I enjoyed Sonic 4: Episode 1. I really did, and Iím a massive Sonic the Hedgehog fan. But, it was easy to see why some fans werenít so taken with the digitally distributed platformer - for all the homages and throwbacks to the Mega Drive classics of the 1990s, it seemed that Sonic Team (or Dimps, whoever you really want to point the finger at) didnít quite get the physics right.
This, along with some other concerns in level design and presentation, wonít be a concern with the next episode, due for a release this Spring. Indeed - to my shame - the first thing I did when launching the demo was jump around an awful lot and spindash off of cliffs to see the ball physics and momentum of Sonic and Tails. Iím proud to report that everything is working properly. Youíre welcome - I did that for you, you know.
As a result, Sonic 4: Episode 2
is a lot more fluid in gameplay, and feels a lot more exciting in its design. The environments looks absolutely gorgeous, and the animation in Sonic and Tails are a real step up from the previous game. Sonic now leans forward while whirling his spindly legs in a circle, which looks great.
Some classic gimmicks are back too, from snowboarding down mountainsides to running on water, Jesus-style. Then you have the badniks - a mixture of the familiar (like the Chopper fish) and the brand new, such as a massive metallic polar bear and a cute little snail that you have to attack from behind.
Takashi Iizuka, producer of Sonic 4: Episode 2
and Sonic Teamís leader, was available to answer any questions I had about the game, or the franchise in general. And as it happened, I had several. Read on to learn the concept behind Sonic 4, what the studio listened to from its fans and whether the success of the Sonic CD
2011 port could lead to any similar game revivals...
SPOnG: How much of the game had changed in development since the reaction to Sonic Generations? A lot of people had some positive things to say about that game - so did any of that feedback influence you at all?
Now that weíre announcing Episode 2
at this time, after a certain period after the release of Sonic Generations
, it may feel that there would be enough time for us to incorporate the feedback. But the reality is, we were developing Generations
and Episode 2
at the same time. By the time Generations
was released, the development on Episode 2
was really coming to an end.
To be absolutely honest with you, we didnít really have the time to incorporate any feedback from consumers on Generations
to Episode 2
. But what we did do was - because it was being developed at the same time, anything that we thought worked really well in Generations
we considered for Episode 2
and vice versa.
SPOnG: Episode 2 is coming out quite a long time apart from Episode 1. I think a lot of people thought that, being an episodic game, there would be short waits between each one. Did the wait for Episode 2 have anything to do with the reaction you had from fans with Episode 1? While critically acclaimed, some fans were quite negative about the physics and other aspects of the game.
Actually, the development for Episode 2
hasnít been delayed - we are in fact on schedule with what we planned. Because last year was Sonicís 20th Anniversary, and was a big celebration for the character, we really wanted everybodyís focus to be on Sonic Generations
. That was the product we created to celebrate the Anniversary, and we didnít want the focus to be taken away from that.
So what we planned to do was announce Episode 2
as early as possible in 2012, so that it doesnít take the focus away from Generations
. So this was always the plan - Sonic 4: Episode 1
, Sonic Generations
, and then Sonic 4: Episode 2
In regards to the Episode 1
feedback - rest assured, we did listen to the fans. The comments we received really did hit home, and the fans have been very vocal about very specific things. So we have totally eliminated those issues for Episode 2
SPOnG: One of the things I found interesting was the Tag Action moves that Sonic and Tails can perform together. Will there be areas in the game where youíre forced to use those moves to progress through the level, or are they entirely optional if you want to access alternative areas?
Whether youíre playing alone or in co-op, the Tag Action is a necessity for you to clear the game. The design of the levels have been created with Tag Actions in mind. That really shaped how we designed levels. So in the very first level youíll be slowly introduced to each of the Tag Actions: the one in the air, the one on the ground and the one underwater.
Thatís almost like a tutorial - after that stage, players will have to determine when to use those powers on their own. When playing with a friend in particular, you have to time these moves just right - it really encourages communication between players and we think that will be a very fun experience.
SPOnG: Can you tell us a bit more about the multiplayer co-op? Is it local, or can you play online? And if itís online, do both players share a screen like in Sonic 2 or can each player roam the stage as they please?
Itís both local and online. In regards to the second question - this was something we asked ourselves a lot during the gameís development, actually. We decided that the best way to present a true Sonic
co-op game was to have both players on the same screen.
We consciously decided not to go for the split-screen option, because if that was the case and players were able to move freely then one player is just going to run forwards and go to the goal, and itís not really co-operative in that sense. We really wanted to encourage people to play together and get that communication going.
SPOnG: What did you think of the 2011 Xbox Live Arcade remake of Sonic CD, and the Retro Engine that was used to build it? (NB: Sonic CDís release last year is in fact not an emulation - it was painstakingly recreated by Australian coder Christian Whitehead from the ground up using an engine he created called the Retro Engine)
Takashi Iizuka: Sonic CD
is a game that the fans had always asked to be brought back... the problem is that itís a really difficult game to port or emulate! I wasnít aware of the name of the engine that made it happen, but I think itís great that something people have been asking for is now available to them. Weíre very happy that itís been realised in this way. And particularly because of the timing of the re-release - Sonic CD
ís storyline has some relevance with that in Sonic 4: Episode 2
, so we think that the timing on everything works really well.
SPOnG: One other game thatís also reportedly quite difficult to port is Knucklesí Chaotix from the Sega 32X. Would you consider going down a similar path to re-releasing that title if someone had the right proposal?
[Painful laugh] Hmm... probably not. People arenít as vocal about Chaotix
as they have been about Sonic CD
. So at the moment I donít really have any strong feeling or obligation to do that.
SPOnG: Can you say whether the rumour of a game called Sonic Dimensions on the Wii U is true or false?
Takashi Iizuka: Sonic Dimensions
? [Laughs] I think itís a complete hoax. [Laughs]
SPOnG: Sonic 4: Episode 1 seemed to be very much an homage to past Sonic games in its environment and enemy design. Although there are throwbacks in what Iíve played of Episode 2, by and large you appear to have added more original design elements. Was that homage factor something you were aware of that you wanted to change in this game?
To explain my answer, I need to go back the whole concept behind Episode 1
. Basically, the Sonic 4
episodes were created to follow from the original Sonic the Hedgehog
Mega Drive games. There was a 16-year gap between Sonic 3 & Knuckles
and Sonic 4: Episode 1
So we really wanted to drive home the idea that this is a continuation from the Mega Drive era, in a way that was really easy to understand. To do that, we thought the best way was to present familiar stages, and show some consistency in that sense. Thatís probably why Episode 1
likely came off as something of an homage to the past games instead.
In Episode 2
, we think that players really got that message. They now know that this is a continuation of the Mega Drive games, so we can do new things. If you think about it, itís a 50/50 split between making sure weíve got stuff in there that people will recognise as classic Sonic design, and also providing completely new experiences.
SPOnG: Sonic Colours, Sonic Generations and Sonic 4: Episode 1 have all been critically acclaimed and generally very well-received by fans. How do you feel about the Sonic franchise going forward, now that youíve put it back on track?
Well, thank you very much for your comment on the series! As to your question... there was a period where we had this photo-realistic Sonic
, going to loads of different places and offering fans completely different gameplay experiences. I feel that there should be a consistent core experience that defines Sonic
, that runs through every major game.
During this period, that was missing - there were too many branches of play styles and mechanics, and as a result people didnít know what was going on with Sonic
or what he was really about. I think that caused a lot of confusion with the fans.
Ever since getting involved with Sonic Colours
, going through to Generations
, Episode 1
and now Episode 2
, Iíve tried to make sure that this question of what Sonic fundamentally is has been answered, and is consistent. The essence of Sonic
is what weíve been trying to clarify, and drive home to people. Now that weíve done this, I think we can actually start thinking about spin-offs and branches of the Sonic
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you very much.
Sonic 4 Episode 2 will hit XBLA, PSN, iOS, Android and no doubt loads of other platforms in the Spring.