Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was something many wanted to see for a very long time. Continuing the story from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, many had lofty expectations for this title. When it finally released, many were split on the project. From it’s episodic nature, different feeling controls and changes that felt strange to fans of Sonic’s classic adventures, Sonic 4 Episode I and II were divisive games to say the least.
Now that it’s 2017 and the series is getting a new Classic Sonic adventure through Sonic Mania later this year, I felt it would be interesting to look back on this game series and talk about what it did right or wrong.
Lets take a look at the origins and release of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
History of Sonic 4 – From Mobile to Console?
Sonic 4’s origins are muddled but many thing it started out as a mobile Sonic title that was going to be using the Sonic Rush engine, introducing the Sonic IP to mobile phone users with a proper platformer Sonic was going to be a dashing into the mobile scene with Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash later on, but to think it was start with a 2D platformer!
(Look at the Ferris-Wheel on the right; says ‘Sonic the Portable’)
But likely after being pushed into doing so, Dimps was assigned to bring this project to consoles and got some more time to work on the project. This ‘Sonic the Portable’ later morphed into what we later saw as ‘Sonic 4’. If you want some evidence of this, look at the above image and note how the Ferris-Wheel in the image states ‘Sonic the Portable’ in all versions of the game. Could be a hold-over of Sonic 4 being a mobile title after all.
Early 2010, SEGA America started teasing a project called ‘Project Needlemouse’. Needlemouse, was the code name for Sonic 1 all the way back in 1990; this was a major announcement for fans of the series. Many were hyped with the news, with more and more code names popping up about who will star in ‘Needlemouse’. Then the day finally came where it was announced; Sonic the Hedgehog 4. Episode I was revealed for the first time.
It was a big deal as the tease showed enough to get us asking questions; they use the Modern Design instead of Classic Sonic, the first level looks similar to Green Hill/Emerald Hill, and Eggman was back causing trouble. The months went on with more information coming out and then the game was leaked on some Xbox 360’s Summer 2010….and we saw a mostly complete version of the game. Sadly, this presented a lot of problems that the final game might of had; physics not matching the Genesis games, the level designs being uninspired, visuals looking odd and two levels having odd gimmicks with tilting the screen (instead using the shoulder buttons).
People got worried, so SEGA announcing that the console versions will have two exclusive levels. The announced iPhone versions got the two tilt-focused levels instead. In addition to this announcement, the game got pushed back from its summer release to Fall 2010. Then it finally came out on everything (Wii Ware, PSN, XBLA, Steam, iOS) and response was mixed. Fast forward to 2012 and we get an Episode II announced and it was going to fix everything; the physics closer to the Genesis games, the visuals looking a lot better, the levels being more unique, and Metal Sonic coming back. Looked great and it (alongside Racing Transformed) were the big games for Sonic in 2012. After releasing to worse critical reception,
The Zones for the Episodes – Exploring the Mirage Island
The stages for Episode I include knock offs from Sonic 1 and 2:
- Splash Hill Zone (Green Hill/Emerald Hill Zone)
- Casino Street (Casino Night Zone)
- Lost Labyrinth (a new version of Labyrinth Zone from Sonic 1, as canonically, its the same place but in a different location within the zone)
- Mad Gear Zone (Metropolis Zone)
The zones in Episode I are not really that creative with level themes but I like some of the gimmicks each zone has. Act II of Splash Hill has you homing attacking vines that you swing off, Act II of Casino Street has you playing cards by running into them so you can get rings/1-Ups & Act II of Lost Labyrinth has you using a lit torch to light ruins in solving small puzzles. They are fun and while not as great as past Sonic games, they are nice re-visits to old ideas.
Episode II is a bit better with zone line up, as they use Sonic 2 & Sonic 3 and Knuckles themes but in creative ways.
- Sylvania Castle Zone (Aquatic Ruin Zone but with different time-of-day for each act and really clever underwater bits in Act II)
- White Park Zone (Original Theme; Each Act is a different (Act I is a Snow level, Act II is a rollarcoaster, Act III is completely underwater)
- Oil Desert Zone (Oil Ocean but with Sand)
- Sky Fortress (Sky Chase and Wing Fortress but with some differences for Act II and Act III)
They are more creative then Episode I and my favorites include Sylvania Castle and Sky Fortress. The latter is hands down one of my favorite 2D Sonic Zones just because of how fun Act II and Act III were to me.
Sonic 4 – Episode I: Walking Up Hills
I need to get this out of the way first; the core foundation of what made the Genesis games so much fun, the physics systems that allowed Sonic to use rolling as a fun tool to reach higher spots and fly through levels, is gone. This has been said to death at this point and I’m sorry if that sounds repetitve but that is a simple fact that must be stated.
Instead, we have Sonic Rush without the ability to Boost. That doesn’t mean Sonic is hard to control, his control is fine but he takes a while to speed up and level design doesn’t really complement the gameplay. With dash pads and a number of automatic automation being pressing, it makes level design in many cases feel bland & boring.
Sonic has his homing attack from Adventure in this 2D dash and while it was marketed as being such a new feature for side-scrolling Sonic, that is a lie. Sonic had this ability in Sonic Advance (press A in the air near robots) and Sonic Rush (which activates by pressing R when in the air). Despite that, I wouldn’t mind it if the game used the move creatively. Sadly, it relies on way to much with robots over bottomless pits being all over the place. I don’t mind its inclusion and some parts of Episode I use it to good effect; Act II of Casino Street uses the homing attack on cards to get them flying around, giving them a platform Sonic can run on.
One big issue I have with Sonic 4 Ep. I, is that Sonic is the only playable character. In past 2D adventures, we got a Tails & Knuckles playable in the Genesis games (and new additions in GBA & DS Sonic games) that complemented the speed of 2D Sonic and added to level design. Who remembers finding those secret areas as Knuckles in Sonic 3 & Knuckles or using Blaze’s hover ability to get through tricky platforming in Sonic Rush Adventure? That was great and it gave replay value to repeated playthroughs. Here, you are ONLY playing as Sonic. Considering this takes place after Sonic 3 & Knuckles, I feel it’s a bit of a step down honestly.
Sonic 4 Episode I as a whole feels like a mediocre platformer that is fine enough but after getting the name ‘Sonic 4’, it just feels lesser compared to other Sonic games.
Sonic 4 Episode II – Little Planet Returns
Sonic 4 Episode II sets out to fix the many issues Episode I had and honestly, it is a really strong 2D platformer. It stands tall next to the other Game Boy Advance and DS Sonic’s to me personally.
One example of this being a better game is that the rolling mechanic returns and it works much better, with Sonic being able to use momentum to gain higher heights and more speed. Another issue is also fixed; Tails is a playable character and works like in Sonic 3 & K! Sadly, he is only playable in co-op. A new feature called ‘Tag Action’ is present and it allows Tails to make Sonic swim, fly in the sky like in Sonic 3, and turn into a giant ball that allows you to run through objects. Very fun system and it allows levels to have set-piece sections that push one of the three moves on you. I like this element due to it adding to the level design and core gameplay. Feels like a natural addition to the Sonic series and that is something Sonic 4 has unique to itself.
Level design is a lot better too, but still runs into the boost/spring chains that Episode I has and it’s even more common sadly. Thankfully, this is made up through more creative gimmicks. Fun usage of the homing attack during Sylvania Castle Act III where you homing attack platforms so they right move right, making platforms you can land on is just one of the many examples.
Episode II just ‘felt’ better to play compared to Episode I and personally, I appreciate how Dimps tried fixing issues that the original game had. While it doesn’t result in either part of Sonic 4 living up up to the Genesis games, Episode II easily is one of the better 2D Sonic titles you can play thanks to all the improvements present.
Special Stages and A Metal Adventure
The special stages in Episode I are based on Sonic 1’s, which has you in a little maze, trying to collect rings to open gates and get watches to extend your timer. You find the emerald, and its yours! When you collect all seven, you unlock Super Sonic playable for the very first time in a Dimps title and for Sonic himself since……I think Sonic 3&K!
To be fair, Adventure has Takal (one of the main characters) having a voice clip of her talking about activating Super Sonic, so maybe it was a feature cut late in its development. But stil though, it’s great to see this time-honored tradition of 2D Sonic coming back.
Episode II’s special stages are Sonic 2’s half-pipe, with you collecting X amount of rings for each check-point until you get the goal; have enough, and the emerald is yours. Just like Episode I, you can become Super Sonic when all seven are collected.
And….you have a restart option for the special stages! So you don’t have to worry about failing them this time out; can always retry until you got it.
Episode Metal is more or less a remixed version of Episode I but with a Metal Sonic skin for Sonic (Metal has no new moves over Sonic) and playing the game in reverse (start at Mad Gear, end at Splash Hill). You only go through each Act I and the game has little fixes over the original Episode I. Nice way to experience some cut scenes though.
The presentation for the game is strange, as Episode I looks good and sounds ‘meh’ while Episode II looks great and sounds good. Episode I has a cell-shaded style, likely masking its mobile origins. It looks nice enough but could of looked better. Animations looked half-beaked at points and the characters look really washed out in the HD versions (PSN/XBLA/PC).
The soundtrack sounds good, but it doesn’t use the Genesis Instruments well. This is odd, considering the composer, Jun, composed the soundtrack to Genesis 3D Blast and it sounded great.
The melodies are great, just the composition of them is off. Fan remixes sound better compared to the original version, so check them out if you are interested.
Episode II looks great though, with detailed animations, in-engine cut-scenes done in Sonic 3 & Knuckles style (no talking, just character moving around) and the levels having a lot of polish to them. The visual effects to Sylvania Castle for Act III’s Night theme is just…..really nice looking.
The music is also a lot better to me, with many tracks being personal favorites. Sky Fortress Act 2 is hands down one of my favorite tracks of any 2D Sonic adventure. It has an epic feel and cements it’s place as one of the great Sonic music tracks.
Sonic 4 – The Conclusion
Sonic 4 is a confusing series. It tires to replicate the 2D classic Sonic game but just failed too often, making me wonder why they even bothered calling it Sonic 4. Episode I specifically feels really cheap and far from Dimps best work on the Sonic series. But Episode II, I would honestly consider a great game. It has problems and level design could be better, but I still loved my time with the game.
If both episodes were called anything but Sonic 4, this series would be a okay but still solid stamp on Sonic’s long history. But due to being Sonic 4, it faced heavy backlash and will never be fully concluded. Episode II ended on a cliffhanger ending, with plans for Episode III being scrapped after poor critical reception. It is a shame but Sonic 4 went out strong with Episode II. With Sonic Mania on the horizon, we will have an authentic 2D Sonic platformer that will make everyone happy, so we can look foward to that.
This makes Sonic 4’s place in the series all the more important; a learning experience for SEGA and Dimps on how to make a proper 2D Sonic game. But if you want to see Dimps at their best, consider checking out the Sonic Advance series or Sonic Rush. Both are great and I highly recommend them.