Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 Hands-On Preview and Video

We had another chance to go hands-on with Sonic 4 for the iPhone today, and we finally leaned what’s waiting for him in those bonus stages. Also, we got to try a new set of underwater and cavernous Labyrinth levels. All this, plus new screenshots, after the jump.

The bonus levels are ripped straight from Sonic 1, where Sonic navigates a maze filled with pinball bumpers and rings. This time, you can rotate the world with tilt controls, and you’re racing against the clock. Certain gates will be shut unless you collect enough rings, and the goal is to reach the Chaos Emerald at the end. Collecting all seven emeralds will unlock Super Sonic on any level in the game.

The Labyrinth levels were much more challenging than the Splash Hill Zone levels we played at E3. In Labyrinth Zone, Sonic has to travel through water-filled pits, finding air bubbles to keep from drowning. At one point, we had to outrun a fast-moving wall of rock that threatened to crush him.

The Labyrinth levels also include one of the iPhone’s two exclusive stages. As we guessed, it’s a tilt-based mine cart chase, where you have to keep Sonic moving downhill. Loops and springs make it a bit more fun than it sounds, though.

No release date has been confirmed, but Sega insists we’ll be playing Sonic 4 in Fall.

You know that feeling you get when a long-lost friend makes a sudden, unexpected appearance? That’s how we felt to see Sonic again, more himself than he’s been in years. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 is the first in an episodic resurgence that aims to pick up where Sonic the Hedgehog 3 left off. That is, when he was on top of the world.

The controls are pure, simple Sonic. Like in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic can perform a stationary spin-dash, but a new homing attack is added to the mix. By hitting the jump button again in mid-air, Sonic will execute a small boost. If you’re near certain items like a spring, rope, or enemy, Sonic will automatically target it. It’s been introduced in recent Sonic games, but it makes a lot of sense in these classic Sonic levels.

Even with the homing attack, this is pure Genesis-era Sonic. The new moves enhance, rather than detract, from the pure Sonic experience: racing through levels, skipping over rings and enemies if you don’t care to pick them up. The backgrounds are gorgeous, and though the frame rate may not be as speedy as the console versions, it’s still very impressive for an iPhone game. Let’s just say it already runs better than the ports of Sonic 1 and 2.

As much as we loved this return to form for Sonic, there were a few details that we couldn’t find out about yet. The bonus stages, which are notoriously ambitious in the first three Genesis Sonic games, were kept hidden from us in Sonic 4 (Literally– the Sega rep had to pry the iPhone out of our hands when we started one up).

Also, there are two bonus levels exclusive to the iPhone (each system gets its own two exclusive levels), but we couldn’t confirm whether these were the tilt-based mine-cart levels that have been rumored. And we could only play the first of four zones, a familiar grassy knoll that Sonic games tend to start in. We’d love to know if later zones take Sonic through more industrial environments.

Sega has signaled their commitment to the iPhone, bringing Sonic 4 to this system at the expense of the DS and PSP. We’re glad they made this choice, because it looks and plays great, and could become the top platformer on the iPhone. The first episode of Sonic 4 will be out later this year.