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Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis) artwork

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis) review


"Prime"


Sega was by no means in a bad place during the late 1980s and early 1990s; they were doing amazingly well with their arcade division. However, they obviously wanted a mascot, or at the very least, the company wanted recognizable, profitable faces to sell to the masses. The odd-looking Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone was pushed a bit, even making appearances in the Zillion games and anime, Alex Kidd also showed potential with his bankable, kid-friendly image, yet nothing was really able to stick and capture the attention of a wide audience. But then a hedgehog came along, with his blue skin, red sneakers, and spry attitude, becoming not only the face of the Genesis, but synonymous with Sega's name for the following three decades.



Now, it's easy to assume that Sonic, as a concept, just happened to show up at the right point in time as an "edgy" mascot relating to a young demographic of the 90s. However, the side-scrolling inner workings of Sonic the Hedgehog are actually more than just shallow gimmicks, and if you spend time fiddling with the game, you'll realize a lot of depth was put into its mechanics and design. Each stage, for example, is loaded with tons of variation, with captured animals trapped in mechanized enemies, hazards, and an ever-changing terrain; whether it's using a spinning attack against leaping piranhas and projectile-flinging crabs, running on vertical loops and spun like crazy in tunnels, or trying to survive in a water-infested labyrinth, there's a lot to take on.

Sonic 1 wasn't content with stopping there, going above and beyond by making each stage huge in both size and scope. Right from the very start, you're immediately given options of climbing over a stage, under it, or continuing forward like a typical platformer. A ledge can crumble beneath your feet, and instead of falling to your death, there's an entirely new place to explore. But that's not what makes the design impressive. Despite what could have been a jumbled mess of paths awkwardly connected to one another, Sonic 1's design feels smooth and seamless. You can spend nearly half a stage going through one path and, if you feel like it, can switch sections on the go, either moving to a higher segment or backtracking into a new section. There's rarely a sense of disorder.

There's a surprising lack of wasted space, too. Travel the upper regions of the pinball-inspired Spring Yard Zone, and you'll be treated to slanted platforms and tight ramps guarded by rotating, spiked balls; the opposite of the lower sections, which is filled with long runways and bumpers galore. Scrap Brain Zone's first stage, an industrial juggernaut, can be completed on its trap-floor infested surface. However, its bottom half has so much going on, from vertical shafts that can kill with rotating crushers, to tight pathways with relenting treadmills; it nearly qualifies as a separate stage. Wherever you travel, whether intentionally or by accident, the devs always made sure an experience was had. Though, I will say Star Light Zone has the weakest stage design, mostly offering very, very similar passages, platforms, and obstacles in all its paths. They're really short stages, as well.



You must navigate this spectrum of diversity and fluidity while dealing with a combination of physics and momentum. Yeah, picking up speed and using it as an advantage has always been a staple of the series, but upon revisiting Sonic 1, I completely forgot balance was also a big deal. All you have to work with is a jump attack, a spinning attack that can only be executed properly with the right amount of running speed, and an occasional, generic shield item. With none of the extra stuff introduced in later sequels to aid here, you realize there's a lot of tip-toeing to be had, such as trying to hop around on tiny platforms, over spikes, up awkwardly-titled surfaces, and even having to forsake speed for survival. That's right; mindlessly running forward can kill you. The physics-based gameplay even carries into the bonus stages, where you must struggle in rotating, trippy mazes.

With all the makings of a solidly-designed, standout platformer in place, where do you go from there? You make a striking presentation.

Most video game scenarios are unique by nature, but there was nothing quite like Sonic 1 when it was unleashed on the Sega Genesis. Just by hitting the power button, you're instantly greeted by a huge SEGA logo in front of a white background, with a barely visible hedgehog zooming by as the company's name is hummed. Then start the game and be thrust in a world bursting with creativity; the very first stage is a natural paradise littered with palm trees, flowers that bend and stretch, and a parallax backdrop filled with lakes, mountains, and vast, blue skies. This is contrasted by an assault on nature, with mechanized animals roaming the lands, TV monitors scattered everywhere, and a big, round scientist wrecking havoc in his weaponized contraptions. All this is showcased with detailed, bulky, colorful sprites which makes everything pop out to players on first impact.

The sound design compliments the visuals really well, especially the thematic music. Such examples include the whimsical wonderment accompanying the quirky wildlife of Green Hill Zone, the soothing vibes linked with Star Light Zone's minimalist settings under the night sky, and the synthetic-esque tunes conjoined with Scrap Brain Zone's harsh, steely surroundings. The sound effects also deserve much credit, and I feel like we've taken them for granted over the years due to repeated use in every Sonic game since the first. Everything has a crisp, clear, well-defined sound, from the way rings are collected and scattered when hurt, the rev noise when Sonic spins in a ball, to that very specific "cash register" effect when completing a stage. Compared to many Genesis titles released prior and after, the game avoids those dreadful "fart noises" the system is commonly mocked for.



Sonic 1 is an exceptional title for the Sega Genesis, and one that only appears "archaic" because the sequels improved or modified on its original framework. It was the game that made people take a harder look at the 16-bit console and its creator, Sega, realizing that it was more than just a slight upgrade to the systems of yesteryear. Not to mention a serious competitor to Nintendo, a company which had a stranglehold on the home market at that point in history. The game also inspired numerous "mascot with an attitude" copycats, but most never nailed or even completely "got" why the game was such a blast to play; interesting concept, strong execution in design, and a memorable presentation made Sonic the Hedgehog worthy of its killer app status.

4/5

pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (July 29, 2018)

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