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Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1: The Hedgehog is Back!

It’s finally here, fellow fans — Sonic is back! Sega takes a bold step towards reclaiming their tarnished icon with Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode I. It’s an excellent return to the franchise’s roots that plays plenty of homage to the past while also offering new players a good time.

I’m not sure that anyone reading this needs a real introduction to Sonic, the heroic hedgehog who fights to rescue his animal pals from the clutches of the evil Dr. Eggman (formerly Dr. Robotnik in America). Sonic isn’t quite as well known as Mario, but he’s been in the popular culture for nearly 20 years. What casual readers may not know is how far Sonic’s star has fallen in the last decade, as mediocre title after mediocre title has been released on any platform that would have them. It’s that vital bit of history that makes this game so significant, because it’s a return to everything that made Sonic games so good.

And yes, this is old-school Sonic in all its glory. Fellow Genesis fans, Sega has delivered on every promise to bring back the 2D, side-scrolling, bouncing and dashing and crashing through walls adventure we love. It’s a playable, well-designed game with solid controls and gleeful graphics.

This first episode delivers 12 acts across 4 zones, or about half of an old Sonic game.  All four of the stages in Episode 1 borrow heavily from beloved boards of yesteryear. Splash Hill Zone is the classic Sonic Green Hill Zone (echoed in the first level of every Sonic game); Casino Street Zone is a redux of the excellent Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2; Lost Labyrinth is a recasting of Sonic 1′s Labyrinth Zone; and Mad Gear Zone is the required Dr. Eggman hideout, replete with steam pipes, pistons and gears. All four zones are populated by classic enemies, with everything from rocket lizards to mecha-bats to throwing mantises making an appearance. [And yes, little critters still bounce out of them when they’re destroyed.]  I love that Sega opened this series by echoing the classic past so strongly, while still giving everything a new feel. I do hope, however, that later levels move into fresh, unexplored territory.

The game offers two control choices: virtual d-pad, which is the default choice; or tilt control, where you control Sonic with the accelerometer and swipe down to spin dash. It took me all of half a level with tilt controls to know that this option is NOT ready for primetime, especially in a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, where speed and precision are key. Just trust me and stick with the d-pad. Happily, you can use the d-pad and still use the accelerometer on the special stages, where the tilt controls actually work.

Once you beat the first act of the game – not the first zone, just the first board of the first zone – Episode 1 throws the whole game open, offering access to all twelve levels. This was a bit disappointing; I would have much preferred a standard linear progression, at least until the game was beaten once. There’s more sense of accomplishment that way.

On the plus side, when the game opens up the levels it also opens up a Time Challenge mode, which I loved. One of the conundrums of the old Genesis titles was that, while they were designed around speed runs, high scoring and high ring counts required you to be slow and methodical as you made your way through each act. Now, you get rewarded for both approaches. It’s great to see; now I just wish Sega would open the game up to Game Center, so that we can compare our fastest times and highest scores with others.

Visually, the game looks great. It clearly borrows a lot of design aesthetic from the older games, but it updates them to stay fresh. I especially liked some of the enemy redesigns, which keep their quirky robotic characters while making them look more like the animals they’re supposed to mimic. I’m less enamored with the slick new look that Sonic sports; I loved the old animated Sonic (who makes an appearance here on load screens), and I think the new one looks a little fake when he begins walking. But after a few minutes, I got used to him and got down to the business of having fun.

I have read some media reports that Sonic 4 doesn’t yet support Retina Display on the iPhone 4, and that older gen devices might struggle a bit to keep up with the framerate. I cannot speak to either of these issues. I played the game on a 3rd generation iPod Touch, where the game both looked and performed spectacularly. I also loaded it onto my iPad, where the game also performed well; however, I was disappointed that it lacked the “handheld” screen view that the older Sonic games on iOS offered. If anyone at Sega is reading this, I’d love to see that feature put in!

I’m not ready to give this Sonic resurgence 5 stars just yet. Like the first Harry Potter movie or Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, this feels a little too safe, too calculated, aimed squarely at the eager Sonic fan of old while being timid about stepping out of familiar territory. But as a fan service offering, it works brilliantly to brush away the taint of years of mediocre 3D Sonic titles; and as the first Episode in a series of offerings, its (hopefully) a taste of things to come.

You have me hooked on Sonic again, Sega. Just don’t disappoint me with Episode 2.

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5


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