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Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can lead you to believe that the stuff from your memories is better than it actually ever was. I call this little process “selective memory,” and basically it boils down to the fact that you remember the good things about your memories rather than the bad things. For example, let’s say that you had a dog during your childhood and you recall this dog being an amazing companion. You remember playing fetch and having a fantastic time, when in reality the dog was barely capable of chasing his own tail and chewed the upholstery off the furniture. You hold the dog in high regard because you developed an affinity for the dog, not because the dog was actually a great dog.
Why do I explain nostalgia in a game review you ask? The reason is quite simple; Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a game that relies entirely upon this reaction to carry the title’s worth. Sonic 4 takes place after the last hedgehog title released for the Sega Genesis, Sonic & Knuckles. That means that there are no were-hogs in this iteration and we can all thank god for that. What is confusing; however, is that there are not any of the classic characters other than Sonic and Dr. Eggman. There’s no Tails, no Knuckles, and not even a mention of Big the Cat.
Sonic 4’s basic premise is for Sonic to gather the seven chaos emeralds before Eggman and stop him from taking over the world. If that plot sounds familiar it is because it has been done over and over again in Sonic the Hedgehog games. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a story element, enemy, or locale that hasn’t been lifted from a prior Genesis title. The boss battles against Eggman have all been done before, and gain little from this HD interpretation. The controls have received a 21st century update, but the core mechanics remain the same, except for the addition of a homing attack that allows you to chain together multiple attacks and score some extra points.
A surprising move for Sonic 4 is that it is much easier than other titles in the series. If you have any platforming experience this game will fall to your gaming sword in a matter of a couple hours, and that’s including a difficult end boss. The repurposed levels have more rings than anyone could need and it is not uncommon to finish a level with almost 200 rings. By the end of the game, I had racked up almost 30 extra lives and had died only a handful of times, most of which were either platforming pitfalls or a cheap Eggman boss attack.
Visually speaking, the game looks odd. The high definition visuals are really nice, but the textures seem to be entirely too smooth; every edge is rounded and even Sonic himself seems to lose a little bit of grit. Don’t get me wrong, he never looked particularly tough but in this iteration he looks like a reanimated stuffed toy. The enemies seem to take on the same quality, and the entire game tends to looks like a cutesy, children’s television show. The graphics fail to capture any of Sonic’s attitude, and in a title that relies so much on recreating the past, it really is a big disappointment.
That brings me to my next complaint: the lack of speed. Sonic just does not seem as quick, and yes I am well aware of the “he is only 2 frames slower than before” argument. I’m not debating the frame rate; I am simply stating that it does not “feel” like Sonic is moving fast. He seems slow to gain speed and his top speed definitely seems curtailed from previous installments. Perhaps it is only the fact that the backgrounds are now technologically capable of matching the speed of the hedgehog, but in this case I would say that anything that helps the sensation of speed is welcome in a Sonic title. And forget about moving at a decent speed underwater, as Sonic simply saunters around like he has been invited to the Queen’s castle and is mingling along royalty. I guess Sonic is just getting slow in his old age.
Despite my complaints, and my general bashing of Sonic Team’s newest child, I found the game to be fun and the music to be memorable. while also a bit too familiar, and I could not help but smile as I traversed the 4 main zones of the game. These zones will be familiar to anyone who has played through a Sonic title; you have the “Green Hill Zone” type, the “Casino Zone” type, the “Labyrinth Zone” type, and a “Chemical Zone” type. The familiarity is simultaneously Sonic 4’s greatest strength and weakness. If you go into the game expecting a solid Sonic title you won’t be disappointed. If you are new to Sonic, this probably won’t be the title to grab your attention, as it feels dated. This is of course only a small part of the larger Sonic 4 experience (hence the Episode 1 suffix,) but even with a new coat of paint and a new soundtrack, you still have the same Sonic fighting the same Eggman. If you are looking for the next evolution of the series, your wait will continue, but if you are looking for a trip through your memories you may have hit the nostalgia jackpot with Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is available on Xbox Live for 1200 Microsoft Points