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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 - review

AT A GLANCE
  • The purest Sonic game for ten years
  • Works on so many gameplay levels, like its predecessors
  • So much game to master, despite its diminutive size
  • Can be 'completed' in one evening
  • Physics are different, not necessarily worse
  • Visuals could have been even better

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.

 

Buzz-saw attack

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


Let's get physical 

Going back to Sonic 1 after spending hours with its new sibling feels very strange. Sonic 4 handles very differently. It's more… bold. Clinical, even. Every movement seems more deliberate, and while the finer nuances of low-speed control have arguably been lost, it's at high speed that it reveals its true depths.

I mentioned that lock on attack can be used as a simple air boost. When running at speed, this has a noticeable acceleration effect, allowing you to reach speeds on open stretches that old Sonic simply wouldn't be able to do without a hill to help him. Jumps on hills still react as you'd expect, and landing a jump on a decline results in a welcome burst of speed, just like those loop-jumps of Sonic 2.


Above: Learn the physics and you can start speed-running levels. This isn't a bad time to kick things off...

The game was called 'Project Needlemouse' in its early days, a clear indication that this was meant to be what the team would have done with Sonic 1, had today's tech been available at the time. While it's clearly been held back by its multiplatform compatibility (and I still maintain that recent fan videos look more impressive from an observer's point of view), the game gets some crucial things that fans wanted absolutely right.

For instance, Sonic is mute. He doesn't even say 'Yeah, not bad' at the end of an act, which I actually started to miss. Also, the badniks are faithful to their original designs – none of that crappy humanoid robot stuff here. Just Newtrons, Moto-bugs and Asterons. Mario's always had his Goombas, so it's great to see the old-school enemies back in a Sonic game.


Above: "So, Sonic - we meet again. You can have this invincibility item, but you'll have to get through me first"

The soundtrack can grate just a little bit when you're restarting stages continuously for time trial, which I wouldn't say is true of the old games, but the mix of straight-lifted Mega Drive effects and high-quality 2010 MIDI works a treat. The new music shares tempos and musical styles with the old themes too, all adding to the feeling that this is a celebration of the old, just delivered in the higher fidelity of the new. 

 

Do you want to live forever?

There is one concern, however. The game simply haemorrhages extra lives. The Casino zone in particular gives you so many bonus lives for doing nought but push forwards means you'll hit 100 spare Sonics in about two hours' play. Sure, Sonic newbies will have more of a struggle, but I doubt many regular gamers will ever see the Game Over screen… if indeed there is one.


Above: Get three Sonics in any five cards you pass (which is a lot) and you get another 1-Up. Er... 126 Sonics?

So how much game is there for Sonic experts? I was able to beat the entire game, collected all the emeralds and beat the secret zone in one evening. After that, there are separate score and time attack modes to try for every stage, complete with online leaderboards. These are split into all/friends categories, and scores attained with Super Sonic are categorised separately from regular Sonic.

Add in the countless hidden routes through levels and it's clear there's a truck-load of replayability. Finding the fastest routes and mastering them is going to take weeks, maybe months. Maybe years.


Above: Wait a minute... rings don't go through walls! I sense a secret room... oh, I've been squashed


Oi, short stuff

The Episode 1 subtitle and single evening completion suggests it's a short game. But it's probably as long as Sonic 1, with more routes to find and just as many reasons to come back. Plus not everyone will want to blaze through it. You may still look at the score and the phrase 'single evening' and wonder how on Earth the two go together. But they do. Seeing the end sequence is only the beginning. The game's greatest achievement is making the levels fun both the first time you play them and the hundredth (yep, I was up gone midnight playing Time Attack). It's classic Sonic.

In fact, 'classic Sonic' sums up the game quite nicely. It's got everything the original stood for, from speed to careful platforming, varied routes to secret rooms. While it isn't as brazenly spectacular as I'd hoped it would be, some of the 3D backgrounds are really rather beautiful, and you soon appreciate the detail in the HD foregrounds. It's also rock solid – the extra development time has made this the slickest Sonic game I've seen since Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic's movement is reliable and measured. Perhaps too measured for some fans, but it's converted me.


Above: Sonic 4 may not make the most of the hardware's potential, but that background is beautiful, deep 3D

A friend on Facebook asked me to sum up the game in one word. It's a tough thing to do. I wouldn't say 'magnificent' – it's still a little too unambitious for that. I certainly wouldn't say 'disappointing', because Sonic Team and DIMPS have done the impossible and managed to make this most critical of Sonic fans love a new Sonic game.

So I'm going to plump for 'deserving'. And I mean that in two ways. It's deserving of your time and your money despite its length. But more importantly, it's deserving of the name 'Sonic The Hedgehog 4'. That was always going to be this game's biggest challenge, but it's succeeded with aplomb.

08 Oct, 2010

More Info

Release date: Oct 07 2010 - iPhone (US)
Oct 07 2010 - iPhone (UK)
Available Platforms: Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, iPhone
Genre: Action
Published by: Sega
Developed by: Sonic Team
Franchise: Sonic the Hedgehog
ESRB Rating:
Rating Pending
PEGI Rating:
Rating Pending

51 comments

  • Darkhawk - November 13, 2011 10:27 a.m.

    Permanent price drop with Generations' release. Finally picked it up. One thing: stop comparing to Sonic 1. Any game that doesn't have a speed-dash is not true Sonic. (Seriously: who knew Sonic 1 had no dash?)
  • HankVenture - May 14, 2011 6:02 p.m.

    just re-saw this score and I gotta say, I think justin might need a time machine..or a pair of anti sonic fanboy glasses because this game was not great at all. but personal opinion so maybe he still feels it deserved a 9
  • Spybreak8 - October 13, 2010 11:36 p.m.

    Yeah I got all excited for the demo but it only gives you one level, the starting level!? Wha? I really need to see more with the price tag to distinguish a buy (not gonna lie I'm not the biggest Sonic fan).
  • burdmayn - October 13, 2010 3:25 p.m.

    Holy amazing game, and according to GamesRadar it's better than Halo: Reach
  • AnthonyTony - October 12, 2010 7:24 p.m.

    I've just played the demo, and it's good to see Sonic almost back to his normal self. Sonic has been so mistreated over the years, and my healthy Sonic addiction from the Genesis/Mega Drive games has led me to give most Sonic games a chance. But most of the games just sucked, and it felt like Sonic Team didn't understand their own character. Rush brought back a lot of nostalgia for me, and I liked the speed of it, but some of the level design was so unforgiving. Unleashed just seemed to torture me... it was like they were so close to making the perfect 2.5D/3D Sonic game, and some suit said... don't bother finishing the speed levels, this game needs a werewolf... A BLOODY WEREWOLF!!! The speed levels needed to be twice that length, and the last stage needed to be slightly easier, AND the werewolf needed to be send to the recycle bin, and they would have had their perfect current gen Sonic game. I digress... rant over... Sonic 4 seems to feel a bit like "we don't really know what we did wrong after 3, so we'll just go back to the old formula and see if it works". That's not really a bad thing, but I hope that they do try to improve on the formula without werewolves, humans, and Sonic speaking.
  • Phoenix_Gamma - October 12, 2010 7 p.m.

    Really?! I beat it last night and thought the game was totally phoned in. There's almost zero creativity, the graphics are a little shoddy looking, the music sounds like a MIDI off of Jeffery's First Geocities Page, and overall there's just no charm. It's totally phoned in. Kinda like the New Mario Bros games for DS and Wii, except those games actually added at least one neat thing. I'm really disappointed. IMO this isn't deserving of the Sonic 4 title. More like Sonic 1: Bad Music and Iffy Graphics Edition, Cruise Control Jumping Remix.
  • bball42242442 - October 12, 2010 2:01 a.m.

    i'm loving all these remakes of games i loved growing up!
  • MightyMorphinPoltergeist - October 11, 2010 10:02 p.m.

    So, Sonic 4 is better than Halo: Reach. BIAS! j/k of course, can't wait to give it a try..
  • g4m3rk1dd - October 11, 2010 5:14 p.m.

    "can be 'completed' in one evening" well i do that with most games anyway...its a complex... im glad to see that sonic is back to his original self
  • NardPuppy - October 11, 2010 5:29 a.m.

    Glad to finally see Sonic in a game that doesn't suck the balls off of a donkey's sack.
  • nyef - October 11, 2010 1:25 a.m.

    FINALLY! After 10 years they've done it! ...most sonic games took only one short amount of time to complete... If anything that should make the game even better!
  • secretsearcher - October 10, 2010 6:18 p.m.

    I don't usually care for Sonic games, but this might be what changes my mind. I don't have anything new to play until the 3DS comes out anyway (WAITING FOR GOLDEN SUN IS KILLING ME)
  • Aletheon - October 10, 2010 7:08 a.m.

    Sonic fanatics always seem slightly deranged and lost, but I can appreciate their passion. Will probably check out Sonic 4, if only to appease the sonic cult.
  • PaperLampHoles - October 10, 2010 5:27 a.m.

    Yeah awesome review should have internet setup in my house just in time to download this
  • ACE-VAMP - October 10, 2010 1:36 a.m.

    sonic adv 2 will always be the best sonic game, cant stand 2D sonic now. where is sonic adv 3
  • hardcore_gamer1990 - October 9, 2010 11:22 p.m.

    The 126 lives sonic has are representative of the number of crap games he's been in AND the number of people who still loved him before this game. Iiiiithankyoouu.
  • Darkhawk - October 9, 2010 9:58 p.m.

    GR hated on Sonic 4 for so long, it's nice to see this review.
  • SouthTippBass - October 9, 2010 10:53 a.m.

    Yes yes, all very good. But does it still say "SEEEEEEEEGGGGAAAAAAAAA!!!!" when you load it up? Thats a game breaker for me! Ha! I joke, this is fantastic news, I cant wait to play this :-) welcome back Sonic!!!
  • bluscorp - October 9, 2010 9:14 a.m.

    To be honest I've never really got in to Sonic, always prefered Mario meself. But i might get this off PSN soon.
  • alexfruen - October 9, 2010 7:25 a.m.

    The thing that irritates me most about the physics is the fact that sonic stops dead in mid air if you're not pressing forward (how is that physically possible?!) Where is the inertia that we were so used to in the old games? It annoys me so much I actually don't want to play it!

Showing 1-20 of 51 comments

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