Sega did good with Sonic 4 in 2010 by reminding Sonic fans that they hadn’t forgotten the original Sonic games, one year shy of the series’ twentieth anniversary. We all remember Sega went down a pretty dark well after Sonic Adventure, with games like Shadow the Hedgehog and the plainly titled Sonic the Hedgehog. Even so, just like Sonic 4: Episode I falls short of the twentieth anniversary, it also falls short of having originality, which is my biggest complaint. The team barely strayed from the Sonic formula in the original Genesis games, and that’s the tragedy of it all.
Being episodic, it’s a short list of Zones. We have, Splash Hill Zone, Casino Street Zone, Lost Labyrinth Zone, Mad Gear Zone, and E.G.G. Station Zone. Splash Hill Zone is still paying tribute to Green Hill Zone, and it’s probably the best zone in Sonic 4. At Casino Street Zone, things fall apart. Aside from the casino setting having already been done, it ends up being a game of flipping playing cards, and you almost never get blackjack or a royal flush or anything. Lost Labyrinth Zone has the worst Act in the game, Act 2: World of Darkness. You start out with a torch and only enough light to put a circle around Sonic, but the level ends up being fully lit and you use the torch to blow up sticks of dynamite so boulders don’t obstruct your path. That doesn’t sound like a World of Darkness to me.
The special stages are the same as those in Sonic 1. The controls are a little more precise, but the music is worse. The craziest part is that once you get the seven chaos emeralds (from the special stages), you get no indication that you can now become Super Sonic. You just have to be aware on your own. Dr. Eggman boss fights are fun, but heavily inspired by those in the Genesis titles. Going back to my earlier point, Sonic Team had a 2D Sonic blueprint, and were scared to do anything out of the ordinary from there. The final boss fight is every boss fight in the game, plus an extra one.
If I could change things about the game, I would. I would have liked to see dialog and a plot. I would have liked better character models – Sonic is hideous. The background art isn’t fantastic. It uses parallax scrolling just like the Genesis, but the graphics are slipshod and unappealing. Even the music falls apart. The Splash Hill Zone music is great, but it gets synth-heavy and irritating. We live in the future. We can use streaming audio instead of sequenced!
The one change to gameplay that makes this less like Genesis is the addition of the homing attack, from the Sonic Adventure games. It almost feels like cheating. Is there an enemy in front of you? Press A to jump, press A again to do a homing attack and defeat it. It’s so simple. As long as the enemy doesn’t have spikes, you’re good. I will say Episode II is a better game. I also don’t fault Sega for making the games episodic. The two episodes are less than the cost of a full game. I just wish Sonic Team had the inclination to do something original.