For anyone born into the heady days of the early nineties, playing Sonic 4 is kind of like returning to your family home after a long absence only to find it populated by complete strangers. They say they know you. They say they’re your family. They say please put the knife down, you’ll hurt yourself. And then they say BLEEP BLOOP as you cut away their human-looking exterior to reveal the unfeeling robot automata beneath. Sonic 4 is a clinical, emotionless replica of the original games, an experience utterly devoid of any warmth or vital spirit. It’s the sort of game you’d expect to see if there was a race of intelligent aliens out there who had quixotically decided to make a Sonic sequel fifteen years after the last “true” instalment in the series – all the parts are there and they’re all working as you’d expect, but the end product is fundamentally wrong on a level so subtle you can’t define it.
Or maybe I’m just getting old.
I’m sure if I went and talked to the developers of Sonic 4 they’d tell me that their game is an affectionate homage to the originals. That may be true. To me, though, it looks like a cynical effort to lure players with fond memories of the originals back to the fold1. The four zones on offer are lifted wholesale from Sonics 1 and 2; Splash Hill Zone is the classic Sonic starter zone so I’ll let that one go, but Casino Street Zone is a shameless reproduction of Casino Night Zone while Mad Gear Zone and Lost Labyrinth Zone are amalgams of the Chemical Plant/Scrap Brain and Labyrinth/Marble Zones.
This presents Sonic 4 with much, much bigger problems than if it had struck out into new territory and come up with some original level designs. I was constantly drawing unfavourable comparisons between the stages I was playing and the zones that begat them in everything they did, from graphics to structure to music. For example, compare and contrast the classic Green Hill Zone music with the equivalent in Sonic 4, Splash Hill Zone. The latter sounds like something I’d expect to find in a mediocre piece of PC shareware from 1995, for god’s sake2. Twenty years of advances in technology and graphics and Sonic 4 still looks inferior to the charming pixel art of its antecedents, with the detailed renders used for Sonic himself being particularly soulless. I don’t know how they’ve done it but they’ve managed to find the uncanny valley for an ambulatory blue hedgehog in running shoes.
The special stages are replicas of the ones from Sonic 1; these happened to be the best out of all of them so Sonic 4 gets a pass there. Worse are the boss encounters3. I only made it to two of these but they were both directly lifted from Sonics 1 and 2. I kept running into feature after feature that had been copied from the original games, but copied in such a way that it felt like an inferior knockoff version. It was actually kind of a shame, because Sonic 4 does try a few new tricks – some of them, like the torches in the Lost Labyrinth, feel rather gimmicky, but I liked the dynamite and the minecart rides in the same zone. If Sonic 4 had used new technology to do new things instead of tiresomely attempting to reproduce old things with a new coat of paint I would have at least acknowledged the effort, and I probably would have been predisposed to like it a lot more than I did.
It’s ironic, really, because it’s not even like I take Sonic that seriously. While the first two games are treasured childhood memories I have played through them again as an adult and I’m very much aware of their flaws. I’ve barely paid attention to Sega’s demolition of the Sonic franchise over the years by repeatedly hitting it with entirely unneeded elements like 3D graphics and plot. I don’t have that much investment in what is, at the end of the day, a hedgehog that continually runs across the screen from left to right. Unfortunately what Sega have done here is beyond the pale, even for me. Fans of old games continually ask for remakes of old games just so, with nothing added or removed and very little tinkered with. It’s the sort of thing that’s always sounded like a good idea in theory, but the execrable turd that is Sonic 4 proves that things aren’t always so simple in practice.
(I never even mentioned the worst thing, which is that they’ve reverted Dr. Robotnik to his original Japanese name, Eggman. That’s just sick and wrong.)
- It sadly worked in my case.
- There is one track that’s actually not all that bad. Mad Gear Zone Act 1 evokes a definite glimmering of the immense Chemical Plant theme, while still being inferior in almost every way.
- And while we’re comparing music, see if you can spot any similarities between the Death Egg music from Sonic 2 and the final boss music for Sonic 4.