This is a Sonic The Hedgehog game designed in the classical mould that made the character an icon. There are no goofy sidekicks, no silly rock songs and most certainly no "dudebro" dialogue. The clue's in the title: it's Sonic The Hedgehog 4.
Don't worry though, you haven't been transported back to the 1990's — though Take That are in the charts. The Episode 1 portion of Sonic 4's title is a nod to the future too; the game's a slice of downloadable content from the PlayStation Network. It'll take about 2 hours to blast through Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1's campaign, but SEGA will be banking on you returning to the leaderboard challenges to get your money's worth.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is more of a Sonic title than any other game SEGA's released adorning the blue hedgehog's image in the past 10 or so years. This latest entry is more in-line with the Sonic Advance games that SEGA released on the GameBoy Advance several years ago. It's clearly been designed with the iconic Mega Drive/Genesis games of the 90's in mind. That comes through in a lot of what Sonic The Hedgehog 4 does, and as a slice of "updated" nostalgia it works. From the opening chant of "SEGA", right through to the tone of the snare drum used in the opening theme tune — it's all distinctly Sonic. As fans, that's all we've been screaming for over the past 10 years.
While nowhere near as iconic as the FM-driven grit of the original Sonic soundtracks, Sonic The Hedgehog does pack a pleasing array of "traditional" sounding SEGA tunes. The most exciting part? There's not a cheesy guitar rock song within a mile's radius of the game.
Most people's fondest memories of the original Sonic games point to when the level design goes a little bit bonkers. Casino Zone? Oil Ocean Zone? Despite being particularly short, Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is surprisingly varied in that regard. Of the five zones on offer, the modern iteration of the Casino Zone stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not only is it the best representation of the Sonic 4's shiny visual style, it's the little touches - like when Sonic runs into the foreground on a pack of playing cards - that bring it to life.
One of the few new mechanics SEGA's decided to add to Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is the homing attack - first popularised in Sonic Adventure. The homing attack allows Sonic to target individual enemies (or power-ups) while in mid-air. Sonic's always been about speed and not pin-point precision. The homing attack strips away some of the game's difficulty in favour of flow. It makes it possible to dash through a level without breaking speed - and is actually a factor in the level design, allowing Sonic to dodge level pitfalls by stringing together homing attacks. It's a welcome addition to the franchise.
Something about Sonic The Hedgehog 4 is just not right. It's a minor thing - it doesn't really eliminate the game's nostalgic charm. But it's always there, niggling, and we just can't put our finger on it. It's a problem with Sonic. It's almost like the physics aren't quite right. When Sonic jumps on the spot, it doesn't look or feel like we remember it — which is a problem in a title such as this. It doesn't really hurt the package; but it's absolutely there. When Sonic's waddling like a penguin in his agonisingly slow walk animation, or jumping with the wrong sensation of weight — you'll get the sensation that something's not quite right.
Looking back on the original Sonic games, there's always been one level design trait that SEGA's never quite got right: the puzzles. Mechanically Sonic The Hedgehog 4 introduces some cool ideas. The underground stage introduces the concept of light switches which is a really neat idea. It just kills the pace of the game completely dead. Sonic is at its best when it's moving really fast; fiddling around with switches and doors is not complimentary to the game mechanics.
While agonisingly pretty in places, Sonic The Hedgehog 4's graphical style can be patchy. The character models are attractive and the backdrops are detailed on the whole — but a number of the stages are artistically bland and look notably inferior to the super-pretty Casino and Splash Hill Zones.
Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is certainly a step in the right direction for SEGA's esteemed franchise, though its reverence for the original series does limit its ambition.