Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

With Sonic 4, Sega promised to put their flagship series through the gameplay strainer, and they’ve done exactly that, consigning the cutscenes, werehog fighty bits and clingy losers such as Big the Cat to the drainpipe, leaving nothing remaining but fat, juicy lumps of fun.

Sonic 4 is to Sonic as New Super Mario Bros was to Mario – the essence of the series purified, distilled and, in a way, stereotyped. But while Mario’s always been comfortable starring in games of variable complexity (the main reason why the facile NSMBW failed to charm our socks off), Sonic has always been a recipe best left unseasoned. Give us some speed, a time attack mode and an egg-shaped tubster to bash after every three stages and we’re happy.

And on balance, we are happy withthis downloadableSonic. The opening stage – Splash Hill Zone – is a charming homage to Green Hill Zone. Loop-the-loops, winding mobius strips and hedgehog-pinging bumpers fill out the level in a satisfying manner, with not a quick-time event or dodgy paragliding section in sight. The sound effects are pulled straight from the 16-bit days (‘ker-ling’ to collect a ring, ‘rrreerrrt’ to jump) and both the loading screen and the extra life icons rip their sprites straight from the heart of the nearest Genesis/Mega Drive.

The bonus stages, activated by finishing a level with over 50 rings, resemble the mazes from the very first Sonic the Hedgehog, but with a modern twist. Now, instead of reacting to the spin of the maze, the player controls it. A Chaos Emerald is still the prize, but now Sonic has to fight for his right to even be in the same room as the gem – doors blocking off access have to be removed by collecting a set number of rings.

Sonic 4 will be split into three episodes, each containing four zones of three acts (and a boss) apiece, with this first outing available in the summer. Pricing hasn’t been confirmed and could yet prove to be a contentious issue – there’s enough here to warrant possiblyeight bucks,but much more than that and it might be a harder sell. But there’s nothing else to moan about – this is old-school Sonic, done right.

We hope some of the other Zones shove the Blue One into new surroundings though; familiarity can breed contempt. Even Mario found that out once.

Mar 22, 2010