It is sometimes hard to believe that Sonic has been collecting rings at super speed for nearly 20 years now, especially when the newest release only claims to be the fourth game in the series.

Of course, those that have followed Sonic’s adventures through the years know that he has starred in numerous titles and spin-offs since the last “proper” sequel, Sonic The Hedgehog 3 (1994). From Sonic Spinball to Sonic Adventure and even Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, Sonic has been the blazing blue beacon that gamers worldwide know as one of the few to compete with Mario sales-wise in their heyday.

Over the years a common complaint about many recent Sonic games has been that they stray too far from its turbo speed platforming roots. Sonic 4 hopes to remedy that by bringing back old-school 2D Sonic quality gameplay to the modern age. Does it succeed? Well, yes and no.

The first thing you are welcomed to is the classic “SEGA” chorus when starting the game. While this seems like a small touch, it brings this gamer back to a decade long ago when I first played the Sonic series. The menu screens are nothing special, but they get the job done. At first the only selectable mode is Score Attack mode, where you are trying to beat your previous high score on the level. After beating a few levels, Time Attack mode opens. Time attack is simply trying to get to the end of the map in the shortest time possible. These sound like fantastic additions, and they could be. Unfortunately the game is missing something its console cousins have: Leaderboards. I can understand the game not having achievements or trophies, as they don’t add to gameplay, but having modes where you are challenged to beat high scores and short times really feels shortsighted when the only score you can challenge is your own. (Note: the app description does mention that Game Center support is coming soon, but as of this writing there has been no update.)

Sonic 4 offers 4 different zones to play, with each zone having 4 levels within. Immediately the player will notice that these zones were heavily influenced by previous games, which gives the player a good feeling of familiarity while adding a few interesting twists to the gameplay. Dr. Robotnik returns to menace Sonic in the game’s boss stages, and long-time players will remember some of his moves…except he now goes into a rage mode (of sorts) when he is damaged severely, causing what were copy/pasted boss fights from the past to suddenly shift into an interesting, albeit brief, challenge.

Exclusive to the iPhone version of the game is tilt-controlled bonus stages that remind players of the original bonus stages from Sonic 1. The biggest shift aside from the tilt controls is they are now timed, which adds as sense of urgency to the turning tilty level of death.

Of course, Sonic wouldn’t be Sonic without his spin dash and super speed, but a nice carryover from the 3D sonic games is his homing attack. While in midair near an enemy or breakable object, simply hit the jump button and you will zoom to it, destroying the enemy or breaking the object. This is a really nice feature that allows the game to retain the speed and flow of play without having to stop and jump at an enemy.

The controls are passable, but as is the norm with many iphone games that were originally console games, the touch screen simply does not hold up as well as physical buttons do. Once you get the hang of the controls they do work, but you can’t shake the feeling that sonic isn’t as responsive as he should be. This brings us to the next issue. Physics.

The physics engine is impressive for the iPhone, but prevents a deep immersion due to the fact that you need to be holding the forward button to be moving at all. For example, when bouncing off an angled spring, you must be holding the forward button to continue sailing forward. If you don’t, you will simply drop straight down after a second. The same goes for Sonic on the ground. His “frictionless shoes” somehow have incredible traction that miraculously can stop on a dime when you release the forward button. Again, this is something that becomes manageable as the game continues, but through the first couple levels it is a jarring experience and may cause you to lose a few lives in the process.

As implied in the title, Sonic 4 Episode 1 is the first in a series of episodes that when complete, will make up the full story of Sonic 4. Of course, this means the game has a cliffhanger ending, and we are left to wonder what the next episode has in store for us.

In Conclusion

In the end I would say the game is solid for what it is, but somehow feels both familiar and alien at the same time. The levels are short enough to play when on a break, and if you leave the game abruptly via the home button, (if say, your boss is coming down the hall) the game will prompt you to start at your last checkpoint upon next play.

The difficulty in reviewing this game is that I find myself returning to play a level or two here and there, but also find myself putting the game down in disappointment. It has the potential to be a fantastic game, but it feels like it just isn’t there yet.

Is the game worth the premium asking price ($6.99 at the time of this writing) for the first chapter of an episodic game? I would say yes as long as you really enjoy Sonic games. If not, wait for a sale or a lite version to release.