There are few gaming franchises that are as polarizing as Sonic the Hedgehog. On one side, you have fans that are fiercely devoted to the Sonic of old--the fast-paced, side-scrolling games that were immensely popular on the Sega Genesis. On the other side, there are equally devoted fans of Sonic's most recent 3D outings. Somewhere in the middle exists a horrible no-man's-land where the two sides of fans continually clash over what the franchise is doing right and what it's doing wrong. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I seemingly functions as a compromise between the two legions of fans--perhaps leaning a bit more toward old-school Sonic fans. It has the classic gameplay of the original Sonic the Hedgehog games, but its portrayal of Sonic himself falls more in line with the recent 3D games.
Our first look at the game took us through three levels main levels and a boss battle in the Splash Hill Zone portion of the game. This portion was a lush tropical location that looked similar to other starting areas in the older Sonic games, albeit in smooth and vibrant HD (in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions). Splash Hill Zone Act 1 gives you an opportunity to become reacquainted with some of Sonic's basic abilities; among them are the spin dash move and homing jump (a helpful target appears onscreen indicating what enemy or item box Sonic will leap toward while in midair). And, of course, Sonic still runs really fast. We saw him zipping through a variety of corkscrews and loops with relative ease, occasionally bouncing around the level with the aid of bumpers placed at various points.
Splash Hill Zone Act 2 and Act 3 add a bit more variety. In Act 2, we saw Sonic approach an area that involved swinging from one vine to the next, which seemed like it could be more difficult when zipping through a level at full speed. In Act 3, a bit more trickery was introduced with zip lines placed throughout the level. In all three acts, we saw an assortment of enemies (known as badniks in the Sonic universe), ranging from the plodding ladybug-like motobug to the chameleon that likes to shoot projectiles at Sonic before disappearing back into the wall. As far as items in these levels are concerned, we got a brief glimpse of the shoe power-up in action (which lets Sonic run even faster), as well as the shield power-up that grants Sonic a brief moment of invulnerability.
If you reach the end of these levels with more than 50 rings collected, you have the opportunity to jump into a giant ring that takes you to a bonus level. These levels are similar to those found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog in that you have to guide Sonic through a rotating maze. The interesting thing here is that in the Wii and PS3 versions of the game, you can use the Wii Remote or the Sixaxis controller to rotate the level manually to guide Sonic through (the 360 version will just use the analog sticks). There are barriers in the maze, but these can be unlocked by collecting a specific number of rings.
When you reach the end of these mazes, you'll see a chaos emerald. Collecting all of the chaos emeralds in Sonic 4 is actually quite important--you won't be able to see the "real" ending and the tie-in for the next episode if you don't successfully capture all of them. Thankfully, Sonic 4 includes a handy stage select option where you can jump right back into a level after beating it, so you don't have to play through the entire game to achieve this goal.
We spent the last few moments of the demo taking a look at the first boss battle in Sonic 4: Episode I. This boss battle is similar to a previous battle with Dr. Eggman, who floats around in his ship with a massive pendulum attached. The major difference between this fight and similar ones in previous Sonic games is that after Eggman is inflicted with damage, his attack pattern completely changes. After it changes, the pendulum becomes a massive mallet and Eggman swings it around to smash Sonic with it. Sega tells us that most of the boss battles in the game will have similar variations on familiar confrontations with Eggman. With that, our demo ended, and while we can plainly see that Sonic 4 will strike a chord with fans of the classic game, we're left wondering how well it'll control. We'll be sure to find out before Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I's release on WiiWare, Xbox Live, and the PlayStation Network this summer.