The thing about a countdown of Sonic the Hedgehog games is that there is admittedly, quite a number of average titles to sift through before we get to the good stuff. However now we’ve gotten past the bottom titles we can start to look a little more positively at this franchise.
9. Sonic Heroes (2003) – GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2
Sonic Heroes is quite a unique entry in the main Sonic franchise. Somewhat expanding on the whole Sonic & Tails combination in the Mega Drive era, this time we could control three characters at once whose abilities covered Speed, Flight and Power. This setup was spread over four different teams meaning overall there were twelve playable characters at hand, each one playing slightly different to another. Thankfully however, they all adhered to the same core gameplay mechanics rather than frittering off into different and underwhelming territory. Yet despite the team based gameplay making Sonic Heroes stand out on paper, it seems quite forgettable when stood next to other entries in the franchise.
This is perhaps due largely to the framework of the main campaign. There are four teams to control however each one tackles the exact same level in the exact same order, with the only fundamental difference between them being difficulty. Team Rose, Team Sonic and Team Dark make up Easy, Medium and Hard respectively, however we still had to complete each campaign individually to unlock the final boss. Like Sonic Adventure it seemed like we were being asked to repeat levels simply to extend the life of the game rather than because there was any new experiences to be had by doing so. Even the fourth team’s (Team Chaotix’s) mission based stages don’t do enough to feel the extra campaign worthwhile, when optional side quests could have sufficed. This is also coupled with the fact that the game is plagued by bottomless pit syndrome adding a false sense of difficulty to the overall experience. Thus after playing through the same campaign four times, it become hard to get excited about Metal Sonic’s triumphant return at the game’s dramatic conclusion.
At least the one thing Sonic Heroes can rely on is the stellar writing, which definitely shows Sonic at his coolest…
Sonic’s first appearance on multi platforms did it’s best to bring a generation back to the blue blur’s exploits and thankfully really succeeded on that front. The levels are very reminiscent of the classic Mega Drive games and the return of Special Stages was a grateful addtion. But while Sonic Heroes is an interesting step in Sonic’s career, it’s an adventure that’s neither bad nor great enough to speak strongly of in any sense. It should be noted though that the best version of the game is the GameCube one. I’ve played it on PlayStation 2 and GameCube and the former is a glitchy nightmare that’s almost unplayable, whereas the latter (the console it was developed for) performs without any problems at all. If anyone is thinking about picking this game up again, definitely get the GameCube version, otherwise it’s not worthwhile.
8. Sonic Lost World (2013) – Wii U
Next up, we move onto the Hedgehog’s most recent title, Sonic Lost World. This game’s most noticeable quality is its earnest attempt to be a complete and enjoyable modern day Sonic the Hedgehog experience. With a not so subtle nod to Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic and Tails venture onto the Lost World where spherical land masses are the norm. But despite the new setting the classic level themes are back and some even combined (such as snow and casino themes) to create a more interesting palette. Cartoon Badniks new and old return as general enemies and most importantly there’s only one character we can control; Sonic. Not Hedgehog and Werehog or Classic and Modern , just Sonic through and through (although he does have access to the Wisp Colour Powers from Sonic Colours). The plot too feels like a step in the right direction; it doesn’t take itself seriously and in fact at times the goofy renditions of Sonic and Eggman are more endearing than we’ve seen them in years. Even the main antagonists, the Deadly Six, seem appropriate villains, dancing between threatening and laughable nicely enough to feel like natural cast members alongside the veterans. So earnest is Sonic Lost World to give us a whole Sonic the Hedgehog game that we almost believe it’s fantastic… Almost.
Everything the game does right does nothing to alleviate the fact it betrays one hugely important aspect of Sonic the Hedgehog, his trademark speed. For the first time ever if we wanted Sonic to run, we’d have to hold a button down to make him do so, and if we wanted him to run top speed, we’d have to hold a second button down simultaneously. And even then, he runs nowhere near as fast as he has in previous titles. What we’re left with then is a game that’s actually pretty decent overall, but it doesn’t feel like a Sonic game. It’s more akin to a standard platform adventure. Believe me, I would love to talk about Sonic Lost World with nothing but praise, but it’s just not the Sonic title we had wanted or expected. I guess it’s greatest failing really is instead of following up on the success of Sonic Generations, it tries to reinvent the franchise once more, which was something we just didn’t want to happen again.
This Time Attack video demonstates how strangely slow Sonic moves. I don’t think we’ll be running faster than the camera in this game… But isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?
In the long run, Sonic Lost World will probably be the most forgotten entry on this list; like Sonic Heroes it’s unlikely anyone will have much to say on it once more time has passed, especially considering it’s a Wii U exclusive. But it’s a game that tries hard and shows that Sega does still care about Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s just they’re still not quite sure where to go with him. Whether the next entry will be taking some lessons from Sonic Lost World remains to be seen, but it’d certainly be wrong to dismiss this entry entirely. It definitely has a lot of heart.
7. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001) – Dreamcast
Sonic’s 10th anniversary game also happens to be the last Sega would release on their own home consoles before they dropped out of the market altogether. It also happens to be the first Sonic game to appear on another major home console (a Nintendo one at that), ushering in a new era for Sonic and friends. It’s a dramatic adventure and while it’s certainly not perfect, when it’s doing what it does best it’s still quite enjoyable to play. The core campaign is split into two storylines focusing on three gameplay styles, all of which originated in Sonic Adventure. We have Emerald hunting with Knuckles and Rouge, a sort of rail shooter with Tails and Eggman (based on the former E-102 Gamma stages) and speedy action stages with Sonic and Shadow. Each one feels much more fleshed out this time around and because of this they are more enjoyable than in the previous adventure. Even then though the Emerald stages get tiresome very quickly and the shooter levels can feel somewhat monotonous, meaning ultimately two thirds of the game is comes out average. But the other third really pulls it back from the realms of mediocrity.
Sonic’s and new hedgehog, Shadow’s, levels really shine here. They’re fast paced and the many mechanics picked up along the way only add to that, to the point where the stages demand a certain rhythm of play which can be addictive and rewarding to accomplish. It’s this aspect of the stages that seems almost a precursor to the stages seen since Sonic Unleashed; this roller coaster kind of platformer that pumps adrenaline through the player as they Light Dash, rail grind and bounce their way to the highest ranks possible.
However it’s not simply this gameplay that works in Sonic Adventure 2’s favour. The mini game Chao Gardens are fleshed out a lot more than in the original Sonic Adventure and while the mini games inside them aren’t the most inspired it’s still a nice distraction to have that doesn’t interfere with the main game whatsoever. Plus the story in this game is actually pretty good, with memorable set pieces like Sonic’s escape from the G.U.N. Chopper, the Space Colony ARK destroying half the moon and Maria Robotnik’s tragic death. Sure many may not care for Shadow the Hedgehog today, but his supposed death at the end here is quite a touching moment, an impressive feat in a game littered with giant, brightly coloured animals.
Sonic Adventure 2 improves on the original in almost every way, and while two of the three gameplay styles it offers are somewhat average, the main action stages are still some of the best Sonic has to offer since moving to 3D. The overall package manages to hold up quite well and with Sonic taking a more light-hearted approach today, it will perhaps remain the best storyline in the whole franchise. True we may be forgiving Sonic Adventure 2’s shortcomings more easily than others in the franchise but when the game gets it right, it sure is a lot of fun to play.
6. Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993) – Mega CD
So we’ve finally made it to the golden years of Sonic the Hedgehog, his untouchable Mega Drive days that are still as beloved as they were over 20 years ago. However in between Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, there is the often overlooked Sonic CD which released on Sega’s short lived Mega CD add-on. This is an odd title when standing next to its brethren, and in many ways is a game of much larger scope the others. Each stage has four entirely different layouts thanks to the game’s main gimmick, time travel. When we rushed past certain time posts throughout each level Sonic would speed through time to either the past or future, with everything from layout to the music changing each time. Furthermore there were two futures to explore, a bad one where Eggman’s reign was unopposed and a good one where the planet thrived as a peaceful paradise. This is joined by wonderfully animated cutscenes, an extensive soundtrack and the introduction of one of Sonic’s most iconic adversary, Metal Sonic, which all wrap this adventure up as a great triumph.
Yet we’re on number 6 of this countdown, why doesn’t this game rank higher on the list? For starters the time travel mechanic comes with a catch, Sonic must reach and maintain top speed for a certain period of time in order to make the jump. This can lead to rather frustrating circumstances where we’re brought to an abrupt halt or propelled forward unexpectedly meaning we either lose the time jump and have to scour the level again for another or sent into a time period we didn’t want to go to and must begin the arduous process of leaping two time periods backwards to where we wanted to be in the first place. There are certain areas in levels which one can tell are intended to help make the jump but overall the mechanic can be infuriating to handle at times. Also the jumps themselves trigger little loading screens mid level which can break the pace of the game (although to nowhere near to the extent the loading screens in Sonic 06 manage). So while there’s plenty to get excited about in Sonic CD, it’s actually the main gimmick here that ultimately makes it less fun to play than it’s Mega Drive buddies.
Initially, Sonic CD (developed in Japan) started life as half of Sonic 2 (developed in America) before each project went their separate ways. This may be why we see little nods either side (CD’s inferior spin dash compared to say Sonic 2’s forgettable Mecha Sonic). One could see this title as more of a faithful sequel to Sonic 1, and that’s not simply because it uses the original Sonic sprite. There’s a focus on platforming here that feels very reminiscent of stages like Marble and Labyrinth zones and the essence of speed feels a little stripped back in comparison to Sonic 2. But that doesn’t mean Sonic CD isn’t worth playing, it’s a gem in the Sonic franchise that many may have missed, but can be very much appreciated for how it mixes up the familiar Sonic formula.
Sonic CD does prove the hedgehog is way cooler when he doesn’t open that mouth of his.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) – Mega Drive
Here we are, arriving at the Sonic game that started it all 25 years ago. Sonic the Hedgehog must’ve been played by everyone going nowadays, I mean it’s been released on every console, handheld, tablet and computer under the sun; I must own around 5 different copies of myself. And yet the game endures even now after so much exposure. Sega’s answer to Mario remains today a fast paced and engaging platformer. Well largely… The levels are bright, memorable affairs and the music is some of the catchiest video gaming has to offer. The premise is pretty simple despite the obvious question as to how a hedgehog is able to run at the speed of sound, the stages feature many paths to explore, and the secret special stages unlocked by collecting 50 rings adds just enough to encourage multiple play throughs. However this is only the first Sonic title in the franchise and as the series has evolved some aspects of Sonic 1 have been left in the dust.
Really it comes down to level design. No the stages in Sonic 1 aren’t bad in any sense, in fact they’re incredibly well made levels through and through, but they don’t manage that balance between speed and platforming that later titles do so well. Stages like Green Hill and Star Light provide exciting bursts of speed but ones such as Marble and Labyrinth are all platform heavy which results in us spending more time slogging through the latter stages than enjoying the former. Thus when stood next to it’s other Mega Drive chums the game feels just isn’t quite as enjoyable to play overall. Furthermore, missing additions like Tails and the Spin Dash that we’ve come to associate so strongly with the games can make this one feel a little hollow in comparison, (however playing without the Spin Dash can make us appreciate the amazing momentum mechanics Sonic takes advantage of when curled into a ball). But what we can’t take away from this game is how good it is to play even today; a strong testament to Sega’s strengths back in the day.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s position has in fact improved today thanks to the brilliant remake on iOS and Android (indeed it’s only vice is that it was only released on those platforms) which, among other things, updates the game with all the features included up to Sonic 3 & Knuckles. But what this remake does more than anything is show how great Sonic 1 is to simply pick up and play whenever the feeling arises. It scrubs up strong indeed and I imagine even after another 25 years have past, we’ll still be picking up Sonic’s first adventure for another spin.