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 and, in keeping with tradition, I will be dedicating an entire month’s worth of content to SEGA’s supersonic mascot.
Released: 13 June 2013
Originally Released: 25 October 1991
Original Developer: Ancient
Also Available For: GameCube, Game Gear, Master System, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
I did a deep dive into Sonic’s complex and deliberate history in my review of his incredibly popular debut title for the Mega Drive; however, in October of the same year of Sonic’s 16-bit debut, SEGA also released an 8-bit version of the influential Mario-beater. The Master System version of Sonic was my introduction to the character as it came built-into my Master System II console; originally developed by Ancient specifically for the Game Gear, the Yuzo Koshiiro-lead team were also commissioned to make a version for its bigger brother. Since it was impossible to port the 16-bit game, Ancient started from scratch to craft a similar but fundamentally altered version of its 16-bit counterpart. Reviews were positive and, when the game was subsequently re-released onto the 3DS Virtual Console, it was again positively received and has been considered one of the best titles on SEGA’s 8-bit systems.
South Island is under siege! The maniacal Doctor Eggman (widely known as “Robotnik” during this time) has captured the island’s animals and polluted the landscape in his search for the six legendary Chaos Emeralds and only one super-fast, super-cool hedgehog can stop him!
Just like the 16-bit version, Sonic the Hedgehog is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer in which players are placed into the red-and-white trainers of the titular blue hedgehog. Sonic is tasked with racing and navigating through six stages (known as “Zones”), with three levels (called “Acts”) each and, in each Zone’s third Act, Sonic will encounter Dr. Eggman and have to battle him to free a bunch of woodland critters from captivity.
Sonic’s repertoire is exactly the same as in the game’s 16-bit cousin; moving Sonic in a direction for long enough will see him break from a walk, to a trot, to a super-fast run that turns his legs into a blur of motion. By pressing any button, Sonic will jump and become a ball of whirling blue spikes; this “Super Sonic Spin Attack” is your sole form of attack and can also be performed by pressing down on the directional-pad (D-Pad) while running to smash into Badniks. Pressing up and down on the D-Pad while standing still will allow you to vertically scroll the screen and pressing down when on a steep slope and jumping at the very end will see Sonic fly through the air and travel far across the Act at times. Otherwise, that’s it; there’s no Spin Dash or anything like that. Consequently, the game remains a much slower experience than the advertising would have you believe. Thanks to the limitations of the 8-bit hardware, this version of Sonic is missing the iconic loop-de-loops that helped Sonic gain speed in the 16-bit version and replaces them (here and there) with the aforementioned ramps and a far more vertically-orientated approach. This means that the game is, at its core, a pure platformer and you’ll be jumping over (many) spiked and bottomless pits, hopping to platforms (moving, stationary, and temporary), and making your way up and across to reach the Goal Sign.
While Sonic can still collect Golden Rings to protect himself from harm and death, he is again hampered by the system’s limitations. When hit, Sonic will appear to lose only one Ring but will actually drop all of his Rings and cannot pick them up again, which can easily lead to you getting killed on the very next hit. There are additional limitations on the heads-up display (HUD): if you collect over ninety-nine Rings, you’ll earn an extra life but also reset the Ring counter. Your life display is also capped at nine during gameplay but you can collect extra lives and they do show up on the score tally screen. Speaking of which, yes, you do accumulate points by smashing Badniks and finishing Acts quickly but you only see this score at the end of an Act. You are also still racing against a time limit but the game’s Acts are, for the most part, much shorter than in the 16-bit version so it’s not really much of a factor. Additionally, rather than including Signposts as checkpoints, 8-bit Sonic uses Arrow Monitors, which are worth hunting down if things are getting tough and, even better, your shield will carry across between Acts this time around.
As far as gameplay goes, though, 8-bit Sonic certainly mixes things up in many ways that separate it from 16-bit Sonic. Acts have different mechanics in them, such as warning signs before death pits, weight-based springboards, rapids, rolling logs to run on, and teleporters. It also includes three game-exclusive Zones: Bridge, Jungle, and Sky Base. Bridge focuses on horizontal platforming across an instant-death body of water and has you running across collapsing bridges while Jungle is focused more on vertical platforming. Both Zones include an autoscrolling section in Act 2, with Bridge Zone forcing you to the right and Jungle Zone forcing you up, which can be a pain as once the screen scrolls up to meet you, falling down will result in instant death. You once again have to find your way through Labyrinth Zone, now much more of a chore to play as it’s not only a fittingly maze-like Zone but the game noticeably slows right down whenever Sonic is in water or too much is happening onscreen. Scrap Brain, while similar to the 16-bit game, is also made noticeably different by the presence of a confusing teleporter loop in the second Act that sees you hitting switches to open certain doors, dodging numerous hazards, and going through the right tunnels and teleporters to reach the end. By the time you reach the game’s final Zone, Sky Base, the difficulty noticeably ramps up a bit; Act 1 is alive with hazards thanks to an impressive thunderstorm raging in the background and sending electrical currents running across the screen and the presence of numerous cannons. Act 2 takes place up in the sky with you suspended over a perpetual death pit and forcing you to hop across propeller platforms and dodge even bigger cannons all without the benefit of your precious Rings.
Graphics and Sound:
Even now, Sonic the Hedgehog remains one of the most impressive titles on SEGA’s 8-bit systems. Since the 3DS version is a port of the Game Gear version, it’s not quite the same as I remember it; Sonic’s sprite is noticeably different compared to the Master System one and actually resembles Greg Martin’s artwork thanks to his frowning eye. When left idle, he still taps his foot impatiently and pulls off some amusing expressions when killed, skidding, or gobbling air bubbles in Labyrinth Zone, though obviously the game’s zones aren’t going to be as vibrant and detailed as in the 16-bit version. Indeed, you’ll notice right away that the backgrounds are quite sparse and lack the same depth and level of detail as on the Mega Drive but there’s still quite a lot going on in each Zone; flowers blossom and dance in Green Hill Zone, water rushes by beneath Bridge Zone, and waterfalls and vines are all over the place in Jungle Zone.
Labyrinth Zone also still has a lot of detail on the foreground elements and you still need to swallow air bubbles to breathe (though the iconic drowning music has been replaced by a simple ticking countdown); while Scrap Brain Zone remains a mechanical Hell, Sky Base is probably the most visually impressive Zone in the game thanks to its dark, foreboding first Act and the impressive scale of the second Act. One of the best additions to the game is the presence of a map before each Act; this shows your progression through South Island, displays the name of the Zone you’re about to play, and even shows Dr. Eggman hovering in to attack you, the level of pollution in the air, and Dr. Eggman’s Sky Base looming overhead. The game even has a much more elaborate introduction before the title screen and the music is even more impressive; again, largely different from the 16-bit version with the exception of the opening jingle and Green Hill Zone, the game is full of jaunty, catchy little chip tunes, with Bridge Zone, the game’s incredible Scrap Brain Zone track, and Sky Base Zone’s tracks being notable standouts for me. When you finish the game, you’ll also be treated to a large, partially-animated sprite of Sonic with a microphone while one of my favourite ending medleys plays over the credits.
Enemies and Bosses:
Even though 8-bit Sonic includes some new Zones, the Badniks remain exactly the same as in the 16-bit version; you’ll still bop on Motobugs, get blasted at by Buzz Bombers, surprised by Newtrons, and nipped at by Chompers. Some Badniks, like Bat Brain and Roller, are missing, however, and you won’t be seeing any fluffy little creatures hopping to freedom when you smash the ‘bots with your Spin Attack. Your main hazards will be the high abundance of spike pits, spike traps, and bottomless pits; spears will also try to skewer you in Labyrinth Zone, flame jets and electrical hazards try to fry you in Scrap Brain Zone, and platforms will constantly collapse beneath your feet.
As in the 16-bit version, Sonic will battle Dr. Eggman in Act 3 of each Zone. Unlike in that game, Act 3 contains no Rings, some platforming hazards to navigate through, and a single extra life monitor hidden within it to help you out. Every boss in the game is also completely different from those seen in the Mega Drive version; in Green Hill Zone, Dr. Eggman simply flies overhead a few times (accompanied by a jaunty little boss theme), lowers slowly to the ground, and tries to ram into you but, thanks to the smaller screen size of the Game Gear, it’s pathetically easy to do him in as he flies overheard on the first pass. In Bridge Zone, Dr. Eggman switches to a submersible craft and pops up randomly between bridges to fire three shots at you; this actually differs from the Master System version, which sees you battling Dr. Eggman between two grassy platforms, and can be difficult as it’s very easy to fall through Dr. Eggman on his invincibility frames and lose a life. In Jungle Zone, Dr. Eggman again hovers overheard but this time you’re limited to a curved vine platform and he drops a rolling bomb at you but, just like in Green Hill Zone, it’s way too easy to just mess him up on his first pass.
Things appear to get more troublesome in Labyrinth Zone; unlike in the 16-bit version, you actually do fight Dr. Eggman here but it’s underwater and in a small arena with a bottomless pit to worry about. While there’s helpfully (if strangely) no danger of you drowning in this battle, you do have to watch out for Dr. Eggman’s rockets and projectiles but, while it can be tricky to jump over the pit thanks to how slow the game runs underwater, this isn’t that much of a chore to get through. In Scrap Brain Zone, you won’t actually fight Dr. Eggman; instead, you have to solve a tricky puzzle and then chase him to his teleporter and you’ll go one-on-one with him in the next Zone in a battle far more grandiose than on the Mega Drive. In Sky Base Act 3, Dr. Eggman hides within a glass tube and hops on a switch, which sends jets of flame randomly up from the floor or a ball of death to fly at you. Thankfully, it’s pretty simple to hop over both of these and bash into him. After he flees, a short cutscene pays that shows Sonic delivering the final blow via teleporter, defeating Dr. Eggman at last.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Sonic the Hedgehog includes all of the same power-ups as its Mega Drive cousin. You’ll find a number of monitors scattered throughout each Zone that will award you with ten extra Rings, a protective shield, or mark your progress so you can respawn later in the Zone if you die. Interestingly, the game features far more extra life monitors than it does speed-up shoes or invincibility monitors; indeed, I only encountered maybe two of these in my playthrough, to the point where I thought they weren’t even in the game.
The 3DS version of 8-bit Sonic is one of the best ways to play the game thanks to not only being a portable title like the original Game Gear version, but also the inclusion of save states. While you can only create one save slot, this does make it dramatically easier to keep track of your progress and help you hunt down the game’s six Chaos Emeralds.
One of the things I always loved about 8-bit Sonic was its approach to Chaos Emeralds; if you finish an Act with fifty Rings or more, you’ll get to play a Special Stage. In this game, these are timed bonus stages full of bumpers and springs (basically functioning as the game’s version of Spring Yard Zone) and Rings. Here, you can bounce all over the place to stock up on lives or break Continue Monitors to gain an extra continue but you won’t find Chaos Emeralds in these stages. Instead, Chaos Emeralds are hidden within the game’s Zones. Finding them is sometimes pretty simple, such as just taking a certain path while underground in Green Hill or running on a log at the bottom of Jungle Zone, but can also be sneakily hidden behind death traps. To reach the Emerald in Bridge Zone, for example, you have to jump from a falling section of a bridge before you fall to your death and Scrap Brain’s Chaos Emerald is reached by falling down a specific pit that looks just like any other bottomless pit. Nabbing them all rewards you with a hefty score bonus and the game’s true ending, which sees South Island freed of Dr. Eggman’s influence.
Even though I grew up playing the Master System version of this game, which is graphically slightly superior, I still have an immense amount of nostalgia and fondness for the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The game is bright, fun, and endlessly charming and packs quite a lot in for an 8-bit title; one of the things I still really enjoy about it is that it’s not just a scaled down version of the 16-bit game. Instead, 8-bit Sonic features new Zones, new gimmicks, and changes up the way the game is played; having you hunt for Chaos Emeralds in the game’s Acts is a great way to tie into the game’s larger focus on platforming and exploration and I always kind of saw this and the 16-bit version as two parts of a greater whole that complimented each other beautifully. Colourful and featuring some extremely catchy tunes, 8-bit Sonic is both easier and slightly harder than its more popular counterpart; there are some glitches here and there (Sonic’s collision detection is a bit wonky and I found myself bounced into oblivion in the Special Stages more than once), there seems to be far more unfair death pits and traps, and the game runs much slower, especially when there’s a lot happening onscreen. Still, these issues are minor and, in many ways (again, most likely because of nostalgia) I actually prefer this game to the 16-bit version but, in my wholly biased opinion, it’s definitely at least on par with Sonic’s bigger, better Mega Drive outing.
What did you think about Sonic’s 8-bit debut? How do you think it compares to the 16-bit version and Sonic’s other 8-bit outings? Did your Master System come with Sonic built-in or did you buy it separately? What did you think to the Chaos Emeralds being hidden in the game’s Zones rather than in Special Stages? Did you own the original Game Gear version and what did you think to this 3DS port? How are you celebrating Sonic’s birthday this year? Whatever you think, feel free to share your thoughts and memories regarding Sonic below or on my social media.