Well, Ranters, its taken 16 long years, but your favorite blue hedgehog has finally returned to the series that made him famous in the first place. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a direct sequel to Sonic and Knuckles, picking up right where that game left off. Has the "Blue Speedster" returned to the glory of his 16-bit days? Or is Sonic 4 doomed to suffer the same fate as other recent Sonic games?
Episode 1 offers players 4 Zones, each consisting of 4 Acts. The iPhone edition of Sonic 4 includes two exclusive levels that won't be in the console versions of the game. All of the Zones in the game are beautifully designed, with a perfect mixture of 2D and 3D platforming. None of the Acts are too long or too difficult. The whole game evokes a very warm sense of nostalgia, and will likely take fans right back to the days when they played the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis.
The gameplay elements added to Sonic 4 are very welcome. The Homing Attack not only makes defeating enemies easier, it allows players to get through an entire Act extremely quickly. Items or areas within levels that may at first seem out of reach are actually attainable most of the time, though some of the trickier ones may require players to find an alternative route. This design adds depth to the game, and makes for some great gameplay. Unlike some of the more recent Sonic games, Sonic 4 is a true plattformer, and the soundtrack definitely suits the game (if it is made available for purchase, then I highly suggest acquiring it).
Some levels in Sonic 4 make use the iPhone's tilt control. These are excellently done, and I can not fathom why this mechanic wasn't implemented in the earlier Sonic releases for iPhone. Specifically, the Special Stages, which have been in numerous games in the series, are played using both tilt and touch controls.
Upon playing the first Special Stage in Sonic 4, longtime Sonic players will immediately recognize the design. It is almost identical to the first Special Stage in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. However, this is no cause for concern, because Sega has taken what was good to start with and turned it into something that is insanely addicting. Special Stages now include a time limit, and there are barriers that do not disappear unless players have a accrued a specific number of rings on the stage. Trust me when I say that players will want to stop at nothing in order to attain all seven of the Chaos Emeralds and become Super Sonic. Yes, Super Sonic is in the game!
The game's touch-screen control might be an issue for some players. Ranters who have played Sonic the Hedgehog or Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the iPhone will remember that the experience of controlling Sonic proved to be quite difficult. In Sonic 4 this issue is addressed with the Homing Attack, which makes getting through the levels much easier. There is also the option to switch to Tilt Mode controls, which allow players move Sonic by tilting the iPhone and jump by tapping the screen.
The game's difficulty ranges from fairly easy to frustratingly challenging. As an example, one Act in the Casino Street Zone requires players to earn a score of at least 100,000 in order to complete the level. Separately, I spent 30 minutes in one Act of the Lost Labyrinth Zone because it was not apparent that I was in a part of level where the landscape would loop endlessly if I didn't jump. These difficulty spikes could be off-putting for anyone new to Sonic games, and it is unfortunate that the game as a whole was not better balanced.
It is also worth addressing that each Zone in Sonic 4 is basically taken from a previous Sonic game and remixed a little bit. The worst part is that even the boss battles against Dr. Eggman at the end of each Zone's final Act basically replicate the battles from the original games, simply adding some variations to Dr. Eggman's attacks. I wish Sega would have taken a more creative route and given us completely new levels to play in.
Criticism aside, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is nearly everything that a Sonic fan could want, and more. It is definitely worth a purchase. For both longtime fans and players new to Sonic games, this game is challenging, but it is still fun.
It would be good to remember that this is only Episode 1 of Sonic the Hedgehog 4, and more episodes are to come. Though there is an argument to be made that this staggered release ultimately drives up Sonic 4's price, some players may prefer to work through the game in smaller doses. Of course, players also have the option of only buying the Episodes they are interested in. Regardless of the price, Sonic 4 is not only an incredible Sonic game, but a terrific game for the iPhone. Thank you Sega! Let's hope that the next big Sonic game is as enjoyable as Sonic 4!
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is available from the iTunes App Store for $9.99.