Sonic the Hedgehog was the first game I ever owned. I didn’t even know what a Mega Drive was when I returned home from school one day to find that my dad had brought one. As a result I view the announcement of a new Sonic game with a degree of (usually tragically misplaced) hope and optimism. So when today SEGA confirmed the name, the release date and the platform for the new Sonic game, previously known as ‘Project Needlemouse’, I was very excited. Sonic 4: Episode 1 is set to be released this summer on all three consoles as a downloadable title and has been touted (by its developer) as a return to the characters gaming roots. Certainly early concept art has been encouraging (the ‘badnik’ pictured is an original Sonic 1 enemy) and the title is another sign from SEGA that the game is intended as a true successor to the series as seen in its Mega Drive heyday – reverting to much-loved 2D side-scrolling gameplay (comparison pictured below).
However, after years spent playing games of crushing mediocrity, Sonic the Hedgehog fans could be forgiven for having given up on SEGA’s spiney blue mascot. After all, a slurry of recent 3D outings have failed to re-ignite passions for the franchise. And with the 2006 game Sonic the Hedgehog and 2008’s Sonic Unleashed having both been billed as a return to form in early previews, it isn’t hard to understand why some fans may still feel pessimistic about this new game. I understand it... but I am not one of them. Despite my better judgement I am quite excited by the prospect of this game.
The problem with Sonic of late has been a fundamental lack of understanding, on SEGA’s part, of what the charm and strength of the original title was. Read any press release about a Sonic game made in the last ten years and the same comments come up every time. “Sonic is all about speed” they say. And so the more recent titles have increasingly based themselves around hitting boost pads and running along at high speed. When done well, as with a few of the levels in Sonic Unleashed, it has been fun, but the original Sonic was a different prospect entirely. Back then you had to earn the speed, without much in the way of boosts to help you. For example, a run round a loop-de-loop would need a build up of momentum with failure to achieve the required speed resulting in an unceremonious fall right back down to the bottom. It was also the case that the speed of Sonic was something which needed to be controlled in those early years, as much as embraced. Running from one end to the other without pause could be dangerous: you could easily fall into a pit; you could over-jump a gap resulting in landing on some devilishly placed spikes; or you could simply fail to gather enough rings to reach the zone’s special stage (and completion without the Chaos Emeralds isn’t really completion, is it?). When Sonic did attain speed shoes, the games one speed boost power-up, you tended to feel more vulnerable than not. With this in mind, it was comforting to read a recent press release for Sonic 4 where it seemed SEGA and Sonic Team had come to the same realisation. Apparently Sonic 4 will be less reliant on boosts and more traditional in terms of the build up of momentum.
It has also been noted, with some relief, that this game waves goodbye to the many terrible supporting characters Sonic Team has been introducing over the years. SEGA have been at pains to point out that Sonic is the only playable character in Sonic 4, and has confirmed that the likes of Big the Cat and Chip the whatever-he-was won’t be appearing this time. Hopefully the game will do away with “story” altogether, sticking with a “Press Start” “Zone One” immediacy missing from modern games in general. It would also be nice if the game had traditional electronic-toy sounding video game music and not the sort of J-Pop and soft rock that has plagued the series for the last fifteen years. I, for one, want to hear the old tunes.
There is caused for one note of caution however, as it has also been revealed that Sonic will still possess the “Homing Attack” as seen in every game since Sonic Adventure in 1998, an attack that always seemed to remove any need to time or judge jumps. It made sense in 3D, where the depth might have caused an added level of confusion (although Mario 64 never had a problem), but in 2D it seems redundant. Hopefully this minor concern will be put to rest when more videos and previews of the game are released. I am certainly watching this one with interest and will be reviewing it (for better or worse) when it is finally available later this year.
Enjoy the first gameplay footage of the new game below, in this nostalgic trailer:
For a less optimistic view on the new Sonic, head over to IQ Gamer.