“After all, Sonic the Hedgehog was supposed to be a game that’s only possible on Sega’s advanced 16-bit hardware, a fact Sega itself was never tired of pointing out.”
-Thomas Nickel, ‘Journal 12; Sonic The Hedgehog‘, Gamespite.net, 2012
“The following is a guest post by the Hopeful Handheld Mage.”
After my trip to Super Mario Land, I figured that for my next handheld outing I should return to a subject I know more about – 8-bit Sonic The Hedgehog. I’m focusing on the Game Gear version (the Master System version is fairly similar though, so I will refer to it as I go along) of Sonic The Hedgehog. I feel that Well-Red Mage covered Sonic’s Mega Drive debut and origins in great detail, so there is no need to cover that ground again. What I want to discuss is, how did the blue hedgehog make his way across to Sega’s 8-bit handheld system and was it a successful trip?
“The idea was that it (the meeting with Sega) would help us form a better understanding with the people on the development side. Based on that presentation, I was actually asked to produce Sonic the Hedgehog for Game Gear!”
-Yuzo Koshiro, Polygon interview with Jeremy Parish, 2017
The story begins with Yuzo Koshiro. Koshiro, best known for composing the music for the Streets of Rage series on the Mega Drive, wanted to form his own games development company. He had composed the excellent Revenge of Shinobi soundtrack for Sega and wanted to build a relationship with the growing console developer. Long story short, Koshiro met with Sega and set up Ancient, a small family run company, to develop games with Sega. Their first job would be to develop the 8-bit ports of the upcoming Sonic The Hedgehog game, the new Sega mascot.
But how would the fledgling software developer deal with the port? Sonic The Hedgehog was to be the big new Sega franchise – as well as the sheer effort in designing the new character, Sega had put some serious weight in it’s programming of Sonic. The list of Sega games that suffer the translation to 8-bit is long… Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Alien Storm, to name a few. The question is, how would Ancient avoid this fate with the 8-bit ports of Sonic? How would the Game Gear cope with the speed and physics of Sonic?
“For Sonic The Hedgehog, I tried to keep the feel of the original music and ported it to PSG. However, we only actually used three pieces from the original game for this version; the remainder is my own original music.”
-Yuzi Koshiro, interview with Square Enix Music, 2011
The answer was simple, but genius – make a version of Sonic suited for the 8-bit Sega systems, as opposed to a direct port. Both the Master System and the Game Gear had been victims of Sega trying to port arcade and 16-bit games directly to them. I’ve played lots of these ports – the still images on the box look really good for an 8-bit system, but then you actually plug the cartridge in and turn the console on and wow… the whole game often comes crashing down. I’ve seen some horrors on the Master System…sprite flicker (Dynamite Dux), sluggish, limited gameplay (Golden Axe), big, clumsy graphics (Shadow Dancer) and just downright bad programming (Altered Beast). However Ancient avoided these mistakes by making some clever changes.
Ancient’s biggest change was to take the empathsis off Sonic’s speed. Though Sonic was still fast, his speed had been scaled down and the game was more about platforming. There were still hills to roll down but now Sonic had levels based on exploration and rolling scrolling. By adding more variety to the game, Ancient hid the fact that 8-bit Sonic simply wasn’t as fast as the 16-bit version. For example, unlike the Mega Drive version, Sonic can’t pick up lost rings. Therefore, the player has to be cautious and plan their move, not just bomb ahead at full speed.
The exploration levels are a big part of Sonic on the Game Gear. As well as levels where you need to explore to find the exit (such as Scrap Brain Zone Act 2), you also had to explore to locate the Chaos Emeralds. Ancient hid the Chaos Emeralds in the second act in each zone, meaning the player had to look for them. The 8-bit special levels were now an excuse to rack up continues and lives as you bounced around a pinball inspired level, I always found the Mega Drive version’s special zones to be irritating as they felt like they were down to luck. Plus, it made sense to me that a bonus stage is where you could try and win more lives, not look for items that were essential to the outcome of the story.
As if the differences between the Mega Drive and the 8-bit versions weren’t enough, there were also several differences between the Master System and Game Gear versions. The Game Gear version was re-designed to take into account it’s smaller screen. The resolution was smaller, the hazards in Green Hill Zone were signposted and Zones were changed to accommodate Sega’s handheld. The Labyrinth Zone was completely changed for the Game Gear, to make it easier for those playing on a handheld system. The second act of Jungle Zone, a marvelous waterfall ascent where Sonic is chased by locked scrolling, was simplified on the Game Gear too – while falling off a platform or missing a jump on the Master System would see the loss of a life, the Game Gear had the scrolling element removed from that act. These changes were designed to aid Game Gear players who had to contend with a smaller screen.
I had asked for a Master System for my Christmas present in 1992, but I was aware of the shiny, better Mega Drive. I had seen Sonic for the Mega Drive and been blown away by the speed and the graphical effects… surely the Master System and Game Gear couldn’t live up to the 16-bit version? I was worried that I had backed the wrong horse and would be left with a dud on Christmas Day. Not for the first time (or the last time!) I was wrong – 8-bit Sonic held up to the quality of the Mega Drive version by being a different game, one that fit the new console I had just received perfectly.
However, we’re talking about the Game Gear version of Sonic. Did it make the transition as well as the Master System version… and is it worth playing in 2017?
The 8-Bit Review
The visuals for Sonic are pretty good for an 8-bit game, featuring slick sprites moving against detailed, colourful backdrops. The Game Gear version is scaled down compared to its Master System sister, but there is little drop in quality. This was important as Sonic was a game dependent on graphical glitz and, even though it was 8-bit, people still expected a good looking game.
One issue I did notice was the slowdown. If there is too much happening on screen (for example, a Buzz Bomber firing a projectile at Sonic) then the game will slow down. It’s a minor flaw, but it does take some of the sheen off the game. Firstly, it makes the game easier as you have more time to combat the enemy and secondly, I found it took me out of the game. While 8-bit Sonic’s gameplay isn’t dependent on speed, it’s still jarring to watch the game struggle with three sprites…
The Game Gear version does have one advantage over the Mega Drive; it had Yuzo Kozino completing the soundtrack. Kozino’s mostly original soundtrack suits the game perfectly – it’s enthusiastic and catchy, never letting up. Highlights include the maniacal joy of the “Special Zone” tune and the futuristic (if overused) “Scrap Brain Zone theme”.
It’s certainly not as influential as his work on Streets of Rage, but given the hardware involved (the Sega 8-bit console’s sound chip is an… acquired taste, shall we say) it’s a fine effort. The sound FX are also pretty good – most of them have made the trip across from the Mega Drive in one piece!
The classic Sonic gameplay did make it across to the Game Gear… sort of. While the lack of speed is understandable (and dealt with well) I do find some of the zones sparse in places (Scrap Brain comes to mind). There aren’t many enemies – Sonic’s main foe is the environment – again, understandable given the platform. However, Game Gear Sonic plays well. The collision detection is fine and the controls are good too. Sonic is a little bit slippery, but you soon get used to this. If anything, I find this quite helpful as it allows me to correct a lot of jumps and landings!
There is no change to the classic Sonic story…and I’m completely OK with that. I was a big fan of the original Sonic origin story as a kid and it still holds up today in my opinion. ‘Hedgehog gets super powers and rescues other animals from evil scientist’ works well for me – there is a clear hero, clear villian and objective. As with Golden Axe’s plot, it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it works fine. I do like the map levels and the scenes that feature Robotnik – there is a good feel of story progression, as simple as it may be.
Generally speaking, as long as Sonic isn’t mixing with humans, I’m fine. Let’s not go there if we don’t have to… OK?
Sonic has a reputation for being a pick up and play game and this Game Gear port is no different. There may be a few things that could throw a player only used to the 16-bit version off (Chaos Emeralds in acts, not being able to recollect rings) but there is nothing that would stop a complete newcomer from enjoying Sonic on their first go.
As a release, the 8-bit versions of Sonic can only be found either on Virtual Console (for Wii and 3DS) or hidden away in some Sonic compilations. Sega have never thought to widely re-issue the 8-bit version and I can see why to be honest. There probably isn’t much profit in re-releasing the 8-nit version when it didn’t really feature prominently in either America or Japan. Indeed, Europe, Australia and Brazil are probably the places most fond of Sonic’s 8-bit adventures.
I can’t really say Sonic is a particularly unique game – there have been several animal based platformers over the years, kickstarted by Sonic’s success. At the time Sonic was a unique concept though – most platformers were copies of Mario. I don’t believe the Game Gear had another game like Sonic at the time either (maybe Castle of Illusion?) so in 1991, Sonic was unique. By the Game Gear’s demise, there would be several 2D Sonic platform games, both ports and unique to the Game Gear. If Sonic on the Game Gear was unique, it certainly wasn’t unique for long!
Here is where Game Gear Sonic falls down… I loved the Master System version as a kid, but even I knew it was a easy game back then. The Game Gear version is even easier. Outside of not knowing where the Chaos Emeralds are, there is no reason you can’t beat it handily. As I alluded to earlier, the Game Gear difficulty was reduced due to it’s screen size. I can see why Ancient did this, but they’ve neutered Sonic’s difficulty by making the hardest (and probably best) parts of the Master System version much weaker. Case in point, Act 2 of Jungle Zone was my favourite as a kid… it was an epic slog up a waterfall, with the scrolling locking below you as you advanced further up the level. Without the locked scrolling, the level loses it’s sense of tension. The Labyrinth Zone has been completely re-designed and is a walk in the park compared to the aquatic nightmare it usually is. Even the final boss has been simplified, which is a shame as I used to love the final, epic showdown with Robotnik.
Outside of the difficulty level, Game Gear Sonic isn’t that compelling an experience. I enjoyed playing based on my nostalgia, but by the end of Sonic I was ready for the game to end. The sparse acts and lack of resistance from the game make Game Gear Sonic a bit of a cold experience. Sure, there are some great moments – Sky Base Act 1 is pretty tense and the aforementioned Jungle Zone is always fun to play, regardless of difficulty – but there are too many stretches where the game doesn’t offer anything captivating. For a short game, that’s a problem.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Overall, I think Sonic made a pretty good trip to the Game Gear. Considering the platform, the programmers and the screen size, Game Gear Sonic is a decent attempt at bringing the popular Mega Drive version to the small screen. It could have been so much worse – a direct port would have been impossible, while in the wrong hands an attempted conversion could have failed badly. As an attempt at giving Game Gear owners the Sonic experience, Ancient did really well.
Is Game Gear Sonic worth playing in 2017? I’m less positive on that front. It’s a shallow, easy game that was surpassed by it’s various sequels during the system’s lifespan and it doesn’t really hold up to today’s standards. For an avid Sonic and/or Sega fan, Game Gear Sonic might be worth a play through or two. For the rest of you, it’s simply a relic from a bygone era, the era when developers had to supply their weaker products with versions of popular games.
Aggregated Score: 5.9
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