If Sonic the Hedgehog 4 confirms anything, it’s that I was a much better gamer when I was eight years old. I certainly don’t recall having quite as many moments of post-coin-loss controller-punting frustration while playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog as a squeaky-voiced young rapscallion. Though I might as well have been eight again while playing SEGA’s new downloadable iteration of everyone’s favourite blue spiny mammal; Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is practically a time machine – a jolt of pure, fuzzy warm nostalgia wrapped up in an incredibly fun game.
Sonic hasn’t exactly had the greatest couple of decades before now. After a few games of 2D platforming bliss, the speedy, be-sneakered critter was tossed into the 3D age with mixed, mostly awful results. New Sonic games hit shelves regularly, but with concepts seemingly cooked up by mindless marketing droids struggling to comprehend what humans enjoy and mashing together a gaming equation accordingly.
Fans of the innocent cartoon hedgehog then watched baffled as he was jammed into genres and nonsensical situations that he didn’t belong, making out with human women (Sonic the Hedgehog, 2006), becoming a were-hog (Sonic Unleashed) or getting the requisite dark, edgy “Xtreme” treatment, complete with gun-toting hedgehogs (Shadow the Hedgehog). Sonic’s once limitless momentum sputtered to a grinding halt as gamers met each new game and spin-off with apathy and embarrassment.
Now comes Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, SEGA’s peace offering for 15 years of franchise mediocrity, reconnecting with what gamers loved about the series to begin with. Presented as a straight sequel to the third game (helpfully disavowing all knowledge of the games in-between), Episode 1 is in reality more of a remake than a new chapter. Stripped of unwelcome added characters and pared down to the original’s simple joy of speeding, jumping and spin-dashing your way to collect precious coins, the four zones you’ll be dashing through and the enemies therein are almost exact replicas of those faced in the first two games, as are the boss battles against Dr Robotnik.
Splash Hill Zone is Green Hill Zone almost exactly, Casino Street Zone is a dead ringer for Casino Night Zone, while the temple ruins and industrial zone, filled with gears, cogs and machinery will be instantly recognisable from the first three games. While a little diversity and less over-reliance on areas lifted from the original games will certainly be welcome in later chapters, for the first episode I can’t think of a more fitting, genius choice. Starting players off with a burst of nostalgia, it’s a simultaneously reassuring sign from SEGA that this is the Sonic you know and love, returned to glory and back to massage your visual cortex in shiny high-definition.
There are minor tweaks to the formula, though; aside from the niftier visuals, the difficulty has been ramped up a notch. It now takes a longer time to gather speed, with enemies and spike traps seemingly everywhere to kill your momentum (and you). Sadly the welcome challenge can often descend into frustration as the game has a tendency to launch you off on a rollercoaster of ramps and springs, only to end your exhilarating ride by steering you directly into an unavoidable enemy, rendering your coins and your faith in a fair and just gaming god completely lost.
It’s a practice akin to an old lady being helpfully guided across the street only for her Samaritan to dropkick her in the head upon reaching to the other side. Rather than encourage players to retry the level later for greater rewards, instead you’re occasionally thrown towards certain doom or jammed into mandatory obstacle-dodging ‘one tiny mistake means death’ situations and forced to replay the act and memorise the layout if you’re to escape the level with 50 coins and collect those precious Chaos Emeralds.
That being said, hardcore platformer fans may relish the challenge, and thankfully the minor moments of frustration are greatly outweighed by the sheer fun and great level design on display during the rest of the game. The added homing attack move, which allows Sonic to spin towards enemies or bumpers within a certain range while in mid-air, is a fantastic addition which brings a little more versatility and offers some great moments of fast-paced platforming on the crushed backs of your vanquished enemies.
A couple of button-pressing puzzles and a sequence that requires you to light a series of torches in a certain order to open a passageway provide a slightly more cerebral respite from the dizzying speeding and dashing antics without feeling out of place. All in all, it’s quintessential Sonic. The colourful, familiar scenery is a joy to dart through, the new (but distinctly retro 16-Bit era) music is wonderful, the alternately tranquil and tense bonus mazes are a blast and the levels themselves – especially the pinball/slot machine wonders of the Casino Street Zone – are just as addictive and insanely fun as ever.
Gamers might balk at the price for a single episode, but there’s a tonne of value on offer even for a lone chapter; there’s 4 zones, each with 3 acts and a boss level, along with additional revolving, psychedelic maze bonus stages, alternate routes through each level and trophies for those who’re feeling brave enough to attempt speed runs and try to top the online leaderboards.
It’s a game fuelled by nostalgia, and won’t be of much interest to those who never liked the original games, but for Sonic fans, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is exactly what they’ve wanted for over a decade – a new, back-to-basics entry in the series with amazing, addictive gameplay that’s perfectly in tune with everything that made the original games so fondly remembered.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is available to buy now on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Marketplace, WiiWare and iPad.