It's nearly here: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is released on WiiWare in North America on October 11th, with a European release following on Friday October 15th. With the game now finished and so very nearly here, we caught up with Ken Balough, Digital Brand Manager for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, to pose some questions about the hedgehog's impending downloadable adventure.
Nintendo Life: Fans have been asking for a 2D Sonic game like this for years. Why did you feel now was the right time to create Sonic 4?
Ken Balough: It was definitely a case of the right people at the right time. When we started discussing doing a 2D Sonic game, it just made sense that we would make Sonic 4. It’s a game fans have been asking about for years, and we felt we had the right team to make it.
NL: Was the game always intended to be called Sonic the Hedgehog 4, or were there ever any other titles considered?
KB: From the start we knew that this would be Sonic 4, so we primarily focused on how we could bring this experience to the consumers in the digital space.
NL: What difficulties came with developing a game based on such legendary classics?
KB: I think one of the biggest difficulties we had to face was figuring out a way to provide the entire Sonic 4 saga in a format that would keep fans engaged between episodes. That’s when we came up with the idea of the “cliffhanger” ending you’ll see if you collect all the Chaos emeralds. This allows fans to finish a fulfilling experience while at the same time introducing them to a saga that they can’t wait to continue playing.
NL: Obviously Sonic 4 is designed to appeal to long-time Sonic fans, but how have you ensured new players will find the game enjoyable too?
KB: I think the core of what made Sonic great back in 1991 still applies today: solid 2D gameplay. Sonic games have definitely introduced us to new elements over the years, but for the 2D games, Speed and Platforming are at the core of everything. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 really delivers on these concepts, and whether you’re a long-time Genesis fan or a newcomer, you’re bound to enjoy the gameplay experience.
NL: One special move from the 3D games is the inclusion of the homing attack. Why did you decide to include this with the classic gameplay mechanics?
KB: Every Genesis Sonic game introduced players to a new mechanic. For example, Sonic 2 introduced the Spin Dash, and Sonic 3 had the different Shields. The Homing Attack continues that trend by giving fans a new element to work with, and we are confident it changes the tempo of the game for the better. Chained Homing Attacks can also allow Sonic to access new areas in the level that might not be accessible in any other way.
NL: What power-ups will Sonic have available to him in Sonic 4?
KB: In Episode I, Sonic will be able to access Invincibility, the Shield, and the Power Sneakers.
NL: A lot of people believe Sonic is all about speed, but what in your opinion is the most important thing to get right in order to create a great Sonic game?
KB: Well… it has to be fast, sure, but that’s not everything. The platforming elements and exploration are just as important. The Genesis-era Sonic games were really rewarding to explore because there were so many paths that players could take. It meant that each time you played it you could have a different experience. The music was also key; classic Sonic games had some very memorable melodies. In my opinion, you have to nail each one of these elements to make a great 2D Sonic game.
NL: Do you have to take a different approach when creating a game in episodes rather than one complete title all at once?
KB: We did. Ultimately, we had to offer a compelling experience while still keeping players hungry for more content. I think people will be really pumped for Episode II once they see the cliffhanger ending.
NL: How did you find working with the strict file size limitation of the WiiWare service as opposed to the XBLA and PSN releases of the game?
KB: It was definitely a challenge because there was less room to work with, but the team was super committed to bringing their full vision to the Wii.
NL: Are there any significant differences between the WiiWare release and the same game on other formats?
KB: Not really, ultimately the content is identical. The Team was really committed to making sure everyone got a great Sonic 4 experience, so the graphics and the motion controls on the Special Stages are the only real differences on the Wii version.
NL: How many episodes will there be in total, and when can we expect to hear more about Episode 2?
KB: I can tell you we’ve written the story for the whole saga, but we have not announced the amount of episodes yet. That said, you can probably expect to hear more about Episode II in 2011. (He smiles)
NL: Will these episodes make up a larger game, played back-to-back like Sonic 3 and Knuckles, or will they be entirely separate? Will there be any data carried across from Sonic 4: Episode 1, such as number of Chaos Emeralds for example?
KB: The Episodes will definitely make up a larger game. After completing them all, you’ll have experienced a larger overall story arc that lives up to the epic nature of earlier Sonics. As for what carries over – you’ll have to wait and see!
NL: Looking forward, can we expect to see Tails and Knuckles make their returns in Episode 2?
KB: I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till 2011 to find out!
NL: Will future episodes look to introduce new characters or stick with established ones?
KB: I can’t say anything just yet … but be sure to check out the cliffhanger!
NL: In closing, what would you like to say to those gamers who’ve been waiting so long for Sonic the Hedgehog’s 2D return?
KB: I’ll like to let everyone know that we at SEGA definitely understand the desire Sonic fans have had for return of a 2D game. The entire team are Genesis Sonic fans and we’re all proud to be bringing back Sonic with Sonic the Hedgehog 4. This is the game we’ve all wanted to play since we were kids, and we really hope everyone out there shares our passion and enjoys playing this game as much as we did making it!
Thanks to Ken Balough at Sega for answering our questions, and be sure to come back next week for the definitive review of how Sonic's WiiWare debut stacks up against his 2D heritage.
Corbie Dillard and Zach Kaplan contributed to this interview.