An Honorable Attempt to Cash In On Nostalgia
SEGA went all in when they announced they were making a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Many assumed that Sonic & Knuckles served as Sonic the Hedgehog 4, but they were apparently mistaken. Going for an episodic approach, Sonic Team turned to developer Dimps to concoct a 2D side-scrolling adventure featuring everyone's favorite blue hedgehog. Now Dimps have had experience designing games featuring the azure blue blur such as the Sonic Advance trilogy and the pair of Sonic Rush games on the Nintendo DS. Now they truly get their chance to shine with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. With being a main entry in the franchise, you know that fans expect nothing but the utmost quality and shine. Does Dimps deliver?
There's no exposition to speak of in Sonic the Hedgehog 4, and that's quite alright. We're going retro here where games spoke for themselves and didn't need no stinking story to get in the way of the fun. The goal is to take down the evil Eggman who is once again plotting to take over the world, imprisoning animals in machine pods, and just making life miserable for the inhabitants of Sonic's world. Sonic, being the always fighting for good type that he is, springs into action and closely follows the nefarious doctor through five zones of fast and frenetic gameplay.
Originality isn't Dimps' strong suit. Every of the five zones in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is an archetype of a zone from either the original 1991 classic or Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Splash Hill Zone is Green Hill Zone, Casino Palace Zone is Casino Night Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone is the Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear Zone is the Metropolis Zone. The zones even feature similar enemies and gimmicks throughout each of the zones' three acts. Each zone is divided up between four acts. Three of which are your standard "race through to win and carefully traverse through the levels" while the latter act is a boss battle. Again, these boss battles are ripped straight from their O.G. source. Splash Hill's boss uses the familiar ball and chain to try to slam into Sonic. However, those expecting the exact same game plan from Dr. Eggman will quickly be tripped up as when the diabolical doctor is low on health, he initiates desperation moves. For instance, the first fight with Sonic he'll spin 360 degrees and smash his ball and chain directly into the ground in an attempt to crush the chili dog eating hedgehog.
Each act in the game introduces a new gameplay gimmick that is usually one-off and never again seen after that act is completed. Act 2 of Splash Hill features vines that Sonic can gain momentum on and swing off of while Act 3 not only is displayed in sunset but it's full of ziplines for Sonic to ride. Casino Palace is full of card platforms that switch from being able to stand on to dropping the player into a bottomless pit below as well as a roller coaster made up of poker cards. Lost Labyrinth has an act that is completely pitch black. Sonic carries a torch throughout the act, lighting the way through the level and setting off fuses to blow away walls obstructing his path. Meanwhile, Mad Gear shows off with a crusher wall that relentlessly pursues the fastest thing alive who must jet through the act 'less he wishes to be smashed like a pancake. The zone also has gears which the blue hedgehog can ride on while avoiding the thrown pincers of those obnoxious praying mantis and starfish enemies Sonic 2 veterans dread from the Metropolis Zone.
In the realm of Sonic the Hedgehog, rings are his livelihood. As long as Sonic has at least one ring when he gets hit, he'll stay alive. If he takes damage while not having a single golden ring in his possession, the player loses a life and must start back at the beginning of the act or at the last passed checkpoint. Gathering one-hundred of these rings will net Sonic an extra life. Having at least fifty rings at the end of an act (save for the boss act, of course) will enable the hedgehog to enter the Special Stage. These are designed just like Sonic 1's bonus stages except the player actually controls the rotation of the stage as they navigate through a maze of multicolored orbs, all the while avoiding the dreaded goal signs which will immediately end his run for the Chaos Emerald. Collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds, of which there are seven, transforms Sonic into Super Sonic. This omnipotent being can fly through acts, completely invincible save for bottomless pits. Completionists will definitely want to grab them all to say they truly finished off Episode I.
Despite having the past 2D Sonic games to reference on, Dimps did not exactly nail the execution of playing as the speed demon hog. If you're not constantly holding forward, your momentum will die off faster than the lifespan of a fly. This is frustrating when trying to play the game and not having enough oomph to run up a hill or go through a loop-de-loop. Another problem I noticed is that Sonic can somehow slowly walk upside down on curved ceilings. Did the entire developer team at Dimps flunk out on their high school physics class or what? Regardless, a new addition to the game from the 3D Sonic titles is the homing attack. Unlike some purists out there, I welcome this added gameplay perk with open arms. It makes bashing badniks all the more easy, and using it to air dash makes speeding through levels a breeze. In some cases utilizing the air dash is a necessity as without it, players can find themselves falling into pits because they didn't move swiftly enough across falling platforms.
Compared to what we've seen from fan hacks and fan projects, Sonic the Hedgehog 4's visuals aren't truly as ambitious as they could have been. Don't get me wrong, the game still looks rather swell, and the backgrounds are gorgeous, but there was potential to knock this one out of the park. Dimps failed at doing this. The sound by longtime Sonic Team composer Jun Senoue attempts to go retro, but it comes off as feverishly forced. The music attempts to hark back to the glory Genesis days, but it sounds off. The melodies are nice, but it's the instrumentation that made me go back and wonder what Senoue was smoking when he chose the type of MIDI he did over the capable soundcard of the actual Genesis. Nonetheless and all-in-all, these are minor complaints presentation-wise, and they shouldn't put you off in trying this title out.
[SuperPhillip Says: 6.75/10]