Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 Review
For those who’ve played the classic Sonic titles, but want more. Anyone new to Sonic’s roots should try to find a way to play the earlier Genesis games first, then consider Sonic 4: Episode 1.
Are you a Sonic fan? Take a run down memory lane; everyone else, direct course to the Genesis Sonic games.
Why? During a few playthroughs of Sonic 4: Episode 1, a few things have become clear. To begin, much of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is derivative work from the previous Sonic the Hedgehog games. See, Sega and Dimps set forth to create a Sonic title that recaptured the elements found in that handful of titles. Indeed, the feel of Sonic and Sonic 2 are recaptured in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 - there’s a focus on building and maintaining momentum, learning and mastering enemies as well as stages, and platforming is central to the game’s theme. This is great news.
For the most part, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1’s gameplay just feels right. Sonic builds up speed as he flies down ramps. He can bounce from one enemy to another to rack up rather meaningless points and reach new heights. Rings are valuable commodities that protect Sonic from death upon collision with spikes or an enemy. Players have to maneuver Sonic with a degree of foresight and anticipation of the constantly advancing stage, but there rarely seems a point where progression necessitates trial-and-error gameplay, unlike a few of the more recent Sonic games.
But there’s something wrong here. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 reintegrated the classic Sonic gameplay that made Sega fans love the hedgehog to begin with, but the game doesn’t stop there. Zones are unapologetically based upon ones from Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2. For classic fans like myself, it’s true a feeling of nostalgia is established, but unfortunately, the feeling left me wondering why I’d choose to play Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 over the former Sonic classics. There truthfully isn’t much new to see here. Like the zones, every boss is derived from a few in Sonic or Sonic 2; disappointingly, the bosses only begin to deviate two attacks before they are defeated, with the exception of the episode’s final boss. In a sense, the game has even regressed, lacking Sonic’s pal, Tails, whom, in Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, acts as a helpful partner for a second player to control.
Furthermore, the sense of nostalgia is greatly reduced upon discovery of a few new elements intended to provide a bit of zest to Episode 1, but ultimately sour the experience. There’s two notable examples, the first being what I call “Enemy Ladders.” In Sonic 4: Episode 1, Sonic has brought back his homing attack from 3D Sonic titles. Happily, in most cases, this works well. It lets players easily target springs and enemies without much trouble, and when no enemies are around, it grants Sonic a mid-air boost or directional change. However, nearly every stage has the aforementioned enemy ladders; that is, a diagonal row of enemies placed mid-air for Sonic to use his homing attack on in order to reach a higher platform. How is this a problem? When Sonic uses the attack on enemies, all momentum is stopped, entirely. He bounces straight into the air, and then must repeat the action, typically three more times, to progress. In a game about building and maintaining momentum to effectively navigate various platforms, this loss is greatly noticed and consistently annoying.
While not quite as tedious, motion-control is seemingly shoe-horned into the game, and in most cases, it isn’t a good fit. Even though players can opt to use the D-pad over the tilting gestures, control feels sluggish and unresponsive, and with the exception of the special stages, out of place. This is a stark contrast to Episode 1’s normal control, which is precise and sharp.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 looks very smooth in motion, necessary for the high-speed of which Sonic dashes through stages. Stages are brightly colored and match their theme well, as do the enemies chosen, though all or almost all enemies hail from Sonic or Sonic 2. As you might expect, everything has received a nice graphical touch-up. While the art styles throughout zones and their enemies are consistent, Dr. Eggman, Sonic’s nemesis, and Sonic himself, seem to be animated or colored through slightly different means than most everything else. This doesn’t stand out very much, though, except in nitpicky over-analysis.
The game’s music doesn’t seem to match quite as well as the visual presentation. While many of the tracks do an adequate job, none seem quite as catchy as the early Sonic tunes. These tunes get the job done and match the game’s pacing well enough, but I would've preferred to have one or two stand-out songs. Still, the music does feel reminiscent of the early Sonic tunes, and enjoyably matches the game’s pacing.
Most unfortunately, Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a bit too short for its price. When the game concluded, I couldn’t help but feel there should’ve been a bit more. I was very disappointed that much of the content wasn’t more original, and, as I said before, it became apparent that by basing the game entirely on early Sonic titles, much of the game is spent with a “Been-there, done-that” feeling. The title is more expensive, yet shorter than these same early Sonic games, all of which can at least be found on WiiWare and XBLA, or on Sonic Mega Collection for a much lower price. Simply put, Sonic 4: Episode 1 is inferior to any one of the four original Genesis classics, and even for a major Sonic fan, it feels somewhat redundant. Episode 1 isn’t a bad game, per se, and it does fit in the original, main Sonic series, but its new features and borrowed design mar what otherwise would be a fantastic entry into Sonic’s repertoire.
This review was based on the WiiWare version of Sonic 4: Episode 1. The PSN and XBLA versions have higher resolutions, and both look better in action compared, but all three still remain sharp in motion. The iOS version of the game features a few different motion-based stages not found in the other versions, and likewise, the other versions have a few platforming-based stages not found on any iOS platform. The PSN and WiiWare versions also include the option for tilt-based control of a few minimal elements in gameplay, but in all three console versions, these elements can also be controlled via the D-pad.