Sonic is dead. He’s been dead for a long time now – depending on your nostalgic recollection of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, either 12 years or 16 (when Sonic and Knuckles came out, and the badical Echidna tolled for things to come) but like a bad horror cliché he’s
returned, undead, countless times over the years.
Still, every good franchise has to come to an end eventually – and so too must the bad ones. Sonic 4 is the final nail in the little blue hedgehog’s coffin – it’s the definitive proof that even if they wanted to, the Sonic Team still couldn’t make a decent platformer.
The horror cliché is quite apt, really. On the face of things, Sonic 4: Episode 1 looks and even sounds a little like a real Sonic game. At the start of some of the best supernatural thrillers, that’s how you know something’s wrong. People get sucked in – they believe everything is fine, but there’s something a little bit different about this reality. Something not quite right.
It always gets a few people – the first to die. The people who want to believe things are real so much that they do so, at the cost of their own lives. In the same manner, some people will believe Sonic 4 is the game they knew and loved – a true sequel to the series.
A little keen observation and things aren’t as they appear. Leap from a ledge at Sonic speed and let go and you’ll notice that Sonic drops like a rock. The complex eight bit hardware of the Sega Master System II found itself capable of rendering a physics engine in compliance with Newton’s laws of physics, but apparently that same physics engine proved impossible for the Xbox 360, as Sonic lacks inertia. What this means is instead of a fluid jumping right (and occasionally left) experience you constantly wrestle with making our speedy little hero go the direction you want him to.
You’re already fighting to get him to do what you want him to – Sonic seems to take suggestions, not directions as he traverses four levels which are suspiciously similar to levels he’s navigated before. It takes time for Sonic to start doing what you want him to do – there’s a feeling similar to mouse lag where he will delay for a small amount of time before acting.
This isn’t helped by the game’s use of the analog stick instead of the dpad. While other platformers allow some give for the player to hold their thumbstick at a 110-120 degree angle (think 4 on a clock) it’s not unusual to find this causes Sonic to duck or drop into his familiar spin. For the record, you can use the dpad - but not in every case. Try swinging from a vine in the second level with the dpad to see what I mean.
For those not in the know – younger gamers who think Sonic has something to do with Olympics, Dragon Ball Z plotted RPGs or cart racing – Sonic 4 is a platformer in the traditional sense. The focus is on getting to the end of the level as quickly as possible – and so a lot of the challenge in Sonic 4 comes from trial and error gameplay.
The game is designed to cause you to fail while you learn the nuances of where to go and what to do. The challenge traditionally was in the way the game gave you only a set number of lives – after which you’d have to start over. Sonic 4 doesn’t have this challenge – if you lose all your lives you’re forced to continue, but in reality you need never fail as you can replay any level over and over again.
And the first level of the game is easily finished in about 3 minutes, and you should be able to pick up at least three lives each time you do it. Easily. Instead the challenge in Sonic 4 is in not having to suffer the inconvenience of having to play through other parts of a level again. Protip – if the only punishment in your game involves your levels being an inconvenience, you’ve made a mistake at some point. Not in the game. Career wise. You should be designing Online Banking Fraud systems.
The graphics are good enough, though Sonic looks weird. He looks like he’s made out of Bucatini, a gangly idiot with a shock of blue hair and an attitude which might place him better at a concert for My Chemical Romance or something.
The sound too fails to capture the magic of Green Hill Zone or Casino Night Zone – but it’s fair to say the game had gotten me way offside much earlier – perhaps if the actual gameplay was good the repetitive chiptune music on loop as you play each zone might have been as charming as the songs of yore. Probably not.
You might think I’m too close to Sonic – I want Sonic 4 to be good too much – and that it has affected my objectivity. That the reality of the situation is that Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a competent, if not great platformer with room for improvement, but still fun anyway. You’re wrong. Platformers shouldn’t have half-arsed interpretations of physics. They shouldn’t have a continue system which is for all intents and purposes simply an inconvenience generator. To quote Supernatural - 'What's dead should stay dead... didn't you see Pet Semetary?' Well Sonic Team? Didn't you?
After 16 years, SEGA finally decides to make another numbered Sonic title. The demands of the gaming press (no, not the fans, the press) made them subtract all the alternate playstyles, as well as make the game 2.5D. Sonic 4: Episode 1's biggest flaw is that they called it Sonic 4: Episode 1. If it was called another name, like Sonic DL (it's working title), it would have been better. The gameplay is solid on it's own, but pales to the originals and recent titles such as Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations. The controls are simple enough to get a casual gamer hooked. The gameplay relies on the homing attack added in Sonic Adventure, where you use it to attack Bubbles (this game's equivalent to the Goomba, who does absolutely nothing). Boost panels are frequent, unlike the classics. There are glitches everywhere, the worst of which are sticking to walls and losing ball form the instant you attack an enemy. The graphics are beautiful, but the cel-shading is annoying, and Sonic doesn't look as cute as he originally did. Nor does Robotnik, referred to by his Japanese name of Eggman. Each of the bosses is based on an old boss, but after a few hits, takes on some new attacks, sometimes changing to an entirely different boss. In particular, the final boss turns into 6 different forms! (although only one is new, sadly.) Each stage, while looking similar to a classic stage, has it's own original gimmicks, except for Splash Hill, which is pretty much just Green Hill, Emerald Hill, and Angel Island all over again. The best zone is Casino Street, which should have made it into Generations. Many of these levels are much harder than in other Sonic games, like Lost Labyrinth's titling sections and torch puzzles and Mad Gear's turbines. The music is memorable but somewhat grating, and sounds primitive and creepy. Overall, this game is a decent effort, but pales compared to the original titles and Colors and onward. Now the game is 800 points on the Xbox live arcade, so it is worth a look, although not as much as Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations.
Was looking forward to this game, thinking maybe it could even be better than Sonic CD.. however.. not even close. I could not have fun playing this game with the physics so so wrong. There was a point on the casino level I was stuck and to get out, charging up my zoom and shooting up the hill woudln't work, but if I just ran up the hill i could reach the top.. that doesn't make sense to me. All in all.. very disappointed in Episode 1, hope Episode 2 is nothing like this one.