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GENRE: Platformer
Q4 2010
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Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

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 Written by Matt Swider  on December 08, 2010

Review: A true sequel for which we've been waiting 16 years.

Before downloading the Xbox Live Arcade game Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, I joked with the Sega PRs via e-mail, saying that despite my busy schedule, I didn't want to miss out on reviewing Sonic 4. "For me," I wrote, ?Sonic is so key.? And then I attached a photo of my Sonic head key cover. Besides providing a lame, but passable interoffice joke, ?Sonic is so key? coincidentally describes what must have been the two-year mantra of the game's co-developers, Dimps and Sonic Team. As a result, the blue blur is once again the solo star of the series; gone are all of his half-baked friends. What's left is Sonic in a fast-paced 2D platform game that's reminiscent of the original Sega Genesis and Game Gear classics.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is retro redone beautifully. On one hand, its hurried gameplay and 2D perspective successfully take cues from the 16-bit era. On the other, its 3D-rendered graphics bring a fallen Sonic up to speed, enabling him to properly fit into the high-definition generation for the first time. The 2D/3D combination and the lighting-effect eye candy result in colorful side-scrolling levels that are seen in a flash. From Sonic's detailed character model to rotating gold rings to metallic enemy obstacles, everything in Sonic's world pops off the screen as if it can't wait for 3D technology to take hold in the video game world.

In Sonic's world, all of the acts are recognizable, even if they're under different names. The first two zones are true stands-outs. Splash Hill Zone is a remixed version of Green Hill Zone, the never-changing entry level to the best Sonic games. Its green-topped, dirt-brown platforms are complete with tunnels, palm trees and loop-the-loops. Finishing this zone's three acts and the fourth act's Dr. Eggman boss battle leads to Casino Street Zone, the new take on Spring Yard Zone. With neon-city backdrops and pinball bumpers galore, this is the best casino level in a Sonic game since Sonic 2's two-player Casino Night Zone.

That's one of the problems with Sonic 4, however. While Casino Street Zone hits the jackpot with eye-popping graphics and fun bumper-bouncing gameplay, neither this zone nor any of the other five zones allow for a second player. Yes, we were all clamoring for a stricter Sonic game and Sonic Team finally heeded our calls. But the lack of Miles ?Tails? Prower leaves something to be desired. Maybe the ?Sonic is so key? philosophy is taken a little too far in this case. It reminds me of Nintendo's overreaction to people complaining about Luigi being left out of Super Mario 64. Fans wanted Luigi in that game so badly that they faked screenshots of him standing beside Mario on the castle grounds. Seeing these hoax screenshots, Nintendo finally listened to fans and overreacted in releasing Luigi's Haunted Mansion, a ho-hum launch game for Nintendo GameCube. Yes, fans wanted Luigi, but they wanted a two-player Super Mario Bros. game with him in it, not an uninteresting game starring Luigi, who couldn't stand on his own.

Bottom Line
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is all about speed, jumping and more speed. That's been the formula that has worked since 1991 with the series' Sega Genesis debut. Along the way, Sonic Team lost sight of its main character's strengths; somewhere around the time that they made the jump to the expansive world of 3D gaming. Thankfully, Sonic 4 returns the hedgehog to the safety of a 2D plane and it feels like a blast from the past. We don't want to ever see the slow-paced exploration gameplay that brought Sonic games to a screeching halt; however, a two-player option featuring Tails would make Episode II an even more enjoyable experience.

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