When I was but a wee lad, I found great joy in my Atari 2600, NES, Commodore 64, and more. When my grandmother sent me a SEGA Genesis bundled with Sonic the Hedgehog for my ninth birthday, I became a SEGA man. I still owned and played other consoles and platforms, but my heart and soul belonged to a little blue fuzzball in red hightops. Even to this day, if I have to choose between playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog or playing Super Mario Bros., I will almost unerringly choose to play Sonic the Hedgehog. This is the depth of my fandom. With this in mind, you can understand my despair through years of atrocious Sonic games (with, to be fair, one or two emeralds in the rough), and my sheer elation during the leadup to Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
We received a review copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 for XBLA yesterday afternoon. When I got home from work, I started playing almost immediately. As you pass the title screen, you’re dropped straight into Splash Hill Zone Act 1. Once you pass the Act, you are taken to the main level selection menu. If you prefer linear progression, there is an option at the end of each Act that allows you to proceed to the next Act with the press of a button. Otherwise, the level selection menu allows you to play the Zones in any order you choose, as well as replaying Acts, Boss Fights, and Chaos Emerald special zones that you’ve successfully passed.
The game consists of four main Zones: Splash Hill, Casino Street, Lost Labyrinth, and Mad Gear. Each Zone has three Acts and one Boss Fight. There is a final Boss Fight after the standard sets. If you’ve played Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, you’ll find that a lot of things look very familiar. The classic power-ups (shield, running shoes, invincibility, 10-ring bonus, and extra life) return in their classic destructible boxes. Most of the enemies in the game are making return appearances with one or two new additions. The Boss Fights will also start off as incredibly familiar, but once you put a bit of a beating on Robotnik, he’ll modify his classic pattern into something new and (at times) incredibly cheap. There are seven Chaos Emerald Zones that get progressively harder. They are very similar in design to the Chaos Emerald Zones of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but with one fundamental difference; rather than navigating through an automatically rotating level, the player navigates by controlling the rotation of the level.
Most of the gameplay features you expect from a 2D Sonic game are here, with a few that seem out of place. Spin-dashing is an obvious inclusion, but homing attacks take the skill out timing and angling your jumps. Sonic starts moving much more slowly than he did the original series, taking quite a bit longer to reach full momentum than one would expect. This lack of acceleration, or perception of acceleration, really detracts from the core element of speed that you expect from a Sonic game. Additionally, whereas in previous Sonic games you could jump, release the directional control, and still continue moving in the air based on your momentum, in Sonic the Hedgehog 4, once you release the directional control, your momentum stops dead. This can lead to over-controlling your jumps, and also takes away from the timing and angling skills we’ve developed from past Sonic the Hedgehog games. Graphically, the game is fine. For me, Sonic has never been a game where I’ve stopped to enjoy the scenery, so any graphic quality above “Bad” is just fine.
I finished this game in an hour or so (a good portion of which was spent on the incredibly infuriating final battle). I enjoyed it for the nostalgia, and for the joy of playing a halfway decent new Sonic (not Sonic and his cadre of companions) game. I feel that the game fails to give a perception of acceleration (not a perception of speed; when Sonic is at full speed, he’s fast), and that the momentum of jumps and homing feature of jumps really keep this game from becoming what I was hoping it would be. I am both satisfied and disappointed, and hope that SEGA leaves me feeling only satisfied when Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 comes out.
For $15, the game is fairly short (another full Zone would have been nice, at the very least), and has some severe functional flaws. However, compared to the majority of terrible Sonic games in recent years, it is a decent Sonic game. I’d recommend waiting for it to go on sale, while playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the original console in the meantime.