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Sonic returns to our screens with the same vigour that buoyed SEGA's Mega Drive two decades ago...
He's been through a tough time over the past 15 years, has Sonic. Not only has his classic rival, Mario gone from strength to strength while he's been mired in poorly conceived new titles and rehashed ultimate collections, but Sonic has even had to endure the humiliation of running the 100 metres in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games while feigning a comparable pace to Yoshi - the shame of it all. But the times they're a-changin'. With digital download platforms such as XBLA now proving to be fertile ground for classic platform gaming - a genre that had seemingly gone stale only a few years ago - SEGA has deduced that the timing is now ripe to roll back the years and recast Sonic in his classic setting.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is all about traditional 2D platforming then (albeit stages set within 3D depth rather than 2D sprites) and not only that, but the gameplay itself goes right back to the very start of the Sonic timeline. With the opening Splash Hill Zone and its abundantly clear references to the iconic Green Hill Zone in Sonic 1, it's clear that Sonic Team is using the very first blueprint of its anthropomorphic hedgehog to shape Sonic 4's gameplay: the Special Stages have been built around exactly the same perspective and dynamics of their very first iteration, while the first encounter with Dr. Eggman (nee Robotnik) is a tweaked copy of its 1991 counterpart.
This theme continues in the remaining three zones of Sonic 4. Lost Labyrinth takes most of its cues from the Labyrinth zone of Sonic 1 (complete with underwater sections and air bubbles), while the Mad Gear Zone evokes memories of the Scrap Brain Zone with its various conveyor belts and other industrial paraphernalia. The odd one out is the Casino Zone, which is a remake of Sonic 2's zone by the same name. Everything from the original zone's pinball theme to its slot machine-style card racks - complete with three-of-a-kind bonuses - have been lovingly remodelled. But although Sonic 4 is a traditionalist by these standards, it's not as if this old hedgehog hasn't learnt a few new tricks over the years.
The most obvious of these is a chaining system similar to what you'd find in Sonic Unleashed or the upcoming Sonic Colours. In short, whenever Sonic nears an enemy or interactive object (e.g. a spring), a reticule pops-up on screen and effectively 'locks' to the object. You can then press the jump button to automatically pull Sonic onto the locked object, which is a trick that Sonic Team then uses through innumerable set-pieces. Linking together three enemy kills and then escaping on a nearby spring becomes a thing of semi-automated ease and, while purists may feel that the feature detracts from Sonic's difficulty and therefore its appeal, we certainly welcome the added speed and immediacy that it gives the gameplay.
In addition to this, while the zone designs have clearly been heavily influenced by the sacred Sonic scriptures, it's not as if this design doesn't feel contemporary; quite the opposite in fact. Certain new ideas in each zone, such as the swinging vines of Splash Hill Zone, rolling balls of doom in Lost Labyrinth, and magic carpet card decks in Casino Zone do mix things up enough to ensure that the gameplay goes far beyond repetitive platforming. One particular element of overall game design that's become much more important over the last two decades is making gameplay varied rather than merely harder as you progress, and Sonic 4 makes sure that it's bang up-to-date in that regard.
Another way that Sonic 4 parts with stuffy traditionalism is with its lives system. Classically you'd get an extra life for collecting 100 rings or picking up an extra life power-up, and this setup remains in Sonic 4. The critical difference is that, when you do run out of lives, there's no going back to the very first level and starting all over again. Instead, you can just boot up the same level you died on (albeit with no checkpoints) and SEGA is even kind enough to offer you three lives - effectively, this gives you limitless continues. And thank God it does to be honest. As much as we might rattle on like a grandad about the good old days when games were games and mistakes were severely punished, the fact is that SEGA would've been mad to make players grind through the same levels time and again just because they're having a bit of trouble with the boss at the end of zone 2.
Sonic 4 doesn't dumb down the difficulty though. Quite to the contrary, these limitless continues almost allow it to be harder. Bar the Sonic 1 referencing first appearance of Dr. Eggman, the remaining four appearances of the moustachioed megalomaniac are each enticing challenges in their own right. In fact, it's Sonic 4's final boss stage that will draw out a significant portion of the game's 5-hour lifespan (on a first play-through at least) as you try to best Eggman's multiple guises time and time again. Then of course there's the lure of the famous Chaos Emeralds at the end of each Special Stage, of which there are seven in total and you can pretty much double the game's lifespan if you're going to collect them all. Online leaderboards for each level, which rate players by both time and score, should also keep hardcore Sonic fans playing long after Dr. Eggman's demise.
The real question, though, is whether £10 (1200 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live) is perhaps a touch high of an asking price. Sonic 4: Episode 1 does leave you yearning for perhaps one or two more zones, which is presumably all the better for SEGA considering they probably have an Episode 2 somewhere up their sleeve. When you set Sonic 4 against the value of Ubisoft's downloadable Scott Pilgrim game, for example, it doesn't fare brilliantly. Nonetheless, it's certainly enough content for a PSN/XBLA/WiiWare game even if it does come in at the upper limit pricing wise.
More to the point though, we don't have enough superlatives to describe the fun we've had with Sonic 4's gameplay. It is pure, unfettered joy wrapped up in a videogame and it made us feel like a kid again. We couldn't hope for a more fitting Sonic 4 sequel after so many years of absence and here's hoping this superb gameplay design carries on into the inevitable second episode.
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