Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Game Review: Sonic 4 Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sonic Team / Dimps
  • Platform/Release:
    • iOS (DLC), 7 October 2010
    • Wii (DLC), 11 October 2010
    • PlayStation 3 (DLC), 12 October 2010
    • XBox 360 (DLC), 13 October 2010
  • Genre: Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Cost: 
    • iOS: US$7 (as of August 2011)
    • Wii, PS3, 360: US$15

I may have a lot of ideas stored up in my head about what I want to review in the near future, but it can be a tough job deciding what to bring out next.  A Twitter post from the Video Game Critic website's feed helped matters this time around.  On the whole, I love this site; in fact, I would like to place an independent plug for it right now.  (I can has affiliate?)  But one tweet from whoever is running the site put me on the warpath:
"I am reviewing Sonic 4 (Xbox 360). It's a good-looking game but the people who complained about the terrible physics were 100% correct!"1
I'm gonna have to stop you with a pre-emptive review of my own.  See, what I do on the SDP is not just re-iterate the seemingly questionable decisions made by entertainment producers, much less treat them as absolute evils like everyone else does *ahem*, but research them and explain why they did what they did.  That is what I plan to spend much of my review for as I cover Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1.  Also note that I am basing my review mostly on the iOS version, which for the most part plays identically to its console brethren, although I will note differences as I come across them.

Ever since it was announced about a year ago, every little decision has been met with scrutiny, and the reactions were mixed between those who couldn't care less, and those who did care and those took it with more than mild disapproval, who sadly seem to be the most vocal demographic on the Internet.  (Allow me to redirect you to the ending of my Twilight saga discussion.)  And we're talking about mostly cosmetic differences: Sonic's build, eye color, using the name Dr. Eggman instead of Dr. Robotnik, and the decision to use 3D character models instead of sprites.  Even though everything done since Sonic Adventure reeks of newness to me, for the most part I couldn't give a [noun].  But we'll start with the thing which I feel most strongly about people hating on: the physics.

The above video, by TsukentoX on YouTube2, is one of the more civil discussions about the physics.  Let's examine the points he made:
  1. If you jump or drop off a cliff without holding left or right, you'll lose all lateral momentum and drop straight down.  Not much of an issue if you play like me and hold the D-pad down most of the time.
  2. When going down a hill, you can come to a complete stop by letting go of the D-pad.  Not so in the Genesis or Game Gear series.
  3. Perhaps the biggest, if most well-documented foible, involves how you go up quarter- and half-pipes.  You used to be able to hold Down and roll back and forth to build up momentum, but not so here.  This time around, you have to hold Left or Right to run up the wall.
I suppose you should know the reason, or at least a possible reason, for all this.  Sonic 4 was co-developed by Sonic Team and Dimps, who did the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush series after Sega went third-party.  And let's face it, next to their 3D console compatriates, these were some pretty darn good games!  Well, at the very least, producer Takashi Iizuka is aware of the physics matter, and explained it3.  Long story short, they based it off the Sonic Rush engine, which allows for tricks like running up walls and ceilings, thus explaining the third issue I listed.  But was the Genesis engine really ideal for everything we needed to do?  I'm (passively) ordering you to take a step back and evaluate the virtues of both engines for what they are, not by other's standards.

So, on to more positive matters.  Your price of admission nets you twelve acts across four zones, five separate boss stages, and seven Special Stages.  You'd think you could blow through this quickly, especially since the game saves after every level, and you select levels at will from a menu instead of having to go through the whole thing in one sitting like in the old days, but there's still lots to do.  Clearing a stage once unlocks its time trial, and finishing a level with 50 rings lets you get into the Special Stage.  These play out like they did in the first Sonic the Hedgehog, where you follow a rotating maze to the Chaos Emerald within, except this time you spin the maze itself around instead of controlling Sonic.  Oh, and not only do you have to steer clear of exit gates, you're on a time limit and must collect bonuses to extend your stay.  Despite the added challenge, the difficulty curve on the Special Stages is sensible; the first couple can be cleared in one go, whereas the last few will take potentially dozens of tries.  This time around, you can pause and restart as many times as you need, as long as you don't get kicked out immediately.  It might seem like a game breaker, but trust me, you'll appreciate it on the later Special Stages, if only to save the trouble of getting to them again and again.

While everyone else complains about the things that make Sonic 4 different from the Genesis trilogy, I'm more concerned with the things that are too similar.  Specificially, the level themes are repurposed from the first two games.  Splash Hill and Lost Labyrinth are Green Hill and Labyrinth (uhh... I can has effort?) from Sonic, while Casino Street, Mad Gear, and E.G.G Station are Casino Night, Metropolis, and Death Egg from Sonic 2.  Umm...  There's a difference between making people remember the good old days and just being lazy.  But not all of the throwbacks are bad; the music is done using Genesis-style synth instruments and brings back the tunefulness which made the original soundtracks so memorable.  In fact, the only thing they (intentionally) brought back from the newer era was the mid-air homing attack.  It is truly one of the better things they could've added, as it is useful for getting a quick running start.  Yeah, that's how I roll, bite me.  But look at it this way: what if Sonic 4 had been released immediately after Sonic & Knuckles?  Would it have seemed like a more natural progression then?  This has happened before: Sonic 2 added the standing spin dash to Sonic's movement arsenal, and people seemed to like that.

So please, instead of looking at Sonic 4 based on what they added to the mechanics of the Genesis trilogy, try comparing it to everything else that's come out since then.  There's no 3D camera to wrestle with, no treasure hunting, no fishing, no guns, no vehicles, and certainly no human/hedgehog relationships.  In fact, even though it's not a 3D-based game, I'd say they avoided all the pitfalls I discussed when I put the franchise in Game Rehab.  I do acknowledge its issues, minor as they come across to me, but if you're gonna completely trash the game because of them, the only Sonic game you deserve to play is the 2006 one.  Yeah, I just broke you.  Hopefully it will help you to realize that Sonic Team is good again, regardless of which direction they're headed in.

On one final note, I'm going to award separate ratings to the different versions of the game.  The PS3 and 360 versions come out on top by being the most fully-featured.  The Wii version lacks achievements or trophies (yeah, I'm a convert to the church of achievements).  While the iOS version is cheaper than all the rest (I got mine on sale for $3), using a virtual controller on the touch screen of your given device is not as precise as having a physical D-pad and buttons at your fingertips.  Also, the iOS port replaces two of the acts with ones that were cut during development of the console editions.  The 100,000-point challenge in Casino Street Act 2 is stupidly repetitive, but the mine-cart ride in Lost Labyrinth Act 2 is nice compared to other times I've played through this sort of thing.  At least there are no instant-kill traps you have a fraction of a second to react to.  (Taz-Mania says hi.  Steel yourself for a review of this mother soon.)

Control: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Design: 3 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (PS3/X360/Wii) / 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5 (iOS)
Graphics: 4 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
Audio: 5 Chaos Emeralds out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

1"Video Game Critic".  Twitter.  30 January 2011.!/videogamecritic.
2TsukentoX.  "Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I Physics".  YouTube.  13 October 2010.
3Takashi Iizuka.  "Picking Up Speed".  Nintendo Power Holiday 2010: p.19.  Print.

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