Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II impressions

In 2009 when Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced dozens of fans got excited (cautiously) for what everyone hoped would be a triumphant return of the blue-blur in all his 2D glory. In 2010 the game was met to mixed reviews. Some long-time fans were hard on the game, others chose to focus on the good instead of the mediocre and bad… I can’t say I blame the negativity, Sega was pushing the title and teasing that it was the true successor to the 1996 hit Sonic & Knuckles, a bar set very high. In late 2011 a teaser for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was released, again stirring up high hopes. A short five months later, the game is now released on the Playstation Network for the PS3 and will be released on more consoles and devices in the coming days.

As I checked twitter this morning I realized today was the release date for Sonic 4 on the PS3. My time at the office today seemed to go by slowly just to torment me. But finally when I got home I hopped on the PS3, downloaded Sonic 4, Episode 2 and sat down for a while. I wouldn’t raise from my seat (except for a quick dinner) until I beat the main storyline of the game. I give you, my impressions:

Press Start

Sonic 4 Episode I had a lot of problems, but it wasn’t really a bad game all in all. It was a starting point and I always knew that Episode II would improve upon I greatly. Thankfully this seems to be the case. To start things off right the budget for Episode II is larger and it shows. I mean, wow, does it show! From the title screen to the first introduction and stage the graphics are sharper, crisper, and all with better fluid and fun animation. The music is good as well and compliments the game, I was humming along to some songs while others didn’t tickle my fancy as much, but I can see myself getting to like them more and more. The sounds, some familiar, some new, add a heavy dose of Sonic charm that returning fans will love.


A Zone is a Zone

It’s easy to see that Episode II takes a lot of cues from Sonic 2, but don’t worry it’s done in good taste. The special stage is a variation of Sonic 2’s special stage, but it mixes things up with different obstacles, multiple paths, and some new tricks. Red Star Rings (as seen in Sonic Generations) also make a return in this game. Think of these as extra bonus items that are challenging to get, almost like the 8 Red Coins in Super Mario 64. This adds a nice layer of replay value that was missing in Episode I.

As with the first installment in the series we have 5 main stages. Unlike the first episode where stages seemed to be almost too-closely copied from the previous Genesis games we have some interesting new lands to explore. I always felt that Episode I played it too safe. Most of the stages, obstacles, and enemies were too similar. It was more of a rehash of previous material than new levels. Thankfully Episode II changes this, to a pretty big degree. Yes we’ll have familiar areas, names and obstacles. Yes some familiar badniks will try to stop you whenever they can, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of new material. It looks like Sega decided to go all out and explore this time around, and in my opinion it works. There will be times where you’ll recognize an area or stage style from a previous game, but the experience is different overall. Which is a huge plus.


Tails saves the day

Sega obviously has a hard time deciding how far to push Sonic games lately, either they don’t push enough and we get a weak rehash of a game (Episode I) or they push too hard and we get an unplayable mess (Sonic Unleashed), but it seems they found a pretty good mixture this time around. There were several “Wow” moments for me during my first run through which left me with a smile on my face. The addition of Tails really makes all the difference. He’s playable in co-op mode (either online or local) as well, so that adds a lot to the replay value of this Episode. Tails gives you two special moves. The first is his signature flying technique. Like in Sonic 3 you can call upon Tails to lift you out of harms way or to reach new areas, something you’ll be required to do during the game. The second special move, which you will rely on far less, is a kind of double summersault. You combine into a big orange and blue blur and destroy the majority of obstacles in your way. It’s usually pretty obvious when you need to perform these actions, but I was caught off guard once or twice.

How you summon Tails is different from Sonic 3 however, which required a 2nd player helping you out. In the PS3 version you press the Square key to perform the special move at anytime in single player mode. The trick is to fly you need to be in mid-air, and to do the summersault you need to be standing on the ground. I won’t lie, I’ve died a few times when Tails decided to do the opposite of what I was trying to do. But it just takes a bit of practice and most of the time it works fine. The instant ability to call on Tails to fly you out of harms way saved my skin over a dozen times. If you run too fast off a bottomless pit, or realize you missed a critical platform, just be quick to tap the Square button and use your thrusts carefully and you’ll save yourself a life.


Some people may see these special moves this as a negative aspect. We never had special moves before, why add them now? Well I’ll tell you why, because it spices up the gameplay. Sonic needs to evolve a bit, if not it gets old too quick. These moves add some new tricks to the game and gives you a great way to explore new paths and areas. Afterall Episode II is quite challenging. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t cursing at the TV screen or grinding me teeth a few times through the game. A similar reaction to some of the tougher parts toward the end of Sonic & Knuckles. So like it or not, Tails comes in handy.


Metal Sonic is back and he means business!

I’ve always been a fan of Metal Sonic since my Sonic CD days. He was teased at the end of Episode I if you collected all the emeralds. I was hoping they wouldn’t mess up his return like they did in Sonic Heroes, to my surprise, they didn’t screw this up. You battle Sonic’s Metallic copy in a few stages and he’s involved in a good amount of boss battles later on in the game. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some great throwbacks to Sonic CD that gave me a big smile. And if you bought Episode I you get a special ‘Metal Episode’ to play which gives you the background on how he was revived. In this you play levels from the previous Episode as well. The Episode I stages look even better then they did in their original release, and it was a pleasure to play as Metal Sonic. He isn’t just tacked on either, he has his own set of moves, some great special sound effects and animations.


Has the Sonic Cycle been broken?

So a few hours after clicking ‘Buy’ on the Playstation Store I completed the main storyline to the game and collected a handful of emeralds. Overall Episode II was pretty difficult actually. I’m a veteran of the Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis series and I found this to be just as tough as Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles. The boss battles especially, some of the latter ones are pretty unforgiving, clearing out my cache of extra lives pretty quickly. You’ll definitely be giving the TV screen some dirty looks here and there, but like the classic Genesis games the levels become easier with the more practice you have.

In my opinion the Sonic Cycle is broken for this round. Episode II easily surpasses Episode I in both quality and creativity. The new badniks, zones and graphics really make this game shine. It’s easy to see all the love that went into this game, especially with fine touches like the ‘Cool!’ thumbs up banner that returns in the Special Stages. Episode II may not be perfect, but it comes pretty close. It feels much more like a classic Sonic game than Episode I and it left me eager to play Episode III.

Looking Back: Old Multimedia on the Web

If you grew up in the early 90’s and you had a computer chances are that you were connected to the world wide web. The internet was very popular, with services like AOL and EarthLink you’d be signed online and you could explore the web – you were only limited by your modem’s speed (and your phone bill). You had a 56k modem if you were lucky and even then things weren’t too ‘quick’.

Web Multimedia was at it’s infancy and it took ages to download anything worth watching. You would need special plug-ins and codecs and unlike today not everything was usually compatible with each other. Especially having a Mac there were a lot of videos and other items that just wouldn’t work. Growing up in this internet age my parents had a Power Macintosh 7500 desktop. It was pretty quick in my eyes and it was the main computer of the house. I vividly remember logging onto AOL 2.7, going to the Games section and looking for downloads. I’d usually choose the downloads where the download time was less than 1 minute. This would included video game midis, south park audio clips, and other small audio files that managed to be uploaded by other users.

I remember once finding a Star Wars site online and downloading a ton of audio clips from the movies. I was devastated when my Dad needed to delete them to make space on our computer. This was before we had our Zip 100 drive which would let us save up to 100MB on each of our own disks. I remember getting one for my birthday, that must have been the geekiest gift ever!

Videos were a whole other story. I remember putting in one of Apple’s Mac OS 8 install discs (either 8.5 or 8.6), it had a Bare Naked Ladies music video on it and I was amazed how the quality could look so good. I remember knowing little about what a DVD was, but later on I tried to install the DVD Player software on our older Non-DVD equipped Mac. Of course that never worked, and I later found out why.

Online videos were mostly streaming, I remember RealPlayer was unfortunately used a lot. It was always hard to track down the free version of RealPlayer too. Especially the Mac version, they always wanted you to download the Gold version. Since I was young I was afraid of anything I had to pay for, I didn’t know how it worked but I assumed money was taken instantly from my Dad’s wallet via magic. I never understood why everyone liked RealPlayer, I hated it, I could never save a movie, we’d have to be online to see it. I remember whenever something was a QuickTime file I’d try and save it with mixed success. I remember my Dad bringing home QuickTime 4 on a CD, that was cool since it had some live “TV” like stations you could watch. Not a lot of them worked, but when they did you felt like you had your own little TV on your computer. There was a TechTV channel and a Weather channel. They were usually either pre-recorded clips or a few minutes of a show that repeated.

Speaking of your own personal TV our Mac 7500 had AV and S-Video input on the back. We had an old VCR hooked up to the machine so we could watch VHS tapes or even watch basic cable. I remember taking screenshots and small video recordings of The Simpsons. I also remember watching Star Wars: Return of the Jedi on our Mac and playing with the figures while doing so. I was fascinated by that, later I would understand how it worked, but back then it was magic.

Today you can download a whole movie or steam a movie from Netflix in a matter of minutes. Video compression is worlds better, and RealPlayer is unheard of. MP3 files have taken over the portable MIDI sound files, and with CD burners built-in to nearly every machine today it’s easy to share multimedia to friends and family. But you can even blast the content over to another machine online, you don’t have to wait to mail a disc to show your relatives who live elsewhere your photos. Just upload them to Flickr to send them an email.

Digital audio and video technology has sure come a long way since I was a kid. And I’m sure glad it has, without their advancements it would be cumbersome and frustrating to share audio and video on the web. Let alone show somebody how to access this file!

iDVD is still broken in iLife ’11

Apple recently announced their new version of their iLife suite. Now I love this series of programs. I use iMovie, iDVD and iPhoto very often. Recently I’ve been converting a bunch of home video VHS tapes from my family and my girlfriend’s family. They love being able to have their VHS home videos on DVD with chapters and nice menus.

The problem is that iDVD version 7.0.4 (the latest version from iLife ’09) is riddled with bugs. Things just don’t work. One frustrating example is that if you choose an older theme, such as the ‘Watercolor’ theme (which is nice for family DVDs) it is impossible to edit the text in the chapters menu! Or other places as well. You can select the button, you can right-click on it, but no matter what you do, you can not change the text. So after you’ve arranged the chapters, changed the frames, moved the boxes where you want them – you can’t edit the text. The only way for you to edit the text is to temporarily switch themes, edit the text, and switch back. Losing all of your custom placement, frames, and editing. This is beyond frustrating. The only thing you can edit is the name of the menu itself.

I hoped that since iLife ’11 included iDVD they would have updated it. This didn’t seem the case, however the Apple Store site mentions that iDVD is now version 7.1, instead of the current 7.0.4. I hoped they would have fixed these issues. Sadly they remain in version 7.1 – it seems 7.1 was just made to possibly be compatible with the new version of iMovie.

Yes the themes are older and Apple probably isn’t going to fix them, but why include them if they’re broken? It’s very frustrating, especially when working with a load of similar projects. I would also love the ability to use a previous project and replace just the main video. I would like a template of the chapter titles and visual button placement/theme to stay the same, and just edit the content. That is impossible as well.

Yes Apple may be running toward the notion of digital download videos, but making DVDs is still one of the easiest ways to share videos with your family. Especially for Grandma which doesn’t have a computer and already knows how to use a DVD player. Apple needs to fix iDVD, or create a whole new version like they did with iMovie.