Neo-Retro: Sonic 4 episode 1
September 26, 2015
As an example of Neo-Retroism, sonic 4 episode 1 is a prime example of how it can be done so, so wrong.
If your unfamiliar with the game, it’s an official sequel to the 1993 classic Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Sega got the hype train in full gear for this release. Few series survive such an amount of time let alone get a direct sequel after such a lapse. (although how well Sonic survived the journey is debatable)
Obviously Sonic Team had been making titles in the intermittent time frame, but nothing involving the intricate spritework of the mega drive classics. (or even the physics) So they had a lot of expectations to live up to, and not a lot of goodwill to accommodate any follies.
Blue dude with an attitude, and disregard for the laws of gravity.
Even from the first debut trailers it was clear something was wrong. The game was loaded with icky pre-rendered sprites and an abundance of boosters and springs. Longtime Sonic fans had seen this design approach time and time again. They were clearly going for a more modern, exhilarating play style that the series is now known for, rather then a platformer focused on timing, skill and meticulous pacing.
A lot of people (myself included) held some faith. We told ourselves “maybe they’re just showcasing the on rails speedy gameplay for trailer fodder! I bet the rest of the game will have some good old fashioned platforming!”
And as for those graphics. They look far better in screenshots then they do in motion. Not a compliment.
Graphically the original games have aged superbly. The diverse colour palettes and attention to detail have lent them a wholly unique identity in the Genesis library. There’s literally no negatives I can surmise. It shows that these games were the blockbuster juggernauts of their era.
This 4th entry however. This wouldn’t be the leader of any genre or console library even 2 generations ago.
I detest those dust clouds.
The visuals are deeply flawed on a conceptual level. Pre-rendered 3D graphics in a 2D game. Now, this could have worked in theory. Small download size limits could have prevented the game from having lush 3D polygonal visuals. (which would explain why episode 2 didn’t make it onto Nintendo platforms, notorious for their meagre download size limitations) So squashing visuals into sprites helps circumvent the file size. However, they don’t take advantage of this. The layouts and assets just scream “tileset” looking at them. Literally every single pixel on screen could and should have had it’s own unique flair. (see most indie games with retro visuals) We could have had dense layers and layers of parallax scrolling with detailed and complex imagery. But instead we get a flat lifeless imitation of the classics.
There’s so little life to the environments, few things animate and there’s obviously no lighting system given the design. Sonic Teams strength is definitely 3D visuals. They’ve shown their prowess with the fantastic hedgehog engine used in Sonic unleashed and Sonic generations. The pre baked lighting helps attain photorealistic visuals on a memory budget.
They use this tech (seemingly) in episode 2, but in episode 1, we have a very flat viewing angle and repeating textures which only serve to highlight how plastic the world looks.
Sonic Team are a big company who can create beautiful, stunning games. But its clear that their internal talent pool don’t know how to work with retro visuals which is why they ended up with this half committed effort to a classic 2D platformer aesthetic. Dimps the co-developer have had a lot of experience working on 2D sonic games released on the GBA and original DS so it’s a wonder they didn’t have a input in that regard.
The art style worked for Donkey Kong Country because it was trying to circumvent strict technological limitations.
Sprite visuals are a particularly fussy art style to work within. Not many people are trained in it, it takes a lot longer and keeping a unified style in a big team can be a fierce juggling act. plus using pre-fabricated 3D assets, dotting them around and messing with the lighting usually suffices to create a good looking world.
If only Sonic Team had outsourced, or even took some inspiration from the extremely talented team working on Sonic 2 HD
Why cant Sega of Japan with all their resources make a Sonic game that looks like this? Sonic fans are truly a hardy and dedicated bunch.
I can think of at least one neat visual trick that stands out in the casino zone, where a series of cards create a path to run on. Which warps in and around the level and have Sonic get quite close to the camera. It’s obviously a dynamic “on-rails” segment, but it brings some much needed life and depth to the zone.
I begrudgingly admit, this is pretty fun.
This kind of dynamism would be have been much appreciated if it had been incorporated into every level and even the gameplay. LittleBigPlanet set an interesting precedent for this where you can jump between various lanes. For Sonic, it would have been perfect for bolstering the levels with replayability and more areas to explore.
Another missed opportunity is the homing attack.
The most inventive use of it in this game is to chain attacks on pathetic enemies to get across small gaps. If the enemies had more variety to them then this may have been engaging. But the game for the majority of the time abuses this trick with those boring blue bubble enemies. They only start attacking back near the end of the game.
And besides, using a charged up spin dash and subsequent jump to cross a gap requires a lot more skill, speed and timing. I cant conjure up a worthwhile use for the homing attack in this game, and neither can Sonic Team clearly. In 3D gameplay it’s actually a smart infusion as it helps navigation greatly. But in 2D titles it almost always robs you of experimenting with the physics. We all remember using ramps, long drops and bouncing on enemies to cover great distance to improve our speed runs. The homing attack absolutely kills all meaningful momentum.
The homing attack has long been a controversial topic within the Sonic community, and this game shines a spotlight on everything wrong with it.
There *is* potential here for Neo-Retroism however. Bringing in 3D Sonic’s modern moveset into 2D could have brought a fresh perspective on the level designs. The homing attack is a missed opportunity but his sliding, boosting and bounce stomp could have helped fill the gameplay gap that only having 1 playable character created.
Regarding those lackluster blue bubble enemies, the enemy variety throughout the entire game is disappointing. The classic trilogy had unique sets of enemies for every single zone. Whereas this one uses the same badniks already seen 20 years earlier.
It’s pathetic for a game made in 2010. Not only is the enemy variety smaller, but the majority are simply reused ones from the earlier games but implemented worse. This game actually retroactively diminishes the quality of the enemy roster in the previous trilogy. Possibly the greatest gaming sin imaginable.
A dorky legacy tarnished.
If the game was braver and implemented depths of field (similar to how Mutant Mudds does it) we could have seen enemy movesets and ways of dealing with them expand. There’s just an abundance of missed opportunities at every turn.
The level roster is also tired and un-inventive. With the power of modern technology we could have had a really dynamic and cinematic stage flow like the structure of sonic and knuckles but more seamless and grand. Or even hugely replayable labyrinths with no restrictions on how big a level would be.
But instead, what we get are linear, uninteresting by the numbers tropes.
We have the Green Hill zone knock off, (with zip lines) Casinopolis knock off, (with playing cards) Labyrinth ruins knock off (with lighting!) and the Metropolis knock off. (with bubble homing chains)
It’s hugely disheartening to say the least. The hype machine for Sonic 4 was pretty overblown and to be treated to 4 worse versions of 20 year old zones was no good. And make no mistake, these levels are terrible. They are flooded with boosters, springs and all manner of gadgets to zip you from point A to B with zero control. Springs in the older games could be used strategically and playfully, but they’ve been butchered as of late. stripped of their ability to empower the player and instead used as choke points in stage design to tunnel the player to the right against their will.
The earlier games had extraordinary pacing. The levels had a real ebb and flow. Not to mention lots of secret’s to explore and branching paths for replays. This game is a sterile, tepid rollercoaster.
Hope you like boosters, cause you’ll be seeing a LOT of them.
The special zone’s in sonic games are usually quite the spectacle, but what we’re treated to here is a shockingly dull remake of the ones from Sonic 1. The weakest and dullest one the classics had to offer. Thank god episode 2 rectifies this with a fantastic re-imagining of the half pipes from Sonic 2.
One small gameplay facet stands out that I wanna talk about. It;s my favourite part of the game and it’s actually a decent example of Neo-Retroism done right. The lost labyrinth zone has a act where you wield a torch and solve puzzles and unlock the path ahead by lighting other torches in sequence and carrying the flame forward.
This is actually a great addition for several reasons. This kind of lighting trickery smartly improves on the Sandopolis zone in Sonic & Knuckles. Sure, the cheap lighting effects don’t hold a candle (no pun intended) to the immense sprite detail in Sandpolis’s changing ambiance but its nice to be integrated into the gameplay. It’s hard to say what did it better, the ghosts that dodge the light or the torchlit path. Both are paced extremely well. The ghosts force a sense of urgency on the player to keep the light active, and the level for the torch is well paced and brings some light puzzle solving to the gameplay which is unusual and fresh for the franchise.
There’s even explosions. Always welcome.
Now that I’ve discussed arguably the games highest strength, lets talk about the most infamous misfire.
The boss fights.
The music is simply, bad. The melody’s are serviceable I suppose, but they’re inanely short, feels so much more so then the original anthems. And the soundset used is grating. It’s obviously a cheap, hastily thrown together emulation of the Mega Drive soundset. But it doesn’t even come close to the addictive tempo or atmosphere.
The whole game uses the same obnoxious soundset with little success. (it sounds like drowning cats mixed with wailing ducks) The games composer Jun Senoue is a hell of a musician, and he can make a decent melody, But retro inspired is clearly not his forte.
There’s one single sound effect they successfully transplanted into this game. And that’s the iconic Genesis snare drum sound. The one use sparingly and moderately in the classic sonic songs is now overblown and excessive here. It’s the one legitimate effect they could get their hands on so you can be sure you’ll be sick to death of it by the games end.
Worse yet, some Neo-Retro implementation would have salvaged it. Sonic & Mario at the Olympic games include some Sonic 4 tracks with Jun’s iconic melodic rock strewn on top of it and it sounds fantastic.
See how close the soundtrack was to being good? botched by misguided direction.
There are some good tracks in the games lineup. Mad gear acts and lost labyrinth act 3 are both quite moody and atmospheric. (thankfully there’s a lot of good fan remixes out there) But every other level is so forgettable and the boss music drags the whole package down.
The design philosophy for the boss fights seems to be. Copy the source material for for the first 7 hits. And then for the last sliver of health, unleash some new hellish attack which is too difficult to dodge, yet somehow doesn’t last long enough to leave an impression. The final boss is especially disappointing in this regard.
A while after the games release, they did retroactively add some value and ingenuity. Paying homage to the “lock-on” technology of Sonic & Knuckles was the downloadable content known as Episode Metal. If you pre-purchased Sonic 4 episode 2 with Sonic 4 episode 1 in your library (Wii owners were out of luck. Episode 2 never came out on Nintendo systems) you would be treated to a small bonus game where you can replay Sonic 4 Episode 1 as metal sonic.
Super Sonic is also in the game, but like everything else there’s nothing new regarding his inclusion.
It’s nothing to rave about, it offers roughly the same value as Playing Sonic 2 as Knuckles but it’s a smart treat and a less crooked way of encouraging pre-orders.
It’s honestly a shame there aren’t more positives to take away from this title. As a case study of Neo-Retroism it’s more of a cautionary tale. Sonic team have lost what little mastery they have over 2D visuals this past decade and they should stick to their strengths. Episode 2 does make some amends to the franchise, but it offers even less Neo-Retro talking points. I may cover it in the future, but honestly. Talking about Sonic is making me sad. And Shovel Knight is calling my name. Now THAT is a game that does Neo-Retro correct.