Sonic The Hedgehog is a fast paced platformer released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Sonic as a character at the time was a mascot for Sega as a company and was in direct competition to Nintendo’s Mario. These two characters offered one of the finest rivalries in video game history.
When Sonic was released, it released to widespread critical acclaim for revolutionising the platforming genre and for offering something different compared to Mario. Many reviewers at the time felt that Sonic was more fast paced and had a feeling of momentum compared to the slow, methodical and more traditional platforming style that Mario offered.
To give a bit of video gaming history of Sega as a company, they started their gaming life by releasing the Sega SG-1000 in 1983 and a Japanese exclusive. This console was released in direct competition to Atari’s 2600 console and sold fairly well, but nowhere near the success of the Atari 2600. The SG-1000 was also released the exact same day in July 1983 as Nintendo’s NES console, which at the time was a far superior console both in terms of support for the console and also quality of the console’s processor.
2 years later, Sega released the Sega Master System, which was a direct competitor to the NES console. The Master System was much more powerful than the SG-1000 and the games were much more advanced and more complex compared to the simplistic nature of the games the SG-1000 offered. However, there was one major flaw with the Master System and it was due to the way Nintendo behaved in terms of 3rd party developers.
Companies who developed 3rd party games for Nintendo weren’t allowed to develop games for other consoles, therefore restricting the amount of 3rd party companies that could develop for the Master System. At this point in time, Nintendo held what would be close to a monopoly in terms of 3rd party development for the NES, which harmed the Master System’s library quite severely, as a large majority of games developed for the Master System was developed in house.
The Master System, sold poorly in Japan, moderately in the USA, but very well in Europe. The main reason why the Master System sold so well in Europe, was because the problems the NES had during the first 2 years of it’s release in Europe. So, the NES was distributed by multiple different companies in the UK and Europe, which meant that there were multiple different versions of the NES. The games were distributed by different companies as well and would only work if the game and the console were from the same distributor. What this caused was a huge amount of confusion and many occasions where games wouldn’t work at all due to the mismatch of consoles and games made and distributed by different companies. However, the Master System was distributed by one company, Mastertronic in Europe. The Master System had a good amount of well received games, but it’s small library really affected sales. Worldwide the NES sold 6x as many consoles as the Master System.
During the era of the Master System, Sega tried to establish a mascot for the console, similar to Mario for Nintendo. The main character that Sega pushed was a character called Alex Kidd. There were a couple of well received games in the Alex Kidd franchise, such as Alex Kidd in Shinobi World and Alex Kidd in Miracle world. However, Sega still couldn’t recreate the amount of success that Nintendo had with Mario and eventually Alex Kidd in Shinobi World released in 1990 was the final game to feature Alex Kidd. It wouldn’t be until Sonic The Hedgehog was released in 1991 that Sega found their permanent mascot.
The story of Sonic, is that the evil Dr. Robotnik is turning all the animals of South Island into robots, which Robotnik would harness their energy for a new type of energy. Robotnik whilst doing this tried to steal the 6 Chaos Emerald, which would give the ultimate power to control the world. It is up to Sonic to save the animals of South Island, collect the 6 Chaos Emerald and stop Dr Robotnik. I think the story of this game is simple enough to grasp, which makes the game very accessible for anyone of any age. This accessibility means that even players who pick up the game today can understand the premise of the game easily without feeling that the plot is dated.
Gameplay And Difficulty
Sonic the Hedgehog is a platformer game, but not the typical playformer. Compared to other games which slow, methodical gameplay is the order of the day, Sonic’s gameplay is much more high paced and more about going as fast as you possibly can. However, it is not just the fact that Sonic moves so fast across the screen, it is the feeling of momentum that Sonic offers, which is very satisfying. Sonic doesn’t just reach his peak speed immediately, it takes a couple of seconds for Sonic to accelerate to his fastest running sound. Also, if you roll into a ball by pressing down on the D-pad whilst Sonic is going downhill or around a Loop, Sonic goes even faster than his running speed.
The controls in this game are stunning. A B and C on the controller are all jump buttons, however, compared to Sonic 2 you can’t rev up a spin dash, which if you go from Sonic 2 to Sonic 1 it definitely feels different. The most impressive thing about the controls is how responsive they are. If you hold the jump buttons then Sonic will jump as far as he possible can, but only press jump for a short period of time, then the jump distance and height are adjusted to how long you pressed or held the button for. What this allows for is very precise control of Sonic, but also a feeling of being in absolute control rather than partial control. If the controls weren’t as responsive or as precise as they are, then the game would suffer because the character would feel uncontrollable and potentially clunky.
The game’s difficulty spike is very interesting. Green Hill Zone is quite a good introduction to the game and gives the player a chance to learn the controls and understand the mechanics. The level overall has a lot of space and not too many enemies. However, Marble Zone spikes the difficulty very quickly as there is a lot of precise platforming required. I personally feel that Marble Zone is a bit too difficult for this early in the game. I feel that the next zone Spring Yard Zone would have worked better as it is easier compared to Marble Zone, but it allows players to hone the mechanics they learnt in Green Hill better. Spring Yard Zone I find somewhat easier compared to Marble, even though the enemies are somewhat annoying and tend to appear out of nowhere behind you.
Labyrinth Zone definitely feels somewhat out of place difficulty wise. The underwater mechanics within the zone, makes the stages very difficult and also the fact that the game lags underwater, makes this particular zone unforgiving. This zone would be more suited to the second to last zone rather than the zone that is, which is Star Light Zone. I find Star Light Zone to be one of the easiest zone apart from Green Hill. I feel that Star Light Zone before the final and most brutal zone Scrap Brain Zone to be a problem because you feel that you have seen the worst that the game could possible throw at you, then Scrap Brain Zone is a massive slap in the face. The zone is very difficult and there are many ways that you can lose lives quickly due to the unforgiving level design and generally difficult platforming.
The Zone order in my opinion should have been Green Hill Zone, Star Light Zone, Spring Yard Zone, Marble Zone, Labyrinth Zone and then Scrap Brain Zone. The reason why I would have put the zones in this order is because the difficulty wouldn’t spike out as much as the order they were put in. Also, this order would feel like a natural progression from easiest to hardest, especially with the difficult laggy underwater mechanics like arise during Labyrinth Zone. However, this doesn’t hinder the game at all, as at the end of the day the zone order is just my preference.
Sonic The Hedgehog’s graphics are absolutely timeless. Even though the game is now 25 years old now, the game hasn’t aged one bit. The colour palette used throughout the game give each zone their own distinctive feel and mood. So for example, Green Hill Zone is bright and vibrant, but not so bright that it would burn your retinas from your eyeballs. Star Light Zone is simplistic in terms of background, but effective in portraying the fact that you are in space and there is not much out there. Scrap Brain has a feeling of machine controlling everything, with moving gears and grey backgrounds, perfectly portraying the feeling of an automated factory.
The sprites of the enemies are well designed and have lots of variety, including some zones have enemies exclusive to those particular zones. For example, the mechanical fish enemies show up only in Labyrinth Zone and mechanical bouncing pigs only show up in Scrap Brain. Also Sonic’s sprite is very well detailed and it is the small things that mean a lot in this case. if you don’t move Sonic for a few seconds, he will turn and look at you tapping his feet waiting for you to touch the controller, then if you still don’t he will lay down and look at the watch on his hand. This small detail has stuck with me since I was a child.
Music and Audio
The music in this game in my opinion is some of the best video game music to have ever been composed. It was composed by Masato Nakamura, who at the time was a bass guitarist for a Japanese Pop group called Dreams Come True. The way Masato was announced as composer was by Sonic being painted on the side of Masato’s band’s tour bus. If I was older when I heard this information, I would have been quite concerned, as Masato had no previous experience composing music for games, even though he had done some music for Japanese advertising.
However, Masato as Sega’s choice of composer for Sonic 1 was perhaps one of the best choices. Even though compared to the more developed soundtrack that Sonic 2 offered, the music for Sonic 1 is still very memorable and familiar.
Green Hill Zone is a fantastic piece of music, which really shows off the musical capabilities of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive sound chip. The music also is a great example of the sort of music that Masato had composed with his pop group, as there are many elements of the pop sound. Throughout the composition, there are multiple layers, which are easy to single out and hear, whether it be the really famous melody, the synth string sound which accompanies the melody or the driving drum beat. There are so many layers to this piece, which makes it as famous today as it was back then.
Marble Zone is very different in contrast to Green Hill. The 2 second intro before the music starts coincides very well with the screen, which shows the player the stage they are about to start. There is a melodic bassline underneath the core melody, which coincides the melodic progression of the higher pitch instruments. The melody is split into 2 parts, where the first 3 bars of a 4 bar section are constant, but the final bar bridges between the first 3 bars and the next 4 bars. I do feel however, that Marble Zone is perhaps my least favourite even though I still really like it.
Spring Yard Zone stands out a lot on this soundtrack, as it feels more than a pop song then a song for a video game. However, the way that Masato composed it, it feels very at home with the bright and vivid colours of the zone. It almost feels like the music was composed with the purples but also the slot machine feel that the level offers. My favourite part of the composition is the contrasting melodies between the first and second parts of the composition. There is 1 bar of drum beat which bridges this 2 sections. The second half of the song has a melodic line which sounds like different tonalities of the ring pick up sound. The bassline is fantastic and mixed more loudly compared to the two previous zones, but I feel it works wonderfully alongside the drum beat, as it offers a contrast so that the melodies can shine.
Labyrinth Zone is my second favourite piece on this soundtrack. The complexity in terms of layering and length compared to Spring Yard and Green Hill Zone is much simpler and shorter, but there is a good reason. Labyrinth Zone is the zone with the famous drowning music, which was a staple of the 16-bit Sonic games. The bassline in this piece in terms of volume is matching that of the melodies, but the bassline has some longer notes and doesn’t have as much of a slap bass feel compared to the previous songs. The first melody is very simple and easy to listen to, but the second half of the track has 2 higher pitched melodies which compensate each other well. The drum beat in this track is very impressive, as the beat there is more than just bass drum and snare, there is a good amount of hi-hat throughout. The drum beat feels a lot more developed than Marble Zone, where I felt the drum beat was really simple.
Star Light Zone is my 3rd favourite piece of this soundtrack. The main reason why I love this theme so much is that it encapsulates the feeling of night time and also the spacious and almost mysterious world of the sky at night. The mixing of the track is spot on as the bass isn’t as loud as Labyrinth Zone, and it allows the melody and simply, yet effective Hi-hat sound to breathe. The track does feel quite spacious, but not so spacious that you feel like there is something missing. The only criticism I have of this track is that the first section repeats twice before more musical development happens, so after a while it does feel a little bit repetitive.
Scrap Brain Zone is by far and away my favourite composition on this soundtrack. This song is very gritty and quite dark in terms of atmosphere as it is the final zone where you eventually have a showdown with Dr Robotnik. The layering of this composition is very thick with a lot happening. The drum beat is extremely well developed and very impactful alongside the bassline, which is very busy almost installing the sense of panic and difficulty that this zone offers. The main reason why I love this theme so much is the panning used. There are 3 melodies playing in the second part of the theme, one in the centre and then one on either side left and right speaker. This level of complexity in the composition really works alongside the pure difficulty of the stage. Even though the first section repeats a second time before the bridge, there are more elements added to it which makes sure it doesn’t sound recycled. The composition is also 3 times as long as any other composition on the soundtrack, which considering the complexity I felt was the right length because if it was shorter, it would have felt too repetitive.
And finally, the boss themes sadly aren’t too memorable compared to Sonic 2. The themes are very short and very simple, which makes them sound very repetitive. But overall, the soundtrack still holds up very well today.
So is Sonic The Hedgehog still as fun to play today then when it first came out in 1991? There is one very obvious answer to this question and it is YES. This game is an absolute masterpiece and a testament to how to make a new idea for a game work. The mechanics and controls are tight, the music is mostly memorable and the game is easily to just pick up and play. The availability of this game on everything from Sonic Mega Collection to an iPad version, you owe it to yourself to experience this amazing piece of gaming history. This game really added a new dimension to platformers and really showed that the genre didn’t need to slow and methodical, but can be an absolute blast to play for all the family.
Copyright ©2016 Liam Piper. All Images Used Under Fair Use