While Sonic hasn't exactly been MIA from the world of gaming, many die hard Sonic fans have been craving a sequel to Sonic and Knuckles since 1994. Sonic 4 : Episode 1 attempts to fill the void and as it is labelled as a true sequel, you would be forgiven for thinking this would be an easy job. However, after a 16 year wait, the expectations of a generation are set high.
From the start, it's clear this game aims to please. Upon booting up the game players are greeted by the chime of collected rings followed by the familiar and comforting sound of "SEGAAAA". Quickly you're propelled into your first level, Splash Hill, a clear copy of Green Hill from the original Sonic game but in crisp, clear HD. They may not be the most elaborate graphics ever but the iconic fluffy clouds and rolling hills certainly look good, and more importantly they feel Sonic.
'Feeling Sonic' is the key to this game. Where this game excels is where it follows the series precedent and when it does divert it typically fails, with one key exception of the latest ability added to our furry friend's repertoire, the homing attack. In-midair pressing the jump button allows Sonic to hone in on an enemy or switch in the vicinity and unleash the full force of his curled up might. This attack may have the cheap feel of many of Sonic's more recent, mediocre incarnations but surprisingly, this ability is satisfyingly woven into the platforming.
While it may not have the same skill requirements as previous instalments in the series, it's not simply a matter of jumping and button mashing because enemies will frequently protect themselves with spikes, forcing you to time your attacks correctly. Sonic's homing attack also allows Sonic to home in on multiple enemies in a row to reach inaccessible areas. Overall, this addition does what Sonic does best; it makes the game fast, fluid and enjoyable.
The homing attack may add speed to the game but the game itself feels relatively slow. While I'm sure Sonic himself runs at exactly the same speed as before, the pace of games has changed dramatically since his last appearance and comparatively the gameplay doesn't feel as slick as it used to. Sonic takes far too long to reach his maximum velocity and when he does, the restricted field of view often sees you running straight into enemies. It almost feels as if you are being punished for going faster than intended. The rare moments of exhilarating speed are too few and far between especially once you finish Splash Hill.
Once you have completed the first act, four more zones become available including the compulsory Casino zone, a zone set in an ancient temple, during which the majority of your time is spent underwater, and a zone set among gears, which is in fact the most original of the lot. Each zone is strongly reminiscent of previous Sonic games of the series, even the 'Mad Gear Zone' shares strong similarities with the old 'Chemical Plant', but each individual zone now includes its own new feature, or rather, gimmick. The imaginatively named 'Casino Street' heavily features the positioning of firing cannons and also includes a novel section where Sonic surfs along a deck of trailing cards. The Lost Labyrinth was also scathed and features a brief mine cart encounter as well as undeniably the lowest point in the game; a painfully slow puzzle section where Sonic is forced to light a series of torches in order to remove a barrier that stops him progressing. Thankfully, moments like these don't occur very often but it's certainly not the only time that the player will be left feeling sapped of momentum and craving the traditional fast and furious Sonic gameplay.
It's unfortunate, but the innovation demonstrated by the inclusion of these gimmicks feels at best misdirected. While Sonic Team must be praised for creating such an accurate representation of the original games it's difficult to label it as a sequel. It feels more like a tribute to the Sonic of yester-year held back by the designer’s reluctance to change what was needed. Ironically, it's reliance on the Sonic template is its greatest strength as well as its Achilles’ heel. The overuse of reprised content is tiring, it might be familiar but it's from over a decade ago; Splash Hill in reality is nothing more than a slightly sharper looking Green Hill and the boss fights have been taken straight from the first two games of the franchise. It might take a while but after the sense of nostalgia wears off, you're really left with nothing but a bitter sense of déjà vu.
Overall, this game is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand this game offers everything you'd expect from a Sonic sequel, and more. But, it just doesn't deliver where it matters, the speed, the music and the repetition takes its toll on what could have been a promising addition to Sonic fans’ collections. Hopefully SEGA take on board the criticism while producing Episode 2. Until then, while this isn't the sequel we've been waiting for, it is a good step in the right direction.
Words by Arran France