Let me make it clear, I have no direct nostalgia for old Sonic games. I didn’t have a Sega Genesis growing up and was therefore more partial to Mario and his mushroom chomping tendencies. Given that, I was honestly surprised then to find myself digging the silly little blue guy in Sonic 4.

I think what I love the most about it is the simple gameplay. How many times recently have you wanted to accomplish something in a game but you couldn’t remember if that action was relegated to Right-Left Upper Bumper or pushing the Right Analog Stick three times before swinging the Left Stick Up and then Down, all while hopping on one foot? I exaggerate, and I don’t even have Kinect yet, but there’s something to be said for a game that is just easy to control. In Sonic 4, you jump by pressing A or B. You can perform a homing jump on anything with a red target on it while you’re in the air by also pressing A or B. That’s pretty much it.

Collecting rings is still what Sonic all about. If you hit an enemy or some spikes that would hurt you, you drop all of your rings. If you don’t have any rings when you get hit, you lose a life and have to start back at a checkpoint. The simple ring mechanic drives you to always collect more rings as you progress through the level.

But that simplicity doesn’t mean that the game feels threadbare. There is a surprising amount of complexity and difficulty that can be derived from such simple controls. And it’s all about the level design by Dimps and the Sonic Team. Sure, many of the themes and concepts from the first few games are present, especially in the loops and spirals of the early levels. There were casino-themed levels in Sonic 2 and 3 but the Casino Street Zone in this one doesn’t feel derivative. It’s just fun bouncing Sonic around like he was pinball, hitting all of the cards to net you extra lives. The graphics utilize the foreground well so that you don’t feel like you’re just playing in a flat 2D world.

My favorite levels were the ones in which there is a genuine need for Sonic to go fast or he will die. Whether it’s a huge machine chewing away at the robot factory, or an entire level played underwater, the looming danger pushes the action forward and keeps you on your toes. Speed has always been Sonic’s strength and it’s great that lead designer Hirokazu Yasuhara understood that.

One particular level deserves mentioning: the World of Darkness level in which Sonic holds a torch and can only see as far as that tiny flame illuminates. Sonic can ignite the sconces on the walls not by pressing an extra button or shooting flames, but by simply running by them. This mechanic is used throughout the whole level to unlock power-ups and extra rings, or to solve puzzles. I just thought that it was such a great and simple way to design a challenging, original level without complicating the controls or messing with the core gameplay.

Speaking of power-ups, there are a bunch available but they are not must-haves in order to get past the level. You can grab a ten-ring box, or an extra life, and those always help. The green shield lets you take one source of damage without dumping your rings, and the speed boost definitely helps when you need to outrun something like the impending doom mentioned above. In general, I liked that the power-ups were extra benefits and it wasn’t necessary to figure out how to collect them all in order to get through the level.

The boss battles could have gotten a little more love. First off, I have no idea what Dr. Eggman (called by his Japanese name instead of the Americanized Dr. Robotnik from the early games) is doing. The story of most platformers isn’t really the focus but I don’t really know what nefarious scheme I’m trying to thwart. The battles themselves weren’t crazy hard or inventive. You jump on him a few times and he’s toast. That’s it. The only deviation is after the Mad Gear Zone, where the boss battle is a chase scene with Dr. Eggman throwing random things to stop you from, you guessed it, jumping on him. The final showdown in the E.G.G. Space Station is one long extended boss battle, but it just rehashes all of the previous battles before you fight a giant robot. Fighting the robot takes a bit of trial and error to find the right strategy, but it wasn’t satisfying enough to offset the easy retreads of the other boss battles.

Purists and difficulty snobs might have problems with the ease of Sonic 4. If you have a modicum of videogame skill, it won’t be very hard for you to get past the levels and defeat Dr. Eggman. But the game does reward you for skillful replays and supports an online leaderboard where you can compare your best scores with gamers the world over, or, more importantly, your friends list. Each level, you can also unlock secret stages if you get to the end with over 50 rings. These little mini-levels were clearly designed for the accelerometer of the iPhone but they offer a small reward of some different gameplay if you are Sonically skilled.

Bottom Line: Sonic 4 is a throwback to the old school days when well-made platformers were the best-selling and best-designed genre in games. It works now though because of its simple design, even though the boss battles were a bit unimaginative.

Recommendation: The simple mechanics and controls warrant the downloadable price tag. Buy it if you want to go back in time for a few hours.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Dimps/Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: October 17th, 2010
Platform: PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, iOS
Available from: Xbox Live, iOS

Dr. Eggman just sounds like a psychedelic Beatles song.

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