Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Third Rate Game Play: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode 1

System: WiiWare

Developer: Dimps

Publisher: Sega

Player: Mark

Experience: Grew up playing Sonic games


To many, Sonic was seen as the best platforming character of all time, even out-performing his plumber rival at his prime, but by 2010, those older fans felt that the blue hedgehog had long since passed his better days.  Sonic had shifted to a more 3D platforming experience, while fans from the series' start preferred a 2D gameplay experience.  In order to stir up interest from their older fans, Sega and Dimps worked together to bring out a new retro-styled Sonic game that would put new and old together after years of fan requests.  How it performed is a different story. 

In 1991, Sega created a new franchise character to counteract Nintendo’s Mario in the upcoming gaming generation. Sonic the Hedgehog pushed the graphical and musical properties of the Genesis, and it became a national success. Sonic was ultimately the creation of three developers: Yuji Naka was the programmer, Naoto Ohshima was the designer, and Hirokazu Yasuhara was the game planner and director. Together, they brought the blue hedgehog to stardom.  With Sonic's release, Sega was able to more effectively fight Nintendo in the western markets, bringing the rivalry to its peak.

Following the original’s release, Yuji Naka and some members of Sonic Team left to work with Sega Technical Institute in America. From there, Naka helped produce what would become Sonic the Hedgehog 2, introducing Tails “Miles” Prower and multiplayer modes to the series. Meanwhile the Japanese Sonic Team, led by Ohshima, developed what became Sonic CD, a special Sonic title involving time travel and the introduction of Amy Rose and Metal Sonic. Shortly thereafter, STI developed the highly-acclaimed Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles some six months apart; in reality, both games were meant to be released as one adventure but were split into two and connected via a unique lock-on cartridge. As Sega began to move onward with its newest console, Sonic was at his peak of performance.  Other than handheld outings, these would be the last major 2D Sonic titles (Knuckles Chaotix and Sonic Crackers excluded).

However, things would not work in Sonic’s favor for some years later. When the Sega Saturn began full development, Yuji Naka returned to the helm of Sonic Team to produce NiGHTS into Dreams, while Sega Technical Institute attempted to bring out a unique 3D Sonic adventure: Sonic X-treme. The game was meant to use larger, 3D levels with a unique fish-eye lens to provide faster speed and better views around Sonic. However, communication issues between American and Japanese Sonic developers grew to their worst, and eventually the small team began to collapse under pressure to release on time. The unfinished game was eventually cancelled, and STI was closed. Without its main team, Sega was left with Traveler’s TalesSonic R and Sonic 3D Blast as the only major Sonic titles on the Saturn.

Sega pushed for its next console, the Sega Dreamcast, after the Saturn began to fumble against the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, especially in the US. In order to launch its new system, the Sega Dreamcast, newly-formed Sonic Team USA was given the task to create a game to push the system as far as they could with the familiar blue hedgehog: Sonic Adventure. Sonic Adventure brought a deep, multi-character plot into the newly-3D Sonic platforming aesthetic. Each of the game’s six main characters were playable, each with their own unique gameplay goals and interwoven plotlines. Sonic Adventure was highly-praised and brought a large amount of focus on the Dreamcast upon its launch. However, the hype for the Sony Playstation 2 would eventually kill the sales of the system, and in late 2001, Sega announced it would drop console development and become a full third-party publisher. The sequel Sonic Adventure 2 would be the last Sega title on the Dreamcast, and its port to the Nintendo GameCube would be the first major Sonic title on a non-Sega console.

During the next few years, Sonic Team USA lead the development of the Sonic franchise on consoles, and Sega worked on porting Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut and producing both Sonic Mega Collection (and Plus for PS2 and Xbox) and Sonic Gems Collection. In 2004, Sonic Team USA brought out Sonic Heroes, which put trios of characters together through the adventure, playing as each group simultaneously. Later, Sonic Team USA would emerge once again to bring out Shadow the Hedgehog, a game dedicated to Shadow’s mysterious history (and arming him with weapons and a darker storyline). While it was successful, many older Sonic fans showed great disdain for this title, calling it the end of Sonic. Meanwhile, Sonic Team, NOW Production and United Game Artists in Japan focused on Sonic Riders, an air-board racing game.

As Sonic entered the newest generation, Sega and Sonic Team attempted to bring about a huge, epic project out of the franchise, going so far as the name his latest title simply Sonic the Hedgehog (2006).  However, this game was released much earlier than it should have, riddled with bugs and missing many elements that were discussed in some fashion during its development.  It was universally panned, and it was outsold by a smaller-budget Wii game, Sonic and the Secret Rings.  While other major Sonic titles were being made, Sonic Team began to look into how to cater what was now two major Sonic fanbases - the fanbase built on the older, 2D Sonic titles and the fanbase built by the Sonic Adventure games.  This is what led to Project Needlemouse.

Project Needlemouse was unveiled in September 2009 as a special project from within Sega, and through February, the game was continually teased until, in February 2010, Sonic 4 was officially announced as an episodic downloadable adventure.  The game was said to be a true callback to the Sonic series of old, acting as a true sequel to Sonic and Knuckles.  It would take influence from the older Sonic titles, and the game would act as a major return to form for fans.  Or so they said.

Shortly after the game's unveiling, it was unveiled that Sonic 4 was playable on an online developer platform on Xbox 360 called PartnerNet.  While minute details were released day-by-day via Sega's website, a number of leakers released gameplay footage of the whole game, lamenting the its poor quality physics.  In particular, the game contained two specific acts that were designed for a mobile version of the game, replacing motion controls with L/R controls for non-motion controllers.  These stages, Act 2 of Casino Street and Lost Labyrinth, were simple and shoe-horned on consoles, hinting that Sonic 4's lead platform was mobile.

After a large outcry from fans, Sega released a statement that Sonic 4: Episode I would be delayed, citing feedback regarding physics and level design.  This delayed the game's supposed Summer release to October, when it finally released on every platform planned.  The mobile version retained the older stages, but new stages were replaced in the console editions alongside the mechanic tweaks as highlighted by Sega.

The lead developer behind Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is Dimps, a developer whose has worked on many Sonic titles in the past.  The Osaka-based company was founded in 2000, and the company began development with the Sonic Advance series on GameBoy Advance and N-Gage.  Outside of other Sonic handheld games, Dimps helped Bandai on the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series and Capcom on the Street Fighter IV series of games, including 2010's Super Street Fighter IV

Official Word
The sequel fans have waited 16 years for is finally here - Sonic The Hedgehog™ 4 Episode I!
Featuring enhanced gameplay elements, including the classic Sonic Spin Dash, and the versatile Homing Attack, Sonic 4 picks up right where Sonic and Knuckles™ left off.
-Official Description
I think the core of what made Sonic great back in 1991 still applies today: solid 2D gameplay. Sonic games have definitely introduced us to new elements over the years, but for the 2D games, Speed and Platforming are at the core of everything. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 really delivers on these concepts, and whether you’re a long-time Genesis fan or a newcomer, you’re bound to enjoy the gameplay experience.
-Ken Balough, Digital Brand Manager, Sega (NintendoLife)
Game Overview

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I is a side-scrolling platforming game in which players control Sonic the Hedgehog and traverse across each act to either a sign bearing Eggman's face or a capsule containing flickies and other animal captives.  As in most games in Sonic's franchise, a collision against an enemy or attack is fatal unless he is carrying at least one ring.  If he has a ring in possession, getting hit causes the ring(s) in possession to be thrown in many directions, leaving him potentially vulnerable for a fatal attack.

The game takes place immediately following Sonic and Knuckles.  After defeating Dr. Eggman, Sonic travels in new worlds, while the Dr. enhances his multiple older machines to focus on ending Sonic once and for all.  The game contains none of Sonic's friends, including Tails and Knuckles, both of whom appeared in Sonic and Knuckles.  As an episodic game, the true ending shows a hint for the next episode provided that the player has acquired every Chaos Emerald in the adventure.

Sonic 4: Episode I takes many elements from the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games, including the usage of particular bosses from those games and remixing them to fit the story.  Going into Special Stages fits the methodology of Sonic 1, in which Sonic must have 50 rings by the end of the act and enter a giant ring at the end point.  In Special Stages, Sonic must venture through psychedelic mazes and reach each Chaos Emerald one by one.  In Sonic 4, once a Chaos Emerald has been acquired in a specific act, that act cannot be used to access a Special Stage again.  Once every Chaos Emerald has been found, Sonic can become Super Sonic by double jumping with over 50 rings.

Each stage has leaderboards for fastest time and highest scores, allowing people to compete among the best Sonic players in the world.  On the leaderboards, the game shows whether or not the players used Super Sonic, leveling the playing field between those who rush through the stage impervious versus those who go through the traditional way.


Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was met with plenty of controversy when it first leaked, and while the negativity was reduced greatly by the delay and its related improvements since, the game was still met with mixed reaction.  Some called the game a fun and exciting return to form, while others were less than enthusiastic over the game's lack of momentum-based gameplay, something that had been promised on its unveiling.  After the game's release on PS3, Xbox 360, WiiWare, and iPhone, the game was later released on Android devices and, most recently, on Ouya.

After the release of Episode I, Dimps and Sonic Team went forth to develop its sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II.  The game would improve the graphics engine, in turn removing WiiWare support, and motion controls were removed from the game from the get-go.  Whereas Episode I took elements from Sonic 1 and 2, Episode II took parts of Sonic CD, 2 and 3 in its level design.  Tails returned in this iteration, as did the infamous Metal Sonic.  As a special addition, those who owned both Episodes I and II on the same platform would also receive Episode Metal, in which players control Metal Sonic through four stages, each representing one Zone of Episode I.  Episode II released in 2012, and there has been no discussion or hint of an Episode III coming in the future.

Meanwhile, Sonic began to hit a stride of solid titles in the main line of games.  This began with 2010's Sonic Colors, released to Wii and Nintendo DS (Dimps-developed) to much praise.  To celebrate Sonic's 20th anniversary, Sonic Team developed Sonic Generations for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, and Dimps developed the 3DS version shortly after completing Sonic Colors for the DS.  Most recently, Sonic Team and Dimps worked together to produce the Wii U and 3DS exclusive title Sonic Lost World which released Fall 2013.

Game Play

Well, this episode should have gotten online much earlier, but we wanted it to be released at the same time or proximity to Episode II, which came out a couple years later.  This has unfortunately made us sit on this episode for some time, and as such, we are now releasing it as well as Episode II to round out the year.

In this full playthrough, Mark is given very little knowledge on what the game is like, although we do provide hints on certain elements that he would have likely noticed.  The rest is all on him, though, and we find out quickly how he can handle himself in classic Sonic scenarios.

We go through the entire game linearly, playing through Special Stages when we can, and after the game is completed, we take a brief look at how Super Sonic plays in a completed game save.


To quote Mark: "They ruined my childhood."  I do admit that Mark was walking into the game with an expectation that could never be met, as I'm sure many others did, but the game still disappointed in a multitude of ways.  The engine lacked momentum, instead relying on quick fixes to an already dysfunctional gameplay engine.  The music ranged from solid to much-less-than-solid, and graphically the game looked plain if slightly nostalgic.

The secret stages were less than optimal for control, as were a number of other elements of the game.  That only made Mark more aggravated.  There are moments of the level design that pop up in rare positive form, but for every solid area of the game, there is another that angers well beyond the norm of the series.  The final boss rush that is E.G.G. Station was expected, but the final boss was particularly less than entertaining.

Overall, the game was perhaps not AS bad as Mark said.  However, the game was certainly disappointing on the lineup of classic Sonic titles, and its release made Sega look worse off for it.  Meanwhile, as you will find, Episode II would prove to be an improvement, but the question is, by how much?

3RM Says: All I have to do is run through this loop-de-loop really fast!
What could possibly go wrong?

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