Ready for a blast from the past? As SEGA’s champion celebrates his 20th birthday, video games industry insider Christopher Bell looks back to the game that started it all and wonders if Sonic can ever regain his winning streak. Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments section below!
June 23rd, 1991. After an in-house contest to design a new mascot, SEGA finally had something that could give Mario a run (pun intended) for his money. Poor old Alex Kidd was given his marching orders and replaced by an impatient, sapphire speed demon by the name of Sonic. Although SEGA eventually lost the console war against Nintendo’s SNES, the once chasm-sized difference in market share narrowed to a spine’s breadth. At one point, he was as popular as Mickey Mouse, with a huge range of merchandise (books, ring binders, plush dolls and even ketchup!), a Macy’s Day balloon and a gene (one that controls the development of your digits and organisation of your brain) to his name.
Now, 20 years later and on the verge of a Star Trek-esque anniversary reboot; Sonic the Hedgehog, this is your life…
The Blast Processing (speed rendering, so the camera can keep up with the action) and Parallax Scrolling (pseudo-3D effects, such as the multi-layered backgrounds) still hold up today, and it was a huge leap in terms of what the Mega Drive (or Genesis in the US), still in its early years of its life cycle, could achieve.
Sonic‘s control scheme is one of the most accessible ever created. Whereas Mario, Metroid and Mega Man used two buttons and the d-pad, Sonic only has to use the d-pad and ONE button. Attack is jump, and jump is attack. Simple! However, the jumping and attacking is wholly reliant on Sonic’s momentum – jumping when running at full speed gets you further than half speed.
The controls here are well grounded, using a physics engine that would be retained and refined in future games. You can use a downhill slope to pick up enough speed to carry the red-footed rodent through a puke-inducing array of loops and mobius twists ; too slow, and you drop out, possibly to fatal consequences.
Enough of my control analysis, and into the game itself! The plot is very simple – you’re up against Dr. Ivo Robotnik (known as Eggman in Japan), who has been capturing animals and imprisoning them in evil robot suits called Badniks. This plot is only given to you in the manual and box art literature; there are no cutscenes here, except for the endings.
Your first port of call is ‘Green Hill Zone’ which, as with all six Zones in game, is divided into three Acts. This has to have one of the most memorable background tunes in the history of gaming. Even if you’ve never played the game, you will have heard this song somewhere, and you WILL be humming it during unguarded moments. This music proves you do not need techno or wailing guitars to get a good Sonic tune.
If there are areas where Sonic slows down or trips up, it has to be in the following places: ‘Marble Zone’ (the second Zone, and an overlong pixel-perfect jumping act with a lava bath as a consolation prize), ‘Labyrinth Zone, Act 3’ (the fourth Zone, it’s not just the rising water levels here, but there is a water trap near the end that will ensure a life lost if you miss the platform) and ‘Scrap Brain Zone, Act 3’ (the game’s last level before Robotnik’s final stand. It’s a re-colour of the ‘Labyrinth Zone’, only the oxygen is much more scarce and the traps are much more common. Prepare to die. A lot).
I mentioned the endings earlier. Once Robotnik has had his chips for the last time, you will see one of two endings, depending on whether or not you picked up the six Chaos Emeralds (gems that can only be won, after a lot of blood, sweat, and curse words, in the Special Stages; bonus rounds that can only be accessed by completing an act with 50 or more rings). No spoiler alerts – I’m not going to ruin them for you – but they’re not vastly different from each other.
After the final credits roll, and the rotund lady has left the stage, the game can be replayed either to get the emeralds again, or to get the sorts of times you would brag to your mates about (mine aren’t brag-worthy). However, this game does not have a save function; you can blitz through this in an hour at most. The fun is discovering another way through the acts you never knew existed.
Twenty years already. Sadly, the road has had its fair share of bumps and potholes since the jump to 3D gaming, with the series’ trademark sense of speed and fun often absent. Sonic hit his nadir on his 15th anniversary. Sonic the Hedgehog (same name, yes, but often just called Sonic 2006) wasn’t even 80% finished when it was shoehorned onto shelves. Although crammed full of bugs and achievements that wouldn’t unlock, nothing compares to Princess Elise who shares a sloppy, tongue-filled kiss with our hero, despite the fact that she’s human and he’s, well… a hedgehog. And don’t get me started on Silver!
Sonic Unleashed (2008) was half a step in the right direction, with better designed 2.5D stages and a fantastic sense of speed. But Sonic’s new gameplay gimmick du jour? Turning into a monstrous “werehog”, at which point all sense of speed and fun vanished, replaced by a kid-friendly God of War punch-fest.
Thankfully, Sonic Colours (2010) improved on Unleashed‘s level design and threw out the werehog. It also features new voice actors Roger Craig Smith (Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed 2) as Sonic and Kate Higgins (Sakura from Naruto) as Tails, as well as a more light-hearted, self-referential tone.
So, Happy (belated) Birthday, Sonic the Hedgehog! Despite the rough patches, it looks like the character will continue to run and run.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Developed by: Sonic Team
Published by: SEGA
Format: Originally released on Mega Drive (Genesis) and Master System. Available on pretty much everything these days, even phones.