Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
The internet’s in disarray, fanboys are rattling their pitchforks, and absurd claims like ‘Sonic’s legs don’t move fast enough’ are already hurting our ears. Never one to condemn a game before we’ve had a good go, we sat down to experience Sega’s latest before passing judgement. Read on to find out why everything’s going to be alright…
After so many years of disappointment punctuated by rare breakthrough gems, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 should be a make-or-break release for Sega’s tired old mascot. For over two hardware generations, the fans have furiously typed away on message boards and online petitions, requesting that Sega take Sonic back to his 2D roots. But Sega, and Sonic Team, has changed beyond recognition since the Mega Drive days, so can the same 16-bit magic really be recaptured just by switching back to two dimensions?
As you might expect, we’re in two minds on the subject. From the handful of stages Sega has demoed to date, we can see that this is certainly a return to the classic values of the Sonic series. Though the visuals have more in common with the pre-rendered look of Rare’s Donkey Kong Country than the bitmap sprites of the Mega Drive, this is still unmistakably a Sonic game. The first stage’s title card may introduce it as ‘Splash Hill Zone’, but the palm trees, chequered hills, loop-the-loops and log bridges all scream Green Hill Zone, circa 1991.
Gameplay also seems reassuringly familiar. Sonic zips along at a fast-but-not-too-fast pace, with a balance between pathfinding and simply holding right on the D-pad very similar to that of the original games. Bottomless pits are thankfully conspicuous by their absence, while secret areas, hidden behind breakable walls, appear throughout each stage.
As has been well publicised by now, Sonic is the only playable character in Episode 1, and it’s comforting to see that there are no supporting NPCs or story sequences either. The game just begins as Sonic The Hedgehog always should – with a be-sneakered blue hedgehog impatiently waiting for your command as he faces right toward his high-speed destiny.
Just about the only thing that could have felt ‘too new’ is the divisive addition of the homing attack mechanic, which will be more familiar to players of the 3D games. We’re told that old school gamers will still be able to play manually, carefully comboing their own bounces across Badnik heads just for the satisfaction of doing so. But Sega has also built a full gameplay mechanic around the function, with consecutive homing attacks accruing a cumulative score bonus. After spotting the brief appearance of a separate Score Attack mode on the level select screen, we can only imagine how important the homing attack will become to those who wish to memorise the layouts of each stage and meticulously plan out their maximum score routines. And for those who merely want to enjoy Sonic 4 as a standard platform adventure game, Sega also seems to have designed its stages accordingly. The second act of Splash Hill Zone, for example, features a series of Sonic 3-style vines that lead to an optional area filled with power-ups. Each is placed just far enough apart from the other that they can only be traversed by using a combination of jumps and homing attacks.
The signs are certainly there to suggest that this may in fact be a worthy successor to the original Yuji Naka creations but… this wouldn’t be a new Sonic game unless we had something to complain about, no matter how trivial. Ironically, our most pressing concern at this point is that Sega might have dialled back the game design a little too far. Sure, we wanted a Mega Drive-style Sonic game, but the number ‘4’ in the title suggests a progression and evolution of the ideas put forth in all three original games, whereas what we’ve seen so far seems to be more exclusively a HD throwback to Sonic 1 alone. But then, that may be where Episode 2 comes in. With five levels, each containing three acts and a boss battle, Episode 1 promises to be a fairly substantial and self-contained game. Sega isn’t saying what will appear in Episode 2 just yet, but we’re expecting change. Whether that’s change for the better or worse remains to be seen.