As refreshing as a dive into a pit of spikes.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. Just saying the full name of the game has a weird feeling to it. Sonic games have been getting churned out yearly, with quality ranging from mediocre to abysmal. Dimps, the folks behind the portable Sonic games, have tried to bring back that sense of fun that people had with the original series. They fail. Instead they give a game that not only fails at bringing something new, but also manages to taint your memories of the original games.
Lets get this out of the way, this is episode one of three. There are five zones. On average a zone will take about an hour to complete the first time through. You can go back and do time attack mode to beat your best time. This isn't a lot of game for 15 dollars. Even the content in this feels stretched out.
The gameplay is similar other 2D Sonic games. The homing attack from the 3D games is new to this game. In a 2D plane it is like an air dash. The way you bounce off enemies when you use the homing attack is ridiculous. Some enemies will allow you to just fall gently, while some will send you flying. Sonic feels really weighted. It is very hard to get him going, and if you keep moving fast enough and you miss something, getting him to go back is a struggle. It is way too easy to miss special stages because you couldn't stop in time. There are also times where you have to stop and make a couple precise jumps to cross a pit of death, or hit switches properly to unlock a door. These disrupt the flow of the game.
There are some weird distractions too. There will be moments where you have to climb into cannons and aim them to your destination. In one stage you have to balance on boulders as they roll downhill. One stage has you carrying a torch around trying to light other torches to open doors and gates while the stage is dark. I can't say that these moments are fun, or even slightly amusing. They are just annoying and add nothing. By the time you finish you are almost glad to be back to the lackluster running gameplay.
This game tries so hard to be the old games. From the old enemies, to the recycled stages, to the bosses. I could write pages about what influenced certain parts of the game. The Chaos Emerald stages, which are a convoluted mix of the first two games' special stages, is a good example. There are two characteristics of this game that painfully show this. The music and the boss fights. The Casino and Final Boss themes sound like generic covers of the originals. If you have ever played a Sonic game, almost every boss will be familiar but some are significantly harder than others. I found it nice that they made a minimal effort to make it different from the old boss battles. But overall, it would have been nice to see something new.
Ultimately, this game has an identity crisis. This isn't a remake, so it should be bringing new things to the table, trying to make a new game. Instead this game spews nostalgia all over you. As much as I hate to admit it. This game is very faithful to the original series. The game just continues on the downward spiral the Sonic games were starting in Sonic 3. It couldn't create a game that was better than its predecessors, yet felt like the older games. Sonic 4 will make you pine for the older games, only to go back in horror and realize that they aren't so different after all. All of the flaws with this game are there in the older games, every single one of them.
So who is this game for? There seem to be 4 categories of fans of this series. The first group of people will devour anything Sonic related. Their mind has been made up about this game since it first got released. The people that hated Sonic from day one? You all can rejoice, because Sonic is still Sonic. To the people that used to love Sonic only to have your hearts broken, just skip this one. You won't rekindle that old relationship, it will only make you feel stupid. Last but not least is the group that has continued with Sonic's crazy ass journey, through the 3d games, and the Wii games, through the Werehog. Those people waiting for Sonic's resurgence, it's not going to happen. Cash out your remaining rings and go home before you spin three Robotniks. This game will only make you lose respect for the original games.