Sonic the Hedgehog – Sega Genesis
Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sonic Team
Release Date (NA): June 23rd, 1991
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
Oh boy! I love me some Sonic! Don’t you?
I think everybody has a favorite Sonic game, whether it be Sonic 2, Sonic CD, or even Sonic 3…but what about the original? I don’t recall many people citing that one as their favorite. I mean, I’m sure those people exist, but there’s a reason why the first game doesn’t stand as tall as some of its immediate sequels.
And that is exactly why I am here. To disseminate these important marks against Sonic the Hedgehog that keep people from swooning whenever they see that shining cart in your collection (aside from the fact that it’s about as common as any sports title).
So let’s talk Sonic the Hedgehog for a moment – the blue animal hero who ostensibly put Sega on the map. Before he was sitting upon the throne of Sega’s short-lived reign over the gaming market, the company had its faith invested in a strange little monkey-boy named Alex Kidd. Alex was their answer to Nintendo’s Mario, however, lacking the same charm and appeal of their rival mascot, Sega would need something more – a character that stood out from the squares. Somebody who was cool, had style. Enter Sonic, who flew in at the speed of sound to temporarily wind the opposing team and force them into attack position.
Although Sega has lost the war, their brainchild secured himself a spot in video game history as one of the most iconic symbols in the industry. And to think, it all started a mere 24 years ago…
The first Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991. For its time it really stood out, and although it hasn’t aged quite as well as some may have expected, it’s still a fun game to play. Very challenging, but beatable, which is a valuable asset for any game that is without a password or save function.
The first is not a perfect game.
This is easy to see in hindsight. With the sequels bringing so many requisite features into the mix, it’s no wonder that Sonic the Hedgehog looks a little dull in comparison. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I will repeatedly mash buttons in frustration, realizing that there’s no spin-dash until the second game. Sonic feels like there should be more to it, and that’s where 2 and 3 come in, bringing new abilities, characters, and power ups.
But it goes beyond that.
The thing that really stands out in this game as a glaring flaw is level design. You have different paths you can take which is nice and gives you some freedom to explore, but the stages feel repetitive in structure and obstacles. There’s something rudimentary in the way the levels are built; it’s like a reskin of a very basic layout with unique stage hazards added here and there. While each Zone is different in appearance, there is little to differentiate the acts within these Zones. You’ll go through all the sections with a vague feeling that you’ve been there before. What do the French call that? Oh yeah, Déjà vu. After a while you’ll lose your sense of time and space, kind of like you’re in the movie Groundhog Day.
I already had to ride a block over the lava before, why must I do it again?
I have to run down a slope avoiding spike balls AGAIN in Spring Yard Zone??
If I hear “I Got You Babe” one more time…
Oh. Whoops. Sorry, got carried away there.
My point is, it gets to be tedious.
While running around at top speed is a blast, Sonic will often feel very slow to start. He’s the kinda cat that will go 0-60 in about…3 minutes (no, not literally, of course). In certain circumstances getting Sonic to run will be like pedaling your bike up a hill. Speaking of which, good luck getting him up any hill unless you’re already booking it. For a game that structures itself around speed, this can easily bring forth that angry little vein in even the smoothest of brows.
Sonic controls well enough, only there’s a bit of a catch to this platformer where speed is the name of the game. There’s a method to playing Sonic the Hedgehog which some who are particularly blessed in the skills department may be able to overlook. I like to call it the “Zen of Sonic.”
The basic premise is that you’re given the opportunity to go fast, but the best way to beat the game is to take it slow. A little contradictory, eh? I know. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be found in this technique. Just because you have the ability to do something doesn’t mean you always ought to do that thing. Profound, ain’t it?
Often your bipedal joyrides will be interrupted by some unforeseen spike trap, pitfall, or anything else of that nature. Such hazards would easily discourage any speed freak from going full-blast. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a flaw, though the limited view you have from the tight framing certainly doesn’t help. It’s the kind of thing that you’d expect from a game like this. The kind of dickishness that says “Hey, having fun there? Having a good time? Well how do you like THAT!” You have to watch your every step. And that’s kind of a buzz kill.
What a pain in the ass it is to have to be so careful in a game that is built around speed. But I digress…
Sonic the Hedgehog has a bulky stiffness to it in terms of the way the game looks and handles. As a friend phrased it in more understandable terms, there’s a lack of weight to the characters. I find this quality fairly abundant in the Genesis library. Hopefully you understand what I mean, but if not take Sonic for a whirl. Or Rocket Knight Adventures (fantastic game, by the way). It’s a quality that obviously doesn’t ruin a game, it just feels uncomfortable. Maybe detracts slightly from the experience.
Oh, and one more thing while I’m still talking about flaws – fuck Labyrinth Zone. The music is good but other than that this level is a shining example of why developers need to STOP adding underwater stages to their games. With bubbles that troll you, lag that’ll drive you to the brink of insanity, and god-awful controls, this Zone is the epitome of bad underwater levels.
Now that’s the bad of Sonic. Let’s take a look at the good.
Being that this was the first game of the series, it brings a lot of innovation to the table. Sega successfully gave Mario a “run” for his money, so to speak. Aside from the speed aspect which was a very interesting angle for a new franchise, the concept of stomping enemies to death is taken one step further in that any time Sonic is curled into his signature deadly blue ball, he is devastating to most opponents (not spikes or most spiky enemies, however).
You have a unique way of measuring your health in terms of collecting rings. As long as you have one you’re safe. But the more you have the more easily you’ll be able to regain some from the burst of rings that will erupt from you after you’re hit. Plus they serve as a way to reach those important bonus stages, extra lives, and points (zzz who cares about that, right?).
The difficulty, as I stated before, is solid. While it can be very frustrating a lot of the time, all in all the game is very beatable. It’s not too long, but it’s not too short, even if approached at full blast. And once you get him going it’s so much fun to zip around the levels. So long as you’re careful!
Lastly, as is tradition, music is worth mentioning. I believe it is safe to say that Sonic games are renown for having, as Bill S. Preston and Theodore Logan would put it, some most excellent tunes. Sonic the Hedgehog definitely contributes to that reputation with solid stage themes. I mean, how peaceful and relaxing is Green Hill Zone. And the special stage music. What about the menacing Dr. Robotnik theme? And despite how shitty it is otherwise, the music in Labyrinth Zone is just plain fun. All portrayed in that signature grungy way the Genesis does sound. And it’s wonderful.
So that’s Sonic the Hedgehog. A great game, but not perfect. Most definitely an excellent starting point, as its immediate sequels would go on to make this concept even better. But if there were no other entries in the series to measure it against, it would still hold up as a very solid game worth playing. I mean, it pretty much took Sega up to the top, so it couldn’t be THAT bad, could it?
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