Sonic is a game about running really fast. Mostly to the right.
As a child of the NES and Genesis era, it is rather odd that I have never really played a Sonic title before. Sure, I had watched friends push the hedgehog to run really fast to the right a few times, but the game never really held my interest very long. The game had a kind of bland, but colorful sameness about it that really held no allure and caused no particular desire in me to beg for a turn.
The same was not true of my exposure to Super Mario Bros.. In addition to plunking scads of quarters from a hard earned allowance into many an arcade console, I literally spent hours just watching over shoulders as others played the game at my local grocery store. Despite its simple graphical style, the world occupied by Mario was a fairly unique one at the time. The arrangement of simple, blocky pixels resulted in a rather bizarre but alluring kingdom of mushrooms and flying turtles. Seeing new levels, but even just seeing new segments of levels, was a treat as each segment often contained some weird new landscape or seascape or skyscape.
For the most part, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 has the same effect on me that viewing it on some other kid’s television had before. It all mostly looks the same. Sure, there are (basically) four unique worlds here (six, if you count a final boss “world” containing a single level and the world that contains seven unlockable secret levels), each with their own theme (one with a grasslands vibe, one with a casino theme, one that’s kind of archaeological looking, and finally a world of machines and other mechanisms). However, as Sonic speeds through these spaces, they all become bland blurs of color with repeated physical features and no really interesting spots that draw the attention.
All of which is ironic to me, given that playing Sonic often puts one in a role that is more that of the voyeur than the player. IF so, It seems like there really should be something interesting to look at here, but I really didn’t see anything all that visually appealing. In the first two worlds in Episode 1 of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (worlds comprised of four levels a piece), this seems especially true. These worlds lack much challenge as they can largely be overcome by simply pressing the control stick to the right and watching and waiting for Sonic to get finished up. Sure, there is the occasional bad guy that needs to be hopped over or destroyed with a weird mid-air roll, but there is little challenge in these early stages, making them seem less game-like and more like watching a rather dull cartoon. These levels feel barely interactive to a player weened on a platformer like Mario, in which mastering Mario’s cool float mechanic and an easily initiated speed run (something that Sonic the speedster kind of ironically lacks, as he has to get a good running start to really start pouring on the speed or perform a kind of awkward duck-and-release move to get rolling) are necessary to overcome the challenges of any given level in Super Mario Bros.
This lack of difficulty and sense of spending time as a watcher, rather than as an actor, in Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is far less acute in the other two main worlds. I had more fun—largely, I think because there was considerably more challenge—in these worlds, as Sonic needs to do a lot more jumping, minor puzzle solving, and generally actually changing directions at times in order to complete these more difficult levels. I still didn’t love these levels, due in part to the aforementioned awkwardness of initiating speedy escapes that seem to be a normative control issue in the games and because, well, Sonic really doesn’t jump all that well. Nevertheless, once some difficulty was introduced, I was reminded that the game was, in fact, a game. I died a fair amount, but it was in service of figuring out ways of navigating some dangerous spots, which led to some more spirited and desperate platforming while being chased by walls fast closing in from the left and the like.
Children of the Genesis proper will likely disagree, and I have probably tread on some childhood sacred cows by being critical of the little (though he is actually featured here as somewhat tall and gangly), blue hedgehog, but unlike Mario (whose millenial, but still retro turn in New Super Mario Bros. was one of the best games of last year), Sonic’s gameplay doesn’t seem to have held up quite as well. Maybe it never did, though, and I was right to take a pass on “next up” so long ago.