Review by Overdrive

"Zoom into another warped history lesson courtesy of Overdrive...."

So, why was Nintendo kicking Sega's butt early on in the rivalry between the two companies? Personally, I've always felt it was because Nintendo had all the recognizable characters. They had Mario, Link, Mega Man, Simon Belmont and others. Our friends at Sega could boast little more than some Alex Kidd fellow. It wasn't that the Master System was overloaded with inferior games or anything like that — it was just that they never really had a good marketable character to captivate the imagination of players worldwide.

But reasonably early in the lifespan of the Sega Genesis, that changed. Sega pretty much established themselves as a major player in the gaming industry with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, a platformer game following the Mario formula. Succeeding where the diminutive Mr. Kidd failed, this spiky protagonist brought a lot to the the table. Exuding charisma, Sonic's biggest asset was the simple truth that he could reach speeds faster than chubby plumbers, sword-wielding elves, heroic robots or vampire hunters could dream of.

And Sonic succeeded. With 18 levels (plus a final boss encounter with the villainous Dr. Robotnik — think of a younger, more rotund Dr. Wily) stretched over six diverse zones, the designers made sure that Sonic's speed (and the Genesis' near-flawless ability to capture the quickness of his movement) would have plenty of opportunities to impress. Take one of the initial levels in the very easy Green Hill Zone. As you control Sonic while he runs to the right, he'll gradually pick up speed until he's moving at a dead sprint with trees and terrain zooming by rapidly. Up ahead, you see that the ground goes up and around in a loop. To successfully navigate this hazard, Sonic will actually need to momentarily defy gravity. However, since he is moving at maximum speed, an obstacle such as this barely even slows him down. Controlling your hero, you'll navigate the loop with no problems whatsoever and move on to the next challenge, whatever it may be.

But while Sonic's speed provides a good portion of the game's appeal, there is a lot more to Sonic the Hedgehog than merely the ability to get from Point A to Point B faster than Mario could. You'll notice that you have a 10-minute time limit for every stage in this game — which is far more than enough time to reach the goal in nearly every level (the final stage of the diabolically clever Labyrinth Zone is the ONLY one in which I've ever had time problems). However, as you progress through each of this game's zones, you'll see that simply sprinting to the end is foolish. There are plenty of optional little sidepaths through each level that lead to hordes of rings (the answer to Super Mario's coins), one-ups, temporary shields and other goodies. By simply taking advantage of Sonic's speed and zipping through levels, many of these sub-sections will be missed.

Missing too many of these places isn't a good idea, as the more rings Sonic collects, the better his quest will go. Merely holding one ring allows Sonic to survive contact with various bad guys, spikes, lava and other hazards (with the exception of the beloved bottomless pit). Instead of succumbing to death, Sonic will merely be bounced back as all his rings fly from his body in every direction. Odds are that you'll be able to regain a few of them before they vanish, leaving you with the capacity to take another hit if necessary. And with rings being VERY plentiful in this game, with a little bit of effort you can make Sonic as close to immortal as humanly possible.

But if you can avoid unfortunate situations such as head-on collisions with spike-covered worms and skittering crabs, you may be able to access bonus levels at the end of many stages. While these bonuses, which only open if you have enough rings, bear no significance to the actual game, they are sort of a fun reward for exhibiting skill while navigating levels.

And that was what caused me to realize the truth about Sonic the Hedgehog — simply put, while his speed did likely play a big role in his popularity, much of this game wasn't necessarily meant to utilize it. With 10-minute time limits for levels and plenty of places to explore off the beaten path, you are supposed to navigate many of these levels slowly and thoroughly. Simply dashing through will likely mean you'll miss out on plenty of bonuses, while (unless you're blessed with great reflexes and/or memorization skills) taking hits from enemies and traps placed cunningly to take advantage of players relying solely on quick feet to advance through the game.

And keeping Sonic moving at a dead sprint also means that you won't be able to savor this game's small collection of wonderfully designed levels that, in my opinion, trump anything Mario was puttering through during this time period. In the plentiful underwater mazes of the Labyrinth Zone, you'll need to find air bubbles to replenish Sonic's oxygen supply or you can add drowning to the already plentiful number of ways the little hedgehog can potentially meet his demise. The Marble Hill Zone sends you through lava-filled corridors far more skillfully than any of Bowser's assorted fortresses did, while you'll often feel like you stepped into a pinball game (with Sonic playing the role of the ball) in the Spring Hill Zone.

But Sonic the Hedgehog isn't the perfect “be all/end all” Mario-killer. Maybe those levels are designed wonderfully, but with a few exceptions, they are far easier than many of Mario's stages. Most enemies offer nothing more than token resistance, as they move slowly and occasionally fire easily-dodged bullets. Dr. Robotnik's robotic “Sonic-slaying” inventions (the bosses of each level) aren't much better as they use easily exploited patterns. Meanwhile, Sonic is quick and nimble, able to both jump on foes (ala Mario) or spin jump into them — as the needle-like fur of the common hedgehog turns this uncommon one into a circular saw able to easily chop insects and other airborne foes out of the sky.

While there are plenty of tricks and traps, ranging from collapsing floors to spiky balls, they seem designed to foil hedgehogs that prefer speed over brains. Take a more methodical pace and these hazards will (for the most part) easily be avoided. While the Labyrinth Zone is difficult due to the ever-present threat of drowning and the Scrap Brain Zone (final regular world) is brutally difficult because of the sheer number of sadistically placed tricks and traps, most of Sonic's levels were meant to be breezed through.

And there could be a bit more level variety, too. While the six zones all are attractive and diverse, the three levels within each of them are a bit too similar for my tastes. The second and third levels of each zone seem to be little more than a slightly reworked version of the first level — but with a few more tricks and traps — for the most part. Super Mario Brothers 3, released on the inferior NES hardware, had more levels and more variety in their themes. Heck, SMB 2 — an older NES game featuring a Sonic-like three levels in most worlds — had more variety between each world's levels than this game does. The only real exception to this is the Scrap Brain Zone. While the first two levels are quite similar in nature, the third is a more difficult version of the Labyrinth Zone's stages.

Sonic the Hedgehog still is a great game, though — it just wasn't able to topple Mario as the king of the platformers. Everything inside the cartridge is wonderful, with a nimble, athletic hero that is a pure joy to control combined with expansive levels chock full of secrets for him to explore. But, I was just left with the feeling that there should have been more. After playing games like Super Mario Brothers 3, a platformer with a mere six zones containing three very similar stages (of which many are easy to beat) just didn't satisfy me. If the stages within each zone were as vastly different as the zones themselves, things would be different. Sadly, it feels like you are just doing the same things over and over as you progress through each zone. Sonic's first adventure is still a game that is well worth the playing time of any action fan. I just feel it could have been better with a bit more variety within each separate level.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/18/04


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