Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I Review

After going through the classic Genesis-era Sonic games last year with reviews of Sonic The Hedgehog 1, 2, CD, and 3, I thought I was done revisiting the classic titles.  I am, but there was one mainline Sonic game that tried to recapture the feeling of these games, one that the upcoming Sonic Mania will basically overwrite.  That is Sonic The Hedgehog 4, an episodic game series that must have done so poorly for Sega that they actually never finished it, instead stopping after two episodes.  Seeing as how both games are surprisingly different for episodic titles, I will be reviewing the games separately, starting with Episode I naturally.  

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, and a bunch of mobile phones
Developers: Dimps and Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega

Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I is an unambitious retreading of the same concepts from the Genesis/Mega Drive era, and most specifically Sonic 1.  There are no side characters, no greater attempt at a story, and really nothing much to say about the game’s premise other than Doctor Eggman is a bad robot creating man who Sonic wants to stop in order to free the deformed animals that are used to power his eccentrically designed machines.  While I understand the need to get back to basics with a project like this, I find this premise to be uninteresting when compared to other games in the series.

As should be pretty obvious, Sonic 4 attempt to capture the feel of the original Genesis titles, while altering certain mechanical specifics with regards to the jumping and movement.  These changes result in the game having a different and slightly more modern feel.  Though, I am guessing this was done to better incorporate the homing attack from 3D Sonic games into Sonic’s repertoire of moves, which previously only included running, rolling, jumping, and spin dashing.  The homing attack is a welcome and handy feature that makes it easier to dispatch enemies placed around the environment and can be used to quickly dispatch certain bosses, but is mostly useful in how it circumvents one of the big problems from classic Sonic games had.  The incredibly slow startup when moving.

This is particularly egregious here due to Sonic’s starting walk cycle, a stiff and robotic string of motions that struck an uncanny chord with me, as it goes so vehemently against how any creature should naturally move, let alone one that is known for running quickly.  Yet by using the homing attack in the air, Sonic may do a limp second jump that, while also improving his horizontal movement in mid air, allows him to quickly gain a bit of speed.  Though, as was the case in basically every 2D Sonic game, speed is both the core appeal of the series, and also leads to the biggest detractor of enjoyability. 

Often the level design of 2D Sonic games fail to be a fair or comforting series of challenges, with many stages feeling as if they are deliberately designed to hinder and annoy the player.  Some sections require prophetic foresight or unreasonable reaction time in order to get through without being scathed, while other sections actively punish the player for moving too fast and not taking things slower.  It is an unbalanced form of game design that results in the game being stuck somewhere between a more traditional platformer and a reflex driven game where the core appeal is seeing the player’s rhythmically placed inputs as signified by visual cues are rewarded with pleasing imagery that zooms by the player very quickly.  

Now, I can think of examples where both of these things were mixed well in certain Sonic games, yet even those examples all show signs of strain as if the designers were desperately trying to achieve and strike this almost absurdly fine balance.  Since its inception, the Sonic series has struggled with a loose sense of control when moving its characters around, and with unreliable physics that do not always behave the way one would expect.  Even in the Sonic games that I genuinely enjoy and will defend, this problem, this unique breed of jankiness, rears its unappealing face.  And Sonic 4 Episode I is far from an exception.

Narrowing my focus down a bit, there are numerous instances throughout Sonic 4 Episode I where the game collapses in on itself, stops being fun, and makes the entire stage that surrounds them far, far less enjoyable.  For example, I never want to play through the temple area again because those rocks are hard to control, and that truly awful level where Sonic needs to light use a torch to illuminate the environment.  For another example, I never want to play through the industrial area again because of how annoying the floating exploding starfish enemies are, because the gears that must be platformed on and move in the most sudden and aggravating way possible, and because those pistons are annoying death traps.

That right there amounts to half the levels in this thankfully brief game, and while the earlier levels are far more enjoyable due to how simplistic their designs are and how little hazards there are, after spending three hours with this game, I no longer wanted to so much as look at it due to the special stages and final boss.  After going through the special stages in the Genesis Sonic games, I think I could safely say that I have an irrational hatred for the things.  They are confusing splurges of vibrant colors that prioritize incredibly quick reaction time and demand that the player grow accustomed with a set of physics that are radically different from those featured in the main game.  

After going through the game and managing to get four of the seven chaos emeralds, the stages underwent a dramatic spike in difficulty, and not wanting to contend with the same horribly controlling tilting nonsense of the special stages from Sonic 1, except notably more brutal due to the introduction of a time limit, I had to give up.  While I would have endured this obnoxious drek if the game game me a way to easily replay these stages, it does not.  If I wanted to replay them, I would have needed to clear a stage I had not gotten a Chaos Emerald in before just for the opportunity to try again.  If I had save states here, I would have persevered, but instead I just gave up.  

As for the final boss, I can safely say that it is the most obnoxious and difficult final boss in any Sonic game I have ever played.  Not only is it placed after a boss rush where Sonic must face off against two dirt easy bosses, a revised and harder version of another boss, and a boss that requires an obnoxious amount of patience to defeat properly, but the final boss itself takes at least thirty hits to go down.  Yes, thirty hits, two phases, each with their own strategies to employ, all before a final move of desperation that will kill Sonic if the player does not react quickly enough, all with 3 rings that can very easily be scattered off screen.  It took me about an hour, a third of my total playtime, and twenty tries before I finally got the strategy down.  There was no satisfaction to be had with my victory.  Only contempt.

Seeing as how I gave the gameplay one of my most vicious trashings of all time, I should probably do the same to the visuals in this game, as this is probably the ugliest Sonic game ever conceived.  The problems start with the uninspired art direction, which consists of a deluge of derivative stages and recycled enemies that try to recapture the general look of the Genesis games while rarely if ever offering an interesting new concept.  Yet to turn the generic into bad, the game uses prerendered backgrounds for its levels, a technique popular throughout the 1990s, back when game systems struggled to render fully 3D environments.  Now, I am of the opinion that this technique almost always looked awful, and that the prerendered backgrounds themselves almost always look bad, and due to a simple two things.

One, these backgrounds were often exported at fairly low resolutions, and either look like a blurry mesh of often indistinguishable assets when upscaled, or an unappealing mess of pixels.  Two, the graphics workstations that were originally used to create these backgrounds used textures and filters that really have not aged well.  I’m not sure how to best describe them, but the words grimey and overly-realistic come to mind.  

Despite being made a decade after this technology was largely deemed outdated, Sonic 4 Episode I not only uses this same technique, but it falls victim to these two problems in such a perfect way that it is actually kind of shocking that anybody from Sega could give this the okay, much less feel that something so drab and unappealing was worthy of being deemed a successor to a string of genuinely lovely looking titles that were brimming with details and creativity in their level designs.

As for the polygonal characters who populate these gordy worlds, they look bad.  The lighting and shading applied to them makes everything look far more basic and simpler than it should, and gives the impression that the characters are not actually going along these environments.  Their low detail and use of saturated colors cause a clashing effect when viewing even a single screenshot of the game, and I genuinely cannot fathom why anybody thought that this was a good idea.

The music on the other hand… is fine.  It lacks the same catchy quality and level of energy present in the soundtracks for Sonic 2, 3, and CD.  Even considering how I was more familiar with those soundtracks, there were points in all of those games where I was actively listening to the music.  In Sonic 4, I only remember the music to the first level, kind of, sort of, because I went through it a few times to grind for lives.  The only thing I find memorable on the audio front is how the game’s menus use a specific sound effect from Sonic Adventure 2.  I actually like that sound effect, but I never got used to hearing it outside of the context of Sonic Adventure 2, and it caused me to do a double take every time I heard it.

Sonic 4 Episode I is a failed attempt to capture and improve upon a line of games that I would genuinely love to see improved upon and updated with better design mentalities.  Yet not only does Sonic 4 Episode I not do that, it manages to take away the same pleasing audiovisual qualities that incredibly benefited the other games.  It is an ugly rendition of a flawed yet endearing line of games that deserves to be forgotten, and I’m glad to be done with it.

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