Developer: Sega
Price: $9.99
Version Reviewed: 1.0
Device Reviewed On: iPhone 3G, iPad

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Game Controls Rating: ★★½☆☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★½☆
Replay Value Rating: ★★★☆☆

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

Growing up in the 16-bit era, the Nintendo-Sega rivalry was a holy war. Unless your parents were cool enough to have bought you both systems, you fell on either the side of the Genesis or the Super Nintendo…unless your parents hated you and bought you an Atari Jaguar. Sega fans had plenty of reasons to evangelize their system, the main one being Sonic the Hedgehog. The games may have been marketed as hyperspeed platformers that left fat old Mario in the dust, but it was the ingenious multi-layered level design, unique playable characters, and of course, the legendary music that made the series what it is just as much as any ‘blast processing’ marketing mumbo-jumbo may have done.

While Sega has never even come close to reaching the pinnacle of the Genesis days, at least Sonic is still around. Well, things haven’t been good for the old blue wonder in a while – Sega never quite figured out how to make a game that was as tight as the old Genesis games in 3D, and some truly godawful ideas have come through the pipeline as well. The less we speak of Shadow the Hedgehog, the better. Some fans have become jaded and angry, to say the least. As one of those fans, I met Sonic 4 with initial trepidation. While Sega promised big things with the game, a return to the original gameplay ideals, with many of the original staff working on the game, along with making this game Sonic the Hedgehog FOUR, Sega and Sonic Team were certainly laying their cards on the table with this game.

While the game is actually not developed by Sonic Team, it is developed by a studio named Dimps who made the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush games for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS respectively, the focus on making this feel like a classic original series Sonic title is evident. This is also the first episode of what is likely to be a longer series of Sonic 4 games, although Episode 1 definitely works as a standalone game – it’s as long as Sonic 3 by itself was, with 12 levels spread across 3 zones, a final boss zone and 7 special stages are here for $9.99, cheaper than the console versions but still, you’re paying more for the playtime you’ll get out of this game than you will for other iOS games.

And really, a return to the original Sonic series is what Sonic 4 is. The level themes, specific designs, and enemies are all either taken from or inspired by the original Sonic games. The special stages are new versions of the ones seen in the first Sonic game, and beating each stage gets you a Chaos Emerald. Collecting all 7 of them will let you become Super Sonic when you collect 50 rings, as Sonic 2 started. Take away the 3D graphics, and this game would have likely had a home on the Genesis. Wake up someone from 1994 and have them play this game, and while they might be freaked out about your crazy phone, this will be familiar to them. And that is where Sonic 4 works the best – it brilliantly recalls the classic Sonic games, and for the most part, it nails the overall experience of being a classic Sonic game. The devil is in the details, though.

The problem with Sonic 4 is that while it uses nostalgic elements to give longtime fans a warm fuzzy feeling while playing the game, it is also guilty of just coasting on nostalgia alone. It’s hard to judge if the game’s judicious reuse of specific sound effects, enemies, boss fights and level design elements crosses the line of just straight up copy and pasting from the old games. Pretty much everything here is ground already tread by previous Sonic games, just mish-mashed into one final amalgamated product. Pretty much the only ‘new’ element in Sonic 4 is the homing air dash attack, which is used to great effect in the level designs at times, but this is not original to the series either, as it’s been used in the 3D games and Sonic Advance. Beyond perhaps the infamous mine cart level, there’s little to nothing that Sonic 4 leaves as a legacy to the series. Everything here is borrowed from some other Sonic game, and where things have changed, aren’t an improvement. As well, developer Dimps’ love of instant death traps and bottomless pits that was evident from their previous work on the series often peeks through, and these are the hardest parts of the game.

Sonic 4 for the iPhone is not exactly the same game as the console version – it is very similar to the console versions, but there are a few changes. Several of the levels are completely different from the console version, and the infamous mine cart level is included here. This level was derided in early previews of the game among Sonic fans, but on iOS with tilt controls, it actually is a nice change of pace and pretty fun, although the level is relatively easy to play. As well, the game lacks any kind of cel-shading that the console versions have (considering that the game runs at a lower frame rate as well, this should not come as a surprise). The biggest difference though, is the physics; the iOS version’s physics are a lot floatier and feature slower acceleration than the console version, and it’s blatantly different when compared to the original Sonic games. Reports from within Sonic fan communities say that the iOS version is largely unchanged from the original Sonic 4 that was scheduled to release in June before the game was delayed to implement improvements, so the iOS version may have been a side project that wasn’t focused on once the console versions were finished. Otherwise, the rest of the levels and all the sound effects and music are for all intents and purposes identical – only the pickiest of fans may notice what was changed with the mechanics and level designs.

And as an iPhone game, this is far from perfect as well. The on-screen d-pad is bad, particularly as you can easily try to hold down on it to spin dash but accidentally change direction. Tilt controls are available for movement, but are unwieldy in careful platforming situations. They also fail in the special stages, where it can be very easy to get confused as to which direction you’re going because you’re twisting your device around like a maniac trying to navigate the stages before the time runs down. The on-screen controls need a complete overhaul, as while the game controls much better with an actual controller, it’s not the iPhone’s fault as other Sonic games on iOS control just fine with on-screen d-pads. As well, one very strange thing that is still in the iOS version is that the perspective rotates when you run on loops. It’s extremely disorienting and should have never been implemented in the game.

So is Sonic 4 worth the purchase? Well, it’s hard for me to judge. Sonic was a big part of my childhood and I have a very discerning and sometimes harsh eye when it comes to the series. The past decade’s foibles and follies within the series have often left me jaded as to what the future of the series can be, and have made it often difficult to remain a fan of the series. However, what this game does right, in being the truest classic Sonic experience in years, gives me hope that Sega and Dimps may know how to fix the series from here on out in future episodes of Sonic 4. My recommendation is that if you’re new to the series entirely, this should not be your first exposure to it. The original Sonic games are easy to find and play on pretty much any modern system (the first 2 games are available on the App Store) – they are timeless gems worth experiencing, and Sonic 4 owes a lot to them; those games should be enjoyed in their original form. If you do decide to check out Sonic 4, play one of the console versions first if you have the ability, as the iOS version is inferior to those in several minor but noticeable ways. The iOS version is not bad, but it is flawed, and pales in comparison at times to other platformers. As a Sonic game, it’s some of the franchise’s best material in years, but as an iOS game, it is flawed and lacking, and should only be approached by those without the means to play the game on other platforms or for those who can’t get enough of Sonic, no matter what form it comes in. I myself am disappointed and frustrated with Sonic 4 at times, but there are more rays of light here for the series than any other game in the franchise has shown in the past decade.

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