Ranking in Sega Genesis Top 50: 7th
Sonic the Hedgehog was essentially the Sega Genesis’ coming out party. Prior to its release, the Genesis was kind of like dark matter – scientists could prove that it existed, but nobody had ever actually seen it. If you feel the need to verify this, just ask someone what the first game on the Genesis was, and they’ll probably say Sonic even though the console had been out for almost two years before the little blue furball made an appearance. Go on, try to name a famous game that came out on the Genesis before Sonic.You can’t, because there weren’t any.
The closest thing that Sega had to a big-name game for the Genesis prior to Sonic was Altered Beast, the original pack-in game. That’s like buying a sports car and finding out that it comes with a smelly hobo. After a year of stagnant sales, Sega considered releasing a version of the Genesis that didn’t come with any game at all, and offering this package for a lower price. They scrapped the idea when they discovered people would actually be willing to pay extra for a Altered Beast-free Genesis. Ok, so we’re exaggerating. A little. But the point is, Altered Beast wasn’t putting any asses in the seats or any 3-buttoned controllers into gamer’s eager hands.
Possibly due to its lack of outdoor pinball casinos
Instead, we sat around patiently waiting for Nintendo to release the Super NES. Or more likely, since many of us were relatively new to gaming, we probably just expected our original Nintendos to simply have better and better games released for them every year until the end of time. Things were simpler back then, and only the most hardcore of gamers felt the need to shell out hundreds of dollars for some newfangled console that didn’t even have Mario.
That all changed with Sonic. Suddenly, the Genesis had a mascot character of it’s own (one could argue that there already had been a “Genesis” with a well known central character, but it would have been pretty ballsy, even for early 90s Sega, to have made God their new star video game character… not to mention His game probably would have been absurdly easy). Sega finally had a face – a maniacal grinning blue face, who spent most of his time acting like a total dickbag.
We’ve mentioned this before, but Sonic is kind of an asshole. This is established right from the start, as the little rodent pops up on the title screen and immediately starts wagging his finger at us.
Perhaps he’s scolding you for buying his game secondhand in clear violation of the “NOT FOR RESALE” label printed right across the cartridge.
Of course, this is all part of establishing Sonic’s character as the “blue dude with a ‘tude!”, which leads us to one of the more interesting things about Sonic – he seems like he should be a pretty lame mascot. Think about it – he’s an amorphized rodent, and his defining characteristics are that he’s some color that is unnatural for his species, and that he has a rebellious attitude. That’s not a cool video game mascot, it’s an annoying supporting character in an animated kid’s movie. It’s exactly what you would expect some big corporation to decide was hip after several long meetings with focus groups. When Sonic debuted, cereal companies everywhere probably started checking to make sure none of their mascots had been kidnapped.
But instead of being lame, Sonic actually pulls it off, and as crazy as it sounds, he does it precisely by being an insufferable prick. While lamer characters might try to seem edgy by wearing a backwards baseball cap and spouting off annoying one-liners at their enemies, or skateboard everywhere while yelling radical, Sonic just acts surly all the time. And it’s not just directed at his enemies, either – plenty of this scorn is aimed directly at the player. When he starts giving you annoyed looks while you save his ass from falling into lava, it seems very genuine. Think about how ingenious this is – what other character would dare criticize his own game by acting bored in it, and by extension, questioning the player’s tastes for enjoying it?
Which is crazy, because how could you not enjoy this?
You couldn’t have picked a better mascot for the Genesis. Sonic, this character who seemed genuinely rebellious even while shilling for a video game company, embodied everything that the Genesis strived to be – a hip, innovative alternative to Nintendo’s more predictable, established offerings. It was a brilliant strategy for Sega. Rather than try to take on the NES or SNES head-on by claiming it could do everything those consoles could do, but better, they instead promoted the idea that the Genesis would do things that other consoles simply wouldn’t try. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious strategy for a company in that situation, but it really wasn’t, and if you need proof, just think about how many games this site has reviewed for the TurboGraphx 16. Or the 3DO.
Perhaps most importantly, this rebel console with it’s punky blue mascot appealed to teenagers, and that might have been the most brilliant thing Sega has ever done. Again, it seems obvious now, but back in the early 90s, video games were considered kid’s stuff that you kind of graduated out of when you hit puberty. So the really smart thing about this strategy was that Sega was appealing directly to the kids who had grown up playing games, and were just about to reach that age where the fantastic exploits of magical Italian plumbers and wood elves no longer seemed that enticing. Rather than try to bring in all new customers, Sega could just scoop up the ones that were “graduating” from the NES. It’s worth remembering that, as shocking as it seems to anyone who’s watched the company over the last twenty years, there was a point in the early 90s where Sega actually knew what the hell they were doing.
Of course, while those accomplishments are important historically, they don’t factor in at all when it comes to our Top 50 list. The only thing we care about is whether the game is still fun to play, and on that front, Sonic is an indisputable success. This is one of the all-time great platformers, a game so hard to equal that even today, you can play it and not think of more than maybe a handful of games that do the same thing, only better.
A big part of what makes this game great is that it takes one core idea – that Sonic is a character who can go really fast – and builds everything else in the game around that idea. Levels are designed to include areas that enable Sonic to go fast. Instead of obstacles that force you to slow down and go through the stage methodically, many of them actually require you to go faster in order to get past them. Some stages have multiple pathways, so that if you fall off one or take a wrong turn, you can just keep on going down an alternate path, instead of having to backtrack. The stages are also pretty short, so that even the trickiest ones that do require you to slow down and navigate a tough area can still usually be completed in under three minutes.
Even the way Sonic takes damage is designed to minimize risk from going too fast and crashing into an enemy. You collect rings as you pass through the stages. If you hit an enemy or hazard, all your rings go flying off in various directions, but you immediately have a chance to recover some of them. You only lose a life if you get hit while not holding any rings, and even the fatal-in-pretty-much-every-game-ever falling in lava won’t kill you if you’ve got at least one ring (suck it, Gollum). Because of this, the danger of unbridled, reckless speed really isn’t so dangerous. Not only that, but many of the rings in each stages are put directly in your path, so you don’t have to slow down or alter your course to get them. This is a game that wants you to go fast.
This isn’t to say that you can just hold down the directional pad and watch the entire stage blur by, like Billy Joel driving home after a night out on the town. What really stands out about the original Sonic is the delicate way is balances difficulty and speed. Yes, the game does everything it can to enable you to go fast for considerable stretches, but there will still be places where you’ll need to slow it down and think about what you’re doing. The thing that’s really well done about Sonic is that there’s generally a “break” between fast parts and slower parts – some kind of wall or other obstacle to slow you down before you go crashing into a really dangerous area. In fact, the game is so good about this, that the few spots in the game where this doesn’t happen, its really noticeable and feels kind of cheap. Contrast this to lesser games, where you’d normally just shrug and go “Well, it’s Strider, it’s not really supposed to be fair or well-designed.”
The other thing that’s really brilliant is that in the places where you have to slow it down, it’s usually because you’re waiting on something beyond your control – for a block to cross a lava pool, for a an air bubble to appear, or for a floating block to reach its destination. The game does a good job of making the slow parts slow for reasons that aren’t your fault. That doesn’t stop Sonic from getting pissed off and glaring at you, but like we said earlier, he’s just an asshole.
Here he is looking grumpy while surrounded by frolicking animals.
If there’s anything about this pick that might be even a bit controversial, it would probably be the placement of the original ahead of the other Sonic titles. Ultimately, this came down to a question of Sonic 1 vs Sonic 2, as were weren’t really impressed with Sonic 3 or Sonic and Knuckles, which seemed to break away from the “speed at all costs” ideal, and not in favor of anything better. Still, it was a close call between the first two games in the series – both play nearly identically, and Sonic 2 adds a second character and a co-op mode (of sorts), as well as having slightly better visuals. Still, we preferred the music in the original (some of which is just brilliant, by the way), as well as the bonus stages, and the level designs. Perhaps most importantly, by the end of Sonic 2, we were starting to get a little sick of it, while the original stayed interesting all the way through. Sometimes you gotta know when things are running a little long and stop before people lose interest. You know, like we should have six paragraphs ago.
Availability: Honestly, it would probably be easier to just list the formats Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t available on. As far a current formats are concerned, the game can be purchased for download for the Wii, PS3, or Xbox 360, and is (obviously) featured in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the 360 and PS3. Sonic’s UGC, as we’ve said many times before, is probably the best bang for your buck, featuring several other games that made it onto our Top 50 list. Alternately, it’s probably also available for your phone, unless you’re like Stryker and have a cell phone so ancient that when it drops a call, it blames it on Soviet espionage.
If you’re a purist, finding a Genesis copy isn’t too hard or expensive. Just about any used game store should have multiple copies, and they shouldn’t cost more than a couple of bucks. They’re also available online, but when you factor in shipping, this is one of those games that it generally makes more sense to buy in person. The only thing to be careful of that because it was the pack-in game for the Genesis for a while, most copies out there are cartridge only, and most of them have “Not For Resale” stamped across them. This doesn’t make the game any less fun, but it can be sort of a hassle for the more hardcore collectors out there.