My opinions on Sonic the Hedgehog 4

Sega recently released their game Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, the sequel the classic side-scrolling series which ended 16 years ago. Playing it myself I have found the game to be enjoyable and a nice homage to the classic series of Sonic games. While the game isn’t perfect, and few games are, I felt it was a fun title that also happened to be a decent Sonic game. Especially compared to the previous titles released by Sega in the past years.

Now I don’t speak for everyone, there are armies of fans that were divided on this game at the start. The game is just a week old now, but everyone is crawling out of their basements to complain about what is wrong with the game and how horrible it is. Some gamers have nothing but nice things to say excluding some quirks, while others are calling the game a horrible piece of junk not worthy of the memory it uses on their system. Why so much drama? Well these people are passionate about their Sonic games. They grew up with the series as a kid most likely and they want their experience today to be exactly the same as when they were 7 years old with a 3-button Sega Genesis controller in their hands. Well that isn’t going to happen.

Why so blue?

The problem with a situation like this is there is no way you are going to please everyone, it can’t be done. You can not take a 20 year old video game character, make a new game today, and have it be just like it was in the old days, or even better. There are many, many factors working against you, it would be impossible to please everyone. The gameplay, the technology, and the people have all changed. People today may not be as excited with a simple side-scrolling game without some new elements. While the technology to create a classic throwback title is available, as we’ve seen with Mega Man 9, most companies want something that looks new and modern. This may be due to consumer demand, or the decision from the company itself. They may fear someone trashing the game just by it’s visuals and not bother to give it a try – “that looks horrible and outdated.” is a first impression you want to avoid. Avid fans may love the 8-bit Mega Man look, but your average 13 year old kid will wonder why it doesn’t look as pretty as the current game he’s accustomed too. The game was obviously geared toward a certain audience, one they may not have the ability to return as much cash as more modern-looking game. People judge a lot of things on their looks alone and video games are no exception to the rule.

Now what about the gamers? They’ve changed too of course. From their youth maybe they started playing games on their parent’s Atari 2600 system in the family room and now they have a PlayStation 3 system hooked up to their own HDTV in their very own apartment. Just as their life changed it’s no doubt that their expectations for games has changed as well. In 1991 when Sonic the Hedgehog was release for the Genesis there was no game like it that could match it’s speed, gameplay and fun factor. It was something new for gamers to experience. Twenty years later this concept is no longer something new, it’s old, it’s familiar, it’s almost dated. Sure it’s not without it’s charm, but something needs to be updated or changed in order to appeal to the general audience of gamers out there.

Let’s face it, Sega is making games to make money. Without their revenue they can’t pay the developers and designers that worked on the game and they won’t make back their investment on the project. They are not making a game for the percentage of gamers who dislike Sonic’s green-eyed design or the fact that Dr. Robotnik is now called Dr. Eggman. They are making it for the general audience which means there will be compromises made in attempt to try and please everyone. Now this may not be the best route to go when the target of the game should be the fans of the original series, but they’re going for a bigger audience, not just for the older crowd. During the development of Sonic 4 Sega often noted that they were changing the game due to the feedback they received from their fans. While this is a nice show of support, this is tricky. If they listen to the fans 100% of the time their game would probably be something very different from what it is now, however if they ignored their fans it could have turned out far worse. Either way when gathering suggestions and input it’s a mixed bag, you always must take things with a grain of salt and move forward with what your gut instinct tells you.

What’s in a name?

Also a majority of the complaints coming from gamers are due to their personal expectations of the series. Sega decided to name this game Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and tie it to the original series. Putting it in direct comparison and competition with the previous titles. It’s easy to say Sonic Rush is similar to Sonic 3 in terms of gameplay, but to also realize that they are two different games. But it’s harder to think that Sonic 4 is different from Sonic 3 and accept it’s differences. Especially in gamer’s head. They will always compare this game to the previous ones, that is what you do with sequels. People compare Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with the original Star Wars film, or The Land Before Time with it’s 24th sequel. That’s what you get for putting it in the same series, it will be compared to the others. If Sega wanted to please fans on this issue maybe it would have been wise to name this game ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’s Spiritual Remix HD”. But that doesn’t draw as much hype and excitement as ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 4’ can.

Sega’s Mean Bean Hype Machine

Let’s not forget the hype. Sega has been hyping this game for over a year since it’s announcement. Teasing the game titled “Project Needlemouse” and then further revealing the title “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” gave a tremendous amount of hype to the game. Continuing the elements and gameplay from a series that ended 16 years ago will do that. Along with the hype comes unrealistic expectations from fans of the genre. But you can’t blame Sega for trying to hype up their game, they’re spending money on making something and they want everyone to be excited about it and look forward to buying it. Steve Jobs does it with the iPod and Sega does it with their games. However with such a strong legacy of classic games and a recent catalog of disappointing titles the ‘Sonic curse’ a  is a real concern for fans. It also doesn’t help for Sega to hype press releases that turn out to be an announcement of a delay and try to cover it up with the fact that they’re making the game for the iPhone as well.

But do the fans expect too much? Maybe, but isn’t that the point? Sega is trying to sell what they think is a great game. But unless it’s given out freely to everyone along with a bonus of a $20 bill it will be hard to please everyone. Even with that effort I’m sure people will protest that they didn’t include a free game system to go along with it. People will always find a way to complain about something and it’s easy to see how being a critic can be fun, but sometimes you focus on everything that has gone wrong to lose sight of everything that was good. Now I’m not saying that a gamer shouldn’t have the right to be excited, but from my point of view they should try to be a bit realistic. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 will not solve world hunger or the ache in your back, so don’t expect it to do so.

The Game Itself: Part 1 – Level Design

Sega decided to continue the Sonic series with Sonic the Hedgehog 4. They made it an episodic adventure, meaning the game will be split up into different parts to buy. It’s a popular format today, especially with digital download only games. What we bought was Episode 1, the start of the new series. The game barrows heavily from the previous titles, scenery and graphics have the same theme or concepts found in previous titles. Almost everything is either a reference or a new version of a previous concept from an older game. While this does not give you an experience that is 100% new, it gives the player two things. A familiar world to enter with different twists and turns one wouldn’t expect. It’s not 100% new, but then again it’s not an exact duplicate either. I feel that it was important for Sega to keep the first episode familiar to fans, throwing Sonic into a radically different world right off the bat would feel odd. However copying elements is nothing new to the series, Sonic 1, 2 and 3 all share a grassy green stage, a harsh factory stage, and an underwater stage.

That being said it is my personal opinion that this episode has almost relied on a bit too much from the previous games. Sonic 4 feels more like a ‘Sonic the Hedeghog Remix HD’ then an actual new game in the series. And I believe that is where we’ll find most of the complaints from gamers, there isn’t anything really too new. I’ll admit, with the exception of some new gameplay elements or designs the game copies a lot of old material. I hope that the second episode takes a bolder step to a newer world to show us some new exciting places. It’s fun to re-do some elements in a game, but if nothing is really that new then why bother making a new game at all?

Part 2 – Boss Battles

As with the levels in Sonic 4 the boss battles are almost directly pulled from previous games. There is a small twist however, when mid-way through the boss will change it’s strategy or start a new attack pattern. Visually we’ve seen most these bosses and machines before. The first boss is a copy from Sonic 1, the second is a copy from Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone and so on. While it would be nice to have some new machines to beat up I again feel like Sega was trying to ease us into a new Sonic game slowly. Who knows what we may see in Episode 2, however I hope it’s something new. Then again how many different machines can one evil scientist make without repeating himself?

Part 3 – Physics and Attacks

One item that has been constantly nit-picked by fans of the series is the physics of the game. Now this is an important one. The physics of the game control the character, the enemies and the whole world. If this is off everything won’t seem just right and it can lead to a lot of frustrated players. Sonic 4 does not use the same physics engine from Sonic 1, 2 or 3 – there is no way it could have. In fact to call what the Genesis had a physics system is a bit of a leap. Simulated cartoon gravity is more like it. However this is another area where Sonic 4 doesn’t live up to the avid fan’s expectations. There is something a bit off here. Sonic is slow to run from the start, he seems a bit heavy or like he’s chained to a giant boulder. Compared to the 1st game where he is quick to accelerate this is step in the wrong direction. Especially in a game that’s suppose to emphasize the speed of it’s main character. Rolling down a hill as a ball has some odd effects too. If you played the original Genesis titles you often rolled up into a ball to increase your speed and shield yourself from attacks. But it seems like in this game when you’re rolled up it actually slows you down. Whether this was intentional or not is only know to Sega, but it doesn’t work like I would have expected it to. So the physics system needs some tweaking, especially when you can stand at a 45 degree angle and not fall back down the hill.

The homing attack is a new feature added to Sonic 4. This feature originated in Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast in 1999. Basically after you jump once you are able to press the button again to hit a nearby object or enemy. You’re basically dashing to it in mid-air, like a homing missile. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about here. The Sonic series has always added more features, in Sonic 2 it was the spindash, in Sonic 3 it was the fire, water and ice shields. In Sonic 4 it’s the homing attack. The attack is useful and you’ll be thanking Sega for it when you get to the final boss and some of the harder stages in the game. My only issue is that power-up items from the previous Sonic games should make an appearance. A water shield giving you unlimited air would be nice, or an electric shield to gather rings would be sweet. Sonic 3 never removed any features that were available from the first two games, so it’s my feeling that Sonic 4 should have the same amount of extras. We should be moving forwards, not backwards.

Closing Thoughts

So I believe I’ve summed up most of the complaints from gamers out there. These complaints, while solid, can be fixed. After all Sonic 4 is a digital download. This isn’t a circuit board with a ROM chip in-capable of being changed.Who’s to say that Sega won’t release a patch to fix some of these issues. Stranger things have happened before, so we can only wait and see. For major fixes I’m sure from all the heat Sega will at least fix some of the more noticeable issues in the next episode in the series. They would be crazy not to, especially if they want to sell more games.

At the end of the day Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is a decent platforming game. It’s one of the better Sonic games in recent history, and while it has some rough edges there is definitely some good things here. The game isn’t perfect, but I found it fun and enjoyable to play. Even with it’s flaws it takes us back to a time of running on green hills and battling bosses in a classic 2D style. I hope Sega takes their time to make the second episode in this series a worthy purchase and that they try to bring back some of the magic they created over 20 years ago.