Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 (PS3) – Review

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is not quite the game we were promised. I know this is an important point for a lot of people who were looking forward to this game when it was first announced. We were all told that Sonic 4 would be a direct sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, complete with the classic Genesis gameplay. However, if you start Sonic 4 expecting it to feel like the classic Genesis games, you’re in for some surprises.

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.

These quirks aren’t exactly bad. I only noticed the lack of inertia when I was playing around with the physics in the first level. After that, I was basically always moving anyway, so it was never really a problem. There’s also the matter of the homing attack, which those crazy classic Sonic fans decided was going to ruin the whole thing. It doesn’t. It’s actually a nice addition. In the 3D Sonic games, the homing attack propels you forward when there are no enemies around. It still does that in Sonic 4, but it doesn’t send you quite as far forward. It’s still much more efficient to spin dash if you want to build up speed, but the homing attack is useful for changing directions in mid air or cutting off a jump from a spring. Of course, it’s also handy for taking out lines of enemies to reach items and higher platforms.

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.

There are four zones and each zone has three acts and a boss level. This makes the game sound kind of short before you start playing, but that’s means there are 12 acts, not counting boss levels. Sonic 3 had 12 levels, though, granted, they were somewhat longer. Sonic 4’s longevity, like that of every other 2D Sonic game, comes from playing those 12 levels over and over again. Still, many on the fence may decide to skip Sonic 4 because of its $15 price tag.

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 special stages are another difficulty “bump.” They’re based on the special stages from Sonic 1, with Sonic tumbling around a rotating maze, trying to make his way to the Chaos Emerald. This time around, you don’t control Sonic, but instead control the rotation of the maze. It’s pretty tough, and can be really frustrating when you get close to the end and run out of time or hit one of the red “!” orbs that ends the stage. You have to play an entire level and finish it with 50 rings to get to the Special Stage in the first place, so doing so can be a nuisance. Luckily, if you pause the stage and select “restart” from the menu before running out of time, you can start the Special Stage over without having to replay the entire prior level. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work if you hit a red orb.

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.

There are no “friends,” Sonic doesn’t talk, the badniks are animals, and the only human in sight is Eggman. If retro Sonic is Sega’s goal, Sonic 4 is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s just a shame that it’s not quite the return to Sonic’s golden age that were promised. Overall, while it might not be the sequel fans were waiting for, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a good game in its own right. It’s closer to Sonic 3 than it is to, say, Sonic Rush, which is more about pure speed than precision platforming. That said, Sonic 4 is more like a Sonic Advance game than an original trilogy Sonic game. Sega needs to learn that when fans cry for a new Genesis-style Sonic game, many of them mean a game that feels like a Genesis-style Sonic game. That means a game that uses similar physics with the classic Sonic philosophy of momentum-based speed mixed with platforming, not one that takes old level gimmicks and puts a new twist on them while drastically changing the feel of the game.

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.

The Tanooki Rating – 7.8/10

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About the Author: Rhody Tobin

  • Chris M.

    Very nice review. The physics annoyed me to no end when I first played this game. The final boss is fairly easy if you played Sonic 2 (hint hint). You should also mention the reward for collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds and the teaser image at the end if you beat the final boss with all of the Emeralds. A nice teaser for Episode II.