I went into Sonic 4 episode 1 expecting to hate it. At first I did. I saw all the nostalgia they're trying to recreate the feeling old Sonic levels with new technology and graphics. It felt like there was nothing new. The more I played, the more it felt like there was a freshness to the old 2D platforming of Sonic. For those who have never played the old Sonic games, they are labyrinth levels that you need to make it to the end. Along the way you collect rings. These rings let you take damage without dying. The rings go spraying everywhere when you get hit. If you have no rings, you will die when you get hit. The game is single player only and offers controller or keyboard support that you setup out of game.
It feels the same as the original games and not much has changed control wise. There is still one button controls. The one button will make you jump while you're standing or running. If you hold down and push the jump button you will perform a spin dash when you let go of the down. When you are running, you can press down to roll into a ball to kill enemies. New to the series is what I feel is a game changer. A mid air lock on dash. Just hit the jump button in mid air and Sonic will immediately dart to whatever he has targeted. Usually the closest enemy, spring board or item box. This is a game changer because it adds constant momentum that is easy and more efficient than a spin dash that takes a second or so. Just jump and dart in mid air. Its easy and efficient. Not just that, but attacking enemies in the air turns into platforming. It feels like a lot less time wasted gaining momentum. With this new mechanic, I can see why Tails wasn't included in this first episode.
The game looks great. It has detailed backgrounds and bright vibrant colors. There are four main areas, each with three levels and a boss fight. Each area has a theme from a previous Sonic game. There is no new territory. Consider it a best of rather than a new album. With that said, Sonic 4 takes them in interesting new directions every so often unique to Sonic 4. One level features a lot of cannons that Sonic can hop in and control where he shoots out. Another level has Sonic in a mine cart and keeping his balance on rolling boulders. You'll see Sonic in the dark carrying a torch, lighting things on the wall to open doors and activate platforms. It all feels fresh, even if it steps away from the Genesis. There are still classic Sonic tropes like using pinball flippers, bouncing off bumpers, going through loops, swinging from vines, using zip lines (Sonic Advance) and so on. There are a few moments of going underwater. While underwater, Sonic just moves slower. He can't actually swim.
The items feel limited to the ones found in Sonic 1 and 2. You can get temporary invincibility, ten rings, an extra life, super speed shoes and a bubble shield that lets Sonic take an extra hit.
Even with only 4 areas to visit, there are still 13 levels (not including boss fights). Each level is around five minutes to complete. I hate to say it, but it feels like a full length Sonic game, even if this is only episode 1. It runs around the three hour mark. The boss fights evoke nostalgia. Their patterns are like the original games, but they add new twists.
Sonic 4 does a good job of utilizing Sonic's speed. A lot of the previous 2D games had you go at your own pace, but Sonic 4 has you chased by boulders, crushing walls, running after Dr. Robotnik in boss fights. These reasons for Sonic to run feel engaging more than typical exploring the levels. It offers a variety.
Since you are collecting rings, if you complete the level and have more than 50 rings, you'll see a giant ring to jump into that sends you to the bonus stage. Even the bonus stage feels good. Its a take off of the original Sonic 1 bonus stage, but this time you get to control the rotation of the level while Sonic is just stuck in a ball. There are barriers that need coins to pass through. At the end of each bonus stage is a chaos emerald.
As you progress, you will unlock levels and areas as you progress. So if you get stuck on a level, you can skip it. After each level it gives you a choice to jump to the next unfinished level. That just feels odd. While its helpful to have level selection, I'd much rather progress to the next level instead of getting asked.
While this might be a departure from the old Sonic games, it adds new life to what was a stale franchise if you include the Genesis and Gameboy Advance platformers. The challenge feels good, its more difficult than the other old school games.