[Games] Review: Sonic 4 Episode 1

28. That’s the number of games in which Sonikku za Hejjihoggu, as he’s known in his native Japan, has appeared since his Mega Drive debut in 1991. Not bad for a blue cartoon version of a creature that’s almost completely unknown in North America.

There’s always been a degree of nose-thumbing directed at Sonic from the self-declared videogame cognoscenti. His exploits are often compared unfavourably to those of Mario. It’s certainly true that the series went through a long period in the wilderness after the transition to 3D, but – played today – Sonic Team’s original 16-bit platformers have arguably aged better than those featuring Nintendo’s feisty plumber.

It’s reassuring to see, then, that in the last few months, Sonic has had something of a return to form. We’ve been treated to the release of the excellent Sonic Colours on the Wii – and to this, the first true Sonic sequel since 1994.

Sonic 4 Episode 1 (further instalments will be released in due course) marks a return to side-on 2D platforming. The game looks like a high def makeover of the original title. The bright greens, blues and yellows of the game’s first zone – Splash Hill – will be familiar to anyone with even the briefest acquaintance with the blue hedgehog’s first outing. In fact the whole game plays like a remixed greatest hits compilation. There are familiar settings and enemies – there’s even a pinball-based homage to Sonic Spinball and the Casino-themed Sonic 1 level that inspired it.

Splash Hill zone - look familiar?

Splash Hill zone - look familiar?

Whether or not this familiarity will come as a disappointment to you depends largely on your disposition. If you’re hoping for genuine innovation and bold new platforming action you’re likely to be left cold. If you’re just after a nostalgic blast of high-speed ring collecting with a reassuringly recognisable feel you’ll be delighted.

Oddly, that’s also a distinction that seems to have a lot to do with the platform on which the game is played. On PSN, Xbox Live and WiiWare it seems somewhat lightweight. The game is relatively short, and allow levels to be tackled in any order – robbing the player of a sense of progression. For the price (1200 MS points on Xbox live – more than a tenner) it doesn’t seem like quite enough. On the iPhone though – its a different story.

Originally priced at £5.99 (and now available for less), the game makes perfect sense. The freeform level selection is perfect for quick blasts on the bus – and the classic one button controls don’t overly tax the dexterity of touch-based players. In fact, Sonic 4 copes better than many arcade titles with the translation to touch control. There’s the standard analog style joypad on the left, with a single jump/attack button on the right.

The game uses a refined form of the jump+spin system seen in Sonic and Knuckles; the button can be pressed again while in mid air to send Sonic flying towards enemies or jump-pads, both of which are helpfully highlighted on screen with a big red target. t helps keep the action frantic, and sets up some chain-jumping sections that can be as satisfying to defeat as they are initially frustrating.

The only slight problem I have with the control scheme is the seeming age it takes Sonic to get up to speed. Normally it’s not a major issue, but in a few areas where precision movements are required to bypass falling boulders or thrusting spikes Sonic’s unwillingness to accelerate can catch players off-guard.

On Apple’s devices then, Sonic 4 makes perfect sense. It’s pretty, fun, nostalgic and pleasingly controllable – qualities that apply to worryingly few arcade platforming titles in the App Store these days. On the home consoles though – you might be better saving your money for something else.

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