Shall I compare thee to abusive men?
Thy past absolved and yet thou will frustrate,
Thy crimes against design beyond your ken
And ‘fore old lovers yet thou will prostrate.
Sometime too slow the feet of Sonic move
And oft’ the player hurts, is harsh punish’d
By every fair and unfair death we prove
Old rules be damned, old rulers be admonish’d.
And it’s these two unjust hours give us pause
To think, to lift nostalgia’s golden veil,
And see, and weep upon his fatal flaws,
This most abusive lover, all his Fail.
So long as hedgehogs run or foxes fly,
So long lives this, a generation’s sigh.
The above sonnet has been falsely attributed to puritan John Milton. In fact it was Tudor period rap star Will I Am Shakespeare who was the author. A man who, as we all know, went on to base the characters in his comedy Twelfth Night on the cross-dressing sequences of Final Fantasy VII. Note the detail of Shakey’s enthusiasm for transvestism – the feminine ending of “admonish’d” is a thinly veiled insult, inferring a confusion of Sonic Team’s sexual preferences.
It’s easy for Shakespeare to criticise. Partly because he’s Dubya Fucking Shakespeare. Partly because he was right – Sonic 4 is rubbish. The idea makes sense. Not many people have liked the little blue fella since what they term his 2D golden age. The transition to 3D was painful – and it continues to be painful. Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast was a noble stab at a good 3D conversion. But no matter how noble, it was still a stab. It still left a wound. Introducing Sonic to a third dimension was like introducing a toddler to a hyena. The baffling thing is that every so often Sonic Team has a severe memory lapse and tries it again. And again. And again. The toddler is now a teenager. He doesn’t go out often because he feels self-conscious. On account of his missing face. The hyena is fat. He wears a suit. Lives in a house with a white picket fence. Has a job in the film industry. The hyena is doing very well for himself indeed.
It seems that all this has been realised. A return to 2D form was clearly the best option. There is certainly a market for it. Observe Nintendo reworking some of their own classics like Kirby and Kong much to the glee of old fans. Sentimentality sells.
Sega’s attempt to do the same in the form of Sonic 4 was flawed from the moment of conception. The Blue One has not aged well. This seems to be reflected in his speed. He sets off at a geriatric pace, hindered by an invisibly coded Zimmer frame. Remember that old Saturday morning Sonic cartoon? Remember the one where Robotnik gave Sonic the natural characteristics of a sloth? You don’t? Well, it happened. And that’s what starting a run in this game feels like. He only picks up any speed after you’ve built up a solid run aided by the level’s springs and launch pads. When that happens it actually manages to be enjoyable. Particularly pleasing are the speedy sequences where you surf a deck of cards across the Casino Night inspired level. Or when you race through dark tunnels in a mine in the Labyrinth Zone rip-off. Or when you wobble about, trying to keep your balance atop an ancient boulder. A smile will rise, despite the feeling that all the levels have been torn out of previous games and supplanted here. Briefly, you will be taunted by flashbacks of youthful days spent racing a blue blur round loop-the-loops.
I said “briefly”.
No sooner than you’ve got off to a speed worthy of Sonic’s name, you’ve run straight into one of the game’s many robo-knobs. These mechanical obstructions! They are the digital equivalent of charity workers who stand in every town centre, smiling manically at consumers, brandishing Good Will – that most dreaded of all weapons. Through karma or fate or some other unknown design you will discover them in your path. Forming a phalanx with their clipboards, pens jutting out like inky claws. Funnelled by the Hot Gates of the High Street, you have no option but to run straight into them. Before you know it, you’ve lost all of your gold rings.
There’s just something that feels “cheap” about the enemies in Sonic 4. They are an intentional hindrance that could only have been avoided if the player had prior knowledge of their positioning. In this way Sonic reflects the Scalextric set. There lies the promise of speed, action, a hit of adrenaline. What gets delivered is disappointment. A “race” in which the cars have to be placed back on the track after every turn.
Boss battles offer only an amplification of the annoyance caused by common baddies. The first couple are easy enough (and very familiar). The rest are a frustration far beyond human measure. One particular face-off with Robotnik involves chasing him down while water rises below you, threatening a stern drowning. When you finally catch up to Doc R he calls to aid a lot of ancient columns to squash you during the fight, causing insta-death when caught between them. This wouldn’t be so bad if every time you died you didn’t have to repeat the entire look-out-don’t-drown sequence. In a final insult, the player has to repeat all previous boss fights in the ultimate showdown with the good doctor. If patience had a kidney, Sonic 4 would punch it.
And yet… And yet… it is much worse than that. The familiarity you feel when playing through the game is more than just recognition of the levels. More than closeness to the retro music or sound effects. More even than a kinship to the spiky hero. It is that all of the complaints, all the problems that ever plagued a Sonic game are still there. His acceleration was always a bit on the Skoda side. Maybe not to this extent but even in the original Sonic the Hedgehog you had to jump forward at the start of a level to force some speed on yourself. And the enemies always got in the way – that was the whole point. The placement of enemies is always likely to seem unfair if they are put directly in your path, since you never have time to see the hazard coming. (But the alternative – to always keep them out of Sonic’s track – would mean the possibility of speeding right past every one of them. Such an alternative begs the question: why put the Badniks in at all, if the result is that the only challenge remaining is the environment?) Similarly with frustrating bosses – they are supposed to be a life-drain, a nigh impassable obstacle. At least, in the 1990s they were.
Aye, there’s the rub, as Will I Am Shakespeare would say. To buy Sonic 4 is to buy a (near) carbon copy of Sonic the Hedgehog. Everything that was good or bad about the original is transferred to this release. Yet it is not so much a pleasant trip down Memory Lane as it is a mugging down Memory Back-alley, forcing even the most ardent fan to become disillusioned, to realise an essential truth – What was good about Sonic games in the 90s has long been surpassed. But what was bad about Sonic games in the 90s is still bad.
MLG Rating: 4/10
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Xbox 360, Wii) Release Date: 11/10/2010
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Sonic 4: Episode 1 for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.