Review by SethBlizzard

"In the Zone"

Sonic the Hedgehog changed the way I looked at videogames forever. Never before had I been dazzled by something so beautiful, so distinctive and so characteristic. Here we had a blue hedgehog in red sneakers who dashes and bumps off coils and enemies, collects rings and fights a ball-shaped, moustachioed madman. Sonic the Hedgehog put SEGA squarely onto the game map. It's one of those defining moments in videogame history, such as Super Mario Bros. Mario and Sonic have been supposed rivals ever since, but Sonic the Hedgehog got big on his own terms.

Just like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog was not his system's launch title, but the first to define it, starting with the graphics. I was totally taken aback by the world of Sonic the Hedgehog. It is a world with checkerboard walls (in the first zone), robots in the form of animals and giant lakes in the background. Great care was taken to craft every environment. Though the backgrounds hadn't got multi-layered at this point as they would with the follow-up (which is visually arresting), Sonic the Hedgehog crafts a zany and characteristic world. Each of the six zones that Sonic passes in his pursuit of the evil Dr. Robotnik is distinctive. The first is a lush green world with waterfalls and palmtrees. We have a surreal city world that works almost like a sadistic pinball machine. One of the most beautiful is Star Light Zone, another city world where, in its lower stages, you can see the houses, while the higher you go, the better a view you get of a breathtaking city skyline. Labyrinth Zone is perhaps the most visually striking, a cheekily Atlantean world adorned with unforgettable architecture, in particular those tiles with the grinning faces. Rest assured, you won't forget this world. The character models are all very satisfyingly conveyed, the colourful bunch that they are. Sonic himself looks more purple than blue, oddly, but even though he would certainly look better later on, this model is good to the eye.

The gameplay is infectiously addictive. Sonic's mission is to clear each Act of each Zone. Each Zone has three acts, the third act culminating in a boss fight. The controls are fairly easy to work with, though anyone who has played later games in this series will notice that the responsiveness isn't the best. Sonic doesn't seem to get going immediately when you press the direction pad. One hit by an enemy will kill Sonic if you don't collect one of the game's characteristics, rings. These things are found all over the game. Not only will amassing 100 of them give you an extra life, they will also keep you alive. One hit, however, and your carefully-horded treasure comes cascading off you with an ear-clanging sound. To prevent this, you can find shields in certain capsules spread around each Zone. These shields will allow you to get hit once without losing any rings, but at the cost of the shield. You can also find rings in certain capsules. Overall, be careful, because there are traps around. Already in Marble Zone, traps play a pretty big part. Be on your guard; often, you will unwittingly stumble into a trap if you're not careful. There's nothing like the frustration of collecting a hundred rings and then losing more than half that number (you can try to salvage the rings, but they vanish quickly).

Part of the reason why losing rings is such a worry is a very clever and unique concept, a concept involving an optional but riveting challenge; the Special Stage. If you make it to the end of an Act with at least 50 rings, you will find a giant ring that will transport you to a psychedelic maze whose visage is never lost to anyone who has set eyes upon it. In an ever-rotating contraption before an ever-changing background of fish and birds, the ever-rolling Sonic has to find his way to the heart of the maze, avoiding the sneakily-placed “goal” dots (which will end the stage), and recover the Chaos Emerald. These things are another of the stable elements of the Sonic franchise. You can beat the game without getting any Chaos Emerald, but then Robotnik gets a good laugh at the end. You might beat the game, but you won't be really completing it, and thus properly thwarting Robotnik, unless you get those six emeralds. Because the Special Stages are constantly spinning, the threat of falling into an ill-placed “goal” dot is ever-present. Even though you can't turn into Super Sonic in this game for collecting all emeralds, at least you have the satisfaction of having collected all.

The score by Masatu Nakamura (of Dreams Come True) is wonderful. One annoyance I have with modern re-issues of this game is how the soundtrack runs much faster than it does in the Mega Drive version found in Europe. In any case, this soundtrack is instantly recognizable. Green Hill Zone sounds tranquil and yet brisk. Marble Zone sounds dark and dangerous. Star Light Zone sounds awe-inspiring. Labyrinth Zone is playful and renegade, much like the level itself, and is an infectious and gripping listen. Nakamura also went on to compose the bombastic soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. When you play the game, you will hear certain little tunes that have become symbolic for the series, such as the title theme, the one-up ditty and the end-of-level piece. We have Masatu Nakamura to thank for these beginnings that have become so iconic for the series.

Sonic the Hedgehog endures for more than its characteristic game world and its gripping game play. It also endures because it is a challenging game. Getting all the Chaos Emeralds is a nerve-racking task to this day, as you only get one shot per level (unlike in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 where you have multiple opportunities in each level, provided you find enough rings). The level challenges, though, are interesting in their own right. Take Spring Yard Zone, where Sonic can fall down a straight wall and hit a spring that propels him twenty feet into the air. You'll need to use the level elements cleverly to proceed. Sometimes, there are multiple paths to each exit. Another of the most characteristic things about the Sonic franchise are the loop-de-loops archways. There's nothing like speeding into such an archway and hearing the sounds of the rings clinging so satisfyingly in your ears. For the more challenge hungry gamers, Labyrinth Zone will be a delight. I used to hate this zone, but now I love it. The game's underwater world, it presents such ever-present dangers as keeping Sonic from running out of air. The only way to do this when the surface of the water is too far off lies in bubble springs. Wait for a big enough one to show up and Sonic can breathe. These are sometimes sadistically far apart. The running-low-on-air tune is really terrifying, but try to keep your calm, as you usually find air just when you think you won't. Many challenges will indeed ask you to use your head as well as your jumps and your Sonic spin attack which takes out most enemies safely. The second Act of Labyrinth Zone will loop endlessly unless you figure out how to progress. Scrap Brain Zone will often unforgivably plummet you to your death.

The bouts against Dr. Robotnik are excellent touches. Hovering in his little ship, the man certainly isn't running low on ideas on how to defeat the pesky hedgehog. Most famously, he'll try to pummel Sonic with a steel ball. In another boss, he'll destroy the terrain under Sonic's feet, meaning that you have to be quick to defeat him. Labyrinth Zone's boss is one of the most sadistic, where you must chase Robotnik up a shaft not only full of annoying traps, but steadily filling up with water as well.

This is all part of the beauty of Sonic the Hedgehog, and why it's still such a classic. It is an identifiable, beautiful and charming game filled to the brim with challenges that can still be rather harrowing. Sonic went on to become Sega's mascot, and just like Mario did with Nintendo, he earned this distinction. Though it looks a little rough around the edges compared to the follow-ups on the same system, and the controls don't feel as friendly as they would later, it's still easy to see why Sonic the Hedgehog was such a hit. It's still captivating and exciting. Outrunning molten lava and trying desperately to find the nearest gasp of air when underwater is still thrilling and charming. First and foremost, Sonic the Hedgehog is very fun to play. Completing it 100% can be a harrowing challenge, but it's one you feel proud of yourself for accomplishing. This is the game that inspired a generation, if not just yours truly.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/21/10, Updated 09/21/14

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


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