Friday 16 February 2018

Mega Drive Review - Sonic the Hedgehog (Game 155)

'Sonic the Hedgehog' is a game known by all but not necessarily loved by them. While it may be Sega's most famous title, despite popular perception, it isn't as critically adored as many would expect. 

Developed by Sonic Team
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

Growing up a Nintendo fan I thought Mario could do no wrong. I was under the impression that any game featuring him would be superb and if they weren't I would always forgive him based on a history of excellence. But it wasn't just fan boys like me who thought this; magazines also gave Nintendo's plumber an easy ride. "Anything Mario touches turns to Gold" once wrote CVG. "Forget the golden symbol Nintendo emblazon each box with. Mario is the real Nintendo seal of quality" noted Edge magazine. Until recently I was under the impression that Sega fans and magazines felt the same about Sonic the Hedgehog (at least before his embarrassing fall from grace).
However listening to former Sega Power journalists on the excellent Maximum Power Up Podcast changed my mind. "I really don't like 'Sonic' games I think they're appalling" declares Dean Mortlock. "There's nothing to them, there's no playability they're just rubbish". But this wasn't a lone voice. An Ace magazine reviewer claimed they preferred 'Quackshot'. “I’d rather play this instead of the hugely over-rated 'Sonic' any day of the week. So this Xmas, forget Hype the Hedgehog and plug the Duck in your slot." 

'Sonic the Hedgehog' was certainly a game changer for the Mega Drive. Prior to the release of the game in 1991, Sega promoted the machine as being a console that offered the Arcade experience at home. 'Sonic the Hedgehog' however was presented as an experience you could only enjoy on Sega's 16bit machine. It offered visuals that far exceeded the best offered on Nintendo's ageing NES console and the Super Nintendo was in its infancy at this point. The game was a demonstration of just how powerful the Mega Drive could be and it stunned gamers and game developers. "When I saw 'Sonic the Hedgehog' running, I was REALLY impressed by the machine. It was a kick in the pants by Yuji Naka to all programmers at that time" claimed celebrated designer David Perry. 

The reaction from such a noted developer is surprising given that 'Sonic the Hedgehog' is hardly a revolutionary game, a fact that didn't escape Entertainment Weekly at the time. "Superficially, it breaks no new ground: The spiky-haired hero jumps, dodges, and weaves his way through various worlds filled with bizarre creatures (yawn)." When compared to games like 'Super Mario World' with its complex puzzles filled levels with multiple exits, 'Sonic the Hedgehog' is clearly a simpler affair. People know Sonic as "the blue hedgehog who runs really fast" and impressive pace really is the only USP of the game. In fact according to Edge magazine, "'Sonic' was delivering the kind of high speed no other game was capable of [and] this was said to be impossible on the hardware at the time." You dash through a level as quickly as you can because when he moves at speed Sonic is powerful but when stationary he is vulnerable. Admittedly there are different routes through some of the levels but for most all roads lead to the same place. The only exception to this is act two of Spring Yard Zone which features an alternate level exit. However there's no point going to any effort finding it; regardless of the way you end the stage the following level is the same. 

Fans of the original 'Sonic the Hedgehog' will perhaps argue that the ring energy mechanic was fresh and new. In essence the player must grab as many rings as possible, as Sonic will survive provided he always has one ring in his possession.
When hit all accumulated rings cascade from him, so the more Sonic has in his pockets the more chance the player has to recollect some. End a level with over fifty and you'll unlock a hidden stage. However reaching this bonus stage is the only incentive to explore the stages. Simply put, if you've already found fifty rings there's no need to find more. In fact, you'd be foolish to do so as this would put you at greater risk of losing them all. Similarly as there are only six bonus stages once you've completed them all (and found all the Chaos Emeralds) there's not even a need to find a fifty rings on a stage since there's nothing extra to see. At this point 'Sonic the Hedgehog' really does become nothing more than a race from the start of a stage to the end as quickly as possible. Spin jumping into any enemy blocking the way since that's the only form of attack. 

The gamecelebrated programmer Yuji Naka wound up creating is often, aptly, compared to a breakneck 2D side-scrolling roller coaster ride. Almost to make the point that Sonic craved being in constant motion, Naka added an extra programming touch: If Sonic stood still for too long, he would give the gamer a cross look and begin tapping his foot impatiently. There is of course nothing wrong with a game that solely consists of racing through stages avoiding dangers. Endless running games are literally exactly this.  The main problem with 'Sonic the Hedgehog' is that the level designers too frequently forget that speed is what the game is meant to be about. Fans of the game focus on Green Hill, Spring Yard and Starlight Zones since they're all about rapid progression. Their Springs, loops and slopes are all thrilling when navigated at speed, and the simple d-pad and one button control scheme makes the game accessible even when going really quickly . 

However, marble, labyrinth and scrap brain zones show just how frustrating the game becomes when the speedy hedgehog has to move slowly.
Mable Zone has tight claustrophobic tunnels and moving platforms both of which are hard to navigate given that Sonic has wide arching jump and tires to break out into a sprint at every opportunity. Scrap Brain zone consists of trap-filled industrial stages containing many dangerous machines such as saws, flame vents, and disappearing and rotating platforms. Again these stages beg for slow precise jumping with the player frequently waiting for the most opportune moment to make a series of jumps. This is simply harder to do with Sonic than it ever was with his rival Mario. The game's lowest point though is labyrinth zone with stages awash with instant kill spikes and water. Sonic is terrible at swimming and the slower he goes the harder he is to manoeuvre. As he can only hold his breath for a limited time you're always on the lookout for air bubbles which prevent Sonic from drowning.  Ironically this breaks the flow of the stages, as to survive Sonic literally has to keep stopping in his tracks and waiting, which completely goes against his raison d'être. 

It seems strange that half the levels in the game show Sonic at his most uncontrollable.  A positive presentation of the main character was ultimately the whole point of 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. According to Thomas Lucas at IGN, the game was specifically conceived to create a mascot for Sega. "Sega president Hayao Nakayama wanted a character as iconic as Mickey Mouse. Sega had competition with Nintendo, who was dominant at the time (particularly after the release of the successful 'Super Mario Bros. 3') and Sega wanted a foothold in the industry". Evidently when Yuji Naka and character designer Naoto Ohshima began work, the project was known, internally at least, as code name "Defeat Mario". Sonic represents the embodiment of everything Sega and not simply because he was coloured to match the Company logo.
On official art he mirrored Michael Jackson's pose from the cover of the Bad album. this and his punk spikes suggested a rebellious attitude and his only item of clothing, the red trainers, were an attempt to make Sonic appear current by mirroring New York street culture. If Mario was known as being family friendly, Sonic was an edgy alternative - brash, abrasive and achingly cool. According to the Digital Spy website, Sega even toyed with the idea that Sonic was in a rock band with a human girlfriend named Madonna. It was a marketing approach that Raze magazine certainly saw through at the time. "Sega obviously spent a lot of time and money on 'Sonic' with the deliberate aim to turn the eponymous character into some kind of cult hero and mascot for Sega" they wrote. "The great thing about it for us is that we get possibly the most playable game yet on the Mega Drive". 

This modern icon of course needed a game equally entrenched in nineties culture. Retro Gamer magazine suggests the game's colour scheme was influenced by the work of pop artist Eizin Suzuki. More crucially the now famous music for 'Sonic the Hedgehog' was composed by Masato Nakamura of the J-pop band Dreams Come True. The tunes are instantly recognisable to anyone who calls themselves a gamer, iconic and timeless. Equally famous is the chorus chanting "Sega" when you turn on the game.  Yuji Naka admitted to GameSpy that this little self indulgence actually "used one eighth of the memory of the four-megabit cartridge". After hearing it there was no doubt that was behind 'Sonic the Hedgehog' and there was no denying that it was a game that looked and sounded leagues ahead of the competition. "The cartoon-like animation of 'Sonic' is incredible" wrote Dragon magazine. "'Sonic' is really great" wrote Mean Machines magazine. "I can’t think of a Megadrive game with more spectacular graphics – even 'Mickey Mouse' wasn’t as visually exciting as this – and everything is just so fast and smooth it’s astonishing!"

Evidently many reviewers at the time were happy to overlook the game's obvious short comings; perhaps blinded by the splendour of the graphics and attitude of the central protagonist. "'Sonic the Hedgehog' is quite simply one of the best video games I've ever played" claimed critic Bob Strauss. According to Computer and Video Games magazine the game is "streets ahead of every game of this genre currently available", "Definitely, without a doubt, positively the most incredible action game ever created" agreed EGM magazine. 

While it's seems surprising that one game can polarise critical opinion so much, I must admit that I also flit between really enjoying 'Sonic the Hedgehog' and hating it. My enjoyment of it really reflects which level I'm on. It's hard to resist the joy of bouncing around an act, careening through enemies and looping effortlessly through beautiful stages while listening to catchy music. That being said it's also infuriating to feel lost in a stage where the visuals don't vary, only to then die trying to perform what should be a simple jump. The boss fights are repetitive and monotonous; there is little variation between the level foes and hardly any story to encourage progression.  

My opinion of 'Sonic the Hedgehog' really is epitomises by my feelings towards the bonus levels that you unlock should you find fifty rings. In these stages Sonic is perpetually rolled into a ball, free-falling through a stage that rotates almost randomly. Touch the goal and the levels ends, even if you've yet to collect the rewards on offer. I can see that's its clearly technically impressive and visually arresting. It's inventive, sounds nice and initially fun. However the more bonus levels you play the less you really enjoy the experience. Once the novelty of the speed vanishes and you start to try and play methodically you'll realise just how limiting the main character's abilities are. The reviewer's diverse opinions perhaps reflect how long they spent playing 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. Those who wrote based on first impressions found no fault, but those who ran the length of the course saw the ugly cracks emerging through the glossy veneer. This would certainly explain why many are far more critical of the game more than twenty years after release. 

It's often said that a candle that burns twice as fast lasts half as long. By extension a Hedgehog that runs twice as fast, holds the attention half as long as a plumber. 

Where did I get this game from?
It's hard to imagine any Mega Drive owner not having a copy of 'Sonic the Hedgehog'. The game came bundled with the console and in some parts of the world Sega even mailed a copy to early adopters of the console. It's appeared on practically every Sega endorsed compilations so it's even likely that some Sega fans will have multiple copies. Like the majority of my Mega Drive games I got my copy of 'Sonic the Hedgehog' in a bundle bought on a local Facebook page. 

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