I may be a confirmed Nintendo nut but in my youth my first gaming love was for the Blue Blur. I never stopped loving Sonic even after his eyes turned green and the quality of his games took a nosedive and I frequently revisit his glory days on the Mega Drive. The iconic first game has lost none of its appeal over the last twenty years and remains the perfect example of why Sonic was the only character to mount a legitimate challenge to Mario’s platforming crown. With so many disposable sidescrolling mascots from the early nineties having long since disappeared into the history books what was it about the early Sonic titles that created such a lasting legacy?
I usually consider it a courtesy when reviewing a game to describe what it’s about. Rather an obvious thing to do you might think but in the case of Sonic the Hedgehog I don’t need to. If you’re reading this you know what the game is about. I could talk about the story involving a superfast blue hedgehog striving to rescue his friends who have all been trapped by an evil scientist to serve as organic batteries for an army of evil robots but I don’t have to. I could describe the way the gameplay blends classic platforming with speedy sections and is so simple and intuitive you only need a D-Pad and one button to play it but I don’t have to. I could talk about how you collect rings as you explore and gain power ups by smashing TV monitors but you already knew that. If you’re a gamer, even one that didn’t grow up with Sonic, you don’t need me to describe his first game either directly or in the strange and roundabout way I just have, you already know, such is this character’s fame.
By my count there are three key reasons why Sonic the Hedgehog became such a smash. Firstly the simple, straightforward controls that involve nothing more than running and jumping, are pitch perfect. Sonic is fast but he takes a few seconds to accelerate to top speed, which is precisely as it should be. The feeling of control in your jumps is comparable to that of Mario without seeming like a facsimile and most importantly even though the game is about going fast you never go so fast that you lose control.
Then there is the straightforward matter of the quality with which the game is delivered which is practically unparalleled on the Mega Drive particularly for that era in the console’s lifespan. The graphics are bright, vibrant and distinct, a clear cut above the visuals of the majority of games on the console and are more than matched by the soundtrack which really stands out on a console not known for the quality of its sound. Just to pause on that point for a moment it really is remarkable how many of the sound effects, the Sonic Spin Attack, the sound of a ring being collected, the pop of an exploding badnik, remain so iconic that they are still being used, largely unchanged, in Sonic games today.
Finally there are the really strong ways in which the game carves out its unique identity. The character design for Sonic was instantly iconic in 1991, his slick, blue, slightly cheeky design striking the perfect chord with the emerging cheesy cool the 90s gave us. The element of speed in the gameplay successfully built on this emphasis on coolness and the result was something that felt clearly different from Mario.
Those are things that made Sonic great but it’s the little touches and flourishes that made his early games special. I’m talking about things like the detailed backdrops that manage to convey a bold, believable world, the way birds and rabbits spring joyfully out of smashed badniks and hop away to freedom, the simple joy of running past the end of level spinner and changing the image from Robotnik to Sonic. Where so many sidescrolling platformers offered up their own little gimmicks they were often unmemorable but the way Sonic did things seemed to work, all the little ideas meshing into a single, satisfying vision.
But there are two main reasons why this debut like the all the main Mega Drive truly earned a place in our hearts; the zones and the music. Pretty much every game of this ilk out there featured themed levels one way or another but Sonic got this approach right. There are six zones in the game, each comprising three levels or ‘acts’ therein. First is the famous and lush Green Hill Zone, the verdant playground with the cute chequerboard motif where we all learned to love Sonic and especially those loop-the-loops that were so fun to tear round. The theme of the Green Hill Zone is one of the most recognisable and brilliant pieces of video game music ever, supremely catchy and yet tinged with a subtle, barely noticeable melancholy.
The Marble Zone, which follows on from the Green Hill Zone is a very different prospect in which you must explore a dangerous lava-filled fortress to a decidedly downbeat, sombre tune. The Marble Zone is a brilliant example of something more recent Sonic games sorely lack, a level that’s all about platforming rather than speed. Even the better games in the series of late seem so preoccupied on keeping the pace as fast as possible and sacrifice the sense of control over the character in the process. You cannot reach top speed in the Marble Zone without killing yourself and must instead approach everything with caution making it a zone that provides a valuable degree of challenge early on.
The Spring Yard Zone changed gear again by giving us the first example of a pinball level that proved so popular we were eventually given Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball. This zone features speed and platforming sections in between the unpredictable pinball segments and was tremendous fun to throw yourself into. It’s followed by the daunting and claustrophobic Labyrinth Zone, a flooded underground city with lengthy underwater sections. This was where we learned the terror associated with drowning in a Sonic game which came with the absolutely panic-inducing drowning theme that counted down the seconds as you desperately searched for an air bubble. The sense of relief in finding one is so real you can practically take a bite out of it.
The final two zones are both urban but decidedly different in tone. The peaceful Star Light Zone with its multiple loops, high speed and magical melody comes in stark contrast to the industrial Scrap Brain Zone. This final trio of levels and the accompanying score both took clear inspiration from Blade Runner and the factory setting serves perfectly as the lion’s den for the mechanically minded villain.
Let us also not forget the bosses which involved Dr Robotnik appearing in his eggomatic hovercraft sporting an array of deadly weapons including the iconic swinging ball of the Green Hill Zone. The final boss however always felt a little underwhelming and tedious but at least they managed to come up with something better for the sequel. Then of course there are the special stages, accessible by collecting fifty rings and jumping into the giant ring that appears at the end of the first two acts in all but the Scrap Brain Zone. Other than the Labyrinth Zone the game doesn’t feature too many difficult moments but the special stages remain devilishly difficult. You must control a spinning Sonic as he falls through a rotating maze in search of a Chaos Emerald. Although it is very difficult to control and hugely frustrating to accidentally fall into a goal gate thus missing your real aim there is something strangely appealing about the concept and especially the dreamy music.
Sega knew they were onto something with this game and they were right. It was one of those rare titles that got everything that is important about video games right. It’s not the longest ever made, easily beatable in under two hours, but the challenge of grabbing all six Chaos Emeralds and seeing the best ending does add to the longevity. However in the simpler days of the early nineties simply enjoying playing through the same old levels again and again was all we needed to keep us occupied and with Sonic the Hedgehog doing so was an absolute joy. The game remains a classic.
Design – 10
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Content – 7
Sega managed to mount a genuine challenge to Nintendo with the debut appearance of the blue blur. This is a beautifully balanced and wonderfully enjoyable sidescroller bursting with character and charm.