"The beginning..."

It's the dawn of the '90s, and Sega is struggling in the home console market. Its Master System console has been commercially slaughtered by the NES in most major markets while the Mega Drive lacks a truly great title with which to battle Nintendo's forthcoming 16-bit format. That game is eventually created by a group of Sega employees including programmer Yuji Naka, character designer Naoto Ohshima and level planner Hirokazu Yasuhara. It's called Sonic the Hedgehog.

Before the sequels, the cartoons, the comics and the books, Sonic's world was home to just one simple storyline. The evil Doctor Eggman has hatched a fiendish plot to capture innocent animals and enslave them inside robot shells. He seeks the Chaos Emeralds, six mythical objects that would give him the power to enslave the planet - and only one incredibly cool super-fast blue hedgehog stands in his way...

It's an extremely basic plot, but all the game needs is one that gives you a sufficient reason to want Sonic to complete his mission, yet also allows you to get right into the action and actually play this thing without wading through the mass of cut-scenes, flashbacks and FMV sequences that interrupt the flow of Sonic's later 3D titles. Fortunately, even without the, er, benefit of voice acting, Sonic's hyperactive character still shines through the limited sprite animation - Naoto Ohshima's bold and brilliant character design created a recognisable and expressive mascot that has been often imitated but never bettered.

This distinctive visual flair carries through the rest of the title. It is so bold and stylised that its simplicity does not matter - its graphics remain as loveable today as they did in 1991 and don't feel dated in the slightest. Of course, later 2D Sonic games did make improvements such as an increase in the number of frames of animation, more layers of parallax scrolling and a greater variety to the tiles from which levels and backgrounds are constructed, but generally Sonic the Hedgehog's art direction remains beautiful to look at, and certainly never ugly. From the lush flora of the Green Hill Zone to the Scrap Brain's Blade Runner cityscapes, every stage's graphics are memorable, and somehow still unique even among the plethora of stages that have been added to Sonic's world over the years. It was technically innovative, too - the game engine moves its sprites around extremely rapidly, and it was thought that the Mega Drive could never handle the rotating levels seen in the surreal bonus stages. Sonic Team proved that idea wrong.

They left the competition behind in other areas, too. A major problem of many lesser 8 and 16-bit platformers was a crippling lack of responsive controls; vitally, Sonic does not suffer from this flaw. Nor do the Mario titles, but they require players to time their jumps with the utmost precision - Sonic is a lot more loose and lenient while losing none of the satisfaction of knocking a baddie on the bonce. There's a feeling of spectacular recklessness never escaping from the player's complete instinctive control; even an inexperienced player can make Sonic run down a hill, curl into a ball (accompanied by a blisteringly powerful screeching noise), spin round a loop-the-loop, roll up to the peak of a half-pipe before leaping off into the wide blue yonder. Building up momentum in this way - rebounding off enemies, leaping over lava, never stopping or getting hit - is one of those glorious "in the zone" gaming highs. It's no wonder pinball became a recurring theme in Sonic levels.

And the game features the perfect arenas for such antics. Sonic Team managed to create an extremely effective balance between allowing players to experience the thrill of rushing through levels at a fantastic pace and yet also giving them the option to slowly explore the more intricate sections in order to find alternate routes which could lead to a some helpful bonus items or an entirely different challenge. Their ability to combine and layer varied paths on top of one another is a major reason the 2D games are so marvellous - it's a shame they seemed to lose this skill for the Dreamcast Sonic Adventure games, in which exploration and speed levels were split distinctly among characters (and Sonic's own sections were more like a linear - but very spectacular - racing game). The original game isn't particularly long or challenging, with stages far smaller than those of the epic Sonic 3 and Knuckles, but if you choose to start going for fast times it will take a while to discover the optimum method of tackling even the most deceptively simple level. Time attacking these stages is an incredibly addictive activity which gives the game an immense amount of replay value.

And of course, each one of those levels will be forever associated with the iconic music composed by Masato Nakamura of J-Pop band Dreams Come True. Between the bouncy title screen and the sinister Final Zone, Sonic features some of the most memorable and distinctive tunes in videogame history. It's just a shame that the versions I became used to were slowed down for the PAL edition of the game (something fixed in the sequels and the Sonic Jam and Mega Collection re-releases).

If the game has a fault, it's that it never again quite reaches the glorious dizzy heights of the sublime Green Hill Zone that opens the game - later on the balance between speedy slopes connecting intricate sequences of platform jumping perhaps becomes too weighted towards the latter, with the Marble's moving platforms, the block-cages of the Spring Yard and the submerged tunnels of the Labyrinth Zone slowing Sonic down to a crawl. This balancing issue was improved in subsequent titles, with the transfer between the adrenaline rush rollercoaster rides and precise platforming sections becoming more subtle; entering the speed-sapping water became optional, or only a punishment for falling.

Fortunately such low points represent a relatively small fraction of the game, so that the overwhelming impression of this magnificent first title is that it is fast, addictive and hugely entertaining, as brilliant in the long-term as the short. This, the introduction to a gaming icon and the Mega Drive's defining moment, remains an undeniable classic. But that's not to say it couldn't be improved...

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/06/05, Updated 08/08/05

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