Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Oh Sonic. Oh Sonic. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
If this were an episode of Tennant era Doctor Who, this is where the Doctor would proceed to blow Sonic into thousands of tiny little pieces.
It’s taken Sonic 4, a return to form, to get me to, finally, realize a certain, indelible truth about the world: Sonic the Hedgehog is not a good character, and he cannot be in a good game. It is impossible.
As for Sonic 4, it is alright but about to ruin your nostalgia dreams.
Well, no, he didn’t. Because here we have Sonic 4. And Sonic 4 is, literally, the best Sonic game ever made. Yes, it has its flaws, and we’ll get to them (if only because no one else seems to recognize them), but Sonic 4 is the pinnacle of Sonic based design. It is suitably retro in its aesthetic, with lots of callbacks to the old. On the other side, new mechanics are introduced, such as the homing attack, which you wonder how Sonic ever lived without. It’s fast, sometimes too fast, and each level is distinct and enjoyable.
The only way it could be better, really, is if the designers didn’t tend to rely so much on there being one path above a pit of death at the end of the level. Levels sometimes de-evolve into too much linearity at the end. Oh, and the puzzles. Puzzles do not belong in a Sonic game, especially ones that are challenging.
And, sure, some will quibble with the level choices. I think they were pretty brilliant. The first zone, grass-based, was a given and the most fun. Casino Night zone (or whatever they call it now) took one of the most boring stages we remembered fondly from Sonic 2 and made it work as an actual level. The Ruins, the most original level, has trouble, especially in the console specific puzzle level (which, supposedly, replaced the vastly superior mine cart level. I’m as surprised as you are), but is functional and has some cool ideas. Stage 4 is Metropolis zone, right down to the Pokemon inspir-enemies who look like Pokemon coming back, but without the Chest Fever rip off soundtrack. The only misstep is remaking the horrible, atrocious final boss from Sonic 2, and making him more atrocious. No boss in a Sonic game should take 30 hits. None.
But even with those qualms, it is the best Sonic game ever made, right up there with Sonic 3. Unfortunately, it’s still no fun to play.
There’s a central problem with Sonic, as a character, that makes him impossible to make a good game for. Every character, every game has to have one core friction, one thing that, above all else, makes it go. Mario jumps on things. Link swords people. Samus explores foreign worlds. Crash spins. Yes, these characters do other things, but there is a central, satisfying activity in the game, the anchor to the whole experience. Yes, Mario also platforms, but the platforming isn’t the satisfaction, the frictive jumping is. It is a joy to jump, not just to platform.
Sonic, though? Sonic runs fast. Sonic’s central activity is going really fast. Going really fast is not frictive and exciting unless you can see the danger in front of you, and while it’s fun, it’s prone to minimizing other enjoyable mechanics and results in a game where you’re going really fast and get frustrated when you die. And this is the secret reason why Sonic has changed so much: once your audience is not impressed by rapidly blinking lights, a game about going fast isn’t fun any more without a sense of impending danger.
Sonic 4 tries to fix this. The homing attack is frictive, and fun, and fast. It is the best addition to the series since those badass fire shields in Sonic 3. It is legitimately enjoyable to use, mostly because it protects you a bit from being unable to see the enemies in front of you by killing them. It is a good mechanic that will probably be blamed by Sonic purists for the game’s failure. It wasn’t exactly like Sonic 2! they’ll cry, and that’s why it wasn’t good!
No, the reason Sonic 4 wasn’t good was the same reason why every spinoff Sonic game since 3 and Knuckles wasn’t good: because we weren’t ten anymore. Sonic is predicated around one mechanic, a mechanic which does not make fun games. Sure, going fast is exciting, but when the thrill of speed is gone, we need something else. Mario Kart had weapons. Racing games have endless customization options. Well, racing games besides Cruisin’ USA. Which became pretty shitty once I turned twelve.
See, there’s a central problem here: Sonic does not lend himself to fun. It’s why some intelligent man tried to make him into a werewolf: werewolves get fun mechanics, like hitting and platforming. Sonic gets running fast and sudden, frustrating deaths. The reason why Sega has mucked with Sonic so much is that he just doesn’t produce fun.
And Sonic 4 should prove that. Dimps and Sonic Team got together and made, basically, a game that takes the old component parts and makes a better game out of them. Hardcore fans might insist everything is wrong, but really, this is exactly what they wanted: a fast, vibrant hedgehog, speeding through levels, stopping occasionally to handle a little bit of platforming or combat. And you know what? It just isn’t fun. It’s not fun because Sonic cannot be fun. He just can’t be.
So Sonic? Godspeed, little dude. You gave it your all, and that’s all we can ask of you. You just don’t have it in you to make a compelling game for adults, retro or no.