Is the vicious Sonic cycle finally broken or does it continue with this new venture?
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 marks a significant event in the hedgehog's career. After years of 3D games that have performed poorly with critics and gamers, this game takes Sonic back to his 2D days. It is a direct sequel to Sonic and Knuckles and a true continuation of Sonic's Genesis adventures. The title has a lot to live up to, and it does deliver a great deal of quality despite a few bumps in the road.
Story-wise, Sonic 4 begins from the ending of Sonic and Knuckles. Dr. Eggman, defeated but reluctant to give up, sets out to defeat Sonic once again. That's the entire story you're getting here. After loading the game, you are quickly thrown into the gameplay; there are no long cutscenes detailing Sonic's adventures, nor superfluous characters to narrate it. All focus lies on gameplay.
The emphasis of the classic Sonic games has always been speed mixed in with platforming and some light puzzle solving, and Sonic 4 proudly follows that tradition. The objective is to get to the end of the stage as quickly as possible, avoiding enemies and obstacles and still maintaining top speed. You will also be collecting rings, which as usual, act as your health. If you touch an enemy, all of your rings will fly off, with a little time to collect them. Being attacked while you don't have any rings results in a life lost.
Sonic has some other skills to go along with his super speed. The dash attack, first introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, has Sonic building up speed in order to climb up steep hills. A technique first seen in the 3D Sonic games is present, the homing attack. When you are near an enemy or a spring, a target will appear over it. Pressing the 2 button will make Sonic attack it.
Sonic remains streamlined; no other attacks were given to the character. This is a welcome change of pace from past games where he has lots of skills to master. His signature speed has been slightly reduced, but since platforming is now an important element of the game Sonic needs enough time to slow down and jump across the platforms. Sonic is also easier to control thanks to his speed being manageable, avoiding unwanted deaths and giving the player more control over him. There are no other playable characters in this release, unlike the 3D games.
The levels pay tribute to the classic games with their design and themes. There are four worlds, each consisting of three stages and a boss battle with Dr. Eggman, for a total of 16 stages. You can also complete the stages in either Score Attack or Time Attack mode.
One complaint about the levels is that some of them are very annoying in their design. Sometimes you will be stuck in a loop trying to figure out how to reach the end; other times, you are stuck with an annoying puzzle to solve, eliminating all momentum Sonic had up until that point. It gets worse when you are reaching the time limit and don't know where to go next. This problem, however, isn't exclusive to this game as Sonic titles have been known for having complex, confusing levels that are more about thinking than just running through them.
Regardless of those problems, the levels are captivating thanks to creativity that makes them feel classic, while being modern in their execution. Elements such as cogs, mine carts you can ride in, and even flying cards give the game a magical quality that almost mimics the classic feel of the Genesis games. As mentioned, there are some sour spots here and there, but overall, they are very engaging and significant in the whole experience.
The presentation can be described as the best of both worlds. Sonic still sports his modern 3D look, but the enemies and the environments are designed to look like the classic Genesis games. Though the speed is not as extreme as in previous games, the graphics run without a loss in frame rate. The worlds are very colorful with many things happening on-screen. The music feels very retro thanks to sound effects reminiscent of the Genesis's musical compositions. The tunes are not as catchy as in the other games but overall fit very well.
The game does have issues in the replayability department. Despite there being 16 levels, they can be blown through in less than an hour, and even faster once you get a feel for them and use Sonic's speed to your advantage. There are Chaos Emeralds to collect thanks to the bonus level at the end of some stages, as well the Score and Time Attack modes, but the experience feels less fulfilling than the other Sonic titles. This is likely due to the game's episodic nature, with all future games likely being combined to create a fuller adventure. It is very short, a glaring flaw in an otherwise enjoyable game. Finally, the Dr. Eggman boss battles are too much like previous boss battles. There are a few twists, but it is disappointing that they weren't that creative with the boss stages.
Sega accomplished what they set out to do with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, and that is to take players to a time when Sonic was all about the speed and platforming. There are no bugs and glitches, the controls are tight, and save for a few annoying spots, the levels dazzle in their ingenious design. It might not be the exact, same caliber of quality as the Sonic Genesis games, and this could make it seem a step back for Sega, but it is still a great game that proves that when done right, Sonic really does shine.