Old-school Sonic fans have had to endure a lot over the past ten years, and for those of us who grew up with the blue blur back in his 16-bit heyday, the parade of almost schizophrenic designs Sonic Team have subjected us to since the Dreamcast have often been a bitter pill to swallow.
Like a lot of classic game franchises, the shift to 3D was not kind to Sonic. The initial excitement of seeing everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog debut in his first honest-to-god 3D entry back in 1999—the Dreamcast’s Sonic Adventure, recently re-released to less-than-forgiving scores—cooled quickly after realizing that beyond the first level of the game, the camera and clunky design made it more of an exercise in VMU-shattering frustration than a promising new direction for the series. Things, of course, only continued to go downhill from there, as Sega decided to introduce a host of stupid or forgettable new characters and gimmicks with each passing game. This lead to such high points as romantically pairing Sonic with a human, Shadow the Hedgehog (it’s like Sonic, but with guns!), and of course, the now-infamous werehog. In hindsight, a lot of these decisions seem like Sega was operating under the influence of some powerful mind-altering drugs; the sense of desperation to reclaim a market share among younger gamers who probably weren’t even aware of Sonic’s lineage was palpable, even if the increasing clamor from old-school fans calling for a return to 2D fell on deaf ears.
The innumerable missteps over the past decade, then, have made it almost hard to believe that Sega has finally taken the series back (more or less) to basics with Sonic 4. And guess what, Sonic fans? The hedgehog’s return is actually pretty good. Clearly this is a game designed for old-school Sonic fans, one that owes as much to the series’ roots as it does some of the more modern cues of the mostly-failed 3D titles. That said, nostalgia will be obvious to those of us who played the original Sonic through Sonic & Knuckles until our thumbs practically bled. Aside from stages (the ubiquitous Green Hill Zone and casino-style levels, ancient ruin settings, and Eggman’s industrial factory wasteland all make appearances here), enemies and boss encounters will be familiar twists on old themes as well.
But rather than simply blatantly ripping off identical design and repackaging it for the HD generation, Sonic Team instead riffs on them. Take the first boss encounter with Eggman in the Splash Hill Zone, for example. At the outset, Eggman’s floats above Sonic between two platforms, swinging a large ball on a chain—this is the original Sonic’s first boss encounter, verbatim. But then after being hit a few times, Sonic Team shakes things up. Suddenly, Eggman is quickly rotating in a circle, swinging the wrecking ball in an arc over the top of the screen (destroying the previous safety of the platforms). These types of homage are common throughout Sonic 4, particularly in the boss battles. In effect, Sonic 4 is designed as an amalgamation of the hedgehog’s Genesis titles, and longtime fans will likely get a kick out of the bits and pieces they recognize from each.
This comes with the caveat that Sonic Team has actually borrowed a few tricks from later Sonic games. Aside from the more streamlined, modern look—an oblong look essentially taken from the GBA and DS Sonic titles, the most prominent change is Sonic’s lock-on target attack that made its debut in Sonic Adventure. Unlike the 3D games, the targeting actually works (most of the time) in 2. Essentially any time Sonic jumps near an item, switch, or enemy, a reticle appears around whatever is closest, letting Sonic launch into whatever he’s targeting with a homing spin-dash. In some 3D entries, the technique was used to get across wide chasms or access areas Sonic couldn’t otherwise reach. The technique works pretty well here, though the targeting can be a little unresponsive at times.
Aside from this modern admission, though, Sonic 4 probably plays, a little surprisingly, like Sonic’s original game, though you thankfully have the convenience of the hedgehog’s trademark spin-dash. That means level design is a little more open, with a lot of different areas to explore in each stage. Special stages also make a comeback here, putting a new twist on the “rotating maze” that houses the chaos emeralds of the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic 4 also surpasses the original game in level length—whereas the first Sonic had three lengthy stages (with each final stage closing with a boss battle) there are three whole stages plus a boss stage per zone here. It’s a slight difference, but still one that makes zones feel longer. Sadly, the lengthy and sometime-obtuse level design of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is also still present, and that can affect Sonic’s speed quite a bit. The little guy seems to move as though he has lead weights attached to his legs, taking a full second or two to actually begin picking up speed from the slow walk he starts with. Not since the original Sonic, which didn’t have the design advantage of the hedgehog’s spin-dash, has Sonic felt this sluggish to start. It’s a big problem for such a loose character to feel rigid, though it can generally be righted by jumping and doing an air boost forward by tapping the jump button again, a move from Sonic Adventure that instantly launches Sonic into full speed. Still, given that there are stages designed around outrunning massive, level-destroying traps, not to mention the amount of speed-reducing obstacles you encounter throughout the game, it’s enough of a problem to mention.
That gripe aside, Sonic 4 is very much a return to form for the series. After so many years of watching poor Sonic put through the wringer time and again, it’s nice to finally see him back in two dimensions. Sonic 4 isn’t a perfect revival of the series’ old-school heritage, and not every gameplay element works perfectly—rolling a giant Indiana Jones-style boulder down a track and having to use pillar switches to solve minimal puzzles come to mind—but there’s enough old-school here to satiate hardcore Sonic fans. With as tarnished as this series’ reputation is, this is pretty good first effort back. I only expect more from here on out (a return of the elemental shield types from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles would be great, too).
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
Sonic 4’s graphics are lush, with just a hint of cel-shading, making for a good-looking, if sometimes simple aesthetic. 3.0 Control
Controls can be a little finicky, particularly when trying to launch Sonic forward with a boost jump. The little guy also feels a bit rigid when starting to move from a stop. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Although there aren’t many tracks here that match the originals, some of the music is good. Sound effects are spot-on classic Sonic. 4.2 Play Value
It’s not a perfect retro revival and can be blown through in a few hours, but this is a much better—and purer—Sonic experience than we’ve seen in years. The difficulty can range from easy to very hard; the final boss is particularly ridiculous. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.