How do you replace a B-tier corporate mascot with a character that has somehow become equal parts beloved and derided?
Well, you start by drawing a needle mouse.
Sonic the Hedgehog was released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in June 1991. Created by programmer Yuji Naka and designer Naoto Oshima, the game follows it’s titular character on a quest through six zones to save the animals of South Island from the nefarious Dr. Robotnik, as he tries to collect the six, soon to be retconned to seven, chaos emeralds in order to harness their power for evil.
Upon it’s release, Sonic the Hedgehog would go on to garner massive success and would quickly be established as the flagship title to beat on Sega’s 16-bit hardware. It’s formula would go on to be iterated in sequels released in the following years, it would go on to receive multiple cartoon adaptations in the 1990’s alone, and would even lead to Sonic becoming the first video game character to ever appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, beating out established video game icons like Mario or Pacman, in the process. Simply put, Sonic was everywhere in the early 90’s, and it all started with this very first game.
2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog and, as such, I thought it’d be a great idea to revisit his first game, especially since it’s something near and dear to my heart. While some have come forward over the years saying that the classic Sonic games were never that good, or that Sonic the Hedgehog is an incredibly overrated title, I respectfully disagree.
Call it nostalgia, call it a poor and potentially unrefined taste in games, but I think that Sonic the Hedgehog is a banger. An imperfect and pretty flawed one, yes, but a banger nonetheless and one that has earned its reputation quite well.
I grew up playing Sonic the Hedgehog on my family’s Sega Genesis as a kid and, back then, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. In fact, my affection for the Genesis era Sonic games is pretty well documented. For starters, Sonic is one of the few video game characters that I actually own merch for and is my favorite fictional character of all time. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was tasked with talking about my favorite video game characters of all time for a gaming web series I had secured a screentest for and I basically used it as a jumping off point for an improvised monologue about how much Sonic the Hedgehog means to me as a fictional character.
So… Yeah, I like Sonic. A lot.
And while there’s no denying my love for Sonic the Hedgehog, or as I like to call him, Sonic the Hedge-boy, I can’t help but wonder whether his inaugural adventure is still worth playing today, not just when compared to his other, both refined and unrefined 2-D adventures, but in general. Because if you ask me, Sonic the Hedgehog is a great game… But does it hold up?
However, because this game has been covered by just about everyone on YouTube already in staggeringly great detail, I’m going to approach this review a little differently than usual. Instead of playing the original Genesis release, I’m going to be focussing on the Sega Ages version for the Nintendo Switch, which is my preferred way to play the game these days. I’m well aware of the incredible mobile port this game got several years ago, but I’ve always preferred my Sonic games in 4:3, as well as love the convenience of being able to easily play this game on a TV. The different versions of the game are all fairly similar though and are all fine ways to play this game; I just prefer the Switch version over the reasons I listed just a second ago, as well as the inclusion of both Sonic’s spin and dropdash, which I’ll dive into a bit of detail over in just a bit.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a franchise best known for its speed and, upon entering the iconic Green Hill Zone, it’s easy to see why. The game employs momentum based platforming with incredible results, often allowing players to get launched into the air and bounce off of enemies like they’re springs if you’re moving fast enough. This first area is a literal playground for the player, who can use it as such in order to grow acquainted with the controls and physics. Fixating on this game’s physics for a second, it’s a huge part of what makes the Genesis Sonic games so good. If you compare this game to other mascot platformers that came out around this time, you can see how this game’s incredible sense of motion and weight make it so engaging. For example, a character like Bubsy the Bobcat may be able to move around as fast as Sonic in his games, but does feel as intuitive or fun, whereas here things are a lot smoother, outside of moments of noticeable and soul crushing slow down.
I’ve been playing through Green Hill Zone regularly since I was 3 or 4 and, in that time, I’ve never grown tired of it. While other introductory levels in Sonic games have also been a lot of fun (shoutout to Emerald Coast in Sonic Adventure for being my other favorite first level in a Sonic game), nothing beats what’s available on this level. In fact, I may even go as far as to say that Green Hill Zone is the perfect encapsulation of what a Sonic level should be. It’s incredibly spacious and open ended, allowing you to explore the stage and it’s multiple routes without getting trapped in too many samey areas or getting lost. It balances linearity with an opened ended design that encourages the player to put in multiple playthroughs. On top of that, it establishes what I believe is another good precedent for good Sonic level design, a relatively low difficulty level that’ll allow players to complete the level without much fuss if they’re careful, but also allow them to blaze through the level quickly and make things a tiny bit harder in the process.
If it sounds at all like I’m focussing in on Green Hill Zone too much, it’s for good reason, as a number of other reviewers and players have come to the conclusion that it’s basically the high point of this game, and that everything that comes after it is has a noticeable drop in quality. And, unfortunately, they’re right, though not to the extent that I think they make it out to be, especially when you bring the games several upgraded re-releases into account.
Once you beat Green Hill Zone, you’re tasked with clearing Marble Zone and are exposed to what many consider Sonic 1’s crucial flaw. Waiting. The game suddenly shifts from a speed based platformer and becomes a more standard and linear adventure. While it does occasionally return to the more open ended and speed-based design of Green Hill Zone, such as in the delightfully pinballish Spring Yard Zone, a lot of the game plays out in a more methodical and typical fashion, forcing you to wait for platforms to move, wait for armored and spiked enemies to turn away from you so that you can attack, and avoiding traps that may as well be bottomless pits.
At any rate, the shift in design philosophy is jarring to say the least, but is also fairly tolerable. While I would’ve liked to keep moving through these levels and could’ve done without pushing blocks or riding them through lava, I also kinda understand where Sega was coming from with this. After all, this was the first Sonic game; it’s not like they knew what worked or didn’t yet, and I can’t really blame them for not wanting to fully commit to the design philosophy of something like Green Hill Zone. I mean, I do think that’s kinda weird given how Green Hill Zone is the literal video game manifestation of the addictiveness of nicotine, but I get it. Decades after this games initial release, it’s easy to point at Sonic 2, 3 and Knuckles as being the games to play if you’re looking for all Green Hill design, all the time, Sonic 1 feels more unique because of these slower moments, even if they ultimately hurt the experience. I won’t argue that these moments are great or anything, but I do need to at least acknowledge that, Labyrinth Zone aside, they aren’t that bad. They’re heavy on traditional platformer elements, sure, but Sonic is a platformer and, as such, does need those elements. I do understand how they could’ve just been integrated into the parts of other stages instead of getting their own levels like in the sequels, but I’d also hardly call it a reason to avoid this game outright. Also, I honestly was never that bothered by it during my most recent playthrough, in part due to the quality of life updates that the inclusion of the spin and dropdash make the Sega Ages release.
You see, the Nintendo Switch’s Sega Ages version of Sonic the Hedgehog adds the ability to perform the spindash from Sonic 2 and the drop dash from Sonic Mania, two abilities that give Sonic the ability to blast off at full speed at nearly any given moment. While the guys over at M2, the company that handled bringing this release to life, probably intended for these moves to be there as a way to bring Sonic 1 up to snuff with his younger counterparts, it also serves as an incredible quality of life update that, at best, makes Sonic 1 funner than ever and, at worst, completely breaks the game and undoes the design of it’s slower levels. For example, knowing where and how to use the spin dash in Marble Zone allows you to skip some of those marble riding segments. And in Labyrinth zone, being able to use the drop dash allows you to clear the underwater segments much faster, and with less fuss than you would otherwise. Labyrinth Zone is still a hassle and by far the low point of the game for me, but being able to parkour your way through it with the spindash does make for an easier experience.
Is that a bad thing? Eh, kinda. It goes against what those levels were designed for and makes them play a bit more like something from Sonic 2 or 3, which is honestly a good thing as, like I mentioned earlier, those games owe a lot more of their structure to the design philosophy of Green Hill zone. On the other hand though, it also makes Sonic 1 feel less unique because, for the longest time, it was the Sonic game that didn’t have Sonic’s signature attack in it. It also goes in the face of the ideas that these stages were originally built around and the philosophy of the game. Still, it’s a welcome quality of life improvement and I’m ultimately happy with this inclusion as it does improve the experience for newcomers and, for those of us returning to this game for the millionth time, gives us a new way to enjoy the adventure and explore these levels. The appeal of these added abilities is somewhat similar to the appeal of the mobile ports being in widescreen, I suppose. That’s another example of a quality of life update being implemented that improves the experience overall, but also somewhat muddles the original design specs of the game. I personally prefer my Sonic games in 4:3 and wasn’t all that titillated by the 16:9 presentation of the mobile remasters, but I do see their appeal.
One of the other things that I always hear about Sonic 1 is that it’s boss battles are way too easy. While I also consider this to be true about a lot of the boss battles in Sonic 2 or 3, I’ve also never been particularly bothered by this fact. I’ve always looked at boss battles in Sonic games as being more ceremonial than anything and as also being more of a way to vary the gameplay as opposed to being a skill check for your reflexes and problem solving skills. As for the designs of these boss battles, they’re nothing to write home about but are also charming in their own way. This could just be nostalgia talking though, and I won’t refute the fact that it’s kinda hard for me not to factor that in a little bit, so your mileage on this games design philosophy and boss battles may vary.
There are also special stages that you can play through in order to score extra continues and one of the six chaos emeralds, which are required to get the game’s good ending. It’s… fine? Special stages in subsequent Sonic games would prove to be a lot more fun but this isn’t all that bad for what it is and showcases a rotating stage gimmick that is equal parts cool and impressive for the Sega Genesis. I also dig the fish design in the background. Yeah, that’s about it.
But overall, this first Sonic game plays quite well, albeit nowhere near as well as I remembered it playing. The game just feels like the first installment in a series at points, suffering from more slowdown and moments of general bugginess than it’s follow ups would. It never got to be that frustrating for me though and is usually pretty funny, but I could see how this could turn some players off from the game. Me personally though, I was more than able to live with the games stranger and somewhat unrefined moments.
But now, onto the visuals. Sonic the Hedgehog has what has to be one of my favorite video game art styles of all time. It was heavily influenced by early CGI, which means that everything feels angular and rigid. The use of color in this game is also stupendous. Being the first game in the series, you can really feel how unrestrained the team was when they came up with locals of South Island. Spring Yard Zone feels like it’s part of a seedy techno metropolis, and the mountains in the background of the stage make me imagine that it’s located in the middle of a canyon of sorts. Likewise, Green Hill Zone takes place in wide open fields that have a checkerboard design everywhere and harshly polygonal trees. It’s kinda easy to overlook all of this after seeing this stage so many times over the years, but I imagine that this game had to have been really visually striking when it first came out, especially when it comes to Green Hill Zone, which has multiple layers of parallax scrolling and a bright, vibrant color palette. That’s not to say that the other levels don’t look good either, though. Each of the game’s six zones are visually unique and mostly fall in line with that early CGI aesthetic I described earlier, which firmly establishes a strong 80s vibe for the game, which I find really visually appealing. I also like how the game seems to take place over the course of a day, beginning in the morning or middle of the afternoon in Green Hill Zone, and gradually playing out until you’re running through Star Light Zone at night. While it’s a relatively minor detail that I honestly just noticed 20 or so years into playing this game, it makes for a nice bit of world building. And, as for the games character designs, they’re all full of personality and a cutsie 80’s charm that makes them a delight to look at. I really love the enemy designs from Sonic 1 in particular, as everything looks relatively cute and unthreatening in a way that reflects the fact that there are cute innocent animals trapped inside of them that are in need of rescue. Other Sonic games also do this, sure, but there’s something to the enemy designs in this game specifically that really bring this idea home for me. I also think that the game’s reliance on a CGI aesthetic helps bring home this idea that the beautiful scenery of South Island has been distorted and turned astray by Dr. Robotnik’s antics.
Musically, Sonic the Hedgehog bops. The music was done by Masato Nakamura, the bassist from the 80s and 90s J-pop band Dreams Come True. His contribution to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise seriously can’t go without enough praise as, and I kid you not, they are loaded with iconic and memorable songs. Outside of the music for Labyrinth Zone, which is only alright, each of the games tracks are top notch 16 bit tunes. They’re so good that just over a year ago, right before the first worldwide lockdowns sprang up due to Covid, I would often listen to his Sonic music, and Dreams Come True, on the way to work in Manhattan each morning. And, because I used to be way too into being active for my own good, that means that I would walk a total of something like 4 or 5 miles listening to Nakamura music. So much of the music for Sonic 1 feels celebratory and joyous to me, especially Starlight Zone. It’s a running gag that Sonic games always have good music in them and, with a first soundtrack as genuinely good and consistent as this one, it’s easy to see why, and I honestly don’t have much that I can say about Sonic music that hasn’t been said already. If you love the soundtrack to Sonic 1 and want to hear more music like it, I highly recommend checking out Dreams Come True. Their music is insanely catchy and you can totally hear shades of Sonic-like music in it, especially in Nakamura’s late 80s and early 90s baselines for the band.
So does Sonic the Hedgehog hold up? I’ve already said it’s a great game and you’ve heard me spend a bit of time gushing about the game, so I think that you already know the answer to that question.
Of course it does.
It’s one of the most iconic video games of all time for a reason. I’d be crazy not to agree with some of this games detractors from over the years that it’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t have as much going for it as it’s immediate sequels do, but I still believe that this is a fantastic game with a lot of appeal left in it. You know, outside of Labyrinth Zone, which is no good.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s appeal is apparent from the opening moments of the game. The games use of momentum and physics based platforming is incredibly addictive and fun to goof around with. And while the game deviates from this type of gameplay as early as the second zone, the game does return to it in great effect in acts like Spring Yard and Starlight Zone. Additionally, the presence of the spin dash and drop dash in the Sega Ages port of the game help rectify the issue of slower gameplay, and gives seasoned players new tools to enjoy the game.
While Sonic 2 and 3 certainly refined what this game did right and trimmed some of the fat off of what it did wrong, I highly recommend this game to newcomers of the franchise. Would I recommend it as the first Sonic game to play? Probably not, as Sonic the Hedgehog 2 offers, in my opinion, the definitive vintage Sonic experience. But I do think that this game somehow attained a worse reputation than it deserves over the years and that it represents a very unique moment in Sega’s history. It’s kinda hard to imagine these days, but Sonic the Hedgehog was everywhere back in the day and his games genuinely represented a type of exhilarating gameplay that Mario simply didn’t offer players. There’s also something inherently fun and playful about the character’s bratty do-good nature that I’ve always found insanely appealing.
So if you’ve never played Sonic the Hedgehog before and are thinking of giving his games a go, I highly recommend giving this game a shot at some point. It’s an extremely common game that has been ported, to varying degrees of success, to a number of consoles over the year and is often available for anywhere from $5-10. It also is available for free on mobile in widescreen, albeit with ads.
Sonic the Hedgehog is available on a number of different gaming compilations/consoles. If you’re thinking of picking up this classic Sega game and wanna support TallyhoGaming in the process, please consider purchasing it via one of our affiliate links below!
SEGA AGES Sonic The Hedgehog – Nintendo Switch [Digital Code] (Reviewed in this article)
Sega Genesis Classics – Nintendo Switch (The original Genesis release + dozens of other Genesis gems)