The year was 1991, and the Sega Genesis (or Megadrive in Japan) had been out for a couple years. The system had earned itself a small niche as a system for playing Sega’s arcade ports and celebrity-endorsed sports games, but it was difficult to make much of a dent when Nintendo had owned more or less the entire home console industry for the previous half-decade. 2D platformers were huge at the time, and it was clear that Mario had played a large role in Nintendo’s success as a recognizable mascot.
Sega’s in-house development studio, AM8 (the 8 denoting there were 8 people in it), was tasked with creating a new mascot, and eventually what they came up with was Sonic the Hedgehog–a pretty cool guy who was as blue as Sega’s logo, was easily recognizable even by silhouette, and could run through levels at a speed that fit well with Sega’s arcade-centric lifestyle (“see if you can beat my time!”). The animal of a hedgehog was chosen when Yuji Naka worked out a tech demo for a ball rolling down inclines, which would become the basis for Sonic’s unique 2D platforming gameplay in general. I’m going to go ahead and argue that it wasn’t so much the speed that truly set Sonic apart, as much as the rolling. (Though obviously, as any playthrough of the game will attest, one leads to the other!)
At any rate, AM8 became Sonic Team, and their game was made the Genesis’s pack-in title to replace Altered Beast (smart move). Suddenly, Sega began selling lots of units, to the point that the Sega Genesis was outselling the brand-new and highly-anticipated Super Nintendo 2:1 in North America that Christmas season. It was a pretty wild time, and one in which it started to matter how cool video games were. Sonic, you see, was a character with attitude. He was not the generic squeaky-clean hero that starred in most any other platformer at the time–he had a bit more of a personality. I mean, if the player let Sonic stand still for a few seconds, the character would straight-up look to the screen with a “the hell, we leavin’ today?” look on his face. Seems to show just how much confidence Sonic Team had in their rodent erinaceid protagonist, to make him openly mock everyone who bought the game.
The original Sonic the Hedgehog is not as polished as the franchise’s later offerings, but I still find it a fun game to breeze through whenever I’m in the mood for some retro platforming. It is not a very long game, running at only six levels (with three “acts” each). It also isn’t a very difficult game, with the biggest challenge taking the form of accessing and beating all the optional “special stages.” The bosses are rather straightforward, and it’s clear that Sonic Team was experimenting a lot when it came to level design. Some levels (such as the iconic Green Hill Zone, and to a lesser extent the Spring Yard and Star Light Zones) are built for maintaining momentum, with high speed times rewarded to those with quick reflexes and a good knowledge of the course and its “secret” paths. But other levels are slower and more obstacle-based, such as the lava-filled Marble Zone, the water-filled Labyrinth Zone, and the trap-filled Scrap Brain Zone. I find all the levels enjoyable enough, but the really good level design of Sonic games would not come until later installments.
Sonic 1 is still worth playing today, and I often go back to it in preference to other old titles because of its shorter game length. It’s also a great title to examine in terms of game physics, as everything that went into making this game was–to some degree at least–treading new ground. Some really good thought was put into the game mechanics in general, and this is perhaps best shown in the implementation of collecting rings as a means of maintaining “health.” You lose your rings when you run into an enemy or obstacle, but it’s possible to regain a few of them and get right back to your running and rolling without fear of dying two seconds later from the next enemy or obstacle. You’re allowed to make mistakes… and still have fun! And at the same time, it’s still definitely possible to lose lives and even get a game over if you’re careless. It’s a smart balance that Sonic Team managed to work out, and would further perfect in the game’s sequels.
The controls for Sonic 1 are simple, but solid. The jumps feel just right, and the rolling is fantastic. The springs, bumpers, loop-de-loops, tunnel pipes, water bubbles, item boxes, and bosses featuring Dr. Robotnik in some kind of crazy vehicle are all there. The levels themselves are also fun to look at, and though they are simplistic compared to the offerings of later games, there is still a lot to like in their bright colors and its style that makes for a sort of 16-bit Japanese pop art (especially in the kaleidoscope dreamworlds of the special stages, which I find wonderfully trippy). On its own, Sonic 1 perhaps isn’t an amazing game, but it’s good, and it set the stage for one of the most iconic franchises in the entire video game world. You can also buy it on one of, like 20 different systems, so there isn’t much excuse to not give it a whirl. Getting it on a Genesis cartridge is certainly a good option, but it can also be found on the Saturn’s Sonic Jam, or in various Sonic or Genesis Collections for later systems (such as the massive Ultimate collection for PS3 and Xbox 360).
(Note: header art by gsilverfish)