Review by Suprak the Stud
"A Classic Series First Trembling Steps On the Big Stage"
There was a time, back when Sega was still relatively new to the gaming industry and before it had killed off its console hopes by releasing a series of disappointing hardware that had more utility as novelty paperweights than actual gaming consoles, when Sega was in desperate need of a mascot. Nintendo had a whole stable of popular mascots whose face they could have put on the side of a piece of paneling, marketed them as "Nintendoors", and retailers still would have had a hard time keeping them in stock around the holidays. In order to try and match the money making machine of Nintendo, Sega created Sonic the Hedgehog and placed him in his own game named Sonic the Hedgehog (simplicity works, I guess). He was sort of marketed as the anti-Mario; where Mario was more slow and steady, Sonic was deliberately fast. While Mario didn't have much of a personality, Sonic had way too much and was HIP and IN YOUR FACE and KIDS EAT YOUR VEGETABLES. And while Mario was in iconic, classic platforming games, Sonic wallowed in mediocrity. See, the problem with the first Sonic the Hedgehog game is that too much time was spent making the mascot and not enough refining the game. The basic premise here is alright, and the core gameplay is solid, but it really just feels like your generic, run of the mill platforming, with the speed cranked up a little bit.
Dissecting the story of a Sega Genesis platforming game is a lot like judging a first grade art contest and criticizing them all for failing to color inside the lines; you know going into it that it is going to be terrible and calling them out for being terrible is just going to make you seem like a jerk when all of the little kids start to cry. You play as the titular Sonic the Hedgehog, a little blue hedgehog full of spunk and sass and you just know he's the guy still making armpit fart noises in the seventh grade when everyone else quit doing that years ago. He's a big enough jerk that if you put down your controller for a moment to answer a phone call, he literally looks at you and starts tapping his foot like you're wasting his time. SORRY SONIC. He seems to be glaring at you with an expression of "what the hell could you possibly be doing that is more important than getting me through this loop-de-loop?" He never talks throughout the whole game (which is a blessing considering what has happened in more recent releases), but he still comes off as kind of a jerk and every now and then I would run him into a pit of spikes or let him drown just to show him who was boss.
In the game you face off against the evil Dr. Robotnik, and I'm not entirely sure what he got his doctorate in, but I have to assume it was for comically awful evil ideas (or possibly deep fried ham) because I refuse to believe that a real doctor would come up with a plan this terrible. He wants to collect the six chaos emeralds and rule South Island by turning all of the animals on the island into robot minions, which is an idea so bizarre and terrible that it stands out as exceptionally bizarre even such amongst the other Sega games, which is sort of like being the fattest person at a McDonalds. Why he didn't just build the robots in the first place is beyond me, but turning all of his friends into robotic slaves seems to have angered Sonic, the one creature on the island apparently fast enough to outrun a fat man slowly floating around in a hover egg. This is kind of embarrassing, because it would be like if all the neighborhood kids had been captured by an elderly man on a rascal scooter, and it really doesn't speak to highly of the other denizens of the island. As Sonic, you need to rescue the other animals, capture the chaos emeralds, and stop Robotnik before diabetes does.
Sonic the Hedgehog plays pretty much like a typical platformer from the heyday of the Sega Genesis, which is a great thing if you like old school gameplay and hate modernity and innovation, and a very bad thing if you're under the age of ten or can't get any joy out of life unless you're fragging soom noob and squatting over his corpse. One of the more notable deviations is the fact that Sonic the Hedgehog shuns linear level design like the pariah it is and embraces levels with branching pathways. Nearly every level has a couple of different routes to take that deliver different obstacles, enemies, and power-ups. Not only does the improve the replay value, by giving you reason to go back and play through each level again, but it also puts an emphasis on exploration in order to find the best power ups and paths through the levels. Beyond that, it plays like a pretty typically platformer, with spikes to avoid, enemies to stomp, and rings to collect. Picking up rings actually serves as a sort of life force in this game, and if you get hit while holding rings all of your rings just scatter, but if you get hit without any rings you lose a life, a fitting allegory for what happens once your HMO stops offering you coverage.
The thing that supposedly distinguished the Sonic franchise from other, less RAD gaming series was that it was focused entirely on speed. On the Green Hill Zone, you really do get that impression, and you will be jumping, rolling, and spinning your way through the levels in a way that is genuinely enjoyable. All three of the acts in this zone seem to be designed specifically with speed in mind, and are really crafted quite perfectly to incorporate obstacles without really slowing down the pace of the game. However, then the second area shows up and apparently the designers were replaced by a group of geriatric turtles that didn't like what was going on. It is like the designers forgot what they did with the first world and instead set things up for slow, drawn out, and fairly dull levels from that point onward. I have no idea what the reason was for this shift, but the hills, loop-de-loops, and clever ideas from the first area are abandoned for box pushing, platform riding, and paint drying. The game slows down significantly, and it feels like what would happen if the makers of the Ferrari decided that they had enough with the sports cars and wanted to get into the SUV market. There are portions in the Spring Yard Zone that come close to the same sense of speed again, but most of the game just feels really sluggish, like Sonic is on some pretty heavy opiates.
It isn't just that the game slows down, and the main problem is the level design for a lot of the zones just isn't very good. For a game supposedly focused on speed, too many obstacles are thrown in that deliberately slow down the pace of the game. What is worse is that the obstacles themselves aren't particularly clever, forcing you to sit and wait as a box slowly moves through lava or for a slowly oscillating platform to move to where you need it to. The most egregious of all is the terrible water themed level, which actually forces you to sit and wait at certain spots for air bubbles to pop up or Sonic will drown and the anti-cruelty society will show up at your door and take away the rest of your pets. Large portions of the game seem to drag, not only because the pace slows down but because the various acts themselves tend to blend into each other and feel a bit bland. The level design is still halfway decent and there are a couple of nice, memorable areas, but for the most part things just feel somewhat generic, and fail to utilize the basic concept behind the game in any memorable way.
Each of the six areas is capped off with a boss fight against the rotund Robotnik in one of his flying machines. And he must be a more proficient inventor than I originally guessed, because a dirigible capable of keeping him afloat seems to defy the laws of physics. While the boss fights do an alright job capping off each level, for the most part they are extremely formulaic and far too easy. Typically, Robotnik just lazily floats from one end of the screen to the other with whatever special doodad he has attached to his ship for that level, either because the designers had a hard time coming up with clever boss fights or because all of the energy in these hovercrafts is being spent just keeping Robotnik off the ground. The boss fights aren't bad or anything, but they just don't really have any creativity to them, and really any of them could have been the first level boss fight considering their rather low difficulty. The final boss fight is particularly disappointing and I actually beat him on my first try without even being hit, which tends to be a bad sign for the end of game climax.
The bonus levels themselves don't feel generic, but that is because they are too busy being terrible. Collect 50 rings and a large momma ring shows up at the end of the level, presumably mad that you have stolen all of her children. Jumping into it unlocks a "bonus" level, which really stretches the limits of the definition of "bonus". Sonic rolls around a rotating area, and it is your goal to guide him to the chaos emeralds which appear to be stuck in Dr. Robotnik's evil washing machine or something. If you accidentally bump into one of the goal areas, oops, you lose! In order to get the best ending you need to get all six of the emeralds, but honestly it isn't even worth the effort. Sonic controls like an actual hedgehog in a washing machine in these portions, and it just isn't any fun to try and maneuver him about in these levels without bumping into the goal segments. These levels are far more frustrating than they are fun, and things are made even worse by the fact that if you fail you are pretty much out of luck and have to try and make it back to the bonus stage in the next level. These seem to have been added to give a change of pace in comparison to the main levels, but your time would be better spent just skipping them because there is no fun to be had here.
There are also some other underlying problems that sour the experience somewhat. There is no way to save your game, so you either have to beat it in one go or quit and start over again. This would be annoying, but it is remedied by an even bigger fault: the actual content in the game is quite minimal making the game itself short. There are only a handful of different areas, and the levels themselves really do not have much content to them. And while the areas themselves have different themes and are fairly distinct from each other, the individual levels in each area tend to use the same couple of tricks repeatedly, giving you the distinct sensation of deja vu. Some individuals might be willing to overlook these issues, partly because of the era in which the game was released and partly because of the fact that their mind is crammed so full of nostalgia that it doesn't let their mouths utter coherent facts, but I feel like this is a cop out. A certain Italian plumber (no, not Gus, the guy who fixed your pipes at a discounted rate because he was friends with your dad) had a game released at almost the same time that had ten times the length and amount of ideas. Compared to the stalwarts of the genre, this game just feels a bit brief and underwhelming.
This was Sonic's first foray into the world of gaming, and like a baby learning to walk, there were some tumbles and falls along the way. Sonic the Hedgehog is brief, a bit repetitive, and fails to properly execute the concept it seems to have been built on. Sonic himself might be built for speed, but the levels aren't designed in a way to let him run properly. It feels like someone put a racecar on some residential streets and then didn't understand why it careened off the road and into the day care after a series of sharp turns. The majority of the levels just are not designed that well, and Sonic is forced to plod through the same sequence of predictable obstacles and dull enemies in each area. Still, despite these shortcomings, Sonic the Hedgehog isn't a particularly bad game. A bit dull, sure, but there are enough fun segments here that fans of old school platformers should enjoy. The difficulty level is about at the right level, and even the levels that fail to utilize the speed aspect of the game very well at least have enough different obstacles to be entertaining. It certainly is at least far superior to the quality of current Sonic releases, but I suppose you could say the same thing about a bag full of dirty diapers and it would still be true.
Sonic (THE GOOD):
+Platforming mechanics all work fairly well
+Branching level paths add some nice complexity to the levels and improve replayability
+First act is really nicely designed and compliments the emphasis on speed nicely
+Bright, cartoony visuals and some nice music tracks
Robotnik (THE BAD):
-Much of the level design is boring and ill suiting for a game that supposedly focuses on speed
-Bonus levels are tedious and not at all fun
-Short in length and a lot of redundant ideas repeat throughout the levels
-Lack of a save feature makes things less accessible than they need be
-Boss fights are underwhelming and the final boss is especially disappointing
Robotnik in Swimming Trunks (THE UGLY): There is no sound more terrifying as a kid as the music the begins to play the seconds before Sonic drowns. If that music replaced the alarm clock buzzer, no one would ever sleep through anything again. Or be able to fall back asleep, for that matter.
THE VERDICT: 4.50/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 03/15/12
Game Release: Sonic the Hedgehog (US, 06/23/91)
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