With the recent release of Sonic Mania, I decided to pull out my Sega Mega Drive and take on the blue hedgehog’s first adventure.
Now to be clear, this is not something new for me. Multiple times per year I play through Sonic the Hedgehog in its entirety for one reason or another. However, with the excellent Sonic Mania having only just been released, it put a lot of aspects of the classic into perspective.
Will this 26-year-old title stand the test of time and be just as playable as the day it came out? Or will two and a half decades worth of improvements render this title obsolete? Let us find out.
From the moment you pop that cartridge into your Mega Drive (or Genesis for those in North America) you’ll instantly be greeted with the icon ‘SEGA’ chorus This is then quickly followed by an impressively colourful title screen. It was clear that Sega wanted to make a statement from the get-go with Sonic the Hedgehog.
Hitting Start will take you to the first stage, Green Hill Zone.
Now say what you will, Green Hill has certainly been overused recently. However, back in 1991 the checkerboard soil and lake that stretches far into the background were extremely impressive. Even now, 26 years later these elements work together to make a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing game.
It’s not Green Hill’s striking visual design that makes it iconic. The zone shows Sonic at his best, with slopes, loops and ramps to launch Sonic at ever-increasing speeds. For those who take the time to learn the stage, you’ll quickly find yourself launching Sonic from a ramp, ricocheting from enemy to enemy before smashing the blue hedgehog through a weakened wall to find a hidden route.
It’s in moments like this when you are using Sonic’s momentum that Sonic the Hedgehog is at his best. It’s this momentum-based gameplay that sets Sonic apart from other “fast” characters. Sonic isn’t inherently fast, but the way you can build up and maintain speed is what makes him feel fast.
Once you reach the third act of Green Hill Zone you face off against Dr. Robotnik, the game’s antagonist. Upon defeating Dr. Robotnik and freeing the helpless creatures he had captured, you head on to the next stage – Marble Zone.
Unfortunately, Sonic the Hedgehog really has put it’s best foot forward. After learning the ropes in Green Hill, you’ll be itching to let loose with Sonic’s speed. However, Marble Zone has other ideas.
This zone slows Sonic right down, forcing him to wait to avoid traps, wait for passageways to open, wait for blocks to float over the scorching lava… Let’s just say this zone has a lot of waiting around. While the zone isn’t inherently bad, you’ve only just started playing Sonic the Hedgehog and already you know that this isn’t what you want from a Sonic game.
The remaining four zones, plus final boss, are a bit of a mixed bunch. On one hand you have stages like Spring Yard Zone that sees Sonic bouncing around like a pinball, and then you have Labyrinth Zone.
Labyrinth Zone is infamous in it’s stage design. Not only does the stage slow Sonic down by introducing platforming sections not unlike those in Marble Zone. It also does so while having Sonic trapped underwater for much of the stage.
Being underwater has two issues for Sonic. Firstly it robs him of all of his speed and makes his jumps feel floaty. This makes it difficult to avoid traps and judge platforming sections. Secondly it also introduces players to the fact that Sonic can drown.
This forces you to seek out pockets of air, or large air bubbles, to stave off the dreaded 5 second countdown. This often means players will walk from one air bubble to the next, waiting at each and in turn making the entire Labyrinth Zone an exercise in tedium.
Ultimately we will make our way to the final zone, which fittingly is called… Final Zone.
This short stage is comprised entirely of a single boss fight against your nemesis. Unfortunately, this boss is about as anti-climactic as a boss battle comes. You’ll find yourself spending much of the fight in the corner, waiting for a chance to strike.
Once the final boss falls, you have completed the game. In all you can comfortable complete Sonic the Hedgehog in around 30 minutes, including collecting the six hidden emeralds.
When compared to the titles that came afterwards, Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t offer anything unique beyond nostalgia. It is a flawed title that is rough around the edges, and hadn’t quite found it’s feet.