The title screen sets the precedent. Sonic poses behind a familiar looking emblem, waggling his finger expectantly at the screen as chirpy chip tune music plays in the background. Kids of the nineties will bask in the nostalgia radiating from the screen, fingers twitching as old cheat codes materialise in their minds. As he stands there, beckoning players to press the start button, we're told exactly what Sonic 4 is all about. Its retro Sonic, on next-gen consoles, with HD visuals bringing to life new levels based on old environments. Everything about it is a contradiction, but therein lays the charm.
As I play the opening few acts, and the familiar chime of collected rings fills the office, an audience slowly gathers around me. They leer at the screen, squabbling with each other over every detail that doesn't fit the mental image they have of Sonic 4 in their heads. Few games this year have commanded the attentions of the VideoGamer.com staff with such authority, but after 16 years who can blame them? This is indicative of many gamers because, despite his descent into mediocrity in recent years, Sonic the Hedgehog is a character that is still held close to gamers' hearts. Subsequently, Sonic 4 will be the subject of endless scrutiny; even at preview stage the internet was ablaze with uncertainties about the game.
There's certainly no denying it looks great; clean, crisp and modern in all the right places. The jittering flowers, chequered marble of the platforms, vibrant blue skylines, fluffy white clouds - it's classic Sonic, and yet at the same time it's not. It's new and trendy, revamped for a 2010 audience with fancy HD visuals. Sonic himself looks pretty dapper, too; he's leaner, lankier, and spikier, bounding around each level with slick new animations. While the physics might be slightly different (a point I'll address later on), Sonic handles with all his moves left as exactly as you remember them. Or near enough.
In a controversial move, developer Dimps has added a new ability to the blue blur's repertoire or, to be more precise, a move that's never been used in a 2D Sonic game. Pressing the jump button whilst already in the air will launch a homing attack, and if there's a monitor or badnik in the vicinity, Sonic will make a beeline for it in his curled-up form. This mechanic is tied into the platforming well, allowing Sonic to dart from enemy to enemy, stringing together entire lines of foes to reach otherwise inaccessible locations. Far from ruining the classic formula (which was the fans' main concern), the addition of the homing attack adds another layer of depth to the platforming, which can only be considered a good thing.
It doesn't take long to readopt the mentality required to play Sonic, and you'll race through Splash Hill zone in no time at all. At this point, three other zones become available, all of which are selectable from a fancy new map screen. This offers players the chance to navigate the dark waterways of the Lost Labyrinth, enjoy the neon-lit nightlife of Casino Street, or explore the sprawling industrial utopia of the Mad Gear zone – but you do these in any order you want. Each environment harks back to a Sonic zone of old, with the design and atmosphere of Sonic 2 coming through the strongest. Each zone is also split into four acts, the fourth taking the form of a boss battle against the ever-persistent Dr Eggman.
The story isn't worth delving into here – all you need know is that Sonic is rescuing poor furry animals from the clutches of the evil Dr Eggman. As with the levels themselves, each boss battle is intentionally reminiscent of that from a previous game, except on each occasion there's a twist. Your old-school logic will only take you so far, the twists aiming to keep veterans on their toes. The first boss sees Dr Eggman in his carrier, swinging a wrecking ball across the screen. You know the drill. Wait on the raised platforms, jump on his noggin whenever he gets close enough, rinse and repeat. It's a routine burnt into the memories of a generation of gamers. This time, however, he'll fling the ball 360 degrees over his head, putting the age old plan to pot. It's the same, but it's different – a sentiment at the very heart of Sonic 4.