Sonic the Hedgehog was first introduced to gamers worldwide on 23 June 1991 and, since then, has become not only SEGA’s most enduring and popular character but also a beloved videogame icon. This year, the Blue Blur turns thirty and what better way to celebrate than by dedicating an entire month’s worth of content to SEGA’s supersonic mascot.
Released: July 2007
Originally Released: June 1991
Developer: Sonic Team
Original Developer: Sonic Team
Also Available For: Arcade, Game Boy Advance, Gamecube, Game.com, iPod, Mega Drive, Mobile, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Portable, SEGA Saturn, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox Series X
You know the story by now: there was a time when videogames and home consoles ran rampant and, for a while, it was good. But, inevitably, the market became swamped with lacklustre releases and poorly conceived movie tie-ins; after the collapse of the videogame industry, Nintendo were there to pick up the pieces, dominating the market with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985). Though they had successfully recaptured the flailing market and seemed unstoppable, one former slot machine developer dared to try and knock Nintendo from their perch. In 1990, SEGA ordered their developers to design a mascot and a title capable of leaving Mario in the dust and showcasing the power of their 16-Bit Mega Drive; after an internal contest produced numerous rejected designs (including a rabbit and an armadillo), SEGA soon settled on Naoto Ohshima’s design of a spiky hedgehog dubbed “Mr. Needlemouse”.
With up-and-coming developer Yuji Naka, composer Masato Nakamura, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara also onboard, the character’s design was refined and defined, renamed to Sonic, and “Sonic Team” was born. Conceived to be as appealing as possibly, Naka wanted Sonic the Hedgehog to focus on speed and user-friendliness; unlike his rival, Mario, Sonic controlled with only the directional pad and one button and his gameplay was based on physics, momentum, and an emphasis on action and speed. Thanks largely to an aggressive marketing campaign and copies of the game being bundled in with SEGA’s brand new console, Sonic the Hedgehog was an immediate success, selling over 15 million copies in this format alone and kick-starting the “Console War” between SEGA and Nintendo that would dominate the nineties. Since then, Sonic has become an enduring icon; he’s had a slew of critical and commercial hits alongside a number of unfortunate and very disappointing hiccups and yet his character and brand remain strong and he is still an iconic character in both videogames and other media to this day.
South Island is under siege! The maniacal Doctor Eggman (widely known as “Robotnik” during the game’s original release) has been capturing the island’s animals and turning them into robotic Badniks! With Eggman’s machinery and pollution threatening the entire island, only one super-fast, super-cool hedgehog can stop him!
Sonic the Hedgehog is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer in which you control the titular blue hedgehog. Sonic must journey across six stages (known as “Zones”), each split into three “Acts”; at the end of each Zone’s third Act, Sonic must battle Eggman in one of his contraptions and, upon clearing all six Zones, face the diabolical doctor in the game’s Final Zone. Sonic is a smooth and responsive character to play as; slightly weighty, his speed and agility are dependant upon you building momentum and using the game’s level layout and gimmicks to your advantage. When you move Sonic, he quickly breaks from a trot, to a jog, to a run that is so fast his legs appear as little more than a rubber band of red, white, and blue but, in order to reach Sonic’s top speeds, you’ll need to make use of slopes, curves, the game’s signature loop-de-loops, and Sonic’s rolling mechanics.
Any time you press a button, Sonic jumps into a blazing spinning ball of spikes known as the “Super Sonic Spin Attack”. You can use this to destroy Badniks and bounce off of them, springs, and monitors to increase your height, momentum, and speed. Additionally, pressing down whilst running will see Sonic roll along for a similar effect. In the original release of the game, Sonic couldn’t utilise his patented Spin Dash as this wasn’t introduced until the bigger, better sequel but subsequent re-releases and ports have seen this function added in, which can be extremely helpful in moving Sonic along (unfortunately, though, it’s not available in this version of the game). And that’s a noteworthy point as, unlike in the sequels, Sonic is painfully slow in his debut title; the game’s first stage, the iconic and massively over-used Green Hill Zone, is a perfect playground for getting to grips with Sonic’s speed and abilities. You’ll blast through this Zone in no time at all, feeling the rush of adrenaline and action-packed speed, only to literally run into a brick wall with the next stage, Marble Zone, which slows the game down to a crawl so Sonic can navigate precarious platforms, push blocks, activate switches, and simply wait for the game to allow him to continue.
That’s not to say that speed doesn’t become a recurring factor in Sonic’s gameplay; both Spring Yard Zone and Starlight Zone give you a chance to stretch your legs again but the pinball mechanics of the former and the obstacle-course-like layout of the latter were definitely refined in the sequel. As a result, most of your time is spent using more traditional platforming skills to progress forward rather than simply blazing through as the game’s marketing would have you believe. This means jumping from platform to platform, navigating maze-like areas, activating switches, and hopping to disappearing, crumbling, or spinning platforms. In Starlight Zone, you’ll also have to use some see-saws to bounce up to higher areas and navigate a bottomless void while Scrap Brain Zone includes teleportation tubes and speed-sapping conveyor belts to screw up your momentum and sense of direction. You’ll also have to watch the in-game timer as well; if you take too long to finish an Act, you’ll lose a life, so it pays to keep moving but, fortunately, none of the game’s Zones or Acts are that long or difficult to get through within the required time limit.
Luckily, Sonic is a relatively sturdy videogame character, especially compared to Mario; collecting the many Golden Rings scattered throughout the game’s Zones allows you to survive a single hit. You’ll lose all of your Rings but you won’t lose a life unless you get squashed, fall into one of the game’s many bottomless pits, get hit without a Ring or a shield, or drown. Sonic’s momentum becomes sluggish and awkward when underwater and, unlike his rival, he cannot survive for long in the murky depths of the Labyrinth Zone; linger too long and an ominous, heart-pounding countdown will begin and, if it reaches zero, you’ll drown and lose a life. Fortunately, just as you can collect dropped Rings, you can save yourself from this fate by finding air bubbles. Sonic can also earn an extra life if he collects one hundred Rings or earns a high enough score and you’ll also be given a chance to continue should you lose all of your lives. You can earn extra continues in the game’s Special Stages but you’ll also lose your current accumulated high score if you have to use a continue. Sonic gains points for destroying Badniks, defeating Eggman, and clearing Acts; once you reach the end of Act signpost or break open the prison capsule, you’ll be awarded bonus points for your current score, the time you took to clear the Act, and the amount of Rings you were holding when you did so. As a result, you are actively encouraged to blast through Acts as quickly as possible as this will net you a higher score and more lives and continues.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s Zones are thus laid out in such a way to allow you to experiment to find the fastest routes; typically, the higher path is the most dangerous but also the fastest compared to the middle and lower paths. This isn’t always the case, however, and this mechanic is not as refined as in later games; some Zones, such as the aforementioned Labyrinth and Spring Yard, are more vertically constructed, meaning that your completion speed will be directly tied to your level of skill and precision with controlling Sonic. For the most part, this isn’t a problem but, unfortunately, Sonic the Hedgehog does suffer from a few noticeable issues that can unfairly impede your progress; early copies of the game featured an infamous glitch whereby, upon landing on a bed of spikes, Sonic would lose his shield, Rings, and then a life all without the usual few seconds of invincibility frames to save him. Other times, especially in Spring Yard Zone, you may find yourself crushed by blocks even though you’re not actually beneath them; Sonic also has a curious animation glitch where he will jump while running in the air if you try to jump to close to obstacles or items, though these issues are, admittedly, rare and minor. Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t an especially difficult game; there are no difficulty settings to choose from so the game’s difficulty is supposed to gradually increase as you progress from Zone to Zone. As you race through Zones, you’ll automatically activate Lampposts as you run past them, which acts as a checkpoint should you die in the Zone, however your skill is tested by the way the game requires you to finish every Act that doesn’t feature a boss battle holding fifty Rings or more in order to try for the game’s six Chaos Emeralds.
Graphics and Sound:
Sonic the Hedgehog is still one of the most impressive and visually appealing games of its kind. Everything from the sprites to the background art pops out in gorgeous colours and the game’s Zones are full of life and character, despite being largely cliché in hindsight. You’ll race through verdant fields, explore lava-filled ruins, slog through the sunken remnants of an ancient civilisation, careen around a bonkers pinball-inspired obstacle course, and face a myriad of deadly hazards in Scrap Brain Zone, the heart of Eggman’s operation on South Island.
Just about the only Zone that isn’t interesting or fun is Starlight Zone and I say this with a heavy heart as it’s actually one of my favourite Zones in the game and a welcome return to the more speed-orientated gameplay after the annoyance of Labyrinth Zone. However, Starlight Zone is largely empty and lifeless; the wind-based mechanic is clunky, the bottomless pits are insufferable, and the Badniks are far harder to destroy than in other Zones.
What saves Starlight Zone, however, is its music; in fact, Sonic the Hedgehog has some of the best and most memorable music in videogame history. From the catchy title theme to the iconic sounds of Green Hill Zone, every Zone has an excellent, jaunty, and fitting theme to go with it. This is also true of the game’s boss battles, which all feature the same ominous-yet-lively tune that let you know Eggman is inbound. The game doesn’t feature any cutscenes or story-telling elements; this isn’t entirely unexpected as a lot of games released around this time didn’t and, to be fair, the game’s story is pretty simple to pick up either through association (the Zones change from lush and vibrant to polluted and desolate and woodland critters bounce around the Zones after being freed from captivity) or from the game’s manual. One thing that the game does excel at, though, is giving Sonic a distinct personality; if you leave him idle, he’ll turn to the screen and impatiently tap his foot, a quirk that has been aped and emulated but almost every videogame avatar since.
Enemies and Bosses:
In each Zone of the game, Sonic will face opposition from Eggman’s Badniks; these mechanical monsters may look cute and quirky but they can be extremely deadly. Mostly themed after animals, Badniks will fly across the screen shooting fireballs at Sonic, slink along the floor and break into spiked balls upon defeat, toss bombs at his head, and even explode in his face, among other things. Generally, Badniks are exclusive to each Zone but there is some crossover in later stages. While most of these Badniks aren’t too much bother, their placement in the Zones can be frustrating; others, like Roller and Burrobot, can be a pain due to the speed and surprise of their attacks while Badniks like Spike and Orbinaut cause issues due to their spiked defences.
At the end of each Zone’s third Act, you’ll battle Doctor Eggman in his Egg-O-Matic hovercraft; each time you face him, he has a new, deadly appendage attached to his craft but his attack pattern remains generally the same. He’ll come puttering in, flying from right to left, and trying to attack with his appendage all while remaining a large, open target for Sonic’s Spin Attack. Unfortunately, while Eggman’s wrecking ball is simple to get around, his later appendages become more dangerous thanks to the presence of other hazards; in Marble Zone, he’ll drop fireballs that briefly render the ground too dangerous to stand on but there’s also a pit of lava to watch out for, for example. Attack too fast in Spring Yard Zone and you might drop to your death as Eggman uses his spike to remove parts of the platform you’re standing on. Labyrinth Zone’s boss battle is more of a race than a fight as, no matter how often you hit Eggman, he won’t be defeated; instead, you need to jump up the flooded vertical shaft dodging spikes and fireballs and desperately hoping to reach the top before you drown.
Once you’ve cleared all six Zones, you’ll reach the Final Zone; in this final showdown with Eggman, you’re stuck in a room with no escape and no Rings as Eggman tries to crush you with four weights and fry you alive with electrical balls. Fortunately, however, there is always a gap between these sparkling orbs for you to safely jump through and, by simply waiting at the far right of the screen, you can just take your time and ram Eggman whenever he pops up. Compared to the final boss battles of later Sonic games, this one is a bit of a joke, to be honest, and ends the game not with a bang but with a kind of shrug.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
To help tip the odds in your favour, you’ll find a number of computer monitors scattered throughout the game’s Zones. Breaking these open will award you with such gifts as an instant hit of ten Rings, a shield that protects you from losing Rings or a life for one hit, or even an extra life. You can also find monitors containing Power Sneakers, which immediately increase Sonic’s running speed for a short time, or an invincibility, which coats Sonic in a sparkling protective aura. Combine these two together and you’re basically unstoppable unless you run head-first into a bottomless pit.
Playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Xbox One allows you to earn some pretty simple and easy Achievements; if you’ve played Sonic before, it should be no challenge at all to reach the game’s later Zones, collect one hundred Rings, or complete the game. As I mentioned above, finishing every Act except Act 3 with fifty Rings or more allows you to enter a Special Stage (why they’re not called “Special Zones” I don’t know…); these are accessed by Giant Rings that appear when you pass the end of Act signpost, so jump in quickly before you miss your chance!
The Special Stages are a psychedelic maze-like area filled with bright colours and weird effects; here, you’ll have to bounce and roll Sonic (who is in a constant spin) around the arena trying to avoid the flashing “Goal” lights. Touch these and you’re instantly ejected from the Special Stage with nothing to show for it but, if you manage to avoid them, you’ll find a Chaos Emerald hidden within each Special Stage. Collect all six of these and you’ll be awarded with the game’s true ending; without them, Eggman will mock you for failing to collect them all but, aside from seeing flowers blooming in Green Hill Zone and an Achievement, there’s little incentive to collect all six as you don’t unlock anything else. Sadly, thanks to the way Sonic the Hedgehog works on the Xbox One, there’s no way to enter the iconic cheat codes from the original game and, while a save state system is included, it only allows you to save to three separate slots. You can, however, access online leaderboards to compare your score, time, and progress with other players, if that’s your thing.
Sonic the Hedgehog will forever be an iconic, classic platformer; its place in the echelon of videogame history was cemented upon its bombastic release and, even to this day, it remains as a solid action/platformer. Unfortunately, years of enjoying the bigger, better, much improved sequels somewhat dampens the appeal of Sonic the Hedgehog. Playing the game in hindsight, you can see how the developers took the very best aspects and elements of this game and improved upon them in the sequel, removing the slower, clunkier elements and focusing more on action and speed. The game’s marketing made Sonic out to be this superfast character with a radical attitude but the actual game is quite slow, for the most part, and elevated above its peers thanks to its eye-catching graphics, distinct personality, and catchy music. It’s still a great game and obviously laid the foundations for even better things to come but is far less impressive than its sequels.
What did you think about Sonic the Hedgehog? Where do you rate it against the other games in the franchise? Did you purchase a Mega Drive simply to play Sonic? Which port or re-release of the game is your favourite? Are you as annoyed as I am that the excellent mobile version of the game isn’t available to play on the Xbox One? How are you celebrating Sonic’s thirtieth anniversary? Whatever you think, feel free to share your thoughts and memories regarding Sonic below.