Gameplay, Story and Value:
I’ve never really enjoyed Sonic games much. I mean, I’ve never believed that any of them were “bad”, but I’ve always thought they’ve been held in somewhat higher regard than they deserve.
When I was very young, my family had a Sega Genesis. At that point in my life Sonic was, of course, the best thing ever. I played it all the time, as well as its sequel. It was after the release of Sonic 2 that we finally brought home our Super Nintendo and after experiencing the magic that was Super Mario World, nothing else really compared. Sure, I picked up Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, but they were competing with Mega Man X and Donkey Kong Country. For me it was really a no-contest.
In recent years I’ve tried coming back to Sonic, only to find that the biggest difference between my lack of interest in the game then and now, is my ability to better identify and articulate it. What it basically comes down to is that I’ve never really felt like I’m in control of a Sonic game. I would use words like imprecise, floaty and slippery, and by the second zone I’d get board and move on to something else.
The reality is that in sticking to this way of thinking, I’ve been doing myself a massive disservice.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a game that gets better and better the farther you get into it, and I think part of the problem is that Green Hills Zone and Marble Zone are so embedded into my brain that I often forget there’s anything that comes after. Green Hills is designed almost specifically to showcase Sonic’s super speed, which lends itself to the idea that he’s difficult to control. The following Marble Zone is a stark contrast, emphasizing stop and go gameplay and requiring more thoughtful progression. It’s almost off-putting how jarring this can be. Once you get past that, though, it’s almost like you’re playing a different game altogether.
Let’s shelve the mental revelations and talk about the game. The controls are as simple as you can get: A makes you jump, B jumps, and at any time you can press C to jump. Later games would introduce some variety into Sonic’s skill set, and their absence is felt strongly in his first outing. Of course that’s not to say I have anything against a pure run and jump. The simple controls suit this game very well.
Level design still feels somewhat strange, and a little unfocused. While Zone 1 wants you to never stop moving, Zone 2 seems to not want you to move at all. It’s around Zone 3 that the game really starts to feel like it’s coming into its own. You’ll encounter new enemies that require a bit more thought to deal, more precision jumping sections, and more cohesive stage design. This quality then carries on through the rest of the game. The final stage culminates in a mashup of obstacles requiring you to use everything you’ve learned over the course of the game, and is both satisfying and challenging.
The challenge itself never feels too overwhelming once you’ve gotten a handle on the game. I’ll also admit that after clearing all six of the game’s zones, it did feel a bit short. Extra challenge can be found in going back and collecting all of the Chaos Emeralds from the game’s bonus stages that can appear at the end of each stage. Personally, while nostalgic I really don’t care much for these bonus areas. Controls just feel so wonky and ultimately I think they’re just frustrating. I prefer Sonic 2 and 3’s bonus stages much more.
Eggman Robotnik will appear at the end of the last stage of each zone as a boss fight. While none of these encounters are particularly memorable, they’re all still enjoyable. The final encounter in particular had me nervous as all hell!
Unfortunately, not all of my memories of this game were entirely inaccurate. Sonic can be extremely difficult to control at times, and not just because of his speed. Part of this is due to the game being somewhat buggy, and certain walls and surfaces will have an unexpected effect on Sonic’s momentum. There’s also a tendency to accidentally stop and look up, or duck, or roll into a ball or NOT roll into a ball. Basically, the hedgehog’s a touch temperamental. This can be frustrating, and will lead to instances where you’ll take damage (or worse) when tighter controls would have prevented it.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
For an early Genesis title, Sonic is an extremely good looking game. Environments are varied, surfaces and threats are clear, sprites are details without taking up too much screen real estate. For such an early game, everything just has a very polished look. A few assets and tiles are reused later on, underwater sections of the Labyrinth Zone pictures above are nearly copy-pasted in the last zone, but it never really feels cheap. Occasionally, Sonic will hold on to an animation that should have broken to the aforementioned bugs, but it’s always more humorous than it is problematic.
Sound effects are distinct and memorable. I’ve said a few times throughout the course of this leg of the project that a game’s sound effects were lifted from Sonic, but when used in their source context they seem much more natural and enjoyable.
The music surprised me, again due to my memory hard-stopping at Marble Zone. As you get further into the game you’re treated to some really fantastic stage music, easily the best the Genesis has supplied so far. So good, in fact, that while running through Spring Yard Zone and Star Light Zone I started thinking I should really put together a retro game music playlist at some point… Sure, it’s no Castlevania or Mega Man soundtrack, but seriously, you probably don’t remember how good the music is in this game!
I came in expecting this game to be a fun diversion on my way to better games, and went out with a strong, new appreciation for one of the quintessential games of the era. I definitely didn’t expect to finish it, given the difficulties I’ve always had playing it, but I’m so glad I did. I ended up having a great time with Sonic, and I don’t quite look at the cartridge the same way anymore, and this is the same cartridge I’ve been looking at since 1991!