Many thousands of years ago back in the early 90s, Takashi Iizuka was a senior level designer for Sonic 3 & Knuckles. After a decade and a half (plus some promotions), he ended up running Sonic Team and became the the project lead for Sonic 4: Episode 1. What makes no sense about this is that he worked on the original Sonic games back on the Megadrive, then presided over the production of a direct sequel that got the heart of Sonic games – the physics – completely wrong. I can’t believe that throughout all the development and QA testing, nobody put their hand up and asked why Sonic moved slower than their geriatric grandmother. For those that didn’t play Episode 1, imagine Megadrive-era Sonic. Then strap concrete blocks to his feet, allow him to stick to walls sideways, replace the double-jump shield with an irritating homing attack, throw in some cheap level design, and ensure that if the player releases their finger from the d-pad whilst in the air, all forward momentum is lost. How could it have gone so wrong? It would sort of make sense if the entire team behind it had never played a Sonic game in their lives and were building the entire thing based on screenshots of old games, but it was Sonic Freaking Team! These guys have been making Sonic games since the very beginning!
What keeps going wrong? I suspect that there has been an idiot son-in-law of an executive working within Sonic Team for the past fifteen years. It’s the only way I can explain year after year of mediocre-at-best Sonic games and completely insane design decisions:
- “Hey guys! It’s a Sonic game, right? Let’s put guns in it!” – Shadow
- “People keep asking for proper Sonic gameplay, how about we turn him into a werewolf?” – Sonic Unleashed
- “Let’s make it so he’s always running and you have to tilt the not-nearly-accurate-enough Wiimote to move, causing the player to die over and over again at things that aren’t their fault!” – Sonic and the Secret Rings
- “What if we continually keep adding annoying characters so Sonic is only playable for about 1/8 of the game?” – virtually everything from the past fifteen years
- “Fishing was fun in Ocarina of Time, let’s make a billion levels of it!” – Sonic Adventure
- “Wow, this 2D Sonic game looks and feels pretty awesome, let’s just make it so the gameplay is solely about time attack and not platforming!” – Sonic Rivals
- “I think what a Sonic game needs is a third-person speedboat race between levels. Plus our games need more replayability, so let’s force everyone to replay every level ten times before we unlock the next one!” – Sonic Rush Adventure
- “Guys, how about this time we try something radical and program a game using only our feet!” – Sonic 2006
- “Our one-time arch rival has agreed to do a crossover game with us. The fanboys are going to freak out! I’ve got three words on how to make the best of this opportunity: Sports. Minigame. Compilation.” – Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
- “People are expecting a direct sequel to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, right? How about we do the unexpected and make him control like he’s made of bricks?” – Sonic 4: Episode 1
- Anything involving Big the Cat.
- And my personal favourite: “Let’s call him Dr Eggman instead of Dr Robotnik! It’s so much cooler!”
Sega got the most fundamental part of Episode 1 wrong and, as usual, were rightly chastised by the entire Internet for it. This time however, surprisingly, they decided to actually listen to fan feedback and haven’t stubbornly tried to ruin Episode 2. Yes, that’s right, the physics are fixed! At first, they feel a tiny bit off from Sonic Generations/Megadrive-era Sonic games, and I can’t put my finger on why, but after a few minutes of playing you’ll forget about the difference and it’ll be a non-issue. The short of it is Sonic no longer moves like he’s covered in glue. Episode 2, released for virtually every platform (including mobile), is almost the game that I was hoping Episode 1 would be.
The graphics have been given an overhaul, and they’re now a lot closer to the look of Sonic Fan Remix than the style of Episode 1. It’s not yet at the level of that amazing prerendered video of Mushroom Hill Zone from YouTube a few years ago, but it’s a very pretty game. There are many moments of gorgeousness littered throughout – I think my favourite was the background light shining off the platforms in Sky Fortress Zone. Audio is top-notch, as it was in Episode 1 – it has a very 16bit feel to it, yet manages to be modern at the same time. It would have been nice to have the boss music loops a bit longer though – some of them felt Alex Kidd in Miracle World length.
Another change from Episode 1 is that Tails has been added to the game, and he works much the same as he did in Sonic 2 and above. He’s computer controlled and follows you everywhere (at the same speed as Sonic, the supposed fastest thing alive – something I’ve never really understood), and another player (either locally or online) can jump on in and control him, so you can play co-op. Tails can still fly around and carry Sonic places (Sonic can now jump from Tails’ grasp in mid-air and attack enemies), and some other cool double moves have been added too: they can grab hands and do one gigantic spindash together, destroying walls and whatever else is in the way, Tails can also carry Sonic around underwater, and in certain areas marked with symbols you can do a dual annihilate-everything-on-the-screen-and-get-a-tonne-of-rings move. They’re all decent additions to the 2D Sonic move set.
One move addition that Sega has stubbornly stuck with from Episode 1 is the horrible double-jump homing attack, which makes sense in 3D Sonic games, but in 2D ones does nothing but launch you into spikes and bottomless pits. I wish we just had the split-second double-jump shield, a la Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but I think at this point it’s tradition for Sega to stuff up at least part of every Sonic game.
Level design is a mixed bag. Most of the earlier levels are quite forgettable, but towards the end of the game I felt like I was 10 again, hell-bent on beating the zones and bosses and getting progressively more frustrated every time I died through something that was entirely my fault. I actually threw my controller (don’t worry, it was at something soft) at once point – something I don’t remember doing for a very long time. Aside from during Episode Metal, I never felt cheated while playing Episode 2 – every lost life was entirely of my own doing. Sometimes it isn’t completely obvious what needs to be done at certain points of the game, but it’s nothing that’ll have you staring in confusion at the TV for hours on end.
The special stages are a souped up version of the ones in Sonic 2, done in a third person perspective as Sonic and Tails run down a chute, grabbing rings and dodging bombs in the hope of getting Chaos Emeralds. As usual, if you get all the Chaos Emeralds you can turn into Super Sonic.
I have no idea what the plot to Sonic 4 was, but it didn’t affect my understanding of the game: Dr
Robotnik Eggman something something animals into robots something something world domination something. It doesn’t matter – this is an old-fashioned 2D Sonic game. Like Episode 1, there’s no hard linear progression, which I feel hurts it a bit – I’d come back to playing after not having touched it a few days and would have to poke around the map screen trying to figure out what level I was meant to be doing next. I’d rather just go from level to level with no in-between menus, and keep level selecting in a menu on the pause screen or something like that. Either that or use a Mario-style map, where what the next level is completely obvious.
If you own Episode 1, you also get bonus content in the form of “Episode Metal.” This tells the story of what happened to Metal Sonic between Sonic CD and Episode 2, because I know you’ve all been holding your breath to find out. You control Metal Sonic (essentially a palette swap for regular Sonic) and run through four acts – one for each of the zones in Episode 1. It seems to use the art assets from Episode 1, and I frequently encountered copout deaths throughout each act, which makes me suspect that Episode Metal utilises unused layouts from Episode 1. Episode Metal is a nice yet unessential addition for those of us that forked out for the mess that was Episode 1.
Sonic 4: Episode 2 is worth picking up if you’re a fan of the original Megadrive games. If you were disappointed by Episode 1, the reworked physics and level design in this should alleviate most of your gripes. It’s not a perfect game, but a huge improvement on what came before. The recent run of fairly decent Sonic games (this and Sonic Generations being definite highlights), as well as Sega listening to its fans when it came to the problems with Episode 1 make me feel quite optimistic about future outings. Have Sega finally gotten the message? Will the next Sonic outing be something truly amazing?