I have always had a history with the Sonic the Hedgehog series. I grew up with both of the Sonic Adventure titles and I formed a connection with both of them early on. I also was nostalgic for the Genesis games seeing as how I played them through Sonic Mega Collection. I did enjoy games like Sonic Heroes, Secret Rings, and Unleashed despite the poor reception they received, and was lucky enough to have never played the infamous Sonic 06 due to not having either console it was on. Despite this, I missed out on Sonic the Hedgehog 4 when it was originally released on the WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and Playstation Store in 2010, as I fell out of the Sonic series around that time despite it supposedly being where the series got good again for a short while.
Part of the reason why was because of the game’s $15.00 price tag when it was released compared to several other Virtual Console and WiiWare games that were cheaper. Truth be told, it would have probably taken me even longer had it not been for Steam’s infamous sales that allowed me to get a hold of both episodes of Sonic 4.
I am glad that I played it at this point as well, and I somewhat regret not playing it back when it was released. There are some issues I have with the game and I don’t feel it is quite as good as the original Genesis titles, but it is still a very well designed and fun platformer.
Unlike other retro throwbacks at the time like Mega Man 9 and 10, Sonic 4 did not go to the lengths of making itself look and sound exactly like the original games. At first, this would sound like a good thing considering that it would just make it seem like they are trying to play off nostalgia and failing to evolve. However, Sonic 4 instead falls into the New Super Mario Bros trap of trying harder to emulate the original games instead of improving on them (albeit coming closer to the original games than NSMB did).
The level aesthetics and themes are all lifted directly from the original games. You have the Splash Hill Zone, which is just like Green Hill/Emerald Hill/Angel Island Zone. You have the Casino Street Zone, which is just like Casino Night Zone. You have Lost Labyrinth, which is just like the Labyrinth/Hydrocity Zones. Lastly, there is the Mad Gear Zone, just like Scrap Brain/Metropolis Zones. Every boss battle is also lifted from the original games as well, albeit they at least have updated patterns.
In other presentational values, the art style is nice with the exception of Sonic’s character model which looks like it was lifted from the first two adventure titles. The sound effects are the same as the classic games which fits incredibly well. The music is specifically notable in that it manages to sound like the Genesis era soundtracks without going to the lengths of limiting itself to a Genesis sound chip. The songs are all just as catchy as the originals as well. The only exceptions are the boss themes that are rather bland, especially when compared to the memorable boss music of the Genesis originals.
Despite being a bit too stagnant in the art style department and not entirely original, the core gameplay of Sonic 4 is what makes it worth playing. Even though the level aesthetics are lifted directly from previous games, the level designs themselves are still well thought out with no real problems to them. Every stage has multiple paths through them and has plenty of ways they can be played. They all have an excellent mix of speed and methodical platforming that avoids that “hold right to win” design flaw that other 2D Sonic games at the time possessed.
It also helps that each level offers individual mechanics to them that allow them to feel unique from each other, and they used the technology that was currently available to add more to the game rather than just stop at what was already there in the classics. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 instead adds things like Sonic’s homing attack and implements it into the levels very smoothly.
What is also nice is that you don’t need to do a straight shot through every single stage at once like you did in the classics. You can go back and replay older stages in order to farm lives, to unlock the chaos emeralds, or even if you just want to replay old levels for the fun of it.
The only real complaint I have gameplay wise is the way that collecting the chaos emeralds is implemented into the game. Rather than going with Sonic 2 and 3’s approach of basing it off of having a certain number of rings at a checkpoint, you need to hold on to your rings until you get to the end of the level and jump through a giant ring. This causes problems because you will needed to constantly replay entire stages just to get another shot at a bonus stage which most players are not going to clear the first time. There are also points when the player might miss the ring even if they have enough rings and have to replay the stage anyway.
There is no reason to have not allowed the option of playing the bonus stage whenever you feel like after unlocking it once. I have already proved that I am able to get to the end of the stage with fifty rings; why should I need to do it again?
Even with the few complaints I have towards Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, it’s still a great game that I can easily recommend to any Sonic fan. It really did feel good to finally play this game and I’m hoping that Episode 2 will be even better when I get around to checking it out. Granted I still have a tough time recommending it for full price considering the lack of content, but even if you do decide to get it, it still would not be the worst thing you can spend your money on.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a great example of a retro throwback done right. After having played a lot of Steam Greenlight trash that was trying to pass itself off as retro in an excuse to make a quick buck, it felt good to play a game that actually understands that the only thing you need to do to be like the classics is to be similar to them while being fun to play. Yes there are some subtle differences between Sonic 4 and the original Genesis games, but that is what is notably great about it.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on March 9th of 2016, and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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