Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode 1 (iPhone)

After a staggering two years of waiting, 2D Sonic gameplay has finally returned to the handheld world! What? Oh, you're probably used to the usual Sonic 4 article intro recounting the 16 year wait fans had to endure before seeing the return of a 2D Sonic to home consoles. Well, such is not the case with Sonic in the portable world. Ever since 2D Sonic left Angel Island, he had found a new home on handheld gaming devices. Between 1994 and 2010, Sonic fans have been treated to more than ten 2D adventures. It is probably due to this fact that the iPhone version of Sonic 4 hasn't been receiving the same level of enthusiasm and attention as its big brother console versions have.

Another reason for the lack of attention could be the fact that to some, the iPhone is not a gaming device. While that is a debate for another article, in my opinion the iPhone is just as much a gaming device as the DS or PSP. In fact, don't tell Marcus but as of September this year, App Store sales have surpassed combined PSP and DS software sales. SEGA seems to have noticed this, as over the past few years more and more attention has been given to the iDevices: Super Monkey Ball, Football Manager, Genesis rereleases, the upcoming Chu Chu Rocket and Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

Before Sonic 4's iPhone release, Sonic appeared on the iPhone by way of emulated Genesis games. The games themselves were good, but occasionally choppy framerates, buggy sound effects and inprecise controls made for less than steller Sonic gameplay. It didn't help that the Genesis games were developed with tangible controls in mind, and a touch screen d-pad could not do the games justice. With the release of Sonic 4 for the iPhone, SEGA has the opportunity to resolve a number of these problems simply because Sonic 4 was developed from the start with the iPhone in mind. So how did they do, does the iPhone's Sonic 4 surpass the emulated classics? Does it surpass every other platformer on the platform? It's reviewin' time!

Graphics, sound effects and music
I figure I'll get one of the more controversial ones out of the way first: I like the art style of Sonic 4. I can't quite say it's what I expected, but then again up until last year I wasn't even expecting the game to exist. I think the pre-rendered backgrounds make sense, considering a good deal of Sonic 3 was attempting to have a CGI look. Pre-rendered also helps the game keep a solid framerate, as the device isn't using processing power on rendering true 3D environments. Character models are definitely a step down from those seen in the console versions, however for the size of the screen they do their job. When the game is in action you really don't pay too much attention to how many polygons make up Sonic, you're too focused on getting to the next stage. Overall, environments are a step up from the classics (in crispness and clarity) but characters are a step sideways from the classics and a step down from the console versions of Sonic 4. Still, Sonic does whip out a little iPhone when idle.

"Yo Tails! Where you at?"
Sound effects are true to the Genesis classics, with new sounds falling in line with the classic ring and spring sounds. Some fans have pointed out that Sonic's spin dash sound does not retain the same peel out as before, but in the grand scheme of the game that's a minor detail. Sound effects are what I expected them to be which is really all I could ask for.

Now for the music. While I know this has been a great debate among fans, and whatever I write will do little to sway either side, I have to say that the music suits the game. Tunes are catchy throughout, however certain zones seem to have stronger music than other zones. It's almost as though the music raises in quality as the game goes on, as if Jun Senoue was slowly easing back into classic Sonic composing. If he had gone back at the end and tweaked Splash Hill and the first half of Casino Street, I think he would have nailed it. I do wish that the samples were more in line with the Genesis games, but at the same time I would like it to have more refined CD-quality sound. The music seems to fall in the middle of these two styles, sounding like a refined Genesis composition that works for a majority of the game but stumbles during certain acts. All in all, it is a soundtrack that shows Senoue still has it and could easily top himself in episode 2.


One of the most refreshing aspects to Sonic 4 is that the rules of the game are largely unchanged from the classics. While I did enjoy the Sonic Advance series, I found it quite jarring to boot up a game and find that I had no idea how to access acts or reach special stages (I'm looking at you Sonic Advance 3!). Thankfully, Sonic 4 takes it back to recognizable territory. In fact, Sonic 4 takes it so far back that it borrows from a few aspects of the very first Sonic game. The three act structure makes a welcome return, allowing for each zone to last a bit longer. I also liked the fact that bosses are now their own act (a quasi fourth act, if you will), allowing for the third act to stand on it's own rather than acting as a lead-in to a boss. The special stage access rule of Sonic 1 also returns, with a giant ring appearing at the end of an act if Sonic has fifty or more rings. No more putting an act run on pause while you jump through a sparkling sign post. But more on special stages in the controls section.

The one major gameplay addition that has had fans up in arms is the homing attack, and I want to take a look at both sides of the new attack. The biggest negative of the attack, according to those against it, is that is simply is not classic Sonic. It did not appear in Sonic 1 through 3, thus it has no place in the game. Another negative is that some believe it makes the game far too easy. Rather than aiming a jump at an enemy or item, one can simply jump and hit jump again to blast into it. The closest the classics came to having a homing attack were the untargeted blast, bounce and double jump of the elemental shields but those had to be earned and held on to, lest you suffer damage and lose them. So in summation: those in the nay category believe it makes thing too easy and is not of the classics.

Now for the positives: I have to wonder, if a Sonic 4 did arrive in 1996 on the Saturn would there be a new attack that allows for chaining enemies? Consider what Sonic Team was producing in 1995 and 1996: Sonic & Knuckles had concluded, Knuckles Chaotix was greatly experimenting with the Sonic gameplay formula and Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka were developing NiGHTS into Dreams. If a Sonic 4 was created after NiGHTS with Naka and Iizuka at the helm, who knows what the game could have been like. Obviously I'm speculating, but the idea of a chain attack being implemented in 1996 doesn't seem so far off based on the mindset of the senior staff at the time. The Sonic series has always been making additions to Sonic's abilities. Sonic 2 introduced the spin dash which made ground attacks and ground movements much easier, Sonic 3 introduced the insta-shield which gave Sonic a moment of invincibility and the elemental shields. Sonic 4 adds the homing attack which is in the same league as the spin dash and insta-shield. It makes things easier just as those other abilities, but at the same time it adds a new element to the gameplay. I think back to the final words of the Sonic 10th Anniversary booklet released in 2001: Sonic still goes on evolving.

Because we all know that this game was ruined by aerial combos
So how does the game actually play with the attack? I'll be honest, it's fun! Some moments I don't use it as it's just as easy to jump onto an enemy or item, other moments I've used it to keep the momentum going so as not to stop and line up an attack. At any moment that I'm standing or running I have the option to use the attack, and half the time I'll use it. I wouldn't say it's completely optional, I'll touch on that in a moment, but it definitely does not monopolize the gameplay and it can be avoided for the most part if one feels so inclined to limit theirself. There are moments when certain areas cannot be accessed, which requires the attack to be used. But then again, in Sonic 2 and 3 there are certain areas that can only be accessed with a spin dash. The homing attack is needed when coming off a slope in either a run or a spin as this causes Sonic to uncurl leaving him vulnerable to floating enemies. This is the one moment that haters will hate. I found it to not be an issue, as a simple tap of the button brought Sonic back into a protective ball and dispensed with the enemy. Point is, the homing is not game breaking. Even when vulnerable moments arise, there is a way out of it. Either by simply not directing an uncurled Sonic at an enemy, or using a swift homing attack and removing the obstacle.

The full game is spread across four zones plus a boss run zone. Kudos to Sonic Team and Dimps for offering a nice variety of environments when there are only four zones to play. Each of the most popular zone cliches are represented: tropical coast, underground caves, casino and an evil factory. Each zone features a variety of fun zone (and sometimes act) specific gimmicks. If there was one thing from Sonic 3 that Sonic 4 is heavily inspired by, it is that things never get dull or samey moving from zone to zone thanks to varied gimmicks and environments.


Sonic 4 offers up two types of control schemes, the first being tilt based. The tilt controls involve tilting the iPhone left and right for Sonic's left and right movement, tap anywhere on the screen to jump and touch and hold to rev up a spin dash, release to peel out. While tilt control frees the screen up of thumbs, it makes basic platforming too difficult. I could see tilt controls working better on an iPad, but when used on a smaller iPhone and iPod Touch screen it makes the game less like a Sonic game and more like a wacky tilt and tap adventure. In attempting the first zone, I found that less time was spent enjoying the game and more time is spent trying to master the controls. My advice: use the second control scheme, that being touch controls.

Touch controls are much improved over previous SEGA titles. Buttons are responsive and acts can be played through with little to no problems. iPhone novices may take some getting used to playing with an artificial controller, but those accustomed to touch controls shouldn't have many (if any) issues. Of course, all touch controls suffer from having no dimension, so in the heat of things thumbs can be prone to tapping too far from the button leading to missed jumps and movements. I found that the best practice with any touch control is to simply hover your thumbs over the button even when not using them.

While touch controls are the preferred method, that doesn't mean that tilt controls don't come into play at certain moments of the game. Players will be using tilt controls the most in the special stages, which are a lot like the Sonic 1 special stage. The key difference is that rather than moving Sonic through the area, now the area itself is rotated via tilting left and right and Sonic moves through it as a ball. It's ironic that the version of Sonic 4 lowest on the totem pole probably has the most accurate version of the special stage. I've found that there is a second method of touch control which allows the special stages and mine cart to be played with swipe gestures rather than tilting. It works well enough, but I preferred tilting in those stages as it felt more intuitive and freed up the screen.

Tilt controls also come into play in the second act of Lost Labyrinth. This act is, of course, the much derided mine cart stage. While I thank the almighty Segata Sanshiro that SEGA wisely revamped the console version of the stage, I actually found the iPhone version to be fun. Quite clearly this act was made with motion controls in mind, something that the Wii and iPhone would have benefited from but the 360 and PS3 would have ruined (as evidenced by that popular leaked video). The mine cart is a speedy run through mine tunnels involving tilting and jumping. It isn't a true act, which is a shame, but then again it isn't broken. It was nice to see that SEGA didn't ignore the abilities of the iDevices and the differing acts do provide incentive to try the console versions of the game. To put it in internet lingo: Mine cart is not fail.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a highly enjoyable iPhone game. While the game isn't quite the perfect mobile version that fans were hoping for, it takes advantage of the device well and shows that things could only get better in Episode 2.

+ Classic gameplay rules apply
+ Touch controls beat out any of the rereleased Genesis games
+ One of the fastest and most professional looking iPhone platformers
+ Game runs smoothly even on the oldest iPod Touch and iPhone device
+ As many acts as Sonic 3 without lock-on

- Character models aren't as good as the console versions
- Tweaks and improvements done to console versions were not carried over to this version  
- Not as many acts as Sonic 1 and Sonic 2



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