Genre: Platformer Developer: Sega of Japan Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 5/15/12
The platform genre has had a hell of a resurgence this generation. With old IPs making triumphant returns and some truly fantastic new games being released through at retail and through digital distribution, it was only a matter of time before Sonic made a return. That return was first announced as “Project Needlemouse” and then revealed as any Sonic fan’s dream, Sonic The Hedgehog 4. Sonic 4 later became Sonic 4: Episode 1, and the reaction upon release was mixed at best. The main complaints seemed to center on the physics, which were off from the originals, and also the level design with its enormous amount of bottomless pits and unoriginal zones.
The short answer is no. It would be easier to see Episode II as a patch job on an already bad foundation. The whole thing was shaky to begin with, and the patching up of some problems has not stopped new ones from popping up. If you didn’t much enjoy romps through redone versions of Green Hill, Labyrinth, Casino Night and Metropolis zones in the first game, it is doubtful you will enjoy the redone versions of Aquatic Ruin, Carnival Night, Oil Ocean or Wing Fortress zones in this one.
I should probably start with the new problems. The music in Episode I was quite good. It didn’t quite reach the quality of the original games, but the soundtrack was still worthy to be included with them. Episode II recycles some of the menu and theme tracks, but the new compositions are simply awful. Normally, I would try to describe what I mean, but only the word “grating”” comes to mind. Downloading the trial game and giving the demo level a run is actually the best way to understand what I mean.
The next problem is the almost complete lack of continuity from the first one. Episode I already made little sense as a sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Obviously, Sonic was supposed to go back to his roots, but then I can’t help asking why they called it 4 in the first place?
Episode II begins with Tails flying Sonic in on the bi-plane, and the adventure begins… again. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know why Tails is there either. And where did all my Chaos Emeralds go? Obviously Sonic games have never been big on story, but just these basic omissions seem a little odd. Why call them “episodes” if there is little continuity between them? It isn’t helped by the fact that the Episode II progresses almost exactly the same way as the first, feeling like nothing more than a pointless retread. As for the patchwork, well, the most annoying thing about Episode I for me was the ridiculous number of bottomless pits and the utterly cheap way they were placed throughout the zones. These were particularly annoying because they were never a common danger in the originals. They were there, but the player usually knew when careful platforming was required and when Sonic could move at a faster pace. Episode I required a thorough knowledge of the level to avoid them. The second game solves this problem not by making them less numerous but by placing bottomless pit warning signs above most of them. They are placed a little better but still not by much. It is still quite easy to fall down, and many springs and bumpers seem to have been placed to do exactly that.
If it isn’t a bottomless pit, then it is an enemy placed right at the end of speedier sections. There are also many traps that require memorizing the acts more than having any skill. As with Episode I, this design only discourages the player from moving fast, even when doing so is clearly supposed to be encouraged. This can be looked at in contrast to the earlier games which for the most part, left Sonic and his ring collection intact at the end of the high-speed sections which always made them something to enjoy rather than dread.
Something that is not mentioned enough when discussing what has gone wrong with the Sonic franchise since Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the way the gameplay in the originals crossed between careful platforming, exploration and speed. Sonic was never just about speed. Speed was used brilliantly to diversify the gameplay, and it was supposed to be exhilarating, not something to fear. Episode II handles this a bit better than the original, but the design is still nowhere close to matching even the poorest sections of the originals.
The physics were a huge complaint in Episode I, and that has largely been fixed. I did boot up the first again to check and there is certainly an improvement. However, Sonic still loses momentum in a spindash, making it of limited use. This decision only makes sense if the intention is for the player to have less defense against enemies following the game’s speedier sections. I’m not of the opinion that Sonic 4 needs to play exactly the same, but the momentum and speed is such a unique part of the franchise that it needs to be present to feel like a Sonic game at all.
The inclusion of Tails is largely a good thing. The new elements involved allow for team moves. One merely has Tails give Sonic a lift, which is good for getting to higher areas, and the levels are clearly designed with this mechanic in mind. It is a little awkward at first, but it quickly becomes as normal as the homing attack did in Episode I. The other has both Sonic and Tails turn into a ball which provides for some unique gameplay in a few areas. Local and online co-op is now an option, and this really helps the bonus stages that are re-imagined versions of the half-pipe stages in Sonic 2.
As stated above, Episode II was built on an already shaky foundation. There have been efforts to make the game work despite this, but for all the problems fixed there have been all new mistakes. In many ways this game feels like it was reluctant to exist and the fizzler of an end-game only makes me suspect that this was exactly how the developers felt when making it. If you liked Episode I then you will probably enjoy this too (it even includes a bonus if you own the original), but if you were as disappointed with Episode I as I, then it is definitely not worth your time. If Sega truly wants to bring back classic Sonic, it should probably take the route Capcom did with Mega Man. But before it does, it should have the developers sit down and play the earlier games with notepads before they begin any work.