Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis) review
"The fast and the furious Green Hill Zone. Barreling over bright green hills, digging your heels in as you race through lush valleys of green, leaping for coins and coming back down to green earth - this is what the entire game should have been about. Sad that the heights of enjoyment should be reached in Sonicís first mission, sad that gamers should be teased so cruelly, as the roaring velocity of his run, (increased even more with the special speedy shoe icon, and even more while Sonic spins) comes to an abrupt halt with the conclusion of the zone, never to reach such intensity again. "
We all know Sonic. He may not be your best friend, but chances are, heís at least an acquaintance. His long lineage is the main reason that our favourite spunky, spiky blue hedgehog has become such a household name. Sega astutely realized early on in the life of their 16-bit Genesis, that Master System mascot, Alex Kidd, wouldnít cut it against Nintendoís supremely popular flag bearer, Super Mario. The big-eared master of paper-rock-scissors stepped onto the 16-bit scene in less than impressive fashion, and his failure necessitated the oncoming mascot incumbent: Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sega has ridden him hard and long like a rented mule. Therefore, it should be a no-brainer that the fancy and fleet-footed rodentís first adventure is a classic, correct? There certainly canít be any reason to read further, can there? The absolutely ironic genius of that last question is that youíll have to read further to see!
A malicious Dr. Robotnik has captured animals - only of the cute and furry variety - and turned them into a fearsome mechanical-cum-mammalian menagerie. Itís Sonicís duty as a fellow mammal and all around nice guy to rescue his furry friends and lay an appropriate beating on the deserving, deranged doctor. Itís clear that Sega drew upon the clichťd wells of mascots past to create the noble, yet colourless Sonic. Heís certainly no Bonk - the Hudson Soft-conceived, head-banging primate who seemed to thrive on skull-cracking violence with right on his mind and a girl on his heart. Thankfully, though, the blue hedgehog is not as uninteresting as the mustached and mushroom-downing Mario, who relies on the inimitable quality of his adventures, as he himself is wholly lacking in appeal. While a boring do-gooder, Segaís saviour does have spunk, as evidenced by his finger-wagging straight away at the title screen.
Sonic has two lives in stock, and no continues to blast through all seven zones and 19 stages. As if that task were not daunting enough, amazingly, Sonic is limited to a single maneuver as he champions the cause of good. Unsurprisingly, this means that the game only requires the use of one button. That button launches Sonic spinning into the air in a tight ball, his ridged back spinning dangerously like a buzz saw. This is your jump, this is your attack - controls just donít get any simpler (if you press down on the control pad while running, Sonic can also assume this buzz saw form along the ground, allowing him to break through certain walls, mow down wayward foes, and achieve blinding speed dashing downhill and through loop-de-loops). To augment his abilities, Sonic can retrieve the following items from computer monitors placed conspicuously throughout his world: a shield that lasts until he gets hit (the sound of him acquiring the power is incredibly memorable: PHOOM!), special shoes for a fleeting increase in speed, as well as the power of ephemeral invincibility.
While heís racing about in his red runners rescuing rodents, Sonic will be picking up gold rings (or he should be anyway, if he knows whatís good for him), which he will find strewn around the varied environs (some available in ten-packs inside computer monitors). In some levels, the rings will be hung copiously about the air, encouraging your claim; and in others, finding that next ring will prove exceedingly difficult, as the sparse groupings will be secreted tightly in seams of the landscape. The acquisition of these rings is so crucial as to be linked directly with your early success with the game, and thus becoming a keen collector should be held paramount in your mind. From the onset of each zone, if Sonic takes a hit (e.g.: runs into an enemy or a spike) heís through. But if heís got at least one ring when he receives damage, heíll reel in pain, flashing with temporary invincibility, and the ring will fly into the air (there are two exceptions to the rule whereby Sonic will die regardless of his ring inventory: a fall into the void, or a crushing from any number of ponderous, piston-like objects). The game will give you a short window of opportunity to retrieve the precious, inadvertently abandoned cargo as it bounces away from you. One might then ask: why the need to stockpile these rings? Canít one ostensibly just cruise through each level with only one in tow?
Perhaps, but itís to your advantage to amass as many as possible. Carrying, say, 50 rings, greatly improves the chances of retrieving a few should Sonic err, and scatter them, as compared to the panicky scramble which would likely ensue if Sonic was only carrying a few. Fortunately, and somewhat predictably, earning at least 100 rings wins Sonic an extra life. Also, more interestingly, if you manage to reach the end of any stage except for boss rounds (stage endings are marked by a sign wearing Robotnikís hideously grinning face), with a minimum of 50 rings in your supply, a Sonic-sized ring will appear, denoting the threshold to a special stage.
The special stages are absolutely exquisite, if somewhat problematic. The light, sweet music makes your head swim, as Sonic is placed on a colourful backdrop wallpapered with beautiful birds or fish, while he careens about like a pinball within the singular, rotating, maze-like pinball area, complete with bumpers. Sonic bounces off the walls and bumpers amidst ubiquitous rings, hoping against hope that he doesnít make a wrong spin as the world turns, hoping that he doesnít freefall down one of the 'corridors' that leads to the dreaded red bumper wall that marks a premature end to the stage.
The objective in the special stages is two-fold: to collect enough rings to win a continue, and to find the Chaos Emerald. Though the special stages are not identical (they have subtly differing layouts), the Emerald is invariably at the nucleus of a cluster of crystals that Sonic must contact multiple times to have dissipate, clearing the path for him to procure his treasure. All of this fancy tuck and roll navigation must be performed while the room spins and the possibility of the stage-ending walls looms always just beyond your view. Herein lies the problematic part; while the inherent disorientation aids in creating a feeling of boundlessness, even when the sequences are learned, there will be a dubious measure of luck involved with your success. Should you manage to collect all six Chaos Emeralds, upon finishing the game youíll be privy to a slightly different ending. Since the Chaos Emeralds can only be earned in these special stages, this makes the element of chance that is meshed in with any skilled execution, all the more unwelcome. Fortunately, the problem is ultimately almost a negligible one, as the alternate conclusion to the game itself is quite unspectacular.
From the special stages we shift our attention to the actual levels that comprise Sonicís travels. Regrettably, our boy Sonic is a moody character. What this means is that depending on what mood heís in, his first foray into ring collecting and Robotnik-smashing can be fast and furious, tedious and frustrating, or sparse and simple. Weíll examine Sonic at his very worst, and work our way backwards in the gameís chronology to his higher caliber performances.
The Final Zone depicts a single scene where Sonic must bash Robotnikís ultimate doomsday device, and as such is an anomaly not included in any of the three aforementioned categories of characterization. The music here is the same tune that is utilized when Robotnik makes a stand at the end of each of the previous zones, a truly memorable track that effectively implies something important, something decisive resting in the balance. While this confrontation is certainly not difficult - perhaps being the easiest of the seven - itís likely that youíll sweat as you try to finish him, a reaction that is a testament to the music, as well as the significance of the moment. As before, eight hits will do the mad doctor in.
The gameís penultimate stage is dubbed the Scrap Brain Zone. Itís a steely environment of one-hit-and-youíre dead crushing pistons, trap doors to bottomless death, and flames that seem to spout from the walls at the precise moment when you arrive in their way. The zone doesnít seem right for Sonic. It slows him down incredibly, and makes him too precise and cautious. We are treated to flashes of brilliance, such as when Sonic runs around rotating cogs, eventually assuming his buzz saw shape as things become so fast that your screen seems to shake. He can take flight from a spinning cog at this point, and land on another, like a satellite being tugged away from one planet to another at the mercy of immense gravitational pull. Other than the gear jumping though, area six is a tense, deliberate trek. Realistically, even this, the second hardest area of all, is not very difficult to finish, but to do so unscathed, and with an impressive ring count, is a much different thing. Despite the plodding nature, the Scrap Brain Zone doesnít epitomize the category of tedious and frustrating, which it most certainly belongs to.
That unbecoming distinction belongs solely to area four, Labyrinth Zone. The area represents Sonicís obligatory underwater offering, and it is a beautiful effort. The concepts are a triumph as well; gasping at rising air bubbles to stay alive while your oxygen count runs down, holding onto vertical bars while the strong current hurtles you along amongst ring-upsetting spikes, and finally, taking a terrorized Sonic down a veritable waterslide. Truly, the ingredients were masterfully arrived at, if not assembled. Unfortunately, the finished product is flawed to a degree that all but undermines the quality elements. Itís too slow. Naturally, the water slows the progress of our hero, yet the levels arenít any shorter. What ensues is an arduous, drawn out mission of swim-walking with the utmost care and attention paid to ensuring continuous air intake, as well as the spinning and outreaching spikes. Watch with horror as your air timer warns of imminent drowning as you rush toward the surface and the life-giving air only to have a veiled, swishing spike knock you downward agonizingly slowly to unplumbed depths, and death. This zone is just not fun, even when youíve got it mastered.
The title of the 'sparse and the simple', belongs to the majority of the levels in Sonic the Hedgehog. This does not mean that the levels are not enjoyable; unlike the 'tedious and frustrating' pair, they really are fun to play. The Marble Zone (area two), Spring Yard Zone (area three), and Star Light Zone (area five) are all extremely engaging at times, employing good colours, (especially the sweetly painted purple hues of Marble Zone), and excellent speed. Area two, is very enjoyable and charming, though it might be more at home in Castle of Illusion than it is here. Area three is a demonstration of Sonic as the pinball, above and beyond his similar actions in the special stages. The graphics here are dull, but youíll warm to the prospect of bouncing off springs and bells as you endeavor to avoid a newly introduced spiked shell creature. All three of these zones are exceedingly easy to beat, and to beat well, and while the lack of difficulty is not a serious problem with the first two, Star Light Zone is - for all intents and purposes - the second to last mission! The area seems intent only on its use of Sonic as the star of a loop-de-loop exhibition, providing little risk for the (by now) battle-hardened hero. Despite clever gameplay elements like catapulting seesaws, and diabolically placed exploding enemies, this could very well be the first stage of play. Still, the ease of play notwithstanding, this trio of levels is somewhat of a triumph.
But the real reason to play Sonic the Hedgehog, is the overwhelming and all-consuming charm and sheer pace (to borrow a phrase from an English football commentator) that Green Hill Zone exudes. The fast and the furious Green Hill Zone. Barreling over bright green hills, digging your heels in as you race through lush valleys of green, leaping for coins and coming back down to green earth - this is what the entire game should have been about. Sad that the heights of enjoyment should be reached in Sonicís first mission, sad that gamers should be teased so cruelly, as the roaring velocity of his run, (increased even more with the special speedy shoe icon, and even more while Sonic spins) comes to an abrupt halt with the conclusion of the zone, never to reach such intensity again. If they did colour swaps and changed things around in an attempt to remix Green Hill Zone several times over and packaged the result as Sonic the Hedgehog, you could do worse. It is possible that theyíve done worse, with this, the ultimate product. The music in Green Hill Zone sings to me, a song that beckons us to limitless exploration at a speed that shocks and excites. Truly, this is what the fuss was all about.
So while we donít get seven levels of spirited, unchecked expeditiousness, we get one, and three others that are more than consolation prizes. If the change up that the slow levels hit you with doesnít put a damper on your mood (akin to driving in school zones in North America after a short stint on the Autobahn), you may truly see Sonic as the classic that so many have called it. However, it might be more likely that upon closer inspection, youíll find a speedy, spunky hero creating magic early on, struggling to find it at times, and banished to unfair and unfitting drudgery at times, amounting to an unbalanced, mostly easy, mostly fun adventure. Itís worth buying to touch your feet down - however fleetingly - on those magical Green Hills.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 20, 2003)
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