Gaming has a rich history that spans multiple decades. To this end, The Last Word on Gaming Backlog is a series that looks back on titles across all generations. From the golden 8-bit era to the landscape-changing 64-bit scene and beyond, The LWOG Backlog’s aim is history. This week’s column takes a look at the landmark title of the 16-bit Sega Genesis – the original Sonic the Hedgehog!
Sonic the Hedgehog – Genesis Does
Rewind to the early 1990s, when Nintendo stood as the king of the gaming industry. While this name would persevere over the next several decades, the 90s were incredibly competitive. Several names attempted to overthrow Nintendo and topple its market share. During this time, while most failed, there was one name that succeeded in this venture: Sega. This was due to two factors: the Sega Genesis and arguably its most notable title, Sonic the Hedgehog.
There was an edgy charm to Sonic that Nintendo’s mascot, Mario, lacked. While Mario was safe and welcoming, Sonic was bolder and more in-your-face by comparison. Early commercials featuring the blue hedgehog saw him flash his wily smirk, disrespect authority, and speed off as only he could. However, it was his first title on the Genesis, aptly named Sonic the Hedgehog, that would catapult him into superstar status.
To say that Sega banked on the original Sonic title would be an understatement. In North America, the title was bundled with the Genesis, replacing its previous pack-in title, Altered Beast. This proved to be a solid bet, as it improved the value proposition of the Genesis, making it that much more of a powerhouse against Nintendo’s offerings. Sonic the Hedgehog, developed by Sonic Team and published by Sega, was released on the Genesis in the summer of 1991.
Sonic the Hedgehog tells the story of a blue hedgehog battling an evil doctor seeking incredible power. The nefarious Dr. Ivo Robotnik, later to be known as Dr. Eggman, has set his sights on the Chaos Emeralds. With these, Robotnik will yield unimaginable might. To facilitate this quest, he has imprisoned the animal inhabitants of South Island in robotic shells. Sonic must now free the inhabitants, collect the Chaos Emeralds, thwart Robotnik, and restore peace to South Island.
One of the areas where Sonic the Hedgehog differed from Super Mario Bros. was in its story. Sonic’s goal isn’t to rescue a princess, but instead, liberate the inhabitants of a peaceful island gone awry. With that said, Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t have the deepest narrative, nor should it. After all, the story wasn’t what attracted gamers to Sonic during the 90s. Sonic the Hedgehog had much more to offer, which brings us to…
Sonic the Hedgehog is a platformer that prioritizes speed. This becomes evident in the game’s first area, Green Hill Zone. This was a perfect introduction to Sonic and it became one of the most recognizable levels in the franchise at large. Its usage of long stretches of land for running, in addition to loops for greater emphasis on speed, helped new players realize that Sonic the Hedgehog was a unique beast. Of course, speed is just one aspect of the original game.
Sonic the Hedgehog is still very much a platformer, meaning that defeating enemies and avoiding obstacles will be necessary. One cannot simply hold down the left or right button and hope to achieve victory. The player has to be mindful of their surroundings, slowing down in order to better pay attention. This helps when collecting rings, which can be used to access special stages. By overcoming these rotating stages, Sonic will collect the aforementioned Chaos Emeralds.
However, not all levels are winners. Green Hill Zone, as stated earlier, is a great introduction; it may also be the best zone in the entire game. However, some are less thrilling than others. Case and point, Labyrinth Zone can be monotonous at best and unfair at worst. This zone, which largely takes place underwater, requires the player to be mindful of their air as their movement slows considerably. In an otherwise thrilling platformer, this was a rare misstep.
Presentation (Graphics and Sound)
Another reason the original Sonic the Hedgehog title stood out was its graphical fidelity. The Sega Genesis was known for its “Blast Processing,” a term used to help market the console. However, if any early Genesis title can be used as evidence of its effectiveness, it would be this one. Sonic the Hedgehog’s blistering speed, use of lush colors, and unique environments made it a treat for the eyes back in the 90s. In terms of home console gaming, there was nothing quite like it.
Sonic’s design itself would become iconic as well. The character’s creation is often credited by Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, who worked for Sega as a programmer and artist, respectively. Sonic was designed with an edge in mind, unlike the more family-friendly characters that were prevalent in the gaming world at the time. This came across in the games as well. Little touches, such as Sonic impatiently tapping his foot if left idle, added to his character.
In terms of sound, Sonic the Hedgehog is legendary. It has one of the most well-known soundtracks in all of gaming, starting with the introductory jingle before rolling into the upbeat Green Hill Zone. Each zone has a unique theme, perfectly encapsulating the various environments Sonic traverses. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was composed by Masato Nakamura, who was part of the Japanese pop band known as Dreams Come True. He would also provide the music for this game’s follow-up, Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
The replayability that one receives from Sonic the Hedgehog depends on the specific playthrough. A straight shot from beginning to end will take anywhere from two to three hours for a seasoned gamer. Sonic the Hedgehog is broken up into six main zones, each with three acts; the Final Zone, a showdown with Robotnik, is only a single act in length. Sonic the Hedgehog isn’t a terribly long game, but once the Chaos Emeralds are brought into the fold, things become interesting.
To have a chance to receive a Chaos Emerald, the player must access a special stage. This is done by collecting at least fifty rings in an act before jumping into the giant ring seen near said act’s goal sign. These special stages can be tricky, especially since there are, realistically, only ten opportunities to access them. Keep in mind that collecting all Chaos Emeralds doesn’t provide Sonic with a unique power, as would be the case in future games. However, for completionists, it’s a goal worth pursuing.
Closing Thoughts on Sonic the Hedgehog
Admittedly, the original Sonic the Hedgehog may not be the best game in the series. The ideas it implemented – its sense of speed, the multi-act structure, and others – carried over into other titles and were expanded upon. The main Sonic the Hedgehog series saw a total of three games on the Genesis, though spin-off titles such as Sonic Spinball and Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine existed as well. Sonic was, and still is, a major money-maker for Sega.
It’s also worth noting that the first Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most re-released games of the 16-bit era. This was especially true in compilations, of which Sega produced several. Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega Genesis stands as the console’s landmark title. It helped Sega take over Nintendo’s market share for a period. Sonic the Hedgehog became as integrated into 90s culture as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Saved by the Bell, POGs, Crystal Pepsi, the list goes on. For these reasons, as well as others, the original Sonic the Hedgehog remains legendary.