Review by Phediuk

"In hindsight, Sonic 2 was way, way better."

Playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog is a lot like revisiting your old elementary school: you know your way around, and you've got some good memories, but the place just isn't as big as you remember it. Sonic 1 feels like a footnote in platformer history—it's so slight that it's hard to comprehend why it was such a big hit. It's decent, but the gameplay feels unrefined, the level design is a mixed bag, and the game's look is neither as fast nor as colorful as its sequels. Sonic 1 plays like exactly what it is: a prototype for future Sonic games.

Sonic's gimmick is speed. This guy goes effin' fast. That's always been what Sonic is about, right? Playing Sonic 1, I have to wonder. After Green Hill Zone, the game slows right down to the pace of a typical platformer. In Marble Zone, you ride blocks over lava pits and dodge spikes. There are no loop-de-loops or ramp jumps; it's generic platforming for three levels against a purple background. Labyrinth Zone bizarrely places Sonic underwater, where his speed is sharply hindered and the player has to constantly wait for air bubbles to pop up. Not only is it by far the most time-consuming zone (each level takes 5 minutes plus), but it's the slowest and hardest too. There are a lot of wall-mounted spears thrusting at Sonic and projectile-shooting enemies are everywhere. The ring scattering sound is heard about every eight seconds here. Starlight Zone comes immediately afterward and is a cinch in comparison: there are few enemies and each act takes under a minute to beat. For the last level, you'd expect something high-speed, with a lot of the turbo-springboards and whatnot, to fit in with the game's theme. Nope. It's another boring underwater level. It's easy to see why the water levels were de-emphasized in the sequels.

With the “speed” mechanic weirdly botched, Sonic has little to set him apart from other platform heroes. Everything in Sonic feels so stock; invincibility and (the very rare) speed shoes are the only powerups, and Sonic literally cannot do anything but run, jump, or roll. There are many times when I tried to do a speed dash and forgot that, whoops, I'm playing Sonic 1. It's clear playing this game that the speed dash was what tied the gameplay together in the sequels; without the ability to create his own speed, Sonic feels very constrained. There are very few of the fancy roller coaster-like parts that the series became known for; you go through a couple of loops and tunnels in Green Hill Zone, and that's about it. Boss battles lack the creativity of Sonic 2 and 3; for example, in his first appearance, Robotnik puts a ball-and-chain below his hovercar and slowly moves back and forth. The ball swings to and fro in a very predictable manner, feebly attempting to hit you. There's nothing else going on in this fight. Just hit Robotnik eight times and you're done. It takes approximately fifteen seconds. Sure, Sonic 2's first boss was just as easy, but at least there he had a fancy jeep. Here he literally takes his hovercar and attaches a trinket to it.

Sonic 1 doesn't have the personality of its successors. One of the first things that struck me about the game is how muted the colors are. It looks alright, but it's like if you got a packet of Skittles that only had green and blue ones in it. You'd be wondering where the other colors were. Sonic 2 is so much brighter and bolder and vibrant than this game you may have to check the contrast on your TV to make sure it's working okay. I can describe the colors of Sonic 1's levels, in order, as thus: green, purple, slightly lighter purple, yellow, black, grey. The themes of the levels are indistinct: what exactly is Starlight Zone aside from ramps and slopes against a nighttime background? The blandness of the environments carries over to the plot, which consists of exactly two characters: Sonic and Robotnik. It's almost surreal not having Tails there. There's something “barren” about the game—you could it je ne sais quoi—that's not there in later games. It's as if you're playing a game that's only half-realized, begging for a sequel to fill everything in.

And that's exactly what Sonic 1 is. It is a decent platformer; aside from the dull underwater stages, it's inoffensive. It's a good way to waste an hour. It will give you newfound perspective on its position within the Sonic series. You will be disappointed at how lame the final boss is; you mean they couldn't think of anything better than waiting on a static screen for pistons to pop out? How about a high-speed chase, or anything that would take advantage of the game's hook? Why isn't this game faster? The questions will start to pile up in your head. It's just not as cool as it was when you were eight. And it makes it that much easier to appreciate Sonic 2.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 12/22/09

Game Release: Sonic the Hedgehog (US, 06/23/91)


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