SONIC!! One of the world’s most renowned gaming mascots. Sure, he may have had some ups and downs over the years (to the point where fans looked at him in shame due to his decline in both quality and reputation) but at heart he’s still that same old fast, quick-to-joke, cool dude we came to know and love back in 1991 (mostly).
Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the first games I saw and played as a kid. I remember watching in delight when my older siblings put the cartridge in our old SEGA Mega Drive, releasing that booming iconic SEGA introduction, followed by the mesmerising menu and its theme tune. From the menu alone Sonic the Hedgehog simply sucks me in. You have Sonic sitting in his well structured logo preparing you for the adventure ahead (and that music is fucking awesome).
You then jump straight into the gameplay. This was back in the day where there wasn’t an explained narrative (unless you read the synopsis in the manual) and you’re simply there for the journey. And that’s totally fine. It was a different era for gaming and it consistently worked, not only because the gameplay was really enjoyable (plus immersive) but the narrative itself actually displays itself perfectly through the straightforward gameplay (particularly with the Sonic games).
The general goal is to race through the strangely structured world (which radically changes environment and tone every few miles) to fight against the evil schemes of Dr. Ivo Robotnik as he tries to takeover the various lands by turning all the little critters into his robotic slaves. Fairly straightforward. But that’s all it needs to be. The pacing of the gameplay is extremely fast, which was a whole new approach to 2D platforming. Beforehand it was slow, and precise, whereas Sonic incorporated speed through the character’s fast responses and the incorporation of a timer (pushing the player to race through the levels as fast as possible).
Similar to Super Mario Bros. Sonic is able to jump on enemies in order to defeat them (incorporated with his unique move of the “spin-dash”). But, the neat twist is you don’t kill the enemy and save them instead, thus releasing the innocent critter trapped within the various robotic minions scattered across Sonic’s world. Another awesome element that differentiates it from Super Mario Bros. (and other 2D side-scrolling platformers at the time) was the ability to cheat death by carrying collectible items. Usually a character can only be protected when carrying a special power-up item, but here, Sonic can become invisible throughout the entire game as long as he’s carrying at least one ring.
The rings scattered around Sonic’s world can also be used for gathering extra lives (via the common route of collecting 100 of them like other 2D side-scrolling platformers). But, of course, if you are hit (or touched) by an enemy without any rings in your possession then you will die and lose a life. Lose all your lives and you will get a “Game Over” and be forced to restart the level from the start. However, you’re also aided throughout the levels by “item boxes” which will give you a range of different abilities.
The most obvious is an extra life. The most common boxes to be found are the “Super Ring” boxes which will supply you with 10 rings (which is an easy way of bumping up your amount to reach an extra life quicker). Despite having the rings to protect you from death you can also collect two further means of protecting yourself. Firstly, the “Shield” boxes, which will give you a 1-hit protection.
Secondly, there’s the “Invincible” boxes which will make you indestructible for a short amount of time (accompanied by a catchy theme that really adds to the imagery of Sonic rushing through the levels at high speed, crushing every enemy in his path). The final item you can collect (which is rather neat because it perfectly represents Sonic’s character of being the FASTEST Hedgehog) is the “Power Sneakers” which will allow Sonic to become even faster for a short amount of time. The only problem with this power-up is it can quickly become a hindrance because it conflicts with the precise timing of the platforming, meaning your more likely to miss your jumps and fall down a death trap rather than succeed.
There is also the “Special Stages”, which you can only access if you finish a level with more than 50 rings. This will take you to a specially crafted puzzle section where Sonic spins through a tightly constructed maze, to which you must reach the middle in order to acquire the “Chaos Emerald”. But, there are many obstacles neatly put into place. Firstly, the outer wall of the puzzle has multiple buttons that (when pressed [which will happen a lot due to the bounciness of the level’s structure]) will cause the maze to tilt Sonic in a different direction in order to throw him off course. And there’s also the exit goals which cause you to live the stage prematurely (losing your chance to collect the Chaos Emerald).
The “Special Stages” also give you a chance to collect a “Continue”, to which you must gather 50 rings on your journey to reach the Chaos Emerald (thus giving you another chance to continue the game should you lose all of your lives). You can also gain an extra life should you gather 100 rings. However, these two particular elements are rather redundant now because most of the versions of Sonic the Hedgehog you can acquire in this day-and-age come with a “save system”, meaning there’s no real pressure anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, the stages are still challenging, and if you struggle at 2D platformers then you might still find the game a massive pain in the arse, but the fear of losing all of your progress (should you continue to fail) has been completely removed. I suppose you can still play the game in its retro-format by completely avoiding the save system (which is usually a self-saving system) but chances are you’ll opt to manually save the game at certain moments to avoid repetition.
I like how the gameplay really allows Sonic to shine as a new mascot, focusing on his unique structure, his dynamic design, and immersive levels (and that fucking music!!). Little elements such as Sonic going through loops, travelling through high-speed tunnels, and bouncing off springs, all come together to make this game stand-out. The level designs alone were certainly something of a masterpiece (to which I still think they stand-up really well today) as they’re incredibly dynamic in the way they look and feel, creating the perfect tone to express the different points in Sonic’s journey.
Sonic the Hedgehog starts rather pleasantly with “Green Hill Zone” with its rich bright colour-scheme, ocean background, and gentle melody, which all comes together perfectly to suck you in. Heck, I’d happily go on record and declare that “Green Hill Zone” is one of the best opening levels of a video game (of all times!) Racing through the “Bonus Plate” always sends shivers down my spin because of the triumphant music that plays to declare you’ve completed the level (accompanied with the adding up of all of your points).
And how can one forget how menacing Dr. Robotnik was upon the first time you saw him. That FUCKING music!! It perfectly displays that this man is pure evil. His theme is menacing and yet catchy. I love listening to it during long walks/or journeys (don’t judge me for having the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack on my MP3, it’s awesome!!) Yeah, sure, it does look kind of hilarious that his first attempt to stop you is swinging a massive boulder backwards and forwards, but the music more than makes up for it. But, then again, very few of his encounters are (what I’d call) hard, or challenging, or downright frightening to accommodate his sinister theme.
The only two that come to mind is the third and fourth encounter with him. The third encounter revolves around him destroying the ground you stand upon every time you go to hit him (which becomes a patient game of choosing your moment of attack carefully so that you don’t hinder yourself, thus removing vital spaces so that you’re unable to move).
The fourth encounter is a bitch of a boss. Though, you can’t really call it a boss encounter and rather a fucking annoying obstacle-cause underwater. Dr. Robotnik appears and then pisses-off, leaving you to have to chase after him, climbing up a painfully constructed staircase filled with traps and spikes, made worse when the water catches up with you (yeah, it’s a real pain).
I will admit that my excitement levels always deflate upon reaching “Marble Zone” because it’s just kind of dull. The music feels depressing, and the environment just looks unfriendly, accompanied with an oddly placed medieval theme mixed with lava all of over the place. It goes to show that Sonic’s world is really oddly structured. Then again, “Spring Yard Zone” isn’t much better. Sure, it’s certainly bouncy (in more ways than one) but it lacks that excitement value that “Green Hill Zone” had, making it feel rather forgettable as you just rush through it to reach the end.
“Labyrinth Zone” is certainly the one that fans remember (for all the wrong reasons). This is where the game becomes an endurance test as you face against the irritating water-physics, which makes Sonic incredibly slow to move (not to mention incredibly heavy, which adds to the poor reaction timing of his movements and jumps). And there’s the constant dread of running out of air, to which you need to quickly race through the level whilst collecting pockets of air.
Also, I can’t be the only that nearly has a panic attack when that countdown kicks in? Without fail you’ll be waiting for an air pocket to appear and it never comes in time, resulting in Sonic drowning (although it was funny when I broke the game by somehow surviving the countdown, and upon collecting the air pocket a second later the game went back to normal [WTF?])
It’s fair to say that after “Green Hill Zone” the level design becomes rather odd, in that, instead of you racing through the levels with ease you suddenly come to many grinding halts because the platforming becomes more precise with its structure, to which you can’t simply rush through it and have to take your time. In many ways it kind of goes against what the game had in mind, especially when you consider Sonic doesn’t really suit a slower, and more tricky based, platforming arrangement. But, to give Sonic Team their due credit, the platforming (for the most part) isn’t half bad and does create a great series of challenges to overcome.
Things become really delightful with “Star Light Zone” (which is probably my favourite level within the game) because of its gentle feel. It has a unique look because it’s the only level to be set at night (although [as a kid] I used to think Sonic had gone into space) and feels rather science-fiction. Plus, that music is so mesmerising. It’s a nice little break from all the more serious and stressful environments as the game eases you into the final lap.
I suppose we needed “Star Light Zone” because “Scrap Brain Zone” is just a massive middle-finger as it constantly challenges you at every turn. It’s by this point you say to yourself, “Fuck-it!” because you just want to reach the end. Never mind about holding onto rings to gain lives and points, they’re now simply a means of staying alive against the repetitive onslaught of enemies and obstacles. This final stage literally feels like a breathing death-trap as you race through Dr. Robotnik’s mechanical lair. And then he has to go and be a colossal dick by sending you into the catacombs, only to faced with yet another water-level. Oh, joy!!
The funny thing is you endure all this madness to reach the “Final Zone” only to be confronted with one of the most pathetic final bosses in the history of gaming.
Seriously, it’s a joke. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse as you have to hit Dr. Robotnik as he hides within one of the four different engine pistons that come out of the floor and ceiling (attempting to stomp you). In-between this you have to simply avoid electrical bolts that descend from above. Sure, it’s made harder by the fact you have no rings (whatsoever) but unless you’re not careful with your movements there isn’t much threat of being hit. Once you’ve hit Dr. Robotnik the designated amount of times you chase him down, give him one final hit, and watch as his fat-arse explodes to the ground below.
But, despite the few flaws, and the disappointing final boss encounter (which is still entertaining, if pitiful) Sonic the Hedgehog holds up against the test of times and remains one of my favourite games (of all times!) because it’s fun, and sometimes that’s all you want from your gaming experience. To walk away knowing you’ve had a good time journeying with a likable protagonist and also knowing you’ll happily return time and time again to experience the excitement all over.