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Hands-On: Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Ep. 1 (Xbox 360)

Genre: Platformer Developer: Sega of Japan Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 10/7/10

For old-school Sonic fans it probably was the greatest announcement since the golden days of the Mega Drive: In September 2009, Sega announced the release of a new Sonic title in the traditional vein! Originally called Project Needlemouse, it soon became clear: Sonic would return to his 2D roots on the latest generations of consoles.

More than a year has passed since this announcement. Now, it’s finally here! October 7th 2010 saw the release of Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode I as a downloadable WiiWare release. Both the Playstation 3 and XBOX 360 versions would arrive soon after, the latter even sporting 1080i high definition graphics. Lately, I had the opportunity to try my hand on the newest adventure of Sega’s blue mascot, and see for myself how his throwback adventure on the newest console fares. But as if that weren’t enough, I also had the opportunity to get a closer look at the newest modern endeavor of the blue hedgehog named Sonic Colors, set for release in November 2010, for both Nintendo Wii and the DS handheld.

So not only do we get a retro throwback to the good old days of Sonic classic, but the modern adventures are being continued as well. The fall season of 2010 is going to be a new era for the hedgehog. Now, in the 19th year since his first adventure, the question is: can he live up to his past glory, or has he already diverted too far? Of course, the readers of this site will mostly be interested in one thing: After all the endeavors into the third dimension, how will the classic-style 2D-sequel turn out to be.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 4: Episode 1 – The Hedgehog’s Back!

No doubt about it: Fans of the original will feel right at home once they start up the game! Once more we have Sonic, and Sonic alone, facing off against Dr. Robotnik, who has once again set out to turn all the little woodland critters into badniks. The moment you start up the first act (Splash Hill Zone), retro gamers will feel a wave of nostalgia wafting over their heads: Even the backgrounds are now a 2.5D pre-rendered environment, the stage, along with all the enemies you encounter, feel like an updated version of the classic Green Hill Zone. The developers truly aimed for recreating the classic feel of the game right down to the gameplay elements: As such, players will encounter what can best be described as a mash-up of some of the best elements from the original Sonic The Hedgehog and its sequel, Sonic 2. Even the special stage from Sonic 1 makes an unexpected return. Collect at least fifty rings, and a gigantic ring at the end of the act appears to grant access to a labyrinth somewhat reminiscent of the Chaos emeralds stage in the original. All the classic powerups (speed running shoes, the old shield from the first two Sonic games, and the invulnerability) are there as well. Even the first boss fight against Eggman starts out like your first encounter at the end of Green Hill Zone: Robotnik glides down in his flying globe, attacking you with a wrecking ball swinging from left to right! Other stages bear close resemblance to Sonic 1’s Labyrinth Zone, or Casino Night Zone and Metropolis Zone from Sonic 2.

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Sonic 4: Episode I isn’t just a rehash of the original games though. First and foremost, there are the updated graphics, and they are truly beautiful! Light and shadow have been included to great effect, as have certain pre-rendered 2.5D elements that go nice with the usual 2D platforming. Gameplay elements have been enhanced as well. While the boss fights have been intentionally created to resemble your classic encounters with Robotnik, his strategies have been altered. The special stage also now doesn’t rotate on its own; instead you can now use the analog stick on your controller to carefully shift the level around Sonic in order to reach the Chaos emerald – tricky, but actually more enjoyable than the classic stages. And fans of later Sonic games will note that the “auto-aiming” has been added to the classic repertoire as well. Not only does this allow Sonic to attack nearby targets while airborne, it is also needed to clear certain passages in the level. To be honest, I preferred the Playstation 3 version over the 360 one, mainly for one reason: On the XBOX, the Sonic sprite is bigger, resulting in a smaller area of the screen to play in. This makes it more likely to crash into enemies of fall into pits.

However, it is here that some downsides also rear their ugly heads. The auto aiming function isn’t all that precise at times: Sometimes pushing the jump button mid-air won’t result in you locking in on the nearest target, leading to an unfortunate drop. Speaking of drops, the level design has a few very nasty occasions where things take a sudden unfair turn. You find yourself forced to make leaps of faith, only to have you falling to your death. Combined with the somewhat tricky auto aiming-function this can lead to some frustration. A prime example would be the very end of Casino Street Zone, Act 2, where you need to fire Sonic out of a cannon with pinpoint accuracy, without any previous indication of which way is the right one; if you’re off to far, it immediately results in using a life. Situations like this can leave a bitter aftertaste.

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While not quite reaching the quality of the Genesis classics, Sonic 4: Episode I is a great throwback into the good old times. Fans of the old school jump-‘n-runs should give this one a try. It may not surpass the originals, and it may lack some polish in a few places, but it makes a recommendable effort. It finally feels like we’ve received a true sequel to the classics.



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