Poor Sonic. Once a star runner rivaling Mario he went on to become as washed out a mascot as they come, subjecting himself to several of the worst platformers in the last decade with Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) and Sonic Unleashed - the latter of which cast him as a 'werehog' because he apparently didn't have enough misguided baditude already.
Just as he was about to fade into obscurity, he's seen something of a resurgence lately with both Sonics Colours and Generations. It's been a slight return to form, but still there was something missing. With 2D gaming back in vogue there was a demand for an entirely 2D HD Sonic game that could blend our memories of Sonic blazing through roller-coaster-like terrain with the snazzy new graphics of today.
When the highly awaited first numeric sequel to the franchise since 1994 arrived with Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode One, it was met with mixed reception. Its simplified design harkened back to Sonic's golden years, but the ropey physics left a sour taste with his long-standing followers.
Thankfully, Sega has listened to fans and fixed all their complaints regarding control quirks in this sequel. Sonic no longer unfurls when rolling uphill, gains more momentum when roaring down slopes and has greater propulsion when jumping, so you no longer have to hold the analogue stick in a particular direction to complete a leap.
In addition to fixing what was wrong, Sega has added a bevy of new moves that make controlling Sonic more flexible than ever. Sonic is now joined by Tails, and with the press of a button the two will embrace each other and use their combined form for a series of context sensitive moves.
On the ground they'll cartwheel together, which is a quicker, easier way to dash at top speed, while in the air Tails will grab Sonic and spin his multiple tails like a propeller to ascend for a few spurts, and in water the two will join forces for a swimming boost. The team dynamic is extremely intuitive and gives an extra layer of agility to Sonic's repertoire. Falling in a pit isn't necessarily the end as a well-timed button press will allow Tails to pull the descending hedgehog up just enough to continue on his merry way. The final game will have co-op as well, but that was sadly not available in the demo.
Besides the controls being spot-on, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 is the best looking Sonic game by a country mile. The environments are now fully 3D and they're so lush you're doing them a disservice by sprinting through them. Sylvania Castle Zone, the first level on show, is a more traditional Sonic stage with green shrubbery growing over stone ruins. Leaves blow in Sonic's wake, water realistically ripples as he liquid mountaineers, and there are various species of fish peppering the underwater sections.
The next stage, White Park Zone, is a snowy winter wonderland with gilded gold carousels and a colossal fairground in the background. Snow shakes off objects, the background rides can be seen in motion, and certain sections have Sonic and Tails burrowing through walls of soft snow, rushing to make it out before their makeshift tunnel collapses on them. It's a fantastic looking environment that tones down the hyper-colourful 90s pastiche in favour of something a little more haunting and reminiscent of Tim Burton's chilling carnival-esque take on Gotham in Batman Returns.
Like an absentee father on TV, Sonic keeps making promises he can't keep, so I've long since bothered listening. This time, though, something's changed. Sonic, and his minders at Sega, seem to have finally figured out what makes the little guy work. That delicate balance of zipping almost out of control with just enough agency to bail out like remains intact, and there's a peculiar charm whenever a curled up Sonic bounces off a robot until the cute critter inside it scurries away. We're all tired of Sonic jerking us around with one disappointing comeback after another, but everything I've seen so far points to this being the one that puts him back in the limelight.