Episode 9 time, ladies and gentlemen. Back when SEGA announced that a return to 2D Sonic was being developed, (then code-named Project Needlemouse,) there was a surge of excitement throughout the industry and the fanbase. After so many years, and after a series of hit-or-miss 3D Sonic games, SonicTeam was finally about to deliver us a modern-day console 2D Sonic game. At the time, my opinion was that that SEGA absolutely could not afford to wuss out with the name: if they were really going to do this, I said, there was no point without calling it Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Sure enough, Project Needlemouse did become Sonic the Hedgehog 4, and well…read on.
The game was, to me, a disappointment of epic proportions. I was just as disappointed by Sonic the Hedgehog 4 as I had been by the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog ’06. The sad thing was that unlike Sonic’s disasterous self-titled 3D outing, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1 was a well-made game, one that felt shiny and polished, like a lot of care and hard work had gone into its development. SEGA made the right decision by granting Sonic the Hedgehog 4 a delay, and so the potentially awful gameplay elements that we saw in the leaked version were fixed and all seemed well.
I would say that what doomed this project, maybe even from the start, was that it was not being developed with what seemed to be much ambition. The Sonic the Hedgehog name is a powerful one, one of the strongest in the industry, and while fans were hoping that a Sonic the Hedgeho 4 would be amazing, even maybe industry-shifting, those at SonicTeam/Dimps treated this as if it were just another 2D Sonic game: as if they were still developing Project Needlemouse and not a sequel to one of the most iconic gaming series’ of all time.
Though Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 did nothing at all as far as innovation went, it did provide me with what I think was a first in my years of video gaming; the game felt both too different and too familiar at the same time. The idea should have been that fans would be able to pick up the controller and feel right at home controlling Sonic, as if no time had passed since Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and I never was able to feel comfortable with the slippery controls, the physics, and the bizarre way that Sonic now sped up (or didn’t.) Just as unfortunate is the fact that on the exact opposite side of the coin, the area in which Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 should have felt new, fresh, and different was in its level design, visuals, and the boss battles. The potential is there to do things that were unheard of back in the Genesis era, (Sonic Rush on the DS even had some epic boss battles) and yet SonicTeam settled for, basically, a remake of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 instead of a sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Even if I were willing to settle for less, the controls and physics felt broken to me from the start, so the amount of fun I was able to have with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 was pretty minimal.
Let’s step forward a bit. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is, as we reported a few weeks ago, beginning its development, and there are promising signs that SEGA has learned their lesson. While fans were shut out and kept in the dark for most of Episode 1’s development (until the game was thankfully leaked,) SEGA has been incredibly up front with Episode 2, taking several opportunities to collect fan opinions and delivering it to the developers in Japan. This is frankly how it should have been done from the start, and the question is, can Episode 2 be good enough to make us forget that Episode 1 ever happened?
New Visual Style
Back when Sonic Unleashed was getting ready for release, Kikizo.com did an interview with Yoshi Hashimoto, (and keep in mind, this was before Project Needlemouse was even announced,) where they showed him the above picture, which is a fan illustration, and asked him what he thought of it. Of course he was impressed by the image, and who wouldn’t be? That’s why it’s such a shame to me that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 opted for such a safe and rehashed visual style. Go nuts, you’re not limited by a cartridge anymore and you’ve got systems with far superior horsepower than the SEGA Genesis. At the very least, we should get levels that are creative from a visual standpoint instead of rehashes from past Sonic games…and that of course goes for the enemies too.
*Yawn* C’mon, SonicTeam, we’ve done this already. Give us new bosses that really push the envelope. There’s a huge difference between nostalgia and plagiarizing yourself.
I’m normally a supporter of overworlds and worldmaps, but in Sonic the Hedgehog 4 it added nothing to the experience, and the non-linear structure let you see each level beforehand, ruining the sense of surprise of arriving at a new level. I’d almost rather they just eliminate the world map entirely and take you in a linear structure from one level to another, though if they have to keep it, at least give us some more stuff to do on it. And give us more than 4 zones, damnit!
Fix the controls and physics
Sonic’s movement just didn’t feel right in Sonic 4, and I think it’s crucial that SonicTeam go back to the same controls and physics used in Sonics 1-3. The fact that 4’s Sonic stopped dead in his tracks as soon as you let go of the d-pad (regardless of how fast he was going) didn’t make any sense, and neither did the momentum on ramps. Improving the physics would address many of my gripes with Sonic 4’s gameplay.
Bring back the other characters
I’m sure SonicTeam had this planned from the start, but it doesn’t hurt to say it anyway. Where are Tails and Knuckles? Bring ‘em back. They don’t necessarily have to be playable in the single-player, but they should at least make an appearance, especially given how big a part they played in Sonics 2 and 3.
Return the missing features
No multiplayer racing, no co-op, lack of some of the series’ better powerups, and no check point bonus stages? C’mon, SonicTeam, let’s bring back the cool power-ups and features that Sonics 2 and 3 added to the mix. We didn’t want another Sonic 1 here, we wanted Sonic 4.
Better special stages
To Sonic the Hedgehog 4’s credit, the game did have its own special stages. They were based somewhat on Sonic 1’s (big surprise there,) but they did, at the very least, play differently. I’d like to see this taken further in Episode 2; again, we’re on much more powerful hardware than what the Genesis was. Do something creative.
To sum up…
And that’s it. I feel like making a great Episode 2 is certainly not impossible, but whether it holds up to the first 3 Sonic the Hedgehog games will depend on SonicTeam’s ambition and how much they really want this to be an excellent game. Basic nostalgia will only carry you so far.
Thoughts on how you think Sonic 4 could improve with its next episodes? Think I’m wrong about Sonic 4 Episode 1? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.Ad: