All weekend, all over the Internet, I’ve read complaints of Sonic’s physics. I had no idea what “Sonic’s physics” meant, and while playing Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode One I hardly saw what the big deal was. I figured it was just the endless whining and trolling of your typical Internet mob, combined with the victimized bawling of the Sonic fan crowd. Do these fans even know what they want anymore? Then, the more I played, and the more frustrated I got, it occurred to me.
Something’s wrong with Sonic’s physics.
Well, maybe not wrong. They’re different. Having replayed the entire original series earlier in the year, I should’ve noticed it earlier. Maybe I was so caught up in the whole “OH MY GOD SONIC IS BACK, BABY” fervor of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 I failed to notice a tiny thing like his … his physics. I mean, when was the last time anyone even mentioned video game physics since Half-Life 2?
But after finishing Sonic 4, I went back to play the first few levels of Sonic 1 and 2, and sure enough, in the original games when Sonic jumps and you let go of all the buttons he keeps moving. There’s gravity at work. Move just a little bit down a hill and he’ll keep moving thanks to gravity’s pull. Sonic can roll into a ball, go up a loop, across a flat distance, through an underground pipe and get sent up into the air, all without leaving his rolled-up state or the need to press an extra button.
Sonic 4 makes you work more. Sonic’s a bit slower and requires more of a “push” to get him going. Pressing right to build up speed for his run takes a tad too long now, and even when he reaches full running speed it doesn’t feel as fast as it does in the classic games. Instead, you grow to rely on Sonic’s homing attack to give you that extra burst of speed. The spin-dash returns, and it’s still a good way to start, but the homing attack’s now necessary to keep momentum. Which would be fine — it’s a lot of fun to use on the cavalcade of enemies — except when you miss a target Sonic doesn’t stay in his attack-friendly ball form. He will unfurl and go into an aggravating falling animation which makes for a lot of annoying gaffes that result in an explosion of lost rings. And the weird physics affect those shiny golden lifelines as well. Sometimes they fly all the hell over, or they bundle up and just sorta plop out. In the final boss confrontation they often flew up off the screen, took a long time to get back down, then bounced far out of the reach of Sonic’s jump. Pretty confounding.
So, after all that, is Sonic 4 a broken game? Another appalling mess to add to the pile? No way. It’s playable, it’s fun, it’s got its own thing going. I got used to the new rhythms of Sonic’s control, and I appreciated all the Sonic 1 and 2 nostalgia. The “badniks” from those two games return, looking great modeled in 3D, and the level design’s good! Variations on previous Sonic levels — hills, labyrinth, casino, factory — they’re split into three acts, with the first act serving as a safe reminder of the past to lull the player into familiarity, only to have the second and third acts throw in a few unique mechanics like Sonic-propelling steam and darkness-defying torches into the mix.
Sonic 4‘s biggest problem is actually the soundtrack! It’s … well, it’s bad. Sonic needs a good soundtrack. As crummy as the Sega Genesis was at producing sounds with its robotic mouth-harp soundchip, Sonic Team gave us some of the best tunes out of that era. Sonic 4 gives us 40-second loops full of noisy, annoying synth, no discernible basslines (at least nothing close to Sonic 3‘s Michael Jackson-inspired riffs) and maybe three too many repetitive drum tracks. In the Lost Labyrinth Zone the music got infuriating to the point I muted the sound and put on other music, which I almost never do with a video game. It was like listening to Crazy Bus.
Sonic 4‘s also way too generous with the extra lives, perhaps in preparation for the ridiuclous final boss, who isn’t so difficult so much as a total slog to defeat. It takes so many hits, and you know the pattern, so the only danger is losing focus from frustration and fatigue.
Despite all the hang-ups, I enjoyed Sonic 4. It has its faults but it’s still a worthwhile game, and with twelve stages, a Time Attack mode and seven Chaos Emeralds to collect it’s a nice bundle of downloadable goodness. It’s no Mega Man 9 — it’s more of a stepping stone in the right direction, towards something greater that’s very much within reach. All the tools are there. The graphics are good, the homing attack adds a new dimension to Sonic’s movement, and the art design’s sound. Even if the sound isn’t. And maybe those confounded physics could use some tweaks. But there’s a reason it’s called Episode One, isn’t there?