Writing this countdown has been a reminder of how enthusiastic we can be about the Sonic franchise. There seems to be so much I want to say about each game it’s been difficult to narrow this down into more bite size chunks. Now we arrive at the high end of the countdown, where we can put aside the missteps along the way and look at the games that remind us why we still care so much about Sonic the Hedgehog.
4. Sonic Colours (2010) – Wii
After Sonic Unleashed caused quite a stir for the Sonic series, many were hoping beyond hope that what was wrong with it would be sorted for the next installment. So when the next main Sonic title came out on the Nintendo Wii, it seemed somewhat unexpected. But the lack of HD graphics didn’t stop this title from shining. The daytime stages from Unleashed made up the entire game, being the first Sonic title to star only Sonic (with no grosteque Werehog forms) since the very first Mega Drive game. The game is set in Eggman’s Interstellar Amusement Park, which Sonic & Tails are invited to visit, only for the duo to learn he’s using the unique powers of an alien race to achieve world domination. These aliens, known as Wisps, play a major role in the game and make up part of what is a cohesive aesthetic from start to finish. All the pieces of this game work so well, from boosting high speeds along light paths through neon space craftsl, to skirting along the belt of a mini planet there’s a wonderful set of stages to find in this title alongside interesting power-ups such as laser and drill transformations courtesy of the Wisps. With the simple plot complementing this more light-hearted affair and (this must be stressed) the one sole gameplay at the forefront, this is definitely the most complete and polished Sonic title in years.
Yet what is so refreshing about Sonic Colours is how it complements the Wii console. Wisp power ups are activated by a simple flick of the remote, never interrupting pace in their activation and their effects are varied and interesting while adding either entirely new pathways or puzzles to undertake. The graphics look gorgeous and clearly make the most of the Wii’s more limited hardware. Most importantly however, the level design is good and varied, both in 3D and 2D; it’s like everything in the game just fell beautifully into place. Sure perhaps the 2D sections outweigh the 3D ones a tad but that is little criticism when the overall product is so enjoyable.
So the legacy of Sonic Colours may not have worked entirely in the franichise’s favour. The Wisps that work so well in this title just haven’t translated to other control methods. It’s seems like whatever Colours accomplished was in part due to the console it was released on. It works great as a Wii game but it’s relative short length and use of the Wii Remote perhaps would not have been so well received on other, more powerful consoles. Yet here it stands at number 4, because not only is it one of the best Sonic games out there, it is easily the most focused and coherent 3D Sonic game ever released.
3. Sonic Generations (2011) – Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3
Happy Birthday Sonic! Just goes to show that our 15th Birthday doesn’t mean anything compared to our 20th. Sonic Generations is, the best 3D Sonic game of all time. Sure the competition isn’t exactly flooded with competent contenders, but that shouldn’t undermine the triumph nonetheless. If anything what should undermine it is that actually, half the game is the 2D gameplay of Classic Sonic a.k.a the one we all never stopped loving. But when both Sonics are a joy to play that aspect is easily overlooked. The game is a huge celebration of the Sonic franchise, in which every stage and boss is taken from previous main series Sonic titles, re-designed for both the classic Mega Drive Sonic gameplay and the Modern gameplay of Unleashed and Colours. Surprisingly though it is the Modern gameplay that shines brighter here, and it seems Sega finally had mastered providing that adrenaline fuelled boost alongside accurate and challenging platforming. The Classic gameplay however, while is more reminiscent of the good old days than the misfired Sonic 4, still doesn’t quite get those momentum mechanics spot on. However unlike Sonic 4, these stages are inventive enough and don’t betray the character to modern trends like the Homing Attack to make us forgive this. Overall both Hedgehog’s scrub up well and every level is well-made without simply rehashing what we’ve already played before.
When the demo came out for Sonic’s actual birthday, it was the Modern iteration of Green Hill that really stood out. Just watching it feels exciting! And the game only gets better from there.
This game is very easy to love. It’s so much fun to play and trying to pick up another title since just brings up the desire for this adrenaline fuelled ride all over again. Yet it’s partly for this reason it hasn’t ranked higher on this list. The game is short; very, painfully short. In fact it ought ot be shorter but Sega added a couple of forgettable requirements before facing boss fights in an attempt to extend its run time. Truly, playing through each stage one after the other will probably take us to a run time somewhere between Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. There’s one act for each stage per Hedgehog and most only take a couple of minutes to complete, and while the various missions try to extend their life, they don’t match up to just one extra act in the main campaign. What was particularly painful for me was that, after Sonic 06 and Unleashed received so much DLC, Generations received no such thing (aside from a Casino Night pinball mini game). We hoped for more and Sega sadly never delivered, and we’re still left unsatisfied. In a sense they still haven’t delivered 5 years on, with Sonic Lost World going in a different direction. It must be a sign of a great game surely, because even now we just want more.
After completing Lost World recently I couldn’t help but give Generations another run. Perhaps the Modern Sonic formula as it appears here could have run its course in due time, but it seems Sega has put it to bed before that its time. It must be difficult developing all those miles of stage just for Sonic to blast through in seconds but I’m sure we’d all wait as long as we had to for another Sonic game like Generations. Indeed, it doesn’t feel as focused as perhaps Colours does but it’s the game that proved to the world that Sonic hasn’t had his day just quite yet.
2. Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994) – Mega Drive
There’s been so many Sonic games since the Mega Drive games, and within them we’ve had huge stage set pieces and epic storylines aplenty; but none truly compare to the fun that is had when we slot Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on top of Sonic & Knuckles. Originally intended as one complete game, the two were ultimately split and staggered throughout 1994, but the unique Sonic & Knuckles cartridge allowed the project to become whole once again. The complete game features 14 different stages and three playable characters, each with unique play styles that allowed us to find different routes and secrets. The narrative too is more present and confident than ever; we see the characters move between the stages and oftentimes it’s not afraid to embed dramatic plot shifts partway, whether it’s jumping into Eggman’s hover car to reach his rocket before take off or watching Knuckles betrayed and his Master Emerald stolen by the nefarious Doctor. Furthermore the Chaos Emeralds play a much more exciting role as they return home to Angel Island; there are now 14 special stages to complete as we help transform the Emeralds into their modern day appearance and for the only time in the franchise awake the beasts that are Hyper Sonic and Knuckles. Yet nothing beats the build up to the exciting conclusion here; from seeing the Death Egg looming in the caverns of Lava Reef to chasing Eggman and the Master Emerald through an Asteroid Field, this is gaming gold and it’s hard to step away once the build up has begun. All this too without Sonic uttering a word; great storytelling.
Of course narrative doesn’t make a game, it’s ultimately the gameplay that decides it’s fate and Sonic 3 & Knuckles does not disappoint in that respect either. This time around, Sonic, Tails and newcomer Knuckles each have very unique abilities which the levels have been designed around to allow meaning they’re all huge, around double the size of anything in Sonic 1 or Sonic 2. In fact Knuckles’ stages tend to separate eniterely from the path Sonic & Tails follow. The platforming is top notch also but it’s really the speed segments here that once again shine brightest. Remember Hydrocity, racing along the top of the water after riding a huge torrent and proceeding to blitz around Loops and steep cliffs, or Ice Cap and snowboarding into the icy caverns. Add to that the excellent music in all around and it’s hard not to love this game, its great.
I’d love to call Sonic 3 & Knuckles the best Sonic game of all time, it’s certainly my favourite. It’s huge, epic and a lot of fun. Naysayers might criticise the level design as not being quite as good as its predecessors (the bottomless pit problems start to arise here, and let’s not even get into the infamous drum of Carnival Night) but even now there are so many little quirks to be found in this Sonic game that we can’t help but smile in fondness at it. Perhaps Sonic 3 & Knuckles just isn’t quite the best Sonic game in general, but for a Sonic fan who grew up with the Mega Drive, there’s just no beating it. It’s the perfect package which caters to just about everything we could have dreamt of for a Sonic title. If Sonic the Hedgehog had ended with this game, it would have been a perfect send off for the beloved character.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992) – Mega Drive
How many of us are surprised that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 hits the top of this list. I mean this game sits on so many top game lists, whether it’s for Platformers, Mega Drive games or even greatest games of all time. And truly after so many years it is still so ruddy good! The game had a new sidekick and almost double the number of stages as its predecessor. The platforming is spot on here; Sonic is rarely asked to grind to a halt and it really feels like the momentum is maintained. With two acts each, the stages themselves are a fitting length; we’re in them long enough to get a feel for the themes and challenges, but short enough to keep the ball rolling. Overall the game is a great length to blast through on one sitting (remember when it was first released it had no save features), and has enough alternative paths and secrets to merit multiple play throughs. The Chaos Emerald stages are also the hardest they’ve ever been in the series (well particularly if we’re playing with Tails as a companion) meaning there was plenty of challenge to be had if one wanted. Besides we can’t forget the biggest surprise of all, Super Sonic. Imagine coming to Sonic 2 after playing the first to death to find there is now one more Chaos Emerald and a super transformation to use once we’ve obtained them all, I’m sure that felt great to behold.
Yet why does Sonic the Hedgehog 2 deserve top spot over all other Sonic games? It’s because it’s so easily accessible. There’s not much to think about with Sonic 2, there’s only one button we need to get going and that’s jump, and the levels don’t trick us into falling into bottomless pits or pause us with gimmick sections that we need different skills to overcome. And when we’re ready to move on we can learn to use Spin Dash and eventually try and get every Chaos Emerald possible. That’s the beauty of the game, we can all play it whether we’re non gamers, casual gamers or advanced dedicated gamers; it’s fun for all! My 3 year old nephew loves it and all he does is hold forward and repeats the first level with each character.
Perhaps Sonic 2 isn’t always everyone’s favourite game in the series, but it’s certainly the best. There are few things it does wrong and it’s so easy to pick up and play it’ll likely be the Sonic game gamers will come back to in years to come. And now like Sonic 1 there’s such a great version available on our mobile devices, making it even easier to get a hold and enjoy. If Sonic were to ever hang up his shoes and call it a day, he can be proud he was part of such a great game, one that’ll likely be remembered for a long time to come.
Thanks for reading this countdown. I don’t usually do pieces like this, and truly it’s been quite a task to undertake. We can easily find so much to write about the games we love that it’s hard to know when one is babbling or actually making an interesting comment. Nonetheless we’re at the end of Sonic’s 25th Anniversary countdown. Hedgehog Day is fast approaching now and many are hopeful the next title will finally be unveiled. Until then, happy anniversary Sonic, and best of luck to you.