October 15, 2010

Review – Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

I never owned a Sega console. I thought I’d come right out and say that, so there’s no confusion. I am not attached to Sonic; indeed, when I was growing up, Sonic was the enemy—the figurehead for those dark, unknown other children, playing their Genesis and carrying out Sega’s terrible bidding.

My encounters with Sonic—The Blue Satan—were largely exclusive to instances where I would commandeer my cousin’s Game Gear on thanksgiving. It had color; Tetris could not compete for my attention. Now I’m a little older and a little more polytheistic with regards to my console allegiances, but I still may not be the ideal test subject for the coherent nostalgia beam conjured by Sega’s latest Sonic release, the wholly digital Sonic 4.

If this seems familiar, it’s probably with good reason.

The game is presented exactly as you would expect: like an old school Sonic game, from music to level design, right down to the title screens. Though I am immune to Sonic 4’s efforts to appeal to the collective childhood of the gaming community, the design here is so familiar that even an old SNES Soldier such as I could not help but chuckle at the 16-bit era charm. Art design follows the old Genesis conventions updated to 3D, and the result is a sharp, colorful game world that’s always clear, never jumbled or distracting.

Gameplay is equally recognizable; Sonic plays the same as you may remember, using the same moves, acquiring the same power-ups and making a mad dash for the finish line hoping to have some blasted rings left. He now has a targeted spin ability that will help you zip out of the air straight towards specific enemies or objects in the environment, which serves to keep the pace of the game up even as you maneuver to dispose of enemies or bounce yourself off bumpers. Some areas, however, require some delicate platforming that’s bound to slow you down (lest you old Sega Acolytes possess some secret technique of which I am not aware), which can feel a little strange after blasting your way through most of the level.

Sonic will automatically target nearby enemies and interactive elements of the environment, ensuring you keep a good pace.

There are also some noticeable difficulty spikes that can make certain areas of the game tedious. Early stages are ludicrously simple, so much so that when you finally do encounter a challenge, it’s like hitting a brick wall. I had stockpiled around 25 lives when I first died, and at that point I lost at least twenty of them in one level. The final boss battle—first repeating all four previous battles before giving you a new, final challenge—is ludicrously long and is bound to drain your lives and have you heading back to the special stages to stock up. Fortunately, the bulk of the game is not so aggravating, but it would have been better to see a smoother difficulty curve. As it stands, the game bounces crazily between too easy and too difficult.

The trade is that you get a pretty fair amount of variety for a game modeled on an old platformer. One level sees Sonic racing through a dark labyrinth with hand-held torch lighting only his immediate area, and whatever wall-mounted torches he might find. There are some unique tasks, like lighting fuses to blow open new paths, running atop giant cogs to unseal doors, or balancing atop a boulder as it rolls across a set of tracks. These provide fun challenges to break up the standard gameplay, and don’t appear so frequently as to become tedious. There’s even some light puzzling to be had, requiring Sonic to work out solutions to progress to new areas.

The final stage (before the multi-part battle with Robotnik) sees Sonic outracing an approaching wall threatening to crush him, and is presented with fewer obstacles than other stages, allowing for a more free race through the stage. Between the rush of the gameplay, the fantastic old school music, and the fact that I was finally getting a grip on a game mechanic I don’t have the benefit of childhood experience with, this stage is where I had the most fun and really understood the appeal of Sonic.

When we were kids, did we ever question how a bouncing hedgehog could defeat a sophisticated mobile weapons platform?

Levels are designed with multiple paths, and they’re often not designed to be won on the first pass. As the terrain blasts buy it’s impossible not to feel the satisfying rush, until an enemy or environmental dangers rears up in front of you, teaching you that you’d best look before you leap. If you’re overzealous you can fly right off the stage into the abyss, sending you back to your checkpoint—or back to the beginning of the stage. The rings forgive your mistakes, and it’s a simple matter to head back for more lives if you really hit the wall, so even with the inconsistent difficulty, you’ll never really be left in the cold.

The entire affair will take about three hours—less if you’re a Sonic veteran, and more if you’re as woefully inexperienced as I. Replayability won’t be there for the casual, but hardcore fans are going to want to keep playing to earn spots on the leaderboards, explore the branching level paths, and earn all the Chaos Emeralds. There’s a surprising amount of variety here for 16-bit style platforming adventure, making for a fun, if brief experience even for a relative neophyte. Those of you who are old Sega stalwarts are going to have the added bonus of a blast of nostalgia, evoking the days when Sonic was an industry giant and SNES-kids like me were sneering at you from across the lunchroom.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I
DeveloperDimps, Sonic Team
System – Playstation 3 (PSN), Xbox 360 (Xbox LIVE), Nintendo Wii, iPhone (Playstation 3 reviewed)
Release Date – October 7, 2010 (iPhone), October 11, 2010 (Nintendo Wii), October 12, 2010 (PSN), October 13, 2010 (Xbox Live)
Price – $14,99, 1200 Microsoft Points, 1500 Wii Points

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review


  1. as a nintendo kid growing up myself, the only time I played a sonic game was sonic and knuckles on the multi-game genesis at my dentist’s office growing up. I wouldn’t touch the series until sonic rush for the DS and found myself in love with the series besides what the internet has currently turned that series into (never search sonic on deviantart, just sayin’).

    For an episodic game, 15 bucks has me a little troubled by the idea of buying it, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to steady my hand away from the purchase button. I might wait for the inevitable disc release of all the chapters for a bargain price, but maybe I’ll see how the next 3 turn out first, and see if sega is listening to the qualms with difficulty balance and poor level design in certain areas. I feel that if they do, they could fully revive the series to the pedestal it once stood on, and not just a rose-colored image seen through the glasses of nostalgia and the tainted thoughts of underage girl-on-sonic action and “hardcore” mediocre 3D gameplay.

    Comment by Sam Scott Given — October 15, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  2. Finally! I’ve been waiting FOREVER for this review! ;)

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — October 15, 2010 @ 11:42 am

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