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Sonic returns in a classic 2D platforming format that will take you all the way back to the days of Push Pops and pagers...
Alas, poor Sonic, how we've missed thee. Through all the pains of your poorly devised offshoots and cringe-worthy cameos over the years, we've kept the faith that one day you might return in earnest; one day you might revisit the same pure thrills of 1991 - a year when Nirvana rocked to stardom with the album Nevermind, Matthew Kelly took over from Bruce Forsyth as the host of UK TV show You Bet!, and the original Sonic the Hedgehog was released on SEGA's Mega Drive. Sure, recent titles like 2008's Sonic Unleashed have shown glimmers of the glorious 90s heyday - suggesting that all hope is not lost - but it's not quite the same. We just can't get over the fact that purchasing a Sonic Classics Collection or digitally downloading the original Sonic series is still the best way to play as our favourite anthropomorphic hedgehog (you heard, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle).
The original Mega Drive Sonic titles survive as an elite band of 16-bit games that are still as fun to play today as they were two decades ago, so it's somewhat of a relief to find that Sonic 4 isn't departing much from that original format. There are lessons in design that have evidently been learnt from two decades of experience, a chain system made popular by some of Sonic's more recent escapades, and full HD visuals to top off the modernisation process. Other than that though, the nucleus of Sonic 4's gameplay appears largely untouched, as if Sonic Team scholars want to remain true to sacred scriptures lest the gaming orthodoxy banish them to the Scrap Brain Zone.
Never is this more evident than in Sonic 4's opening zone, cunningly named the Splash Hill Zone, which plays out as an extended homage to arguably the most iconic opening act in gaming, the Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1. Beyond the same floral and faunal overtones - featuring lush palm trees, that notorious chequered brown colour scheme, and an array of robotic 'badniks' - there are also layouts in the zone's three acts that provide a welcome sense of déjà vu. Sonic 4's various loop-the-loops and spiral sections certainly aren't overly familiar but, positioned in certain areas and amongst slopes through specific inclines and undulations, they are clear nods to Green Hill. As if to confirm our suspicions at the end of the zone, Sonic Team lays out a boss battle with Dr. Eggman that is a precise replica of the same boss section from Act 3 of the Green Hill Zone.
But Dr. Eggman has learnt a thing or two in the 19 years he's spent plotting revenge. The age-old tactics from the days of Sonic 1 simply won't work anymore and there's no longer a cheap way to beat Dr. Eggman in the Splash Hill Zone. The timing of his wrecking ball has been tweaked so that any attempts to constantly pummel his aircraft will meet with your swift demise. Instead, the trick is to time your attacks precisely between each pass of the swaying wrecking ball. Jumping over the ball to attack Eggman's craft will rebound you straight back into the ball, so the task has to be more carefully approached and precisely timed in Sonic 4.
As ever, Splash Hill Zone is adorned with the customary Special Stages whenever Sonic finishes one of the first two acts with 50 rings remaining. It's the same 2D pinball format from the original games where players have to rotate the level in order to move Sonic through as many rings as possible (50 additional rings reward you with a continue), while the ultimate goal of reaching each Special Stage's Chaos Emerald also remains from the classic Sonic days.
Our hands on also included a sneak peek at one of the acts from Sonic 4's Lost Labyrinth Zone which, again, is an obvious reference to Sonic 1's Labyrinth Zone. As with the original, it's a maze setting with some underwater sections and a kind of Aztec-style to the decor. The initial act that we played through featured rolling balls that Sonic has to position himself on top of and keep his balance as the ball gathers speed and rolls down to the next section. This gameplay trick is then embellished upon as the level progresses, with Sonic having to make transitions between different balls mid-roll, for example. It was the first sign of some slightly more lavish, 21st century design to the levels compared to their 90s counterparts, and we're sure there's plenty more of this kind of thing to come in the full game.
As we mentioned earlier, the old-school Sonic gameplay has also been embellished with a chaining system that's been carried over from the likes of Sonic Unleashed and the upcoming Sonic Colours. Explained simply, the system pulls up an on-screen reticule that locks to nearby enemies and objects such as springs. Pressing A (X on PS3) subsequently launches Sonic directly onto the target, allowing him to chain together enemy kills and transitions into speed sections. It's a feature that makes the gameplay a lot smoother as well as faster and, as any Sonic fan knows, more speed = more fun.
Sonic 4: Episode 1 is due to arrive on XBLA and PSN in just over two weeks. Given the 16 year wait up until this point, you'll forgive us for getting all bleary eyed and sentimental about the imminent prospect of its arrival. Yes, Sonic 4 is a throwback; yes, it has gameplay that doesn't appear to innovate much on the classic theme but, given the menagerie of Sonic disappointments that have graced us since 1994, we wouldn't want anything else. Colour us excited.
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