So it's finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 has been announced. It's real, it's coming soon and there's a trailer to prove it, complete with a full two seconds of gameplay footage. Two. Full. Seconds.
How much can you glean from two seconds of video? If you're a long-time Sonic fan like me, a heck of a lot – and I'd like to tell you the good and the bad. I'm sure regular readers of the site will know that I love the old Sonic games (though I absolutely refute the rumours I own a Sonic suit – that's slanderous and I will sue).
I've bought Sonic 1 on at least 15 different machines now and I got the 'Perfect Win' achievement on XBLA without resorting to reloading a save file. I hold the Xbox 360 Sonic 2 Guinness World Record. I noticed that the '1992' sprite in the trailer was the Beta sprite, not the release version. I know my Sonic. But there are some things that worry me about this trailer. Take a look first - then I'll explain.
Sonic's movement is all wrong
I have a theory about games in general, which is that as long as the movement of the game is right, you're three quarters of the way there. The whole Mario 64 'MIPS' rabbit chase tech demo is well documented, but Miyamoto had a point. So long as controlling the character is fun in itself, the rest of the game will follow suit. Yuji Naka's games were the same – just look at the difference between the fluid movement of NiGHTS on Saturn to NiGHTS on Wii. There's a huge gulf in fluidity. The movement in the trailer here is almost identical to that found in Sonic Rush on DS. It's slower (see the 'good things' below), sure, but that incline after the twist doesn't seem to slow Sonic in the slightest.
Above: In Sonic 2, an incline like that would've visibly slowed Sonic
Yuji Naka's 16-bit Sonic was affected by every undulation in the terrain, causing Sonic to jump higher on inclines and lower on declines. Obviously the new game will feature gravity and physics, but the simple fact is, Sonic in this trailer doesn't move like he does in Sonic 1, 2 or 3 and that's got me worried.
The rings are too big
Rings in Sonic games have lost their meaning over the past 19 years. They used to be magical, awe-inspiring collectables (that even continued spinning when you paused the game on Game Gear – how's that for mystique?) that felt like huge reward when you stumbled across a large group of them. These days? They're like a token gesture. And they're really big now. Almost like the special stage rings from Sonic Chaos. But not worth ten each.
And so is Sonic's head
Looks like big-headed Sonic is here to stay. It's been steadily inflating ever since he went 3D in Sonic into Dreams in Christmas NiGHTS and to be honest, it's in danger of popping. Guess he should pay even more attention than usual when he's around spikes…
He's probably got green eyes too. This isn't the Mr Needlemouse (Sonic's original name before he was Sonic) that was hinted at in the Sonic 4's codename. This is modern Sonic. I'll forgive him if he can make it through the whole game without talking. Fingers crossed.
It isn't entirely 2D
It's a side-scroller, which is great. It's even got proper parallax scrolling. Five layers of it! But Sonic himself is 3D. So is Dr Robotnik. So instead of taking the chance to create an HD Sonic sprite, hand-drawn like Naoto Oshima's original artwork, we get some flat-shaded cartoony 3D. Even on the spinner. It's great to see Robotnik back in his flying machine, but look at it – how's that going to 'thunk' when you cannon into it? It looks like… well, something out of Sonic Rush. Which was a good game, but not quite what we imagined the series should look like with modern-day tech.
Sonic 4 will be download-only and this is episode 1. Fail. If you're going to make Sonic 4, do so and sell it in its entirety. Online-only is fine, if it makes it less of a financial risk. If it does well, make Sonic 5. But making us wait 16 years for a sequel to Sonic 3 and then giving us a little bit of it is simply cruel.
And how much will each instalment cost? If it's 800 MS points (conjecture, but a reasonable guess), that's £6.80 or $10. Three or four of those and you're getting into full-price game territory, at which point it might as well have been a disc release. Let's hope the 'download-only' status isn't a disclaimer for reduced content.
OK, enough ranting. I'll admit, it's incredibly petulant to wish for something for a decade and then throw mud in its face when it finally arrives. So here's the flipside – and what's still got me excited.
It's called Sonic 4
That means this has been deemed a worthy sequel to the brilliant Sonic 3. It's going to have wings, badniks, bosses and end-of-act spinners. And hopefully an amazing special stage too...
The enemies are proper Badniks
Know what this is?
It's a Moto-bug. I've been mourning the loss of the original Badnik character design for ages and it's great to see Sonic attacking them instead of larger, more humanoid robots with guns. I would like to see a Flicky appear after Sonic destroys it, but hopefully that's just the trailer's editing and not an indication that the plot has changed. I want to see squirrels in the final game. SQUIRRELS.
It's out on... ???
The official site says it's down for XBLA, PSN, WiiWare and '???'. What could that mean? Handhelds? If they took out the 3D characters, it would probably run on a Mega Drive. Totally improbable, but as a special-edition, that would be amazing.
And just imagine if they released a special edition version on Dreamcast too...
The graphical style is (almost) back
Lush green grass overhanging every surface, casting a shadow onto the iconic chequerboard browns, loop-de-loops and even the Sonic 2 twisting strip. There are blocks of colourful flowers and pseudo-3D relief in the ground under Sonic's feet. It's not quite this…
…but it's much better than this
It's slower than Sonic Rush
Believe it or not, most Sonic fans don't want blistering speed for the entire game. If you give people everything all of the time, it loses its impact. It's the 15-minute guitar solo syndrome. If you play Sonic 1, you'll notice how the speedy sections are carefully rationed, interspersed with hardcore platforming. Just look at how great the Labyrinth Zone's waterslide bits were. Compared to the mega-slow underwater action, they were like a theme park ride.
So that's what I think. And I can say with 100% certainty that I do not speak for the majority of the team (who are either indifferent or sceptical). But what do you think? Have I gone mad? Should I be not allowed to play the game after such an outburst? I am still excited about the game. I guess I just wanted the whole thing to be as magical as the first five seconds of Palmtree Panic. When anything was possible and Sonic was on top of the world…
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