I woke up this morning feeling excited. Christmas morning excited. I'm sorry to break it to you if you're younger, but when you're 29 years old, that kind of excitement doesn't happen very often (even on Christmas morning, sadly). But today does feel special. It was 20 years ago today that the original Sonic the Hedgehog was released. So it seems fitting that we should celebrate that iconic game with the first of our new regular Appreciation Section features, which listeners of the TalkRadar UK Podcast might recognise.
You may have read my feature about the incredible secrets left on the cutting room floor of Sonic the Hedgehog 1. But that's the unofficial, bootleggy world of Sonic ROMs and exactly the opposite of what Yuji Naka and his team would want me to be talking about today. So this article is a celebration of the 'proper' version of Sonic 1 as it appeared in 1991.
First impressions are everything
Nothing could quite prepare gamers for the introduction to Sonic The Hedgehog. That famous 'SEGA' screen with its high-quality vocal chime preceded a black screen with only the words 'Sonic Team presents'. It's like the lights going down at the cinema. Then the tap-tap-tap intro of the title theme as the screen lights up to display... this:
Above: At some point in your career, you gotta emerge from a barrel. Might as well get it over with early
It was genuinely amazing. The number of layers of parallax scrolling in the background immediately demonstrated the power of Yuji Naka's game engine. The stylised graphics and glistening blue waters promised a wondrous land to explore and enjoy. And then there was that winged barrel, out of which sprung a youthful, cartoonified Sonic, with enough animation frames to make you think - just for an instant - that you were looking at cartoon-quality graphics.
If you weren't so gobsmacked that the demo started to roll before you remembered to press Start, the game began with all of that spectacle still in place.
Above: The start of the game, with the first enemy - Motobug. It's a robot ladybird! Come on, that's cool
I don't think the importance of Green Hill Zone can be underestimated. Sure, there were classic levels like Labyrinth and Starlight Zone, but people fell in love with Sonic 1 before they'd even seen the second stage. And that was clearly the intention at Sega. Some claim the team worked for six months on Green Hill Zone alone, perfecting it. Making sure that every hidden item and every platform required skill to reach. In all honesty, they could have just released Green Hill Zone as a game and it would have sold.
The hog with attitude... and style
The iconography is timeless. In preparation (and alright, celebration) I played through the game again last night on Xbox 360. There was a time around 1993 when Sonic 1 was starting to look old, but somehow it seems to have reversed the aging process. Like Super Mario Bros, the gameplay shines through. But unlike that game's basic visual charms, Sonic's chunky scenery and bold colours still look visually striking.
Above: Never mind the crude rotation effects - those flat-shaded fish still look superb
Perhaps it was the suggestion of 3D in the scenery that made it look so different. Some design concepts mention CG as a style for the graphics. When you consider Dire Straits' Money For Nothing video (right) was the epitome of computer-generated graphics in 1985 and Virtua Racing didn't hit arcades until 1992, even flat-shaded polygon sprites were still exciting to the eyes in 1991.
These days, it's come full-circle. Flat-shaded polys were soon outdated by texture mapping, but in the years since, they've come back into fashion thanks to their distinct visual style. Just look at Child of Eden.
Rules can actually be a lot of fun
You'd think 'speed' would be the most important part of the game, but it's not. Instead, it's the miraculous physics engine, programmed by Yuji Naka. The man understands the importance of movement just as much as Miyamoto. Just look at the movement of 16-bit Sonic, or the fluidity of analogue-controlled NiGHTS and you can see the difference immediately compared to Sonic 4: Episode 1 or NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams on Wii. This is a video from an angry YouTube user, but it's well justified - take a look at this:
Sonic is affected by gravity. He has inertia. He can curl up into a ball and gain speed as he rolls down slopes, travelling so fast that rollercoaster-style loop-the-loops don't even phase him. Up the wall, along the ceiling and back down again, before shooting up into the air and bouncing off the heads of his robotic enemies. It's always smooth, always slick, always constant. Like Apple today, 'it just works'. In 1991, it was unlike anything gamers had seen before.
Are you sitting comfortably?
The plot, too, just works. It's as simple as Mario and his kidnapped princess, only with '90's eco-warrior heroism as the theme. An evil genius is stealing your woodland friends and turning them into evil robotic slaves. It's up to you to destroy the robots and free the bunny/seal/flicky trapped within, then take down Robotnik once and for all.
Above: If this barrier wasn't here, Ivo, I would be spin dashing your face. Well, when I've learned that move...
The concept allowed the game's designers to create enemies that were immediately recognisable as a crab, fly, caterpillar or whatever, while giving them a distinct visual style. It still amazes me that the 'badnik' style of enemy was abandoned so soon in favour of humanoid robots, but we all know the series lost its way quite spectacularly for a long time.
Always in control
There's a lot to be said for a one-button control scheme. Sure, down on the d-pad to roll is a little cumbersome, but it left gamers free to run left and right with one thumb, and jump with the other. Anyone can understand that, which is why the game was so appealing.
One hour, but so many moments
There are several stand-out moments scattered throughout the game, which make its one-hour length all the more memorable. Understandably, a lot of them come in the first couple of levels (Sega wanted to hit people hard and fast and they certainly did that), but they keep coming at a good pace. The first loop, the S-tunnel and the wall smash are the most impressive moments from level 1, but the simple joy of jumping to see Sonic spin around with his buzz-saw spikes in any level isn't to be underestimated.
Likewise, being propelled skyward by a spring is an underrated moment of excitement. Then there's the water slide and fast-flowing water chutes in Labyrinth Zone (one of which has posts you can hold onto – simple now, but something worth looking forward to each time you played in 1991). The pinball bumpers, secret rooms and special stages are all rewards for playing.
Above: Even in these set-pieces, you still have some degree of control, unlike more modern games
But perhaps the biggest, most important moment is the most frequent. Simply collecting a ring is a joy that's lost its importance in more recent Sonic games. The mystery of seeing them silently spinning in the air, the sparkle they leave as you collect them and the superlative sound effect when you do… collecting golden rings is a fun thing to do and Sonic Team seems to have forgotten that.
It's strange, really. If the game were to come out today, it would probably not displace Call of Duty from its predictable pedestal. What was once the most appealing game on the planet would probably now be considered a hardcore, niche title, consigned to XBLA for eternity. The lack of a save game, pointless (and exploitable) scoring system, hour-long length and relatively high difficulty level are bound to put off any modern gamers coming to it for the first time today. But you need to look at it in context.
1991 was a massive year that I can personally place as the turning point for many things in my own life, whether I experienced it at the time like Sonic, or later, like Nirvana's Nevermind. There was something special about that year – and this game is one of the biggest things to come out of it - and it affected the course of my life more than any other game. I'm still writing about it today because it still gives me the same feeling that I got when I played it at my mate's house. This is what videogames are all about.
Above: A collection of blue, white and black pixels that made - and still make - the gaming world a richer place
It's too easy to be jaded and hypercritical in the games industry, and liking Sonic games is often met with derision, even in the GamesRadar office. But any critic of any industry should be able to appreciate when a group of human beings pour their hearts and souls into a project with the shared goal of creating something magnificent. That's what happened with this game, 20 years ago. And that's why it still amazes me today as much as it did when I stood, at nine years old, slack-jawed as I watched the demo loop over and over in the local toy shop. The world just got more exciting.
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