Platform: XBLA, PSN, PC, iOS
Play it if: You liked Episode I and wanted better.
Skip it if: You don’t think any game can compare to Sonic 2.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode I was a good attempt at giving players a continuation of the original Genesis titles, but its wonky physics and gimmicky stages kept it from achieving true potential. It looked like a classic 2D Sonic game, but the game lacked that special essence that made its 16-bit predecessors so much fun. Luckily, Episode II is the better of the two installments and gives fans a Sonic they’re more familiar with, even if does come with a few misses.
One of the biggest additions to Episode II is the inclusion of Tails, who now brings two-player co-op to the table. Like in the classic games, Tails can pick up and fly Sonic to places he can’t reach for a short amount of time, but players have a lot more control over him this time. By simply pressing a button, the action will pause, and Tails will teleport to where Sonic is and help him out. I found this too convenient sometimes because while it gets you out of sticky situations right away, after a while, it becomes too easy to press a button and save Sonic from a misstep. Tails and Sonic also have another combo ability that turns them into a giant ball, faster and stronger than the average spindash. The duo will always be joined by one another, so levels integrate these two abilities in unique ways that create a different experience. The game may feel like Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but this is a new game, after all.
Co-op mode lets two people play together offline or online, but it does come across a few problems, one of them due to the game’s fast-paced action. If you fall behind your friend, the game will respawn you right behind him, but you’ll need to press a button to pop out of your protective “bubble” like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The problem here, though, is that this happens a lot when going down slopes or slides, even when you don’t intend to leave someone behind. Another thing I noticed is that the person playing as Tails will have an advantage and can easily exploit certain situations by flying; this is especially evident during boss fights. Let’s just say, playing with someone else is easier than playing solo.
Controlling Sonic and dashing through the many colorful worlds feels quite good. Episode I’s physics engine has been overhauled, and the blue hedgehog runs a bit more like he did back during his Genesis years. Sonic’s homing attack is back, but aiming feels more accurate and is easier to pull off. He is also less shiny and doesn’t look out-of-place amid his colorful backdrops, which have layered textures that often give the game a great pseudo 3D effect. Considering the game is supposed to feel like Sonic 2, it’s great that controls and graphics don’t distract you from the game’s speed, a problem that often plagued Episode I.
Stages, too, are a lot more reminiscent of the original games and are designed to keep you always in motion. While it’s a bit apparent that the themes of past stages have been recycled into “new” zones – expect to see a sky fortress and a snowy amusement park, for example – the game does have its unique charm that is complemented by its soundtrack reminiscent of Sonic’s 16-bit days. There is, however, one section of an underwater level that requires you to swim past enemies that freeze the way forward. If you’re too slow or your aiming is off, you’ll be blocked from all sides, and all you can do is wait until Sonic and Tails drown to try again. Frustrated, I tried (in vain) to find a solution, and can only wonder why the developers wouldn’t provide one that doesn’t require losing a life.
Like classic Sonic titles, Episode II is great the first time you play it, but you may question playing through it several times. To extend playtime even further, the game includes chaos emeralds and red rings to collect in each act. As expected, collecting these emeralds lets you turn into Super Sonic, but it doesn’t really affect the game’s ending that much. Also, while finding each act’s red ring is supposed to provide a challenge, they are simply in areas you’ll explore anyway, and their presence simply serves to unlock an achievement. The developers did include a score attack and time trial mode for each act, so players can at least compete with each other via the game’s leaderboards.
While I didn’t particularly enjoy Episode I that much, Episode II rewards players who played the first game and unlocks Episode I stages playable as Metal Sonic. This feels almost like an apologetic thank you to fans that played through the first game, but this expansion gives you some backstory to the character and lets you play through the first game in a whole new way. Plus, it’s great to see Sega implement a similar lock-on technology it did back when Sonic & Knuckles came out.
Episode II has some obvious gameplay issues and provides a lackluster ending, but the experience playing through each stage is very nostalgic of the fun I had playing through the Genesis games. I also appreciate the improvements the developers made to the game and that they listened to and fixed what fans disliked about the first one. At this rate, let’s hope Episode III is made and becomes something truly worth raving about.