In our furry blue friend’s first recent adventure, he utterly failed to make gamers reminisce about “the good ol’ days”. Sega’s overused and favorite mascot not only graced Apple’s portable “game system”, but also our console giants’ with a very similar, yet very different game. But realistically, you’re playing the same thing.
That said, Sonic’s console return comes not in the form of a full game (that’s for Sonic Colors), but an arcade title. Remember, it’s not Sonic 4 proper, but Episode 1. Unlike the portable version, Sonic is up close and personal, literally. The screen is affixed on his 3D self, which looks spiky and spunky as ever, but in no way majestic in a 16-bit sense. Saying it’s hard to see what’s coming, while running faster than a cheetah, is an understatement.
Thanks to a larger screen, and a physical controller, Sega decided to take more liberties with the gameplay. The Casino Street zone was surprisingly fun to play, and while every other zone was filled with gimmicks, this particular level set felt right and played well. Playing on giant slot machines, pinball tables, and hitting spinning dice and card decks felt so cheap and plastic…it felt Las Vegas. And we all love Vegas. The iconic casino level design isn’t there, but the sensibilities therein aren’t lost.
Another challenge that Sega set out was within the Labyrinth zone, where one level has the blurry blue ball slow down to carry a torch in a completely blackened room. Dimly lighting the way, this level was easy and frustrating, and mixed gameplay up enough to make me actually wonder if it works. It does and it doesn’t; Sonic slow is not really Sonic at all, just a Mario with no mushrooms, 1-ups or power ups.
If you’ve made the assumption that both versions of the game are mostly identical, congratulations, your intuition is dead on. While the game feels better, thanks solely to physical controls, every other setback is magnified on a larger screen, better speakers, and HD. We can see the green in Sonic’s eyes, and it isn’t right. The music is equally terrible. The visuals are, well, too new. For a sequel to the beloved original series of Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2 and 3, looking at a 3D version of Sonic compared to the older, 8- or 16-bit version (the latter included in the singular loading screen) only beats the message into our heads –this is not our Sonic.
As a colleague asked about the game, what is the point? Sega seems to indicate that it’s a return to form, yet the console version is even more of a travesty in this respect than the handheld! It’s a different game entirely; one which feels like it’s made to be played at a theme park with coins instead of the home.
The final twist of the knife is the pricetag for this arcade game. $15 is the cost to play on the big screen. Sonic 4: Episode 1 is a train wreck for Sonic fans. It makes Mario look good, and remember, Sonic was a character made to compete with a short, fat, ugly plumber. In failing to do so, Sega may have forfeited its shining beacon of hope for what can only be viewed as selling out to the masses. And yet, with so many Sonic fans out there, is the alienation worth it? All I can say is that the next episode had better make some extreme changes, or there likely won’t be much more of Sonic to go around.