“If pain must come, may it come quickly. Because I have a life to live, and I need to live it in the best way possible.”
It’s not every day that one gets to experience for the first time a long-standing part of pop culture as an adult, having gone through an entire childhood of ignorance. This is the equivalent of a 30-year-old watching the Star Wars films for the first time or finding out after all your years of self-absorption and 1st-world-medicated narcissism that the world doesn’t really revolve around you at all. Granted, some adults don’t find this out until much later in life. Anyways, I had an experience such as this recently when I had the chance to play and complete a Sonic the Hedgehog game from start to finish for the first time ever. As I explained in my review of the (spoilers) excellent Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, I hardly touched Sega’s consoles as a kid.
After having gone my entire life up to this point with this huge region of popular culture beyond my grasp, it turns out I didn’t really enjoy Sonic. I will certainly get as deep into that statement as possible but what an anti-climax. Someone asked on Twitter recently what my most disappointing retrogaming experience was and I showed no hesitation. Yes, I played Sonic the Hedgehog and I did not like it. Now I know Sega’s biggest (and only) major IP is a famed character, or at least he was. He has quite a
secret cabal large and respectable following of decent and fair-minded citizens but if I stopped here at the end of the first game in his franchise, I wouldn’t understand why the character and his series became beloved at all.
I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss my adverse reaction on the basis of this being Sonic’s first adventure. Some Sonic apologist out there may decry, “But this is only Sonic 1! You can’t throw an idiom-baby out with idiom-bathwater! Of course it was the least refined in the series, it was the first! [Inarticulate fanbase growling noises!]”
And do you know what? They’re right. Indeed a lot of first games in some franchises are rather poor in comparison to the heights they later achieved. But then again, that defense is flawed since there are a great many franchises that did begin with their best foots forward, as it were. Super Mario Bros., Pokémon Red/Blue, The Legend of Zelda, Tetris, Kingdom Hearts, Super Smash Bros., Marvel vs. Capcom, Arkham Asylum, and so on… they may not be the best games in their respective series but they were phenomenal opening acts to truly legendary adventures.
All these words being said, I fully expect the Sonic games to get better in my estimation and you can be sure I’m playing them in order by release. It’s my duty. I’ve already dabbled in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and it’s proving to be a much more enjoyable game that’s pure to its concept, curing most of what irked me about its predecessor in just its introductory stages. But that still leaves us with Sonic 1 to account for.
Let’s talk what this game is and then we’ll discuss how it came to be. It’s my opinion that the ugliness of that latter issue is at the root of what made Sonic so pointed, specific, limited, out-of-focus and over-the-top.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a high-speed platformer developed by Team Sonic which stars the eponymous character on a mission to save his animal friends and keep the Chaos Emeralds from the clutches of the rotund Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. The mad scientist has imprisoned Sonic’s furry friends in mechanized automata to swell his forces against the hedgehog. Sonic can free them by destroying the robots with his singular, characteristic spinning attack. This spin can be executed both while running and jumping, turning an ordinary platforming leap into a weaponized maneuver: a stroke of genius.
Controlling Sonic at incredible speed is amazing, the kind of speed that was utterly inaccessible to me as a kid and which my adult-self had to focus on to get accustomed to. It is the most impressive thing about Sonic the Hedgehog. Indeed it was at the heart of the game’s concept and purpose. It was touted as the fastest platformer there was in ’91 and that was easily true. The paths and platforms of the various stages curve and loop to accentuate Sonic’s speed, making for some breathtaking visuals. No one had seen anything like it at the time and all these years later it’s still instantly iconic, memorable, and wonderful.
The Sega Sonic Team pushed the Genesis hardware to its limits here, quite clearly. Though I’ve always held that the Super Nintendo was the superior console to the Genesis, especially in terms of versatility, the flat fact is there was no main platforming title on the SNES that came close to this frantic pace. Putting Sonic the Hedgehog alongside Super Mario World, which Sega actually did with comparison footage, it was obvious which game was for the hard-edged gamer looking for something new. Whereas I can defend Super Mario World as having better and more involved level design and gameplay, such things fall short of the immediate awe of Sonic’s speed. Mario’s looked like tame little kiddie games by contrast, something which Sega clearly wanted.
But the game can’t shake these comparisons. Sonic collects rings which serve a function similar to the Super Mario mushrooms and coins combined into one. When Sonic is hit by a trap or enemy, he’ll drop all of the rings he has collected. He can try to pick them up again but they’ll quickly disappear, forcing him to collect more. If he’s hit with zero rings in his inventory, he’ll lose a life. The rings therefore provide a damage buffer against most dangers like Mario’s mushrooms (excluding crushing walls or bottomless pits). Collecting 100 rings earns Sonic an extra life, like Mario’s coins. Other collectibles beside the rings include containers with extra lives and temporary shields and invincibility.
The game is laid out on the structure of zones, the equivalent of “worlds”: Green Hill, Marble, Spring Yard, Labyrinth, Star Light, Scrap Brain, and the Final Zone. There is no backtracking so the progression is traditional. Each zone has three acts, three stages, which end with a boss fight against Dr. Robotnik riding in some kind of sluggish vehicle or contraption. After beating Robotnik, Sonic has the opportunity to free the rest of his forest friends before moving on to the next zone.
If Sonic finishes the acts in a zone with over 50 rings then a huge ring appears at the end of the act. If he touches it, he’ll be transported to a special stage. These are whirling, swirling, psychedelic, acid-nightmares, mazes which are in constant rotation. Sonic tucks himself into a spin in these pinball-like stages and the objective is to navigate past bumpers and crystallize walls, avoiding the early exits, until you can reach the Chaos Emerald tucked away somewhere in the spiraling ether. There are six Chaos Emeralds to collect and there’s a unique ending if Sonic can get them all before beating the final boss. If you don’t get all the gemstones, then Dr. Robotnik taunts you like a big fat jerk.
Though the game itself is notable for its clear influences and the innovative velocity of its titular character, Sonic the Hedgehog’s origins are much more intriguing to me. Maybe it’s the historiaphile in me that’s tickled but there are some juicy bits to be discussed.
Mr. Needlemouse, Sonic’s original name in development, was a pragmatic creation. I mean by that that he wasn’t created out of the desire to create, with all of the freedom which that allows, imbibes within a character. No, Sonic was born because his designers were told to create him. On some level this is true of any character in entertainment and gaming, since this is primarily a business industry we’re talking about, but with Sonic the lines are increasingly blurred.
It’s my perspective that Sonic’s purpose as a mascot for a business superseded his significance as a creative character. Sega wanted a bigger piece of the gaming world, which at the time was dominated by Nintendo. Nintendo had revived the entire industry. Nintendo remains second to none in terms of mascots and Sega knew that in order to compete they would need to come up with an icon as recognizable as Super Mario. I can imagine the dejected Sega execs sitting around their conference room table, feet up, collars unbuttoned, throwing darts at a poster of Mario on the wall, crumpled pieces of paper with the faces of protagonists from Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star, Ecco the Dolphin, and Altered Beast littering the floor.
Prior to Sonic, Alex Kidd was the mascot of Sega. Not too impressive. Kidd was also perceived by Sega as too similar to Mario. They needed something different, a face for a newer, edgier generation of gamers coming into their own, which Sega wanted to milk for all they were worth. The character needed to both encapsulate Sega’s marketing strategy toward older gamers and one-up Nintendo in one fell swoop.
Thus Sonic himself was born out of a business strategy and comprised from a bunch of bizarre influences with only popularity, besting competition, and money-making in mind. Sonic boasted controls that only require one button input while rival Mario required two. Sonic’s blue color was chosen to echo the Sega logo. Devs took the head of Felix the Cat (which I always suspected), the body of Mickey Mouse, the mechanics of Super Mario, the boots of Michael Jackson, the boot colors of Santa Claus, the screw attack spinning jump of Samus, along with all kinds of elements that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor which were designed to pander to youth culture: breakdancing, rock star status, a girlfriend named Madonna.
I had to laugh aloud when I read that Sonic’s personality was based on the get-it-done attitude of former president Bill Clinton! Truth is stranger than fiction. What else could they have possibly done to make the character even more 90’s-cool? Portray Sonic indifferently watching Nickelodeon while wearing a denim jacket, a D.A.R.E. tee under that, and a slanted, neon ball cap, a heavy gold chain around his neck with a gilded dollar sign, an empty can of spray-paint at his feet, a Tamagotchi in one hand and Nirvana playing in a Walkman in the other, a Blockbuster Videos in the background?
Sonic’s inception is itself interesting but even more so is the apparent petty disdain and single-minded focus that Sega put on tearing down Mario as the icon of gaming. Some examples I ran across: Sonic’s project code name was “Defeat Mario”. The character had to be “faster than Mario”. The Sega team assured others that it was going to be “better than Mario”. Sonic came into being because the market was being dominated “by Mario”. The comparison with Nintendo’s poster child was one which Sega had in mind from the very beginning.
Fast-forward a few decades and how did all of their attempted assassination and monopolizing turn out? As history has shown, the house of Sega has all but come crashing down. The Genesis saw early success against Nintendo’s SNES but things caught up quickly as the sizable library of their competitor began to win the day. It was all a downhill run from there. Sega accumulated greater and greater profit losses with each subsequent console they released until they dropped out of hardware development altogether, ending nearly a two decade run in the console business with their Dreamcast.
Sonic, their champion, their messiah, their icon that the perfect engine of corporate pressure dictated into existence couldn’t save them. Unlike Super Mario 64, Sonic’s leap from 2D to 3D proved largely disastrous and Sonic has had a hard time adjusting to the change of the modern gaming world ever since. Perhaps they were so anti-Mario that they forgot to be pro-Sonic.
What goes around comes around, Sega.
Now that they’ve failed their way out of the console market, after years of throwing shade at their competitors and suffering speed bumps in the path of Sonic the marketing-whore, Super Mario is going strong and Sonic is steadily becoming as much an anachronism as Steamboat Willie and Bugs Bunny, relics iconic in a bygone age that were never able to catch on again. Mario has given us a variety of legendary games over the years. Sonic has given us… furries?
Alright so Sonic was much more influential than that. He helped spread out ownership of the market and take gaming in a direction Nintendo never could. His value as a mascot for Sega was undoubtedly high. No survey of gaming history could fail to include him and his bundled game with the Sega Genesis. But where has their strategy left them?
Mario has enjoyed success with the best-selling game of April 2017, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and only time will tell if the upcoming Sonic Forces can redeem the blue blur. I find Sega’s previous behavior as reprehensible as I find their current situation laughable. Did they put all of their hedgehogs in one basket banking on a true Super Mario rival only to end up like this? Sega tried to take down Nintendo and here they are developing games for the Switch. Did they change things for gaming? Yes. Did they create a monster that could “defeat Mario”. No.
The 8-bit Review
Sonic the Hedgehog’s visuals have been consistently applauded and for good reason. They are extremely bright and eye-grabbing. The backgrounds are varied and detailed with little drabness about them. The game runs at such a speed that you’d expect it to be far less smooth than it is. While the pace is something that you have to acclimate to, sometimes ironically slowly, it is no less impressive to watch Sonic roll into a ball without stopping and plow past hillsides and enemies. The way that Sonic could hug the curves of the levels wasn’t just sexy. It was unlike anything the gaming industry had seen before in platforming. In this sense, the gameplay itself accentuated the unique visuals.
As incredible as Sonic’s graphics are, the one thing detracting from their appeal is the disorienting effect they can have, which they did have on me. And when I talk about disorienting I don’t mean they made me have seizures. I mean I sometimes had to squint or blink or look away because things were happening too fast. The special Chaos Emerald stages are the perfect example. The first time I hit one it felt like I’d been struck across the face. It’s pretty but there’s too much going on until the brain can catch up and try to make as much sense of it before your eyes turn into jello.
All things being equal, Sonic 1 was a pleasure to look at even after all these years. It’s one of the best looking games from the earlier part of the 16-bit era and was the top of its class on the Sega Genesis. No dark outlines around the characters makes everything blend together a bit more so there’s less distinction but with the game’s speed, details are secondary.
My favorite thing about this game is its soundtrack. Nearly every song is inexhaustibly catchy. Good luck getting “Green Hill Zone” out of your head now. The music differentiated itself from the filler sounds that Sega was putting out with their myriad arcade ports, but it also sounded far less happy-go-lucky when compared with the typically (and strangely) Caribbean sound of a Mario game. It’s electric, industrial, modern, and sleek.
Masato Nakamura, who composed this sountrack, was a member of a J-pop band and I really think that musically influenced the percussive, upbeat sound of Sonic the Hedgehog. Despite the limitations of the Sega Genesis hardware and its occasional extreme tinnyness and scratchiness, this is a great soundtrack. No wonder its tunes have become so iconic.
Y’know, if the whole game was Green Hill zoned maybe it would’ve been great. Only the Green Hill Zone really preserves the concept of the game, that being high-speed platforming. Only Green Hill emphasizes Sonic’s speed because of its level design. There are straight paths, simple jumps and enjoyable loop-de-loops. Then there’s the next area, the Marble Zone…
Sonic is immediately confronted with a set of stages that would be more appropriate for a character whose main draw was jumping, not running. There are pillars and columns that slowly raise up and down, blocks to push so you can slowly float over lava, horizontal chasms where you must slowly jump onto ledges while watching for traps, an undulating surface area where the ground slowly rises and falls. See any repeating pattern? Slow and Sonic shouldn’t go hand in hand because isn’t that why we’re playing this Sonic game at all. Why push “speed, speed, speed, Sonic is faster, faster, faster” in marketing if that’s not actually true?
Things get somewhat better in Spring Yard Zone, which has more curves and loops for Sonic to go crazy on, as well as springs and bumpers to keep up momentum, but the zone is still plagued by elevator-platforms that slowly shift, which will crush you if you try to rush through them. In Labyrinth Zone, the gameplay slows down to a painful crawl. Now I understand why people hate water levels. Nothing is worse than the promise of speed but then having to trudge your way through flooded dungeons in the Labyrinth Zone with a character who can’t swim.
Star Light Zone doesn’t take us full circle back to Green Hill as there are some annoying fans, narrow hallways, bomb enemies, and annoying seesaw platforms to bog things down, until you reach Scrap Brain Zone and the game throws the last vestige of running at high speeds out the window as you’ve got to face tiny conveyor belts, trap doors, and hazards that are placed only to get in the way of Sonic’s speed. Boring. This is a shame because there are a lot of good elements to the level design such as their size, the multiple tiers and heights, the secret rooms. However, the way that Sega decided to put things directly in Sonic’s path to prevent him from maintaining high speeds feels like an insult. All I wanted to do was run, run, run but in this game that’s a good way to get the hedgehog killed.
Because of the placement of the game’s dangers, I feel that the accessibility of Sonic the Hedgehog is actually quite low despite his simple control scheme. This game demands that you be intimately familiar with its stages so there’s a lot of tedious trial and error coming in between you and enjoying the game in real-time. More on the unusual level of difficulty this generates below.
A lot of the challenge in Sonic the Hedgehog seemed cheap to me. Is the game hard? Not really. The boss fights are particularly infantile, most of them, where all you have to do is find a safe spot and stand there while jumping now and then. Also, having a single ring in your pocket ensures that Sonic can survive being hit at least once without having to collect more rings. It’s not much harder than a Super Mario game. But whereas those relied on timing and physics, with Super Mario Bros. 3 being the perfect example, Sonic the Hedgehog rests heavily upon the player’s familiarity with the stages.
This is because you simply can’t see what’s in front of you travelling at top speed. Even once the running levels are behind you and you reach the last 85% of the game, the designers though it appropriate to put as many hidden dangers as possible just outside of the screen. My favorite catchphrase after playing Sonic was not “You can’t catch what you can’t see!” It was “Spikes. You’re dead.”
If the spikes shooting out of the floor at all angles don’t murder you, don’t worry. There are still guttering walls of fire, trap floors, swinging morning stars, crushing platforms, electrocuting electrodes, and hordes of slow-moving enemies all of which it’s very difficult to see coming if you don’t already remember that they’re there from a previous playthrough. This isn’t only due to speed but also due to the game’s very jittery camera. Looking up or down is disorienting. The way in which the levels mask the traps until you’re right on top of them is just an exercise in cheap shots since you can’t see them coming.
In Scrap Brain, you run across two trap floors only to hit a gout of flame. In Labyrinth, you travel down a horizontal corridor and get slammed by a huge spiked ball on a chain because the crystals and vines and the angle of the floor prevent you from seeing the trap until you’re right on top of it. This kind of thing happened constantly. Sure the challenge would’ve been significantly decreased had I had nostalgia to fall back on but the game is unnecessarily easy to lose lives in if it’s your first playthrough. It got to the point where I wasn’t running anywhere at all so that I had time to react to what was just up ahead and that’s self-defeating for a game that’s supposed to be about speed. And all of this should be said with this in mind that Sonic himself is only fast when his momentum is built up. He’s horrifically slow when trying to get out of the way of something while standing still. Feels like you’re wading through molasses.
The big replay value comes from trying to get all of the Chaos Emeralds. I suppose beyond that that the zones themselves have many interesting routes to explore and several unusual and hidden areas within them. Sonic 1 is different than most of the previous Mario entries in that you can run backward and explore the stages in any direction you like. I will say that this gives the game a healthy amount of replay value, especially for its genre, though it’s not enough to make me personally jump back into the game, at least not right away.
Sonic the Hedgehog took many different “sources of inspiration” and slammed them all into one cobalt blue amalgamation. The result was a platformer that was quite unique for its time, though the symptom of all of its borrowing took the form of a game which was marketed on a concept (speed) but which operated on quite another (slow platforming). Trying to be so many things muddled what made Sonic special. As I’ve detailed above, this was my biggest complaint for the gameplay. They may have jettisoned a degree of refinement in Sonic 1 but they did get the distinct mascot that Sega wanted.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
Now that I finished my review, I went ahead and read up on some others: both contemporary and modern reviews for Sonic 1. A lot of glowing praise went to the pace of the game but then I wonder if they played very far into its zones at all.
Sega did everything to try to make Sonic the Hedgehog better than Mario and his recently released Super Mario World. Since then Sega even went so far as to de-list from retailers some games in the franchise that got bad reviews in order to preserve the reputation of the Sonic brand. Yeah that really happened. They didn’t stand behind their own work because popularity was more important than the work itself. They tried to mechanize success and so they didn’t experience it organically. All for nothing. If ever there was a cautionary tale, this is it.
In the end, their oneupmanship of Nintendo utterly failed. Sonic may have attracted an audience early on but that’s dramatically faded over time as his edgy/cool exterior becomes increasingly layered with cobwebs. I’ve met many a Sonic fan that sounded desperate to erase all connections Sonic has with Mario, but the truth is Sega was the one making such comparisons from the outset of their mascot. The hedgehog was conceived, designed, and marketed with Mario in mind. And maybe that’s why Sonic eventually failed: the character’s reach was only so far as Mario. You can’t build a house on mere competition. There has to be inspiration for there to be lasting appeal. And please don’t misconstrue my criticism to mean that I’m treating Mario as this kind of innocent saint without a smudge to his name, or that I think Nintendo is practically perfect in every way. This review just doesn’t happen to be about Nintendo any more than Sega made Sonic about beating Mario.
Sonic the Hedgehog may not be the best game in the polarizing, up and down rollercoastery franchise it spawned, and there were better gems to come, but there would be flops as well. It all started here, for better or worse, with a great idea, poor execution, impressive technology, cheap and small-minded envy, and a slick character design virgin-sacrificed to Sega’s lust for power.
Nintendoes what Sega don’t.
Aggregated Score: 6.4
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