It's no secret that the Sonic series has fallen from grace. When Sonic Adventure 2 hit the Dreamcast, this was still hotly contested, but now even the hedgehog's most ardent supporters will tell you his adventures just aren't what they used to be. With new games ranging from disappointing to dire, the Sega mascot's legacy has been so tarnished that some have even started to forget how truly great the Genesis classics were - and make no mistake, they were brilliant.
And so Sega made a timely and current decision to take Sonic back to his roots, in much the same manner Nintendo did with New Super Mario Bros. And, much like Capcom did with Mega Man 9, they returned to the long abandoned numerals and named it the sequel to Sonic 3, arguably the last truly unimpeachable game in the series. There's no doubt that this was the right move for the series, but the final product has made it equally clear that Sega chose the wrong people to make it happen.
Superficially, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 seems familiar and inviting. Stylistically, this is indeed very close to the source material, with checkerboard hills and striped grass over a soundtrack of upbeat pop music played on low-quality synthesizers. Sure, the pre-rendered look gives everything a lifeless, plasticky sheen (a problem shared by NSMB), but it's nothing you can't quickly forgive. Alas, screen shots cannot convey the problems with Sonic's new world.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is like cheap Chinatown merchandise.
Sonic's unique and complex physics set it apart from every platform before it and sparked a major evolution in the genre. Unlike the countless mascot games that preceded it, Sonic boasted a landscape of both subtly rolling hills and dramatic stunts, paired with the unique ability to roll into a ball and actually ride the levels themselves, at times like a roller coaster and at others like a skate park. Speed and momentum became much more than a matter of getting a running start before a jump.
Sonic 4 does an absolutely pitiful job of recreating the mechanics that allowed players to careen down hills and soar through the air. It would be tedious to detail every way in which the physics and controls are off, but the most crucial is the roll, which no longer allows players to pick up speed on most inclines, but instead slows down and sputters out on all but the steepest hills. No longer can players roll back and forth on half-pipes to get higher and higher. Even without the roll, Sonic comes to a stop much faster than he should, and can even stop on a dime when jumping.
Things aren't much prettier at low speeds. Sonic feels heavy and is much slower to accelerate than in the classic series. He also doesn't offer much subtlety of control in mid air due to his lack of momentum, and those rare moments that require precise low-speed jumping can be needlessly frustrating. It really seems as if the developers didn't really know how to play Sonic very well and were simply coloring by numbers as best they could.
Just as not all players of a fighting game will be concerned with character balance, many casual players will probably not be as bothered by Sonic's new pair of lead shoes. Those who are willing to ignore these faults, however, will find little to reward their generosity, as there is not an ounce of inspiration to be found. There are only four zones, with three acts and a boss each. (For reference, the first Sonic had six zones, and every game since had more.) All of these are dry copies from the first two Sonics, right down to the enemies. This feels as much like a remix/remake as it does a new game. The level design is surprisingly competent compared to other details, but relies too heavily on old tricks. A possible exception is Lost Labyrinth, which pairs the classic Labyrinth Zone - hardly one of the series' shining moments - with some new tricks like torch puzzles and mine carts. These might be out of place, even pace-wrecking, but they are at least new.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is like cheap Chinatown merchandise. It looks convincing enough, it works, and the parts are all there, but once you get it home, the shoddy workmanship shows, and you realize it's just an imitation. As a sequel to the classic trilogy, it's more akin to those direct-to-video Disney cartoon sequels you see lining the impulse shelves around Christmas than it is a return to Sonic's golden age. And like Cinderella 2, it might even amuse less discerning audiences for whom familiarity is enough, but for an audience like Sonic's - older, weary, and cynical after years of abuse - this is simply not the return to form Sega needed it to be.