Sonic the Hedgehog holds a special place in my gamer’s heart. The first game I ever owned was Sonic 2, which came packed in with my Sega Genesis. 18 years ago, I zipped past the loop-de-loops in the Emerald Hill Zone and stared in awe at the sparkling lakeside in the background. I sat dumbfounded at the carnage the mechanical deathtrap known as the Metropolis Zone wreaked on my life count. And I relished every Dr. Robotnik (who answers to “Eggman” these days) encounter with the same excitement that Saturday morning cartoons brought to a youth’s imagination.
Fast-forward to 2010, and things are different indeed. Sega’s console dynasty, headed by Sonic and his masterful platformers on the Genesis, is long gone. The blue rodent’s high-budget 3-D games have had mixed results at best, with the occasional disaster that few franchises could ever recover from. With that in mind, Sonic Team and Dimps – designers of Sonic’s handheld “Rush” series – have come together to create Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. It’s the first part of what hopes to be a grand return to the series’ salad days.
Sonic 4.1 contains four zones, each with three full levels (“acts” in Sonic nomenclature) and a separate boss battle with Dr. Eggman. Just like the old Genesis games, you’re whisked away to the first level, Splash Hill, without any overwrought storylines involving kidnapped princesses or were-hogs. Each zone takes heavy inspiration from the game’s predecessors: Splash Hill is a textbook “first zone” in the vein of Green and Emerald Hill Zones, with loop-de-loops and corkscrew paths running you through the verdant seaside landscape. Casino Park is basically an up-rezzed version of fan favourite Casino Night, with slot machines and pinball bumpers. Lost Labyrinth mirrors Sonic 1’s Labyrinth Zone, with underwater sections and sadistic traps. And the Mad Gear Zone (sorry, Mayor Haggar!) is a re-deco of the Metropolis Zone. Rounding out the retro recalls is the Special Stage from Sonic 1, where you navigate Sonic through a psychedelic maze of pulsating crystals and bumpers to find the Chaos Emeralds.
From a visual perspective, Sonic 4.1 is more of a copycat than any of the previous 2-D Sonic outings. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since everything has been recreated in mostly beautiful and very shiny high definition. Casino Park has undergone the most extensive makeover, and the work is painfully noticeable compared to the other three: the area just looks gaudier than it ever has, with Caesar’s Palace-style stone pillars and an unending cityscape of hotels and casinos, lit up against an eerily serene night sky. Sonic’s 3-D model is full of personality, without any obnoxious dialogue from the recent games or cartoon series. If more work were put into enriching the other levels, rather than just translating them, the visual upgrade would be perfect, rather than adequate.
The music is impressive, with upbeat tunes that reflect the character of the levels they accompany, although Eggman’s boss theme is startlingly hokey. The sound effects are all intact and unchanged from the past, just like Mario’s jump and coins – as they should be.
Already, the gameplay and physics of Sonic 4: Episode 1 has becomes the subject of copious online arguments. Sonic has all of his basic moves – his jumping spin attack, his Spin Dash which allows him to charge up for an offensive burst, and his homing attack from the 3-D titles. The homing attack actually works better than many could have hoped, as the levels are built around homing into enemies or launch springs at a fairly regular pace. The enemy or item placement is usually spot-on, although the few places that throw you into enemies without proper warning will irk players the first time through.
The most troubling thing, though, is that Sonic has virtually no forward momentum while in the air without player input. If you jump forward, you have to hold right or left on the directional pad or analog stick to move – if you let go for any reason, Sonic drops straight down like a pile of blue, needly bricks. It even works if you are barrelling down a slope at a ridiculous speed: just jump up, and you will fall straight down. From a real-world physics perspective, it makes no sense whatsoever, but thankfully most of Sonic 4.1’s level design works with it rather than against it. Once you’ve got it down, you shouldn’t be missing any of the springs or landmarks that you’re aiming for.
On the flipside, the slower, puzzle-platforming parts of the levels – a legacy of the original Sonic games for better or worse – are either much easier or much more tedious and difficult. Traversing tiny platforms over a bottomless pit is more of a crapshoot since you now have to pay extra attention on where you want Sonic to land, but environmental hazards like giant boulders in the Lost Labyrinth urge you forward with little headway. These mixed messages become increasingly bothersome as you progress through the game, and by Mad Gear Act 3 you’re playing a horrible guessing game as a huge burrowing wall chases you from behind. You’re never quite sure whether you need to run at full speed to get past a door that’s about to block you from moving forward, or take a methodical approach to traps that will kill you outright for acting in haste.
The final level is a different variety of insult, running you through a boss rush of all of Eggman’s fights you had passed anywhere from an hour to a few minutes ago. It reeks of padding, and then culminates in a redux of Sonic 2’s Egg Walker boss, wielding attacks with variable timing and no indication to the player on when they should prepare to avoid or counter-attack. It’s exceedingly difficult, and never as fun as it should be.
End boss aside, multiple playthroughs of the major zones will yield the player many rewards. Branching paths abound, giving the levels a great sense of scale and place that classic platformers like the Mega Man and Super Mario games never really attempted. The Special Stage, meanwhile, has you rotating the map instead of directly controlling Sonic, either with Wii Remote, PlayStation Sixaxis, or regular input methods. Often you will find yourself bouncing uncontrollably with no idea of what the heck is going on. You can “jump,” but it’s really a pinball board’s tilt function that makes everything shake violently. You can only replay these levels from the level select screen after you’ve passed them and collected the requisite Chaos Emeralds, so until you’ve actually bested them you’re stuck having to enter these stages only by finishing a standard level with 50 rings or more.
What we have here is a game of contradictions. Sonic 4 Episode 1 looks mostly fantastic, its visuals and design harkening to the very best time of the Hedgehog’s chequered past. The few changes, however –bizarre momentum rules and schizophrenic level design– will frustrate with increasing frequency in the second half of the game. That this single episode also runs at $15 is another sticking point. Mega Man 9 and 10 were complete length games for ten dollars, and the recent Scott Pilgrim vs. The World game offered a retro throwback with incredible replay value for the same amount. At 50 per cent more, this doesn’t feel nearly as robust. It may be trite considering the subject matter, but your mileage may vary. Proceed with caution.