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Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Score: 70%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Sega
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Classic/Retro/ Platformer (2D)

Graphics & Sound:

The drawing board is rarely an unwise destination for a failing franchise, especially when the years have been as cruel as they've been to poor old Sonic the Hedgehog. Most fans of the series would rather not think about the games he's headlined over the course of the last decade. They're right to avoid those thoughts, because there's no getting around what happened to Sega's mascot. The Blue Blur fell from the stratosphere in a dead man's dive (Sonic Adventure), burst into flames (Shadow the Hedgehog) and hit rock bottom head first at terminal velocity (2006's Sonic the Hedgehog). The series was practically broken. Such a systemic defilement of a well-beloved series was practically unheard of in the industry. Well, the first step to recovery is admission, and Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I aims to start the recovery process in earnest. Sonic Team almost succeeds, but too many of the basics are fumbled to make the final product worth more than a single look.

Do you remember Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog 2? Someone at Sega probably hopes you don't, because the environmental designs Sonic 4: Ep. I are lifted straight from those games. Splash Hill = Green Hill. Casino Street = Casino Night. Lost Labyrinth = Labyrinth. Mad Gear = Metropolis. There are some mechanical variances in the levels, but by and large, the world has been almost completely ripped off. Even the boss fights have been recycled; save for a few new moves, they're identical to their 16-bit counterparts. At least the game as a whole looks decent. Recycled environments aside, the game occasionally goes out of its way to remind you that we're no longer living in the 16-bit days. Little effects have Sonic running towards and away from the screen; it's nice, but I think the game would have been better served by the original engine. Oddly enough, the weakest link in the visuals has to do with Sonic himself. His footfalls rarely correlate to his actual speed.

Old-school Sonic games are known for catchy, irresistable soundtracks. Sonic 4: Ep. I fails in that regard, but the music is by no means bad. It sounds like something you'd hear from a Genesis game, but without the audio-related weaknesses of that platform. This music certainly belongs in a Sonic game, but it compares poorly to the original stuff. The sound effects have been faithfully preserved; fans wouldn't have it any other way. If they replaced the classic ring sound (or even the bizarre bass-heavy death sound), it just wouldn't feel like a Sonic game. The audio's biggest achievement is the voice acting, or rather, the complete lack thereof. Sega has wisely opted to shut Sonic's trap, but so much damage has been done in this department that I'm still slow to forgive them.


Gameplay:

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I hearkens back to the days when developers didn't need to tell a story to sell their games. I personally don't think they ever really had to, but a bit of context to drive your actions can make all the difference. Sonic 4: Ep. I doesn't give you much to work with, apart from the stuff that's been ripped off. Missing animal friends? Check. Dr. Robotnik? Sort of check. (I refuse to call him Eggman) Chaos Emeralds? Of course. As I mentioned in the above section, Sonic 4: Ep. I blatantly rips off its own heritage, resulting in four rehashed versions of classic Sonic zones. The gameplay doesn't stick to the formula the whole way through, and it even gets experimental at times. It doesn't matter how you cut it: Sonic is not Indiana Jones. It's not fun to have a speedy character running through a dark, booby-trapped crypt with a torch.

Sonic 4: Ep. I is Sega's attempt to bring Sonic back to his roots. It marks the return of the long-running franchise to two-dimensional action. All you need to do is run from left to right, traversing each Act as quickly and efficiently as you can. Along the way, you'll want to pick up as many rings as you can; as long as you have at least one, Sonic can take a hit without dying. Collecting fifty or more will cause a ring portal to appear at the end of the stage.

Special Stages in Sonic 4: Ep. I are structured similarly to the ones in Sonic The Hedgehog. However, you don't control Sonic directly in these spinning labyrinths; you control the stage itself by rotating it in a direction of your choosing. You'll have to clear gates by collecting rings, and you'll need to shave your time down while avoiding stage-ending dead ends. Succeed, and a Chaos Emerald is yours. Collect them all, and... well, that's a non-secret that I won't even bother spoiling. The challenge level ramps up from harmless to merciless, so be prepared.


Difficulty:

From the beginning of the Splash Hill Zone to the end of the Casino Street Zone, Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I is a cakewalk. You will rarely die, and you'll be racking up the extra lives like they're nothing. That's a good thing, because the second half of the game can get really painful. The final boss will probably eat up a good portion of those lives; some of his attacks are difficult to avoid, and he goes out with a cheap, cowardly bang that will catch most gamers off guard. I don't like to spoil things like this, but when it forces gamers to play through the same tedious three-minute stretch over and over again, it has to be addressed.

Sonic 4: Ep. I's difficulty issues stem from its imprecise controls. Since Sonic takes so long to get going (in the air or on the ground), the biggest problem has to do with the player's inability to jump with precision. From the Lost Labyrinth Zone to the Mad Gear Zone, your negotiating room is tapered off to the point where the game doesn't settle for much less than perfection. It's doable, but it can be frustrating as hell.


Game Mechanics:

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I's greatest sin is in how it undermines the foundation of the franchise. You're reading this correctly: they've somehow managed to screw up their own trademark. Sonic is comparatively sluggish, and he is also apparently immune to simple physical forces. One such force is inertia. The second you let go of the Left Analog Stick, Sonic is almost immediately reduced to a standstill. It doesn't matter whether you're running or spinning through the air. The second you let go of that stick, he comes to a full stop. Another force Sonic can ignore is gravity. His red sneakers must have powerful magnets in them or something; as long as he maintains a steady pace, he can run on ceilings. Furthermore, he can stand perpendicular to surfaces that lie at a half right angle. Some segments reveal flickers of Sonic's glory days; all of these involve blistering speed, and they're great. There isn't enough to go around, though. Why didn't they simply regress Sonic back to the days when it wasn't such a pain to move him?

Apart from the wonky physics, Sonic has one semi-new trick that he didn't have in his early days. The homing attack is the only new mechanic retained from Sonic's extended period of disgrace. While it certainly helps with score multipliers, it clashes horribly with the aforementioned inertia problem. If there's an enemy within range, a button press will zip the hedgehog towards it. If there's no target, he'll simply flash forward into empty space. The homing attack features a jarring burst of speed that, again, keeps precision impossible.

There are moments of brilliance in Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I, but they are too few and far between. There's a good (albeit unoriginal) game in here somewhere, and we can officially declare that Sonic is on the road to recovery. This is easily the best Sonic game in years. However, there's some trouble under the hood that Sonic Team needs to address before they give us the inevitable Episode II. If they fix these issues, I'll be the first to stand up and applaud. Right now, though, I'm only hearing crickets.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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