"Attack of the Metal Clones"
If there's one thing that cannot be said about Sonic the Hedgehog's fans, it's that they're easy to please. Due to years of dealing with awful 3D games, bizarre spin-offs, ridiculous gameplay gimmicks, and the increasingly overzealous (and often perverted) fans from the Sonic comics and cartoons, the present day Sonic games are always looked at with extreme pessimism built from years of disappointment. The Genesis games are treated as sacred, while everything else falls into the category of sacrilege. The first Sonic 4 "demake" was widely considered an unworthy follow-up to Sonic's 1990s salad days, and while Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II is unlikely to be treated as the Blue Blur's second coming, it's one of the best Sonic games in recent memory and definitely worth your time.
The story of Sonic 4 follows up on the subplots left dangling from Sonic CD, though claiming that either game has a story is extremely generous. Sonic games and cinematic storytelling have proven about as pleasant a mix as ice cream and liverwurst, so Sonic 4 leaves it at "Dr. Eggman is back, and he's rebuilt Metal Sonic". What follows is another side-scrolling quest through various platform levels, with a monstrous mechanical boss at the end of each. As usual for Sonic games, you can also find special stages that viciously test your skills but reward them with the Chaos Emeralds needed to become Super Sonic. None of this is out of the ordinary for Sonic games past or present, nor does it explain why Sonic keeps losing the Chaos Emeralds between every single game (he should really just keep them in a backpack).
What separates Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II from other Sonic games, and particularly its direct predecessor, is the quality of its gameplay and level design. While Episode I merely imitated the old games, Episode II takes the classics as a starting point, but it offers unique and thrilling challenges. For example, Tails follows you everywhere, similar to 1992's Sonic the Hedgehog 2. However, rather than being window-dressing, the two-tailed mutant fox is actually useful, and you can combine his abilities with Sonic's. When together, Sonic and Tails can fly short distances, swim at high speeds, and even form a massive rolling ball of fuzzy destruction. The gameplay takes these new abilities and tailors the levels to suit them, making Sonic 4 a bit more complex than other 2D Sonics. However, the controls are still simple and intuitive, and any deaths you encounter will more likely be the result of your pitiful skills, not broken programming.
In addition to the impressive Tails tag-team moves, Episode II improves upon most if not all of its predecessor's faults. The graphics are much sharper, with more detailed and individualized environments. The obstacles and enemies are also more impressive, and take advantage of the modern hardware. The best example is an obvious metatextual joke in the first boss fight, when it appears that Dr. Eggman is going to trap Sonic and Tails between the same arrow-shooting pillars from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Instead, he knocks the pillars down with a monstrous mechanicaloid resembling a techno-organic venus fly trap. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II knocks away nostalgia for something more, and as a result it's one of the best Sonic titles in recent years.
GameDynamo's Score for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II (X360)
Neil Kapit is a freelance writer, cartoonist, and "La Li Lu Le Lo" agent based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen on www.therubynation.com.
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