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Sonic 4 Part 1 360 takes Sonic back to 2D glory, but returning to the original gameplay style proves that sometimes the past is sometimes best left behind.
Some sixteen years since Sonic the Hedgehog 3 hit the Megadrive, Sega has finally released the next canonical game in the series. Coming from Sega's in house team the new downloadable title is a return to the 2D gameplay of the original. Managing to capture much of the feel of those games, Sonic 4 could well have be seen as a success, but tastes have evolved since 1994.
Sonic was once the proud rival of Mario. It's a fact I'm clearly reminded of as I look out of the cafe window - staring back at me across the busy Japanese street sits Sega World and its fifteen-foot recreation of a smiling Sonic. It's a smile that's somewhat undeserved considering his recent run of subpar 3D excursions. In the 16-bit days, when he was content to limit his adventures to 2D, at least his games were worthy of the praise heaped on them.
Knowing the recent series failings I should have tempered my enthusiasm. If I had managed to calm my childlike excitement I may have been better prepared to deal with the reality of Sonic 4. In truth the original games are outdated. Similar games of the era that are still successful have had to evolve, change direction or shamelessly play on nostalgia with direct remakes. Sega's plan however was to make a new Sonic almost identical to the old titles but different enough to feel unfamiliar. The upshot of this is an experience that both struggles to please past fans and seems archaic to newcomers.
These were nerve-racking moments for me as I played new areas, building up speed I would find myself constantly on edge, poised to react to an upcoming obstacle or enemy.
Its within Sonic's core DNA that it fails as a modern game. They were always at their best when the eponymous hedgehog was blazing through levels at an eye-watering pace and I was being forced to react to enemies while memorising complex layouts. But the gaming environment has changed, and this makes it hard for Sega to capitalize on what used to make Sonic great.
While the new rendered graphical style does a fantastic job of recreating familiar opponents and areas, it forms a huge barrier to the reactive elements of the game. Sprites, so crisp and distinct in the original game have been replaced by glossy polygons, which to my old eyes look remarkably similar to the rounded polygons of the backgrounds.
Then there are the impossible drops and obstacles obscured from view that made the old Sonic games such knife edge experiences. These were nerve-racking moments when playing new areas - building up speed I would find myself constantly on edge, poised to react to an upcoming obstacle or enemy. But the speeds involved in Sonic 4, and the busyness of the environments, make any hopes to dodge these pitfalls evaporate, my speed all too quickly snuffed out by something almost unavoidable.
These days I don't constantly replay sections of games that I didn't enjoy the first time.
It's possible that the problems I see in Sonic 4 were equally present in the earlier games. Going back now the levels that stand out in my memory are the ones at the beginning of the games, the levels I was forced to play repeatedly every time I started the game. I knew every obstacle, where to jump and where to duck to keep the speed at maximum. If I were to experience these levels fresh again maybe I would hold the same complaints I do now for Sonic 4, but that wouldn't make my issues any less valid.
Modern games don't force players to restart the game every time they play, indeed Sonic 4 doesn't and if it did I am sure I would complain about it. But this means I'm never going to build the same muscle memory as I did in the original. I will play each level precisely once; because these days I don't constantly replay sections of games that I didn't enjoy the first time.
Sonic 4 might have been a fantastic Sonic game, but the series is outdated and irrelevant in today's game market, best left in that rose tinted corner of my memories. Looking up from my cafe table once more the irony of seeing this fifteen-foot icon is irrelevant is not lost, but as strangely charismatic as the spiny mammal may be, his games have lost their charm and the small changes made have only served to highlight this fact.
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