Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 (WiiWare)

After 15 years, 16-bit is back

The drums are perfect. That's the second thing you notice about Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, right after Sonic runs past the Sega logo to the classic 16-bit "Say-gah!" sample. Anyone who's ever played a Sonic game will start to smile: it's off to a perfect start.

That start builds momentum quickly. Splash Hill is a classic opening stage, all chequerboard hillsides and waterfalls, the perfect playground to adjust to Sonic's slightly different handling and moveset. He still runs, brakes, spins and dashes like you remember, but hardcore fans will notice a few tweaks to the physics that govern his world: his acceleration is slightly different and he can run up walls more easily, but the basics of jumping, rolling downhill and generally bouncing around all over the place remain firmly intact.

The biggest change to Sonic is the inclusion of the homing attack from his 3D adventures, used to lock-on to everything from enemies to springs, switches and generally anything that needs activating. As well as being used to cover large gaps by chaining enemies as in Sonic Adventure 2 Battle for example, it soon proves a useful tool for switching routes, letting you reach areas just out of regular jumping range by locking onto a distant monitor or spring.

Another area in which the game combines classic Sonic gameplay with a twist is the level design. The inspirations for the four Zones will all be instantly familiar to anyone who played Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2, and each zone contains plenty of graphical elements or platforming stages to raise a smile. At times it almost feels like a "Best of Sonic the Hedgehog," such is the array of classic elements on display: loop-the-loops, giant cogs on which to run, grabbing air bubbles underwater and dozens more all bring back plenty of memories. It's not just the interactive parts either: the level layouts contain plenty of hidden rooms, destructible walls and extra lives dotted in hard to reach places. Exploration is back, and amply rewarded.

Sonic 4 still bears the hallmark of a modern Sonic game however, with plenty of sections that ping you about the playing field like a pinball (Casino Street Zone in particular, of course), but they're far shorter than some of the hands-off sections seen in his 3D adventures. In some levels it seems you can barely walk five yards without finding a set of springs ready to fling you into the air, and there's no shortage of speed brushes either, but as in the original titles most of the high speed sections are used after a platforming passage to keep the tempo high. In a radical step for a Dimps-developed Sonic game, sometimes it's necessary to run left: imagine that. It’s also mostly free of the dreaded “pits of death,” although they do rear their heads on occasion but rarely spoil the rhythm.

In fact, little brings the rhythm down, including the difficulty. Experienced Sonic gamers will rack up a few extra lives per level, amassing a total well into double figures before the final stage, with only a few stages posing any real trouble. Players who’ve never enjoyed the hedgehog’s 16-bit outings may find it trickier, but for many it’s like riding a bicycle and they’ll zip through most stages.

Whether you’re racing around loops or dodging huge machinery that threatens to pulp you in an instant, you’ll genuinely enjoy yourself. There’s next to no frustration here: no broken mechanics, no irritating voices, cutscenes or sidekicks. It’s just Sonic, a D-Pad and a jump button, and a fantastic gaming engine that’s lightning fast and looks fantastic, especially in 480p. The game’s crammed with details: flowers dance as you run past, a speed trail blurs everything in its path and puffs of smoke fly from Sonic’s shoes when he brakes. The bigger picture is intricate levels that use depth of field brilliantly; neon cities stretching into the distance whilst hot air balloons hover in the foreground. The texture work is uniformly excellent, particularly Lost Labyrinth’s stony slabs, and on the whole you’ll be surprised it all fits within WiiWare’s 40MB limit.

The music is equally good: unmistakably the work of Jun Senoue, its classic instruments – you’ll notice the drums immediately – and catchy melodies accompany each stage exceptionally well, although the boss music misses the mark, making Dr. Eggman a more comical than threatening presence. Certain jingles return in their original 16-bit form, the sound effects are spot on and the lack of any voices whatsoever is sure to be music to Sonic purists’ ears.

Each Zone contains three Acts with a separate fourth Act for the boss, and again these are based on classic Sonic bosses: Dr. Eggman contraptions based on his flying Egg-o-Matic capsule just as they used to be, with familiar attack patterns and a few new tricks up their sleeves. Again however, experienced gamers will take them down in no time, even with their tweaked attacks. The only boss to provide a stern challenge is the final space station encounter with Dr. Eggman, another classic Sonic boss with a few modifications.

Clearing the game first time around should take a couple of hours, with a classic ending if you finish it without collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds. Completing it again with the mystical jewels reveals a secret cliffhanger ending hinting at a character set to make a big impact on Episode II. There’s sadly no extra level for collecting all seven gems, but you are rewarded with an extra ability in-game attained by collecting 50 rings and pressing 1.

The psychedelic special stages from Sonic the Hedgehog return, with a rotating maze to navigate and floating Chaos Emerald at its centre. This time rather than controlling Sonic you control the maze, spinning it around to manoeuvre around its twisty confines. You can control it with the D-Pad or motion control, with the latter option offering plenty of sensitivity but lacking the precision of the digital control. There’s also a jump command that makes the maze shake and Sonic hop a little, but mostly you’ll survive without it. Each stage grows more complex and demanding in design, and it’s here you’ll find most of the challenge.

After having finished the game you can run through each stage in either Time Attack or Score Attack mode, posting your best results to an online leaderboard for the world to see. There’s support for plenty of save game profiles so you can start over again once you’ve finished the game, which really is all you can do.

That’s the biggest problem with Sonic 4: there simply isn’t enough of it. There’s a total of 24 levels including bosses and special stages, making it only just shorter than Sonic the Hedgehog’s 26 levels, although Sonic 4’s Acts tend to be a little longer on the whole. As with all the best Sonics, the ride is great while it lasts, and there’s no doubt you’ll be anxiously awaiting Episode 2’s arrival next year. For 1500 Points though it’s hard to say the game represents a great return on your money in terms of longevity, though there are few more enjoyable games on WiiWare if you’re a fan of 16-bit style platforming. As a standalone title it's full of fun, but realistically it will only take you a few hours to finish it, with Time Attack and Score Attack modes remaining to justify your investment.

Conclusion

The fans who clamoured for a "proper" Sonic adventure will be thrilled by Sonic 4: there’s no dialogue, no cutscenes and no sidekicks. A dozen side-scrolling stages, seven torturous special stages and five classic bosses all adds up to a great Sonic game. It’s a shame there just isn’t more of it as this won’t last skilled players too long, but the gameplay is so joyous you’ll revisit it time and again.