After a 16-year absence, consoles finally have a new side-scrolling Sonic adventure, and it winds up being a strange marriage of something blue, a few things new, and many things borrowed. It’s technically very good in many ways, and features some new things compared to the ‘90s Genesis games, but not many, and the usage of classic level archetypes makes them feel recycled even if the level designs are largely new - and it doesn’t help that boss battles are recycled from past games - with some new attacks thrown in.
Sonic 4’s first episode has you controlling Sonic through four stages with a three act structure, ala Sonic 1, each has a boss battle occurring right after the third act is saved, instead of happening right at the end of the level - presumably so top scores and ring counts on leaderboards could be an accurate representation for each act as opposed to dropping off dramatically due to a boss draining them. Having only Sonic playable certainly does away with the problem of cluttering things up with too many pointless playable characters, however, it also feels like a step back since when done right - like with Tails and Knuckles, the idea of multiple playable character can greatly enhance the game’s replay value and put some new spins on existing levels.
The Sonic 4 name irks me a bit because of how many things have been removed from prior games. There’s little that screams “Sonic 4” about its gameplay - Sonics 2 and 3 had some kind of progression. Sonic 2 had improved graphics, the series-revolutionizing spin dash, Tails, and two-player stages, Sonic 3 added Knuckles (although not as a playable character), a revamped, shinier-graphic style, multiple kinds of bonus stages, a variety of shields, a save system, and logical level progression that linked the stages together through some kind of happenstance. Sonic and Knuckles deserves a mention in this as well despite not being a numbered entry in the series because it is basically an extension of Sonic 3, and brought with it lock-on gameplay to Sonics 2 and 3 that allowed you to play as Knuckles in each adventure. Each of these games brought at least one major new thing to the table, and all Sonic 4 does is add a homing attack, which isn’t entirely new.
The levels are also few in number - 12 core platforming stages and featured along with many boss battles, and while the idea of keeping the stages all within classic level themes, IE - remixing the Green Hill zone, Sonic 2’s casino stage, Sonic 1’s labyrinth zone, Sonic 2’s machinery-filled level, and the Sonic 1-style bonus stages brings with it an instant level of familiarity - it also makes it feel like a rehash, even though the level designs are all-new. There also isn’t much being done gameplay-wise that couldn’t have been done on the Genesis, which kind of works against it, because the only time it feels like the modern-day technology is being used is for the second act of the casino stage, where you can zip through the level on cards that go through the foreground, background, and are easily the most visually impressive parts of the game - they’re also the only parts that truly feel new.
With that said, what Sonic 4 lacks in Innovation and quantity in content, it largely makes up for in quality. The remixed levels are all a joy to play though, and are highly replayable not only because they’re fun to just go through again like the older games, but also because you can now try and beat your friends’ scores for each act via a leaderboard. Beyond the excellent second casino act that has you not only zoom through on a deck of cards, but also get lives quickly with a little Sonic poker action as you race through, you’ve also got a fantastic set of labyrinth levels to conquer, which feature tougher puzzles than any other side-scrolling Sonic. The sense of accomplishment after beating them is hugely rewarding, and you’ll definitely replay them to up your score.
One nice change is after beating the first act of the game, you can choose any side-scrolling, non-boss stage - giving you a lot more freedom than past side-scrollers in the series. You can also replay conquered special stages to increase your high score. I wonder if they increased the freedom to encourage more leaderboard activity - It seems that way when you play, and I like that - they didn’t just plop a regular Sonic template game and only let you track say, end of game stats on the leaderboards - they really went all out and allowed players to compare their scores with friends in just about every possible way.
If you’re a multi-system owner, you definitely want to know which version to buy, and a lot of that depends on the equipment you’ve got. If you’re a Wii-only player, well, you’re getting the weakest console version at 480p max for the graphics, and it’s best played with one of the classic-style pads. If you’ve only got the default pads for the PS3 and 360, I’d go with the PS3 version because the d-pad works a little better for it than the 360’s. The 360’s left stick works like a dream though, and if you own either an SF IV pad for the 360 or PS3, or a USB Saturn pad (which will only work on the PS3), then go with whichever of those pads you prefer. The Saturn pad’s smaller, while the SF IV pad is larger and has comfy rubber grips.
Visually, Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a stunner. The 3D graphics look fantastic integrated into the side-scrolling world, and there are some fantastic transparency effects when you go through waterfalls in the opening stages, as well as incredible reflections on Robotnik’s contraptions and especially his outfit. Sonic’s animations are smooth, and despite their fluidity, don’t get in the way of the speed very often - although he does move a tad bit slowly when he’s walking, but since you‘ll spend most of your time dashing around, it doesn‘t pose much of a problem. The Sonic series has always had some enjoyable songs to smash baddies to and hum afterwards, and this is no exception. The music is pretty catchy, and the classic “Se-ga” sound effect starts the game off perfectly.
Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a short, but well-crafted entry in the series. It’s hurt by a lack of innovation and a relatively high price given that it’s basically half the length of a regular side-scrolling Sonic, but still carries a pretty hefty $15 price tag. If you’re a casual Sonic fan, you’re probably better off waiting for it to be discounted at some point on PSN or as an Xbox Deal of the Week, but series die-hards will definitely get $15 out of it between playing through it, then replaying stages for better times and leaderboard scores.