Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 – Completion Log

Last night, after 3 short evenings with it, I completed the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I’m probably posting this too early because I’m still sort of trying to formulate my opinions on it and pinpoint exactly what went wrong (and right) about the game, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. On the one hand, I liked it enough to complete it in three sittings, but on the other, the primary emotions I felt while playing were those of disappointment. If I were cynical I would say that I paid $15 to feel disappointed in several different ways! So to help me work out these feelings I’ll write down my complaints in list format.

  1. Sonic 4 feels like it may have started as an HD remake of Sonic 1
  2. This is obvious from the opening moments in Splash Hill Zone (which is an HD version of Green Hill Zone) to the closing moments in Mad Gear Zone (an HD version of Scrap Brain Zone). While Sonic games have always contained levels that are slight variations on previous games in the series, they have never borrowed to this degree before. Yes, the actual level design may be different, but the art feels exactly like what someone who hasn’t played the game in 15 years would remember it looking like. And it doesn’t help that all of the bosses are lifted directly out of previous games in the series.

    Although Street Fighter IV successfully did much the same thing just last year, Sonic is a very different game with very different priorities. While the draw to Street Fighter is in learning the systems, the draw to Sonic is in progressing forward into new locations. No new locations are present here.

  3. The physics are kind of muffed
  4. The main reason Sonic was able to gain ground on Mario in the 16-bit days was the way it felt to move him around. Yes, he was fast, but the challenge and the draw was learning how to control and manage that speed in an environment full of danger. The controls in Sonic 4 are close to what you remember, but now he immediately slows to a halt the moment you let go of the control pad. Honestly, this took me less time to grow accustomed to than I thought it would, but the initial shock of it makes you feel like the designers didn’t know Sonic very well.

  5. Three acts per zone is too much
  6. They start to drag a bit and the third act always feels a bit draining. Every Sonic game after the first one reduced the number of acts to 2 per Zone, probably because they came to this realization. Sonic 4 doesn’t do this, and as a result I found myself reaching for the power switch after every act 2.

  7. When it’s easy it’s ridiculously easy
  8. There’s a level in the Casino Street zone of Sonic 4 where you run past spinning tiles that show up at the bottom of your screen and land on random icons. If you run past a certain number of images that land on coins you get some coins, if you get enough images of Sonic you get an extra life, and images of Dr. Robotnick are worth nothing. If you move quickly enough through the level you can walk away with upwards of 10 or more lives than when you came in. You don’t even have to do any tricks to get these lives, they just sort of randomly come to you. This indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with how easily the game doles out lives.

  9. When it’s hard it feels unfair
  10. This is my primary complaint. There were a few moments where I felt like I was doing everything right but would end up dying regardless. This happened most often in places where platforms and boost pads would appear and disappear on a timer. I’m not sure if the timers were off or something, but I would always try to time my jumps so that I would hit the next platform. Sometimes I would make the jump and sometimes I wouldn’t. On the times when I nailed the jumps I didn’t feel like I was doing anything different, so it felt like their timer logic must have been off or something. This may or may not be the case, but it’s never good to have the player question these things.

  11. Why are all of the stages unlocked from the beginning?
  12. I know there’s a trend for people to complain about having to unlock parts of a game that they’ve already paid for, but with a platformer there’s the subconcious feeling that progressing through the game’s stages tells a story (even when it doesn’t). Unlocking all of the levels immediately from the start only downplays this feeling.

    By the same token, why do you have to push a button during the score tally time to indicate that you want to progress to the next stage? If the player is meant to feel like they’re progressing through a game shouldn’t they have to tell the game that they want to return to the stage select? You’re just given too many chances to quit, and I probably would have finished the game a lot sooner had I not been given all of those chances.

  13. Sonic’s coloring is too light for my tastes
  14. The new HD Sonic sprite is pretty nice looking overall, but they do this weird thing where a faux light source is hitting him, making parts of his body lighter and brighter than the rest. This bright color is just way too light. For some reason it looks off. This is a minor complaint for some, but it really negatively colored (pun intended) my initial impressions of the game, and I never did quite get used to it.

Overall these are mostly minor things, but they add up to an overall feeling of disappointment. There was a lot I liked about the game too, many of which can be summed up using a second numbered list.

  1. The bonus stages
  2. These are quite literally remakes of the game Cameltry. Cameltry is awesome!

  3. The way that nearly every level has its own gimmick
  4. These gimmicks are demonstrated to you early on in each level and they evolve as the levels go on, only actually forcing you to use them at the very end. Every level in the Casino has a different sub-game throughout and every level in the Labyrinth features a different Indiana Jones-like obstacle. It’s good design!

  5. Sonic’s new dash attack
  6. What initially seems like an overpowered gimmick eventually evolves into an integral part of the gameplay. You can now press the jump button in mid-air to cause Sonic to instantly lunge forward. If there’s an enemy nearby you will automatically target them and get the kill. Despite being lifted directly from the 3D Sonic games the implementation in Sonic 4 feels like something that might naturally have been added to the seires if the Saturn had seen its own traditional Sonic sequel. It’s thrilling when the game provides you a series of enemies to fling yourself between in mid-air, and using the dash at times like these brings some of the best moments in the game.

    But like most parts of Sonic 4, I would have liked to have seen it used more often and more effectively. There is a lot of potential for bosses that require you to really master this move, but since all of the bosses are rehashed from prior games, having this additional move only makes their original designs even easier to deal with.

  7. The design encourages and demands constant forward movement
  8. The best part of Sonic 4 is how rarely the game punishes you for aggressively pushing forward. The times you need to go slow are bookended by clearly defined stopping points, encouraging you to go fast whenever you have the opportunity. At times like these the game feels great, and comes very close to capturing the feeling of the older Sonic games.

Sonic 4 has some really great moments, and I don’t want to downplay those, but there is a relentless feeling of disappointment that casts a shadow over the whole thing. I put the disappointments first for a very good reason, and that is that the game never quite rises above them, but being Episode 1 of a potentially lengthy series of games, there’s really only one place to go from here and that’s up. The foundations that this was built on are mostly good, and the brisk level design shows that Sonic Team still has an idea of what they need to do. Now they just need to do it. If the first zone in Episode 2 is another Green Hill Zone though, don’t expect to see another one of these completion logs. After this game I wouldn’t put it past Sonic Team for a second.


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