Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode IdislikePEGI3 Developer Dimps, SEGA Publisher SEGA Genre Action Platform Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii Release 15th October 2010 Over-Reaction Command - You know a game's bad when you come away feeling personally insulted by just playing it. This is how I can eloquently sum up my experience with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. It's insulting on a number of levels, first and foremost is the fact that the people behind this tragedy had the balls to pass the game off as a successor to the original Sonic the Hedgehog series on the Megadrive while having none of the charm, none of the gameplay and surely no input from the geniuses who made the games 20 years ago. The Megadrive Sonic series is gospel to Sonic fans, it's their childhood. This game is like someone in the Vatican writing a "New Testament 2" after just skimming through the pages of the previous scriptures. It's awful. I mean really, really bad.

Hanging by a thread, just like my patience.
I've moaned in the past about how New Super Mario Bros. Wii was no-where near as good as Super Mario World on the SNES and I stand by that. But I never said that New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a bad game. Far from it, the New Super Mario Bros. franchise is a very enjoyable take on the Mario series and Nintendo was more than able to draw a line in the sand between the original NES and SNES Mario games and the newer 2D platformers. They're nods to the originals, not designed to be their successor in any way. I acknowledge this. Doesn't stop the fact you can't take Yoshi's out of one level and into the next being an awful game design choice, but hey, I really enjoyed the games on DS and Wii. I was never a very big fan of Mega Man back in the day, but I have played most of the NES Mega Man titles all the way through and enjoyed them, Mega Man 9, a game which set out to recreate the classic NES experience but released 21 years after the first Mega Man title faithfully recreated the experience right down to the soul-crushing difficulty. So why is it that SEGA can't make a Sonic title at least on-par with Nintendo's retro-inspired-yet-brand-new gameplay experience? Answers on a postcard, please.

I guess you could say, this game grinds my gears.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced to much fanfare from SEGA, trumpeted to fans on their official blog as a game which had learnt from past mistakes, going so far as to provide a daily teaser which poked fun at one of the larger complaints against the series; the ever increasing roster of useless filler characters the franchise has acquired over the years, striking them off as confirmed not to be in the game, it eventually led to all but Sonic himself remaining on the list. They then trickle-fed conceptual artwork of the game, short trailers which weren't in-game footage and other nonsense. You knew something was wrong when they were hopping about showing everything but gameplay footage for elongated periods. Then they revealed the name and frankly, the internet looked on in disbelief. SEGA was going to make a "fourth" Sonic the Hedgehog game in the original series. Who had they got back to make this new game? Had series director Yuji Naka and series creator Naoto Oshima reunited to make the game they always wanted to? Had they rounded up lost souls from SEGA's long-lost "SEGA Technical Institute" (creators of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 through to Sonic and Knuckles)? One big, last hurrah to an era long lost to the video game world? Of course not. Instead, they handed development over to an internal development team at SEGA (instantly making them "Sonic Team") and outsourced work to Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush developers: Dimps.

This game's just as big a pain in the arse, I can tell you.
One of the biggest problems I have with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is that at no point during this game, I felt like I was playing a Sonic game. I felt like I was playing a cheap knock-off version of it. Everything about it feels odd, Sonic controls funnily, momentum seems strange, hitting springs while rolling will force Sonic to stand upright and run, then you have problems like how they included the homing jump into the game, but not just any homing jump, that awful lock-on homing jump attack, so all you hear every time you jump is that "beep" sound effect as the bloody lock-on-target-indicator thing shows you that some rock can be homing attacked or you're locked onto a spring. Just, what the hell were they thinking? I know what you're probably thinking, seeing that Dimps helped develop this game, since I expected at least this much; "the game's just a HD Sonic Advance right? 'Cause I can live with that." Well, tough luck. It's not. It's not by a long shot. Sonic Advance is a far superior title for a few good reasons; that game at least tried it's damn hardest to be like classic Sonic titles while having an edgy new outlook for the series, this game just seems like it's loosely trying to be Sonic Advance. Sonic Advance also effectively used it's screen space, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 seems like it's too close to Sonic at all times. You can barely see 6 Sonic-widths (a very scientific measurement) infront of you. older Sonic titles weren't this "zoomed in", as it were. I think it's mostly the vertical height rather than the width of the screen which does it though. Makes you far more vulnerable to traps and the return of everyone's favourite stage design flaw: bottomless pits. Oh yes, they're back. Back with a vengeance.

This game drives me loopy... Okay, I'm out of these bad jokes now. Happy?
You'll traverse 4 stages, 5 if you count the boss-rush at the end of the game. The stages are all reminiscent of stages which appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 1 or Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Splash Hill is yet another take on Sonic the Hedgehog 1's iconic "Green Hill Zone", Casino Street is clearly a take on Sonic the Hedgehog 2's "Casino Night Zone", Lost Labyrinth is obviously "Labyrinth Zone" from Sonic 1 and Mad Gear is inspired by Sonic 2's "Metropolis Zone" with a Sonic 3-like kill-wall which follows you taken from "Hydrocity Zone" in Sonic 3. Each zone has 3 acts and a boss, making a total of 12 levels in the game with 5 unique bosses, the bosses, yet again, are heavily inspired from bosses from older Sonic titles. The game is designed from the ground-up to be a throw-back, but does this by plucking at the cheap, easily swayed threads around the Nostalgia-Centre of your brain. Once you realise that the game you're playing is full of stupid stage gimmicks, it gets pretty dull. Gimmicks like cards which take control away from you after you homing attack them a few times, a rolling ball or a cog which you need to balance on, stupid minecart segments where you rotate the stage to move... It's awful. Sure, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 had some of these gimmicks, by that I mean one gimmick, where by you're running on a bolt to make it move up or down. But that was one gimmick, in one stage and no, it wasn't done well there either. The rolling ball in Lost Labyrinth really gets super-annoying about the third time you encounter it in that stage but now it's over a bottomless pit, so any slip-up means instant death.

These enemies, I hate them. It's unnecessarily difficult to avoid their attacks.
Stages designs are a complete contradiction to themselves at random intervals, the stage really wants you to move fast with speed boosters all over the place (which, by the way, make you roll whenever you hit them for no good reason. Yet when you hit springs when rolling, you'll stand up and run.) but with no warning, the game suddenly wants you to go slow, so while you keep mashing the A button to get a pitiful speed boost from the not-so-jump-dash the game has, you can sometimes find yourself missing a stage gimmick like a cannon, fly over it and end up falling into a bottomless pit. Horrible flash backs of Sonic Rush Adventure going on here... The game's speed isn't really a big issue, I feel that pacing in the game is just about right. It has a very Sonic CD feel about the game in terms of speed, minus the speed boosters which are over-done in this game. I do have issues with the game's physics, as do a lot of people on the internet, so you've probably heard all this before, but I will focus on one aspect of the game's physics which is so unnatural and so annoying coming from someone who's religiously played the older Sonic games for the last decade and a half; when Sonic stops on an inwardly-arced incline, he should not stop half way up that incline. He should keep walking backwards until he reaches a more level part of that slope about an eighth of the way up it, this has become an instinctive part of how I play Sonic so much so that when I was chased by the kill-wall in Mad Gear, I would wait for Sonic to slide back down a slope so I could spindash and not risk rolling backwards into the wall. But instead, Sonic just stood there. More annoying problems with the game is the fact you can actually get stuck on outward arcing corners, stuck inside loops and perhaps not so annoying but head-in-palms depressing is the fact that you can walk slowly on ceilings, breaking any convention of physics imaginable. How is it that modern consoles with all their advanced space-age-like technology in comparison to the early 90's consoles can't at the very least recreate the physics behind the older 16-bit Sonic games? It's crazy.

Sonic Rush called, they want their spinning death-balls back.
Bosses in the game are either really damn cheap or just uninspired. You have bosses which are similar to the original Sonic 1 and 2 bosses. They're pretty standard so I wont talk about them much. Just know that the Lost Labyrinth Zone boss is cheap as the day is long. Basically, the boss revolves around pillars protruding from the walls, floor and ceiling. They will come out in formations which wont crush Eggman, so you've got to position yourself near Eggman to avoid getting crushed yourself. Seems pretty easy, only you realise that the game will be damn well sadistic in you timing your opportunities to attack him. The first formation he will make with the pillars is one where the centre of the screen is safe, yet you can't jump up to reach Eggman without using the rising pillars to get a boost. However, if you stay on the pillar too long, you get crushed. Fair enough, I thought. So I jumped on, hit him two times and tried to get out, I was only half way up the screen and felt I had enough room. I didn't. So you have to quickly jump on, hit him and jump off all before Sonic, standing on the pillar, reaches the middle of the screen. Another big problem I encountered was one of the final formations he makes, where by you have to quickly jump from one side of the screen to another. You'd think that you could use the homing attack to hit Eggman and you would be safe. Wrong. You hit Eggman with the homing attack on any boss and it'll throw you backwards at least half a screen. So guess what? I homing attacked him hoping to get across there quickly and avoid getting crushed... When actually it threw me right into the path of another pillar just ready to crush me. Nice. Another problem is that if you hit Eggman, he blinks and you can't hit him, seems normal, right? But, if you're on a pillar which is retracting, you get pulled towards Eggman and if he stops blinking while you're pulled into him, you take damage. Of course, it's all perfectly timed so the time it takes you to hit him, the pillars to start retracting and him to stop blinking is done to perfection to ensure you're pretty much sure to get hit unless you jump at the exact right moment.

The final boss has it's fair share of flaws, although most are technical flaws. One big design flaw is the number of hits it takes to fell the boss. If you cotton on to a technique where just jumping into the boss doesn't send you flying backwards but the homing attack does, you can get in two hits on the boss by using the normal jump and the homing attack one after another. Still, the boss takes forever because once you defeat the boss' first form, it starts becoming invulnerable by being covered in electricity. The way you defeat the boss now is to follow it through it's long, boring pattern where it prances about and hope it decides to fire it's arms at you, doing so allows the arm to be sent back at him. The boss is pretty difficult if you're not sure what to do and yes, the final boss to Sonic the Hedgehog 2 also took far too many hits to die, but I thought games were supposed to learn from their mistakes as they progressed through iterations. Dimps has done everything in reverse, going from Sonic Advance, a decent, playable, enjoyable title through to this abomination which has nothing going for it at all.

Finally, after so many years, playable Super Sonic in normal stages.
Special Stages in the game are, for once, easily accessible again. Just take 50 rings to the end of a stage and jump into the big ring. Finally, no looking for Special Stage rings or collecting 7 impossible to find SP Rings or collecting Chao and then a key... No, just plain and simple take 50 rings to the end of a stage. Special Stages are a pretty interesting, well done take on the Sonic the Hedgehog 1 special stages, only rather than controlling Sonic directly in a spinning maze, you are the spinning maze and you guide Sonic to the Chaos Emerald. No complaints about this, really. And, lo' and behold, you collect all 7, grab 50 rings and jump and you get Super Sonic. Playable. In normal stages. Not only this but you get a special ending when you get all 7 Chaos Emeralds as well, hinting that there will definitely be a "Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II"... Of course, this being written after E3, SEGA's already said there will be a Sonic 4, mostly because the game mad a shed-load of money on the game and has admitted that there were "problems" with the game, I wonder if one of them is "simply existing", 'cause that's the top of my problems with this game.

The game is a mix of old design simplicity and subtle new-age visual effects. Doesn't always work out, but when it does...
Visually, the game is pretty boring, really. It all looks rather nice, but it's very plain. It was about the same time Sonic 4 came out that there was a fan-made "Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Fan Remix" demo released and frankly, that game was so visually cluttered it undermined the actual visual awe the game had to show. A happy medium between this game and Sonic 4: Episode I would have been ideal. But even then, Sonic 4 can seem really cluttered, perhaps by purposeful design, since I'm really thinking of Casino Street Zone where just about everything on screen is begging for attention. I suppose they were going for the same minimalistic design as the Megadrive Sonic titles and by that I mean Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which were mostly that plain because the hardware could only allow that at the time. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is where stages got very interesting, very detailed while retaining clarity on the path you should take. Sonic the Hedgehog CD also did a very good job with it's scrolling foregrounds trying to add some flavour to the otherwise very dull stage scenery. Sonic's animations also seem... Odd somehow. As with all things 3D, there's a larger emphasis on animation over functionality, ducking takes just that bit longer in Sonic 4 than you would expect, makes quick spindashes a bit harder to pull off but nothing you can't adjust to. Overall, the game is very pretty but I don't think they went far enough in some regards. But everything is very clear, concise and the game does a good job pointing you in the right direction without actually pulling a Sonic Advance 3 and have arrows literally pointing you in the right direction.

Ooh, so this is the deep, dark cave SEGA executives come from.
Audio design, well... I can see what they were doing. The game's very synthesiser-heavy, as was all Megadrive games, as... Well, that's all the Megadrive could do. The Megadrive has been often criticised for it's lacklustre sound capabilities, going so far as to make Michael Jackson strike his name from the credits of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, it was that bad. They have the first game's rather iconic drum sound effect in most of the stage music as if that was supposed to make the game feel more like a Megadrive title. I get the distinct impression that a lot of the music in the game was actually supposed to use a Synth voice to make it actually sound like a Megadrive title, only it didn't work out as they expected, either do to time or technical reasons. But the soundtrack is okay, each stage act has it's own variation of that theme's music. Casino Street's songs are by far the weakest closely followed by the boss song, which is actually an unused music track from Sonic the Hedgehog 3D (which is another terrible Sonic game, only this time it's on the Megadrive itself) before shifting pace into a more Sonic Advance-series-like song for when the boss changes form. I really like the Lost Labyrinth songs, they match the feel of that zone exactly, something which the other two passable themes in the game; Splash Hill and Mad Gear don't really pull off, but they're not bad songs. Fairly catchy, not really memorable though, but again, do they need to be? The soundtrack's a mixed bag to say the least.

Oh and Sonic Generations will suck. Hope you're all really aware of this. Don't come crying to me when it does.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, then. The game is dire. It was a cheap, downloadable title which was once again rushed through to market with very little consideration for the fans it was supposed to be aimed at. And this game underwent significant changes after fans rebelled about certain features in the game which came to light by an embarrassing leak of the game in video form and the fans just tore it to shreds. It was still awful. But, it paid off for them. They made down to such a tight budget that they easily made back their investment in the game, as they do for all Sonic games. SEGA are PR and marketing geniuses, able to sway dejected fans, who played previous games in the series, hated them but believe SEGA every time they say "this time will be different". I mean, people keep claiming that these new Sonic games break the "Sonic cycle", but they're deluding themselves. These new games still suck and it seems no matter how much Sonic fans, passive or proactive, whine and moan about the state of the franchise, SEGA's doing dick-all to remedy the problem. So how about this guys. If you want a decent Sonic title, force SEGA into making good titles by not buying their crap. You know these Sonic games will suck, they have no reason to make a decent one until they find they find that they're not making any money off them. They will either then kill off the series, ending the pain every child from the 80's and 90's feel every time a new Sonic game is released, or they actually start investing money, time and effort into the games. It's the only way.
There is no story. Hurray!
Whatever this game is, it's sure not what everyone expected nor wanted it to be; a Sonic game.
Giving the game the benefit of the doubt, it does look very nice.
Another on-the-fence issue with me. I've got to say that overall I quite enjoy the game's soundtrack.
2 Hours
It's not the longest game ever made, but it sure doesn't need to be. Sonic games should all be about the replay value, Sonic 4 is far too irritating for that.