The most noticeable difference is Sonic’s complete disregard for inertia, at least after he starts moving. He certainly takes a while to go from standing still to running, but if you spin dash forward and then jump without holding a direction on the D-pad, he’ll simply stop short in mid air and fall straight down to the ground. In the traditional pinball level, a flipper might send him across the gap to the one on the other side if you time it just right, but he’s more likely to just fall into the gap between the flippers.
Sonic seems to stick to surfaces like an insect, too. If you start from a standstill just outside of a loop and try to go through it, he’ll simply walk up the side and start jogging when he hits the top before running down the opposite side. There was even one point where I landed on a ramp and simply stopped moving on a perfectly vertical wall. Sonic was just standing there, hanging off the wall, perfectly horizontal, tapping his foot, because apparently defying gravity is boring for him.
Though the homing attack does help, it’s rarely required due to the level designs. Each zone is based on a zone from the Genesis Sonic games. In fact, Act 1 of the Casino Street Zone might as well be Casino Night Zone Act 3 (Sonic 2). It’s not just the themes that reference Sonic games of yore, either; tons of familiar gimmicks show up in every level, including a moving wall threatening to crush you against a series of ramps (like in the Hydrocity zone in Sonic 3) or an underwater maze with life-saving air bubbles seeping from the ground (a lot like the Labyrinth zone in Sonic 1). Every boss is based on a classic Sonic boss (with a few new tricks, of course) and even 16-bit sprites make the occasional cameo.
The difficulty curve is a little strange. The main levels (which can be played in any order once you finish the first act of the first zone) are mostly incredibly easy, with a few bumps along the way. The flipping card platforms in Casino Street Act 2 are a little tricky to time, and you’ll probably hear people talking about “that damn torch puzzle” from Lost Labyrinth Act 2 for years to come. The final boss is where you’ll finally start to tear your hair out, though. I finished the game with a whopping 92 lives, but that’s after losing 16 of them to that final boss. These lives mostly came from running through the second act of the Casino Street zone a few times. That stage is like a 1-up frenzy. Just running through the first 30 seconds of the level can get you 5 lives.
The music is catchy and fun, and never annoying if you’re used to Genesis sounds. It’s never reaches the level of the phenomenal Sonic 3 & Knuckles soundtrack, but it’s difficult to reach Michael Jackson levels without being Michael Jackson. (Believe.) There’s even a different song for every act, which is nice. Most of the sound effects are taken directly from the Genesis Sonics. It’s amazing how so many things from the original trilogy can work so well in a game that feels very little like it belongs in that trilogy.
One thing that isn’t very “retro” is the graphical style. Everything is still bright and colorful, of course. The backgrounds have lots of detail, as do the pre-rendered foregrounds, though the latter do get a little busy at times. The sprites are high resolution and the animations are smooth. I especially like Sonic’s new running animation: instead of being a circle, his legs move in a flat oval shape, which works well with his Dreamcast-era redesign.
Some classic Sonic fans won’t be happy until they can build a time machine and force 1995’s Sonic Team to make Sonic 4 for the Genesis. Others are content to play games like Sonic Advance (which was also developed by Dimps) as an alternative to the classics. These fans might actually be pleasantly surprised by Sonic 4. Personally, I’m already looking forward to Episode 2.