Last year Sega released the first direct sequel to the original Sonic the Hedgehog series from back in the 90's heyday. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 didn't have the luxury of coming out right after Sonic and Knuckles, it had a 17 year wait and during so many of the games featuring the Blue Blur had tarnished the name of Sonic. Hitting a wall of jaded nostalgia with out any climbing gear, Episode 1 was the first expedition up the wall to get back Sonic's good name. Unfortunately poor physics and lazy design left many fans in the dust of what was supposed to be Sonic's 2D comeback. Did Episode 2 fix this and is the magic finally back?
Episode 2 certainly does fix quite a bit of the problems that faced the first edition. Sonic feels like he's supposed to feel now. There is no weird lack of momentum or anti-gravity shoes that would make Sonic stick to the under side of loops. My biggest concern for the sequel had been fixed and after the first minute of playing around with loops and running, I never thought about it again. So yes, Sonic Team and Dimps have been listening but apparently not too closely because the next biggest issue hadn't been fixed. Only one stage felt original-ish in the entire game and everything else was taken from the original games. The first stage, Sylvania Castle Zone is a reimagining of Marble Garden Zone from Sonic 3 and Aquatic Ruin Zone from Sonic 2. White Park Zone is a combination of Carnival Night and Ice Cap from Sonic 3, Oil Desert is Oil Ocean from Sonic 2 and Sky Fortress Zone is a mix of Sky Chase and Wing Fortress Zones from Sonic 2. They didn't even get original with the damn names on these.
As a fan of the series it's almost excusable that they're reusing designs from the original 2D games except for the fact that the feeling isn't there. It doesn't feel fun and exploration is nearly dead because I've seen it all. It's the few original takes on the design that really pull the game out of the slump of "Yeah seen this already". Act 2 of White Park Zone really shines with Sonic running literally on the rails of a roller coaster and it's just visually stunning! The new controls granted by new technology really helped out Act 1 of Sky Fortress Zone and lets you take control of the Tornado just like Sky Chase Zone from Sonic 2. It all feels great and brings that sensation of wonder and a few glimpses into how great this series could be if they just made more fun original experiences.
What's worse is that they've brought Tails on board and he brings so much to the game play equation. So much more than just dying and occasionally catching rings for you. So while they bring new ways to explore the environment they don't have interesting enough places for me to do this. The over abundance of water stages is thankfully helped by the fact that Tails can help Sonic swim through hard parts. And the same goes to flying and trying to reach higher places. But the real new addition is the giant ball of chaos that destroys everything in it's path. It's really fun but not used nearly enough to matter.
Speaking of original things they could work on? The soundtrack is really bad. First I figured the problem was of nostalgia based issues. These stages are so similar in design with something I grew up with I figured I'm a little lost because the music is just different than the music I loved growing up. So I parked three kids who don't know anything about the 2D Sonic games in front of the TV and asked them. Nope this music sucks guys. When a 7 year old lets me know that it just doesn't sounds good and that he hates fighting Robotnik (err EggMan) because the song repeats so much it's annoying, you know something has gone horribly wrong. And the worst part was he was absolutely right! I didn't even notice at first but the boss music is quite bad. It's 3 to 5 seconds of music on repeat.
I guess to make up for the bad music all of the Bosses are pretty fun and only the fight between Sonic and Metal Sonic is ripping off another game (Sonic CD). Playing the Boss stage for Sylvania Castle Zone, it starts with the two pillars from Aquatic Ruins Zone boss coming up and as soon as I was finished rolling my eyes a giant tentacle robot tears them down and starts attacking me. It was exciting and awesome and sets the tone for the rest of the bosses that set you up for one thing and then do another.
Finally if you play this game on a system that already has Episode 1 on it, you'll receive Episode Metal which brings the two episodes together and explains how Metal Sonic gets caught up in all this mess. It's a great add on and I love how they called it a Lock-On extra just like Sonic 3 and Knuckles. While it's also similar in design, it's a great addition to the game and as a fan it's fun to play as Metal Sonic for a few stages.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is unfortunately the conclusion to this series and the reason I feel badly about that is that it really could be great. It's dancing on the line of mediocre and greatness. It feels like a Sonic game now and I did have fun playing the game. I think if an Episode 3 were to come out and feature Knuckles with some original stages and maybe hire someone who can write a decent melody this game wouldn't just be decent. It would do what we all want and put Sonic back in the spot light but until then the magic isn't here. There's little whiffs of it in the occasional stage but those whiffs aren't worth the price of entry.