Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1

Sonic games have had a rough path since their glory days. They've endured reboots, the loss of most of the original team, and rapidly seesawed from good solid fun to abysmal exercise in futility with each release. Sega's once crown jewel has rapidly become one of the industries largest whipping boys, and if it wasn't for the blue spiky hedgehogs die-hard fanbase (as conflicted as they are) Sega may have already given up on their hero.

But that fanbase is pretty resilient, resolutely purchasing even terrible titles to keep their favorite mascot afloat, which is more then can be said for most other fanbases (did anyone ever buy Mario is Missing? Didn't think so). And so, driven by an ever demanding fanbase and increasing pressure from media outlets, Sega once again has "rebuilt" their Sonic franchise, starting by taking Sonic all the way back to his roots with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, the official sequel to one of the most celebrated Sonic titles of all time, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, and finishing this year with the soon to be released Sonic Colors. Sonic 4 has been out for a while now (and I truly apologize for missing the launch day review boat), but it's fallen to conflicting opinions. Is Sonic 4 the true return to its roots that it claims to be? Does it live up to years of faithful expectation? The answer is more complicated then you might think.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Developer: Sega/Dimps
Publisher: Sega
Type: Platformer
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Platform: X-box 360 (Reviewed), PS3, Wii, iPhone
Price on Amazon: $14.99
Similar Games: Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic Rush
Demo Available: No

Dr. Eggman (or Robotnik, whichever you prefer) is once again in dire straits. His gigantic fortress, the Death Egg, has been blown to bits. He's lost the Master Emerald as well as most of his army, and it's all thanks primarily to a certain blue hedgehog. What's a mad scientist to do? Re-evaluate of course! Piecing together the scraps of his forces and taking a few of his favorite older designs back to the drawing table, Eggman puts together a series of redesigned machines to the test. The goal? To see just how well they will perform against Sonic the Hedgehog!

This is the premise of Sonic 4 in a nutshell, at least so far. You see this is only Episode 1. Sega has plans for (so they say) three more episodes, each adding something new to the mix. This is both bad and good, because while it gives Sega the opportunity to improve each subsequent episode, we have no guarantee that they'll actually do that.

Sonic 4 is going to be most heavily criticized and lauded for it's gameplay. It gets some things right and it gets some things wrong. When the game was first announced, the games creative director affirmed that it was going to be all about the physics, which was what all the older titles had been about. You would build momentum which was held constantly as you bounced through the environments. Roll downhill, and you would pick up speed. Roll uphill and you would lose speed.

At it's core, Sonic 4 tries it's hardest to emulate this critical part of the older games. For the most part, it succeeds in doing so. You'll find yourself bouncing off of springs, spinning through loops, and hoping up and down platforms in a manner very similar to the original Sonic titles. However, it's only similar. In the old games, the physics were part of the engine, you couldn't take them out. In Sonic 4 however, any "physics" are for the most part, hard coded to specific points of the game, while the actual game itself has much weaker physics. So you'll pick up speed as you run downhill...but only if the developers wanted you to on that hill. It gets the job done, but at the same time feels constrained, because you're not free to play with the physics in whatever way you wish. Instead, you're only free to play with a somewhat limited engine for many moments. Take for example the half-pipes in Casino Street. Like any classic fan, I immediately rolled into a ball as I did when playing Sonic one, rolling back and forth to go higher and higher. Except it didn't work. I actually would lose speed...with the exception of one half pipe where you need to do this...then it suddenly works in a weird way where you can pick up speed on the one side but not on the other.

Quite honestly, this may have had something to do with the early builds of the game being criticized as not having capable physics, but the fix feels broken. Like I said, you'll still have a blast. Most of the time you won't notice it, and you'll find yourself running through corkscrew spins and across bridges. But on occasions when you see something out of reach that you want to get to using an old trick there is no promise that it will work. Fortunately, one area where the physics work strangely well is in the games special stages, which are very retro, but also tricky and new. Even a seasoned Sonic player will take his time beating a few of these. It's odd however that the physics work so well there then, compared to the main game.

The physics have also come with one other strange fluke that is almost a game-breaker (and has been for many) that will take quite some time to get used to. No matter how fast you are going, how long you've been moving that speed, or what kind of momentum you have built up, the moment you let off of the D-pad or thumbstick you come to a complete stop.


It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and until you get used to it, its one of the most infuriating and annoying gameplay problems in the game. You can be flying through the air, sailing at incredible speeds, but if you let off the pad, you will come to a complete stop and drop like a rock, sometimes to your death.

And it will be to your death. Dimps needs to realize that bottomless pits are not a requirement for Sonic titles. Without fail, every single stage has at least one giant bottomless pit at some point or another, many of which you can only cross via a careful homing attack or series of jumps. Until you realize that these pits are usually at the end of the stage, it enforces a no exploration downward attitude a little severely.

Which is a little sad, because there actually is some fun exploration to be had here. The addition of the Homing Attack to the 2D formula (which some have decried) isn't bad, and you'll often make use of it to get at those hard to reach areas. Exploration is always rewarded, and if you want to find speed shoes, invulnerability, extra rings or even those much needed shields, you'll need to explore. Rings are placed to lead you to new areas and routes through the levels, and I found myself backtracking at junctions to figure out ways to get to other paths and taking those paths on later playthroughs to find new stuff.

The gimmicks are pretty good too. They start off pretty familiar, but as the game goes on you'll see some new ones that haven't been featured before, such as the rotating room full of water in the Lost Labyrinth levels. I won't spoil it, but it takes a second to figure out, and its played again with a good twist.

Even the bosses are fun. Sure, they're all ones that you've seen before in Sonic 1 and 2, but these are upgraded. They've got new attacks, new weapons, and some very awesome gameplay moments. Without spoiling anything, two of these fights made me feel as if I was playing Sonic CD instead of Sonic 4 (they nailed the unique feel of a boss) and one made me yell "Giant egg!" at my TV, which was great fun. And the final boss is just awesome. Slight physics problems aside, Sonic 4 is a lot of fun.

Outside of the aforementioned "don't press d-pad=stop' problem, the controls are classic Sonic. The move set is the series staple, you run, jump and spindash. The newcomer this time around is the homing attack, which replaces the Spin Slash maneuver from Sonic 3. The homing attack will send you dashing forward in the air if there is nothing nearby to target (making it a halfway powerful boost), or screaming towards a target if there is one. The game makes the homing attack very easy to use and helpfully places a red reticule over whatever you'll be dashing towards, so you'll know in advance where you're going.

Graphics and Sound
A few weeks back I ran a post on the graphical differences between Sonic 4 and a fan made Sonic project, pointing out how the fan made game had much more detailed graphics. I still stand by that, but with Sonic 4, the simplicity of the details is what makes it, not the amount. Granted, Fan Remix pulled out some amazing stuff, but Sonic 4's graphics are more then capable. Sonic 4's graphics aim for the simple yet patterned look of the older titles, and while you're not going to write home ranting about them, they do decently enough at portraying the game. Much like the rest of the game, they improve as the game goes on, adding more and more ambience.

The sound is a little weaker. Although the games music composer tries to emulate the older Genesis styles of music, most of the songs come off unmemorable, and with a few exceptions you won't think twice about any of them. Of particular mention is the boss music. Wait, did I say music? I meant ten second jingle. Remember how the midboss music in S3&K was a short little 10-15 second tune? So is this one, except its even more forgettable. The sound effects work as well, but a large amount are simply plucked from earlier Sonic titles.

There isn't much to go off of here. The game has no cutscenes (save one small one to show how you get to the final stage), no dialogue and no intro. The only reason I knew what the story was is that I read it on the games website before the game released.

Sonic 4 is a decent platforming title that does have some fun moments. Sadly, it's odd physics and control quirks seem to annoy as much as enjoy. While it's not up to par with the last Sonic titles of the old days, it certainly shares a spot with them. Even so, its not for everyone, and at $15 for 4 zones, you're paying a lot for a little.

  • Classic Sonic Style
  • Neat stages with fun gimmicks
  • Reimagined bosses and enemies are a blast
  • Controls are quirky
  • Physics could be much better
  • Bottomless pits are no fun
  • Music is less then memorable
  • Expensive for the little content you get
Verdict: Try before you buy!

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