Although we were Sonic the Hedgehog fans early on in the series, and continued to pick up occasional release thereafter, we felt that the franchise was broken — conceptually bankrupt — long before it became fashionable to say so. So when we say that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I ($10) is little more than a brief, graphically improved, and less than totally polished rehash of Sonic 2 with small elements taken from later games in the series, fans will know exactly what we mean. And they’ll probably still buy it anyway, because the franchise has been so abused that rewarmed content has a better chance of being worthwhile than something new.
For those who aren’t familiar with older Sonic games, the blue Sega mascot has run through countless and similar grid, ruins, pinball casino, factory, and maze stages before, leaving a blur behind as he winds through tunnels, corkscrews, and loop de loops, jumps on platforms, and swings from ropes and vines. Some of the stages are largely about running and not getting killed; others are about making more precise jumps from one moving object to another. The formula is like well-worn concrete, and its contours so familiar to players that any less than brilliant attempt to improve it has fallen flat.
There have been so many less than brilliant attempts over the years that Sega appears to have stopped trying, so Sonic 4 goes back to being just a pure Sonic game without other characters—not that most people will mind—and with entirely predictable level designs. On the plus side, some of the interactive objects are cool: zip ties, loops that rotate the entire level around, and the famous Sonic 2 corkscrews are here, along with familiar Dr. Eggman boss confrontations, crumbling walls, and robotic animals in need of being jumped on. Sonic has run, jump, and homing bounce abilities, the latter borrowed from later games such as Sonic Adventure and sometimes used to good effect here.
On the other hand, so many enemies litter some of the 16 primary stages’ landscapes that running too fast without a shield or invincibility power-up will get you killed; in others, the challenge is merely navigating the terrain, which is constructed to obstruct you unless you follow a specific set of paths. The challenge of balancing the fun of running and the skill of simultaneously jumping has never been easy for Sonic level designers, and continues to be a problem here. Casino stages as just one example have some horribly boring segments, wherein you’re not running, but rather bouncing from cannon to cannon a la Donkey Kong Country, or trying to navigate a pinball machine until you gather 100,000 points, a chore that you’ll just want to be done with. There are actually moments when you can feel how the developers tried to compensate for the lack of fun by guiding you more gently through the obstacles, and many others where you can see the same objects and concepts repeating again and again within the large, multi-path levels. We were initially surprised that Sega lets you select from most of the game’s stages early on, rather than forcing you to take a linear path; soon we realized that it was another way to let you find and enjoy the parts of the game that are good rather than dwelling on the rough patches.
By design, the graphics look like an improved but not radically different update to the 16-bit original games rather than any of the subsequent 3-D sequels, with sparing use of polygons for characters, plus 2-D backdrops that are more impressively detailed than in prior portable renditions, though not Retina Display high-res. Music is 16-bit chip styled with a couple of high points, but loops so quickly—noticeable particularly during some of the bad casino segments—that the bad tracks are more memorable. Classic rotating bonus maze stages from the original Sonic are back, now accelerometer-controlled, and deliberately made wonky so that they’re not easy… or particularly fun. Nothing here save for the resolution of the artwork rises to the occasionally impressive levels of Sega’s Nintendo DS Sonic Rush titles, which could as easily have claimed to be “Sonic 4” as this, and frankly had a lot more energy.
Putting the ridiculously long period of hype aside, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I is a good but not great game, standing out more because of its updated graphics and largely iPhone/iPod touch-friendly controls than anything else. It’s better than Sega’s last two Sonic ports were for the iPhone and iPod touch, but would not have stood on its own as a 32-bit console release, and might have even faltered as a full-priced Nintendo DS or Sony PSP title. The initial $10 asking price is too high for what feels like less than a full game full of rewarmed stages and action, so wait until the inevitable price drop—or the release of additional “episode” content to fill this game out—unless you’re a die hard Sonic fan.
Company and Price
Company: Sega of America
Title: Sonic the Hedgehog 4
Compatible: iPod touch, iPhone