Emerald Hill Zone art by Ricky Earl
Saturday, 18th December 2010, 7:17pm (GMT), 6 Comments
Ricky's back! And ploughing on with artwork for Sonic 2, kicking off with a delightfully bright and cheerful rendition of Emerald Hill Zone. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Emerald Hill Zone by Ricky Earl

For newcomers, Ricky Earl is Zone: 0's own personal artist, providing depictions of each level that are then added to the relevant level page. Check out more on his blog.

As for me? Sadly I've been less productive on Zone: 0 matters. However, I have started Launch Base Zone and I really hope I can grab at least a couple of days over Christmas to further this progress. Act 1 is almost completely mapped, and I can confirm two versions of each act map for this level: original version and S3&K version. The amount of differences would make combining them into a single map very time consuming for me, and confusing for you, so I thought that the better option.
Comments   6 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by Andrew on Monday, 20th December 2010, 5:24am
Good to see that Ricky's starting Sonic 2!!!
I am glad that all this artwork is finally going ahead. I have waited a long time for this artwork
#2. Comment posted by MoDaD on Friday, 24th December 2010, 10:05am
That's a great addition. The artwork really sets the tone for the first zone in Sonic 2, especially by highlighting Tails' debut.
#3. Comment posted by Doreen on Saturday, 25th December 2010, 9:40pm
It's alright! I've waited this long for the rest of the Sonic 3 recap. What's a few more months? Lol! Nice artwork, btw!
#4. Comment posted by Aleronpower on Tuesday, 25th January 2011, 11:16pm
I will pay close attention, because it intrigues me launch base
#5. Comment posted by sonicegg09 on Friday, 7th September 2012, 2:26pm
cool art you idiots!
#6. Comment posted by secret on Friday, 7th September 2012, 2:27pm
sonicegg09 you idiot
What Sonic Colours means to me
Monday, 22nd November 2010, 10:06pm (GMT), 3 Comments
So, naturally, I've had over a week with Sonic Colours, and while I do like it rather a lot actually, I'm finding such time just isn't long enough to work out how I really feel about it, because I'm still not quite sure whether it'll be a game I'll play quite a lot over the following year or two, as I did with Sonic Unleashed and most of the other major titles of the last decade, or like its - admittedly inferior - Wii brethren, will it be something that spends most of its time on the shelf? As such this may be less a review, more just a collection of thoughts and personal reflection about the game, so feel free to tune out on this one. Particularly if you don't care :P

"Would Sonic the Hedgehog please report to the security office?.. We've found your..err.. your keys. Yes, that's it, we've found your keys! No need to be ready for a trap, since we only want to return your keys!"

As a first playthrough, Sonic Colours makes a good impression for the seasoned Sonic fan. The story, while simple, is illustrated with excellent scripts and voice acting, the quality of which surpasses everything before it by miles, frankly. Roger Craig Smith was an odd choice initially, but by the end I was convinced he'd brought new life to Sonic's previously rather predictable character. Great stuff. The humour in the game is frequently laugh-out-loud enjoyable too, particularly of note are Eggman's various loud speaker announcements throughout the levels. A genius idea. Finally a script that you wouldn't feel ashamed of if someone happened to walk in the room and witness any of it. For many, the learning curve on the controls, particularly if like me you're more accustomed to playing 3D Sonic on a traditional style pad and not the Wii remote and nun-chuk, is quite steep however. There's three different moves you can perform after jumping now, each assigned to an easily-confused button, plus a multitude of other moves before you even get to the new Wisp features. It all adds up to an amount that I hope wouldn't put off the less patient. At first I think my eagerness to throw around the new double jump (double A button) as a standard move caused a number of unnecessary deaths before I finally cottoned on to the fact that you often don't need it for many platforms, and using it actually tweaks your momentum in slightly unpredictable ways.

For the most part, this game follows the lead of the daytime levels of the high end version of Sonic Unleashed (which, of course, I love), with a slightly stronger slant to the 2D aspect over the 3D one, which, control-wise, leads to a slightly more refined experience that places a limit on those more slippery, slidy moments. Thank God, it's done what Wii Sonic games sadly hadn't done previously and avoided the temptation to just add annoying collect-x-rings, defeat-x-enemies, or don't-break-pots missions, which, I've found, are good for approximately zero replayability. They just aren't that fun and always feel very cheap, especially when you're forced to play them as part of the main game. Luckily, each of the six full levels are bestowed with a whopping, and I think record breaking, six acts. Now these acts aren't always that long. You'd probably be hard pressed to get much more than three minutes max out of any of them once you've learned their intricacies. As part of the first play though, they make the whole game feel rather substantial, albeit not nearly as far as initial boasts of 15-20 hours would have had you believe. I don't know where they got that from - 6 or 7 hours is more like it, but for those 6 or 7 hours, you do get a lot of value crammed in there, and that doesn't include loads of extra acts in the "Sonic Simulator" - a lovely idea that features very visually basic levels, many of which are modeled very satisfyingly on acts straight from Sonic 1. Some of many great little nods to the old days, including numerous classic badniks throughout the game. Bosses are reasonably challenging and not too vexing, however it's unfortunate that there's only really three different bosses for the levels, and they're each just repeated twice, with higher difficulty. Repetition of bosses is very common these days really though.

"Hey Tails, you missed the BBBE... Best Boss Beating Ever!"

It's clear enough now that there are two fundamental approaches to Sonic gameplay. The classic method - Levels that have unique structural designs and gimmicks, and often a slightly more considered, varied pace to them, and multiple routes a plenty. The thinking man's Sonic level. Then you've got your more modern approach, often associated with Dimps level design. It's gradually evolved into a pure adrenaline thrill ride that cares less about the beauty of a well designed, individual, multi-tiered level to be explored - more about providing a continuous experience that leaves you breathless at the end, and isn't afraid to throw in artificial methods of increasing speed immediately. When described on paper, it's obvious which one you SHOULD be rooting for, but I find it impossible to deny that the modern method is just plain great fun. When it's done well, it's usually to critical acclaim, and it's one of the reasons I love Sonic Unleashed so much. It's not clever, but then that's what Mario's for after all, and it is incredibly addictive and just as replayable as levels that provide numerous routes and hidden areas, as you really want to do them well, and without fault.

I'm an advocate of both fundamental approaches, and naturally combining elements of both of them should be a good idea, right? In many ways Sonic Colours kind of does that. It's not really quite as full on as Unleashed, which, even in its 2D acts and segments could produce some really flat-out stuff. Colours tends to slow down more readily in its 2D segments, and has a variety of new unique objects and interesting ideas for common "primitive" objects like platforms and buttons. I wouldn't quite call many of them exclusive to particular levels as such, rather they progress in a Mario-like difficulty curve in which more and more of them are introduced and then remain as you progress through the game. It's a nice break from the array of frequently red-coloured generic objects that appear across many levels, and little else, which is normally the way things are done these days. The progression of the Wisp power ups is used to similar effect, and they remind me of the kind of gameplay-changing power-ups in the Mario Galaxy games. One of the more interesting is the Cube Wisp, which converts nearby blue cubes into collectible items and vice versa, opening up interesting time-based puzzles, as you continuously switch them around. There will be occasions where you will have to use a Wisp in order to progress, but they're frequently optional, which is just as well, considering the amount at which they change the state of the experience - morphing Sonic himself into a completely different shape and colour, often changing the controls into something else entirely and interrupting the music with repetitive jingles (something I'm never a big fan of, but at least the music resumes from where it left off). In fact, they work well with the slightly larger scale level routes and hidden areas. Using Wisps such as the drill or rocket can propel Sonic through vast explorable areas in parallel to the main route, and are frequently used to find the five hidden red star rings in each act - a side mission that is very compelling, given that they unlock new Sonic Simulator stages at a satisfyingly frequent rate.

Sonic Colours also wins several points for reintroducing submersible water into a 3D Sonic level for the first time in almost a decade, in its Aquarium Park level. Ok, so it's not quite the same as you can only dive under during the 2D bits, but it's still quite a big deal, and there's something special about the first time you come across it. You'll notice something different about the way it looks, but before you can put your finger on it, you find you're falling in and your instinctive reaction is to expect immediate death, only to be pleasantly surprised by Sonic's continued existence, inside massive rocky pools stretching for miles underneath the main path. Sonic's double jump can even be used repeatedly to propel him through the water back to the surface and you'll love the newest take on the classic drowning theme!

"Please feel free to fill out a brief survey after your visit. Your opinions matter to us. Unless you didn't have fun. And then we don't care."

So if Sonic Colours makes such a good first impression, why do I wonder if ultimately, under the tests of time, I'll prefer Sonic Unleashed? Well, several reasons. First is the length of these acts, numerous as they may be. I do like a good, chunky level, I must admit and it's unfortunate that so many of these ones seem to finish before they even really get started. When only a minute or so has passed, I start to associate the the eerie high pitched tone emitted by the nearby goal ring with a feeling of disappointment, and conversely a feeling of relief comes with the sight of a checkpoint, suggesting that the act must go on at least a little longer. This is all part of the game's difficulty system however. Despite early suggestions that it's a game for kids, I can say with some certainty that this simply isn't the case as far as difficulty goes. The modern Sonic level design here hasn't managed to shake off its love of the death drop, which are abundant all over the place, particularly during slow paced 2D platform hopping sections. What's more, unlike Unleashed, extra lives are scarce unless you perform well enough to earn them during the results screen. I don't think you even get one for 100 rings anymore. Ring loss is back to the traditional system of lose-them-all-on-one-hit, and they can often be quite hard to retrieve too, so all things considered, you'll be getting a lot of game overs if your experience is anything like mine. The bite-sized nature of these acts help to soften this blow, so while it can get frustrating, you know you're never likely to have to retrace too many steps. I still say the experience would be improved greatly by the simple change of making the background music continuous across lives however. And word of warning: Beware the moving yellow three-headed spring of doom!

But there's also something about the design of the levels themselves. Things are a bit more controlled and measured. There are bursts of speed but they tend to be neatly contained inside predetermined paths, fizzling out rather quickly (albeit often not that abruptly in fairness) and 2D segments tend to be more slow-paced, and not really very much like Sonic Rush, or indeed this game's DS version (which I've also been playing, albeit much less). Sometimes frustratingly slow, really. Contrast this to high end Sonic Unleashed, both its 3D and 2D sections. Sure, it had the tendency to throw you down a pit just because you weren't quite quick enough to see what was coming, which might get annoying for the first play, but it had an amazing energy to it, and I stand by the claim that once you know those daytime levels, they very very easily become some of the most entertaining, heart-stopping Sonic experiences ever. I was really hoping that Sonic Colours would continue that idea, but I'm really not so sure that it does. It comes tantalisingly close sometimes, but it's just not quite as hectic. Take Act 2 of Unleashed's Dragon Road. It's short, I'll give you that, but it's entirely 2D and amazingly thrilling as you race through without stopping, dodging everything that's thrown at you. There isn't really anything in Colours that's quite like that, in fact that act of Dragon Road has so much crammed in that it's potentially comparable to some of Colour's longer stages in terms of content, but at a much more consistently fast pace, and it's a shame really. It's almost as if this game is trying too hard to be a successful merger of the classic and modern level designs, which in itself is a valiant thing to do, but it doesn't quite match up to the best examples of either one of them, and ends up as a game that's quite difficult to place. It would be fairer to come to this judgment a few months down the road when I'm more acquainted with its levels and how to do them as flawlessly as my Unleashed level runs, however that at least is my suspicion at the moment.

"Yeah, that's right. I'm stretching. You got a problem with that?"

Another inevitable aspect is the possibility that I'm more captivated by Unleashed's beautiful Hedgehog-Engine-Built visuals, the likes of which Sonic Colours can't hope to keep up with. Ironically enough, its colours are actually a little on the drab side by comparison, and this was even after countless tweaks to my TV's colour settings to try and suck out more juice. It's not just merely a matter of graphical capabilities however. I'm always an advocate of interesting new level locations and much to its credit, Sonic Colours runs with that idea, merging standard and not-so standard level types together with unique twists to create very creative fundamental ideas, a little reminiscent of NiGHTS in some cases. A surreal sunset theme park of massive food-based structures, an alien forest landscape overrun by mechanical redevelopment, and a beautiful aquarium combined with Japanese architecture and themes - all great ideas. The standard isn't quite kept up all the time though. Other levels like Starlight Carnival and Asteroid Coaster start out intriguing enough, but later acts often descend into rather plain, dull mechanical corridors with little life or creative flair to them, aesthetically. Certainly some missed opportunities, and I can't help but wonder - if this is a massive intergalactic theme park, where exactly are all the rides? Other than a rollercoaster or two, not in these acts, unfortunately. Perhaps better off heading back to Twinkle Park.

They are at least all backed up by an impressive enough soundtrack however, with each of the six stages offering three or four different takes on the same tune, with varying degrees of variation (if that makes sense) that are shared amongst its acts. Tropical Resort represents the perfect formula to an instantly lovable, all-time great Sonic tune with a sublime, satisfyingly long and melodic climax, and Planet Wisp 1 compliments the level beautifully. There are a few other noteworthy ones, but in general I think many of them are more of the "grower" variety, and it might take a while before you really decide where they sit in your long list of favourites. Hate to make yet another comparison to the bigger brother once again, but I think I was slightly more in love with Unleashed's soundtrack at about this point, it has to be said.

But lets not get carried away nitpicking at what is ultimately an extremely solid attempt at a great game, all things considered. Unlike, it seems, some fans who appear to take the ever-repulsive (and all too common in today's overly-critical society, in general) approach of "if it doesn't perfectly fit my expectations of a good Sonic game, it's shit" - I wouldn't dream of calling Sonic Colours anything of the sort. It's an extremely well polished, glitch-free game merging many popular aspects into a mostly very successful formula, which they've expertly combined with new ideas that never really feel intrusive or wreck the experience too much. It has dazzling personality and humour, in a way that finally feels comfortable for Sonic. Say what you want about Sega, I've always believed, now more than ever, that they want to do the best job they can with the franchise, and it really shows in games like this. Levels are still very replayable, although the longer acts will probably get more love than the shorter ones. My conclusions at this stage is that I do prefer Sonic Unleashed and will probably continue to do so, purely for its more hectic qualities and more impressive visuals that, in trying to appeal to opposing philosophies of level design, Sonic Colours has rather overlooked despite giving the appearance that it hasn't. Depending on how you see things though, this could be considered more of a plus side for some, which is fair enough. I would say that a more successful compromise between old and new design is still possible however, and I look forward to seeing what future experiments can conjure up. There's definitely enough for a sequel here at least though, and it's miles better than any other 3D Sonic on the Wii. Better than its recent "rival" Sonic 4?.. I couldn't possibly say. They're too different to judge, or indeed, for it to matter right now really.

"The Hyperspace ride is not safe for children under the age of twelve or over the age of thirteen. It is also not safe for thirteen year olds"..
Comments   3 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by mycatedwin on Tuesday, 23rd November 2010, 9:43pm
Very well written, but it must be said that Unleashed had many Werehog stages that, while adding variety, just plain got in the way of the daytime stages. Other than that, these are my exact thoughts.
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Tuesday, 23rd November 2010, 10:31pm
True, but I was thinking more of the phase in which you've already completed the game, and therefore no longer have to play any levels you don't want to. Going on first plays alone, the two games are on more of an even playing field, all things considered, but I do think the SU daytime stages are more fun than the stages of Sonic Colours. But you're right in that SC has a much higher percentage of its stages that are actually fun to play!
#3. Comment posted by DigitalDuck on Tuesday, 30th November 2010, 3:47pm
I think once you collect all red rings, you'll change your mind about what it's like replaying through the levels...
Sonic 3 Other Modes update
Sunday, 21st November 2010, 9:32pm (GMT), 3 Comments
Update: Other Modes page added to the Sonic 3 section
Been a bit of a long wait again, I know, but well, that's the way things are for the forseeable future I'm afraid. Still, we're nearing the end of the Sonic 3 guide now. The new Other Modes section contains info on the game's Special Stage, Bonus Stage, Competition mode and more. And just because I'm feeling extra nice, I thought some maps of the Special Stages and 2 player stages would be appreciated. The Special Stage ones in particular I can see being quite useful. They weren't ripped from the game this time, what I actually did was use scans from a book that has proven very useful over the years - the Japanese Sonic Mega Collection strategy guide. It contains maps for everything, including recreated Special Stages for S3&K that I simply traced over. Unfortunately I've found the book to have numerous inaccuracies and it completely missed occasional routes and hidden areas throughout the levels that I've worked on since, so hopefully the same cannot be said for these Special Stage maps. If you spot anything wrong, do give me a shout.

I was going to add some short and simple thoughts on Sonic Colours but what I've written has pretty much turned into a full blown review anyway, so I might as well post that separately. Probably tomorrow.
Comments   3 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by sonictails1189 on Monday, 22nd November 2010, 9:33pm
This looks great, and I'm looking forward to your Sonic Colours review. Though I've long since memorized the special stages, it's still nice to see the maps. Hey, here's a question for you: any chance of eventually covering and mapping all of the stages from the Blue Sphere game? I know it'd be a ton of work, but that's something I think a lot of people could appreciate (or maybe just me, who knows)?

Anyway, keep up the good work. I'll keep checking back for more updates.
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Monday, 22nd November 2010, 10:25pm
Thanks :)

I think covering all of them in Blue Sphere would be a near enough impossible task, as there's literally thousands of them, isn't there? So.. well, no, to be honest. lol. Not me personally anyway, anyone else is more than welcome to take up the challenge if they wish!

I have however noticed some consistent patterns that reappear across multiple stages however, which is pretty much how they're able to have been generated, so perhaps it'll be worthwhile covering all of the different common patterns, so most things should be covered. That isn't planned, but again, if someone wants to, they're more than welcome. Send me an email.
#3. Comment posted by MoDaD on Wednesday, 24th November 2010, 6:31am
I don't think I've ever seen the special stages mapped out before. I wish I had those fifteen years ago.
Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode 1
Saturday, 16th October 2010, 6:20pm (BST), 12 Comments
I think it's fair to say that from the moment it was announced, Sonic 4 has come under a highly unique level of, at its worst, meticulous, often ridiculous, claustrophobic scrutiny, and at its best, somewhat constrained, hesitant excitement. For such a small game, it's gone the journey of any full-fledged 3D juggernaut of the series, with twice the expectation on its back, and, it would seem, twice the usual number of vultures in the fanbase harassing it, and predicting its demise at any opportunity. To me it seemed almost as if, rather than transporting them back to the simple excitement of their childhood, it opened the doors to cold, hard, surgical analysis as the whole game was picked apart, studied and criticised ruthlessly, well before it was even ready. By contrast, the normally harsh critics greeted the game with practically universal support. And now it's finally here, but after everything that it's been through, everything it's promised and everything it's flying in the face of, has the journey been worth it? Let's find out..

How we got here

During its long, storied development, Sonic 4 broke boundaries never before even touched by another Sonic game regarding the intertwining of SEGA and the fans. Late last year, the game was teased and hinted at as "Project Needlemouse", a new 2D adventure with hints of classic stylings, and from there, they had us in the palms of their hands as they drip fed us tantalising concept art and nuggets of info and media, as we jumped through their hoops, completing their various messageboard challenges to earn our prizes. The mysterious title was finally announced, to the not-quite-so surprised fanbase, as not just any nostalgic throwback but an official continuation of a long idle series - THE series, the original Sonic series - this was Sonic the Hedgehog 4!

Whether your opinion was positive or negative, it was probably intense, but there was still little of the game and its most important aspects to go by. That was until the fans took matters into their own hands however. Suddenly it was no longer SEGA in control of us - the tables had turned with the materialisation of leaked videos of early builds all over the place. Fans took back control as, over the course of days, the entire episode was busted open through a series of off-camera videos, eliciting several concerns, from big to small (and most famously concerning "that minecart level"). As a fan who tries to preserve the magic of his first play-through of a new, exciting game by not spoiling too much of it, I thought this was a terrible thing to happen for all concerned, however it may have proved to be a blessing in disguise. Whether it was the scale of the game, the fact that it would be the template for future episodes, or simply that too much was riding on this little game for it to fail, SEGA did what was unquestionably the right thing and delayed it from Summer to Autumn, in order to tweak, balance and reconstruct to fit even the most specific of fan concerns. This has never happened before, and is astonishingly clear proof that SEGA listen.

Before launching into the review I should probably clarify (as I seem to keep rabbiting on about, and you're probably sick of hearing if you follow my blogs and tweets regularly) that I've avoided seeing anything to do with the latter three of the four zones of this game before playing them first hand, and even dodged the latter two acts of the first zone as well. No trailers, no screenshots, no music and heaven forbid, certainly no low quality leaked videos! Although this means I can't comment on a lot of what has changed between the early builds and the final version, it has allowed me to come in completely fresh and experience surprise after surprise as I waded my way through Sonic 4, never knowing what to expect around any corner. It'd be a shame to have seen everything that SEGA or anyone else had thrown at you and felt somewhat deflated after completing the game without being surprised by any of its contents, because there's certainly a lot to be surprised about. So I strongly recommend the path of abstinence from their PR for any future game - it really does pay off, even if it means you have to hide away from the Sonic community for a while to avoid spoilers (which is probably a good thing anyway, lets face it - it's mostly full of idiots). I also waited for the XBox 360 version, rather than jumping straight on the iPhone. It really didn't seem right to have my first memories of it on a little phone rather than a big heaving console - competent as the little phone may be. I've also avoided any other in-depth reviews to ensure that my opinions are my own.

A Question of physics

Let's get the matter of Sonic himself out of the way first before sinking our teeth into the juicy new levels. When I play-tested Splash Hill Zone Act 1 at Summer of Sonic in August, brief as my time with it may have been, I did note that the physics of moving Sonic around still needed some tweaking. Whether or not they would have co-operated well with the level design regardless, I wasn't sure, but it didn't feel the same as the classic template of Sonic physics established on the Mega Drive, so it was harder to predict how smooth a ride the game would be overall. Fortunately, there's been some extremely noticeable tweaks that anyone who's played both versions will be able to spot instantly. Now, when Sonic jumps gravity pulls him back down at just the right height and speed - nothing "floaty" about it anymore, really. His acceleration feels good too. Before, it was slow to get going, with a sudden, unexpected increase in speed after a few seconds of holding the stick forward. This is a bit more balanced now, and as far as I'm concerned, allows for both steady, clean platform hopping and a pleasantly thrilling pace of running through loops. As far as I've seen, there aren't really many break-neck speed sections ala Star Light or Chemical Plant Zones, although I'm not sure if this is because the physics don't quite allow for it or simply because the levels of this episode don't happen to be set up in this way. Still, it's suitably fast and there's ample opportunity for building momentum, although you may need a good grasp of the level layouts to really hold on to it. To me, there's nothing really wrong with the physics of this game, although perhaps those who know Sonic physics inside and out, such as speed runners or just general experts, may disagree. If you're not one of those people though, chances are, you'll notice barely a hiccup.

Sonic's homing attack, to some a slightly controversial inclusion in this classic-styled game, is just a little bit less reliable. For the most part, it works well and does add an interesting new twist. Target markers on home-able objects such as badniks and items are useful, and as soon as you see one, a double jump will send Sonic hurtling towards them, with a brief mid-air pause as he bounces off. While its tempting to make the most of it early on, the more you play, you'll often start to find that bouncing off of things simply through a regular jump may just be more efficient anyway, if a bit more demanding of skill. For example, lines of floating "Bubbles" badniks, the only common badnik across all zones, are designed for repeated homing attacks much like Sonic Adventure 2's Beetles or Sonic Unleashed's Spinners, however it's often quicker to knock through them all with a single jump, each one taking Sonic higher to reach the next, when it's destroyed. Bosses, particularly the final one, can also go down quicker by jumping rather than homing, particularly as the homing attack can bounce Sonic away quite far afterwards. Perhaps this mechanic was intentional though, to provide gradual mastery over the controls the more you play the game and understand it, but it does make you wonder if the game would have been just fine without the homing attack, especially when you occasionally get the split-second timing wrong and end up jump-dashing your way straight into danger rather than homing in on it, which can be very annoying if you're building up rings to access the Special Stage.

The spin dash and rolling spin attack, two moves that have either been abandoned entirely or implemented without much real use in recent games are back in full force in Sonic 4. They don't feel quite the same, but they are useful. The spin dash is as handy as it ever was for whipping across the screen in an instant and getting through loops, while for the most part, the rolling spin increases speed when on slopes rather than decreases it. However, there's something in the back of my mind telling me that over more long sloping distances, the roll doesn't quite build up as much speed as it would "back in the day".

In summary, the overall physics and moves may not quite be absolutely pixel perfect to the originals but I think it'd be foolhardy to expect them to be, and I don't think they even need to be either. Sonic games have no more need to handle exactly the same way as each other than cars do, but this feels close enough to me. It provides excellent versatility for slower and faster areas, and time has clearly been taken to really refine them from what they originally were. Furthermore, Sonic himself is beautifully animated, with real fluid motion between each movement, and an absolute joy to see in action.

Nostalgic romp or a game of its own?

Probably my biggest concern about this game while in development was that it'll lack its own personality, instead borrowing a mix of traits from its older brethren, and adding little of its own. Had there been a Sonic the Hedgehog 4 in 1995, it's doubtful that it would have based all of its levels very clearly on specific ones from its predecessors, rather than inventing new ideas, of which the barrel would have been plenty full at that point. However, that appeared to be what this Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was going to do, given the decade-and-a-half gap between this and the last entry of the series, and the need to prove how faithful it was to the stylings of the much loved gems. That's a logical attempt to recapture those who have wandered away from the franchise since and inextricably link those fundamental levels to the very nature of Sonic, but loyal fans are overly familiar with these concepts, and constantly looking for new, inventive ideas from their games rather than recycled level clones.

Recycled level clones was, initially, exactly what it looked like we were getting when the levels were revealed. We've got Splash Hill Zone - a textbook tropical paradise level borrowing traits mostly from Green Hill Zone, Casino Street Zone - a glitzy night-time Vegas, ala Casino Night, Lost Labyrinth - a maze of sunken ruins rather like Labyrinth Zone, and Mad Gear Zone - your obligatory mechanical lair along the lines of Metropolis Zone. Pretty much the four perfect level types to scream "Hey! look at me! I'm Sonic!" then, but you don't need to delve into any of these very far before you realise that they're actually not just plain old clones at all. Certainly, they borrow many features, obstacles and structural patterns from their respective zones of inspiration, but also blend a few ideas from other similar zones too, and more importantly and surprisingly, add many completely new, fairly bold ideas as well. It's a unique mix of the very familiar and the completely new that makes Sonic 4 a very special game indeed.

Casino Street has all of Casino Night's various circular and triangular bumpers, flippers, slot machines, you name it. However it also nabs Carnival Night's cannons, and even models its standard moving blocks on the infamous drums of said level (although they don't rotate or trap you in small rooms for most of your childhood), plus in a couple of cases it even arranges them in Spring Yard's classic rows-of-three puzzle, in which you must pass from block to block without getting crushed between them. In addition to that, Act 2 (on the consoles only) introduces a whole new set of playing card objects, including tricky rotating platforms and a matching pairs system throughout the level that delivers buckets of lives that will see you healthy for the remainder of the game.

I was most impressed by Lost Labyrinth however. It manages to take much of Labyrinth Zone's most iconic features and combine them with a sort of Indiana Jones style explorer theme that leaves it feeling like an entirely separate level in its own right. Massive boulders that tumble from ceilings or chase you down slopes reminded me of Sonic Adventure's Lost World, yet this time you can also hop on top of them and use the thumb stick to adjust your footing and prevent Sonic from falling off as they roll to their destinations. Act 2 meanwhile, (on the consoles) has a unique feature in which Sonic is constantly holding a torch, lighting up only a small circle around him when inside dark corridors. It's a mechanic that's well utilised with puzzles that require you to light up wall-mounted torches to see where you're going, and even light fuses of massive blocks of dynamite. One particular puzzle that had me stumped for a good few minutes required lighting torches in a particular order and at particular times to open and close a series of platforms. It's tempting to think such puzzles slow down the Sonic gameplay, but I think it's an incredibly welcome return to a more carefully considered take on Sonic level design that uses clever objects and layouts, and in which Lost Labyrinth is an absolute master class. The perfect level for a Zone: 0 guide!

The truth is, there's enough new features here to match those of many other recent, full-sized Sonic game, in addition to the existing throwback features, making it feel like an incredibly packed game. It's a refreshing change from the usual array of common objects (usually coloured a generic red) that litter modern Sonic levels in place of a much preferred unique set of custom designed ones to suit the theme of the stage. What I really like is that while the first act of each zone is a more general introduction, the following two acts each have a special gimmick that helps personalise them from each other. This could be as simple as a recurring object such as Splash Hill Act 2's swinging vines, or more of a significant structural change, for example Lost Lab keeps all of its tricky underwater sections until the third act, where it mimics Labyrinth heavily. Or how about the impressive Mad Gear Zone's third act in which you are constantly chased by a huge moving wall (yay!), threatening to drill you into the opposite walls and forcing you to quickly negotiate nasty crushers and even an all new type of see-saw object. There's an intense amount of personalisation, not just between zones but between acts as well, reminiscent of that seen in Sonic 3 & Knuckles that really adds variety and a sense of journey across the whole game. I felt like a kid again as I tackled strange new objects with excitement and wonder, but also loved the nostalgic familiarity of others. Brilliant stuff!

Dimps-isms

Level structure too sheds many (though unfortunately not quite all) of the common "Dimps-isms" that have formed the modern method of designing Sonic levels. Don't get me wrong, the fast and furious nature of Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Rush are an absolute joy to play, but it often feels a very different experience from the structure employed by the Mega Drive titles, and one of the biggest question marks, along with the matter of level-specific objects, was whether or not the level designers could understand this fundamental difference, and whether they could actually get it right for this type of game. Modern Sonic design cares about the thrill of continuous motion and successfully negotiating traps with the quickest of reactions, running along continuous slopes and through loops, using dash panels or a boost button to maintain constant, almost euphoric pace. This comes at the expense of more interesting, varied level design that, like the objects, are personalised for each zone. In the end, they all just end up looking rather sparse, plain and homogenous.

Classic Sonic level design isn't afraid to slow down the pace regularly to indulge in a small puzzle or platform-hopping exercise. It allows the opening "hill zone" level a certain free-flowing nature in which the player can chop and change between multiple routes easily, across many different platforms. It gives an entirely different structure to other levels that are based inside corridors in which traps must carefully be negotiated. It allows the middle "pinball" level to have massively open spaces in which to bounce around and it only occasionally really lets loose with the speed when it launches Sonic through an array of loops in levels such as high speed cities. It's this individuality and variety that modern Sonic level design often seems to forget all about, but thankfully it isn't all forgotten in Sonic 4. Splash Hill really does feel like a proper traditional hill zone in its structure, with its numerous branching routes and mix of looped slopes and straight roads. Casino Street borrows many of its predecessor's large open pinball rooms, corridors with slow moving crusher blocks and even long drops with curved bottoms. Lost Labyrinth naturally has all of Labyrtinth Zone's tight corridors and segmented, stepped pathways, while Mad Gear has numerous vertical and horizontal platforming sections. They all have their fair share of speedy paths, but you could easily tell their maps apart just by their structure alone. "One size fits all" level design is gone!

However, there's also the little matter of the much feared and loathed bottomless pit. Well, old habits do die hard and death drops are still here, but lets not be hasty and condemn them straight away. Sonic 3 and CD may have had almost none, but Sonic 1 had loads - it's not their existence that's the problem, it's the over-reliance on them as the only real means of difficulty that's the common problem in modern Sonic. For the most part, that's not the case here though, they appear often, but they are used just sparingly enough to create notable "tricky bits" in your mind when you return to them for another play later, which is exactly how the classics utilised them. Crushers and other devices are used to beef up the difficulty where they otherwise might not be in other games, and there are few moments where you're sent careening into the abyss just by going faster than you should have been, or not holding right for long enough, although I won't say such moments are completely absent. Generally though you rarely feel like it's really anyone else's fault but yours that you happened to fall in a pit, and personally I found it easy enough to take it all in my stride. That said, there are quite a lot of extra lives dotted around the place, which probably remove the stress of the situation quite a bit.

Before we leave the matter of level design, there is one aspect that I have to say I've been a little disappointed in and unfortunately it's quite an important one - multiple routes; the holy grail of Sonic level design. Just take a glance through any of the classic level maps on this site and in the vast majority of them you'll find arrays of different routes interweaving, separating and joining with each other like a work of art, some stretching the entire length of the act, meaning there's always so much to explore. I was really hoping that Sonic 4 would run with this idea and in fairness it has clearly made attempts to do so, it's just that having played all the acts a few times now, my overriding impression is that they still haven't quite got the idea. Either that or they're just not willing to invest the time and resources into creating them with any real commitment, instead preferring to extend the length of the level on a longer, mostly linear route. Now granted, massive shortcuts and and whole other long hidden routes might be there and I just haven't found them yet, in which case I retract this entire paragraph. But it seems more like there are numerous little alternate paths, by way of platforms that you have to jump on quickly or a line of Bubbles, but as soon as you get on one, you realise it doesn't go very far before you're back on the standard route again. Pretty much like most modern attempts at multiple routes, unfortunately. Splash Hill is the exception, I have no beef with any of its acts on this front, but elsewhere I've only found one significant shortcut in Lost Labyrinth Act 2 (which actually allows you to bypass that tricky torch bit I mentioned earlier). I suspect there aren't many others though, which disappoints me. When they do appear, it also would have been nice to have more of definite choice, i.e. go left or go right, rather than having to know beforehand exactly when a chain of badniks appear that you must homing attack in order to get the shortcut.

Sonic's colours

These great levels would be nothing without a great lick of paint - the main reason I forced myself to wait for the big screen, HD release. While I've always been impressed with Splash Hill's looks, the following levels are even more impressive to behold. Casino Street has an amazing 3D cityscape in the background that moves gradually in perfect parallax to your own movement across the level, while Lost Labyrinth's stunning open underground cave environment almost has a kind of painted quality to it. Mad Gear is practically overflowing with vast technical gizmo's so much so that it can sometimes be difficult to know what's a platform and what's meant to be a piece of the landscape at times. The Sonic Rush games had an unfortunate tendency to just stick a single image in the background and let that be that, but real care has been put into making sure these visuals burst with life in every corner, starting out with the fundamentals established by the original zones of inspiration and really going to great lengths to enhance them in ways you'd never have imagined. It's a shame that the visuals don't vary between the acts quite as much as the objects and structures do, and as they did in S3&K, but with the amount of hard work put into them, it's kind of understandable why.

There's one other vitally important thing that brings levels to life - music! Sonic 4's soundtrack has found itself in the capable hands of Mr Jun Senoue, a man responsible for many all time great Sonic tracks and someone who should know Sonic music like the back of his hand. I'm pained to say that I was a bit disappointed this time around however. In terms of compositions, the latter half of the game isn't bad at all. When I get round to adding it to my iTunes library, there will be some solid 4 stars handed out amongst Lost Labyrinth and Mad Gear. With the exception of Splash Hill Act 1 (which by now is burned into my brain, it being the only piece I allowed myself to listen to before playing the game) the rest leave quite a bit to be desired though. A lot of the best Sonic tracks have a clearly defined climax to them, normally at the end of the loop that the rest of the tune builds up to. That sort of structure is really missing in pretty much all of these tunes, and Jun seems to have challenged himself (or been challenged) to compose a mostly completely different tune for each individual act, but has only been allowed to make each one last for about 30-40 seconds. The results are some tracks, particularly in Casino Street, that never really get anywhere and just end up sounding rather repetitive, begging for a melodic climax to be attached to the end. The later acts of Splash Hill remind me of myself when I try to invent a random Sonic tune in my head but fail miserably with something that just sounds.. wrong. These tunes are catchy, it's just that some of them are, as odd as it sounds, the wrong sort of catchy. The kind of catchy that you don't want swimming around in your head, as opposed to many many other Sonic tunes throughout history that I'm more than happy to have in my head all day. I suspect this might even be the same kind of catchy that annoying TV commercials use to get inside your head.

Also of note is the fact that all of the tracks are composed retro style, using many of the exact same synths from Sonics 1 and 2. I'm in two minds about this - while playing, they really do add a classic flavour to the game, and really link this title to its long lost siblings, separated by all those years. On the other hand, there's just something not quite right about the way they sound. Someone who knows music would be able to define it more clearly, but it just seems to me they could have used a little bit more polish to make them a little easier on the ears. Perhaps they're just "growers", and I am finding myself more and more at peace with them, but the fact remains they'll never be quite as good as they should have been for a game of this significance, and I think this, along with the issue of multiple routes, is one of the only really serious problems that need looking at for episode 2.

All said and done

So all in all, Sonic 4 episode 1 ain't a bad little game at all. Four zones may not sound like a lot, but bear in mind that the acts within are pretty chunky. It wasn't uncommon for me to spend the business end of my ten minute time limit on some of the later ones, so from the start to the final boss, you're looking at a good 2 hours of gameplay, and though this may not seem like much, it's packed with Sonic action that's as pure and intense as you're likely to find anywhere else - you'll definitely want to play these levels over and over again to improve your abilities. The game's life span is through the sheer size of the levels, and also its difficulty, as it's no pushover. As I've mentioned earlier, you'll get a fair amount of lives to play with so Game Overs are unlikely, but you'll lose plenty of them too, and the balance feels just right - at no point was I ever really seriously frustrated with anything, yet still found plenty of challenges. Interestingly, all acts are open to you after completing Splash Hill Act 1, and though you can progress naturally through the game act by act by pressing the Y button after completing each, you can also access any one of them at any point through the impressive 3D map menu. Speaking of which, checking out the background of that 3D map might just offer some hints as to what to expect from the levels of future episodes.. hmm..

By completing each act of a zone, you unlock that zone's boss, each of which begins as a familiar throwback to the classic boss of the appropriate level of inspiration. Get halfway through the boss and Eggman and his accompanying music change to a more serious tone as all new challenges start to emerge. Lost Labyrinth's utilises long crushing pillars inside an enclosed room, while Mad Gear's Metropolis-inspired boss suddenly goes on the run, throwing the now harmful fake Eggman balloons at you as you give chase. These smaller, simpler bosses are a welcome return from the larger scale 3D ones, although that said, there's nothing small or simple about the very familiar final boss, which requires a gargantuan amount of hits to finally see off!

And then there are the special stages, borrowing the concept of the rotating maze from Sonic 1, but with the added twist that this time, you control the rotation of the maze with the control stick. But don't think that's going to make the Chaos Emeralds a cakewalk to get hold of - I'm still yet to grab the final one myself, and for the most part your biggest concern is no longer falling straight into those dead end pits, it's getting to the emerald within the time limit. You can pick up added bonus time, but you also need to grab enough rings to open a series of barriers that dissolve after certain amounts collected. Great control is key to grabbing rings quickly enough and not getting held up by bumpers and other features designed to waste your time. It's a pretty entertaining Special Stage all in all, with a very hectic quality and it has its fair share of frustrations. Like in Sonic 1, they're accessed through giant rings that appear at the end of each act if you pass the signpost with at least 50 rings (and be careful not to go too fast, because as soon as you go off the screen, you can't come back like you used to be able to!). There's no requirement to grab all emeralds within a single play of the whole game, but once you've completed a Special Stage, that emerald will be tied to that particular act, meaning the big ring will cease to appear should you complete that act again with 50 rings - you have to try another one. Super Sonic playable in the levels (for the first time since Sonic & Knuckles!) is the prize for grabbing all seven, which I'm yet to experience myself but I'll keep trying!

So in summary.. I love it! The stakes were really high for this game. If it didn't work out, it may have lost fans forever, but if my own opinion is anything to go by, it looks like Sonic 4 got there in the end! The developers have clearly studied the classic games, what makes them tick, what we like so much about them and how they differ from more recent titles. Sure, there's room for improvement, but that's one of the great things about this actually being part of a larger, episodic game, and maybe episode 2 will be just that little bit closer to perfection! My feedback would be to work a little more on the quality of the music and really get some interesting alternate routes in those maps. In all other areas though, Sonic 4 is an incredibly enjoyable, well polished Sonic game, offering a brilliant mix of the familiar and the new and exciting. There are concepts in here that haven't been seen for years, and as someone who's been crying out for them every single one of those years, it's remarkable to see them finally back. Make no mistake, this is not just a collection of rehashed ideas, this is a unique experience in its own right that takes great pride in its heritage. Levels are unique from each other and well constructed, physics feel right - everything that needed to be here pretty much is, so I absolutely can't wait for episode 2!

Now, back to that last emerald...
Comments   12 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by Josh on Saturday, 16th October 2010, 7:14pm
Thanks for the review. It's nice to have an opinion from someone who doesn't constantly have something to complain about.
#2. Comment posted by Josh on Saturday, 16th October 2010, 10:37pm
And to add to what I said above, I did the same as you and did whatever I could to stop myself from being spoiled.

Should we expect to see level maps and detailed analysis of the acts in the far future?
#3. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Saturday, 16th October 2010, 11:06pm
Thanks Josh. Dunno about level maps, unless Sega officially release them I don't think it likely we'll see them. Guides on the other hand.. well, we'll see. ;)
#4. Comment posted by Ekajra on Saturday, 16th October 2010, 11:25pm
I'd have to say your opinions agree with mine on most points regarding the Sonic 4. And it's good to know I'm not the only one who was trying to avoid getting the game spoiled for him.
#5. Comment posted by Anonymous on Sunday, 17th October 2010, 2:00pm
The synths aren't the exact same as Sonic 1 and 2. Senoue said in an interview that he didn't have the equipment to emulate Genesis sounds, so the music was run of the mill synths. This may or may not have been improved a bit in the Wii version but I can tell most of those themes aren't Genesis music. People even do "Genesis mixes" of them on YouTube.

If you're wondering about the physics, go to Splash Hill and roll down a hill. Get a good run going, roll down and let go of the D pad before an upward slope. In GHZ and Hill Top this would be used to pick up speed and fly through the air, bouncing from one enemy to the other, but see what happens in Sonic 4.
Next, go to the U shaped areas in Casino Street. Try to roll on them left and right to gain momentum.

I followed every last detail of Sonic 4 from its announcement, and got to see what they fixed and what they didn't fix.
Most of the internet war and scrutiny on the forums was because of bad coordination between SoA and SEGA of Japan. It was like a Dilbert cartoon come to life and I'm lucky to have not missed that.
#6. Comment posted by Anonymous on Sunday, 17th October 2010, 10:38pm
At first I was also a little turned off by the physics too, but as the levels progressed I adapted to it. By the end of Splash Hill Zone 3, I didn't even notice it anymore. I just learned to hold down right as I played. Going through Splash Hill I liked the game. It felt different and a little easy, but by the end of Mad Gear Zone 3, I loved the game. Mad Gear had my heart racing. That Zone(with its moving-wall) is amazing and intense, taking 15 of my 25 lives, and I did throw the controller a couple times on the Egg Station Boss. In the end, I have to say I love this game, I really do, and I really hope they "Re-imagine" Chemical Plant, Flying Battery Zone and maybe even Stardust Speedway for episode II. I wanna see that Mega Mack again so bad...
#7. Comment posted by Tricky E on Tuesday, 19th October 2010, 10:53am
Hmmm...obviously everyone is entitled to their opinions. I'm a little more negative I'm afraid. I distanced myself from the whole project and the forum backlash during development, waiting to play it and judge for myself. I don't think the game is bad, but to me, it simply is not satisfying. I can tell you exactly why, but there's no room for it here.
And think about the special stages. What were they for? To get the chaos emeralds, sure, but also to supply the player with something they've never seen before and push the hardware to the limits. Whose jaw didn't hit the floor the first time they saw the super smooth psuedo 3d sphere levels in Sonic 3? With the advancements in technology, I can't help but think that a re imagining of the Sonic 1 bonus levels are a little disappointing.
The art direction is very odd too. Why have a low frame rate Sonic on the logo screen when he's a 3d model and can be silky smooth? I understand that they were trying to make it look like sonic 1, but why? Sonic 2 never held back to be more like Sonic 1. It should be a true sequel, improvements where ever possible (like the previous sequels), and stop trying to tap into people's nostalgia.
A lack of story is also very disappointing. S3&K had a great story. Not deep, but it wasn't explained in anything other than backgrounds, with you getting closer and closer to the crashed death egg on the crater, then the subtle prophecy of super sonic on the wall where you fight Knuckles.
To go back to an A to B level progression with no hint of story is a bit of a waste to me. Do I play Sonic games for the story? No. But S3&K was better for it.

Dammit...maybe if I spent less time bitching about Sonic 4, I could actually finish the next level artwork for Zone Zero!
#8. Comment posted by luke858585 on Tuesday, 19th October 2010, 11:16am
The only thing that annoys me a little when I play this is the sound effects when Sonic does his spin dash from an idle position. I swear to god it is not just me but I'm pretty sure that the sound effects for those are reversed around the opposite way
#9. Comment posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, 19th October 2010, 10:35pm
Its not reversed on mine, but it is a bit crap. The revving sound used to go rev..Rev..REV! getting high pitch each time.
now it goes...rev...rev...rev
#10. Comment posted by NovusUmbra on Friday, 5th November 2010, 9:08am
You've provided a persuasive argument for Sonic 4, something that not many people have been able to do; good job.
#11. Comment posted by Oobo on Thursday, 21st April 2011, 11:19pm
There is a major shortcut in lost labyrinth act 3, during a coridor going down in steps, homing attack a fish badnik and homing attack into the wall.
#12. Comment posted by Hyper_Sonic on Sunday, 24th July 2011, 10:02am
I'd have to say, that firstly 4 ZONES IS NOT ENOUGH!!! Secondly, The acts should be a lot more chunky, I didn't really find it all that challenging at all.

And lastly, ACT SELECT come on, you've got to be joking. Who needs cheats if you've got act select. (Pun from the old saying "with friends like these who needs enemies")
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