The past decade has not been kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s had to suffer through 3D incarnations with bad controls, even worse cameras, a host of useless and annoying sidekicks, turning into a stretchy-armed werewolf and even an extremely creepy relationship with an underage human girl. So Sega went back to the drawing board and brought Sonic back to his roots. Is this the Sonic game we’ve all been waiting for, or is Sonic in for another 10 years of misfortune?
Things in Sonic 4 start well enough. You’re greeted by a main menu screen reminiscent of the Sonic games of old, with Sonic-style music playing in the background instead of all the cheesy, pseudo-rock songs that have plagued Sonic games lately. You’ll load into the first level, Green Hill Zone, and will be instantly reminded of the first level from every other 2D Sonic game. As soon as you start to move Sonic, however, things begin to go wrong. Very wrong.
The first thing you are likely to notice is that the controls feel very slippery and loose, like Sonic’s had banana peels grafted to the bottom of his
ugly iconic red boots. The next thing you’ll find is that the physics in the game are way off. Sonic can now walk right up almost any steep hill, an act that required the player to build some actual momentum in the previous games. Hell, he can even walk casually through most loops. It’s just wrong. Finally, you’ll notice the inclusion of Sonic’s air dash move from his 3D adventures. The air dash worked fine in the 3D Sonic games and was put there to compensate for a general lack of precision. In Sonic 4, it has no place and will probably mess you up more often than not, sending you shooting past the platform you were aiming for and into untimely death instead.
The real problem with Sonic 4, however, is not the controls – the biggest offender here is the level design. As I said earlier, things start off well enough. In spite of the odd controls, Green Hill Zone is fairly fun and seems to indicate that the game has got potential. Branching paths, some good opportunities for speed, and a fight with Dr. Robotn….Eggman that pays homage to your first fight with him in Sonic 1. Unfortunately, Green Hill Zone is a lie meant to lull you into a false sense of security. As soon as you start up Casino Street Zone, things go downhill pretty quickly and just keep getting worse. Those branching paths become extremely ambiguous, often leaving you with no idea of how to progress, and those opportunities for good speed become few and far between.
The game reaches the pinnacle of poor design when you get to the second act of the Lost Labyrinth Zone. In this level, Sonic carries a torch through the darkness and you must light wall torches to solve puzzles. It is, without hyperbole, the worst level that’s ever been in a Sonic game. Similarly, the final boss is probably the worst in any Sonic game as well. About the only thoughtful design change in Sonic 4 was to the bonus levels. They are modeled after Sonic 1′s bonus levels, with Sonic falling through a maze of gems to find the chaos emerald. Here, you rotate the level itself instead of Sonic, and it feels like a genuinely inspired change. The only one in the entire game, frankly.
From a purely technical standpoint, Sonic 4 is a good looking game. It’s got vibrant colors, good looking environments and nice special effects. Artistically, however, opinions will vary. Many will bemoan the decision to use Sonic’s newer, skinnier aesthetic instead of his old, pudgier one. Mostly, Sonic just animates slowly – much too slowly to make him look like he’s actually running fast. He looks more like he’s gliding over the landscape and it’s just awkward. On the audio side, things fare no better. The music starts off sounding like it’s paying homage to past Sonic games, but it soon becomes apparent that it is nowhere near as catchy. I eventually turned it off entirely, as it becomes extremely aggravating.
Sonic 4 is bad. Really bad. Not in the early 90s "he’s a bad dude" sort of way, either. Sonic fans who have been waiting for the spine-laden blue rodent’s glorious return to form are going to be sorely disappointed. I used to think it was just the 3D gameplay that Sega couldn’t wrap their heads around with Sonic. It turns out, they simply don’t have what it takes to make a good Sonic game anymore. Somewhere along the line, they completely forgot what made his games fun in the first place: speed and exploration. It’s time to let Sonic die. Mascots are useless in this day and age anyway. Just let him go. Let him retire forever with what little remains of his dignity. As it stands, Sonic 4 is the worst 2½ hours I’ve played all year. If we gave scores of 0 out of 5, this game would deserve it.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was released on October 7th, 2010 for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PC. Review was published retroactively, based on the Xbox 360 version.