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It’s probably safe to say Sonic never really coped with the move to 3D with the same ease that his old rival Mario did. And although some of the first Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were decent enough games they never seemed to progress into anything that would catch peoples attention like the original games did back in the 90’s.
The thing that made the original Sonic games so good was the mix between very fast gameplay, strong clean graphics, and a good challenge. Sonic 4 Episode1’s main aim is to go back to basics and only be a slight evolution of this format. From that perspective it is a definite success. The visuals are highly colored and detailed but remain easy to understand even when Sonic is running around at full speed. Sonic’s movement also feels and controls much like it did, with the original spin dash and the power-ups like Speed Shoes still in tact.
The game is split into four main Zones with each Zone containing three Acts and a boss battle. As well as this there is one final Act at the end of the game with the final boss battle.
For anyone who has played the original Sonics this game will feel instantly familiar, and in a lot of ways is more like a remake of the original rather than a completely new adventure. The first Zone is called Splash Hill, and resembles Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1 with the distinctive checkered hills, sunny skies and large loops. The second Zone is Casino Street and is similar to Casino Night Zone in Sonic 2, although it adds a lot of its own extra charm with a colorful Casino feel and cards that flip when you pass them to give you bonuses. Mad Gear Zone has an industrial feel and will have Sonic running over giant gears and dashing under large moving mechanical objects. The forth Zone is Lost Labyrinth, it takes some of the ideas from the Labyrinth Zone in the first Sonic but adds a host of its own tweaks. One of these is an interesting use of light as Sonic has to hold a torch to illuminate the level, light dynamite to clear his path, and solve small puzzles by lighting certain areas in sequence.There are also bonus stages that you access by collecting fifty or more rings in any Act. These levels are based on the original bonus stages from the very first game where Sonic is freefalling through a psychedelic maze and where you have to guide him to the emerald at the end of the stage.
Perhaps the only major change to the gameplay from the originals is the inclusion of an automatic target lock. When Sonic is in the air the nearest thing that he can interact with will have a red target appear over it, and when you press the jump button he will instantly change his direction towards it. This actually represents quite a large change to the fundamentals of the gameplay and you are encouraged to use it a lot throughout the game to do things like kill enemies, or reach hard to access bonus items. This change will not be to everyone’s tastes but it definitely doesn’t harm the flow and feel of the game.
In the original Sonic the levels were linear with no save points, so each time you loaded up the game you would have to play from the start (unless you were using cheat codes). This time around there is a Mario style map layout and you don’t have to play the Acts or Zones in any strict order. Once you have completed an Act your time and points are auto-saved and you can pick up from where you finished next time you play. It is probably a sign of how things have changed that most people would be much more surprised if there wasn’t an auto-save, but it does alter the way you play through the game. Most noticeably the whole game has become much easier, which takes away from that feeling of accomplishment you used to get if you ever managed to battle your way right through to the end in one sitting.
On the negative side one strangely obvious omission is the lack of any kind of multiplayer. Considering it was a major part of all but the very first Sonic game, not having Tails and the others included for either online or local multiplayer seems like a odd choice and would have definitely added to the replay value. Although it is possible they are saving this for one of the following episodes.
For those who grew up with Sonic and would like a trip down memory lane with something of a new edge then Sonic 4 Episode 1 should be well worth downloading. For those who never really experienced the best years of Sonic the first time around and who are just look for some quality 2D platforming then this new outing from the old impatient blue Hedgehog is still an excellent if slightly brief game.