Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 has been proudly called the game that fans waited sixteen years for. Although this is not strictly true (Sonic Advance was great!), it has been a long time since we last enjoyed a "proper" 2D Sonic.
Sonic 4 is that title, and despite notorious fan reaction to the contrary, this is the game people asked for. A traditional, retro-centric, two-dimensional Sonic. This is, in essence, Sonic's last chance. If he can't even perform in the genre that made him a household name, then the blue hedgehog truly is dead.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (Xbox Live Arcade [reviewed], PlayStation Network, WiiWare)
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 takes us through four zones (plus a special one) of classic platforming action full of familiar baddies, bosses and environments. In fact, each Zone is clearly based upon a previous Sonic level. Splash Hill, Lost Labyrinth, Casino Street and Mad Gear will be instantly recognizable to Sonic fans.
In fact, they'll likely be recognizable for being based upon some of the worst Zones in the original trilogy. Labyrinth Zone, Casino Nights Zone and Metropolis Zone were all pretty dire back in the day, and it's somewhat telling of just how disconnected Sonic Team is from its own franchise that these are the levels getting a revamp.
However, this is not entirely dreadful news. Sonic Team has to be commended for making these Zones far more enjoyable than their retro counterparts, with better level design and less frustratingly cheap moments. Unfortunately, those crabs with the big punching claws and the damn flying-blade mantids are still as infuriating as ever.
For the most part, Sonic 4 is a bloody good time. The 2D platforming feels perfect, and is actually enhanced by the homing attack, which lets Sonic zone in on enemies. It's consistently satisfying to home in on rows of airborne enemies to reach higher destination, and you can also use the attack without a target in order to perform a very useful sideways jump. Occasionally, homing areas are placed in such a way that they are far too easy to miss or mis-time and take damage, and the targeting reticule will even appear on targets that are behind walls and totally inaccessible, but these moments are rare, and the homing attacks, for the vast majority of the game, are very enjoyable to pull off.
Every now and then, Sonic Team does insist on ruining the platforming by trying to have some clever ideas. Nowhere is this more typified than with Casino Street Act 2, a level not found in the iPhone version. For 95% of it, it's a fantastic stage, one of the best Sonic Team has ever done. It's littered with rewards, has a fantastic visual gimmick with its "roads" of flying cards, and features some incredibly tight platforming design. Then, right near the end, you're assailed with really badly timed flipping card platforms that require guesswork and luck to cross, with a huge pitfall death drop underneath. It represents Sonic Team's entire problem -- having a great thing, and then ruining it out of this obsessive need to be "different" all the time.
Lost Labyrinth Act 2 is another fine example. It tries to turn Sonic into a puzzle game and it fails completely. Boring and dull, the level only gets good when you're in the mine cart (which, ironically, fans dumped all over before the game was released, causing Sega to cut most of the mine cart out). Most of the level is wandering around in the dark, and taking part in mind-numbing trial-and-error torch lighting puzzles.
The game also frustrates at regular intervals with traps and tricks that nobody could have predicted unless they were a member of Sonic Team themselves. Levels like Mad Gear Act 3, which is full of crushing platforms that can only be crossed if the player is lucky enough to hit them at the trajectory just seem like an exercise in trial-and-error irritation. Another great trap that doesn't work is the water chamber in Lost Labyrinth Act 3, which requires one to twist the entire level slowly in order to make a block fall out, without Sonic drowning or getting hit with the spikes that were thrown in just because Sonic Team are dicks. Puzzles like these make no sense when you first encounter them, and require some degree of clairvoyance since the game never thinks to explain these randomly shoehorned concepts at any time.
The game sounds incredibly aggravating, and it most definitely can be. However, Sonic 4 appears to get better on consecutive playthroughs, and the game's more innocent platforming sections are suitably addictive enough to warrant multiple plays. Upon the second and third play, the few frustrating Acts of the game become far more palatable as one gets used to the traps. Once you become ready for the various arbitrary ambushes that Sonic 4 throws at you, the game clicks into place and things feel great. It's just a shame that the first impression is so bad in certain areas of the game.
One thing that cannot be taken away from Sonic 4 is how breathtaking it looks. This is an absolutely gorgeous game, with bright and striking character models, and fantastic environments that do a great job of looking both familiar and modernized. Mad Gear Zone especially, with its brilliant music and funky color scheme, is a joy to play simply due to how good it looks and sounds. The animations for both Sonic and Dr. Eggman are incredibly charming, especially the little touches, such as the way Sonic's spikes bob up and down as he moves. This is easily one of the best looking downloadable console titles ever released, and even shames a few retail titles to boot.
With tighter controls than the earlier released iPhone version, Sonic 4 on consoles manages to be a better game, even with the loss of the superior Mine Cart level. The vast majority of the adventure is solidly designed and the classic platforming action, having nailed the exact speed at which Sonic should be moving, often achieves greatness. This first installment in the Sonic 4 series is a very good start indeed, and hopefully the next chapter can take out the poor attempts to innovate and create a game that truly focuses on fun.
As to whether or not Sonic 4 is worth $15, that's entirely up to your opinion on Sonic. Fans of the original games will get their money's worth, as they will definitely want to play it more than once. Those who have never liked Sonic won't get what they're looking for here, whilst casual observers to the series will most likely find the price pretty steep. Even speaking as a fan, I think $15 is a very misjudged price that may run the risk of turning away many customers.That said, if you do intend to play it more than once, and play the game's increasingly tricky Special Stages in order to obtain Super Sonic, then I'd say you'll get your $15 of gameplay out of the bargain. There's loads of replay value, provided you dig Sonic in the first place.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is not the big bang of a return that Sonic could have enjoyed, but it is nonetheless a pleasant enough comeback and it shows that there's plenty of life in the hedgehog yet. It's very sad that the game is let down by those few rough moments, but ultimately this is a great bit of fun that only becomes more rewarding each time you go back to it. Sonic the Hedgehog has finally had his legendary "return to form."
Oh, and the "physics" are absolutely fine, you whiny bastards.
Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)