Retro: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

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Originally released on the Sega Mega Drive in 1991, Sonic The Hedgehog marked the beginning of a series of video games that would spawn a huge fan base, as well as create a mascot and figurehead for Sega that jostled for superiority with Nintendo’s own mascot, Mario. As the years went on Mario’s popularity stayed high whilst Sonic – and the quality of his games – declined and entered a deep spiral of bad, forgettable titles and irritating characters. But let’s overlook that and concentrate on the game that started it all.

I first played the original Sonic The Hedgehog very recently and I was astounded by it’s quality. I had played a bit of Sonic Heroes (2004) recently and the experience left me thoroughly unimpressed. But the original has a few things that more modern Sonic games lack, above all of which is fluid control. In a platform game control is incredibly important as a poor system sees you tumble into pits and death traps, not because of your own mistakes, but simple stiffness. In Sonic the Hedgehog the control is just right and by holding Up or Down on the d-pad you can move the screen in that direction, allowing you to see things off screen to avoid ‘Leap of Faith’ game-play and cheap deaths.

Also deserving of a mention is the speed of the game-play and this is where the game separates itself from other 2D platformers. Sonic can move fast and I often find myself trying to keep going fast for as long as possible. It feels damn good to blaze through the levels at speed as you do get a higher score for finishing the level quicker, although score means nothing so really it’s just a self-gratifying process. On top of the stellar control, the level design is excellent, with a wide variety of enemies and multiple ways to complete each level. The music is also brilliant; each Zone has it’s own score that is catchy and pleasant which you will grow to appreciate the more you play through each Zone.

However, there are a few problems with Sonic, even if they are dwarfed by the games good points. The main problem is that this game is hard. Each level individually is not particularly difficult, and there aren’t even a lot of them; there are seven Zones with three ‘Acts’ (levels) in each one, with the final Zone being the boss fight. So this is not the longest game either, so why exactly is it hard? This can be summed up with one phrase; three lives, no continues. When you press the ‘Start’ button you have three lives and if you lose them it’s back to the start of the first level. While there are power ups along the way, and secret stages can be used to earn continues, it doesn’t change the fact that you will be playing Green Hill Zone, Act 1 a lot. On top of this, most levels are initially hard due to the sheer quantity of sneaky traps that are not immediately obvious, resulting in a frustrating death. Despite this classic ‘old school’ difficulty, this game is good, plain and simple. After you learn your lesson about caution, it’s a game that is fun and challenging, something that outweighs the occasional frustrations.

Overall, Sonic the Hedgehog reminds me of a simpler time. The game is basic and yet provides equal, if not superior, amounts of fun in comparison with some modern games. In fact, in comparison today’s games seem bloated and unwieldy; when was the last time you got to gameplay thirty seconds after turning on your system? There’s no Digital Rights Management, no Downloadable Content and no tacked-on Multiplayer. This game creates a euphoria of 2D platforming and it’s simplicity only improves it. Maybe this is something that game developers today would do well to remember.

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I was born in Leeds in 1993 and moved to Southampton to study History at the University of Southampton in 2011. I've always enjoyed writing and critiquing but always seem to draw a blank when filling in biographical information.

1 Comment

  1. avatar

    The difficulty of the original Sonic is what made it so much fun. The amount of times as a kid I, as you say, had to go back to Green Hill after dying on the final boss (NO RINGS!) was amazing, and it made it so fun! I guess it’s different when you’re playing it at our age for the first time…

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