Sonic Retrospective - Exploration of the classic hedgehog adventures
Editor's Note: This sure brings back a lot of memories. Thanks for another excellent post Ferret!
In June 1991, a genre defining franchise was first released by Sega known as Sonic the Hedgehog. Starting on the Sega Genesis system, the blue mascot helped show off the processing speeds and animation skills of the 16-bit console, and it also managed to rival the fat red plumber known as Mario. It also helped demonstrate the console's capabilities to have strong exclusives. Despite a few interesting spin-off titles such as Sonic Spinball, the Sega Genesis titles were mostly platform games, and many of the entries hold up excellently even today.
The games were fun because they combined fluid amounts of speed control with detailed branching level design, with each entry having its own unique mechanics introduced. The camera scrolled in all directions, with there being no directional limitations to your potential exploration. Graphics were beautifully colored with the animation being fast without noticeable frame rate loss. Audio covered a variety of instrumentals and mood. And lastly, the various paths and different game mechanics allowed for a large amount of replayability.
The first game released in the creative franchise, this title introduced the blue blur in what would be one of many excellent platform adventures. You could run fast, jump around, roll into a ball, navigate around various obstacles which changed each zone, work your way past various types of enemies, explore graphically detailed worlds, listen to instrumental music which complimented the backgrounds, experiment with different types of items ranging from shields to temporary invincibility, challenge yourself by collecting rings to gain access to revolving special stages, and much more. Most of you probably know the gameplay objectives in this series by now, so I'll try not to be way too analytical on the "how to play" aspects of the game.
Genesis does what Nintendon't. While the Super Nintendo had more colors and a higher resolution than the Sega Genesis, assuming you don't include the Sega CD add-on in the mix, one area the Sega Genesis did have an advantage in were its notably faster processing speeds (more than twice as fast). The famous "blast processing" is most commonly associated with the hedgehog adventures, where the graphics ran at a colorfully smooth but also speeding pace. Even when you picked up items that even further increased the hedgehog's speed, mainly the power sneakers, the video still managed to keep up. Yet the speed wasn't a nuisance, as you always had time to react to events, and it was detailed in its ability to accurately control momentum.
Fluid visuals are an important aspect of the Sonic the Hedgehog games, but speed by itself is not the only important aspect of the franchise's fun factor; the first game especially proves this. Good solid level design plays a larger role in the game's execution. The Marble Zone for example has lower overall speed but instead focuses on dodging bats and lava, emphasizing careful maneuvering and platform riding. The Labyrinth Zone changes your control strategy by having the water act as an intentional delay to your movement, making you plan encounters with certain enemies differently, or implementing water reaction devices such as one which simulates moving with a fast current. Regarding levels where speed is a larger factor, the classic Green Hill Zone evokes a cheering optimism and lets the player explore their fast movement in a multi-directional manner. My personal favorite area is the Star Light Zone due to its space like setting and emphasis on speed ramps; it's a fun but simple level. The special stages accessible by holding onto fifty rings until the end of the level, an already daring challenge, completely change up the gameplay by throwing you in a constantly rotating level which involves making quick reactions and strategic jumps. Every one of these zones offered multiple branches in making it through a level, some being hidden and some presenting unique obstacles limited to that area. This branching of paths along with the multiple endings basically ensures a good deal of replayability.
Sonic the Hedgehog was an overall fun game despite some simpler sections, and though some people don't find it too exciting of a game, I feel like it's an important one that has its definite moments. However, it's pretty difficult to argue that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is anything but significantly better than its predecessor. New moves were added such as the spin dash which let the player charge up speed, the graphics were more lively than the previous title, a new playable character in the form of Tails the two-tailed fox appeared, the level design was much more exciting, the bonus stages were intense, Super Sonic made his first playable appearance, and there were a plethora of other new features as well such as multiplayer and a sound test.
The main reason Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a notably better game in my opinion is because of its better game pacing and superior level design. Sonic the Hedgehog, that is the original game, had some clever levels but to some people grew a little repetitious because of the three act system. The stages while being very fun were also of course fairly new ideas, so the layouts were sometimes a bit simple by comparison. In Sonic the Hedgehog 2, zones are limited to two acts each with there instead being a larger number of worlds, so they don't overstay their welcome. The graphical backgrounds are more detailed than the first game, the audio is very memorable, and did I mention how varied the unique stage mechanics in each of these levels are?
For example, the Chemical Plant Zone involves mechanical tubes where you can hold a direction to change the destination, along with very long speed ramps that intensify a bright factory setting. The Aquatic Ruin Zone is a beautiful jungle setting where the lower half contains a water setting and the top half contains a tropical land area; this gives a larger incentive to work hard to stay on the top half, although both areas have some interesting mechanics like extended loops and springboards. One of the most loved zones in the game is the Casino Night Zone, a more relaxing zone which combines pinball features with addicting slot machine mechanics. Other notable zones include a cave zone with landscape obstacles such as stalactites, and a flying fortress featuring some very memorable background music. There's also a sky area where the gameplay control significantly changes for variety; you ride an airplane with Tails as you attack enemy fleets in the air.
The significantly better special stages also come to mind; you ran in a three-dimensional half pipe as you tried to collect rings. They were challenging but also fair, and they involved some very detailed animation that could compete with other effects shown off by the Super Nintendo. Collecting all the emeralds this time gave you a reward beyond simply another ending; you could collect rings and become Super Sonic, something which would even further increase your speed and jump height along with making you near invincible. At the cost of collecting rings to stay in that form, this reward provided more incentive to complete the bonus stages, and it further showed off the very high processing speeds of the Sega Genesis system.
There were even multiplayer features added! A friend could play as Tails during the main game to assist the main player (Sonic) with enemy encounters and other factors. Something also new to the franchise was a versus mode, where there were races to the goal based on multiple factors including time and ring amounts in addition to other checks. These were very fun, and the new items such as the teleport further added to the variety. To summarize my points up, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 improved notably over the first title in my opinion because of its various new gameplay features, better overall pacing, and stronger level design. There may be some other things I overlooked, but this should hopefully illustrate why I like this sequel so much.
Before continuing to the next major Sega Genesis entry, let's take a side step to one of the most memorable adventures on the Sega CD hardware. The Sega CD was a major console add-on which was primarily intended to help the Sega Genesis compete with the TurboGrafx-16 CD technology that was already popular in Japan, although another commercial benefit was that it expanded the lifetime of the main console. On a more technical level, the Sega CD allowed additional access to a new library of compact disc games, something which was still a relatively new concept at the time. The most apparent differences included a color amount difference of around four times as much, an even faster processing speed, uncompressed CD-quality music which meant significantly less limited audio, and larger memory sizes which could allow for data files on the games such as full motion video. Although the game library of Sega CD games wasn't as large as the Sega Genesis, there were still many notable titles that took advantage of the improved specs such as the Lunar series, Sol-Feace, Rise of the Dragon, enhanced versions of previous Sega Genesis games, and of course, Sonic CD.
Sonic CD is often considered to be one of the best video games if not the single best one on the Sega CD add-on, and for good reason. In addition to the general gameplay I talked about for the previous Sonic the Hedgehog games, there are some additional aesthetical benefits to it. For one, the notably larger number of colors provides even greater detail to the backgrounds and sprites, although the sprite visuals are still basically 16-bit. The greater visual detail is also used during the special stages which share some similarities to Sonic R concept wise. Second, larger memory means some absolutely fantastic music ranging from upbeat techno instrumentals to relaxing slow paced pieces to even more intimidating metal, and some of these songs include interjected voice clips. Other features present thanks to the added memory include the series' first save system, some full motion video cutscenes, and storage for a very large number of levels. But of course, there was something notably different with the gameplay which no other entry in the series has replicated since.
The main gameplay feature in Sonic CD absent from every other Sonic the Hedgehog game is time travel. Throughout the levels, which are already very branching and varied on their own, there are past and future sign posts scattered around. Run into one and build up speed for a continuous amount of time and Sonic will travel forward or backwards in time to a new level layout. Present time zones have a mix of mechanical obstacles, enemies, spring devices, and what you would normally expect in a Sonic the Hedgehog game at this point despite some level-by-level differences. In the past, the landscapes are more natural and involve less machinery; an optional (necessary for the good ending) story objective is to destroy planted transformation devices in order to change the default bad future into a good one. The bad future removes any remaining scenery from the older zones, makes the mechanical obstacles more dangerous, and generally adds a more disturbing feel to the area. An incentive for creating a good future is that traveling to the good future results in a much more peaceful area devoid of any enemies to fight, apart from boss encounters in the third acts.
You know the most impressive aspect of this time system mechanic? This essentially means that in addition to there already being level distinct worlds with multiple acts, each zone now has four different variations depending on the time period. On top of the already branching level design that the series is popular for, there are now geographic differences that can be traveled back and forth between, and this along with the device hunting mechanic encourages further exploration in what is already a very fun to play game. Each of these areas also holds its own take on the world theme whose mood reflects that of the technology period; past musical tracks are more prehistoric, uplifting, and are strictly instrumental, bad future variants of the songs are more sinister and dark in their presentation, and good future songs are notably cheerful and absent of any serious conflict. This is describing the European/Japanese soundtrack of the game; American releases of the game feature a different soundtrack which was unfortunately less emotionally varied across the time periods, plus there isn't as much general catchiness to them I feel. They were still alright and had some good tunes, but I just always preferred the European/Japanese music selection.
Whether the actual level layouts are the best in the series is debated amongst fans, perhaps since much of the speed comes from springs and contraptions as opposed to naturally building it up. And to be fair, some of the scenery across the levels shares some similarities, although they still look great in my opinion. You have levels with racetracks, aquatic mines, mechanical workbenches, and a zone themed around pinball along with others. The boss encounters were also creative, including one boss fight that took place underwater with the boss using air bubbles, and another which places Sonic the Hedgehog in the center of a pinball table. My personal favorite is a race to the end with Metal Sonic, an enemy modeled after the main character.
In conclusion, Sonic CD is definitely one of the more memorable titles from the series, and it managed to incorporate some strong gameplay mechanics that were otherwise absent from future installments. People have some mixed opinions on the quality of the level design, but it's generally agreed that the concept of having multiple versions of each level to switch between was an inventive one. The Sega CD hardware also shined well here, enhancing the visual colors and music quality amongst other things.
Could the next Sega Genesis entry have topped Sonic CD even if it was working without the expansion hardware? Well in my personal opinion, yes. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were originally supposed to be a single game which would have played like a single massive adventure, but due to time and memory constraints, the project ended up being split into two separate entries. So what's with the name Sonic 3 & Knuckles? Well the second game used an innovative feature known as lock-on technology, which basically let you attach two cartridges together. The most famous combination is of course Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which combines two already impressive games together, adds additional features like super emeralds, and does other things such as raising the number of potential paths for the three different characters. Other bonuses include combining Sonic & Knuckles with Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which let you play as the new gliding echidna known as Knuckles in the second game, which subsequently made some previously hidden paths available in addition to adding a new control system. Combining Sonic & Knuckles with the first game opened up a mode called Blue Sphere, a mode themed around the emerald stages in Sonic 3 & Knuckles but with over 130 million levels.
Let's see how many new features I can talk about in a short amount of time. Well with this most popular adventure, there are now three different characters you can play as, each having new abilities not previously in older Sonic the Hedgehog titles. The title character Sonic plays like his older self, only now he also has a spin attack which lets him create a split second shield move. He's also the only character who can fully use three new items to the series: Fire, electric, and bubble shields. Fire shields protect the character from fire obstacles; Sonic can additionally use the shield to execute a forward dash. Electric shields protect the character from electricity and also attract nearby rings; Sonic can additionally use these to do a double jump. Bubble shields protect the character from drowning as long as it's equipped; Sonic can also use these to do a bounce move similar to what would later appear in Sonic Adventure 2. The other characters can partially use these shields for protection, but Tails the two-tailed fox can now fly for limited amounts of time in order to reach certain ledges. This new move especially adds more cooperation to the two-player mode since one player can also carry around Sonic to help with exploration. Finally, we have the first appearance of Knuckles, a red echidna whose lower jump is made up for with the ability to glide, climb walls, and beat his way through certain obstacles that allow access to totally separate level paths than Sonic. Even when playing through the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 levels, there are still noticeably different paths for Knuckles to travel through that are distinct from Sonic's routes. And like previous Sonic the Hedgehog games, there are still plenty of branching paths and diversity in the level design, including a snow level which involves giant snowballs and ski sections, a flying ship with magnetic contraptions, and a space level with gravity inversion amongst various other examples. A particular section I like is a boss fight in the Marble Madness Zone; the action is entirely in the air, and it involves large amounts of cooperation with the orange flying fox and blue attacking hedgehog.
The graphics were even further improved in this game, having less available colors than Sonic CD but instead offering more polished character sprites and animation for background effects. There was more stuff that happened in the stages, ranging from a forest fire covering most of the Angel Island Zone to water currents in the high speeds Hydrocity Zone to ground earthquakes in the Marble Garden Zone to lighting effects in the Pyramid Cave Zone... there were some very impressive visual effects used throughout Sonic 3 & Knuckles to say the least. The coloring in the game also felt more vivid to me than the coloring in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Special 3D effects were used during the emerald levels where you ran around collecting blue orbs while avoiding red ones; it created a sense of visual depth whose speed accelerated as longer amounts of time passed by. Complementing the graphics are some memorable stage tunes, including some music which also had some assistance from Michael Jackson amongst others, something I found interesting. The tracks complement the worlds they're located in, and there are also leitmotifs when characters such as Knuckles show up. While not as advanced as Sonic CD, the music gets the job done and still manages to sound great.
Other gameplay mechanics include three new types of bonus stages in additional to the emerald levels. Bonus stages are accessed by collecting a certain amount of rings and then hitting a checkpoint post; emerald levels are instead accessed by locating hidden giant rings scattered throughout the game's levels. One of the bonus stages places you in a gumball machine with bumpers as you try to collect items while avoiding the bottom, another throws you into a giant slot machine whose style shares similarities to the emerald levels from the first Sonic the Hedgehog, and the third type features a rising electrical current as you excitedly jump from static sphere to sphere while also using pinball flippers. Another addition to this game are the super emeralds, a second set of emeralds to collect which allow for even stronger transformations into Hyper Sonic, Hyper Knuckles, and for the first time in a Sonic the Hedgehog game, the awesome Super Tails.
Continuing to talk about the new mechanics in Sonic 3 & Knuckles would take too long for this blog post, so let me just conclude by talking about the new narrative style. Something I like a lot is how all of the levels are connected together, including player interactive sections at the ends of levels. There is an active narrative throughout the game, and having the whole game play as if it was one large connected level adds to the experience for me. The fact that Sonic and Knuckles also have story sections that split off from each other also intrigues me. Overall, it's a well done mechanic, and it would be nice to see it used again in future games.
I usually like to conclude my long blog posts with a discussion provoker of sorts, so let's see if we can start some fun conversation here. Many people, including me, generally agree that the Sega Genesis (and Sega CD) entries in the Sonic the Hedgehog series are some of the strongest. The titles are largely innovative with consecutive entries introducing new features, the branching level design combined with fun amounts of speed control make for an exciting experience with large amounts of replayability, the graphics are fluid and colorful, and the memorable audio complements the varied stages. Are there any of the Sega Genesis and/or Sega CD games that you have strong memories of? Leave your comments below, and as always, thank you for reading!