You know the iconic blue hedgehog has come full circle when you hear the classic “say-ga!” as you boot up the game. I’ve been a longtime Sonic fan so imagine my dismay when I saw the venerable Sega mascot starring in fighting games and mini-game compilations while bringing in a huge array of uninteresting characters, ignoring all of the appealing aspects of the classic Sonic games.
Well say hello again to our lovable hedgehog, as he’s now back, not as a remake or even as a sequel as advertised. Instead, think of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 as a tribute to the glory days of the 16-bit era Sonic games, more specifically the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. That means the series has returned to a 2D side scrolling platformer that uses sprites, has no extraneous characters like Shadow, Amy or even Tails and Knuckles and not a word of story.
There is a lot of fanfare and nods to those first two games, including some of the same enemies and powers such as invincibility, power sneakers and bubble shields (just the regular shields though, no elemental powers a la Sonic 3). Fans of the first generation of games will also notice similar boss fights and zones that have the same themes as the originals from the first two games. You have the obligatory “Hill” zone to start, a casino zone, a cave zone and an industrial zone.
In these four zones, you’re moving from left to right mostly, collecting rings leading up to a boss fight with Dr. Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman) after the third act. You also get a chance to enter a special stage at the end of a level if you have 50 rings or more. The special stage is very similar to the one in Sonic 1 where you must manipulate a maze to get Sonic to the Chaos Emerald at the end. Collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds once again allows Sonic to transform into Super Sonic.
That should all be familiar by now. The only major game play change is the addition of a lock-on targeting system. If Sonic is close enough and facing towards an object or enemy, press jump again in midair to dash towards the target, instantly destroying it. Purists may scoff at this but after getting used to it, it speeds up the game play and makes it flow much smoother. However, admittedly, it makes defeating enemies too easy.
Although the console versions of this game are the definitive versions, I did get through the iPhone version also since it came out a week before the downloadable console version. There are some notable differences that I should mention.
Firstly, the special stage mentioned above is all tilt control with the iPhone. Since there is no tilt control at all in any of the console versions, this now controls with the directional pad. Secondly, there is a level in the iOS version that features a slot machine and the sole purpose is to get 100,000 points. It’s pointless, boring and shouldn’t have taken up an entire stage.
This level was thankfully replaced in the console versions with a more traditional level. Lastly, there is another level in the iOS version that had Sonic riding in a mine cart, which you control by tilting the device. This was replaced in the console versions by a level that had Sonic walking around with a torch in a dark cave. The mine cart still made an appearance but the sequence is much shorter and the tilt was removed.
Unlike the other replaced stage, I felt this replacement was worse than the original found in the iOS version. The replacement level was very slow paced since you could only see a short distance around you and featured some basic puzzle solving by lighting torches. This is counter-intuitive to Sonic and the fast paced mine cart stage from the iPhone version felt more akin to Sonic’s core game play.
The only other major difference between the iOS and console versions is the obvious lack of physical buttons. While Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is definitely the best Sonic game currently in the Appstore since the originals suffered from control issues, the lack of tactile buttons still hampers the game play a little when precise movements are required.
It’s definitely still controllable with virtual buttons, but this may be a deal breaker to the hardcore Sonic fans when doing speed runs. On consoles though, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 controls great. There are some new physics in play here and Sonic seems heavier but veterans should be able to dive right in after only a few minutes getting used to the new acceleration.
Graphically, the game looks beautiful. Sonic 4 uses some slick cell shaded sprites for the strange character models and includes the trademark bright and colorful levels of the classic Sonic games. As previously stated, the themes for each of the four zones is taken directly from the two first Sonic games so everything feels familiar yet fresh.
The console versions had no trouble keeping up with the frenetic pace of the game and ran silky smooth. However, the iOS version features lower quality textures and still suffered the occasional slowdown on my 3GS. This mostly occurred if you lost many rings at once, though only for a moment and certainly not a game breaker.
The sound quality here is good considering this is styled as a retro game. The same classic sound effects for jumping, super spin dashing and bursting through enemies are back from the old Genesis games. The same drums from Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 as well as the same low-fidelity synths were also used so while the music may be archaic to modern ears, it really completes the retro vibe and is a treat for those who grew up in that era.
Now here’s the catch. The game comes with a hefty price tag. The definitive console version will cost you $15 (1200 MSP) while the iPhone version will cost you $9.99 while taking hits to the graphics, controls and frame rate. That’s pretty expensive for a game that will last around two or three hours at most, depending on how long you get stuck on the frustratingly difficult final boss.
Hardcore fans will see lots of replay value in this game as we try to discover the shortest routes for speed runs but for everyone else, it’s tough to whole-heartedly recommend this. Nevertheless, if you can get past the price, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is the best Sonic game to come out in years, a triumphant return to glory and most importantly a solid 2D platformer.