Tuesday, December 31, 2013

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

Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode II

System: Xbox Live Arcade

Developer: Dimps/Sonic Team

Publisher: Sega

Player: Mark

Experience: Played Episode I, hated it

(Check after the jump for the full article)

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.  A few years later, Sonic Team and Dimps would work together again on the next iteration of a classic-focused Sonic adventure. 

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 the Hedgehog 4: Episode I 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.  However, before the game was to be officially released, footage of the game was leaked, showing that it contained poor physics and levels that were pointless in the scheme of classic Sonic titles.  It was subsequently delayed and released in October with changes to physics and the levels that were disliked.

Since then, Sonic released on the Wii and DS with Sonic Colors, and in 2011, Sonic Generations released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.  Both games were seen as improvements to the Sonic franchise on consoles, with Colors perfecting what Unleashed had established and Generations recalling the many worlds that Sonic had created in the previous 20 years.  As development for the next generation began, Sonic Team and Dimps worked together to bring about the next episode in Sonic the Hedgehog 4.  Unveiled late 2011, the game was eventually shown and released the following year, changing platforms to fit the improved engine and address fan feedback.

The lead developer behind Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II 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 Sonic 4 Saga continues in Episode II with the return of a beloved side kick and fan-favorite villains! Following the events of Episode I, Metal Sonic has returned to form a formidable alliance with Dr. Eggman! To face this new evil, Sonic will have to call upon an old friend to help him save the day! Now joined by Tails, race across four brand new Zones and take down fearsome new badniks with deadly combination moves in order to put an end to this dastardly duo’s plans!
- Official Description

"The feedback in Episode 1, the one we got the most feedback on was the physics of the character, so that is what we worked on. In Episode 2, we tried to make it quite similar to Mega Drive gameplay."

- Takashi Iizuka, Head of Sonic Team (Digital Spy)
Game Overview

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is a side-scrolling platforming game in which players control Sonic the Hedgehog along with his companion Miles "Tails" Prower 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.

As the second episode of Sonic 4, the game takes place immediately after Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I.  In this episode, Dr. Eggman has used the worlds from Episode I to revive his prized creation: Metal Sonic.  With Metal Sonic and a new Death Egg being built in space, it is up to Sonic and Tails to work together to end Eggman's newest plot for world domination.

Sonic 4: Episode II, like its predecessor, takes many elements from early Sonic the Hedgehog games, including particular stage elements and familiar enemies.  Special Stages are similar to Sonic 2, although players still need to have 50 rings by the end of the act and enter a giant ring at the end point, similar to Sonic 1.  In Special Stages, Sonic and Tails run along halfpipes and must collect enough rings by the end of each section in order to obtain the Chaos Emerald at the end.  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 and Tails can become Super by double jumping with over 50 rings.

The cooperative element seen with Sonic and Tails has become a larger gameplay mechanic in Episode II.  By pressing a particular button, Sonic and Tails work together on Combo Abilities to traverse particular obstacles.  Tails' flight ability has been turned into one of these Combo Abilities, and other abilities such as a Rolling Attack and Underwater Assist are added to the roster.  These attacks are useful at first to evade obstacles, but they become increasingly necessary to pass through enemies and defeat bosses.

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.

Players with both Episode I and II will unlock a special section called Episode Metal, in which players control Metal Sonic through four levels, each reminiscent to a Zone in Episode I.  This helps explain how Metal Sonic gained its new powers and received Tails' rocket, as well.


Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II was met with a more positive reception compared to its predecessor.  In interviews, Producer Iizuka stated that there was no plan for a third episode in the series.  Both episodes have since released onto Ouya as of mid-2013 along with other Android-released Sonic titles.

Sonic's major console 2012 release was Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, developed by Sumo Digital.  As for the next major mainline release, in 2013 Sonic Team worked to release a Wii U and 3DS exclusive adventure title, Sonic Lost World, which focused on a more non-traditional level design combined with elements developed Sonic Colors.  A new cartoon show is currently in development for release late-2014, and a third Nintendo-assisted Sonic game is expected to be revealed and released in 2014 as well (the second was Mario and Sonic at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, released November 2013).

After Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Dimps has worked on a handful of other projects for multiple publishers.  It released Street Fighter X Tekken with Capcom and is likely helping in developing Ultra Street Fighter IV.  For Namco Bandai, Dimps has developed another fighter, Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers, which came out in 2013, and the company is also developing Tamagotchi games for Japan on 3DS.   

Game Play

So now we end our 2013 with a final look at Mark having a scarred childhood thanks in part from Sonic.  This was filmed in late 2012 when Sonic was hitting his 21st birthday.  Either way, we wanted to show Mark that Sonic could improve, and even so, he was not exactly looking forward to playing yet another Episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4.

In our playthrough, we go to every stage and defeat Dr. Eggman.  In meantime, we venture through two Special Stages, but unlike Episode I, we do not demonstrate Super Sonic and Tails.  This episode has been split into five parts, one for each Zone in the game.


Episode II was a long one.  Even though it was still roughly the same length as Episode I, the game seemed to drag as it progressed, particularly with the boss fights, as Mark agreed.  The boss fights in the last game were not nearly as long, but in this game, the fights could last as short as three minutes or (as usually was the case) upward of six or more.  This made certain areas, particularly Sky Fortress Zone, especially long.

The design of the stages felt much more tuned than what they were Episode I.  The game did not have too many "gotcha" moments, although the bosses had a few insta-kill moves which were a bummer.  The graphics were greatly improved, and the music was decent for the most part (save one specific level as we discussed).  The Combo Attacks were a touch overused, and it broke up the flow of gameplay from time to time.  Even so, things seemed to flow much better and feel more polished than anything Episode I had to offer.

Regardless, Mark was not exactly impressed.  There were still issues with the physics on occasion, and the bosses, as neat as they were, dragged the experience quite heavily.  Sky Fortress Zone Act 1 is a trudge of a level to go through, and its boss is even less likable.  The game also appears to end with minimal fanfare; perhaps it was to leave open potential for a third episode although even so, it lacked impact.

Either way, it was a great improvement to Episode I, and other than the boss lengths, the game felt much smoother and closer to the older games.  Maybe Episode III will become a top-tier Sonic game at this rate!

3RM Says: RFF!  ...so a lot of things...could go wrong...
...don't look at me like that! Get me a stretcher!

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