gimmicks are present in abundance.
Shortly into the game, you're expected to swing from vines to reach a higher platform and continue on. This isn't one of those branching paths; you MUST swing correctly in order to continue with the level. This mechanic was extremely unforgiving and took me significant amounts of time and frustration to finally get right. Even on successive plays through this game, I just couldn't breeze through that level without getting hung up on those vines for minutes on end. It might sound like a minor gripe, but it's this sort of halting game design that can turn a player on the game quickly. When the game focuses on gimmicks that add to the speed aspect, such as riding a mine cart or trying to keep on top of a rolling boulder, I actually had some fun. When presented with a cryptic puzzle or being sent back to the bottom of a vertical shaft, not so much.
Of all the things that came out of the new-school, the homing attack circa Sonic Adventure actually does feel like it adds to the old-school formula. A quick boost to get yourself at top speed faster and a means of getting a little more air out of your jump complement the high-flying acrobatics of the Genesis Sonic games well. If Sonic Team and Dimps took more effort to use this mechanic as a movement skill, I'd call this a perfect fit.
And now... the truly bad. What is the deal with the camera!? Everything is HUGE! There is no reason for the graphics to be this enormous. It's as if this game were designed with a pulled-out camera in mind, but somebody wanted us to see the little details on all the 3D models and demanded the camera be zoomed in almost up Sonic's nose. Did the stages look too small with the camera pulled back? Did the graphics look ugly? I can honestly say that any aesthetic reason for shoving the camera in so close is moot when it results in taking damage because I couldn't see an incoming enemy or hazard before it was too late.
Secondly, if Sonic Team and Dimps aimed to return Sonic to his old-school roots, why is the Spin-Dash so terribly nerfed? In the early Sonic, if you crouched and hit jump, you would rev up and take off at speeds uncontrollably fast. You'd go from start until you hit something or went so far you ran out of steam. In Sonic 4 Ep 1, the Spin dash has almost no practical use. Sonic can easily run up steep inclines and momentum can be easily achieved with a homing attack to start. By contrast, the Spin Dash starts fast, but has a TON of friction and begins halting almost immediately.
Taking this into account, add to the fact that Sonic can only damage enemies when balled up. After a homing attack and running while in ball form, Sonic automatically un-balls and continues his drop vulnerable. I LOVED taking off into the air in spinball form and bashing apart some unfortunately placed enemy. In this game, that doesn't happen so much. In fact, I'm more likely to spring out of a controlled run and take damage from an enemy I was somehow supposed to know to use the homing attack on. Upon going back, I tried the jump again and just could not nail down that timing because I could not see the enemy because the camera is so close!
To sum up, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 afraid to take risks. Sonic's physics are far too conservative and the stage design gets too controlled in some parts. I just thank GOODNESS that there are no ranks in this game. That move by itself shows a lot of maturity on Sonic Team's and Dimps's parts. Without that crutch, the game will have to be good to be replayable.
In true old-school Sonic fashion, there are special stages fashioned after the ones from the first Sonic game for the Genesis. In a bizarre twist, these special stages throw something welcome, genuinely challenging, and original into the mix! In this stages, you rotate the stage instead of moving Sonic. You collect rings to open doors to get closer to grabbing that emerald. Sonic is WAY too bouncy in these special stages, but not too much to work around. If Sonic Team and Dimps rehash these special stages for Episode 2, I'd tone down the bounciness. Likewise in that Sonic fashion, these special stages can get pretty darn hard. Suddenly, the ability to select stages from a menu, allowing you to try a stage again, seems even better. It all pays off, though, because collecting the seven Chaos Emeralds grants you some AWESOME post-game content that makes replaying all the more satisfying. To long-time fans, this shouldn't be too much of a surprise.
Is this game replayable? I think it is; very replayable, in fact. Once you get a little feel for the stages and FINALLY get over how Sonic controls, I can see this being a little side game that anybody can go back to and have a little bit of fun. For $15 via WiiWare, this game is worth a download.
HOWEVER, Sonic Team and Dimps should not claim victory yet. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 is merely a step in the right direction. You made a decent game, guys. Now let's see if you all make good on your word to listen to fan feedback to make Episode 2 and beyond even better.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 10/18/10
Game Release: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (US, 10/11/10)
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