When you've been regularly playing the same game for 19 years, you're going to notice any differences in a new sequel. And I'll be the first to admit that I threw all my toys out of the pram when I saw the first footage of Sonic 4. The physics are different, the art design is different… perhaps it was just too different to be worthy of the name 'Sonic 4'. How could anything possibly live up to that name? To my utmost surprise, it does.
Initial impressions from the first few seconds of play were exactly the same. Toys, pram... it wasn't pretty. The screen looks ultra-clean, Sonic's animation is better than it was in that early build but still not incredible, and the physics are... different. But after the shaking stopped and the fear of change subsided, I started to have fun. A lot of fun.
Above: Why is Sonic running in and out of the screen on a levitating pathway of playing cards? Cos he can
Sonic 4 is a joyous game. It has four main levels, set in familiarly-themed locations. There's the Emerald Hill-alike Splash Hill, Casino Night-alike Casino Street, Labyrinth throwback Lost Labyrinth and finally Mad Gear, which is like Metropolis zone from Sonic 2, only slightly more forgiving. It's no secret that there's a secret E.G.G. Station zone too, which contains one of the biggest fan-pleasing moments of recent years, but I'll let you discover that one for yourself.
Above: The map screen manages to make it look like day and night can co-exist. That's next-gen
The game plays like no other Sonic game. While it borrows the vast majority of its level furniture from the first three 16-bit classics, the feel is very different. You can immediately spot DIMPS' involvement, as there's a fair smattering of Sonic Rush's characteristics. The acceleration over flat land, the movement over hills… but that game's trick system has been almost completely stripped away, making this the purest Sonic game since Sonic Advance 1 on GBA.
You get the lock-on attack from Sonic Adventure, which threatens to change the game too much, but is actually used sparingly and works well almost all of the time. There are a couple of occasions where you want to use the air dash to power over a spiked enemy's head, but the game thinks you want to attack it, resulting in a cascade of lost rings.
Above: The target lock is forgiving and lets you reach otherwise-inaccessible areas at the top of the levels
You'll want the rings too, as the familiar-looking bonus stages from Sonic 1 return. I've explained before about the way you have to rotate the maze (now not on Sixaxis tilt control, though the iPhone version retains it) and get enough rings to unlock gates within a strict time limit. I'm a big fan of the new special stages as they're absolutely hardcore, and getting all seven emeralds comes with a wonderful sense of achievement.
Above: The final special stage requires 99 rings in 90 seconds. You can get more time, but it's crazy hard