Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode I
With sequels come expectations. A new FIFA, for example, should sprinkle innovation upon a canvas that remains familiar. A numbered Final Fantasy must be the beacon for other J-RPGS to duly chase.
But what of a game that's a sequel to something released 16 years ago? What of a game that boldly derails itself from a line of appalling releases, instead daring to align with three games so revered they are considered distinct to the subsequent filth that dared to share their name?
What exactly are Sonic fans expecting of a game with a 4 in its name?
Sonics 1, 2 and 3 were truly great platformers. They defined a console and a generation, and through them Sega showed that video games could have personality - and buckets of it, thank you kindly.
Sonic fans, therefore, are simply expecting greatness of Sonic 4. They want a game that will erase 16 years of furry friends and 3D fumbling. And by making it numbered, Sonic Team is all but proclaiming Sonic 4 to be the game that will finally live up to the hedgehog's now hallowed first footsteps.
Yet, speaking as a fan of the blue critter despite his recent endeavours, I have to admit that at this stage I will happily settle for Sonic 4 just being good. Heck, right now I'd even take 'not bad'.
Thankfully, Sonic 4 Episode 1 is definitely not bad. It's even quite good. Is it great? No, it is not.
Firstly, Episode 1 plays things too safe. The game's four zones are all aesthetically based on previous series entries. Splash Hill Zone is brimming over with the opening greenery of Sonics 1 and 2. Meanwhile, the Mad Gear Zone is a patent HD spruce-up of Sonic 2's Metropolis Zone.
That's all fine, really - nothing wrong with nostalgia. Unfortunately, Episode 1 is so true to its inspirations that it gets severely close to feeling like a rehash, a great shame considering the early Sonics stood out because their visual designs were genuinely imaginative. Later episodes should bring newer looks to Sonic 4, but that doesn't excuse the debut episode failing to bring any.
Regardless, the artistry of Episode 1 is something of a mixed bag. The base animations are particularly lacking, with Sonic himself the epitome. He moves stiffly, mechanical and soulless. Even his foot-tapping animation has somehow transformed from cool to haughtily detached.
Furthermore, Sonic is oddly distinct from the foreground, maybe suffering for extravagant texture work. Certain zones also suffer for being too busy. The Casino Streets Zone has lots going on in both foreground and background, but its neon lights clash with the dull palette of the buildings.
When all these negative touches come together it can be a turn-off. Add in the music and in Casino Streets you have a zone that isn't fun either to look at or listen to. The zone's Act 1 music clearly plays on the flashy Casino Nights theme of Sonic 2, but it sits so uneasily between re-imagination and referential that it lacks any identity whatsoever. Besides, it just sounds tacky, more like it's been beaten to death with a mallet than gently guided through a synthesizer.
Players, however, who can disregard nostalgic misgivings or have none to disregard will actually find Sonic 4 Episode 1 a lot of fun. There is some decent play to be enjoyed here - I know, I'm as shocked as you. Even weirder, what makes Episode 1 tick so nicely is the one thing I had the most reservation about; the 3D Sonic elephant in the 2D Sonic room. Yes, I'm talking about the homing attack.
The argument against the homing attack is that it makes things too easy by extracting all challenge from timing leaps through enemies. Well, the news is that Episode 1 is wholly elementary anyway. Not only does the game stick to the familiar formula of springs, slides, and loop-de-loops, but it inundates you with rings and power-ups throughout. A decent player will be finishing most levels with a century of rings at least, while the Achievement for attaining 99 lives is basically free points. Besides, the (very useful) level select screen ensures you don't have to complete the game in one go.
No, completing Episode 1 is about the ride, not the challenge, and the basic 2D Sonic play remains fun enough in full left-to-right flow. Challenge instead comes from shaving seconds off your time in Score and Time Attack Modes, and it's there where the homing attack's beauty shines the brightest. Or, to be more specific, the mid-air boost of the homing attack.
By pressing the jump button mid-leap, you can gain the forward thrust of Sonic's homing attack even without an enemy in sight. This is easy enough to pull off, but mastering when and how to use it is where skill comes into play. Like the Sonics before it, Episode 1 has multiple routes to take through a level, some quicker than others. In Episode 1, however, reaching some of these routes requires total mastery of the mid-air boost. Add in the speed of Super Sonic and things get very interesting.
Splash Hill Zone Act 1 shows this off to great effect. At first it seems yet another blue-and-green Sonic opener, but upon closer inspection it's a Metroid-like labyrinth. Platforms start to require finely timed Super Sonic jumps and subsequent boosts. Reaching that spring that second faster soon becomes an exercise of need, especially with friends' leaderboards egging you on. As with any speed run game, the more you invest in Episode 1 the more fun (and frustration) you'll get out of it.
The homing attack does take some getting used to, though, as do a lot of the hedgehog's new characteristics. He's slower off the mark, his momentum isn't as smooth, and if there's a bumper or spring involved his jumping can feel downright weird. What he remains, however, is consistent, and that's enough for me. Besides, with the visual design harking so closely to Sonic of old, isn't it better that something about Sonic 4 is actually different?
There remains room for improvement, though, even beyond the drab artistry. The failure to implement something as instilled in the online space as the friend-in-front marker, or even your own time to beat, displays ignorance. Also, acts that break the Sonic platforming formula are far too rare.
The second act of Lost Labyrinth Zone is a definite highlight in that regard. Sonic has to make his way through an underground cave with only the dim light of a torch to help. It isn't revolutionary but it does bring something else to the play, and more twists like it would be welcome in future episodes.
It is easy to get caught up in semantics. While I don't think Sonic 4 Episode 1 lives up to the number beside its name, the game remains a lot of fun. It's often quite ugly fun that grates on the ears a bit like a bad tribute act, but nonetheless a lot of fun. The price point is more than cheeky for what is a short two hours from start to finish, but there's a sinkhole of life to be lost to Time and Score Attack Modes. So, despite my profuse nostalgic misgivings, here I am closing off an approving Sonic review. I can scarcely believe it. My world is as upside-down as Sonic halfway through a loop-de-loop.