New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Megaman 10. Sonic 4. What is going on? It’s the year two thousand and ten, and we are still moving to the right in a two-dimensional plane, avoiding spikes and jumping on the heads of enemies. Forget the last two decades of game design and innovation. Forget your checkpoints and autosaves, your online leaderboards and your high definition graphics. Gamers want classic gameplay, and developers are happy to oblige them. Actually, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 has all of things I just mentioned. Why, then, does it still feel like a game made in 1992?
For anyone who has played a Sonic game before the hedgehog went three-dimensional, Sonic 4 will instantly transport you back to a time when controllers had wires and TVs had tubes. Everything from the parallax of the background, to the sound effects and enemy types is custom-engineered to target the nostalgia centers of your brain. The moment that the Act 1 title card swipes away and you see Sonic standing upon the grassy, green Splash Hill Zone, you’ll realize just how much of a throwback this is. Moving as fast as possible to the right side of the screen and saving up rings in case an enemy or spike trap gets in the way are the only activities offered here. No alternate characters nor on-rails shooter sections are present, so aside from a short minecart sequence and the classic Special Stages, you’re always in control of Sonic.
Sonic’s moveset has been rolled back to only the Spin Dash and Jump attacks, with the addition of the Homing attack first seen in Sonic Adventure. For veteran gamers, Sonic may feel sluggish at first, but the Homing attack allows him to build momentum quickly, as well as change direction in midair with ease. After a few levels, controlling the little mammal should feel as natural as ever. Homing attacks also make quick work of enemies that used to be troublesome, but the timing takes skill to master. Don’t expect an easier game just because Sonic’s arsenal has increased by 50%.
The level design is what really makes Sonic 4 shine. In all four zones, Sonic will encounter interesting terrain and obstacles that feel fresh in a franchise known almost exclusively for its ramps and loop-de-loops. From swinging on vines, to balancing on a rolling boulder, to lighting torches in a dark cavern, each of the twelve acts feels unique and self-contained. And amazingly, the speed of the game is almost never hindered by these varied platforming sequences. I can recall to this day numerous occasions in the classic Sonic games when a frustrating obstacle destroyed the pacing of a level. Thankfully, the good people at Dimps know that nothing should keep Sonic stationary for too long, so the result is a game that isn’t controller-smashingly difficult, but isn’t as simple as “hold to the right and press A” either. The special stages are equally fun, asking you to rotate a maze full of rings and traps until Sonic touches a Chaos Emerald or gets ejected. And yes, if you collect all seven emeralds, you unlock the ability to roll through the game as Super Sonic.
If Sonic 4 seems designed from the ground up for old fans, is there anything here for newcomers to the franchise? If the popularity of downloadable games like Splosion Man are any indication, then absolutely. While the controls and boss fights may seem archaic, this game isn’t meant to scare away the uninitiated. You can choose any of the zones from the get-go, without having to play the game from start to finish in one sitting. New platforming concepts are introduced slowly, and the levels don’t feel designed to screw you over at every turn. That’s not to say that this game is easy; Sonic still dies with a single hit, with rings being his only buffer. Building up a stockpile of extra lives is mercifully simple, and checkpoints are numerous. Bosses are broken up into separate stages, so you don’t have to replay all of Act 3 if a particular one is giving you trouble. If you get the competitive itch, there are online leaderboards that keep track of your best scores and times, so you won’t have to upload your speedruns to Youtube.
So, is this really the game that Sonic diehards have been begging for? Just last year, we received the aforementioned “New” Super Mario Bros. game which, while certainly having unique levels, power-ups, and controls, felt like a re-imagining of Super Mario Bros. 3 due to its overworld design and identical boss fights. It went on to be one of the best reviewed and best selling games on the Wii. Sonic 4 similarly takes its art direction, enemies and bosses straight out of the classic Genesis titles. It may be a little on the short side and without any overarching narrative component, but everything that made the old games great is here and has been enhanced. And while the episodic nature of these releases remains unclear, it seems we can expect more games just like this one sooner rather than 16 years later. Whether or not this means the triumphant return of Sonic, this game is worth your time if you can appreciate classic gameplay without the classic frustration it usually brings.