Tuesday 19 October 2010

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1

uuhhh ahhh eerrhhh

Star Wars: Episode 1 is a nice movie but I'll admit, it is a bit far-fetched to claim it's "just as good and relevant" as the original trilogy... well at least without filling the gap with episode 2 and 3, anyway. Until quite recently I had simply thought the Jar Jar Binks hate squad were running low on chill pills, but now I'm starting to understand their frustration.

Because this is Sonic the Hedgehog 4, the Sonic fan's equivalent to pod racing. It shouldn't exist, yet here it is to ruin our childhoods.

I'm going to point out at this stage that despite my comments I have only played the demo of Sonic 4 on Xbox Live. Though I'm not completely qualified to criticise this game to its full, I can comment on the demo, the numerous videos and other peoples' views, many of which seem to be negative. The main issues I'm complaining about are present in the demo anyway.

There are three ways to take Sonic 4. You can give it the eight-out-of-tens like the media do, comparing to memories of the classics, or limited experience with said classics. Or perhaps you could come in with a critical stance, having followed the series since conception and watched it fall, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the under-performs before you've even laid eyes on it. And of course there's the third option, which is to take the "I couldn't care less" routine and not play the thing. I suspect those people are the most healthy.

If you don't know the history of Sonic or Sonic Team at this stage, this is probably something you should consider looking up, because trying to explain it all here would take up far too much of my time and waste too much of yours. Essentially, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is the result of a long, tedious process in which the fans have desperately tried to convince Sega to make a true successor to Sonic 3 - arguably the best Sonic game ever made. And it falls short of its aims. By leaps and bounds.

It's difficult to be optimistic about Sonic 4 because its claims are huge and the series' recent history doesn't tend to inspire large amounts of confidence in the IP. It's the first Sonic game in a very long time to be delayed for fix-ups, but from what I've played and seen, it wasn't delayed enough.

Sega don't seem to quite understand the very basics of their most beloved franchise anymore. Again, I blame the Japanese for their reluctance to buy Sega Mega Drives or support the series like the west. Sega are reaching out to the indifferent homeland, using and abusing the Sonic license to try and appeal to a Japanese audience, and every last attempt, whether that be guns or swords or human relationships has failed. To make matters worse, the western world which loved their Sega Mega Drives, have had to suffer through all this crap. Targeting one region of the world is a very 1990s way of thinking, and it needs to stop.

It's also worth noting that "this crap" hasn't ended. Sega are still experimenting with the franchise and are continuing to flog it to death above all the other franchises they own. If you're under the impression that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was designed to change things, think again, because there's both Sonic Colours and Sonic Free Riders on the horizon plus rumours of yet another "anniversary" game to be released next year. Sonic 4 clearly has less of a budget to play with, and the fact that it's been released as a downloadable title tends to suggest it has a lower precedence than its disc-based siblings.

With a possible four Sonic games in development during this month, it is a clear sign that Sega have no plans to calm down and concentrate on one quality product. This franchise exists solely to generate revenue but we know, and Sega knows, that it is fully possible to make a Sonic game that appeals to everyone AND give them a profit... because that's exactly the function the Mega Drive games had. It's just a complete mystery why they refuse to go down this route. Surely they can make more money on fantastic and memorable games rather than average and forgettable ones.

Sonic 4 is perhaps the most insulting Sonic game in the last decade or so. It's an unpolished mess which is now not only just looking to exploit the Sonic brand for cash, is also claiming to be the direct and official sequel to the masterpiece that was Sonic 3 (and Knuckles). This, of course, is supposed to suggest that Sonic 4 is a much better product than Sonic 3, and with sixteen years of technological advancements this is an entirely plausible theory, and in fact something that under normal circumstances, would be a given.

But if you ever needed some sort of arguement that claims Japan is no longer at the forefront of video game development, Sonic 4 would be a top piece of evidence in your case. The world is populated by talented artists and musicians, but few seem to work at Sonic Team or Dimps. Of course having said that, who knows, perhaps all the talent at Sega are too busy with other half-baked Sonic titles. Can you see the problem here?

There simply isn't a reason for Sonic 4 to look and sound worse than the Mega Drive titles, yet it does. And furthermore it fails to bring much new material to the table, merely recycling content and ideas from previous Sonic games. I don't remember waiting sixteen years for the same thing done worse. I'm pretty sure I wanted new things done better. That's surely what separates "sequel" from "remake".

It's difficult to really say what's "good" with Sonic 4. If you're unfamiliar with the series you might enjoy it, but for me it's just an overpriced product with shocking build quality and fewer features than the games released last century. Dimps have a perfectly fine Sonic engine lying around - it's seen in Sonic Advance and bits of it probably exist within the GBA sequels, however, they haven't used it, and on top of this, they seem to refuse to acknowledge its existence, relying on the broken Sonic Rush engine that isn't designed for slower gameplay.

The music is terrible (with some tracks originally being REJECTED from SONIC 3D), the graphics are bland and uninteresting, the gameplay and physics are broken and the whole PR attitude that surrounds this game is simply unforgivable.

In order to produce a good sequel you're supposed to compare it to the previous game and in this case constantly ask the all-important question "is Sonic 4 better in this area than in Sonic 3". Yet I can't think of a situation here where the answer would be "yes". Even in the most broken of Sonic games you can usually find something that they do better than their ancestors in the 90s, but it's simply not the case here.

The graphics are hit and miss, though mostly below par. Some levels such as Casino Street look fairly good, but Splash Hill is noticeably poor and nothing is astonishing. Though I'm prepared to say there's been some graphical improvements on Sonic 1 (and maybe 2), it doesn't look too dissimilar to the sort of 2D graphics you might have seen in the Dreamcast era, i.e. ten years ago, and it's certainly not a clear victory.

There's not many benefits for the graphics being in HD (other than actually being able to see things), and because of the similarities with earlier games, you'd be forgiven if you thought they were just "upgrades" rather than brand new zones. During the delay original features were put into the game which may suggest better things are to come from episode 2, but this should have been sorted from the start. They're charging quite a bit of cash for this after all. You can probably buy Sonic 3 for half the price.

The music mostly sucks due to the choice of instruments. Jun Senoue decided not to go the extra mile and get a Mega Drive soundfront, resorting to something that's a mixture of Sonic 1 instruments and general synthesizer sounds. It's about as basic and bland as they come, and as said, some compositions were merely leftovers from other games. It's lazy, it's inferior and the fact the Sonic fan community was producing better remixes within a week of the first hearing just goes to show that Sonic Team are playing second best.

There's also sound effect issues and numerous physics concerns such as stopping in mid-air, dodgy momentum and stupid ideas such as speed boosters and uncurling off ramps. Most of these would have been fixed if the team had played the Mega Drive games, but I suspect they simply weren't willing to go that extra mile and set the classics up for use. Or were so arrogant in their approach that they simply felt their ideas were better. Well get this - they aren't.

And don't get me started on the homing attack. It just tries to mask these problems and despite what others may say, it's definitely integral to the gameplay and can't be avoided easily. Likewise with the many automated sections of gameplay Dimps have thrown in. It could be a lot worse (and the original plan would have ruined some levels), but it's the principle of the thing - it's not even remotely better than Sonic 3 so it shouldn't be called Sonic 4. The 4 opens the door for more cash Sega don't deserve - this needs to be balanced with harsh (but meaningful) reviews to keep the balance.

But don't go thinking Sonic 4 is a completely drab experience. It's certainly still a game and although its creators showed very little love for it, Sonic 4 does bring back long requested features such as a playable Super Sonic within levels. It may have been done on the cheap, but I found it far more tolerable than the likes of Sonic and the Secret Rings, for example. But again, you can ignore Secret Rings' existence, while this one will always be a stain on the Sonic landscape because of its name.

I like to take every game on as a solo experience, and so I'm not going to be dramatic and claim I'll never play a Sonic game again (which includes episode 2), but this sham of a release is just another nail in the hedgehog's coffin. Unfortunately the mass media will not notice it's cutting so many corners, so you can expect high scores on Metacritic, but anyone can make the comparison if they spend the time getting the Mega Drive classics up and running.

Overall though, Sonic 4 isn't much worse than what I thought it would be. My expectations were low and I can live in hope that the Sonic fan community will fix the game's problems. They're about the only fanbase you can trust to come up with the goods these days, even if they are incredibly jumpy at times. It's worth a 5 or 6 out of 10, but that's nothing to celebrate when Sonic is involved.


  1. You used so many subjective terms like "good" and "bad" without any sort of substantiation that I don't really have a good understanding of what you didn't like. Moreover, things like, "Sega don't seem to quite understand the very basics of their most beloved franchise anymore," really left me hanging. What ARE those basics? Granted this was already a pretty long post, and I appreciate your attempt at brevity, but it just comes off like a fairly hollow rant when you complain about superficial things like music and graphics, or call things like speed boosters "stupid" without explaining how it detracts from what you think is essential.

    For the most part, I can fully see where you're coming from. The feelings you've expressed here are eerily reflective of my own in reference to some of my favorite series, like Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania, all of which have tanked dismally in recent years, despite pulling in high review scores and praise from the filthy masses.

    In the case of Sonic 4, I feel like it was a transparent and pathetic attempt to ride the momentum started by Mega Man 9. See what they did there? Capcom made a direct sequel to their original Mega Man series right down to the 8-bit style, and it was a huge success. Therefore, it must be a great idea to do the same for Sonic, only copping out with "enhanced" high-def graphics, and half-heartedly only imitating the original perspective and mechanics, without faithfully adhering to them. I agree that this shouldn't be called Sonic 4, and it's not a fitting continuation of the series after 3, but honestly (as someone who's also only played the demo) I came away enjoying it more than I expected. If it had been promoted as a new spin-off or something, that would alleviate my biggest complaint with it. That said, Sonic has never been my forte, and I'm sure I don't "get it" the way you do.

  2. They say the new generation don't "get" Mega Man 9 (or 10). To them it just looks outdated - they can't understand the whole "retro" thing (and even I struggle, I mean it was a nice idea but I've never been a big fan of the "basically the same thing with extra levels" routine).

    I tried not to go into too much detail with this Sonic 4 post, mostly because I've been reading the details for the last six months or so via sites like Sonic Retro (and after a while I guess you just assumes everyone's already heard it).

    I don't feel the music is as catchy or as well orchestrated as in Sonic 3, nor do I think it makes sense to go for a "retro" feel when the graphics are quite clearly attempting to look modern. It's a sense makes no situation.

    Physics wise, this video does a reasonably fine job of explaining the problems for me. I'm not overly bothered by some points but there's a noticable difference and it does feel a bit awkward.

    Oh and since I was catapulted into a quarter pipe and got stuck for a bit on my first run, the problems were in my face more than it might have been for someone who wasn't.

    And the graphics don't float my boat mostly because they're less interesting than the prequels. Compare Splash Hill to Sonic 3's Angel Island (or Sonic 2's Emerald Hill). Just doesn't seem to me like a great use of the hardware (except the iPhone - I'll let that one slide).

    But yeah, it is a bit of a rant.

  3. I've had a spin through the game and my verdict is that it's a pretty average game and I do agree on the mundane music and goofy physics (and that torch puzzle in Lost Labyrinth Act 2 can go walk off a short pier in hades). So yeah, not a bad game but not a good Sonic game.

    As of now on Metacritic it has dropped down in the Metascore and is currently settling in the low 70s.