Poor Sonic has been having a bit of a rough time recently. Despite Mario and Luigi continuing their Godfather-esque dominance over pretty much any market they lay their eyes upon, their spiky blue hedgehog nemesis has enjoyed some high-profile, big-budget releases. However with a menagerie of arbitrary supporting characters, a silly oversized sword and a transformation into a credulity-stretching “werehog” to name but a few ‘major innovations’ to the franchise, it’s no surprise that recent instalments have failed to make the dash to success.
With SEGA all but ready to give up the game, they initiated the enigmatic ‘Project Needlemouse’: an attempt to recapture the winning formula of previous Sonic titles that the once-loyal fan base yearned for. With promises of a genuine continuation of the original storyline and a return to classic side-scrolling Sonic, the ‘project’ became what we now see before us as Sonic The Hedgehog 4.
On the surface it seems SEGA have at least been partially successful. Even if you’ve never encountered Sonic before it’s hard not to be charmed by the introductory “SEGAAAA” yell and the cute and very retro menus. The first level will bring a smile to your face with the thrill of sending the spinning blue hedgehog hurtling down hills, up pipes and along helix-shaped bridges. The obligatory ‘ancient pyramid’, ‘underwater’ and ‘steam power gone wrong’ levels make the style feel a little dated but the graphics and music are pleasant enough and there is some genuinely decent platforming fun to be had. Breaks from the usual mechanics can also be found in mine cart and boulder balancing sections, but these are used too sparingly to be anything more than a gimmick.
Eventually though, casual players will become frustrated by Sonic’s broken level design and steep difficulty curve. It doesn’t take long for you to fall into one of the almost maliciously placed spike walls or to become stuck in a pit with no immediate or intuitive form of escape. Sonic himself is painfully and lethargically slow until he’s reached his top speeds which makes the game bringing you to a complete full stop all the more flow-disrupting. Although tolerable for some of the early ‘Splash Hill’ or ‘Casino Street’ levels, anything later than this will cause even a well-adjusted player to throw their controller to the ground in frustration.
It’s inherently obvious that this game was not designed for casual players. There’s no tutorial so anyone not already familiar with Sonic has to look up the controls and despite promises of a new storyline there is simply no plot to be found. Nostalgic Sonic veterans will be wooed by the presence of the original two-tone checkerboard textures and side-scrolling gameplay, and it becomes excruciatingly clear that this game was designed, drawn and developed exclusively for the fans of the original series.
It becomes excruciatingly clear that this game was designed, drawn and developed exclusively for the fans of the original series
SEGA however, instead of making tentative changes to the overall format, have blindly followed the cries of the masses and literally regressed back to the beginning. Levels are instantly recognisable as carbon-copies of stages from Sonic 1, 2 and 3 and Sonic and Knuckles. Textures, enemies and even boss levels, although now presented in eyeball-popping high definition, have been simply copy-pasted into the game with just a light brushing of visual makeup. The only indication that there’s been almost twenty years of ‘progress’ since Sonic and Knuckles is the homing attack, a kind of auto-pilot that homes the blue fuzzball in on springs and enemies. Even this is a pain to use as it’s never quite clear why or when an enemy is or isn’t a target. Everything is recycled and for fans there’s no challenge in giant walking robots or fireball-shooting chameleons because they’ve all been seen before, and crucially, done so much better.
What changes there have been to the core run, jump and spin will not be appreciated. Instead of game design that rewards the player’s skill with speed and rings, spike walls and enemies lie at random around every corner waiting for you to bumble innocently into them. Bottomless life-draining pits are also shamefully unmarked so it’s impossible to know when you fall if you’re falling to your doom or not. Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is now a game of memory and chance, not of skill. The only way to become an expert is to simply play the levels enough times until you know exactly what lies ahead. This is intrinsically not what the original Sonic series was all about. It’s undeniable that there was always some trial-and-error associated with the early games, but not nearly on the same magnitude as is present here.
This is brought sharply into focus during the final boss battle, taking place on Dr. Eggman’s space station. After an epic battle which unnecessarily includes all of the earlier bosses, with mere seconds left on the timer and with the final, definitive blow landed on the robot mecha, the floor beings to crumble beneath the hedgehog and he falls, almost predictably, to his doom. No explanation. No indication that this was going to happen. Eventually we had to text 118118 to even work out what the hell was going on, and it was helpfully divulged that unless you are standing in a completely arbitrary point on the screen so you can see where the boss lands to bonk him on the head, you die. No skill, just memory and chance. All this could even have been avoided if the camera didn’t suck so badly, as it never zooms out to show the boss, enemy or anything else that players desperately need to see.
Initially, Sonic 4 certainly is fun for casual gamers, as zooming Sonic around all over the place is enjoyable and some of the later platforming is genuinely good. Despite this it’s simply not long enough (weighing in at about five or six hours to get to the last level) and is far too infuriating to warrant the hefty price tag. More ‘episodes’ are also planned so to get the full experience SEGA will be expecting players to shell out more of their cash.
As for the fans, SEGA have given them the exact opposite of what they want. Sonic The Hedgehog 4 has the platforming and graphics of the original series combined together with the faulty design principles of the ‘new’ Sonic games. What players actually want to see is original and new storylines, game modes and graphics that follow the classic Sonic design philosophy. Fans want a fresh experience that still feels like good ol’ Sonic, not a rehash of games from the ‘glory days’ that they’ve all played before. It’s a true disappointment that Sonic 4 simply doesn’t live up to either the hype or the expectation placed upon it, and one can only hope that there’s enough time between now and Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 for SEGA to fully understand the mistakes in what they’ve produced.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is out now on PSN, Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and iOS. Prices vary according to platform.