Sonic returns in a stripped back and deliberately retro game from Japanese developers Dimps and Sonic Team. If what you want is a Sonic game the way they used to be, in all their side-scrolling, two dimensional, Mega Drive era glory, then here it is. Just be careful what you wish for. Despite being classic Sonic in almost every way, Sonic 4 is also short, frustrating and just a little annoying.
Clocking in at a fairly light 130mb, and available on the PSN for a rather hefty $24.90, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is the first part in a proposed series. From the opening screen shot, virtually identical to that of the original game, you know you're in for a blast from gaming’s past.
The game is broken into four main zones, as well as an unlockable final level. You start in Splash Hill, an area that is typical Sonic territory. It is a grassy, ocean-side environment packed with collectable rings (of course), dangerous birds, crabs, spikes and springs. The colours are bold and sharp, cleverly maintaining a faux 16-bit aesthetic, without simply being blocks of colour. You move with the left stick. Slowly at first, but eventually you will reach Sonic’s signature speed. Jumping, breaking rocks, hitting springs or attacking enemies is all initialised with the ‘x’ button.
After Splash Hill comes the Casino, Lost Labyrinth and Mad Gear zones. There are packs of cards flying around, pinball bumpers, hidden tunnels, and jets of steam. All of the zones have their own little visual twists, and all are broken into three areas with a final boss battle. They can be entered at any time from the map screen. As you complete the levels you are awarded points for rings collected and time bonuses for clearing the levels at pace. Top times and scores are listed online.
It is a good thing that you can pick and choose between all the main zones because the game is a study in old school frustrations. Every level seems to have one of the annoying little sections that simply seem impossible. One minute you will be nicely moving along, jumping wide gaps by stringing attacks together, or bouncing around inside a giant pinball machine, the next you will be cursing and looking for something else to do before you throw the controller across the room. As I said, it's good you can just jump forward to try the next level, or go back to get a better score in an earlier zone.
Also, it is one of those games that expects you to learn through repetition. Throughout, there are dangers that are completely unavoidable. Frustrating and annoying dangers that kill you without warning. No matter how good you are at video games, or how quick your reflexes, all you can do is lose a life and try to remember where the traps are for next time. There are invisible chameleons that blast you with fireballs. There are deadly falls mixed in with platforms you have to jump from to move forward. Wherever you are, it’s not only possible, it’s probable, that just off screen is something that will kill you.
But that’s retro gaming for you. As well as the blocky graphics and bloody annoying single track electronic ditties, it’s all about committing patterns to memory. Playing levels over and over until you remember where all the traps are, how the enemies move and where and when all those little safe areas form. While not quite, Pac-Man or Donkey Kong in terms of pattern memorising, Sonic 4 is leaning in that direction.
Although I’d never claim to be a Sonic devotee, I have spent my share of time with Sonic and his menagerie of friends. The thing that drew me to the games, be it the older classics or the more recent variants, was the speed. Sonic, at his best, was all about speed. And though the games have always had their share of platform sections, for me it was Sonic by name and Sonic by nature. Hitting rails, blasting through enemies, getting that momentum going and staying there.
So it’s kind of strange that the first thing I noticed about Sonic 4 is how you have to fight to maintain momentum. Damned Year 11 physics. In Sonic 4 getting up to speed is just plain hard, and because the game is packed with all those old-school dead ends, unavoidable enemies and death drops, staying there is almost impossible. For me the speed was what made Sonic exhilarating and fun. In Sonic 4 the fun is sadly lacking.
But that may just be me. There is little doubt that many fans have been calling for this kind of Sonic the Hedgehog game for a long time. If you are one of them, it’ll leave you happily wallowing in nostalgic bliss. Or, if you’re like me, the frustrations and the annoying bloody music may just be enough to convince you to give up on the whole retro gaming thing for good.