Sonic the Hedgehog is the MC Hammer of gaming. In the mid-1990s, the blazing blue hedgehog blasted onto the scene and dared Mario to keep up. After fumbling for years, Sega finally captured lightning in a bottle, producing a star character they could send toe-to-toe with Mario and crafting a game that measured up to the classic Nintendo action-platform design while in some ways sprinting well beyond it. Mario and Sonic ran neck and neck in the early part of the decade, but eventually hubris kicked in. Following a successful series of inventive sequels, Sega lost its way and began sending Sonic down some perilous paths, and when the time came to leap into the third dimension, Mario stuck the landing while Sonic floundered.
Somewhere around the time the rodent went “gangster” and started packing a piece, it was obvious he’d hit rock bottom. All it took was a cameo appearance by the speedster, flying by some familiar looking emerald environments at this year’s E3, to remind players why they chased the hero in the first place. With Sega’s first installment in their new digitally-distributed release, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Sega hopes to set him back on the right track.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is getting an episodic release, with the first pack of four zones available via XBLA, Wii Ware and PSN. Aiming to chase away a decade of bad game design, Sonic Team has returned to its roots, providing a new game that essentially takes classic scenarios from the original and enhances them with spiffy HD graphics and some new challenges. With Sonic 4 they have returned to the formula that made Sonic a superstar, setting him loose in sprawling levels brimming with secrets and hidden paths. Sonic fans delight in flying through levels as quickly as possible, but Sonic Team has gone back into these original level designs and added new challenges, paths and enemies for those who like to take their time and explore.
This first installment sends Sonic racing through the familiar island oasis of Splash Hill Zone (a re-creation of Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone) before really opening up with some interesting and inventive design choices in The Lost Labyrinth, Casino Street and Mad Gear Zone. The levels are capped with boss battles that might seem familiar to Sonic fans, but they offer a few wrinkles, similar to the remix mode in last year’s Punch Out reboot. Sonic 4 controls the same way, although the addition of a lock-on button for Sonic’s jumps comes into play in combat as well as in navigating some treacherous chasms.
The late 1980s and early ’90s produced some real classics of the form that stand the test of time in game design, but wilt visually when viewed by our matured eyes. Therefore, I’m in favor of bringing some of these beloved favorites into the future and giving them a fresh coat of paint. It’s this approach that Sonic Team has taken in crafting Sonic the Hedgehog 4, making the game a joy to play. Sure, that first level feels awfully familiar to what we’ve done before, but once you exit the Splash Hill Zone, the changes to the formula come fast and furious. This becomes the Sonic gameplay that defined a console war more than a decade ago. In fact, the familiarity to those opening zones seems done by design, as the developers look to establish a through-line back to where this all began and eradicate those unfortunate 3D installments from the timeline.
Running $15 for a download, Episode 1’s bundle of four multi-stage zones seems about right (considering the original games retailed for $50 and offered anywhere from three to five hours of gameplay on an initial run). They were built for replay, and that’s a concept that Sonic Team encourages here, with multiple playthroughs revealing new secret paths and encouraging speed runs. The game looks great in HD, with the vibrant colors of Sonic’s universe exploding off the screen.
More importantly, the anime-inspired histrionics of Sonic’s 3D adventures are jettisoned here. There’s no need for overly chatty robots or strapped Were-hogs here. All that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible while nabbing rings, saving cuddly critters and blasting apart Egg Man’s ridiculous robotic contraptions.
The original Sonic games on the Genesis and Sega CD are classics of the 2D platforming art form, and it’s refreshing to experience a true sequel to that game design, even if it takes a little while for it to shake its roots and blast off for new territory. Sonic’s sprint might be hobbled slightly early on by familiar sights and sounds, but Sonic the Hedgehog 4 eventually offers some new challenges and experiences and presents the game in a stunning package.
I’d love to see more classic titles follow Sonic’s lead and chase future adventures through digital distribution. So here’s hoping Sonic 4 sells well and encourages similar game development. At the very least, Sonic is back, and while he might not immediately reach the heights he once graced, it does feel like he’s headed in the right direction.