Growing up in the 90’s as the war raged on between Nintendo and SEGA presented an interesting paradigm.  Personally speaking, Nintendo’s representative, Mario, felt like a buddy, a fun guy to hang out with who everyone liked.  But before long, SEGA revealed a new mascot in Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic was like the cool, popular new kid in school.  A lot of people gravitated toward him, perhaps not so much wanting to be with him as much as they were wishing they could be him.  He was cocky, fast, and– as was the way at the time– evoked an “extreme” attitude.

Mind, this was back before the word became so harshly abused that its mere utterance could make a generation roll its eyes in unison.

But, I digress.  As time went on, so too did the parallels.  Once out of the rhetorical “school,” it seemed that the once-popular cool kid wasn’t quite so cool any more as he set out into the “real world.”  His star faded somewhat as he continued to coast by on his one-time popularity and past accomplishments, while our buddy Mario has managed to continue steadily on, moving higher and higher in his field as we continue to watch his every move and want to hang out at the golf course, tennis courts, go-karts, and of course, the adventures he does so well.

And that brings us to 2010.  Sonic kicked off the year with a worthy rival to the Mario Kart series in Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing.  And now, he’s back with a new title which promises to hark back to his golden years, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether or not this newest title is a return to glory for the Blue Blur, or if that shiny new sports car he got at the start of the year was simply the first sign of a mid-life crisis.

Let’s Get Physics-al

Generally speaking, physics aren’t “cool.”  That’s why you’ll never see SEGA pitching the physics of a Sonic game in their advertising.  But, whether or not they want to admit it, physics is a large part of the Sonic the Hedgehog experience… at least, the experience of yesteryear, the one which they are trying so hard to create.

In the Genesis titles, Sonic (and his friends, where applicable) would move with a sense of momentum and inertia.  Once he got moving, he would continue to move until outside forces, such as gravity and friction, acted upon him, slowing him to a stop.  For some, a part of the fun was to find ways to overcome these outside forces and keep Sonic moving at a steady pace, if not ever faster.  Such instances would see Sonic run down a slope, if not straight down a steep wall, building speed and momentum which would allow him to cross wide chasms or run straight up an opposing wall.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the physics engine created by Sonic Team co-founder Yuji Naka, upon which the original games’ many stages were built around, is woefully absent from Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I.  Fans of the franchise have implemented it into their own fan games and recreations, even analyzing and scrutinizing it to great detail, but Sonic Team has chosen to forgo the semi-realistic feeling (as realistic as controlling a high-speed hedgehog can feel, anyway) of the original titles for something else entirely.

This has led to much derision from some fans of the series, who point out that it seems Sonic has no momentum at all in this game.  But, as others have pointed out, that’s not quite true– generally speaking, it seems that much of the momentum in the game is player-driven.  That is, where the original games would permit you to let go of the D-pad and allow physics to see things to their natural conclusion, Sonic 4 tends to have movement cease almost immediately with the release of the D-pad.  But, if one is to continue holding the D-pad and work with where Sonic is trying to go, his movement begins to resemble what players came to know and love in the original titles.

One example which springs to mind comes early in the game, during the Splash Hill Zone.  Sonic bounces off a spring, and whereas one would expect it to carry him to the next spring in the sequence, Sonic instead stops in mid-air and drops to the ground below.  Holding left after coming off the first spring, however, takes him to where he needs to go in order for the sequence to continue.

Another example comes in the Casino Street Zone.  Fans of the original Sonic the Hedgehog game may remember one part in which Sonic is faced with a large U-shaped dip in the terrain.  It’s too far to cross by jumping, and so he has to use his downward momentum to ascend the opposite side.  When it’s not enough, he goes back down, usually rolled into a ball, to build up more and more momentum until he is able to reach the gap in the far wall.

A similar situation arises in the aforementioned Zone, and while some players, such as my wife, are inclined to solve the “puzzle” (as it were) the same way as in the old games, it simply does not work.  Instead, we find ourselves forced to learn of Sonic’s strange new penchant for walking up walls.  Well, perhaps “walk” isn’t fair; sometimes it comes off as a brisk jog.  Either way, rolling is no longer the answer, and it requires a rather unnatural looking and feeling violation of the law of gravity to proceed.

At least it’s never quite as bad as this.

As a result, longtime or frequent players of the original Genesis games are likely– if not definitely– going to notice a difference.  Those who simply remember the older games in the series as “press right > win game” may have an easier time adjusting, however.

It might be kinder to refer to what Sonic 4 possesses as “game engine physics,” in that it feels a bit more “game-y” (for lack of a better term) than what Sonic used to deal in.  To provide another example, one need look no further than the Mega Man series of games.  In the 2D platforming iterations of the franchise, the lead characters rarely, if ever, display the sort of momentum Sonic is known for.  And in some ways, controlling Sonic in Episode I feels very similar to controlling a Mega Man in one of those titles– just a bit faster, and minus the ability to slag robots with plasma shots.

The engine used isn’t bad, per se, but it tends to feel far from natural, especially if you’re used to the way Sonic feels in 2D.  As a result, it’s almost like learning to play an old game in a new way– sort of like playing Super Mario Crossover with a character who isn’t Mario.  It feels as though the two parts weren’t made to work together, yet in the end, they somehow manage to get along just fine.

Homing is Where the Heart Is

Despite the mission statement to take Sonic back to his roots, the developers couldn’t help themselves when it came to adding a more contemporary element to the mix.  To help navigate a 3D environment in 1999’s Sonic Adventure, Sonic gained a Homing Attack which let him seek out and destroy enemies in mid-air, and it has been in every 3D Sonic title since.

Sonic Team justified this addition by noting that each new 2D Sonic game has introduced something new into the Blue Blur’s arsenal: Sonic 2 gave him the Spin-Dash, Sonic 3 & Knuckles gave him new shields, each with their own special ability, and Sonic CD even added the Super Peel-Out move.  And so the argument seems fair enough; not only does Sonic gain another new move, but it also sort of helps bridge the old 2D games with the newer 3D titles.

Unfortunately, the argument also falls flat in some regards.  Sonic never really kept the Super Peel-Out in his arsenal after Sonic CD, and the special shields of Sonic 3 & Knuckles have gone by the wayside as the only shield to be found in Sonic 4 is a standard “protects you from one hit” shield, now sporting a green hue.

And the Spin-Dash?  Thanks to the physics issues described in the last section, it feels as though it has been nerfed into near-uselessness– not unlike the 3D games, if one stops to think about it.

Even though the Spin-Dash may have been thrown under the bus in favor of the Homing Attack, the latter isn’t all bad.  While it can certainly be finicky at times (for one thing, Sonic needs to be “facing” the targeted enemy/item, which can be tricky to discern as he spins in mid-air), it is fun to use to reach new heights and areas.  Plus, it does more than simply lock on to enemy targets: without enemies around, it can serve as a quick speed boost, and can really help to get you moving in some areas.

The Homing Attack does have some drawbacks, however.  One is that you don’t always get to see enemies in time to properly initiate it; unlike in 3D, this version feels a little slower and clumsier, though not disabling.  But if you’re falling from atop the screen and see an enemy in your way, there is a good chance that by the time you hit the button to attack, Sonic will already be losing his rings (unless you have their whereabouts memorized, that is).  Fortunately, these occurrences seem to be rare enough to forgive.

And while I certainly enjoy bouncing from one enemy to the next to find new places, there is one noticeable element that is difficult to ignore.  Call it laziness or call it intuitive design, but it seems that whenever there is a spot where you are expected to bounce from one enemy to the next to make your way forward, it is always the same enemy.  On the one hand, seeing that enemy instantly tells you what you need to do.  On the other, it feels almost predictable in what they want you to do whenever you see that particular foe.

Though, to be fair, they do spice it up in later levels by offering a pinkish-red version of that enemy who protrudes spikes on and off, thus forcing you to be more careful in your timing.

For the most part, however, it seems one can do without the Homing Attack if they wish– and judging by the outrage at its inclusion from some fans, there will be some who wish to ignore it.  But even if you do use it frequently, there are still times when a more traditional hop-n-bop may be preferable, such as the battles with Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. In several of these instances, the Homing Attack tends to bounce you further from the hard-boiled villain, thus making quick, repeated attacks more difficult.

“Special” is a Kind Way of Describing Some of These Stages

For the most part, once you get past the fact that this still isn’t the Sonic you knew in the 90’s, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is actually quite a fun, albeit short (though that may just be experience talking) game.  However, some stages tend to have their drawbacks, though in a game which sometimes feels too easy to veteran Hedgehog fans, that may be just what the evil doctor ordered.

Of particular note are the sadistically-designed Special Stages.  Based on those from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, the player instead rotates the stage at will, rather than it continuously moving by itself.  And in what is perhaps the ultimate irony, it often times seems impossible to get Sonic himself to stop moving– he tends to bob and bounce everywhere, making the simple goal of guiding him through the maze appear to be a Herculean task.

Oh, and there is a time limit this time.  And doors, which won’t open until a certain number of rings have been collected.  By the time you reach the third Special Stage, time is practically running out, forcing you to collect virtually every time bonus in the stage in order to get through.  And as you might have guessed, Sonic’s constant movement makes it all the more difficult.

I’ve only managed to obtain two of the Chaos Emeralds, but I was never good at Special Stages of any sort.  Those who manage to persevere and triumph through all seven will be rewarded with a classic gift: the ability to turn into Super Sonic.  And unlike the 3D games, this isn’t just an end-of-game bonus stage, but a chance to run wild with the god-like golden one through any stage you wish– provided you pay the 50-ring toll, of course.

In addition, as SEGA has said many times, gathering all seven Chaos Emeralds will also unlock a special cut scene at the end of the game which gives a slight tease of what to expect from Episode II.

Supposing none of that matters to you, and you decide to skip the Special Stages altogether, there are still some dastardly tricks awaiting you in the regular stages.  For those wondering, yes, there are some pits, but they are nowhere near as common nor contemptuous as those found in Sonic Rush, where anyone who dares to deviate even slightly from the developer’s plotted course will be flung into oblivion.

Some mechanisms can be tricky to figure out, such as the spinning gears you run atop in the Mad Gear Zone, or the rolling balls in the Lost Labyrinth Zone.  Fortunately, at least in the early goings of their respective stages, the developers are generous with the learning curve, and if you fall off, you’re often not far from a spring which lets you get back on the proverbial horse.

Speaking of the Lost Labyrinth Zone, which gained tremendous notoriety earlier this year from a leaked video that sent the whole game back into production: the mine cart segments (changed for the console versions) are not bad at all.  I dare say that pretty much every mine cart segment that has ever come before this in any game was probably a more harrowing experience.

That doesn’t mean the Lost Labyrinth Zone gets a clean bill of health, though.  In the second act, throughout which Sonic carries a torch for various purposes, there is an unfortunate puzzle which is only optional if you are able to avoid the path to it.  Upon reaching it, you are faced with four torches which each control a stone platform, each timed to retract after different amounts of time.

Simply put: it is very bothersome to figure out, and gave me my one and only time-limit death (when the timer reaches ten minutes) during the entire run.  I eventually figured it out by experimenting, and I don’t even remember how I ultimately accomplished the task.  And while the rest of the level was fun, lighting torches, riding mine carts, and lighting fuses to blow up walls, that one puzzle is treacherous enough to make me think twice before replaying the stage.

On the plus side, the game is generous enough with lives.  Whether you think the concept is outdated or not, at least they are not particularly scarce here, and can help make enduring some of the trickier parts of the game until an answer is found more feasible.

ProTip: In particular, the second act of the Casino Street Zone is a great place for building up lives, which even leads to an Achievement.  Just look for the large, spinning cards.

Once you reach the final Zone, you’ll definitely need those lives.  While the rest of the game is relatively easy, and even the E.G.G. Station features rings and checkpoints throughout, the final boss will test all but perhaps the most skilled, experienced Sonic player.

ProTip 2: As long as you have control over Sonic, it’s not over.

Sonic + Poochie = …

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is not without its flaws, but still manages to be a good, fun game despite them.  Even so, it almost feels more like “Market Research the Hedgehog,” rather than a true continuation of the Genesis Sonic titles.  It feels almost as though the developers all sat in a room, watched a tape of the old Sonic games being played, and took notes from that.

While they certainly may have gotten a lot of key points down, it still lacks certain charms.  In other words, a lot of the small things.

This is telling in that other branches of SEGA had to ask the developers to include things such as Sonic running off-screen when he completes an Act, rather than simply stopping at the invisible wall that is the edge of your television set.  Or including an option to press a button to continue on to the next Act, rather than be sent back to the admittedly nice map screen.

Now, admittedly, being able to go on to any stage you wish (barring boss stages, until the rest of the Acts in a Zone are completed) is a very nice touch, and allows people to see whatever part of the game they wish, whenever they wish.  However, it seems that the natural way to handle it would be to allow players to opt out of going to the next stage in the procession, rather than opting in.

There are other small things, too.  Things which seem to indicate that the developers either did not play the classics, or just were not paying attention when they did.

To those who played the originals: who can honestly say that as soon as Dr. Eggnik appeared on the screen, they did not immediately begin to wail away at him, trying to get as many free hits in as possible before he began his attack?

In Sonic 4, such a thing is not possible.  Until Dr. Robotman is ready to begin his attack, you won’t be able to lay so much as a single quill on him– instead, you’ll just pass right through his cockamamie contraptions.

Likewise, after scrambling the doctor’s brains a little, one goes on to free Sonic’s little animal friends from their containment unit, just as in the old games.  But if you enjoyed playing a little with Sonic, making him balance precariously on the edge of the machine while the game tallies your rings and time for score (which can take several seconds sometimes), you’re out of luck.  Instead, the game makes Sonic take up a victory pose, and that’s where he stays until things are ready to proceed.

Granted, they did originally take this away in Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but somehow, it just seems to be more glaringly obvious here.

On another point, some have noted that the music almost seems like it’s trying too hard sometimes.  Sound on the Genesis wasn’t that great, but with Sonic‘s soundtracks, you might never know it– they were able to do a lot with a little.  But in Sonic 4, it seems as though they are trying too heavily to emulate that old school sound, and wind up with something less than what it could be; some dedicated remixers have already shown that the same melodies can sound far nicer with different arrangements.

And, of course, we have the stages.  Things begin with the Splash Hill Zone, which is traditional 2D Sonic first-stage fare– pretty much to be expected, especially if they’re trying to go back to their roots.  And to top it off, the boss encounter with ol’ Ivo even reenacts their classic first-encounter from the original game, although with a bit of a twist.

Then we come to the other stages: Casino Street Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone, and the Mad Gear Zone, which each follow precedents set by the Casino Night Zone (Sonic 2), Labyrinth Zone (Sonic 1), and the Metropolis Zone (Sonic 2 again), respectively.  While each offers some new tricks, traps, and maps, things begin to fall a little flat as a sense of déjà vu begins to set in.

Rounding it out are the E.G.G. Station, a boss rush setting which isn’t too unlike the Death Egg (Sonic 2 yet again), and the Special Stage, which interestingly enough passes on aping Sonic 2, instead producing something closer to Sonic 1‘s brand of torture.  The fact that each stage’s boss continues the “same, but with a twist” idea shown by the first stage’s boss makes Sonic 4 begin to feel less like a sequel, and more like a remix or expansion for Sonic 2.

Between the new, different-feeling physics/controls and the fact that there is a definite sense of deja vu which pervades throughout the game’s proceedings, the name “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feels less and less fitting.  On the other hand, had they called it “New Sonic the Hedgehog” instead, as Nintendo has with the last two 2D Mario outings (which themselves have recycled numerous worlds and elements from past titles), it might have felt a little more justified.

RipTen Says…

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is a short game, but a fun one.  It’s clearly meant to stand up to repeated playthroughs, as evidenced not only by the different routes spread throughout levels, but also by one of the game’s Achievements: Defeating 1,000 enemies.  And the game’s Badniks aren’t so common that it would take any short length of time to reach that number.

Sonic 4 definitely succeeds as a fun game, albeit one with a bit of a learning curve to it– particularly if your soul is forged in the fires of SEGA’s 16-bit console.  But does it succeed as a Sonic game?  On that, opinions around the internet are clearly divided, and unfortunately, that is an answer only you can determine by yourself.  Suffice to say, it does seem to hit the mark far closer than 2006’s next-gen Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Rush, or Sonic Unleashed (speaking chiefly of the Werehog segments).

Is the game worth $15/1,500 Wii Points/1,200 Microsoft Points?  Again, that depends on the player, and particularly in how interested they are in replay value.  If one only plans to play through to the end and be done with it, they’ll likely feel a bit ripped off at a price tag which exceeds the likes of games such as Mega Man 9 and 10, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and others.  On the other hand, if you’re all about perfection and wish to find all the Chaos Emeralds, clear every level as Super Sonic, dominate the Time and Score Attack Leaderboards, and still kick around just for fun, then the price tag may seem less daunting.

Over the Hill, or King of It?

At the start of this article, the question was put forth whether or not Sonic was on the comeback trail.  With Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, it would appear that perhaps the Blue Blur’s best days are still behind him, but he’s not washed-up yet.

Just as Super Mario Bros. 3 is regarded by many as one of the best Mario titles/platformers/games of all time, Nintendo continues to churn out quality efforts starring the mustachioed one, and Sonic seems to have found himself in a similar position.  While Sonic 4 may not meet or surpass the past efforts which defined him, it is still largely a quality effort.  And if reports of Sonic Colors are any indication, then it’s clear that Sonic can still go with the best of them… just not the same way he used to.

Bottom line: On its own, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is definitely a good game, even a great one.  However, “great” may simply not be enough for some longtime fans of the series.

Here’s The Rundown:
+ New game with classic styling
– …that is a arguably a bit too derivative of the much cheaper Sonic 2.
+ Fast, satisfying, fun platforming gameplay…
– …for a little while, at least.

+ For the most part, the world hews closely to classic Sonic principles…

– …even if the physics don’t.

+ A great addition to the library…

– …even if it doesn’t surpass anything which came before it.

+ Nothing but Sonic, from start to finish…

– …though we did kind of like Tails and Knuckles…

+ …but that’s what Episode II is for, hopefully.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was developed by Sonic Team and Dimps, and published by SEGA for the Microsoft Xbox LIVE Arcade, Sony PlayStation Network, and Nintendo WiiWare, with a separate version available for the Apple iPhone. The game released in the United States on October 13th, 12th, 11th, and 7th, 2010 (respectively) with a price of 1,200 Microsoft Points/$14.99/1,500 Wii Points/$9.99. The copy used in this review was for the Xbox 360 and given to us by SEGA for review consideration. It was played to completion (save for those blasted Emeralds).