Last week, I jumped into retro gaming reviews by starting with the iconic classic, Super Mario Bros. What better way to continue this path of retro gaming than to explore Mario’s all-time rival, Sonic the Hedgehog.
The Sega Genesis was released in North America in 1989. At the time, this was the first major console to really compete with Nintendo’s building empire in the video game industry. It made a big splash, largely because the Sega Genesis evolved gaming from 8-bit to 16-bit. Nintendo was busy preparing their release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which was set to release in 1990/1991. Sega beat them to the punch. Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis, which was two months shy of Super Mario World being released for the SNES.
We were introduced to the titular Sonic the Hedgehog, a blue, anamorphic hedgehog who could run really fast and roll along the ground. Sonic has always been billed as a character who could ran fast, but interestingly enough I found that in replaying the original game, Sonic himself and the levels were actually very slow and linear. As the franchise evolved, a key element of levels would offer Sonic multiple pathways to reach his goal. While there are a few different paths to take in this game, I found that the path to direct Sonic was fairly linear. For example: During the games second level (Marble Zone), Sonic can’t proceed forward unless he doubles back and slips past a moving platform into an underground castle where he rides blocks over burning lava, and this is the only direction.
In general, the level design of these games are very slow. They contain a lot of patient waiting for platforms to move, or any enemy to attack before Sonic himself can make a move. It’s quite ironic, given that game is focused on speed and charging through levels – but really, it’s just about timing. Similar to Super Mario Bros. every obstacle and enemy is well placed, and it’s a matter of waiting for the right time to jump. Sega continued to implement and evolve this gameplay by furthering future Sonic the Hedgehog games to include faster timed obstacles.
The levels in this game are also graphically beautiful. Unlike Super Mario Bros., I hadn’t gone back and played this game in many years. I was filled with nostalgic feelings as I guided Sonic through levels full of vibrant colors, and I remembered just how big of a deal that was back in 1991. The previous five years to that, we had been astonished at the capabilities and graphics of the Nintendo Entertainment System, so naturally our minds were blown when Sonic the Hedgehog hit the shelves.
Every level in this game is original in its functionality, presenting a series of very different challenges. Green Hill Zone, a famous commodity of a level for long-time gamers, was very standard in allowing players to jump over basic obstacles without having too much trouble advancing to the goal. Marble Zone provided a new series of challenges, diving between moving platforms and lava falling out of the ceiling. This pattern continued on through the pinball-esque Springyard Zone, or precariously balancing on construction ledges of Starlight Zone. It’s also very 1991 in the sense that whenever Sonic runs into a metropolitan area, it looks like he came right out of the late ’80s take on what could be the cyberpunk era. So basically everything looked like old animes in the backdrop, a la Bubblegum Crisis.
The main villain of this game is Dr. Robotnik, later to be renamed to “Dr. Eggman”. While he has always been presented as a goofy mad scientist, I found that in replaying this game that Dr. Eggman must be a sheer genius. Yes, his inventions in each boss level were mediocre at best, but he had managed to invent a way to convert animals into robots, which we would see hop away free from their encasing every time Sonic bounced on an enemy. Scrap Brain Zone was developed so technically in terms of obstacles and enemies, that only a villainous mastermind would spend time designing such a series of traps. This was a level I hated as a kid, but as a well-seasoned platform gamer 30 years later, I was enamored with the level of detail that was put into developing each obstacle and puzzle of Scrap Brain Zone.
Finally, I want to touch on the music of this game. Sonic the Hedgehog has always been known for having upbeat fast-paced music. If Sonic was to go fast, then so would his music. My head bobbed as I cruised each level because there was a distinct beat to each world. The bass mixed with the electronic beats created a feeling of a 16-bit virtual club. Namely, Marble Zone and Scrap Brain Zone are just musically genius.
Would I recommend going back and playing this game? Absolutely. It’s unfortunate that the future of Sonic the Hedgehog games didn’t maintain this style of gameplay when it hit the world of 3D platforming. Having just played Sonic Forces full of bugs, glitches and poor gameplay, this was a refreshing return to Sonic’s source material.