I would love to be writing a review of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II right now, but Sega decided they didn’t want my money and didn’t release it on the Nintendo Wii. I’ve heard a great deal of speculation as to Sega’s motives for this. Many of them sound plausible (lower sales, Nintendo being harder to work with for digital downloads), but I’m sorry: you don’t release one episode of an unfinished game on a system and then not release the next episode on that same system. “Here! Have half a game!”? You’re basically giving fans a giant middle finger.
Since I can’t play the game, I decided to watch someone else’s playthrough on YouTube. So, with the obvious disclaimer that I haven’t actually played the game, here are my thoughts.
My biggest problem with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I was that it didn’t feel like a separate game at all. It was basically a slightly less interesting Sonic the Hedgehog 2 without Tails. There were some other problems (the physics engine was pretty shoddy, for instance), but it basically boiled down to, “I’ve already played this game, and it was better last time.”
Episode II made it clear almost immediately that my objections had been heard. The game opens with the kind of minimalistic cutscene Genesis fans will be familiar with from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Sonic and Tails are flying on the Tornado when they notice what looks like a ruined castle. Being the adventurous sort they are, the heroes decide to investigate.
Now this is what I’m talking about. Although the level concept might be reminiscent of previous games, it isn’t a Copy/Paste like Episode I‘s zones clearly were. The real masterstroke was the boss fight, Egg Serpentleaf. This boss begins with two pillars rising which are identical to the pillars seen in the Sonic the Hedgehog 2 boss fight Hammer Eggman. Before I could even get out an exasperated complaint, the pillars were suddenly smashed away by a pair of huge tentacles, and it was revealed that the real boss fight was a giant flower with tentacles controlled by the Egg Mobile mounted on it. In other words, nothing like Hammer Eggman. This almost felt like a “yeah, we heard you” teasing wink from the game designers. In addition to being quite unlike anything we’ve seen in any of the previous 2D Sonic Games, this boss required the use of the new Sonic/Tails partner system, a mechanic entirely unique to this game.
Speaking of that partner system, although I obviously didn’t actually get to use it, it looks much better than what we’re used to from 2D Sonic games. It appears that you have the ability to initiate several moves (the most common being Tails grabbing you out of midair and flying you somewhere) and then control them. For anyone who remembers plugging in a second controller to get to hard to reach places in Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles, please join me in saying thank you to the designers of Sonic 4: Episode II. Furthermore, it becomes apparent later in the game that the Sonic/Tails partner moves actually have the extremely useful ability to bring Sonic out of his Super Form, meaning you can finally switch back and forth between Sonic and Super Sonic at will. (The only way to do it in previous games was by entering a Bonus Stage.)
More than the dramatically improved gameplay aspect of Sonic and Tails as partners, what I love about this game is the emphasis on Sonic and Tails as partners, something that’s been missing from Sonic games for almost 20 years. Sega seems to think that because they have come up with so many new, interesting characters that they need to cram every single one of them into every Sonic game, and that makes it almost impossible for Tails’ role to not be diminished. Here, in addition to the fact that the whole game is Sonic and Tails having an adventure together, it’s the little things, like the fact that the gauge that shows how many lives you have is a Sonic & Tails logo, not just a Sonic logo.
The level concepts of the next two zones are also relatively original, though not nearly as smooth. I have to admit, I honestly have no idea what’s going on with White Park Zone. Act 1 is a snow level with a theme park in the background, Act 2 is that theme park, and Act 3 is a frozen underwater level. What exactly is going on here? On a positive note, Tails’ already-awesome swimming from the Genesis games actually seems genuinely useful in this game, as he carries Sonic with him and can even go from swimming to flying if you break the surface of the water. It’s great stuff. And the boss of this stage is none other than a revived Metal Sonic!
The next zone, Oil Desert Zone, immediately made me think, “Oh Lord, if I see one badnik in a burqa, I’m turning this video off.” Luckily, there wasn’t anything nearly so tasteless, and now Sonic fans have another inside joke I guess.
Sky Fortress Zone is probably the least original zone in the game, but it does certainly have distinguishing features. Act 1 is indeed quite reminiscent of Sky Chase Zone from Sonic 2, but with the added element of being attacked by Metal Sonic piloting the Metal Carrier. Acts II and III are reminiscent of Wing Fortress Zone from Sonic 2 and Flying Battery Zone from Sonic & Knuckles, but that’s perfectly acceptable as having a flying fortress seems like a sensible trope for Robotnik.
And the boss makes up for any lack of originality in Acts 2 & 3. The boss is Metal Sonic’s Metal Carrier. To my knowledge, this is the only time in a 2D Sonic game that Sonic fights a boss from Tails’ Tornado plane. It’s really actually kind of surprising this hasn’t happened before, and fits the theme of this game actually introducing new gameplay elements to the series while staying mostly within the Genesis style.
After the Metal Carrier is destroyed, we get another Genesis-style cutscene of Sonic pursuing Metal Sonic and Robotnik on the heavily-damaged Sky Fortress. Sonic chases Robotnik all the way to an escape pod, where Metal Sonic steps in to hold him off while Robotnik takes off, and then takes off himself, leaving Sonic and Tails to find escape pods of their own to pursue.
The final level of the game, predictably enough, is Death Egg mk. II Zone. This zone features two acts, both of which are boss fights. The first is a duel with Metal Sonic in which you fight him twice with a stretch of normal gameplay in between. The first fight features Metal and Eggman, while the second is a straight up fight with Metal Sonic himself. After you defeat Metal Sonic for the final time of the game, the stage is set for the final boss.
This is where the game easily could’ve gone wrong. Episode I made the mistake of just giving us a carbon copy of Sonic 2‘s final boss. An original boss might not have a grand enough scale to fit the paradigm of Genesis game final bosses. Don’t worry: they didn’t screw up. The Egg Heart is both original and convincing as the final boss of a Sonic game. Robotnik’s machine is surrounded by three rings, which you must again use the partner system to fly between. Some of the rings will become electrified, and after a few hits Robotnik will start using a forcefield to protect himself that you must use the Rolling Combo move with Tails to break. The Egg Heart also uses gravity-based attacks. This combination of obstacles and attacks makes this look like a challenging final boss worthy of a Sonic game.
The final cutscene is nothing special, just Sonic and Tails abandoning the dead Death Egg in escape pods, but that’s what you’d expect from a Genesis-style Sonic game, so no complaints there. The credis roll… and then, if you own both parts of Sonic 4 on your game system, you’re not done.
Reminscent of the “lock on” features of Sonic & Knuckles, if the game detects Sonic 4: Episode I, you move on to Episode Metal. Episode Metal begins with a flashback to Metal Sonic’s defeat in Sonic CD, and then shows Eggman showing up and reviving him. The badly damaged Metal Sonic limps to Metal Gear (a stage from Sonic 4: Episode I). We learn that Metal Gear was built for the purpose of reviving Metal Sonic! Ingeniously, Metal Sonic then plays through the zones of Episode I backwards. Although I question why Robotnik’s badniks would attack his ally, this ties Episode I and Episode II together nicely, and forces me to concede that Episode I may not have been entirely useless (though my earlier complaints still stand.)
After playing through the site of his revival, Metal Sonic moves on to Lost Labyrinth Zone, and we discover that the purpose of this zone was Metal Sonic discovering a mysterious orb that grants him new powers (powers which we see in the main story of Episode II). Casino Street Zone seems to more or less be thrown in for the sake of completeness, and finally Metal Sonic plays through Splash Hill Zone, arriving just too late to catch Sonic as we see him and Tails taking off in the Tornado.
So there we have it. Although it would be nice to actually play the game, it certainly looks like all of my complaints about Episode I were answered, and then some. Plus, the game features excellent graphics and sound, and for the most part a superb soundtrack. There are a few exceptions to the “superb soundtrack” part, though (I’m looking at you, Oil Desert Zone Act 2.) I still don’t understand why Episode I had to exist, and they couldn’t have just made a slightly longer version of Episode II, but I’m glad to see Sega finally got their heads out of their asses.
Except for releasing this game on every system they released Episode I on, anyway.