Monday, April 2, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I - Two Years Later

It's been almost two years since Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was released. With the release of the second, and possibly final, episode in the Sonic 4 saga on the horizon, I thought now would be a good time to revisit Episode I. Developed by Dimps with supervision from Sonic Team, the game has divided just about everyone. It was generally well received by most critics, but it was the fans who cried foul for either ridiculous reasons (such as Sonic being in his "modern" appearance rather than his "classic" look) or even justifiable reasons (touchy physics engine). Needless to say, SEGA could not catch a break. Several early leaks, thanks to an issue with Microsoft's PartnerNet program, colored most fans' expectations dark. In their minds, even though it was an early build, SEGA had screwed up once again.

I know I even picked on this a little, calling out the fans and regularly criticizing the pessimistic, entitled attitude that seemed to sweep through the fandom every time a new game is announced. Now, I've said a lot of things in the past about the fans, and while I don't take any of it back, it's one of those things I've had to learn to accept. My complaining about the fans' complaining isn't doing anyone any favors so it's best to just roll my eyes and keep chugging along.

When I first played Sonic 4: Episode I, I walked away mostly satisfied. A little bored, because I managed to clear it 100% in one playthrough (the episode is ridiculously short), but mostly satisfied. I know when I first loaded it up and heard Splash Hill Zone coming through my TV I smiled, and I kept on smiling the entire afternoon I spent with it. Coming back nearly two years later, I find my feelings are largely unchanged.

Episode I is a short, entertaining "mini-adventure" that can serve as a fun way to kill a few hours on a slow afternoon. The music is catchy with that distinct "Sonic-y" sound to it, and the game has a few creative ideas going for it in each of the different levels, though it's hard to ignore that a lot of the visuals, tropes and progression seem rehashed from the original Genesis games; Splash Hill is another Green Hill clone, Casino Street has assets that look like they were directly lifted from Sonic 2's Casino Night Zone, Lost Labyrinth feels like an updated Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1 (it's actually more fun too!) and Mad Gear feels like a more tolerable version of Sonic 2's infamous Metropolis Zone. Each level also features updated versions of bosses from the zones the game pays tribute to.

"But Arun," you cry, "what about the physics? And the level design? And Sonic's GREEN EYES?!" Well, let's talk about those in reverse. First off, the "green eyes debacle": Nobody cares, get over it. As a friend once said to me when I told him about it: "[Sonic] looks the friggin' same."

Would you really think these were two different characters?

Moving on...

Expect to see these often...
The level design is something of a mixed bag. The overall map design plays similarly to older Sonic games, featuring split paths and level-specific gimmicks. Splash Hill Zone, for example, is broken into three acts (including a boss act): the first act is the typical "Green Hill" type opening level you've come to expect from the series. The second act focuses on navigating the level via a series of vines, and the third act is more platform heavy and finishes with a series of zip lines and Bubbles chains, traversed via homing attack, to the goal.

One of the common criticisms is that the level maps are all similar, following the same basic layouts across all four zones with the only real variation being with the level gimmicks. Indeed, the levels definitely all feel similar, and certainly lack the kind of diversity seen in Sonic 2 or 3 & Knuckles, but it's the gimmicks that make them stand out. There's an interesting one in Lost Labyrinth which requires the player to guide Sonic through the level using only a torch to navigate the dark areas and solve puzzles. It's the most unique of them all, and it happens to be my personal favorite. It's also hilarious to transform into Super Sonic (after collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds, of course) in this act and negate the purpose of the torch altogether. Super Sonic. Still broken. Gotta love it.

Lost Labyrinth Act II - running
The torch gimmick of Lost Labyrinth, Act 2 (console versions only)

Speaking of Super Sonic, the special zone featured in Episode I is an updated version of the one from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Like in the original, you need a minimum of 50 rings when you pass the goal, and then you jump into the giant warp ring that appears at the end of each level. The big difference between these zones and the original version is how they are controlled. In the originals, players controlled Sonic, jumping off walls and rolling over elements to get to the Chaos Emerald. In Episode I, players control the zone itself, rotating it to guide Sonic to the goal. These stages are, in a lot of ways, actually easier than the original version, but there is still a chance Sonic could accidentally bump off of a wall or other level element straight into an exit. It takes some practice, and some stages are easier than others, but they are a fun diversion that help pad out the length of the game (and it's quite short). They are also completely optional if you want to just breeze through all four zones, but collecting all seven Chaos Emeralds offers a teaser for Episode II (as revealed, a silhouette of a character that will feature prominently... see the bottom of this post).

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I - iPhone
Episode I's Special Zone

About the most frustrating aspect of the level design are the moments when the levels seem to ramp up the difficulty midway through and unexpectedly start hitting players with the bottomless pits, sections that deal an instant death and sends Sonic back to the last checkpoint. This shows up a lot in Casino Street, where a lot of finessing is required (perhaps a little too much) to safely get through the card platforms. Most players on their first runs through probably won't see it coming, and this could lead to some frustration. Sonic has never been a stranger to bottomless pits, but here they occur with more frequency than is really wanted.

And woe be to the player stuck in a 4:3 display, as the screen is zoomed in making it difficult to spot upcoming obstacles. This was probably the one sour note of the entire game for me. To best describe it, let's think about the old Game Gear ports of the Master System Sonic titles. A common complaint with these versions was because the games were downsized, and the screen was re-centered, it made it difficult to see things coming because of the smaller aspect ratio. From my experience, it seems clear that Sonic 4 was created and meant to be viewed in 16:9. The pan and scan mode is a nice option for those of us (like myself) who still have standard TV's (4:3) complete with the CRT tubes and all, but it's impractical, and even distracting when  play. It also seems even more pointless when you consider that most first party Nintendo games released around the same time, such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns, are exclusively 16:9 and appear in letterboxed format for standard TV's. I'd rather deal with black bars on the top and bottom of my screen than not see enough of the picture and mistime a jump. Let's just say there's a reason pan and scan went out of style years ago. It's the same problem with cropping a 4:3 picture into 16:9; you're just removing screen content so it can fit a particular screen type and it screws up the basic composition (looking at the "remastered" release of Dragon Ball Z with disdain). I take my aspect ratios seriously, dammit.

This brings me to the main complaint most fans have leveled against the game: the physics (and by extension, the controls). This ranges from Sonic not building momentum like he could in the original Genesis games to "floaty" controls, as they are often described.

On the issue of Sonic's momentum, it is regularly said that the way it's actually built up is not the same as the original games. In the original games Sonic's speed and momentum was dependent on the level design and the main challenge was maintaining it as you progressed through a level; go too fast, you may not see those spike pits or enemies coming fast enough to react. In Episode I, it appears that Sonic's speed and momentum is actually independent of the level design. Move forward for a few seconds, even on a flat plane Sonic hits top speed quickly. And the "feel" of this speed is the same whether you are running downhill or uphill. Sonic also tends to be able to "stop on a dime" by just releasing the D-pad. In the originals, Sonic gradually slowed down when the D-pad was released. If you wanted to stop immediately, you just pressed back on the D-pad (i.e. pressing left instead of right).

The biggest problem I found with the momentum is the underpowered spin dash (made more obvious by the overpowered version in the "classic" levels of Sonic Generations). In the original games, the spin dash granted Sonic a burst of speed AND a form of defense. Here, the spin dash grants some defense but doesn't grant any more speed than Sonic already had if it wasn't used. In fact, don't expect to use the spin dash to get up any steep hills; it's better if you just run up the hill rather than hope the momentum of the dash will carry you through (it won't).

One final note on the physics of the game is actually the controls. They feel a little more loose, and when you come into the game playing the originals first, it really begins to show. You jump in the air, Sonic does not maneuver as easily, though this is somewhat fixed by Sonic having his air dash/homing attack. This mostly becomes a problem in the sections of the game that require more precise platforming as there's always a risk of missing your mark and falling. In the worst cases, this lands you into a bottomless pit and you have to start over at the last checkpoint. Other times, it's just a lower part of the level. There are no warnings though (as seen in Sonic Generations and the upcoming Sonic 4: Episode II).

When I had originally seen gameplay videos for Sonic 4: Episode I, I thought the difference in the physics was negligible and that fans, as they tended to do, were just being hysterical over nothing. But watching and playing are two different things. The bottom line is: Sonic 4 does feel different. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on the player. SEGA had advertised and hyped this game specifically as a "classic game" and as a "classic game" Sonic 4 did not measure up to most fans' expectations. Coming in from playing the original games, it's hard not to notice something is "off," but saying it completely ruins the experience is ridiculous.

So what does this all mean, anyway? I tried to write this post from a fresh, mostly unbiased perspective having not played the game very much since it was first released. Think of this more as a collection of observations, both from the perspectives of other fans, and personal experience. I honestly wish I could have found the space within this writing to compliment Sonic 4: Episode I just as much as I criticized it. It seems almost unfair that the game gets damned on the basis that "it's not the classics," going back to that whole "feel" thing I described before.

This all boils down to the simple question "Does it hold up?" The short answer is "yes," but just barely. Sonic 4: Episode I is a fun ride while it lasts, and it doesn't last very long. I'm able to get over the issues perhaps because I know it's not meant to be viewed as a complete game, but part of a bigger adventure. I think if a complete game was like this, the issues would count much harder against it. As it is right now, Sonic 4: Episode I is a remarkably average experience from beginning to end. It doesn't do much to make itself stand out from Dimps's previous efforts (the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games) and seems like a mostly hollow tribute to the original games in terms of recycled visuals, level tropes and badniks. To put it simply: "it's a thing." You can take it or leave it.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I developed by Dimps with supervision by Sonic Team and was released on October 7, 2010 for iOS, October 11, 2010 for WiiWare, October 12, 2010 for PSN and October 13 for Xbox Live Arcade. The game was later re-released for PC via Steam on January 19, 2012. This post is based on the WiiWare version. Screenshots in this post are for the Xbox Live Arcade version (as the two versions are identical) and are taken from SEGA's official Flickr.


On the Horizon

With all this behind us now, let's talk about the future. Based on what's been seen of Episode II so far, it seems SEGA really took a long hard look at the criticisms from fans, and will do what they can to address these concerns. Sure, Wii owners are getting the shaft (don't get me started––SEGA, you owe me $15), but if you've got a decent PC or are looking at buying another console anyway, you can always look forward to buying Sonic 4: Episode II to enjoy alongside your other games.

To round out this whole article, I'm including a few choice screenshots from SEGA's Flickr gallery for the upcoming Episode II, and a link to the latest trailer. Get hyped and enjoy.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode IISonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II

And finally... Metal Sonic returns!

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II

Here's the most recent trailer:

Or, watch externally @ Youtube

Until next time, later!