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Retro reinvented: Sonic 4 on the iPhone

A brand-new Sonic game hits the App Store. Is it everything we wished it could be?

It's been a long wait, but real Sonic's back.
It's been a long wait, but real Sonic is back. Sega

I grew up with my Sega Genesis, and Sonic was my Mario. I played all the games in high school, and the 2D games still represent the real Sonic to me. Those 3D versions? Not so much.

Sega's newest initiative, Sonic 4, has boldly named itself as the true successor to those old 16-bit gems. Available as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360 and PS3 (check out preGame's coverage here), it has also come to the iPhone, available today on the App Store for $9.99.

Thankfully, Sonic 4 plays pretty wonderfully from the starting gun; right down to the newly-composed music, everything feels extremely Sonic authentic and true to my memories of Sonics past. Sonic and his backgrounds are rendered in 3D, like New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS and Wii--the end effect of which feels old-school, but definitely improved. Still, it isn't all roses. On my iPhone 4, the framerate wasn't perfect. This version feels less silky-smooth than the Genesis games of yore. In 2x mode on the iPad, it actually played more smoothly. Perhaps a future update will fix this--there's no reason why the iPhone shouldn't be just as smooth.

Now playing: Watch this: Sonic 4 races to DLC

The levels are huge, full of surprises and platforms, challenging leaps and frustrating traps. They can be sped through if you're impatient, but the real joy of Sonic games is the discovery of new routes. There are even bonus zones, just like the old games, but you have to remember to jump through that pesky ring at the end. The virtual analog controls can get frustrating at times, but are often better than expected: after all, Sonic's really a one-button affair. Most moves can be pulled off pretty easily, even on the iPad.

A caveat, however: this is Episode 1. That means, for the money, you get 4 different Zones, with 3 acts each. That's roughly half of what one of the old Sonic games gave you. That's the only tough proposition here: in the App Store economy, $9.99 is the upper end. We expect full games for those prices, and a name like "Episode 1" suggests future downloadable content. It's not clear when Episode 2 will debut and how much it will cost, but the real cost of this Sonic 4 could add up fast. To real Sonic fans who've been waiting this long, that just might not matter.