Platform: Xbox 360
Review Date: 12/18/10
Sonic fans have been waiting sixteen years for a true 2D sequel to the popular series, and now it's here. Unfortunately, it's not quite as awesome as it could be. The game relies heavily on nostalgia, and the first indication of that is hearing the classic Sega bumper when the game boots up. From there, you visit familiar landscapes including Splash Hill, Casino Street, Lost Labyrinth, and Dr. Eggman's diabolical Mad Gear fortress. While these are fun environments, they're also a bit too familiar, and the boss battles are nearly identical variations of previous games. I was hoping for classic Sonic gameplay in a new and more varied environment. Which brings us to the next sore spot: gameplay. For the most part, Sonic behaves just like he did in earlier games, but the controls feel a bit sloppier and jumping seems sluggish. Precision controls are required for a game like this, and Sonic just doesn't feel right. On the plus side, he gets a new homing attack, which comes in handy for dealing with certain critters.
Production wise, the game looks great. The cheery music definitely recalls the Sega Genesis era, but isn't particularly memorable. The biggest improvement over the original games is that you can save your progress. Not only that, but you can also choose what levels you want to play, so you're not forced into linear progression. While this breaks up the continuity, it also gives you a chance to play every level in the game, and skip the ones that are causing you grief. "Sonic 4" definitely has some difficult levels that will quickly enrage you and gobble up dozens of lives. Fortunately, you can go back and replay the casino levels to quickly and easily stock up on more lives, so with enough perseverance, you can get through nearly every challenge. The only level I decided to pass on was the underwater boss battle, which is both very difficult and very boring. Since you can skip it, why bother? For true die-hard fans, there are bonus levels where you can try to collect chaos emeralds, but those areas are difficult to access and I was never a fan of them in the first place.
Since this is titled "Episode 1", Sega must be testing the waters to see if there's enough demand to continue the series. Either that, or it's a subtle indicator that "Sonic 4" isn't a complete game. Since there are only four zones, it does feel a bit short and light on content, but for $15 it's hard to complain. I seem to recall paying $80 for "Sonic And Knuckles" when it originally came out for the Genesis. One bizarre side note worth mentioning is that when you go to the help screen, you get a big notification that the typefaces being used don't belong to Sega. Seriously? I've never played a game that made a big deal about typefaces, and it left a bad taste. It's a pointless legal gesture that only results in irritating and insulting the player. Overall, "Sonic 4" is a fun little diversion for anyone who enjoyed playing Sonic's earlier adventures. However, younger players may find it boring and wonder what the fuss is all about. It'll be interesting to see where Sonic goes next, since his latest 3D adventures have been getting steadily worse.