Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
From the moment the SEGA logo sings “Sayyy-gahhh!” nostalgia will set in, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 does a great job of recapturing the feeling of the original 16-bit games (though sometimes too well). With levels named and created very similarly to those of Sonic 1 through 3, there isn’t much that’s new.
I’ve been a fan of the series ever since my dad surprised me with a SEGA Genesis and the original Sonic the Hedgehog when I was in elementary school. I played through every game many times and connected the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge to the previous games to get as much out of them as possible. I sketched Sonic and Tails constantly, passed around my copies of Sonic the Hedgehog comics, and watched both the comedic The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog series as well as the darker, more serious Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon. I even had my mom paint the speedy hedgehog on my backpack in acrylics, played Sonic Chaos on the Game Gear, and was one of the few who thought Sonic Spinball was a fantastic game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 returns to the series’ winning formula of running really fast, going through loops, and freeing animals trapped inside robots, after a series of 3D games that sometimes worked but never quite lived up to the Sonic legacy. Fans have been asking for a good non-handheld 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game for years, but SEGA’s response feels more like a clunky rehash of the existing library. The physics feel right, though Sonic is a bit stiff as he slowly walks into a run. Not to worry: once he’s gained speed the game seems as fast as ever. And in an effort to not completely dismiss the 3D games, Sonic utilizes the homing attack they introduced, allowing him to more accurately aim toward springs, enemies to bounce off of, and other objects. This each act a lot easier, but balances out the extra obstacles put in.
The game consists of four zones, each divided into three acts and a boss fight, much like the original games. You start in Splash Hill Zone, a re-imagining of both Green Hill Zone from the first Sonic game and Angel Island Zone from Sonic 3. It does a good job of being nostalgic with subtle differences here and there. After completing Act 1, the level select menu unlocks and you become able to select the first act of the three other areas: Casino Street Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear Zone.
I’ll be honest: I absolutely hated Casino Street Zone. Aside from it being a complete and blatant copy of Casino Night Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it does everything it can to throw unexpected bottomless pits and speed blocks at you, making sure the player is never going at full speed for long. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to that zone – it persists throughout the game – but this is the first level in which it becomes prominent. To its credit, part of the level utilizes a fantastic mechanic in which Sonic runs on giant playing cards that fan out to become a 2.5D path to travel on, which is both fun to play and fun to see happen.
Lost Labyrinth Zone makes up for Casino Street. You’ll run through ruins that harken back to Labyrinth Zone in Sonic 1, where you’ll experience the familiar fear of running out of air under water, though not to the extreme of the original level. This version also has you running through ruins with only the light of a torch – a curious decision for a speed-based game – and even has you get chased by a wall that’s closing in on you. You’ll have to escape before you’re hedgehog roadkill smushed between obstacles.
Mad Gear Zone brings in another new mechanic as well. You’ll have to run on giant gears to make them move across a track, dodge armored metallic crabs, projectile-wielding chameleons that pop out of the walls, ride the steam from bursting pipes, and take elevator platforms to the top of ramps. But the real challenge is running against conveyer belts and through moving pistons to escape a giant drill that fills the screen as it chases after you.
The special stages are straight out of the first Sonic game, a rotating gem maze you navigate by rotating the maze itself and having Sonic fall through it in dash form. They’re nothing new unless you’re playing the PS3 or Wii version, in which you can choose to use motion controls to spin the stage instead of the directional buttons. You’ll have to collect an undisclosed amount of rings to open the next area of the maze, and if you don’t run out of time or fall into red exclamation blocks that end the stage you can collect a Chaos Emerald at the end of the maze. By collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds you unlock Super Sonic, a faster, cooler Sonic who can be played as within any level.
As with any 16-bit game, even its contemporary offspring holds electronic music in high regard. With tunes that sound like hyper Mega Man tracks running throughout each zone, the soundtrack is not as a solid as its 16-bit counterparts, and nowhere near as catchy. I can still hum Green Hill Zone’s theme from the original Sonic the Hedgehog game; I can’t remember any Sonic 4 tracks off the top of my head.
Sound effects are as important as the music, if not more so, as they bring consistency not only to the game but to the series as a whole. Sonic’s classic ring collecting sounds, end-of-level point collection noises, and death tone has returned in their original forms, and just like the opening SEGA chorus they help deepen the nostalgia factor.
The art looks good, with some nice layering effects the original games didn’t have, and the occasional loading icon is a 16-bit Sonic running or spinning. The new character model bothered me at first with his plastic-y gloss and robotic movements, but the more I played the more I got used to him. Still, I prefer the older, more cartoon-y look, which embodied a more natural sense of personality than his 2.5D rendered equivalent.
The Dr. Eggman boss fights (known in previous games as Dr. Robotnik) are each derived from older games, but with an added level of danger, and in a Megaman-like move the last level, E.G.G. Station Zone, which is unlocked after clearing all four areas, has Sonic fighting each of Dr. Eggman’s machinations before confronting the final boss – a familiar looking mech resembling Dr. Eggman himself. Unfortunately, if you finish the game without collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds you’ll only get a message at the end that tells you to do so, with a “Collect all the Chaos Emeralds!” message. You won’t get an actual ending after the credits.
Episode 1 is short, and though it will probably only take you under two hours to complete the first time through, attempting to collect the Chaos Emeralds along with Time Trials for each stage will lengthen the experience. It’s a good first attempt at a classic Sonic remake and definitely worth playing, but ultimately feels more like a re-imagining than a sequel. Hopefully Episode 2 will focus more on speed than obstacles and be a lot more creative in the process.