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Sonic Made It Through Act 4!

I was going to talk a little about some games I’ve been playing lately (two recently bought, one I haven’t played in ten years), but then I realised, whoops, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is out and I haven’t made any cynical remarks on it yet!

Well, it’s intriguing. To go on an extended recap, I kind of like the 2D Sonic games. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a blast to play, I’m very fond of Sonic Advance, and while I won’t deny I found Sonic Rush to be a letdown (it’s rather damning that the very second game I get for the DS didn’t excite or engage me at all) I did feel it had a fun gimmick and a reasonably competent engine. SEGA seem to have been listening to fan demands that 2D is the way Sonic should stay, and thus have been shoehorning it in everywhere: Sonic Wildfire is little more than moving left and right to avoid incoming objects, Unleashed had completely pointless 2D segments that added nothing, and Sonic Colors looks to be the same.

I, personally, am not too keen on this idea. On one hand, it’s nice that SEGA are attempting to listen to the fans, but like everything they do, the results are generally half-assed and unremarkable, and their new games just seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper. Remember Sonic Adventure and how it felt like a real, proper action adventure game? I liked that, and think that’s the direction the series should take – yes, bias aside, it’s a wonky and cumbersome game that didn’t place enough focus on the good characters (as much as I love Big as a character, I don’t think I can forgive having freakin’ fishing in a Sonic game), but obviously with further attempts to patch it up and improve the formula I feel it could’ve been something fantastic. Problem is, it looked like Sonic 2006 was meant to be their more direct sequel to the formula, and it completely freakin’ blowed. Since then, it feels like SEGA have been going out of their way to make the Sonic games smaller and more confined, and Unleashed felt like the perfect embodiment of that (yes, I know I played the Wii version, but still!). That’s not progress, guys, that’s just being backwards!

And so, here we are. Rather than trying to get a better grasp on the 3D realm, we’re getting uninspired 2D stuff shovelled at us. Hooray for whining fans?

But, yeah, Sonic 4! As I said two paragraphs ago when I was meant to be reviewing this thing, it’s intriguing! Its overall vibe definitely evokes the classic games in a very blunt manner – I’m talkin’ sledge hammer subtlety – as each level is basically a repeat of one from an older game (Zone 1 is your typical Green Hill retake, Zone 2 is Casino Night, Zone 3 is Labyrinth Zone, Zone 4 is Metropolis/Scrap Brain, and Zone 5 is that final boss rush level from Advance). I could snark about this being a further demonstration of SEGA’s laziness, but personally, I’m just content that there’s some comprehensible level design again. Seriously, how hard is it? Sonic Advance, despite its slightly cumbersome engine, made some decent stages with alternate paths and hidden corners, but it seems since then it’s just been forcing you to rush across straight lines and curves to the exit. It’s not incredible level design, and quite often there seemed to be level features that were thrown in as a cute reminder of the old games, and then promptly forgotten (like the coloured bouncer burger platform things in the casino level); and I’m still not fond of the reliance on bottomless pits (it’s more original to have spike pits!), but as I said, it’s a slight relief from the wonky nonsense you ran along in Rush.

I’m rather perplexed by the physics, though. Through all the 2D Sonic games, no matter how crap, there’s usually been some sensible resemblance of gravity, momentum and other such vital elements of the everyday shenanigans of a faster-than-sound hedgehog. Sonic 4’s engine is very strange. If you spindash off a ledge, you lose all momentum and your speed quickly plummets to zilch, and even at fast speeds in midair it’s possible to let go of the D-Pad and, you guessed it, drop like a horizontally-unmoving rock. It’s like inertia hits you like a supercharged bulldozer (did I use my limited science knowledge appropriately?). The game seems to constantly require you having your thumb glued to the D-Pad for any kind of movement, even if you’d think the simple momentum would keep him going. For instance, the casino level has a “U” shaped pit we’ve seen before in the series where you have to roll up and down on both sides to pick up speed – but if you just roll into a ball and let the momentum do its work, you’ll gain no speed. Instead you have to start pushing in the direction you’re moving to build up speed. It sounds like a nitpicky complaint and rather akin to the usual “IT’S A CHANGE FROM THE OLD GAMES THEREFORE IT SUCKS” complaints you hear, but we’ve seen that they’ve kept simple little elements like this in the games even in 2005 with the release of Sonic Rush. Why drop it now?

I will say, the game looks good. It feels like a long time since the 2D games have actually been attractive – Sonic Advance was decent but the later games just had abstract and odd-looking environments, the levels of Rush felt very empty and lifeless, and I don’t think it’s even worth getting into why the 2D parts in Unleashed look bad. Using 2D foreground pieces with 3D backgrounds and a pleasant dose of layering, the levels really do look nice. They’re colourful, they’re detailed, and it might sound like a stupid comment, but they look like more believable environments. They don’t look like flat stretches of land pasted against a backdrop, there’s a roundedness to them, something that I felt the 2D games have been missing lately. Sonic’s model does look a little odd since his head seems more humongous than usual, but the retro Badniks and the final boss (Sonic 2’s final boss, actually!) all look fantastic in 3D. It’s just a pity you can’t see them in more detail.

The music kinda blows, though. Yeah! Again, usually even the bad Sonic games have decent music, and if it’s considered “bad” it’s usually a matter of selective taste (I’m quite partial to the Rush soundtrack). Sonic 4’s music looks like it’s trying to ape Mega Man 9’s style with a close approximation to chiptune, but it’s most definitely not chiptune (or FM synth if you want to be pedantic), and it just feels… old. Not a retro old, but a “totally incompetent” old, like an old toaster that bursts into flames when you turn it on and isn’t even nice looking. It can be identified as music (much like how the toaster, although it cannot toast, is still a toaster), but it’s just not very good or stylish or anything. It’s a real letdown. I’m going to be miffed if it turns out Jun Senoue was behind it, because that guy has done some great stuff. Do Crush 40 even do music for the games anymore?

Woof! A lot of words for a game I haven’t even fully finished yet (I reached the last boss but didn’t have the patience to beat him after four deaths). In summary, some dicey elements, most definitely not an incredible revival to the series but otherwise pretty average. If you’re absolutely starved for more rambling, my chum Ian Linn has basically summarised my thoughts in a more professionally-worded (and professionally-presented) manner on his blog. He’s been complaining to me that people only look at his stuff when it has something to do with Sonic, and I’m not doing him any favours!

Have an unfinished doodle. This fellow never got any arms and one of his legs never got full shading. He appears understandably miffed.

9 Comments

  1. Ian Linn wrote:

    YO DAWG THIS REVIEW IS OFF THE CHAIN because it plugs my blog at the end.
    Jk, your review is a lot funnier than mine, and that makes me like it more.
    Also, your doodles keep getting better. By chance, have you gotten yourself a tablet? These don’t look mouse drawn!

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Ragey wrote:

    Thanks! I was mostly just worried that the neverending walls of text would make it a pain to read. I suppose I should’ve stolen some of your screenshots just to break it up a bit more, or at least made use of one of my filler images. I simply didn’t talk about some things like the homing attack and Special Stages solely because the entry was getting long enough already – if I do cover the game for the actual site I’ll probably get more indepth with stuff like that.

    And I’m still drawing by mouse! I’ve been kinda interested to get a tablet, but I’ve never really bothered looking at prices or anything – would there be any particular kind you’d recommend?

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  3. MightyKombat wrote:

    This review is a welcome far cry from the completely pointless whining about inconsequential things you usually hear amidst hte Sonic fandom.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  4. I played the trial version for the 360 and Sonic seems to take forever to get going compared to the old games. But at least I wasn’t falling through the floors every two seconds.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Ragey wrote:

    Yeah, I’m not too fussed on that either – it’s even worse than the walking speed in Sonic Advance! At least in this one you can fool around with the homing attack in an attempt to speed up (very useful for the final boss) or use the ol’ faithful spindash, but it’s still a rather dumb feature. It’s not like he’s not meant to be wearing concrete socks or anything.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  6. greybob wrote:

    I’m glad to hear that it’s totally safe to skip this one. If ‘ll stick with 1-3 (and Knuckles,) thanks.

    I heard this was going to be some episodic thing. Does that mean there’s going to be more “episodes” of Sonic 4 in the future, or whatever?

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Ragey wrote:

    Yeah, I think unless you’re a total Sonic nerd (like myself?) you can give it a miss, as there’s nothing in it that you wouldn’t get from the Mega Drive games. Danny Cowan sums it up rather aptly.

    That’s SEGA’s plan, apparently – if it sells well then they can make more, and if not they can just drop it. I think it’s a decent business model to work with, especially given how fickle their fanbase is, though personally I’m rather doubtful we’ll see any more in future.

    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  8. OK I have seen everything I’ve ever needed to see about this game now:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nDRsjiXiMo

    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  9. MightyKombat wrote:

    Herp derp Sega.

    This news of Sonic’s running speed in the game starting off slow confuses me. Sure having him start off fast would make him hard to control, but he’s nicknamed, you know, The FASTest Thing Alive. We shoudl at least have some starting speed.

    Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 11:54 pm | Permalink