Overall Rating: 5/5 Stars
Back in the very dawning of the age of video gaming, the video game industry was in a state of crisis, as a result of the fall-out of the Atari 2600’s rapid declination in cartridge playability, considering the widespread practice of second-rate developers quickly pushing shoddy titles onto the market in order to try to capitalize on the emerging technology and turn a tidy profit. The tactic backfired, turning the public against home consoles, and the market seemed to stall.
Then came the Nintendo Entertainment System, along with its legendary figure Super Mario, who almost single-handedly resurrected video gaming as a relevant, lucrative financial force. By stridently guarding against the mass manufacture of horrible games from poor developers, the NES enjoyed a white-hot streak of popularity for a time.
But as technologies improved and Nintendo geared up to release a 16-bit successor system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), another gaming company, Sega, had other plans. They, too, were going to release a console, the Genesis, that would compete head-to-head with Nintendo.
While the results of that generation’s “console war” can be heavily debated as to the success or failure of either side to exploit the weakness of the other, in the end, perhaps the most valuable historic contribution that Sega provided was simply providing proof that another organization could exist in the video gaming culture, thus opening the door for the eventual success of Microsoft and Sony, among others.
One key ingredient to the formula for competing with Nintendo was to create an antithesis to their smash-hit character Mario, the colorful, plucky plumber whose Italian charm had taken the world by storm. The answer came in the blue blaze known as Sonic the Hedgehog, who would become the flagship character for Sega for years, and spawn a highly successful series of side-scrolling platform titles on the Genesis: The Sonic the Hedgehog series, which, for the purposes of this review, will count for the original Sonic the Hedgehog, the progressive and now two-player Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the legendary near-perfect Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and the innovative Sonic & Knuckles, which had a port on top to insert a prior Sonic game to open new gaming opportunities.
The Sonic the Hedgehog series seemed to aim for conveying one consistent theme in its entries: Speed. Even the cartoon that resulted would note in its opening
theme that Sonic was “the fastest thing alive.” From the first game onward, Sonic was able to not only run fast, but also roll into a ball and spin his way through enemies and entire levels, eventually at a dizzying, blurry speed that took full advantage of the Genesis’ 16-bit processing. Starting with Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic gained the “spin dash” move, activated by crouching then rapidly hitting a button (any button) as Sonic gained potential energy, then releasing the down button to suddenly go from the stationary spinning crouch to a blurred blue ball of rapid-flying spin power madness through the stage. Sonic could jump on enemies or spin through them, and later games introduced power-ups he could activate in mid-jump as well. Clearing two-or-three-level themed stages, wildly differing in their setting (ski slopes, casino, tropical jungle, mystical caves, etc.) Sonic would seek the Chaos Gems and save the world(s?!) from the clutches of the evil Dr. Robotnik, who enslaves the cute woodland creatures to pilot his machine armanents.
Oh, these games were cutting-edge. The Super Nintendo, even the NES, had their share of fast-paced, action-packed games, but once gamers had a taste of Sonic they had to have more, and quickly. Sonic the Hedgehog revolutionized the stale paradigm of how two-dimensional sprite-based games could look, feel, and play, introducing incredibly large, innovative, creative level designs. You could play through a Sonic game multiple times and still miss hidden parts of the stages, and every level had multiple choices of how to overcome them – and yet, in every area, they were richly detailed and engrossing. The ability of the games to present an environment in such a lush way yet have it play at such a fast pace set the Hedgehog series apart from its peers in a way that, arguably, has never quite been emulated or surpassed in context.
Perhaps by the necessity of its blazing pacing and high-flying action sequences, Sonic the Hedgehog always traditionally boasted high-quality sound as well. While the effects were certainly not revolutionary, they did their job, and were nearly pitch-perfect in providing the necessary blips, boops, beeps, bumps, and booms necessary for the adventure. The soundtrack can be a topic of debate; some gamers see the tracks as timeless legendary classics that bring forth a sense of nostalgic sentimentality, whereas others see the techno beats and digital orchestrationsas merely average tunes to back up the blistering on-screen gameplay.
The more innovative, standard-setting aspects of the Sonic the Hedgehog series have already been mentioned: The expansive (yet still highly stylized) level designs, the fastest-ever-seen gameplay, the edgy new-kid-on-the-block Sega-defining feel of the Sonic character, and the unprecedented evolving progress of the games in general. Each sequel impressively managed to have at least one new ground-breaking feature (Sonic 2 with two-player modes, Sonic 3 with its battery-backed save slots, and Knuckles with its odd two-cartridge play), and the video game scene may never fully realize the impact that Sonic had on the gaming landscape in its re-defining of the two-dimensional platformer.
The series is an unquestionable legend in gaming culture, and even though Sega may no longer produce consoles, they still release games, and even Sonic persists in current games. For helping to chart a new, healthy era of console competition, for introducing a successfully popular and more “rebellious” flagship character, for showing players how fast a game could be, and for establishing a solid legacy overall, the Sonic the Hedgehog series earns five stars out of five and a spot in the collective hearts of many.