I couldn't pound on Sonic's portly nemesis, but the three acts I was able to explore offered a mixture of precision-based platforming segments and, uh, cannons. What sort of casinos have you been visiting, Sega?
"Every single one of our traditional Sonic games on the Genesis, whether it be Sonic 1, 2, or 3, we've always had sort of a casino level," Sega's brand manager for Sonic 4, Ken Balough, told me during my preview of the new area. "So keeping with that theme, I think it's kinda important that we continue that here. Casino Streets Zone isn't inspired by any of the previous ones, it's a casino-style zone and we definitely wanted to bring that to the consumers."
Sure, there are some Badniks sprinkled throughout, but navigating through the neon-lit gambler's paradise poses several threats to Sonic. Not every situation can be conquered through brute force; it's navigating the terrain and calculating the next step on the fly that got me through all three acts.
One of the more unique areas I've seen from the game.
Balough told me that it was all about striking an equilibrium between enemies and environmental mechanics in Casino Streets Zone. "When it came to each of these levels, we toyed with the idea of how many enemies would be overwhelming to the player. The enemies that we do have in it work really well for the Zone -- like the enemies with the shields that Sonic kinda pings off of. Considering that there are a lot of other traps in the environment, those kind of things can really set the player off and kill them, but the fact that you might be running incredibly fast and hit one of the Badniks with the shields and it springs you back, it may end up throwing you back into a trap that you thought you had escaped from. So those ideas, we definitely wanted to toy with, but we wanted to achieve a balance, where the environmental mechanics stood out as much as the enemies so I think we struck a good equilibrium here, but, obviously, it's up to the players to tell us what they think."
A lot of Casino Streets, save for the slot machine segments seen in the series prior to Sonic 4, is all about timing -- anybody can run across the stage, but nailing those homing attacks to reach higher platforms or knowing when to jump from the ceiling during an intense speed-pad sequence yields rewards. For one, there are plenty of pinball launchers Sonic can roll into that launch him high into the air, making more paths accessible and allowing Sonic to flip more cards or gather more rings.
The aforementioned cannons play the biggest role in Casino Streets Zone and are gradually introduced throughout the prior Acts. It's simple: Sonic hops into a cannon; you aim the cannon; and Sonic is blasted out. Rings indicate the best trajectories, but later on the game leaves it to you to make that call.
The benefit to finding these alternate pathways is obviously collecting more stuff, but throughout the level there are cards that Sonic can touch and flip around. The quicker you flip them, and the more of them you flip, gives Sonic a chance to match up cards. Get three Sonic heads and you've got yourself another life, for example. It's only a matter of finding these pockets of cards and touching them.
I came away impressed with Sonic 4: Episode 1's Casino Streets Zone. All of the branching pathways and the interactivity of the level really helped define it as one of the more unique areas I've seen from the game. Compared to the introductory Splash Hill Zone, Casino Streets required a lot more skill and precision, and that felt like a far more rewarding Sonic experience.