At some point, you need to stop trying to please the fans. You have to dare to do something different or just abandon the character as a relic of nostalgia. The fans are begging for more of a game that is now 21 years old. The fans are begging for more of a game from the era when the number of bits your system could handle — not to mention the number of megabits in your cartridge — mattered.
The problem with Sonic the Hedgehog as a franchise is that it’s a franchise that was built on technology. Players didn’t grab onto the Sonic games because Sonic was an engaging character or because the game’s levels were extremely well designed (even if, in many cases, they were). Players gravitated to the Sonic games because of BLAST PROCESSING. The entire point was that Sonic the Hedgehog offered the chance at action that was faster than any other platformer could hope to approach; past that speed, Sonic offered relatively ordinary platforming action. At their best — and with practice — the Sonic games could absolutely thrill with the speed that they offered. At their worst, they were slow and floaty slogs through some of the worst platforming tropes.
This is the problem with nostalgia for the Sonic games: the tech doesn’t matter any more. People don’t care if the game is on a Wii, or a PS3, or an Xbox 360, or an iPhone, or whatever. They care about the quality of the games, and once you get past the speed, the old Sonic games leave a little to be desired.
Evaluating Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was almost too easy — the controls felt nothing like the old games, and therefore, there was a hard criticism that could be leveled at it that explained the lack of fun that a player felt while playing it, even though it looked and sounded just like an HD version of the Sonic games that we remember from the 16-bit era. It seemed like a good effort that just needed a little tweaking to make it the Sonic experience we remember.
Episode II gets it right. In terms of pure nostalgia, I can’t think of an original game (save perhaps Mega Man 9 and 10) that replicates the feel of the games that it’s modeled after better than this one does. In the process, unfortunately, it points out perhaps more clearly than any attempted objective appraisal of the games themselves just how limited those 16-bit games were.
The interesting thing here is that the levels of Episode II might actually be better Sonic levels than anything the original games ever offered. The effortless sense of speed in these levels is basically unprecedented — in general, simply holding down the “right” button on the directional pad will offer crazy little chains of springboards, loops, launchers and hills, while the secret to keeping that speed going is usually a simple, well placed jump or a well timed combo move made possible by the presence of Tails. Some of the speedy moments are truly inspired, particularly in the late-going, where an aerial setting offers a true sense of danger to go with the speed. The homing attack that the Sonic 4 games inherited from the Sonic Adventure series is put to good use in these situations, offering an easy way out of some tight spots. The speed, when it happens, is palpable and very well done.
The problem is, if the game was all speed, it wouldn’t be a platformer anymore. It would be a racing game. As such, there are boss fights, there are exploratory sequences, and there are precision jumps on frustrating platforms to be conquered. Many of these simply seem like stopgaps, obligatory bits in between the primary draws that are the speed sequences, and some of them slow down play to a crawl. Every encounter with Metal Sonic feels like a slog, a constant sequence of repeated steps that requires serious precision but rarely thrills. Some of the bosses are inspired — the first boss, a plant-inspired thing, actually offers a fun fight, while Robotnik’s final form feels inspired as much by Ikaruga as this game’s 16-bit predecessors — but mostly, boss fights are a reason to stand still. In fact, they are about standing still over and over again because there are no checkpoints in the boss fights. Despite the fact that all of the bosses get more difficult over time and take three to four minutes to beat, your progress is never saved in any way, which means that to beat most of them you’ll do two and a half (or so) minutes of easy stuff before you get to the part that keeps killing you. Every time. It does get frustrating.
Where this version of Sonic 4 actually excels, you see, is in the portion that truly feels like an update rather than a simulation: the bonus levels. Clearly modeled after Sonic 2‘s primitive but (for the time) innovative and exciting half-pipe bonus stages, these levels are pure racing fun. Collect enough rings, you get to keep going; the only way to succeed, though, is to memorize the layout of the maps and anticipate where the rings — not to mention the bombs and electrical charges that will cause you to lose those precious rings — will be. There’s plenty of speed, the camera keeps things disorienting, and just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on them, they throw another trick (a springboard, a corkscrew) at you. These levels are pure fun and all too short, and it’s honestly too bad that they can only be reached by achieving the often frustrating goal of having 50 rings stocked up by the end of a level. Once you beat them, you can play them whenever you want, and if you like Sonic at all, you will actually want to.
Still, note that even this success is qualified by the idea that it’s initially unavailable and somewhat intimidating — at least from the outset. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II feels like exactly the Sonic we asked for. Unfortunately, it seems that perhaps we didn’t exactly realize, we didn’t exactly remember what it is that we were asking for. It is retro Sonic done perfectly, except that retro Sonic wasn’t exactly a perfect game to begin with.