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Appreciation Section: Sonic the Hedgehog

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.

 

Since 1991

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.

23 Jun, 2011

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18 comments

  • mothbanquet - June 24, 2011 1:56 p.m.

    A beautiful article, Justin, and one that almost had me all misty eyed. Back in the day it could have been a tool to measure which of us would grow to be hardcore gamers. I could finish the game with all emeralds while my older cousin was out of continues by the Scrap Brain Zone. He went on to run a successful private business while I play on XBL every night. I still couch the Starlight Zone music as one of the best pieces ever, both in and out of gamery.
  • HardlyBirdman - June 24, 2011 1:45 p.m.

    All this happy rememberance of Sonic has me wanting to go home and hook up my PS2 to the old CRT TV and play Sonic Mega Collection. That diagram with the Mega Drive controller had me longing for the chunky, simple joy of that gamepad. Thank you, this brightened my day.
  • mickeygfunk - June 24, 2011 12:25 a.m.

    (i posted this onteh wrong article before)anyone else experiencing approx 200ms lag in sonic1/2? justin, how do you play your beloved game? on the original genesis?
  • ThatGamerDude - June 23, 2011 11:03 p.m.

    Oh yea I forgot to mention that it was also the first video game I ever played. lol
  • ThatGamerDude - June 23, 2011 11:01 p.m.

    Even though i was born in 1997, I've been playing all the original Sonic games since I was like 2. 2 years old! This series, more importantly this game has changed my life forever in so many ways! I've played all of them and I haven't given up on this series since. Even to this day, I still play all the original Genesis Sonic games and have gotten to the point where I can beat the first Sonic game without getting hit once. Yup I'm a true, die-hard, Sonic the Hedgehog fanboy since 1999!
  • CancerMan - June 23, 2011 10 p.m.

    Ah Sonic the Hedgehog. It's the first video game I can remember playing, and when I play it now, it's just as good as it was back then.
  • Anjaneya - June 23, 2011 9:35 p.m.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said in this article - Sonic is a major party of my childhood! I'd only ever played PC games on an old 386 before seeing Sonic, so it completely blew me away. Can't wait for the new game - just downloaded the demo!
  • Imgema - June 23, 2011 9:37 p.m.

    @Lionzest You must played a different game. Sonic 1 runs at constant 60fps/sec. Just play the game on the real genesis on a CRT TV or monitor. LCD screens suck for 2D sonic games because of the background blurriness.
  • Lionzest7 - June 23, 2011 6:39 p.m.

    This game needs a lot of work. All those graphical improvements you cried for now have made the frame rate inconsistent. The resolution is rather low and makes stuff appear like it needs anti-aliasing. This game would be great if it ran at a consistent frame rate (for the demo). I just see the flaw being half the time I feel like my eyes are getting tired from the constant switching. I wish people didn't cry about sonic 4's graphics, at least the game ran mostly consistent....
  • Aletheon - June 23, 2011 4:58 p.m.

    Gamers need more of this sort of communications about games. APPRECIATION.
  • garnsr - June 23, 2011 4:24 p.m.

    I ordered Sonic from some mail order game store that's probably long gone, and had to wait quite a while for it to come out. It looked cool, but Sonic games never really grabbed me.
  • dcbernman - June 23, 2011 6:47 p.m.

    Sonic was the first game I ever played, I think ( I must have been four years old. It wasn't a genesis original, it was some sort of equivalent for PC. I stayed up all night at my friend's house as we played as sonic and tails laying out the beatdown on all those robotic forest critters. Sonic always possessed a freshness in the gaming world for me. There was never anything like it. As a staunch lover of games from every year of the 90s, I'm really excited to see this new Appreciation Section. Let the nostalgia fall.
  • CoryM1134 - June 23, 2011 5:26 p.m.

    I got a Genesis for Christmas when I was 8, a year after I got my SNES. I got it with Sonic 2, and the entire set up was incredible compared to all the Nintendo I was used to. The jet black system, the plastic box with grainy plastic keeping the slip sheet cover underneath, and of course, the awesome animations as soon as it turned on. I have no recollection of receiving a SNES, but I remember completely losing it over that Genesis and Sonic. I still turn it on and speed through the game about once a year or so.
  • db1331 - June 23, 2011 5:20 p.m.

    It really was a fantastic game. It's the reason I begged my parents to buy me a Genesis. The saddest thing to me though, is that Sonic's first game was also his best. Sure I'd listen to your arguments for Sonic 2 and 3, but in my mind the original game was never improved upon. You can't say the same for Zelda and Mario. I guess that's why those franchises are doing so well today and why Sonic (unfortunately) isn't.
  • Aletheon - June 23, 2011 4:59 p.m.

    Grammar fail
  • Jrm21 - June 23, 2011 4:29 p.m.

    Beautiful Article, really sad to see how far The Blue Blur has fallen
  • ithurtstopoop - June 23, 2011 3:56 p.m.

    I approve
  • icedoesnthelp - June 23, 2011 3:43 p.m.

    I know I shouldn't be complaining, but why didn't Gamesradar do this for Legend of Zelda's and Metroids 25th? (unless I missed the articles.)

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