Oh, Sonic Team. I really, really wanted to be in your corner for this one. Sonic Generations had me giggling with raw, childlike glee. Sure, it was a big retail title and as such in a different category than this game, but it captured what made Sonic games great. It spoke to the eight-year-old in me that spent countless hours with Sonic games and recreated that madcap, on-the-edge-of-losing-control feel that kept me playing. I didn't care about collectibles or platform gaming; Sonic Generations let me trust the developers enough to press right and watch Sonic go really, really, holy-hell-I-can't-believe-it fast. That's what these games do best.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Episode 2 tugs at many of the same retro strings that get my inner 8-year-old's attention. The soundtrack sounds like it was composed almost entirely on a Genesis chipset, the cinematics and level design are reminiscent of Sonics 2 and 3, and the enemies mostly originate from old games. ("Holy crap! They put the arrow guy that looks like Olmec into the game! How about that?) But in dropping all the right retro references Sonic Team forgot what makes their games fun.
That's not to say that this game is completely horrible. On the contrary, it's a completely serviceable platformer with fun gimmicks, a tag mechanic that isn't bad at all, and decent graphics. The whole game feels like it was designed to emulate '90s Sonic games, complete with Sonic 2-esque special stages. Multiple pathways reward repeat play and skilled players with new ways to get through levels. There are also the usual collectibles, achievements, and challenges that will keep completionist players coming back again and again.
Some of the level design of this episode is stellar as well. Of note is the roller coaster motif, which uses the 3d environment to make a second plane for Sonic to run on. The first time this happened I had my first (and only) eight-year-old-me giggle at the game's freshness. The fight with Metal Sonic that used this mechanic was easily the best Metal Sonic fight in the history of the franchise, in my opinion. I have to say it again: Sonic 4: Episode 2 isn't a bad game, per se. The problem with this game is one that sometimes happens with these retro revamps: I will call it "breaking the retro contract" - which is sort of like breaking the social contract, but with video games.
The entirety of Episode 2 is built around the cues we learned from Sonic games 20 years ago. No, not created: engineered to trigger the memories of a retro experience now long past. Everything from the opening plane sequence to the wording and graphics on special stages is built to call up memories of past games, good and bad. By doing this I expect the game to play like the 16-bit Sonic games I remember from my childhood, sort of like how The Rocky Horror Picture Show was created to feel like a bad science fiction flick. Call up the motifs, and the mind is instantly transported there.
This wouldn't be a bad thing if Episode 2 could deliver on its promises, but by and large it falls short. Because I was primed for 16-bit Sonic I was expecting the consequence-free, run fast world from my childhood. In trying to deliver on this promise, though, the game felt a touch soulless, with a few stop-and-think platforming moments interspersed among "Hey people, we made this just like the original!" loops and ramps. The game primed me for the hold-right-and-run-fast game of my childhood but pulled a bait and switch before I could really get up to speed.
And when I say speed, I mean it. This game is slow. Not terribly slow, but certainly not the Juice and Jam Time I remember from my childhood. I kept expecting the fast moments to be faster but Sonic seems to move at a slow jog in comparison to his old self. I kept waiting for him to accelerate just a bit more but it never, ever came.
This isn't helped by the heavy feel of the controls. Sonic's movements all felt weighed down; I couldn't just spin up and take off like the older games. This, coupled with slow animations, added up to an experience that felt like it was just a shadow of the past: freezing for tag-up animation with Tails, slowing down to animate Sonic as he sucked up air bubbles, level design that forced me to stop and consider my jumps carefully... they all added up to a game that the '90s, Urkel-voiced Sonic would have called "no good.".
And just to make sure I wasn't just suffering from "Back in my Day" syndrome I fired up Sonic 2 and 3 for comparison. Sure enough, these games played the same as the day they came out. Hold right and Sonic goes really, really fast. Sure, you can find some alternate routes, but at their heart the games were all about the thrill of speed without consequence. That thrill -- the same thrill that kept 8-year-old me coming back -- is sorely missing from this modern reinterpretation because of an attempt to make the game challenging, and the game is all the worse for it.
The problem continues in that they pulled in these retro cues that made the eight-year-old in me stand up in an almost pavlovian fashion. "More Sonic 2? Bring on the speed!" But the retro veneer didn't confuse 8-year-old me; she was just disappointed at the slow gameplay. Let this serve as a lesson for anybody who tries to cash in on retro appeal -- if you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. And to this Sonic fan's eyes Episode 2 felt like an almost soulless attempt to talk the talk while stumbling over the admittedly big shoes it attempted to fill.
A review copy of the game was provided. I played through the first two acts and watched Bauske play through the rest of the game.