When I was 11 or 12 years old, I bought a Sega Genesis. Well, to be fair, I bought something like a 60% share in a Sega Genesis—my little sister, who had basically no interest in gaming, owned the other 40%. When we unboxed the system, we discovered a console, two controllers, some cables, a power brick, and a single game: Sonic the Hedgehog.
I had played Super Mario Brothers and Metroid on Nintendo systems owned by some of my friends, so I thought I knew a thing or two about video games. But Sonic the Hedgehog blew me away. The graphics were amazing, and the game simply screamed along. I had never seen a game character move with such alacrity.
Throughout my early teenage years, other Sonic the Hedgehog platforming games were released for the Genesis. I eagerly awaited each of these, and spent hours playing through each incarnation of the series.
Then, at some point in the late ’90s, the flow of good Sonic games seemed to stop. Sega was in the middle of destroying itself by trying to support far to many hardware platforms, and seemed to ignore the Sonic franchise. The last insult before Sega stopped producing hardware altogether was Sonic Adventure, a terrible 3D adventure game which completely failed to understand the elements that made Sonic good: speed and simplicity. For the next decade, Sega continued to produce forgettable games in the series.
Then, last year, Sega announced that it was going to release a new side-scrolling Sonic the Hedgehog platformer. They were going to get rid of all of the extraneous characters, and return the gameplay to what it had been in a simpler time. For the first time in years, I was actually excited for the release of a Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (Episode 1) was finally released a few weeks ago, so I paid for it and downloaded it onto the Wii one morning before work. And there it sat, neglected, for almost three weeks. I finally had a chance to sit down and play this weekend, and I am startled to admit that I was not disappointed!
The game definitely harkens back to the early days of the franchise. Many of the locations are taken directly from earlier games, as are all of the enemies and bosses (though all have been tweaked and modernized quite a bit). To be honest, I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I enjoyed revisiting some of the locations from earlier games, and I loved seeing some old, familiar bosses with some new tricks.
In general, gameplay is very similar to Sonic 2, but with some small modifications. The standard moves from that game—run, jump, roll, and spin dash—are present, as is the homing attack from the 3D Sonic games. The physics of falling and stopping feel a little bit different, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The game really did feel like a 16-bit Sonic game, but with fancier graphics.
On the other hand, the game is not the linear level-level-boss of earlier incarnations. After playing the first act, all acts can be accessed instantly. Each zone’s boss can be fought after completing all three acts within the zone, and the player can revisit any act at any time. This removes the challenge of defeating the entire game with a single life, but does instantly give the player access to most of the game’s content. It is a difficult balance to achieve, and it is not my favorite feature of the game, but I can certainly understand the impetus behind the decision.
And the designers did leave one challenge to play through in a slightly more linear fashion: the bonus stages. Bonus stages cannot be selected from the menu until they have been beaten, and they cannot be beaten until the player finishes a level with 50+ rings. These stages are very similar to those found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but they add gates which require a certain number of rings to open, and a time limit. The physics of the bonus stages also feel, for lack of a better word, bouncier. They can be quite frustrating, but they require more skill than luck, and there is a genuine sense of accomplishment once a stage has been completed.
To be honest, my biggest beef with the game is that it feels short. Each of the Genesis era games contains at least six zones, leading to a great deal of variety in the levels. Sonic 4 has only four zones, plus a zone for the final boss. Each of the acts contains three acts, and a boss. The variety of levels feels somewhat lacking, which makes the game feel shorter than it really is.
Though, to be fair, the game only costs $15 (1,500 Wii points, and there are versions of the game for PS3, XBox 360, and iPhone/iPad), which, even disregarding inflation, is less than a third of what I paid for the original 16-bit cartridges. For that $15, I was given the experience of playing a new Sonic the Hedgehog platformer. And the current release is only the first episode, with at least one more episode planned. Once again, I am looking forward to the release of a new Sonic the Hedgehog game!