Sonic's 30th anniversary: Sonic the Hedgehog

The original Sonic isn't as fast as you might remember, but that design is what made it work so well both 30 years ago and now.

On June 23, 2021, Sonic the Hedgehog turns 30 years old. I’ll be spending the week looking back at some of Sonic’s finest outings across those 30 years, one from each era of the anthropomorphic hedgehog’s existence. First up, his debut title on the Sega Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog.

A fun thing you might not know about the release of the original Sonic the Hedgehog game is that it arrived in North America first. Given Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 3 didn’t arrive in North America for nearly a year-and-a-half after its Japanese release, this was a stunning move at the time: after all, Sega, like Nintendo, was based in Japan, and games tended to release there first, then be localized for release elsewhere, if they were localized at all. The entire development of Sonic and the first game starring him was aimed at challenging the supremacy of Mario and Nintendo, however, and Sega believed the key to doing so was to topple him in the much larger American market. So, that’s where Sonic’s first game initially landed.

This was no easy task, and not the kind of thing a single game could do on its own. Sega’s previous console, the Master System, never really gained a foothold in either North America or Japan, thanks to the licensing agreements Nintendo had with third parties in those territories. The short of it was that, in order to get your game onto the NES/Famicom, the most successful home console going, third parties had to agree to contracts stating their games would be system exclusives. Those agreements were region-based, though, so the Master System actually did well in some significant territories, like Europe and Brazil, even if its presence in its home territory and North America were nonexistent. There is nothing wrong with the Master System’s library, even with it being limited in key markets, but it was obvious that Sega was going to need to prove they had a console worth putting third-party games on before publishers agreed to sign exclusivity deals with Nintendo. And that’s where Sonic came in.

Sega didn’t lack for mascots of their own, of course, given their extensive arcade background and the likes of Alex Kidd and Shinobi, but even with internal series like those two, Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone, and so on, they didn’t have anything that rivaled Mario at what it did best, which was a kind of dazzling, attractive simplicity. Mario games weren’t outright easy or anything, far from it, but they were easy to pick up and play, to see the appeal of, to be hooked on. Sega was excellent at creating more complex arcade-oriented titles that had real value on the first and fifteenth playthrough, but they had yet to earn the kind of recognition Nintendo had with Mario. So, in order to dazzle more, they developed — with a team led by Yuji Naka — a platformer inspired in some ways by that pick-up-and-play, hidden depth nature of Mario games, but faster. Much faster.

Sonic the Hedgehog, at the time, was unrivaled in its speed. These days, it plays much slower, in part because the industry has had 30 years to be influenced by Sonic in the same way Sonic was influenced by Mario’s evolution of what a platformer could be, but I find that allows for the real star of this game to shine. There are some real moments of speed that pay off successfully, especially in the game’s initial, sprawling, Green Hill Zone, but the debut game for Sonic is generally slower than you might remember, and how GHZ portrays it. Given how many Sonic games that followed would take too much control out of the player’s hands in order to go fast, faster, and fastest, with you spending more time watching those moments than playing them, this comparatively slower pace of play is actually appreciated because of what else it allows to exist within. Sonic the Hedgehog is a platformer that benefits from exploration, from taking your time to find its hidden secrets and paths and items, of being played again and again until you can successfully master its special stages to collect the six Chaos Emeralds and see the game’s real ending.

There are so many challenging jumps in this game, that require both timing and an understanding of what Sonic is capable of. There are so many paths and hidden rings, power-ups, extra lives, and so on that you’ll miss if you try running through the whole game. And the balance of enemies laying in wait for Sonic to crash into them when he’s speeding along is more in line with some of the better-balanced later outings in the franchise’s history, rather than the more frustrating rate found in some of those more middle titles, when the game was designed to have you go as fast as possible but did everything it could (camera issues, enemies) to interrupt both the flow of things and your enjoyment of them. It’s really expertly designed, even if it’s very much the Super Mario Bros. equivalent for the Sonic series, in that things would expand in scope and speed and challenge as Sega built on their original ideas for the character and his world.

There is an argument to be made that the original Sonic the Hedgehog is a better game than the much more beloved Sonic the Hedgehog 2.* I’m not about to make that argument myself, even if I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit in the lead up to this little birthday soiree, but I at least buy into the existence of it, thanks to the vast differences in design between the two and acknowledgement that one could prefer one to the other. Sonic the Hedgehog’s level design is so tight, everything about it so deliberate and placed in a way where it is obvious you are meant to both intuit and learn from it, that it just feels tremendous to play whether you’re speeding through a loop-de-loop or dodging fireballs and bats while attempting to keep your balance on a small platform hovering over lava. The health system is so well done that Sega just kept the thing from that point forward: you’re safe so long as you’ve got at least one ring, but you don’t want to be reckless with your rings and safety, or else you won’t be able to enter the special stages to earn the Chaos Emeralds at the end of a zone, as you need at least 50 for the entrance to appear. Sonic the Hedgehog is an easy game to beat, but a difficult one to master, which is the kind of thing that helped Mario take off with the masses, too. Mission accomplished, in that regard.

*I respect the author of Retro Sanctuary’s top 100 Sega Genesis games list for ranking Sonic 2 at number 61 and the original at 20, especially since (1) I can empathize as a person who did not rank Super Mario World on my Nintendo top 101 and (2) I am the kind of person who had to write individual essays on each and every game I ranked on that list to try to justify whatever bonkers takes I had. They just threw the gauntlet down in a single paragraph and said to fight them about it. True courage.

The emphasis on platforming and exploration over speed might actually be a turnoff to some who grew up during a much different era of Sonic, but, outside of what the Rush and DS edition of Colors managed, this more deliberate nature of Sonic is maybe my favorite. One of the reasons Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles is so wondrous is that it managed to combine the elements of speed from 2 with the platforming and exploration emphasis of the original, into a game that was less frustrating than 2 with more to see and do than the inaugural Sonic. Sonic CD, similarly, managed to expand more on the ideas of branching pathways and rewarding exploration by introducing difficult platforming. It’s pretty easy to argue that both 3/Knuckles and CD were more inspired by the original Sonic than by its direct sequel, and that part of the reason many of the 3D games falter is because they went the opposite route. Like I said, I understand the argument that the original is better than 2, even if I’m not sure I agree.

Regardless of which you prefer, we can agree that the soundtrack to Sonic the Hedgehog is excellent. The Genesis, at times, seemed a little limiting with the way its audio worked (maybe most notable with some ports from systems with superior audio capabilities), but Sega’s own programmers and composers knew how to get the most out of that machine. Masato Nakamura’s soundtrack for both the original and 2 hold up, and the sound effects remain as charming as ever, too:

The Genesis produced such a different sound than the third-generation consoles before it, especially the chiptune-originating NES and Famicom, and in the wrong hands, it could be an uneven mess. When someone who knew what they were doing was programming music and sounds for it, though, well, you get the kinds of classic themes that Sonic Team so expertly managed in not just Sonic games, but in Phantasy Star, you get the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack, and so on. Really, that all fits with the Sonic origin story, too: Sega had to show the rest of the industry what the Genesis could do, by handling it themselves first. Once other developers and publishers knew what the Genesis was capable of, well, that’s how you got Nintendo actually a bit nervous about the direction things were trending by the mid-90s.

There is a real irony at work with Sonic, in the sense that he was created with the idea of defeating Mario —hell, according to The History of Sonic the Hedgehog, the initial codename for this game was “Defeat Mario” — and instead found that Mario’s home was one of the best places for Sonic games to exist. Sega is remastering Sonic Colors for modern-day consoles, and they chose the previously Nintendo-exclusive outing for a reason: it’s the best fully original Sonic game that’s released since the blue hedgehog made the jump from the Dreamcast to Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance and the Sonic Advance trilogy. Since at least that time. And Sega is on the record as stating that it was this desire to capture some of what Nintendo managed to capture within their own audience that drove the design direction of Sonic Colors. The definitive version of Sonic Adventure 2 is found on the GameCube, as is the director’s cut version of the first Sonic Adventure. While 3D home console games from Sonic Heroes onward were being universally panned, a pair of Sonic Rush titles released for the Nintendo DS kept Sonic’s relevance and idea that he could still be worthwhile very much alive.

Sonic (and other classic Sega characters) drawn by Pokémon artist Ken Sugimori, for the Sega 3D Classics Collection on the Nintendo 3DS

And, saved last for dramatic effect: the definitive version of the original Sonic the Hedgehog released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2016, as part of the Sega 3D Classics Collection. It’s not just that it has save and load states, that it lets you choose whether to play classic Sonic without the ability to boost from a stopped position that was a basic part of his games from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 onward. The 3D effect was put to fantastic use by Sega in all of their re-releases of classic outings, and the original Sonic the Hedgehog is no different. It’s the best-looking version going thanks to the way the stereoscopic 3D makes those Genesis-powered 2D backgrounds really pop, and since there are no weird tradeoffs or dips in quality for the gameplay itself — the 3DS has just a tad more horsepower than a fourth-generation console, and this collection was developed by masters of porting and emulation, M2 — Sonic the Hedgehog 3D went from a game I was confused about existing to one where all of my questions were answered in a hurry.

It also speaks to the design of the original Sonic the Hedgehog that I can pick up a re-release of it 25 years later that has optional quality-of-life improvements like 3D graphics and the ability to save your progress, and no meaningful changes to the actual gameplay, and still be hooked. There are more modern Sonic games I don’t even want to admit exist because of how awful they are, but the original Sonic the Hedgehog absolutely nailed the character’s introduction to the world. It’s not the greatest Sonic going, but it’s a delight to play 30 years later. And at a time when the announcement of a new Sonic outing is met with something in between intrigue and dread, that’s no small thing.

Regardless of what Sega’s fate in the console market ended up being, Sonic the Hedgehog did position them to take on Nintendo directly instead of being just another console trailing behind the Big N’s. Sega had its challenger to Mario in Sonic, and with that kind of cache and potential came more third parties willing to put their games on Sega’s hardware instead of Nintendo’s, which in turn loosened Nintendo’s grip on their demands for exclusivity, forcing them to look inward in the same way Sega had done in order to grab their share of the market. Sega’s time near the top in the console wars was brief, for sure, but none of that would have been possible without Sonic the Hedgehog, and the existence of that series certainly helped in the company’s transition from console manufacturer and developer to third-party dev and publisher. A role in which they’ve now thrived in for longer than they were in the console business in the first place.

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