Downloadable titles are the McDonald’s of the gaming world. Your virtual self is strolling past the PlayStation Network Store, feeling that base sense of loneliness and hunger that passes as the Human Condition, when up pops a cheerful neon sign promising light and colour and fulfillment. A few clicks and the tastiest of treats can be yours, something warm and inviting that will surely assuage the ache in the bottomless chasm that is otherwise known as your heart.
Such is my reasoning when buying Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
It’s one of those cold, sombre nights. Sepia streets awash with casualties of the nine-to-five grind. I’m in my flat, alone, watching out of the window as work victims struggle home to tend to their wounds. Bleak figures hunched over, as if weathering a storm.
I’ve been smoking too much again. Coming down hard, now, wrestling this notion that the whole universe is one enormous failed experiment. Wipe it all away and start afresh.
There is coffee, yes, and Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent), but everything feels so pointless, so confused, so utterly and irrevocably–
–Which is when I find Sonic 4. Or perhaps Sonic 4 finds me. Brightness, music, action! £9.99 doesn’t seem a bad price for a foray into childhood memories. Green Hill Zones and spin charges and that blue ocean in the background. I can play it right now. This is exactly what I need.
I click. I buy. I play.
Then I remember: I’ve got beef with Sega.
Sonic … I don’t know. Sonic always felt like a phony to me. Too self-consciously cool, like a committee had sat down in Sega’s boardroom and one executive had gone: “Kids love sneakers and spikey hair and the colour blue — what can we do with this?” Mario was — and let’s be honest here — a bit of a blobby buffoon, but crucially he was our blobby buffoon. Sonic felt calculated. He always put me in mind of the phrase “target demographic”. He tried too hard.
As for Sonic 4, it does what all franchises do when they’ve lost their way: it goes back to basics. Out with this glitzy “three-dee” gimmickry that’s gripped the industry of late, and back to the side-scrolling platforming we remember so fondly.
People have been saying this is a game made pretending the last fifteen years never happened, but that isn’t true. That kind of game would be a continuation of the 2D template, an evolution, a growth. Sonic 4 is a retreat.
“Remember when we were great?” Sonic Team are asking. “Buy this and remember when we were great!”
Sonic 4 is competent but never sublime. It does a decent enough job mimicking past successes, but that’s all. It is an emulation of a tested formula, losing somewhat in the translation. The visuals are clean and cheerful, yet conservative, unadventurous. The music is inane. New mechanics — new to Sonic, ancient to the industry — such as torches in dark areas and, you’d scarcely believe, frickin’ minecart rides!, are basic and occasionally poorly implemented. The levels themselves are an homage to — or maybe pastiche of — those from the original Mega Drive title, offering nostalgia aplenty but little in the way of imagination.
Painfully, as well, it breaks one of the golden tenets of game design, which is: never make the player’s failure feel the fault of the game. Too often difficulty spikes rear where you have no way of anticipating the obstacle, and can only learn by dying and taking note. Worse still, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s even required of you — were you right to leap from the rolling ball at that point, but misjudged the angle, or were you meant to stay on? One puzzle involving unlit torches and sliding barriers had me sobbing at the TV screen. But then I am rubbish at all games.
The obvious criticism, of course, is there is little point paying for this bite-size rerun when you could pick up a Virtual Console or other such edition of the original for much cheaper — or even download the ROM for free (World One-Two’s lawyers would like to point out downloading video game ROMs without prior ownership of the software is illegal and World One-Two would never condone such behaviour).
But perhaps this is unfair. Because, you see, there is a dark truth about Sonic — one few will admit. The truth is that Sonic — hushed voice — was never very good. Neither was the Mega Drive.
I feel justified saying this. I owned a Mega Drive for years. It was my first console. Among my friends it was the only console worth having. “Playing Sega” was shorthand for gaming, of any kind. And Sonic was king of it all.
We’d sit around in living rooms on summer’s days, passing controllers back and forth, bedazzled by the blue hedgehog’s speed and early-90s hipness. We were overcome with the thrill and glamour of it all.
… For fifteen minutes. Then we’d yank the cartridge out and play some Desert Strike. Then some Cool Spot, some Streets of Rage, a few matches of Mortal Kombat, a race or two on Road Rash. We devoured like locusts, constantly seeking the next high, moving from one fatty morsel to the next. Our appetites were insatiable. No game lasted long.
What the Mega Drive provided was junk-food gaming — alluring and flashy, but essentially empty. It was marketed as the darker, edgier cousin to the squeeky-clean Super Nintendo — but where a few years later the PlayStation would successfully synergise with a twenty-something pill and spliff and dance audience, Sega’s policy was too frequently shorthand for “games for ten-year-old boys who like guns.” This wasn’t maturity, but the polar opposite. The Mega Drive was for kids who masqueraded as adults because they’d seen Terminator II and knew how to swear.
My stack of twenty or so games sat next to the silent console and gathered dust. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the SNES kids were fastidiously working their way through the Vanilla Dome, or leading Link out into the Dark World, or perfecting strategies for Super Metroid. I had no idea what the PC kids were up to — save that it involved hooded robes and compass directions and strange-looking dice — but they seemed happy enough. I wasn’t happy. I was unfulfilled.
Which is what junk food does for you, in the end. It bypasses your logical, discerning capacities and preys on those subconscious desires we all possess. You never rationally decide to buy junk food like you would fruit or vegetables. It just happens. There’s a flash, you go light-headed — and next thing you know you’re walking away clutching your stomach, wondering where all your money went.
The Mega Drive, with its sexy mash-ups of bad action films, comics and hip hop videos, promised so much to the young male mind — and yet what few of us can admit is that — like all junk food — it was 90% packaging, 10% content.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is the same old Sonic. It kills twenty minutes here and there. It won’t make you feel any better about this misfire of a circle-jerk we call life though. It cost me £9.99. I could have bought Braid for less than that. And I’ve got a load of satsumas rotting in the bottom of my fridge. One day I’ll learn.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is a download-only platform game developed by Dimps and Sonic Team, available on PSN, XBox Live, iPhone and WiiWare. Six hundred billion people love Sonic and they’re all going to be mad about what I wrote here, but they’re wrong.