SONIC THE HEDGEHOG
Platform: Sega Mega Drive / Genesis
Buy on Steam
One of the fundamental problems with the Mega Drive when it first came out was that despite being a much more powerful system than Nintendo's NES, it didn't have any definitive title. Sure, you could argue that Alex Kidd was a good Sega mascot, but he didn't have the same mainstream appearance as Mario. When the Mega Drive first came out, there was no killer app or proper flagship title for the console and Sega pretty much had no choice but to market it as a console for mostly arcade conversions and celebrity-related games such as "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". The closest thing they had was their decent conversion of Altered Beast which came packed with the console in the early days.
However, in 1991, one year after the release of the Mega Drive in Europe, a blue hedgehog would come along to forever cement the Mega Drive's status in mainstream gaming as a cool console and would distance it properly from Nintendo's Mario titles. Sure, Mario's games were fun and great games, but what they lacked was the attitude that Sonic would bring to the table. Adding some much needed "Blast Processing" to the Mega Drive, Sonic would forever be known as the fastest thing alive, showcasing the console's true power.
At first glance, Sonic may appear to be just like any other platformer, very similar to Super Mario. However, once you start playing you begin to notice some really big differences. For one thing, Sonic has more of a focus on speed and the levels are almost designed like semi race tracks, complete with loops and jumps. With the proper skill, you can retain a really high speed throughout most of the levels, although some of the Sonic 1 levels focus more on traditional platforming. This was one of the main features that helped Sonic become a cooler and edgier alternative to Mario, which was often reflected in the ads of the time.
Of course no platformer would be complete without powerups, and Sonic has a few to collect. The power rings scattered about on each level are pretty much your health and gathering them is crucial to completing the game as when you have none of them you die from simply touching an enemy or a hazard. The game does give you a fair chance to recollect some of your rings if you lose them upon touching an enemy or hazard though, so most of the time I didn't find the game too difficult. If you explore the levels you will surely be rewarded with several powerups as well, in the form of breakable computer monitors. The one displaying a ring grants you 10 free powerrings, the one displaying a shield will place a protective forcefield around Sonic which goes away when he gets hit, and the one displaying a picture of Sonic grants you another free try if you should happen to die. There is also a powerup displaying Sonic's shoe, which gives Sonic a temporary turbo boost. If this game was released today, I can just imagine Sonic would down a Red Bull and do the same thing.
The levels are pretty much divided into 3 stages of what the game calls zones, each zone featuring its own theme sort of, and the design ranges from resembling race tracks to more oldschool platforming levels where patience and proper timing is more rewarded than just blazing through the level at top speed. In fact, I spent most of my time just exploring the levels to get as many power rings and powerups as possible, because if you get over 100 rings, not only are you rewarded with a 1up, you also get to play a bonus stage. These bonus stages are a bit tricky to play but pretty much just act as challenges to obtain chaos emeralds. Collecting all of the emeralds grants you a special ending, which I haven't unlocked btw so respect to anyone who has the skills to. Boss fights with Dr. Robotnik occurs at the end of each zone, and are usually not that difficult to complete. The final boss fight however took me quite a few tries to finish, mostly due to the fact you have no power rings during the fight, which pretty much means you'll die if any hazard touches you.
Overall, Sonic still has great, simple and tight controls, and it's a game you can pretty much just pick up and play any time. Though the control pad has 3 buttons, the game pretty much expects you to be able to move and jump, so it's dead simple and anyone from ages 3-99 should be able to enjoy this game for its simplicity. There is no way to save the game, though there is a level selection screen you can bring forth by pressing Up, Down, Left, Right then A+Start, which helped me a lot during the playthrough as I didn't have to pause the console or anything to continue from where I left off. Later games would incorporate save features thankfully.
Sonic the Hedgehog, of course being on the 16bit Mega Drive, is a very colourful game, and makes great use of the console's vast colour palette. Somehow they manage to get every single colour into every level without making it seem unnatural and the graphics all have a coherent style too that pretty much is put into every aspect of the level and character design. Especially Sonic seems to be modeled to look as aerodynamic as possible, keeping with his attitude and speed. The 6 different zones in the game all have their own theme and feel going, and you'll rarely see enemies from one area in the next, with a few exceptions. The contrast between Green Hill Zone's vast green and brown overworld tones contrast greatly with the deep caverns of Marble Zone and the great underwater sections of Labyrinth Zone. The final section, Scrap Brain Zone is probably my favourite due to its industrial roboticized nature, as this level is where Robotnik has the biggest influence. It's a game that is very easy on the eyes and I could easily play through it in one sitting. In my opinion, Sonic the Hedgehog looks as good today as it did back in 1991.
Sonic the Hedgehog definitely features some of the best sound available on the Mega Drive. The music is catchy without being annoying and has a lot of great hooks and melodies that surely will have you coming back just to hear them. Just the Green Hill Zone music that pretty much comes up on the first level itself is legendary among gamers for a reason. Both the arcade-ish sound effects and great musical score of the game showcase the console's excellent sound chip, which believe it or not was capable of some limited sampling for its time, similar to the SNES. The sound is in glorious stereo even, which you can enjoy if you own an original model 1 Mega Drive or play one of the re-releases of the game on modern systems.
Here are some standout tunes from the game. Please note that on my European Mega Drive version of the game, these tunes play about 20% slower than the original versions due to the PAL standard.
Sonic the Hedgehog is a true 16bit classic that surely will live on for decades upon decades to come. It is also one of the most available games on the system, and not only can you find it very cheap on ebay, even complete in box, it is also released on a pletora of other systems, including PC, Wii, PS3 and XBox 360, so there really isn't much of an excuse to not play this gem. In some aspects I even prefer it to Super Mario 3 and Super Mario World due to its simplicity and great design, and not to mention the great music, but I love both of them equally.
I give it a PERFECT score: 10 out of 10 power rings!