Nostalgia makes you do silly things. Fond memories of Sonic’s Genesis heyday proved to be sufficient rationale for constantly swallowing the bitter pills like Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic and the Black Knight, and Sonic Unleashed. Those weren’t good games, hell, sometimes they weren’t even finished games. I’ve not only been there, I’ve played each to completion. Common sense dictates you don’t repeatedly make it to the edge of oblivion and then come back for more but, the way I saw it, after Sonic and NiGHTS, Sonic Team had unrestricted access to my wallet.
I swore I was done after the last one. Then Sega’s mysterious Project Needlemouse gave way to Sonic 4 and, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. Current trends in retro-reboots suggest trading in on nostalgia via a careful adherence to a cherished aesthetic, along modern technology layered throughout a new system. Bionic Commando Rearmed and New Super Mario Bros Wii exemplified this approach, and Sonic wants a piece of that pixel-perfect pie with his first 2D console offering since 1994. Sonic 4: Episode I is here.
Here’s how you instantly wash away skepticism: Boot game, see Sonic run across old school SEGA logo, hear 16-bit sampled SEY-GAAA voice, and then watched Sonic pop through his classic logo, complete with deliberately stilted animation. It was the perfect salve and, while the slick intro wasn’t enough to outright erase all forms of doubt, it gave the ensuing game enough authority to bypass its recent history. Sonic 4 still had to hold up its end of the bargain, but I was ready and willing to give it that chance.
Sonic Team has always struggled with Sonic’s movement. The challenge of making Sonic immediately capable of both implausible speed and precise platforming often resulted in unwieldy player control. They’ve never gotten it right, and, while Sonic 4 still isn’t perfect, it makes strides toward achieving a level of control consistent with his 2D outings. Finally, he picks up speed appropriately and dispenses endless terrain with reckless abandon. Obstacles get in the way, of course, but when Sonic is allowed to cut loose it’s often free of the weirdass missteps that have plagued the series for the last decade.
Ironically, the mechanic of Sonic 4 I thought I would hate the most wound up being its greatest asset. Sonic’s homing attack was designed as a compromise to render his jump-attack relevant in a 3D landscape, and I didn’t see what place it had in Sonic 2D. Its best (and most obvious) function is another way for Sonic to pick up speed; rows of badniks in the air could lead to both higher platforms and an increased pace. Had Sonic Team (and co-developer Dimps) abused this mechanic then it would have quickly worn out its welcome, but thankfully it’s used rather sparingly. Does it make some areas easier? Sure, but as the only legitimately new move in Sonic’s 2D reprise, it might as well have been a natural evolution for the sequel that never came.
The rest of Sonic’s movement is more or less intact from the Genesis days. He’s not quick from a standstill (which is painfully realized on a few occasions) and doesn’t yield the same fidelity as Mario, but he’s adequately equipped to tackle the game’s four zones. The physics do seem a little cumbersome at first, but worries were dispatched after I got a handle on their nature.
Each zone yields three proper levels along with a boss zone. For Episode I, Sonic Team firmly chose familiar over foreign in terms of art direction. Aesthetically speaking, Splash Hill and Casino Street might as well be Emerald Hill and Casino Night, while Lost Labyrinth and Mad Gear draw similar inspiration from Sonic’s past. A careful line has been drawn, however, as these stages do well to reproduce the feeling of old without completely replicating the experience. Hallmarks such as underwater air panic and pinball flippers gracefully return, but there are plenty of new tricks too. Mobile decks of cards in Road of Cards, gears that Sonic must roll in Escape the Cog Trap, and torches that have to light your way in World of Darkness round out a few of the brighter spots. Certain segments, basically anything that required precise platforming, are a drag, but 85% of the time Sonic 4 is focused on keeping the player barreling forward.
Robotnik’s Eggman’s boss stages, unfortunately, aren’t as confident to go outside the lines. Three of the five are almost directly ripped from previous Sonic games and, though they each feature their own new twist as Eggman’s health dwindles, they came off as disappointing. Only the final, climactic battle engaged me on a level worth remembering. “Epic” is one of those adjectives that gets kicked around far too often, but the scale, challenge, and simultaneous adherence to Sonic 2 render it the most impressive and gratifying part of the game. Sonic 4 generally leaned toward the easier side of gaming, but the final encounter was four minutes of maddening bliss that could only be appreciated by seasoned players. For once, it was nice to enjoy a Sonic game’s actual challenge rather than fight through its awful controls.
Special stages make a return as well. Access is classic; grab fifty rings before you finish the stage, and then hop in the ring after you spin the sign. Nearly identical to Sonic 1’s special stages, proper and precise navigation results in a chaos emerald. It’s pretty damn hard, to be honest, and trying to manage ring barriers, exit boxes, and a timer was fairly hectic and, after some necessary swearing, a pleasure throughout.
Above all else, the levels succeed because of how well they flow from A to B, While Sonic does get bogged down in the occasional vine swing or misplaced canon fire, more often than not he’s able to move without much restriction. At first that might seem like a challenge-free void, but once you creep past Splash Hill it gets a bit trickier. The important thing is that it actually works, and, even if you do hit a frustrating snag, a slick level select, one of the few concessions to 2010, insures you always have somewhere else to go.
Usually I don’t dedicate text to sound, but a series with a soundtrack as legendary as Sonic merits recognition. The sound effects are top notch, which is to say they’re almost all directly lifted from the Genesis games. Certain tunes, such as when Sonic is running out of air, have been updated, but most of the older samples are firmly in place. The actual music reaches a few highs in the Mad Gear zone, but generally qualifies as merely sufficient. It’s not bad and it certainly respects the series’ classic score, but it just didn’t have enough hooks or cool melodies to render it memorable.