Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog Series - Part 1

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
By: Sonic Team / Sega Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Easy
Featured Version: Sega Mega Drive / Genesis First Day Score: 194,390
Also Available For: Master System, Game Gear, Game Boy Advance (ports)
PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC (on compilations)

Download For: Android, iOS, Wii Virtual Console

There have been a lot of 'landmark' games over the years. I remember the release of many of them - the excitement as their release neared as well as the furore that usually followed - but as a console gamer of the mid-to-late 80's and early 90's (predominantly), one of the examples I remember the best was the original Sonic game. Most who played it agreed it was a fantastic release - groundbreaking from a technical point of view and great fun to play. Some even claimed it saved Sega from certain defeat by Nintendo. How close that is to being true I'm not certain but one thing is for sure: it helped shift a crapload of Mega Drives (and Master Systems) and firmly cemented its turbo-charged star in videogaming folklore. From the opening 'SAY-GAA!' to the iconic title screen with its punchy theme tune, it was an instant hit with players before they'd even... well, played it.

This simple loop sold a good few copies all by itself...
Once they did play it, most were immediately sold on its unnaturally coloured star and his high speed tomfoolery and were immediately eager for more. These wishes were of course answered many times over with a great many sequels and spin-offs over the years. I've personally never been keen on the series since its shift into the third dimension though, and have kinda lost touch over the intervening years. Happily there have been a few forays back into 2D territory sprinkled amongst the sprawling 3D adventures, my favourite probably being Sonic Pocket Adventure for the NeoGeo Pocket Color, and recently we got another corking-looking example in Sonic Mania which was released mere months ago. I took a brief look at it prior to that but before I buy and play it properly, I thought I'd first go back to the very beginning and see how that revolutionary original game holds up now.

The first of those trippy bonus stages...
And the answer to that question, for the benefit of any impatient readers, is: pretty well if you ask me! When it comes right down to the basics, it was never a hugely original game - simply move across each stage from left to right while avoiding or killing the enemies until you reach the exit. Repeat as needed while dealing with the occasional boss and that's yer lot. Millions of games have followed the same basic template over the years, both before and since, but in those early days Sonic games were always more about style than depth or originality, and this original certainly had a great deal of that. From the moment the game was powered-up it was obvious it was one of exceptional quality. The super-slick presentation continued throughout the game too, which treated us to some of the finest audio/visuals the Mega Drive had produced up to that point, and they still impress today.

The only time in the game the 'push' move was needed...
The size of the game - six zones split into three stages each - was pretty standard for its day and was just about right for exploring each zone's theme, and while the game itself isn't original in premise, some of these zones and their features definitely were. It was as good as platform game law to start with a grassy first world and Sonic doesn't buck the trend there, but the now-iconic Green Hill Zone was one of the brightest, fastest, and most lively examples we had ever seen! All the usual stuff was there including moving platforms, collapsing floors, deadly spikes, springers (both vertical and horizontal varieties), each with its own distinctive Sonic feel, as well as more original features like turbo-charging chutes that accelerated a coiled-up Sonic and fired him into the heavens, and of course the famous loop-the-loop that so wowed us all at the time. I bet even the usually-dismissive Nintendo fans were jealous!

This was such a popular stage it spawned a spin-off game!
It must've been hard not to be a bit green back then, and the game still looks fantastic today. It's all fairly basic if you pause the game and actually look at it in detail but when it's moving, while you're playing, it's a treat for your eyes and ears. The water twinkles away in the background as the scenery scrolls along in multiple layers of lovely smooth parallax, while in the foreground happy sunflowers twirl about by themselves and palm trees of varied heights line Sonic's route as he speeds past, his feet rarely more than a red blur. All the sprites were superb too, from the ladybirds that trundle along slowly and fish that pop up from beneath you on bridges to the more annoying wasps that take pot-shots at you whenever they get the chance. It was hard to get too mad at them when they looked so appealing, but no amount of cute enemies could distract you from the star of the show.

The submerged fourth zone was gorgeous but tricky...
I don't think it's unfair to say that, at the time, Sonic himself was one of the best sprites in all of gaming from a design point of view. He was distinctive, full of personality, and even more appealing than the amusing enemy clankers (I often forget they're robots actually). This was helped by some fantastic animation - the 'idle animation', for example, certainly wasn't born with Sonic but he definitely helped popularise it. All this splendidness is still just on the first zone too. It was one hell of a first impression, but the quality of games does occasionally fall away after a spectacular opening stage - did Sega's new flagship title manage to overcome the trap? That is of course a big 10-4 on that, good buddy - after the grassy, tree-laden opener, the next few zones were less generic in theme - there's no 'ice world' or 'desert world' or any of the usuals - but they were pretty stonking for the most part.

These explodey robots will slow you down here...
The fiery underground world of the Marble Zone was nowhere near as fast as the first zone but it gave us some interesting obstacles to overcome, and things returned to normal with the Springyard Zone which was not only fast but also famously turned Sonic into a live pinball in some sections. Next up was the watery Labyrinth Zone which wasn't particularly maze-like but did prove a challenge thanks to the floatier movement and lack of air its mainly-underwater nature forced upon you. The speed once again returned - and reached a peak, I'd say - with the nighttime rollercoaster ride that was the Starlight Zone whose enormous ramps and chutes sometimes fired Sonic off faster than the screen could scroll! The next and last stop before the final confrontation with Dr. Robotnik was the factory-like Scrapbrain Zone which had obstacles and death-dealing hazards at every turn.

Danger galore in the final proper zone...
All that was left then was the Final Zone which was basically just the boss battle. Defeat the idiotic Robotnik for the last time and the land of Mobius is saved from his tyrannical rule! Actually, I do often forget that there's a back-story here at all (just some nonsense about the evil doctor attempting to steal and harness the power of the six Chaos Emeralds while also trapping all the happy little native creatures in robotic exoskeletons to waylay Sonic). It's all waffle of course, conjured up during the odd cigarette break at Sega HQ or something I imagine, but it facilitates the action well enough, and also makes you smile as little rabbits/birds/squirrels/etc flit away from the crumpled metallic wreckage of their former prisons after being liberated by Sonic. It also gives you a few swirly psychedelic bonus rounds in which to reappropriate the sparkly gems too. Some didn't like them but I thought they were fab!

Don't play these bonus stages while under the influence!
I thought the whole game was fab actually. At the time of its release it was a step above pretty much everything else around from an audio/visual/design point of view. The six zones were highly varied in both appearance as well as their features and the graphics were fantastic throughout - probably the best outside of the arcades in fact, and certainly the finest that could be found on Sega's mighty Mega Drive for a while. The audio was less impressive perhaps from a technical point of view but all the tunes were very catchy and the effects were immediately iconic. More importantly though, the game was simply a hell of a lot of fun to play. Whether you chose to go flying through the stages as quickly as possible or preferred to take you time, there were tons of amusing enemies to stab with your spikes and secrets to find on your way through them, and some stages had more than one route through them too.

The Marble Zone boss takes full advantage of the fire...
Of course, however much it might have wowed at the time, it wasn't a perfect game, even back then. The main argument was that it was a tad too easy, and I guess it's true. If even I could complete it without breaking a sweat, it can't have been too taxing! Even after you finished it there were reasons to return though - beating your best times or scores, getting all the Chaos Emeralds, finding all the secrets etc. It could also be a smidge frustrating on occasion, as no doubt anyone who has suffered the crushing disappointment, or even anger, at getting hit by one of the last enemy creatures of the stage while carrying 100+ rings will attest - the sudden shock as Sonic abruptly springs backwards with a pained look on his face, his precious payload sprinkling around the screen. Do you desperately scramble about trying to collect all you can before they vanish or do you trudge onward despondently?

These pesky fish are the least of your problems here...
These were questions that we got more than a little used to asking ourselves, but it didn't matter one bit - we just enjoyed this amazing new game that had smashed onto our shiny Mega Drives with a spiky blue blur. I think it was clear how important a release it was even at the time, and its shortcomings were easy to overlook for most of us, particularly if we had Amiga-owning friends! It does seem a little basic nowadays - tame even, when compared to its immediate sequels - with some of the newer features noticeable by their absence (Sonic 2's 'Super Dash Attack', for example, which offered instant speed from a standing start) but I actually prefer the simpler action in some ways. It's still a lot of fun to play through in any case - the controls are spot on and the distinctive audio and gorgeous visuals will never be anything but appealing - and it will always be one of the most important 16-bit releases ever.

RKS Score: 8/10

Gameplay Video: here's a video of the whole game being played by one of the talented fellows at World of Longplays (check out their great channel here). Oh, and don't watch if you want to avoid spoilers!


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