What on Mobius is up with Sonic 4?

Sixteen years is a long time.1994 to 2010; that’s the kind of break we’re talking about with the original Sonic the Hedgehog series. In the realm of videogames, that’s long enough to go from Doom to Black Ops. The first three games (and echidna-powered expansion pack) were a distant memory at this point, but some held on to a simple truth: To be this good it takes AGES; to be this good it takes SEGA. Their good faith was finally returned with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, a series of episodic downloadable games backed by delays and a future of vague hand-waving. Good news for sure, but muddled. Is this a single, complete product or a mini-saga of separate games? Why choose such an unconventional method of distribution? Is it even worth chasing memories of peeling cartridge labels covered in dust? The question must be asked:

“What on Mobius is up with Sonic 4?”

When “Project Needlemouse” (an allusion to Sonic’s original prototype name) was teased back in 2009, hope rose like a mighty tide in the hearts of many. Remember that these hearts had recently been ravaged by the choppy waves of Sonic Unleashed, and although suspicion of anything Sonic-tainted was thick, the promise of a return to 2D roots won out. When the curtain was pulled back to reveal Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, the air was filled with tossed hats and cheers of elation and a few scattered harrumphs from sceptical old-timers who wouldn’t be fooled this time. The handheld Sonic platformers were excellent products in their own right, make no mistake, but a direct follow-up to the Genesis games was nothing less than Sega proclaiming a new era of hedgehogian glory days. In fact, digital brand manager Ken Balough said as much in an interview with GameSpot once the teaser trailer went live:

“Project Needlemouse is that critical first step that brings Sonic back to his roots.”

The key phrase here is “first step.”

They're not messing around. This is Sonic 4, folks.

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I bounded onto downloadable services in October of 2010, arms open wide for a great big reunion hug, but it was hard not to hesitantly pat its shoulder and ponder why things couldn’t be like the old days. The game was definitely competent, but its sluggish physics and slavish desire to mimic the original recipe felt more like a well-meaning homage than a true sequel. Instead of launching a series into the modern era (as did Rayman Origins) or tugging every nostalgic heartstring in sight with expert precision (like Mega Man 9), it took the New Super Mario Bros. route of acceptable genericness. The music, the world design, the visuals… every element felt held back and unimaginative. “Critical first step” indeed, Mr. Balough, but in which direction?

And then– dead silence. For over a year, Sega hardly breathed a word about the next episode. So much for monthly instalments. So much for yearly instalments, even. Meanwhile, Sonic was on retail shelves hoverboarding, touring interstellar amusement parks, travelling through time-warping dimensions, and competing against plumbers in the London Olympics; still nothing but low murmurs concerning the incomplete project. It took a teaser trailer in December of 2011 for Ken Balough to stride into the limelight once more, ready and willing to chat with GameSpot about Episode II. His facial hair exuded command, elaborately styled and dyed to resemble the twin tails from Sonic’s little buddy, but his message was humble.

“We listened tremendously during Episode I,” he assured viewers, addressing highly specific problems with its physics and going on to reference previous first step effort. “We’ve definitely come a long way in step two.”

According to these promises, not only will Sonic stop sticking to walls and uncurling from his spindash at the worst of times, but the game boasts a brand new engine, reworked physics and all. As Balough’s facial hair heavily implied, Tails will be tagging along this time, not to mention guest star Metal Sonic. In fact, a tribute to the ancient art of lock-on technology will let you play as the mechanical doppelgänger in Episode I free of charge. All of these developments are reasons to get pumped, but what precisely is the difference between this and a full-on sequel? Telltale’s adventure games make sense in the context of an episodic story, but why a simple platformer? The question still hovers like a mosquito that is bafflingly intrigued by the minutia of video game development:

“What on Mobius is up with Sonic 4?”

Throw in a chili cheese dog or two and I'd be reliving my childhood right about now.

In a sense, these games are built to fail. Episode I played it very, very safe, including only the bare necessities of a successful Sonic game. When it fell short of lofty expectations, Sega listened with strained ears, trying to pinpoint the holes in their hull. When you live through a Titanic such as Sonic 2006, you learn to carry lifeboats– and that’s exactly what the episodic format is. By crafting one standalone game at a time, it essentially gives Sega the chance to bail out whenever the yen stops pouring in, rather than going down with the ship. As Cheat Code Central gathered from reps at this year’s PAX, the episodes will continue to sail the open market unless something springs a leak and takes on too much water. These nautical metaphors are getting too deep, however, so let’s move on before the dreadful drowning timer kicks in.

All that said, what can we expect from Sonic 4 in the future? With Episode I in the bag, the developers seem to be stretching their creativity muscles a bit more with May 15th’s second instalment. Integrating Tails while avoiding playable extras like the plague is the best of best worlds, and they’ve taken great strides towards a prettier, more dynamic game that might even exhibit a personality. Listening to fan feedback (read: angry demands) is more than appreciated, but creativity comes from within, so here’s hoping that Sega doesn’t settle with merely fixing the problems of a so-so game. Since these first two entries are bent on mirroring Sonic 1 and 2, respectively, it wouldn’t be a stretch of logic to expect Mr. Balough to flaunt crimson dreadlocks next year. Building a mini-saga of downloadable copycat games under a single title is undoubtedly weird, but hey, if that’s what it takes to get more classic Sonic, they could burn them to a Laserdisc and I’d be happy.

Recapturing those madcap memories is not impossible– Sonic Advance and Sonic Generations both came close– and Sega is clearly intent on doing just that. While their retail titles continue to define what it means to dash through the third dimension, the downloadable space is a perfect home for this most noble Genesis quest. Nearly everything they’ve been saying and showing have pointed towards this being a reality, so as the dawn of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II’s release approaches, a critical step in the adventure is at hand.

A critical step indeed, but in what direction?

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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