It’s been so long since we’ve played a Sonic game worth our time, and Sonic The Hedgehog 4 has been a long time coming for Sega and Sonic fans alike. During the 90s Sonic was unstoppable. Even Mario had trouble keeping up as the blue blur dominated sales and conquered the hearts of reviewers everywhere. However, the jump to 3D proved to be Sonic’s awkward teenage years. Sure, it started off alright with the Sonic Adventure series, but even those lacked the special feeling of the 2D games. Sonic’s love affair with the press and fans came to a screeching halt. The hedgehog’s career was in desperate need of a bubble shield or invincibility power-up. So, after years of churning out lackluster Sonic after lackluster Sonic, Sega finally went back to the drawing board and came up with a solution - Sonic The Hedgehog 4. It's available for the iPhone and iPod touch
, Xbox 360
, Wii Virtual Console, and PS3. Is this the comeback we’ve been waiting all these years for? Read on to find out.
The first thing you will notice when playing this game is that it is exactly like the good ol’ 16-bit days of Sonic. That is, lots of running, jumping, and ring collecting. The levels are designed in the same vein as stages from the original Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog 2. With a total of four zones, each with 3 acts and a boss stage, there are 16 levels in total to choose from. After you beat the first stage, Splash Hill Zone, you can choose the stages in any order you want. While there are not many levels, each act is ripe with secret routes and different ways to play that create an experience beckoning to be enjoyed again and again. Furthermore, the levels are for the most part recreations of stages from Sonic 1 and 2. Splash Hill Zone is Green Hill Zone redone; Casino Street is Casino Night; Lost Labyrinth is Labyrinth; and Mad Gear is Metropolis. While they are done different enough to make you feel like your playing something new, it isn’t really a sequel when you're just going through the same stages again.
The gameplay is nearly identical to the old Sonic games. He can spin dash, jump, and run really, really fast. However, gone is the double tap hit introduced in Sonic 3, as it is replaced with a homing maneuver introduced in the 3D era. This homing attack works quite well in the 2D environment, making for some really cool mid-air moments not possible in the original games. The standard power-ups can still be found in Sonic 4, although the new ones from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles have been tossed to the wayside. So no more fire, water, or lightning shields - just a plain old bubble shield. I agree with the taking it retro aspect, however, one would argue that a full reset is a tad much. Point being, I want a lightning shield! A few new moves could have benefited our spiky haired protagonist all the same, as the standard affair is just not enough in this day and age. No, Sega, this does not mean throw a werewolf in there, just give us a couple more techniques. Perhaps a way of earning more as we progress through the game.
The graphics of Sonic 4 are incredibly pretty without going overboard. They remain relatively simple in conjunction with the retro feeling they are aiming at, but add some new razzle dazzle to keep this generation of gamers happy. The look of Sonic himself is different from his Genesis days. He is rendered in full 3D and appears more like he does in the new games than he did in 16-bit. Seeing Sonic whiz through levels at chapped lipped speed is an amazing sight in itself. Get Sonic up to full speed and his quills blow back in the wind producing a blurred after image, and his feet become blurs of red. The zone that stands out the most is Casino Night. The background is brilliantly done up with bright lights and a packed city scape. The second act is especially detailed, with cards and dice that flip and spin as you whiz past them, and palm trees emblazoned with lights.
The music of Sonic 4 attempts to recreate the same kind of music from the original Sonic games, and does so with generic success. However, the Labyrinth Zone’s soundtrack perfectly captures the old feel of the original with a new sound. Overall, the soundtrack ends up feeling more like a day spent cleaning the house rather than a speed romp through fantastical environments full of danger.
So, yes, this is Sonic at his finest. A Sonic game that can be played without thinking about how needless these 3D town environments are, or wondering why in the world you are turning into a werewolf. However, it is this very same return to its roots that limits Sonic 4 from seeming like a true sequel. Each recurring Sonic title during the Genesis era was marked by new changes, moves, improved level designs, and characters. In Sonic 4, however, you are reduced back to your lonesome, without even Tails to keep you company. Without a second character then there is no co-op play, which just seems like a step too far back. The versus modes from Sonic 2 and 3 were incredibly fun, and would have been welcome additions to Sonic 4. Perhaps in the next Episode?
In spite of these issues, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is the Sonic that we have been waiting over a decade for. With more episodes to come, we can’t help but get excited for what else is in store for this classic feeling Sonic!