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The Sonic Curse. We all know it. We all fear it. That most ancient Rule that has plagued the console series ever since its first foray into true 3D. While Sega has cranked out a few side-scrolling Sonic titles for GameBoy Advance and the DS in recent years, even those don’t seem to have saved the series. With Sonic 4 lauded by its creators as a return to form and the true successor to the Sonic the Hedgehog name, one burning question has certainly flared through all of our minds: does the game finally mark an end to the Sonic curse?

The answer might be more complicated than you’d think.

Sonic Returns

For fans who have been waiting for another game using the same tried-and-true mechanics that kept the series strong in the early 90s, this is it – or is it? Sonic 4 brings back all of the Blue Blur’s signature moves from Sega’s old console games, but with some notable updates to the controls and aesthetics. I’ve seen purists from every corner of the Interwebs up in arms about pretty much anything that isn’t ripped straight from the Genesis (as well as everything that is), so maybe it’s just me, but these advancements seem to fit well even with the established feel of the franchise.

We all know what the biggest concerns are regarding this game, so I’ll save the obligatory graphics and music comments for later and dive right into the gameplay.

Gameplay & Design

One of the most jarring changes – at least initially – involves Sonic’s running physics. It took a little bit of tinkering to get used to, but before long the control differences became second nature. I’ll give the first zone’s designer a great deal of credit for crafting a level that works extremely well with the learning curve. If you played the Sonic Advance series and didn’t like how this particular element developed across those games, I can assure you you won’t encounter quite the same problem here, and as the game progresses you’ll find that Sonic’s speed functions and is put to work in just the right way. The physics are different, but honestly if you don’t want different go back and play the Genesis games (and tell me they didn’t change even a bit over time).

The other big difference is the incorporation of the Homing Attack, a move from Sonic’s 3D adventures. This one I’m a little on the fence about. While I’d definitely say that it works well in terms of control, with a small lock-on reticule that ensures you don’t accidentally burst right into a hazard, I didn’t feel it was put to work quite as well as it should have been. In particular, I found its primary use – stacking jumps against a certain brand-new enemy – to be almost yawn-inducingly repetitive.

Still, despite this combo pattern being copy-pasted into pretty much every level, the mechanic has a lot of potential and I’d love to see the designers diversify its use in the rest of the episodes. And even though many might complain that being able to home in on enemies (as well as springboards and other terrain features) takes away the challenge of well-placed jumps, it keeps up the pace of the game which works out to be a good thing in the grand scheme.

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Other than that, the game goes to great lengths to deliver the charm and feel of the Genesis outings – and I would say it takes things a bit too far in this department. Literally every single zone is adapted from one introduced in Sonic 1 or 2 from the typical intro level based on the Green Hill design all the way to the final boss confrontation. Speaking of bosses, the battles themselves are no exception; each of them is modeled off of a previous encounter, but with a new twist.

It’s easy to see why Sega made this decision – the game is supposed to be a love letter to longtime fans, and in particular this is the first episode of many and thus it’s important to show that this game is meant to be played as part of the main franchise and not as a handheld edition. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, I did basically feel like I was playing an updated version of the first two games, but honestly I never once got the feeling at any point that this was supposed to be a sequel. It might have been better billed as a reboot.

The level design is in general well-done and thought-out, although there are of course a fair share of no-brainer moments such as the aforementioned obvious Homing Attack targets and “hold the d-pad” springboard sequences. Obstacles and hazards also aren’t quite as plentiful as they were in previous outings, so the game feels a bit on the easy side, with a lot of simply rushing through stretches of the level. I noticed this particularly in the casino zone, which wasn’t so densely packed with pinball bumpers as I remember from Sonic 2. At times the game will throw you a curveball, though, so if you’re not paying close attention, you may speed your way right into a pit. Looking back, though, it’s nothing new; this has been the counterbalance to Sonic’s extreme speed since the very beginning.

The lives system is a bit easy to abuse. The life counters don’t reset at any point in the game, and since you can replay any stage at any time, it’s easy to go back and take advantage of the many exploits throughout. Since this game is designed to be more of a pick-up-and-play, stage-by-stage sort of game, as opposed to a straight run through a linear sequence of levels, this doesn’t hurt the experience as much as you might think.

At times the game does try to inject some unique flair, such as the already well-known “road of cards” trick. In the end, though, these things only project a trivial sense of novelty, and I didn’t really feel like they added anything special to the game. I think the word I used to describe it sums it up best – they’re just simple card tricks. The mine cart tracks, torch-lighting puzzles, and other gimmicks of the later levels delivered the same sort of feeling.

Special Stages were interesting, a unique blend of classic Sonic mindtripping and modern motion controls. There’s an option for tighter control with the D-pad for gamers who aren’t into twisting the Wii Remote to manipulate the level. Most of them were deliciously challenging, and the last one in particular took me something like twenty tries to get down right.

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Visuals

The graphical presentation looks great, and I didn’t notice any meaningful framerate slowdowns even on the Wii version. I’m sure the game runs great in 1080p HD as well, but I’ve got no complaints with the Wii’s presentation. Environments look great, and the recreation of classic locales in the new style was a great choice to show off classic Sonic‘s entry into 21st century console gaming. The 2.5D style blends seamlessly and is pulled off more convincingly even than that of New Super Mario Bros.

There’s a hint of strangeness in terms of Sonic’s running animation, particularly the blur effect in his wake which often winds up looking buggy more than anything else, and the fact that he can build up enough walking speed to scale fully vertical and even upside down pathways. And while it’s a bit weird to see the new character designs for Sonic and Eggman in a console side-scroller, they’ve been around for long enough that the change makes sense.

Sound

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the music is fantastic. It may not be as memorable as the Genesis tunes (probably due to nostalgia blinders), but it captures the same essence while at the same time updating the quality and style and works extremely well for the game’s levels. The game does a great job of advancing the same musical theme with each Act, a page borrowed from Sonic CD‘s book, and as a result a lot of the new songs stuck with me. (At present I can’t get the labyrinth level song out of my head.)

The Verdict

Sonic 4 won’t mark the hedgehog’s Second Coming for everybody, but it does a great job of melding classic concepts with modern gaming conventions, and the result is pretty darn good. There’s no lackluster story, no distracting secondary characters, and best of all, no overpowering gimmicks. While the game is on the short side – probably due to the game’s downloadable platform and in order to leave room for more diverse content in future episodes – it’s packed full of fast-paced gameplay and fun level design that makes me ache for more.

The game may not be the pinnacle of the series, but with a modest $15 price tag on WiiWare, it’s definitely well worth every penny. We’re definitely looking forward to seeing what they come up with for the rest of the episodes.

The tl;dr review-

Expect:

  • A reimagining of old Sonic concepts
  • Part 1 of an episodic series

The good:

  • Faithful Sonic gameplay
  • Great visuals and level concepts
  • Fitting musical score
  • Addictive Special Stages

The bad:

  • Some repetitive/automated design elements
  • A bit short and easy
  • Didn’t feel like a “sequel”

Scores

Gameplay: 95 of 100

Design: 85 of 100

Visuals: 90 of 100

Audio: 82 of 100

Final Score: 88 of 100

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