Sonic the Hedgehog is an icon. There’s no disputing that. In the great war between Sega and Nintendo spanning the larger part of the 90′s, Sonic was at Sega’s helm, churning out high speed action time and time again. Nowadays, he's something of a 'running' joke (pun), going from bad game to terrible game, culminating in that Sonic '06 thing. But, cast your mind back to the Mega Drive era, when Sonic was huge.
Personally, I’ve always found Sonic games infinitely more fun than Super Mario, and that might paint me in a bad light for many. Sonic vs Mario is a war which still rages on today, so allow me to throw into the ring my Top 5 classic Sonic games, and see if I can’t be convincing in my review of them.
Unfortunately, were I to make this a ‘Top 5′ Sonic games of all time, I’d have to include Sonic Generations, which I found to be a breath of life into the flagging franchise. But, that's far too recent a game for this particular part of this particular website!
#5 = Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis)
What can really be said? An icon in his own right, Sonic’s debut appearance in 1991 was mind blowing. Marketed by Sega alongside their “Sega does what Nintendon’t” slogan, Sonic was a strong proponent in giving credibility to Sega’s claims of the Mega Drive using ‘Blast Processing’. Highly likely to be just a marketing gimmick, it couldn’t be denied that there was something special about this game.
From the first act to the last, the colours strike you and pull you in, only to get you lost in a dizzying blur as you accelerate downhill in a spiky ball, launch high into the air, and smash through walls. An exhilarating change of pace to Super Mario’s now seemingly leisurely stroll from left to right.
The story would become definitive of Sonic games on the Mega Drive. Dr. Robotnik would capture your animal friends and encase them in robots or ‘Badniks’, and it was your job to rescue them all, chasing him through wildly different zones loaded with springs, traps and pitfalls only to face him in a different contraption at the end of each one. Simple enough, but add to that the mystery of the ‘Chaos Emeralds’, seven elusive gems locked away in a frankly sickening rotating maze puzzle special stage, and suddenly you’ve got the formula for a legendary game that I challenge anybody to say they dislike after a few minutes of play time.
#4 – Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega Master System/Game Gear)
Perhaps an odd choice to place an 8-Bit game of the same name above its 16-Bit, and often more popular, partner.
This was the first Sonic game I, and many were introduced to. Built-in to many Sega Master System consoles (Alex Kidd in Miracle World being built-in to the other versions), this game was a freebie to anybody who had a Master System. While I would later go on to play the 16-Bit version and find it to be an excellent game, Sonic for the Master System (and Game Gear) will always hold a special place in my heart as the game which brought Sonic into my life.
A relatively short game with only 5 zones, this game also had a bewildering and often mind-shattering special stage involving a plethora of springs sending you hurtling in all directions sometimes too quickly for the screen to keep up. However, the emeralds were located in the zones themselves, often in slightly tricky locations. As a kid, finding all of these emeralds was one of the first milestones I ever set as a gamer, and still one I remember more fondly than most.
Add to all of this an outstanding 8-bit soundtrack (a trait which would later become expected of Sonic games) and you’ve got a great little run through Sonic’s world.
#3 – Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis)
Sonic 3 was a great game. Sonic and Knuckles was also a great game. So combined? Excellent game.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles will most prominently feature in my mind however as the weird looking cartridge stacked like a tower out of the top of my Mega Drive. A feature which I found intriguing, and exciting. Back then, I used to think that would be the future of video games. That soon, every game would be compatible with every other game. So I could be playing Golden Axe & Road Rash, riding along on motorbikes while summoning dragons to burn my opponents to a crisp. Or maybe Castlevania & Mega Man, storming Dracula’s castle as a super fighting robot. How wrong I was. But it was interesting nonetheless.
In short, Sonic & Knuckles came with ‘lock on technology’, a port on the top of the cartridge. After putting Sonic & Knuckles into your Mega Drive, you could then put Sonic 3 (or Sonic 2) into the top of the cartridge, and then play THAT game with Knuckles as a character. Seems primitive now, but back then, I was ready to call it the future of video games, and for that, as well as being an excellent game in it’s own right, Sonic 3 & Knuckles takes the third spot on my list.
#2 – Sonic CD – (1993, Sega Mega-CD)
Sonic CD is regarded by many as the very best classic Sonic game, and with good reason. It took everything that Sonic was, then increased the speed, colour and depth to hypnotic levels.
Using a time travelling planet as its central theme, the game allowed Sonic to travel to future and past versions of each zone he visited by using special posts. The goal of each stage is to collect all seven ‘Time Crystals’, which are Chaos Emeralds in everything but name, and/or travel through time in each stage and divert that stage from its current path towards a dystopian future full of rusted robots, smoke and pollution, into an alternate utopian future where technology and nature are gelled together seamlessly in the same environment. All of this was slightly more in-depth than most Sonic romps, and all the more fulfilling when you achieve the ‘good’ ending by saving all of the time crystals and making the future brighter for everyone.
#1 – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – (1992, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis)
My number one classic Sonic the Hedgehog cartridge is, funnily enough, the second game in the series. Sonic 1 was amazing, enough to sink its hooks into me. Sonic 2 took those hooks and twisted them, until it blew my mind.
The game which introduced Tails as a character, the spin-dash and Super Sonic effectively ‘made’ the series as it meant to go on. Sonic 1 set the scene, Sonic 2 made it it’s own. From Chemical Plant Zone to Hilltop, Oil Ocean to Metropolis Zone, each stage is crawling with colourful enemies, and outstanding 16-bit soundtrack to keep that high-speed momentum flowing, and of course the landmark Casino Night Zone, a stage which everybody remembers, without fail, for the giant fruit machines dispensing hundreds of rings at once, or painful spiky spikes!
The one aspect of Sonic 2 which stood out to me, personally, was the semi-3D special stages, running through a half-pipe collecting rings and avoiding bombs. It was really disorientating at the higher difficulties, and until I memorised every chain of rings, I would never know the splendour of the ‘correct’ ending of the game, flying through space as Super Sonic, crashing through meteors and chasing down the Master Emerald. When I finally completed Sonic 2, I took a step back as a child, and re-evaluated what these video game consoles were capable of. This was no ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ company mascot. Sonic was here to stay.