Review: Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Sony PS3)

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Platformer
Release Date: 10/13/2010

Back in 1990 I mowed lawns all summer long to save up for a Sega Genesis. At that time, the pack-in game was still Altered Beast, but it came with a coupon you could mail in to receive any two free games from a list. The two games I selected were Batman (I already owned the vastly superior NES version) and Sonic The Hedgehog. Care to wager which one got the most of my playtime?

The original Sonic was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had started to show its age two or three years prior. It took a tried and true formula and added the thrill of speed. True, in the fastest portions of the game (only possible through BLAST PROCESSING, nyuk nyuk nyuk) you were basically at the mercy of the game as Sonic sped through twists and tunnels (which makes all the complaints about Sonic Adventure‘s lack of control during the “speediest” portions all the more mystifying) but it was that sensation of having both complete control and no control at all simultaneously that, in that era, made it an unrivaled experience.

None of the games in the series since the original has had that same feel for me. The original had the best graphics seen on a Genesis title to date, it had a catchy soundtrack that, to this day, I can still hum note for note. It had tight, accurate controls, and the gameplay was varied and yet balanced enough that nothing ever felt out of place, but the gameplay never felt repetitive.

Then came Sonic 2, which added a secondary character that no one asked for and everyone hated, music that somehow seemed a step down, graphics that didn’t seem like much of an improvement over the original, and additional play mechanics that didn’t really add anything to the experience.

Then there was Sonic CD, which added a weird time travel element, a truly horrible CD audio score, and yet despite utilizing the “power of the Sega CD” looked no better than the previous two games.

And then came Sonic 3, which had a completely revamped graphics engine with brighter colors and more detailed sprites, but added puzzle elements to the levels that brought the action to a standstill. This was built upon by Sonic and Knuckles, the oddest method of releasing an add-on that I think I’ve ever seen in console gaming.

And let’s just pretend Sonic 3D Blast never happened because DAMN.

Short of a port of 3D Blast, a greatest hits collection, and the abysmal Sonic R, Sonic was AWOL on the Saturn, and didn’t return until Sonic Adventure, and while Sonic Adventure 2 showed some promise, overall the series has become somewhat of a joke in the industry, a franchise that has repeatedly tried to innovate in all the wrong directions in an attempt to keep up with its arch rival plumber.

But enough history, it’s time to review.

1. Story

Storywise, the game is mostly an updated rehash of the original game. Dr. Eggman (aka Robotnik) is trying to capture the Chaos Emeralds and turn woodland creatures into killer robots, and Sonic wants to stop him. There’s nothing really new here plotwise, which is fine really, since the original didn’t have much in the way of story either. Back then, the series was more about tone than plot, a strategy that the Mario series (short of the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi games) has stuck to with great success. There are some games that simply tell the story by playing them, with no need for borrowed themes from Shakespearean dramas or Greek tragedies. So I don’t really see this title’s lack of plot as a detractor. On the contrary, I think that’s one of the many wrong steps Sonic Team has taken with this series in the past, particularly with the inclusion of completely superfluous side characters and plot twists (werehog anyone?)

2. Graphics

In all honesty, this is probably one of the best looking DLC games out right now. It’s right up there with Flower, Shadow Complex, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and so on. Everything is in crisp HD resolution. The characters are rendered rather than sprite based, but they have a sort of cel-shaded look to them that really makes the visuals appear both updated and retro at the same time (the Sonic purists complaining that his legs are too long and he has green eyes need to get a grip. He still looks like Sonic. It’s not like they gave him an ear ring or an emodo. it could be far worse. Imagine if Capcom decided to release their newest Mega Man game with a character design that looked just like the original U.S. boxar- oh wait…) It looks like a Sonic game more than any has since probably Sonic 3. The backgrounds are 3D instead of 2D parallax plains, but still has the same feel as the original title. And what’s best, none of the graphical glitches that have plagued the last couple of generations, such as slow texture loading or horizontal screen tearing are anywhere to be found. In short, if you’re hungry for a great looking game that just explodes bright, cheerful color all over your HDTV, this is it.

3. Sound

Now this was a bit of a letdown for me. I really liked how they kept the synthesized 8-bit/16-bit sound to the score, but the tunes present here just lack the appeal of the original game’s soundtrack. There are no tracks in this game that will stick with you. It fits nicely with the overall tone of the game, and never gets to the level of annoyance that the utter garbage guitar rock soundtracks of the last ten years brought forth, but neither is it something to brag about.

One thing that did annoy me however was the opening theme and the music that plays once you complete a level. The new theme seems like a generic song roughly inspired by the original. But if you’re going to go that route, why not just bring back the original theme music, which is an almost iconic theme song from that era? Also, I always felt the little clip that played when you finished a level in the first game was the best out of any of them. I can’t really say why, it just seemed to personify in my mind that whole Genesis era for me. They did not use it here. When you complete a level in this game, you hear the same basic ending clip they used in Sonic Adventure and more recently Sonic Unleashed (and perhaps more, I’ve skipped a lot of the more recent titles.) To me this felt like Sonic Team trying to shoehorn in elements of the newer games to prove those are as relevant as the original. Sorry, but no. If you’re going to make what is essentially a big thank you to fans of the original, reminding them of the crap they’ve had settle for over the last 11 years isn’t the way to do it.

4. Control and Gameplay

This strategy of adding in elements from the more recent titles extends into the gameplay in two ways: one, they’ve included puzzle sections in some of the levels that slows the action down to a crawl and forces you to sit and experiment. Sonic is not a thinking game. It’s a platformer, which is built around pure reflexes, memorization, and hand-eye coordination. This is not the sort of game where you want to think about what you’re going to do next. You think about what you just did after you do it. Of course, Sonic 3 had areas like this as well, and since one of the biggest examples of this takes place in a level that seems somewhat inspired by levels from Sonic 3, especially Angel Island Zone’s jungle ruins motif (though the level to which I’m referring also reminded me of one of the levels in Ristar) the reasoning for why these puzzles were included could go in either direction.

Then you get to the other gameplay aspect they took from the 3D games: the homing attack. There are now new branching paths in the levels where you can use the homing attack to home in on chains of enemies and use them to get to higher areas of the zone. While this works great for the sections in which it is called for, the problem comes when you set it off and there are no enemies to lock onto. Say for example you see a ledge that looks just a little too far to reach with a standard jump. There are no enemies or objects to lock onto. If you try to do a homing attack in the middle of your jump, thinking it will act as a sort of double jump to get you across, you will instead find that it acts as a sort of jump break. Your jump will end in mid air and Sonic will fall faster than a one legged man in a room full of horny German Shepherds. This can be rather irritating in areas where there are bottomless pits of doom, such as in the Casino level, and is even more irritating when it happens at a time where you weren’t even trying to do anything more than a regular jump. In short, you will have to relearn the jumping mechanics to this game if you want to find all the hidden items and maximize your speed runs. It’s not game breaking, since you eventually learn NOT to hit the jump button again when there’s nothing to home in on, but purists will likely bemoan its inclusion.

5. Replayability

There are challenges to complete, trophies to earn, high scores and times to beat, but to a certain extent, once you’ve played the levels, you’ve played them. However, much like the original, Sonic 4 is just one of those games you can go back to over and over and not be bored by it. There are numerous hidden items and different pathways to find, not to mention secret areas, and catching all those elusive Chaos Emeralds (the original bonus levels make a return here, though they’re mapped out a bit differently). In short, your desire to replay this title really boils down to how much you enjoyed the original game. Unless of course, you’ve only been gaming over the past two generations or so, then you’ll likely want to avoid this game altogether because it doesn’t track your kill/death ratio worth a crystal shit.

6. Balance

Again, I have to bring up the puzzle elements in some of the levels. It really brings the fun to a dead stop, and seems like needless filler. Aside from those couple of moments throughout the four Zones that make up Sonic 4 (and the aforementioned accidental homing attack issues), the game is just as well balanced as the original. The only real difficulty to the game comes from some of the bosses, since a couple have a real element of luck to them. A good example of this is the form Eggman takes in the Casino zone, where his final attack mode is only vulnerable from the top, and you’re in a round room with no platforms you can use to reach the attack point without relying on paddles and pinball bumpers along the walls. I beat him by getting up to one of those bumpers and then lucking into an angle where Sonic was repeatedly bounced back and forth between that bumper and the attack point until the ship blew up. I have beaten that boss a total of four times, and each time the method for defeating him was different and took varying amounts of time.

So don’t go in expecting to use the same patterns to beat the bosses that you did in the original game. For example, when fighting the first boss with his swinging demolition ball, I used to get on one platform, bounce on top of him, and use the forward momentum to push me to the platform on the other side of the screen and then repeat the process until he blew up. But in this game, no matter where I landed on the top of that ship, I got bounced backwards, not forwards, so I had to adjust my strategy somewhat. While this does make the boss fights feel new, it can be somewhat jarring to go from speeding through levels, smashing through enemies at a breakneck pace, only to find the physics somewhat reversed when fighting a couple of the bosses. Still, fans of the series and newcomers alike shouldn’t find themselves flustered during their experience with this title. It has its challenging moments, but never to the point of controller tossing frustration.

7. Originality

Everything in this game, including the level designs, are directly inspired by the older titles. Each zone you play, while having different layouts and mechanics, will instantly bring to mind a level from one of the 16 bit games. The first zone is based on Emerald Hill Zone, the Casino zone is based on the Casino zone from the first game, complete with the alternating rising and falling dice cups, and so on.

But on top of the homing attack areas, each zone has a new element that makes it feel somewhat fresh. The Casino zone has cards and dice you can flip when you run past them which, based on the combinations you get, will award bonus points or extra lives. There are also playing card bridges that will lift Sonic up and send him spiraling around the screen. The jungle temple zone has Indiana Jones style stone ball traps where Sonic has to get on top and balance himself as the ball rolls up and down a track in something that felt almost like it came right out of Little Big Planet.

So as far as originality goes, Sonic 4 is like a woman’s wedding day. It’s something old, something new, something borrowed, and something Blue.

8. Addictiveness

To date I have spent somewhere around 15 hours of total play time on a DLC game that has only four zones. That’s six more hours than it took me to beat Uncharted 2 on Crushing mode, so that should tell you something. But as I said before, if you’re not a fan of the original games, you’ll likely play through it once and never touch it again. And no, trophy whores, there is no Platinum, though it’s possible that when the rumored four episodes are all finally available, they’ll all be released on a retail disk, and a Platinum might be added. Don’t hold your breath though. It didn’t happen with any of the other PSN titles that eventually came out on disk, so it’s not likely to happen here.

9. Appeal Factor

This is a nostalgia piece through and through. I feel it puts the series back in the right direction, but the fact that all the zones are basically rehashes of levels we’ve played before holds it back from its potential. I would have preferred for it to have been a TRUE sequel and had all new levels so it could have earned its name. As it stands, I don’t really consider it Sonic 4. It should have been called Sonic HD, Sonic Respiked, you get the idea. Hopefully the levels in the upcoming episodes aren’t all based on stuff we’ve already seen.

10. Miscellaneous

If I have any one major gripe about this game, it’s that you get one third to one fourth of a full Sonic game, and you pay $15.00 for it. These episodes shouldn’t be any higher in price than $10.00 apiece, especially when games like Rocket Knight and Bionic Commando Rearmed were released in one single download at the cost of ten bucks. Even at ten apiece, you’d be looking at an investment of $40.00, which I think is too much for an HD retro DLC title. At $15.00 each, by the time you’re done you’ll have spent the same amount as you would for a current gen retail disk release, and that’s simply too much to spend on a game of this type.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Great
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Decent
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was designed to be a love song to longtime fans of the series, and in most respects, it succeeds on that level. While there’s very little new or original material here, it shows that a good Sonic game that lives up to the legacy of its predecessors is not the impossibility most of us thought it would be (unless it was on the DS). It’s a fun game that, in the end, is pure Sonic through and through, but with an asking price that’s just a few dollars too steep for what you get. If you’re a Sonic fan, it’ll likely be worth that price. if you’re not, wait a few months and get it when the price drops.

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