It’s time to reveal my dirty little secret: I love Sonic games.
Not the late 3D abominations involving guns and human princesses, mind you, but rather the classic 2D side-scrolling entries—starting with the much-loved Megadrive/Genesis ones. I thoroughly dislike platformers as a rule, but the Sonic series is and has always been the feisty, high-octane exception: from the moment I discovered the Blue Blur on the then brand-new Megadrive/Genesis back in 1991, I became hopelessly smitten. To this day, classic 2D Sonic games remain a guilty pleasure of mine, never failing to treat me to a ravishing avalanche of sparkling colours, effervescent music and delirious fast-paced action. Oh, how I love these little darlings.
As a matter of fact, I love them so much that it was the compilation of old-school Sonic gems mentioned in this post’s title that definitely tipped the scales and convinced me to get a DS a couple of years ago—and the rest is history. (Knowing the intensity of the 16-bit era feud between Sega and Nintendo, this is more than a little ironic.) Let’s now explore that scrumptious collection of classic Sonic goodness, starting with the usual bit of data: developed and published by Sega and released in 2010 in all regions, Sonic Classic Collection is, as its name implies, a compilation of all the canon Megadrive/Genesis Sonic games—bar the elusive Sonic CD and the much-maligned Sonic 3D Blast. Interestingly, these games are not strictly ported but rather emulated, using a special Megadrive/Genesis emulator for the DS; and as you may expect from emulated games, they feature numerous graphical glitches and collision bugs. To be honest, this compilation is rather lacklustre as a whole, but getting the opportunity to play these games on a portable system is such a treat that I’m definitely not complaining. I’ve been replaying the full package lately, as I often do at this time of the year: for some reason, dark and cosy autumn afternoons seem to be quite conducive to some Sonic indulgence as far as I’m concerned.
Given how far-off the Sonic series has drifted in the last fifteen years, it’s easy to cast these early entries as monuments of gaming perfection, gems that nailed the perfect formula right away. It’s so easy, in fact, that they are invariably presented as such and hailed as the pinnacle of the series by hordes of wistful old-timers. However, Sonic’s debuts were not exactly as immaculate as nostalgia would have us believe. Quite appropriately for such a speedy gaming icon, Sonic’s early career was a relentless run against the clock: deadlines were challenged constantly and games were released at the speed of light—four in four years, which is quite a breakneck pace, even for those times. This constant rush created a number of issues that I will cover in that post; for despite being a rabid classic Sonic fan with a heart fluttering with nostalgia, my analysis skills are still alive and well, ready to be unleashed. Let’s do that right now!
Sonic 1: Adrenaline-filled debutant
Officially known as “Sonic the Hedgehog”, this is the game that started it all and single-handedly granted Sega a short-lived but glorious dominion over the gaming industry in the early ’90s, propelling the Megadrive/Genesis way ahead of the Nintendo systems in the console race. This was an achievement that went far beyond all expectations: despite the fact that Sonic was pretty much forced into existence by Sega in a feverish attempt to challenge and sap Mario’s dominance over the platforming kingdom, no one could have envisioned that the Blue Blur’s 1991 debut would be such a smashing success.
This venerable first game established rock-solid templates that subsequent instalments would dutifully conform to in the following years, all the way up to the current gaming era. Indeed, everything was contained into Sonic’s debut: the bright and sparkling colours, the bouncing musical themes, the levels with strong and recognizable visual identities as opposed to the more generic-looking ones found in Mario games, the Chaos Emeralds that could be earned by taking a trip to a special stage with distinctive gameplay mechanics, the habit of kick-starting the game with a vegetal and /or tropical-themed stage, the booby traps by the truckload, the rings acting as life insurance, and so on. It was all there, and it worked beautifully. The lush introductory stage Green Hill is one of the most famous in platforming history, and hearing a few notes of the eponymous musical theme can send a whole generation of gamers into a teary-eyed bout of nostalgia.
Interestingly, the legendary speed of the Blue Blur didn’t quite translate literally into that first entry; it was more of a publicity stunt pulled out by Sega, similar to the elusive “blast processor” supposedly hosted by the Megadrive/Genesis. Sonic the Hedgehog’s gameplay is not based on speed, but rather on careful exploration, precise jumps and sharp reflexes: this game is not about rushing your way through the levels, but rather about masterfully using the well-honed physics to dodge an endless stream of booby traps and uncover cleverly hidden items or shortcuts. In a supreme display of perversity, the Sonic Team went as far as to include a level in which the physics are altered and Sonic is dramatically slowed down, the infamous and nightmarish Labyrinth Zone. Far from being the norm, bursts of speed are granted sparingly as a well-deserved reward for the player’s toiling, a welcome handful of adrenaline-filled seconds before the next booby trap in line. The iconic loop-de-loops and long slopes that somehow became the series’ trademark are few and far between, to the point of being totally absent of half of the levels. Talking about the levels, they are carefully and cleverly balanced: the game starts off with the lenient Green Hill Zone, immediately followed by the more demanding Marble Zone, before cutting the player some slack again with the more forgiving Spring Yard Zone, and so forth until the end, creating a harmonious and highly enjoyable gameplay experience. The game is not that long, but it’s fun from beginning to end, and it aged so gracefully that it’s still very much worth playing today.
The self-indulgent corner:
—Favourite level: Marble Zone, with its mix of challenging underground areas and more forgiving outdoors. Gee, that run against the lava terrified me when I was a kid.
—Favourite music: Marble Zone, again. Green Hill has a greater nostalgic value, but in terms of pure aural pleasure, Marble Zone definitely takes the cake, with its awesome bass line and gorgeous arpeggios.
Sonic 2: Harder, better, faster, stronger
Released just in time for Christmas 1992, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was probably one of the most anticipated games of all times. Sega and the Sonic Team needed to establish firmly that Sonic was an icon meant to last and not a mere fleeting sensation, and they did so by introducing more of everything: more levels, more colours, more features and, last but not least, more speed—both during the development process and in the game itself. This led to some mixed results, as we’ll see soon.
Sonic 2 introduced the Spin Dash, a move that became so intuitive and popular that one can easily find themselves trying to pull it out in Sonic 1, only to be reminded that it was not yet implemented. Sonic 2 also kick-started the habit of introducing new sidekicks in every entry with the entrance of two-tailed fox Miles “Tails” Prower—a nice pun on the “miles per hour” expression. With the fox came the thrilling possibility of local multiplayer, which was much welcomed and acclaimed; and if you wanted to play solo, the game would still let you pick up Sonic or Tails alone—which was also quite welcome, since an uncontrolled Tails could occasionally get you into hot water by interfering during boss fights or triggering mechanisms without your consent.
Sonic 2 is notably faster than its predecessor, with many more loop-de-loops and slopes of all shapes and sizes and feistier physics that let you run at a breakneck speed and jump higher and further. However, this extra speed comes at a price, which is the lack of much-needed precision. It’s notably harder to land precisely where you want and controlling your momentum is often entirely impossible, which regularly leads you straight into the open arms of the many booby traps littering the game. And let’s not even talk about the brand-new Super Sonic transformation, which is just a giant running glitch and simply cannot be controlled in any efficient way.
Speed also hurt the development process. Sonic 2 is by far the entry that was the most amputated and butchered, with potentially interesting concepts and areas excised in order to meet the Christmas 1992 deadline. Such losses are already stinging enough, but this rush also led to some serious unbalance in the finished product: unlike Sonic 1 that cleverly alternated between lenient and demanding zones, Sonic 2 is clearly divided in two as far as difficulty is concerned, with the lenient areas lounging in the first half of the game and the demanding ones lurking in the second half. This structure makes the game very conducive to ragequits towards the end, especially since Sonic 2 is considerably longer than Sonic 1. Some inconsistencies can also be observed, like the fact that Metropolis Zone contains three acts instead of two like the other Zones: this third act was initially supposed to be an exclusive Zone, before being scrapped and recycled into a very unwelcome extension of the most annoying level in the entire game. (Was that really necessary, I wonder.) There is also an occasional lack of inspiration: areas like Casino Night and Oil Ocean suffer from a shallow level-design, and Hill Top Zone is nothing more than a copy-paste of Emerald Hill with a different colour palette and background.
Because of these flaws, Sonic 2 is by far my least favourite of the classic Sonic games, and the one that I care the less to play nowadays. Ever since I started playing it twenty years ago, runs always unfold in the same exact way: I immensely enjoy the first four levels, before things start growing stale as I cross the generic-looking Hill Top Zone; and by the time I reach the end of Metropolis Zone, I’m just vomiting the game. When I occasionally forge ahead, I usually rage-quit at the end of Wing Fortress Zone or during the ridiculously hard final boss fight. And yet, because it’s Sonic, I would still play that game over any other platformer. It’s also worth noting that these flaws didn’t tarnish the game’s reputation the slightest bit nor stood in its way to greatness: Sonic 2 is a fan favourite as far as the classic entries are concerned and was anointed a cult classic nearly as soon as it was released.
The self-indulgent corner:
—Favourite level: Aquatic Ruin Zone. A lush level full to the brim with nooks and crannies to explore, with a pleasant ancient vibe and gorgeous musical theme to match. Hearing the soft froufrou of the leaves as you make your way through the vines is just enchanting.
—Favourite music: The 10th song in the sound test, which is widely believed to be the theme of the scrapped Hidden Palace Zone. A bit loopy, but very intense and evocative, with a solemn and poignant edge to it.
Sonic 3/Sonic&Knuckles: 2 much, 2 soon
Oh, dear. Where do I start with these ones? Both released in 1994 a mere couple of months apart, Sonic 3 and Sonic&Knuckles were originally conceived as a single giant game that should have been the third in the series. But that was before time and budget constraints reared their ugly heads again and forced the Sonic Team to cut the game in two parts and release them separately. The two cartridges could be connected thanks to the so-called “lock-on technology” in order to play the game in its entirety, making way for an amazingly fulfilling gaming experience; in addition, the lock-on system also made possible to play Sonic 2 as Knuckles, offering a fresh new outlook on the game.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles or S3K, as I love to call it, is by far the most polished of the classic Sonic games. It introduces a fresh batch of innovations that are still used in 2D Sonic entries nowadays, such as the save feature, the music theme variations between the two acts of each zone and the final mega-boss fought in space while sporting your super form. Tails is playable and can fly at long last, while new foe-turned-sidekick Knuckles is treated to its own exclusive route, shorter yet harder than Sonic and Tails’ one. S3K contains a modicum of narrative, which was quite a new thing in the series: short cutscenes show our heroes progressing from one zone to the next and interacting with foes. The level design is at its peak, with colourful, rich and complex zones bristling with alternative routes and secrets and a near-perfect balance between exhilarating speed and tricky platforming. This is probably the only classic Sonic game in which you can get dangerously close to the time limit in some levels—if not break it entirely. The physics are just as polished: they are marvellously intuitive and perfectly blend the precision of Sonic 1 and the alluring speed of Sonic 2 while adding an extra layer of control and slickness. Fine-tuning your jumps and your momentum is easier and smoother than ever, even in your super form. And talking about this, Tails and Knuckles are also treated to a super form in that game, even though they are not allowed to take part in the final epic showdown in space. A lot of work went into designing specific abilities for each character in order to create different gameplay experiences: Tails can fly, Knuckles can glide, and Sonic has access to a range of double-jumps with various properties.
It’s fair to say that the Sonic Team absolutely outdid themselves with S3K. This game is an amazing piece of Sonic goodness and one of the most brilliant entry in the series. It’s my favourite of the classic Sonic instalments and probably the game that I cleared the most runs of in my entire gaming life, and I have the fondest memories of some cosy afternoons spent playing it in co-op with my sister. And yet, despite that game’s undeniable awesomeness, it is far less popular and well-known than Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, and sold considerably less. And the reason for this lack of popularity and poor sales is crystal-clear: this game was sunk by its birth defect. Cutting it in two halves and selling them separately may have appeared as a brilliant coup at the time, a decision that would both reduce production costs and maximize earnings; however, it considerably tainted the game’s image and damaged its legacy beyond repair. Sonic 3 and Sonic&Knuckles have always been seen as two separate games because they were physically sold as such; and their reunion, which should rightfully be viewed as the real deal, is instead considered a chimera of sorts, a mere extra option similar to the possibility of playing as Knuckles in Sonic 2. That wouldn’t be such a huge problem if the two games taken separately were excellent; but unfortunately, they are quite unsatisfying as standalone experiences. For one thing, they are way too short to satiate the player’s cravings; for another, some excellent features are missing from both of them, like the save system and the possibility to play as Tails in Sonic&Knuckles and the possibility to play as Knuckles in Sonic 3. It’s quite a pity that the Sonic Team were not allotted an extra year of development time to polish this game and find ways to squeeze it into a single cartridge; had it been done, the legacy of S3K would certainly have been much more dazzling and memorable.
The self-indulgent corner:
—Favourite level in Sonic 3: Ice Cap Zone. I love ice levels as a rule, and this one is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played—and it has very few slippery areas to boot. What more can you ask for?
—Favourite level in S&K: Lava Reef Zone. A gorgeous crystalline area with two radically different acts, complex but not overly labyrinthine. I can’t get enough of this one, really.
—Favourite music in Sonic 3: Ice Cap Zone. What else? The ’90s techno-dance vibe of that track is just irresistible. I’m even fonder of the more subdued Act 2 version.
—Favourite music in S&K: Flying Battery Zone. Oh, what a blast! Fast-paced and intense, this track is the aural incarnation of (in)trepidity, and both of its versions are awesome. I also have a soft spot for the mini-boss theme, which I find even more epic than the main boss theme.
Here ends my love letter to the classic Sonic games. Of course, it goes without saying that as a rabid Sonic aficionado, I encourage everyone to try these old-school gems. They may have rough edges, but they are gorgeous and dazzling nonetheless. As you may expect, I own every single portable Sonic entry, and I will cover them all when the time is ripe. Now that my dirty little secret is out, I have no reason to hold back, do I? Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!