It’s fair to say that Sonic the Hedgehog has had something of an up and down career, and we aren’t just talking about the penchant for his games to catapult him into the air. The speedy blue darling of the 16-bit era, whose fallen out of favour thanks to his recent 3D forays, is back with Sonic 4 and Sega seem keen to get back to his spiky roots. Trying to show that they’re still there for the fans, the game follows a more traditional 2D styling. Even the storyline (such as it is – it still involves Dr Robotnik nicking cuddly-wuddly animals and putting them in machines) picks up straight after the old Megadrive title of Sonic 3.
So, sixteen years on from this last game (if we use a scouring pad to erase everything else in-between from our brains), what’s actually changed? The answer is a resounding `not much`. Obviously the game still has you bounding along the levels towards the goal, collecting rings and dodging or bopping enemies that stand in your way. If it didn’t then it wouldn’t be a return to the old school Sonic that formed part of our childhoods and in that respect there’s very little wrong with Sonic 4’s approach. The moment it starts there’s a heady feeling of nostalgia which washes over you like the tidal wave of blue rinse that would be required to dye an actual hedgehog blue (and no doubt suffering the wrath of the RSPCA in the process). Everything from the music, sound effects and title screen, right through to the segmented section which unfolds to reveal the level, has that distinct 2D Sonic feel which transports you back to a time before the turn of the Millennium.
However, there are aspects of the game which quickly wave away that nostalgia like someone trying to fan a fart out of an elevator. The first thing you’ll notice is the physics don’t feel as if they’ve been tuned at all. Sonic starts off running like he’s wading through extra stodgy custard, but soon becomes more responsive once he builds momentum. While this has always been the way with a Sonic title, here it feels overly exaggerated and a little bit painful to watch, let alone play. This `stodge` isn’t helped by Sega’s instance of breaking the running animation when Sonic is catapulted into the air by him waving his arms like a drowning man trying to catch someone’s attention. It’s a baffling design decision, but a good example of what is actually wrong with Sonic 4.
There are lots of little `off` moments all the way through. The design of the levels make it feel like they have no real structure to them, never allowing the player to actually build momentum due to the odd sensation of them feeling too large, but at the same time strangely managing to make them feel too crowded and restricted along the path it expects you to take. This combination of speed and saturation means negotiating them becomes something akin to hard work rather than fun. The game does include a homing function which makes some of the levels a bit easier to traverse at speed, but has the side-effect of making the boss fights ridiculously easy.
There’s also some pretty uninspired choices of levels thrown in there. Yes it would have been something of a disservice to have a new 2D game without a Green Hill Zone themed level in there, but when they throw in the Casino level and then a Labyrinth level, it all starts to feel like a pricey rehash of the older titles. In the lengthy sixteen years between this and the last, surely someone on the design team could have come up with some original ideas? Or perhaps they’re saving those for the other episodes… yes, they’ve stuck with the odd decision to make the game episodic and while you get four levels, split into three stages and a boss fight, it still doesn’t feel like value for money (currently a whopping 1200 Points / £9.99). In fact it just feels like a step backward when, by the time Sonic 2 had arrived, we had multiple characters. Now we’ve gone back to just having Sonic (although it’s debatable if that’s actually a bad thing, since it means no more floundering about as Big the Cat).
There’s been a lot of frothing and foaming at the mouth by the Sega fanboys about how Sonic 4 has turned out. While the ranting of those who are still smarting from the death of the Dreamcast should generally be ignored, here the underlying complaints are pretty justified. The game isn’t a complete failure, but Sonic 4 is little more than a passable attempt at a traditional Sonic title, scrapping by thanks to the whiff of nostalgia it leaves behind as it forgettably buzzes past.
The whole outing feels spoilt by Sega’s bewildering ambitions to try and see how far they can push the term `episodic` gaming and their pricing structure. You’ll be left wondering whether if they’d spent more time on the overall package, then this could have been something special. As it is, it’s another Sonic title to leave languishing on the shelf (albeit a digital one).