Unlike the Mickey Mouses of the Nintendoverse, Mario and Luigi, a pair of fireplug-shaped plumbers who spend their time attacking amphibians and reptiles across a myriad of landscapes that could only have come from the nightmares of lunatics (plus, let’s face it, Luigi was always the Other Boelyn Girl of video games), Sega’s flagship mascot never looks happy, only intense. When he liberates the captive animals at the end of a round, he looks furious and smug at the same time, wagging a finger that is both victorious and condescending to the “lesser critters.” A free agent with no history, no employment (in game mythology he’s actually called “a drifter”; perhaps he lives off royalties from the vertebrate organogenetic protein named after him), Sonic has no agenda, except one: run like hell.
Nineteen years after the critter debuted (he’s still one of the main reasons why we enjoy a pluralistic platform market), Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 arrives to distinguish itself from the countless sequels, spin-offs, and guest appearances that precede it, as well as to honor the original game’s 8-bit simplicity, albeit in high-def form. It’s what The Walking Dead represents for the zombie narrative, or what Coke Classic was supposed to have been for Coca-Cola: elegantly plain, a return to classical form, casting off the more fashionable dressings of the “reboot” and the “update.” The marketing mantra: think nostalgia.
In terms of design, the scrolls are extremely busy, though the clutter never feels overdetermined or confusing. In fact, the “physical” landscape is designed to maximize the player’s sense of achievement, with enough obstacles—some are particularly sneaky and low—to prevent a feeling of overindulgence. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Casino Street Zone,” in which the environment is designed with a dual-theme that combines a big-top circus with the inside of a pinball machine. The mind-boggling number of rings in this stage is enough to bring out the compulsive gambler in any player. After all, nothing suggests “casino” quite like winning a bunch and losing it all in a flash.
In a way, Sonic is a true triumph of form over narrative: While there’s some idiotic husk of a story about a mad inventor-genius, who seems inspired by the Professor Fate character in The Great Race, who tries to murder Sonic at the end of every chapter, the real motivation behind play is to achieve pure centrifugal force. The punk hedgehog can leap through the air but he cannot fly, and his flights of turbo-powered super-speed only make sense when they inscribe geometrically curved tunnels, loop-the-loops, and Möbius-like ribbon bridges.
The designers are right to apply a rudimentary carrot-stick structure to the play; the rewards for going super-fast are countless in occurrence and variety. Sometimes the game is about negative reinforcement (as in the case of the run-or-die Indiana Jones-style moving wall, or the ubiquitous 10-minute clock, which is never much of a danger but a terrific antidote to getting cocky), but for the most part it’s positive (bashing baddies, grabbing rings), and very rarely is it obstructed by the need to stand there and strategize. Ever the obnoxiously combative varmint, Sonic will actually lie down and drum his fingers if you don’t keep him moving.
Of the narrative’s countless pitfalls, traps, and unstoppable villains, only two left a sour taste in my mouth. The first is a puzzle with torches (you’ll know it when you see it; game designers never seem to run out of ways to reinvent the “idol and bag of sand” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark). The second comes after you defeat Eggman/Robotnik’s final super-robot. He’s a tough enough foe to begin with—requiring a total of eight ass-whoopings over the course of the entire narrative, which breaks down to God knows how many individual strikes—that, for the player’s mental and cardiac health, the game shouldn’t really ask you to luck out of a disintegrating spaceship after you’ve taken care of the big villain. It could just be me, but I came across a few game bloggers who lodged a similar complaint. (The consensus seems to be: There’s difficult, and there’s “Come on, assholes.”)
All told, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is an addictive game for one story cycle, but it may not inspire a lot of replay; it seems designed less to amaze than to appease, and in terms of explorer-friendly landscapes this isn’t exactly Red Dead Redemption. Still, as these things go, Sega seems to have intuited correctly what veteran gamers and kids will enjoy, and it’s a pleasing time-waster.