It was nineteen years ago, to the day, when Sonic the Hedgehog was brought into the world. To make it here, he pushed his way through AM8's roster of mascot candidates (all meant to replace Alex Kidd), and relied upon their then-tiny team to craft his self-titled debut game. Back then, it was all glitz and glamour, as the Japanese pop group Dreams Come True had plastered his likeness all over their tour buses, and the dude with a 'tude thrilled the gaming world.
Like many child stars, Sonic's vibrancy and allure began to fade when he entered his teenage years. Though his remarkable start hadn't been forgotten, he was forced to trudge through mediocre adventures, such as Sonic Heroes, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, and Sonic and the Black Knight. Throughout it all, he somehow maintained his marketability, but he hadn't kept close ties with his parents; Naoto Oshima, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and Yuji Naka – his creators – all left SEGA, one by one.
As such, bringing Sonic back to glory is a daunting responsibility; it's fallen on the shoulders of Dimps and the current Sonic Team. The former have proven themselves worthy, contributing portable titles like Sonic Rush to their namesake's roster, yet their console titles have always left something to be desired. Likewise, Sonic Team itself seems to have lost their connection with the Hedgehog, too, content to produce mediocre titles that dishearten Sonic's old friends and momentarily entertain his youngest followers.
It's reasonable, therefore, to fear that your anticipation will be “rewarded” with terrible disappointment. When I walked up to a Sonic the Hegdehog 4 kiosk at E3 2010, I picked up the Xbox 360 controller warily, not sure I wanted to suffer again what Sonic had become. Surprisingly, what I found was a playable – if imperfect – side-scrolling game. It failed to rekindle those nearly twenty year-old memories of Blast Processing and sleepless, Chaos Emerald-chasing nights, but it wasn't awful. It was, honestly, all right.
Yet “all right” is hardly good enough when you're associating yourself with the cherished Sega Genesis Sonic titles, and that's what 4 aims to do. As such, I put aside my fondness for the 'hog, and brought forth the well-intentioned criticism. One of the first things I'd noticed was Sonic's piss-poor acceleration; there's no reason for the Hedgehog to stumble along more slowly than a mustachioed plumber. Given the quality and pacing of Dimps' portable Sonic releases, his sluggishness was absolutely inexcusable.
Interestingly, a gentleman whose name I cannot recall walked up to me during this time, and asked me for my impressions. I greatly regret not acquiring his business card, as we wound up having a remarkable discussion that I'd much like to credit him for. To him, I noted Sonic's awful movement speed, and he gracefully accepted my words, stating that they aimed to fix that. Unsurprisingly, numerous others had pointed it out (both at E3 and, after watching videos, online); they wanted to ensure that they made those concerned folk as happy as possible.
A good start, to be certain. What about the fact that, when launched from an incline, Sonic would pull himself out of a Sonic Spin, and become vulnerable to enemies? There was nothing that could be done about that, he told me, for the combat focus had turned to the Homing Attack; a pity, but a concession I was willing to make.
One thing I wouldn't dare accept, however, was the Hedgehog's unresponsiveness. Beyond his slow-to-start running, there was always an off-putting delay between trying to move him around in the air and actually seeing it happen. The delightfully unrealistic whipping about from the Genesis titles was sorely absent, and in a series once renowned for its reflex-testing gameplay, that was not permissible. This, too, was brought up, and warmly (and not dismissively) accepted; yet again, I was baited, and – going by the quality of our discussion – I didn't feel it was a trick.
When I reached the first zone's boss, I enjoyed watching Eggman's first Sonic-crushing contraption lumber onto the screen, reborn. Only it wasn't just that, as the bald Doctor took a break from swinging his wrecking ball to and fro, and shocked me with a new maneuver (one I hadn't spoiled beforehand); that subtle change-up caught me entirely by surprise and put a smile on my face. It also reminded me of the days when we didn't get a good look at games prior to purchase, back when the internet – and Sonic – was young; when we'd unwrap our newest purchases with building anticipation, and explore the content of our cartridges with great expectations, wondering where our adventures would take us next.
Since each episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 will contain several acts (up to five each, in fact), I've no reason to balk at SEGA's choice to deliver it in chunks, as one download alone will rival the aforementioned cartridges' contents. Considering that, the price point for each episode will truly be a value, if the title itself is tweaked enough to satisfy.
At one point, I'd thought I'd be able to play it at home today, as Sonic's birthday would have been a befitting release date, but it's all right that I can't – really, it is. As I told the gentleman whom I was speaking with at E3, when it comes to stocking store shelves and keeping the Hedgehog in the public eye, there's always the main franchise titles. Those are pumped out on a near-yearly basis, and they serve a purpose, albeit questionably.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4, on the other hand, represents something special. It's meant to be Sonic's “return to form,” and it could be his last chance. That's why I appreciate SEGA's decision to pull Sonic the Hedgehog 4 back, and fine-tune it. They literally didn't have to, as the gentleman at the show so informed me: it had been considered complete by SEGA, so it was submitted to Microsoft and Sony for certification, and it passed. At that point, all they needed to do was release it, and forget it. Remarkably, and in response to critical feedback, that's exactly what they didn't do; that's a stunner, given Sonic's worse-than-spotty track record.
SEGA could have shipped it as it was, disappointed everyone who ever bothered to care, and made a healthy chunk of money nonetheless. They could have continued to service the Sonic franchise as minimally as possible, relying on cash cows like Mario and Sonic to make him worth keeping. Yet they're trying to do better. Maybe it isn't possible, but for now, I'm willing to believe in them. They're aiming to release something that pleases everyone, whether they met Sonic for the first time in 1991, or only started sharing in his adventures a few years back. Can they do it?
Honestly, the possibility of it alone... That's the best birthday present Sonic could ask for.