Sonic Unleashed. Sonic and the Secret Rings. Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. I apologise for the bad language but I wanted to make sure my point was understood. The Sonic games of recent years have not exactly been charming, which explains why Sega have looked back to his glory days, the time of Sonics 1-3 and Sonic & Knuckles, for inspiration for their latest 2D platformer. They’ve even called it Sonic the Hedgehog 4 in an attempt to make us all forget. “What Sonic Unleashed?” they wink at us.
Sonic 4 Episode One is an experiment in combining the greatest elements from Sonic’s 16-bit career with the technology available today, resulting in a game that is a love letter to the past and still manages to hold its head high amongst some of the more impressive Xbox Live Arcade titles. Over 12 regular levels, 5 boss battles and 7 special stages, everybody’s favourite bright blue 2.5D sprite must tackle a selection of threats old and new.
Let’s take a look at the old stuff first. Splash Hill Zone (the first set of levels) calls back to the Green Hill Zone of Sonic 1. Casino Street Zone revisits Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone and Lost Labyrinth Zone takes inspiration from Sonic 1’s Labyrinth Zone and even borrows a minecart skit from the Master System version of Sonic 2. We also see a ‘best of’ selection of old robotic foes, only both their aesthetic appearance and battle tactics have been improved. Even the soundtrack has been crafted to sound like it was made fifteen years ago. So many classic sound effects, animations and effects are in place that the experience will be wonderfully familiar to any fan of the old games – it feels like an honest-to-god Sonic game.
The inspiration provided by the early games is blatant but nothing has been ripped off from games you’ve played before. This is still very much a sequel, not a remake. A lot of set pieces and puzzles have been slipped in, and these really are a mixed bag. For every fun ride in a cart or Indiana Jones-style chase, there is a painful switch-based time-wasting mess or some incredibly punishing cheap tricks. Some real scrappy parts will have you longing for a fast forward button, but then there are some great examples of level design here too. Every Sonic fan will develop a hatred for at least one of the new levels though, guaranteed.
The best of these new bits is the special stage which takes the general concept of Sonic 1’s and goes all Pac-Man Championship Edition on it. Introducing challenging tricks, trippy visuals and tight time limits; turning these bonus levels into edge-of-the-seat crazy nightmares which still manage to be fun. Imagine having a heart attack on a trampoline and you’ll get the idea. These special stages lead to chaos emeralds, which in turn leads to Super Sonic and the ‘good ending’ which includes a lovely teaser for Episode Two.
The game plays smoothly, not running too fast like the Advance and Rush games did, but still maintaining that element of speed and rhythm from the original games. Sonic 4’s handling has received quite a lot of stick but, while it might feel a bit unwieldy at first, it won’t take long to get used to it. The adoption of the homing attack from the 3D games was a stroke of genius. Not only can it save your bacon but it also adds a steady snare drum to the natural rhythm of your button pressing. Nice.
In some ways, Sonic 4 is the best thing to happen to the retro gaming scene since Mega Man 9. It has to be mentioned though, that it is a flawed game with some pointlessly frustrating parts and too many bottomless pits that can be stomached in the 21st Century. This is a hoverboard ride down Memory Lane that will challenge even the most experienced Sonic head, but the sad thing is that there may be limited appeal for new or younger players.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode One receives a solid 8 out of 10. Keep it up, Sega.
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