Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hot Rod Time Machine - Sonic 4: Episode 1 Review (iPhone)

Also on Chocolate Lemon!

From the outset, Sonic 4 wants to win you over with nostalgia.

It's evident in the opening splash screens, Sonic running back and forth before that iconic and instantly familiar "SEGA" scream rings out. It's front and center as Sonic pops out of his crest and shakes his finger with a 'tude. Pressing start yields the sound effect from the original Sonic Adventure. All the pieces are in place, it seems, and after numerous delays, controversial fan backlash, and the ever-present notion that this attempt to be a reboot/remake/sequel could just completely jump the shark (problematic mine carts notwithstanding), Sonic 4 is finally here, and before the console releases to boot. The #1 question in fans' minds though, is: Sixteen years after the release of Sonic 3, is it the sequel we were all waiting for?

Well....let me just say I understand "hardcore" Sonic fans a bit more now.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the abrasive, heavy-handed way that the more dedicated of Sonic fans approach every new game in the series. Pitchforks and stakes in hand, they're ready to completely trounce every new attempt to bring this series anywhere past 1992, both aesthetically and gameplay wise.

I am not one of those people. I'm in fact a huge fan of Sonic since the series' beginning and couldn't care less about their petty grievances, but immediately upon starting the game, something does stick out like a sore thumb.

The series trademark physics, something very easy to take for granted, seem off here.

Sonic games have always had a tangible, weighty sense of speed and inertia, and what developer Dimps have come up with here is a system that works, albeit inconsistently. Navigating Sonic is rarely a serious problem, But rarely does he feel like he has inertia, as he often just feels heavily programmed. It leads to jumps being floatier than they should be, speed getting marred by an almost erratic acceleration that's simply too fast to start or too slow to peak, a strangely magnetic attraction to flippers and bumpers, and things like ramps and loops occasionally defying gravity by making Sonic lose all momentum when curled into a ball.

This should NOT be happening.

It's as if a heavier sort of physics system from Sonic Rush was in play, but where the former had almost an entire focus on speed and moving forward with very little platforming, Sonic 4 shares level design quirks with the Sonics of old. Given that this was the general spirit, having controls that are slanted towards his new gameplay design is a bit ill advised. It works, but it's something to adjust to. If I had any abrasive fanboy whine of theirs to subscribe to, it would be this one, yes.

With that immediate gripe out of the way, I can finally let you know that despite that odd quirk, Sonic 4 is an absolute blast.

From the outset, the game's four Zones outright let you know this is a sort of retro revival, as the Splash Hill, Casino Street, Lost Labyrinth, and Mad Gear zones all have the distinct look and feel of previous stages in the series. Splash Hill has the rolling hills and corkscrew loops that made the previous Green and Emerald Hill Zones iconic first stages, Casino Street has the neon, oversaturated feel of Casino Night Zone, Lost Labyrinth is a trap filled maze akin to the Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear has all the tricky platforming and infuriating enemy spawns that made the Metropolis Zone one of the toughest Sonic levels ever. The music filling each stage is great as well, emulating many of the original 8-note compositions from the Genesis originals, and sounding truer to the spirit of Sonic than the horrible butt-rock that has plagued the series since 2000.

But make no mistake -- while these levels are clearly a homage, their designs are completely original, matching and in some ways even besting their inspirations. Massive, and filled with alternate paths, shortcuts, and secrets aplenty, they very closely nail that perfect balance long forgotten since the franchise's heyday. Well timed jumps and tense platforming sections are rewarded with stretches of speed or alternate (usually faster) paths through a stage, and each stages three acts are all detailed enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, especially for the boss battles that balance looks from the past with surprising new moves. (Special stages have returned as well, with a special surprise for anyone who collects them all) There are also clever gimmicks thrown into a few of the stages, and while they don't all work, tilting the phone to direct a minecart through a high speed maze, or keeping up momentum as a grinder bears down on you are nice diversions from the action.

The control, something I didn't mention until now, is very nice as well. The d-pad and single button given are very accurate, and very responsive (save for the occasional crouch), which is something considering the fact that you're forced to use a touch screen. However, as great as it is, a lot of this wouldn't feel as tight without the newest addition to Sonic's arsenal: The homing attack. It seems like a minor convenience at first, but what you'll find is that it lends a subtle rhythm to his usual run 'n' jump formula, something you'll notice as seemingly innocuous strings of enemies become paths to a shortcut, a botched jump gets corrected, or previously impossible jumps become manageable with just that small boost. It's a fun, logical addition to Sonic's classic gameplay, and its one of the many factors that make this truly feel like a real sequel.

All of this does not make for a perfect game however, and Sonic 4 is not without its flaws. Some levels still feature the series much maligned bad enemy placement and cheap shots, and while some can arguably be avoided with sharp enough reflexes, others simply have to be tripped in order to be aware of their presence. Some of the gimmicks are suspect as well, with one in Lost Labyrinth that doesn't explain itself until you've spent a life or two, and a particularly nasty one in Casino Street that makes the level impossible to finish if you mess up a homing attack on a string of enemies towards the end. The homing attack is a bit suspect as well, sometimes not locking on to targets right away, or locking on when they can't be reached (sending you flying into a wall or to your death) There's also a funky screen rotating effect when going through loops that you'll either love or get motion sickness from, depending on your cup of tea. I thought it was cool, frankly, while it drove a friend of mine crazy.

Motion Sickness!

The graphics are nice too, featuring colorful backgrounds and a great looking 3D model for Sonic himself, but the game inexplicably lacks retina display support, which means that the game looks great on anything but an iPhone 4, where the low resolution becomes more apparent and the game takes a bit of a washed out tone more akin to a DS title. For a iOS game released after June 24th, this is not just a minor oversight, it's inexplicable. The console versions feature some of the most gorgeous high-res CG I've seen in a downloadable title, it would've been nice to say the same here.

A list of complaints is a bit moot however, when the overall package is so well done. Despite its minor and occasionally major flaws in the design and gameplay department, Sonic 4 on the iPhone is not only a sequel that successfully updates classic Sonic gameplay for the next generation, but is a great sneak peek of what to expect from the HD versions as well. If the small bugs and annoyances are ironed out of the next installments of this planned episodic series, then we are all in for a real treat indeed, as Sonic Team (with help from dimps) seems to have tapped what made Sonic successful in the first place, and man, are they on the right track.

Just like '91.

Here's to many more.

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