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Thursday, 4 February 2010

As the secretive ‘Project Needlemouse’ becomes Sonic 4, the question is: should we care?

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.


  1. I am equally optimistic. I've always been a dogmatically 'Mario over Sonic' man, though as the years have piled on, revisiting the original incarnations of Mr. Hog have been joyous. The 3D Sonics unfortunately only ever strengthened my Mario disposition, mainly for the speed issues you stated.

    Nintendo have proven that there's still a healthy interest and appreciation for 'old-school 2D platform nonsense' with the New Super Mario Bros. DS/Wii games - I'll be playing Sonic 4, if for nothing else, for nostalgic reasons.

  2. Its award season. That means it's time for endless thank yous.

    Thank you Sega for seaming to see sense at last and trying to understand what it was you created all those years ago.

    Thank you Robert for an excellent blog. I'd not heard of this and you brought me news and you gave me hope that an old friend might stop being an embarrassing autopilot speed freak and go back to being a fast adventurer over tricky terrain.

    Sonic entered the gaming scene like a fireball. At a time when Mario ruled but moved about like an old man over flat landscapes. Suddenly there was speed and side-scrolling backdrops. Tiny details too like Sonic's flailing arms as he tried to keep himself from slipping off the edge, or skidding to a halt. Nerve ratteling moments like trying to catch a breath in an underwater bubble just before the timer signalled Sonic's last gasp.

    All that made instant impact. And for a time Sonic's flash seemed, for me, to out dazzle Mario's pedestrian stroll though puzzles. Sonic over Mario.

    But that lasted about 2 instalments. It's obvious to anyone whose ever wielded a joy-pad that Mario is far superior than Sonic. He has charming esoteric challenges that provide as much bafflement as amusement. He's more versatile with gadgets and hats that must be correctly used to overcome tricky obstacles. He can turn around in a 3D world and still be king of his genre.

    Sonic ran so fast he reached the end of his potential too quickly. But I like the sound of Sonic 4. If it's about the careful control of speed to guide Sonic past the pit falls. And not simply a giant pinball machine with a blue frizz charging around inside it while soft rock attacks your ears.

    Great read. Thank you.