16/04/2017

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

Spring is in the air, the cherry trees outside my house are in full bloom and my hayfever’s staring to kick in. It can mean only one thing: it’s just about time for VGJunk’s birthday! That’s right, today is the site’s seventh anniversary, which is definitely a long enough amount of time to keep me awake at night as I think of all the good I could have done in the world instead of writing bad jokes about videogames for seven years. Anyway, to celebrate these anniversaries (and also because it’s my actual birthday tomorrow) I usually write about a game I genuinely love, but this year I’m doing something a bit different – I’m covering a game that lots of other people love, but which I’ve never fully taken to myself. It’s Sega’s 1991 Megadrive / Genesis gotta-go-fast-em-up Sonic the Hedgehog!


Here’s Sega’s beloved mascot now, with a smirk that betrays the slightest hint of his trademark “attitude.” Sonic looks young, fresh-faced and surprisingly shiny, as you might expect him to in a time before he gained an ever-growing coterie of friends and rivals, before he became a were-hog, before he started making out with human women. That said, Sonic did have a human girlfriend early in this game’s development, but she was eventually cut, thus paving the way for Amy Rose’s later introduction. She doesn’t appear in this game, though, and neither do any of Sonic’s other friends and hangers-on. It’s just Sonic and Dr. Robotnik – or Dr. Eggman, if you prefer – battling it out for the future of their world.
Before I get into the game proper, I should just say that if you are a hardcore Sonic fan and you’re heading to the comments section to leave an angry message about me not liking Sonic, then cool your jets. I certainly don’t think Sonic the Hedgehog is a bad game. In fact, I think it’s a good game, but I’ve never understood why people love it quite so much – that is, to a degree that even childhood nostalgia can’t really account for. So, I’m giving it another chance to get its hooks into me properly. I await enlightenment.


The game begins in the not-inappropriately named Green Hill Zone, a lush and verdant place of green grass, palm trees and chequerboard-patterned cliffs that for some reason always make me think of biscuits. Granted, it doesn’t take much to make me think about biscuits. Sonic the Hedgehog is split into several differently-themed “Zones,” with each Zone having three “Acts” and a boss fight at the end, so we get to enjoy Green Hill Zone’s scenery for a fair while – and doesn’t it look nice? The blue skies, the abundant flora, an amount of colour rarely seen outside a Dulux testing facility, it’s definitely a treat. I’ve never really realised it before, but Sonic the Hedgehog has the look of Sega’s arcade games of the time. Of course, it’s obvious that it would look like the OutRun of platformers, but it never occurred to me until now.


So, what can Sonic actually do in this game? Surprisingly little, as it turns out. He can run, he can jump and that’s about it. He curls into a ball when he jumps, and you can use this ability to jump on the evil robots that populate the stages, smashing them apart and freeing the woodland critters that Robotnik has imprisoned inside. You can also curl into a ball while running by pressing down on the d-pad, which lets you roll through enemies and around the scenery. Running and jumping is more than enough to get Sonic through the game’s levels, but nowadays it does feel rather limited – especially the lack of the spin-dash, which wasn’t introduced until Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Compare this to Super Mario Bros., which was released six years earlier – even Mario could swim and throw fireballs in that early incarnation. Ah yes, Super Mario. You can’t really talk about Sonic without mentioning Mario, can you? I have no qualms about comparing the two series, especially as comparing Sonic to Mario was basically Sega’s entire marketing strategy at the time. Mario definitely wins out in terms of complexity, then, but simplicity’s not necessarily a bad thing so I wouldn’t say its a mark against Sonic.


This simplicity is at its most effective when Sonic is doing the thing he’s most famous for – going fast. And boy howdy, he can go fast. Hold right on the d-pad and watch him fly thanks to theblast-processed power of the Megadrive, around loop-the-loops, through twisting passageways and catapulted off springboards into spike-pits and robot wasps. It’s no surprise that when people think of Sonic they tend to remember the games’ early stages – your Green Hill Zones and Emerald Hill Zones and the like – because their more open layouts and lower difficulty mean that’s where Sonic can spend the most time running around like a greyhound that’s swallowed a cruise missile. That’s when the game play is the most enjoyable and the most Sonic-y and yes, running through them as fast as possible is a lot of fun.


A lot of that fun comes from the level design which, for the most part, is very good thanks to the inclusion of various routes through each Act. You can generally take a top path for a more challenging but more rewarding (usually in terms of the golden rings that Sonic hoards and uses as a life bar) path though each stage, or a lower, slower but steadier route, often with a middle path and the opportunity to switch between routes. This is especially effective in the context of the game’s extremely high pace: it encourages you to play to the game’s strengths by going as fast as you can, knowing that if you mess up a jump you’re (probably) not going to fall down a bottomless pit and you’ll be able to continue along a different route.


Ah yes, rings. Every nineties platformer was littered with shiny objects the player was tasked with collecting, and Sonic the Hedgehog is no different. In this case it’s rings, an object presumably chosen solely because it’s neither a coin nor a jewel. As usual, collecting one hundred rings gives Sonic an extra life, but their more important function is protection. I’m sure 99.999% of people reading this know how rings work in a Sonic game, but in case you don’t: if Sonic takes damage – by touching an enemy or, far more likely, making contact with some kind of spike – and he isn’t holding any rings, he dies. If he is holding rings, he doesn’t die but he drops all his rings, scattering them nearby. If you’re quick, you can pick up some of the rings you just dropped. I really like this system as a replacement for the standard health bar, for two reasons: it gives you a chance to immediately recover from whatever dumbass mistake you just made, and because the more rings you’re holding the more rings you drop when you’re hit, so you’re still encouraged to collect rings rather than simply holding on to one ring like some spiky Gollum. There’s also another reason for stockpiling rings…


If you finish any of the first two Acts in a Zone with more than fifty rings in Sonic’s sweaty, begloved hands, a huge ring appears at the end of the stage. Far from being merely a more extravagant version of the regular rings, it’s actually a portal to a universe of dizziness and eye-punishing graphics. Jump into the big ring and welcome to… the Special Stage.


Well, this is all very different, isn’t it? And not in an enjoyable way, not with the background constantly warping and cycling through an extremely bright colour palette in the manner of a particularly obnoxious Amiga cracktro.
The Special Stages don’t just look bananas, they work in a very different way to the rest of the game. The entire stage is a maze of blocks that constantly rotates, with Sonic trapped inside, curled up into a ball. You can “jump” while you’re in the special stage, although it’s more like you’re “pushing” yourself off whatever wall you’re touching. There are special blocks within the Special Stage, including pinball-style buffers that ping Sonic around the maze and blocks that speed up, slow down or reverse the direction of the maze’s rotation when you touch them. There are also “Goal” blocks, and if you touch those you’ll be set free from this potentially nausea-inducing spinning prison – but don’t touch the goal, because there’s something more important to do in the Special Stages.


Each stage contains one of the fabled Chaos Emeralds, generally located at the centre of the maze and always surrounded by a cluster of blocks that you have to grind Sonic against multiple times before they disappear. Obviously your goal is to grab the Chaos Emerald, although it’s never explained why you would want to do so, at least not in the non-Japanese versions of the game. Greed will have to act as Sonic’s prime motivator, then.
The only reward for collecting all the Chaos Emeralds is a slightly different ending, and after playing a couple of Special Stages I very nearly came to the conclusion that it wasn’t bloody worth it. They’re just not much fun, is the thing, and they’re definitely not a patch on the Special Stages from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. There’s just enough of a random element and lack of control that they feel frustrating and awkward rather than challenging and unique, plus the graphical aesthetic of “Lisa Frank meets bootleg Columns clone” is not one I wanted to expose myself to any more than was strictly necessary.


I did it, though. For you, Dear Reader. Well, I’ve already collected two of the six Chaos Emeralds, I suppose I might as well try to get the rest.


Back out into the real world, and after much running, jumping and bouncing off springs, it’s time for Sonic’s first confrontation with his arch nemesis, the evil Dr. Robotnik. That’s right, Robotnik. He’ll always be Robotnik to me. Anyway, Robotnik wants to take over the world for vague reasons, but he specifically wants to give Sonic a hard time because he really hates the little blue spikeball. The Japanese manual implies that Sonic and Robotnik have fought each other many times before, only this time Robotnik has turned all Sonic’s animal friends into robots, presumably in the hope that increasing Sonic’s friend-rescuing workload will give him more time to conquer the planet. That still doesn’t explain why Robotnik is so bent on world domination in the first place. Maybe he was driven to insanity due to the loneliness of being the only roughly human-shaped person on the planet. Perhaps he foresaw the release of Sonic 2006 and is doing whatever he can to prevent it. Whatever his twisted motivations, he’s here to destroy Sonic, and he’s brought a big flying wrecking ball to get the job done.


Unfortunately for the portly mad scientist / hedgehog hater, if Sonic stands right in the corner of the screen the ball and chain can’t actually hit him. That’s what we call a “design flaw,” Robotnik. Once you’ve figured out the limitations of Robotnik’s flying death machine, it’s a simple matter of hopping up to the platform above and bouncing into Robotnik once or twice before retreating to the safety of the corner. Repeat this a few times and Robotnik’s weapon will explode, forcing him to retreat in his flying machine which is now powered by pure embarrassment.


After that, all that’s required to end the Zone is to break open the containment unit holding dozens of Sonic’s animal friends. These animals are the lucky ones. There were plenty of robots in the preceding stages that I didn’t bother to destroy, leaving the animals inside trapped within their metal prisons. On the plus side, they’re robots now. That’s pretty cool. They’ve got wheels, or they can fly, or turn invisible. If I was a hoppity-floppity widdle bunny, I would probably consider being turned into an invisible chameleon robot an upgrade.


Onwards to stage two, the Marble Zone. It’s got an ancient-ruined-civilization feel to it, and it’s always seemed familiar to me but I’ve only just realised why: it’s because it looks like first stage of Altered Beast should be taking place just off camera.


It also has a lot of lava, so we can probably guess why it’s a ruined civilisation. The setting raises even more questions about the world of Sonic the Hedgehog, because surely these buildings weren’t constructed by chicks and rabbits? Were they the home of Robotnik’s ancestors, and he’s the last, doomed survivor of an ancient race? I’m not particularly au fait with Sonic the Hedgehog’s no-doubt vast and convoluted lore, but I don’t think these questions have ever been answered. Of course, there are many, many questions about Sonic’s universe that have never and probably can never receive a satisfactory answer. Can Sonic naturally run very fast or, as is implied in the game’s original manual and posited by NBA Jam, is it the shoes? Why is there so much Sonic the Hedgehog pornography on the internet? What the hell does “toot toot Sonic warrior” mean? I have no answers, my friends, only questions upon questions.
Oh, and I really like the platforms pictured above: they sink into the lava when you stand on them, just far enough that the grass on top catches fire and chases Sonic as he makes his way across them. It’s more interesting that the usual “platforms that collapse a couple of seconds after you stand on them” set-up, I’ll give it that.


Most of the Marble Zone actually takes place underground, amongst the lava pools and crushing spiked platforms. Sonic will be back here in the winter months when he’s ready to hibernate, but for now he’s got to outrun the cascading magma and ride moving masonry over the molten rock. It’s a set of trials and traps that look more dangerous than they really are, and most of the damage you’ll take in this stage will come if you panic. Taking it slowly is the best way to get through the Marble Zone, as wildly inappropriate as that may be.


Even Sonic himself looks annoyed at being forced to slow down, as well he might. In fact, he almost always looks relatively surly during the game, especially when he’s standing there with his hands on his hips. I say hips, I mean the part of his body where his legs slot into his tubby lil’ torso.


For the Marble Zone’s boss battle, Robotnik has taken inspiration from the natural world around him by creating a lava-dribbling machine. He drops a blob of lava on one side of the screen, setting that platform on fire, before flying over to the other side and doing the same thing, over and over again, forever repeating his ineffectual attempt to defeat Sonic in a manner that sums up the Robotnik / Sonic rivalry rather nicely. My advice? Don’t stand on the platform that’s on fire. There really isn’t much more to it than that, folks.


Next up is the Spring Yard Zone, and where the previous two stages had easily-defined themes – pastoral tranquillity and lava ruins, respectively – the Spring Yard Zone is a difficult one to sum up. A pinball table mixed with a scrapyard, maybe? Or maybe I’m only thinking of a scrapyard because it sounds like Spring Yard? No, a lot of this stage is made of irregular orange-brown metal that looks like rusted iron, that’s pretty scrapyard-ish. Whatever the intended mood, it features a lot of pinball buffers that spang Sonic around the stage and U-shaped “half-pipes” to roll around in, and on the whole it’s a lot more open than the Marble Zone and is consequently more enjoyable. Sonic the Hedgehog plays best when it’s got a bit of room to breathe.


Cope? Look, I’m trying my best but sometimes life just gets you down, you know? Writing this article one-handed while my other hand is shoved in a big bucket full of Easter sweets is definitely helping me to cope, though.


Here’s me making a real hash of avoiding these spiked balls. There are way more spiked balls in this game than I remember. I’m sure there are some interesting psychological insights you can gain from Robotnik loving spiked balls so much and Sonic spending a lot of his time being a spiked ball.
The majority of the Spring Yard Zone finds a good balance between high-speed action and more cautious platforming, with lots of areas that you can charge through at top speed if you’re feeling confident, (or you know the stages well,) but if you mess up and lose your momentum the platforming is still enjoyable as you delicately jump between the deathtraps.


Spring Yard Zone Act 2 offers your sixth chance to enter the Special Stage, so by now I’ve used my pro gamer skills to collect all the Chaos Emeralds. No, of course not. I used a bunch of save states, it’s far too easy to mess up a jump and land on the “Goal” tiles before grabbing the emerald and the Special Stages aren’t nearly enough fun for me to actually practise them.
Like I say, your only reward for collecting all the Chaos Emeralds is a very slightly different ending. There are no familiar-looking pointy-haired golden power-ups to unlock in this one, as Super Sonic wasn’t introduced until Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Therefore, I have concluded that Sonic’s sole reason for collecting the Chaos Emeralds is just because it’ll annoy Robotnik.


Robotnik’s back for another boss battle. This time, he’s put a spike on the bottom of his eggmobile so he can gradually remove chunks of the floor. This might have been an effective strategy if he wasn’t so bloody slow about it, but as it is he lumbers between the blocks at a snail’s pace, giving Sonic plenty of time to smash him up as long as he remembers not to jump into the spike on the bottom of Robotnik’s ship. The way he manages to stretch out the time it takes to complete this basic demolition work might draw appreciative remarks from the world’s builders, but it’s not helping him defeat his nemesis, is it? What Robotnik needs for his robot killing machines is evolution, not revolution. If he’d combined the fire-spitter, the ball-and-chain and the spiked floor ruiner, Sonic wouldn’t stand a chance. But no, he’s got to come up with something completely different every time.


Moving on, and Zone four is the Labyrinth Zone. It’s another ancient ruins-themed area, only this time it’s more Atlantis than Pompeii and there’s a lot of water to traverse.


It’s not much of a labyrinth, either, but Stand On The Switches Zone is a far less catchy name. Least Fun Zone might have been a good name for it, too, because it really is, and it sums up the reason that while I can enjoy classic Sonic games they never get anywhere near my all-time favourites list. Sonic spends the majority of this stage underwater, which means he can’t go fast. His entire ethos, his main selling point, the essence of his character has been completely excised from the gameplay as he sluggishly wades through the briny deep, not only moving slowly but being forced to stop and wait at the pockets of bubbles so he can replenish his oxygen supply. The Labyrinth Zone is an extreme example, but it’s the case in almost every Sonic game that there’s a point where going fast starts becoming a less and less viable strategy, making the gameplay less and less enjoyable.


Obviously, there’s a difficult balancing act when it comes to designing Sonic stages. You want Sonic to be able to move freely and put his famous speed to good use, but if stage after stage were designed like Green Hill Zone the gameplay would become pretty repetitive, and there are some Sonic stages where it feels like all you’re doing to get through them is holding right on the d-pad. It’s a balance that’s possible to get right - Spring Yard Zone and the Zone after this one manage it well – but Labyrinth Zone stops the game’s momentum dead with a dull, finicky section of mostly-underwater platforming and annoying spike traps. Contrast this to the classic Super Mario games: it’s extremely rare that they suffer from a sudden dip in quality between worlds, because they take Mario’s skill set and gradually ramp up the complexity of the stages without ever taking away any of Mario’s core attributes. Also, Mario can swim. Sonic cannot, which is odd because hedgehogs can swim.


That’s not to say that the Labyrinth Zone is a completely miserable experience. Most of it is just okay, certainly no worse than a thousand other mascot platformers of the era, and Sonic has something else that helps it get by: charm. It’s just a very cute game, you know? Check out Sonic’s goofy face as he’s forced down this water slide, that’s the kind of thing I mean. Everything’s so nicely designed and full of character that even when the gameplay flags, there’s always something worth looking at, be it the background details, Sonic’s wobbly pose when he’s standing right at the edge of a platform, or woodland creatures scurrying away from their robot prisons.


Speaking of robots, I think Dr. Robotnik might have been starting to lose interest when he designed a robot that’s just a sphere with eyes. Not to worry, though, he jazzed it up with a few spiked balls. Dr. Robotnik and spiked balls, it’s the greatest videogame love affair since Pac-Man and dots.


Unfortunately, Labyrinth Zone ends with what is probably the lowest point of the entire game. Rather than having a proper boss fight, you have to chase Robotnik up a narrow passageway of platforms while the water level rises beneath you. If you’re not quick enough – or you brush up against one of the many fireballs or spears that line the route – you’ll end up underwater, slowed down by the current and, most likely, drowned. It’s just no fun to navigate, because “straight up” is the only direction that Sonic’s not very good at going fast in, and the small jumps and restricted safe zones do not play well with the blue blur’s somewhat slippery jumping physics. I’m sure the onrushing water is intended to heighten the tension of the situation, but (for me, anyway,) it overshoots “tense” and marches into “annoying” territory, trying its hardest to plant its flag atop Pain In The Arse Mountain.


The entire ordeal is almost redeemed by Robotnik’s reaction to Sonic escaping from this deathtrap. He looks like he really, genuinely expected Sonic to be dead, and then he panics and flies away. This is what I mean when I say Sonic the Hedgehog has charm.


We’re back to the good stuff with Star Light Zone, a place that I think is supposed to represent an under-construction skyscraper, albeit in a pretty abstract manner. There’s lots of running around loops and over curves, with a few new obstacles to contend with that fit nicely into the action. It’s also got my favourite stage theme in the game, which is quite an accolade because if there’s one facet of Sonic the Hedgehog that I can give my complete and unreserved praise, it’s Masato Nakamura’s soundtrack. The Sonic games almost always have good music, and the original is no exception, so let’s have a listen to the Star Light Zone theme.



Here’s my advice: if you’re thinking about learning to play bass guitar – perhaps you’ve realised you’re not cool enough for lead guitar but still have too much dignity to become a drummer – then the Star Light Zone theme makes an excellent first song to learn.


Later in the stage, Sonic is halted in his tracks by a goddamn desk fan. Let’s hope for his sake that Robotnik never finds out about those Dyson bladeless fans.


Star Light Zone gives Sonic plenty of opportunity to roll around at the speed of sound, but when it does slow things down it does so in a far more enjoyable way than the Labyrinth Zone. I particularly like these see-saw / trampoline things, powered by – what else – spiked balls. Jump onto the non-spiky side to catapult the ball into the air, move over to the other side of the see-saw and when the ball lands it sends Sonic flying. It’s a simple yet extremely satisfying mechanic, but the real joy of these platforms is the “bwoing” sound effect they make.


It’s a good job I like the catapults so much, because the boss fight is all about them. Robotnik’s obsession with spiky metal balls has reached its most fevered heights, but like Icarus flying too close to the sun the doctor is overcome by the power of his own creation. He tries to drop spiked balls on Sonic’s head, you see, but the see-saws mean that either a) Sonic can launch the balls back up to Robotnik to damage him or b) the balls can launch Sonic up towards Robotnik. Either way, something spherical yet pointy is going to ruin his plans. These particular spiked balls do explode into deadly shrapnel after a while just to keep Sonic on his toes, but it’s still a relatively easy boss battle in a game packed with easy boss battles.


Then it’s on to the Scrap Brain Zone, the final full Zone in the game. If you like moving mechanical parts, dangling saw-blades that would most definitely not pass a Health and Safety inspection and Sonic’s ability to defy gravity while standing on a gear wheel, then this is the stage for you. There’s not that much to say about the first two Acts, honestly. It’s mechanical, you spend too much time waiting around for platforms to move into the right place, it’s a bit tougher than the other stages and it’s very grey.


There’s also a lot of opportunity to get squashed between moving platforms, which results in immediate death and accounted for roughly seventy percent of the lives I lost playing this game. I can understand that being crushed between two implacable slabs of metal is a good reason to lose a life, but there’s something about the way Sonic the Hedgehog handles the hit detection of these crushing areas that never felt quite right to me. Sometimes you’ll be able to escape even once the platform is already pressing into Sonic’s grossly-oversized skull, but other times you’ll be killed simply for standing near two touching surfaces. It’s an odd quirk of the game engine, I guess, and it hardly ruins the experience, but it’s something you should be aware of any time there’s the potential to get squashed.


Here’s a question for you: if you could find someone who’s never heard of Sonic the Hedgehog and showed them a picture of Sonic himself, do you think they’d be able to tell what animal he is? I honestly don't know, probably because I’ve known about Sonic the Hedgehog since I was a kid. I mean, he’s got a hedgehog-ish little snout and spines on his back… except they look more like hair than spines. Also, he’s blue. Not a common colour for hedgehogs, as a rule. I think there’d be a fifty-fifty chance of identifying him as a hedgehog, which makes sense because there’s a continuum of how much a Sonic character looks like the animal they’re supposed to be and Sonic lies somewhere in the middle. At one end you’ve got Tails, who is more or less just a fox (extra tail notwithstanding) and Cream the Rabbit, whose ears are a dead giveaway. On the other extreme is Knuckles, who looks about as much like an echidna as I do. I don’t know what I’d think Knuckles was supposed to be. Some kind of mole, perhaps. Then there are outliers like Big the Cat, who almost looks like a cat but looks more like a golem created by a race of cat people to protect them from persecution.


Anyway, back to the game, and Sonic has finally caught up with Robotnik. Robotnik is hiding behind a force-field, however, and not even running into it really fast can penetrate this barrier. Then, with an expression of glee so pure and heartwarming that it’s a wonder anyone ever roots for Sonic in these situations, Robotnik stamps on a button that opens a pit beneath Sonic and drops him into a new stage.


Oh, come on. Back to the Labyrinth Zone? Boo. Okay, so while I would definitely have preferred Star Light Zone Act 4, this stage isn’t bad at all. It feels a damn sight more like a labyrinth, anyway, and the pale grey and purple colour scheme is rather appealing. It’s like I’m fighting through a retrospective of 80s graphic design.


I like that this stage feels as though it has a purpose, too – showing Sonic’s resolve by having him haul his spiky arse back up from the depths of Hell just to ruin Robotnik’s day. The end of this stage isn’t nearly as unpleasant as the end of the Labyrinth Zone proper, but it does get pretty hairy as you squeeze through the narrow final corridors. Knowing that the climactic boss battle was coming up, I oh-so-carefully negotiated the fireballs and spikes, determined that I’d go into the final encounter with a healthy supply of rings. It was tricky, but I made it through unscathed. Then the game took all my rings off me anyway. Cheers, Sega.


Here is the final battle, and given what I said earlier about suffering a lot of deaths through crushing I was a little concerned that Robotnik’s entire plan is to flatten Sonic using these giant pistons. Two of the four pistons move into the screen at a time, and Robotnik’s hiding inside one of them. Jump into him when you can, but try to stay patient. In between piston attacks, four balls of electricity will appear above Sonic and then descend towards him, but there’s a big enough gap between them that you can avoid them by jumping straight upwards at the appropriate moment. If that all sounds very straightforward, that’s because it is – the only problem you’re going to have is that any mistake means immediate death, either because you were crushed or because the electricity touched you and the game already took away all your sodding rings. Not a particularly thrilling end to the game, then, but at least the Sonic franchise would have much more interesting bosses in future games.


Before Sonic can deal the finishing blow, Robotnik manages to jump into his eggmobile and fly away. Good. I’m glad. I like Robotnik way more than I like Sonic, so I’m happy to see him escape to safety, back to his evil lair where he will probably give Dr. Wily a call and ask him how he copes with being regularly defeated by a small blue pest.


As the freed animals scamper around the Green Hill Zone and Sonic leaps towards the screen pointing an accusatory finger at the player, as though he’s telling us he’s coming for us next, Sonic the Hedgehog draws to a close. If you’ve collected all the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic watches them spin around above his head which cartoony flowers bloom in the background. If you don’t have the Emeralds he, erm, doesn’t. Either way, all the animals are saved and Robotnik has retreated to lick his wounds, where he will spend his time off watching Star Wars and thinking “hmm, a giant spherical space station, you say?” to himself.


After the credits have rolled, there’s one final scene: if you don’t have the Emeralds, Robotnik juggles them around and tells the play to try again, but if you’ve got them all he stomps on the end title like a petulant child, which rather confirms the whole “grab the Emeralds to piss Robotnik off” scenario.


So that’s Sonic the Hedgehog, a game beloved by millions. Beloved by me, though? Not quite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good game. Very good, even, with lots of things to recommend it: the presentation is impeccable, with some wonderful graphical flourishes and a killer soundtrack. There are dozens of fun, engaging flourishes in the level design, like the see-saws and the water slides, and when Sonic gets up to top speed and you’re ricocheting from enemy to springboard and round a loop-the-loop it’s easy to see why it’s the favourite of so many. In fact, I think I enjoyed playing it more this time than I ever have before, perhaps because I’ve played so many god-awful platformers for the site. Still, there’s something about Sonic – this game, and the “classic” series as a whole - that prevents me from truly falling in love with it. With Sonic 1, the Special Stages are a part of it, because I really did not enjoy them, but it’s more that so often the most fun bits of the game are cruelly cut short and replaced by finicky platforming and waiting for moving blocks.


Sonic the Hedgehog might not be quite my dream game, then, but it was fun to play through it and it was a suitable subject for the seventh VGJunk anniversary. Good work all around, everyone, much patting on backs, etcetera. Hopefully I’ll still be doing this for a good while yet. There are just so many licensed Game Boy Color games to suffer through, after all. Plus, if you’ll allow me to get sentimental for a moment, the past two years (and particularly the last six months or so) have been a deeply miserable time for me, but writing these articles was a ray of sunshine in difficult times – the idea that people seemed to be tolerating or even enjoying these bad jokes about videogames made it feel like I was doing something right when everything else was going wrong. Thanks for that, everyone. Right, I’m off to enjoy my birthday activities, which this year seem to involve emptying out my garage. If anyone wants any half-empty paint cans or garden tools so rusty and neglected they look like set dressing from an allotment-themed horror movie, let me know.

15 comments:

  1. A great take on a great game. Sorry to hear you've had a few tough years, but I can assure you that your dedication to awful Gameboy games and obscure brawlers often lights up my day, so kudos to you and I hope things improve.

    I had never realised that the Marble Zone is copied from Altered Beast either...great spot. Maybe there was a cross over planned for Mega Drive pack in games?

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  2. The first Sonic game was always rather janky in a lot of aspects, especially if you're someone like me who played the other games before it that improved on what it was weak on. Namely the lack of a spin dash. Interesting observation about the water levels though, the later games really did improve on the speed aspect in them.

    The special stages were indeed pretty terrible, and I'm glad the later games improved upon them. Except maybe Sonic CD... or the Advance games who had the added benefit of making a mess of how to get into them.

    It'd be interesting to see you talk about the other two games in the original "trilogy" (yeah, I know that Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles are two separate games thanks to development issues but for all intents and purposes S3&K is basically the third game) but I wouldn't want to force you to do it. I certainly wouldn't want you to play 3D Blast for example.

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  3. After where the series and the fandom has gone from here I now only associate Sonic with potential stalkers.

    And English people with biscuits. And crumpets.

    Happy Birthday!

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  4. Happy anniversary! My birthday as it happens is today, and this was a nice little present for me. I always enjoy your take on these things. Cheers for tomorrow!

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  5. Happy anniversary and please don't ever stop writing dear sir.
    Even though I only came for a dose of comedic take on video games, every so often I found hidden obsecure games that unknowingly is a delight to play.

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  6. Happy birthday! Since I discovered your blog by accident (via Flying Omelette), it quickly became my favourite source of video-game funnies in the internet. Thanks fpr the great time, and keep the good work!

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  7. Happy anniversary. I always enjoy your witty retro reviews. I hope there's a lot more to come.

    Warm regards from a former 16-bit game developer (predominantly Amiga games — http://hol.abime.net/hol_search.php?N_ref_artist=992 ).

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  8. Happy anniversary! I remember seeing sonic when it was first released on the mega drive and was totally blown away by the graphics, characters and gameplay. It was pretty revolutionary at the time. Sonic two was an equally impressive sequel, but can still remember how blown away I felt playing this back in the day.

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  9. Happy Birthday! I thoroughly enjoy your reviews and really appreciate your sense of humour. Thank you for the hours of entertainment.

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  10. Happy anniversary and thank you for all your interesting and funny thoughts on games :)

    Sonic definitely made me jealous of Megadrive owners, having an intensely colourful layered environment that the PCs of the time would never have been able to manage. In fact, it wasn't until much later that I realized how different Mario was as a game, being a bit more puzzle-like and one-directional than Sonic and the PC's exploration-based platformers.

    I thought he was a cat at first.

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  11. "definitely a long enough amount of time to keep me awake at night as I think of all the good I could have done in the world instead of writing bad jokes about videogames for seven years."

    You should think of all the bad you could have done in that time, instead of providing entertainment to the many people who read your articles. I'm sure that's a much better point of view.

    Happy birthday. I think this makes it the fourth one since I've been reading, and that time has flown by. Thanks for keeping the blog going.

    As for sonic, the first game was a bit fiddly in parts. The second game was better, but S3&K is the ultimate platformer ever made.

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  12. A bit late, but happy birthday! I have enjoyed reading your bad jokes for many years now :D

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  13. Good thing the underwater stages on the sequels improved significantly. The underwater sections on Aquatic Ruin are so short you might as well just skip them completely, and Hydrocity is probably one of the fastest stages on the Mega Drive trilogy.

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  14. Also late, but happy anniversary and birthday. So happy you're writing here.

    I also though exactly the same thing about Altered Beast and Marble Zone. What's more I completely agree about the sonic games. I think they're gorgeous and sound lovely but when it comes to gameplay polish and design I'm left feeling like they don't really rise to the legendary status of renown that they seem to posses. Weird inertia, finicky elements, seemingly unfair gotchas to memorise, failure to capitalize on their successful aspects and precedent leave me feeling that while they're quite good games they just aren't that great. I feel like it's fun to play the opening zones most but they don't really expand upon the attractive qualities there and even then those stages always made me feel like they could be streamlined more. Still, they're fun games and have a very unique aesthetical vibe and atmosphere that just sinks it's teeth in and makes you feel something. I can't quite put a word to it but they ooze the makings of nostalgic feelings.

    Seems everyone here is good natured enough not to take a little criticism of a beloved game too defencively which is refreshing.

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  15. As a crusty old Sega loyalist who remembers the Console Wars and who still has his trusty old Genesis sitting in his room, I gotta say...

    That was a pretty good review. I'll admit that the original Sonic game ('Sonic 1', me and my buddies always called it) evokes no small amount of nostalgia with me - but yes, the game has shortcomings. And you did a pretty good job of describing the game's strong and weak points.

    I also agree with much of what you said. I do think that you're being a little harsh about the game's simplicity, though. I mean, complexity is nice and all, but the general pattern among early 16-bit platformers is that they tried to be extra nifty by adding complexity... only to end up with results that weren't exactly stellar (Alex Kidd, anyone?). So in that sense, Sonic Team actually made a pretty good decision by deliberately sticking to a very simple, bare-bones formula. But like you said; the most important thing is still whether a game can make its own basic formula work, and both the Sonic and Super Mario games did an amazing job at that.

    That aside; I'm glad that I'm not the only one who feels that the original Sonic game feels a little disjointed sometimes.

    The way I see it, the game knows that it wants to be a platformer - but it doesn't know whether it wants to be a fast-paced speedy game or a slow-paced exploration thing. So it tries to be both by switching back and forth. And for most of the game, the speedy and slow-paced segments don't really mesh.

    Notice how horribly slow-paced the Marble Zone is? Even the Labyrinth Zone still has those two waterfall segments, but the Marble Zone doesn't even have that much. But both zones are just two big obstacle courses, and the contrast with the fast-paced Green Hill and Starlight zones is just jarring.

    And on that note; the Spring Yard Zone is weird. And then I don't mean just the aesthetics (though you did have a good point on that one) - the zone is 90% high-pace speeding, but there's obstacle platforming tidbits thrown in that hit you like a punch in the gut. I'm talking about the moving blocks and the spikeball traps; the parts that really force you to go from a breezy sprint to slow and careful platforming in a split second. When it comes to slow-paced and fast-paced segments that don't mesh well, the Spring Yard Zone is easily the worst offender in this game.

    The Star Light and Scrap Brain zones are in fact the only zones that really manage to avoid noticable pacing problems. And as you and the other commentators have pointed out, it's only from Sonic 2 onward that Sonic Team really managed to get the speedy platformer thing right.

    But as for other Sonic games: I'm really curious what you (or the other commentators, for that matter) think of Sonic CD?

    Me, I think that game was rough around the edges. Even moreso than Sonic 1. But I also think that it's still one of the most brilliant games in the Sonic series, and it managed to introduce a number of new elements without falling flat (which is an achievement that the average 21st century Sonic game doesn't exactly match...).

    And contrary to most, I actually think that Sonic 3D Blast is well worth looking into. Even though it doesn't really feel or play like a classic Sonic game (hence why so many of my fellow Console Wars veterans hate it), it really is a pretty decent game on its own. And if nothing else, its music is just amazing. Seriously.

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