Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sonic Retrospective: The Classics

So, as you may be aware, today's the twentieth anniversary of the release of the original Sonic the Hedgehog. So, it's his birthday, if you will.

Over that twenty year span of time, the hedgehog has had his share of highs and lows, but even with the specter of the shitfest that was Sonic '06 hanging over him, the fact remains that the good ends up outweighing the bad. Sonic's starred in some true classics of video gaming and at one point was the only serious contender to Mario. That tends to stick. Even with the beating he took in the mid 2000's, he remains one of the most recognizable characters in video game history.

Today, I start a look at the various games the hedgehog has had over the years. Where the hell else do you start but the classics? I'll very likely run through further eras in his history - though time will tell if I go through the full history over the course of the year - but for now let's get started with the original five.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: June 23rd, 1991

Ahh, the original. In gaming, it rarely ends up being the best in a series - well, unless that franchise absolutely blows - but the good ones still tend to hold up. Cue Sonic the Hedgehog, a game that raced on the scene back in '91. As far as opening salvos go, the original still holds its own pretty goddamn well.

Obviously, this was the game to own on the Genesis at the time and it's not hard to see why. Colorful zones, a great combination of speed and platforming, adventure and great music. Hell, once you get Green Hills theme in your head, try getting it out. Then there were the special stages, a trippy, psychedelic area you had to traverse to get a Chaos Emerald. Collect them all and get the real ending.

Twenty years later, and the one that started it all is still a pretty great game.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Sonic the Hedgehog CD

Console: Sega CD
Release Date: November 19th, 1993

Ahh, now this is the stuff. When it comes to the Sonic, there are two games generally held above as the best in the series, those being Sonic CD and Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Both are fantastic games that are definitely classics, but for my money Sonic CD beats out S3&K by a small margin.

This one had it all. The introduction of Amy Rose - one of what I see as the core five characters in the franchise along with Sonic, Tails, Knuckles and Eggman - Metal Sonic, time travel, fantastic new zones, interesting gimmicks, CD quality music, awesome special stages and much, much more. Even better, the amount of replayability is ridiculous.

This one is pretty much perfect in every way. I generally feel that most Sonic games - even the classics - have as least one zone in the mix that isn't all that great. Sonic CD is the exception for sure; this game simply does not have a clunker in the bunch. Every level is varied, fun and interesting, giving some of the best variety of the series. This extends to the special stages, which picked up on Sonic 2's idea of 3D special stages and ramping it up to new heights.

More than that, the time travel gimmick puts it all over the top. It inspires irritation in some - detractors typically say it's "unnecessary" - but it just adds to the experience. It adds loads of bang for your buck - every zone has four different variations between Past, Present, Good and Bad future, complete with special tile sets and music for each - but on top of that it adds something else. You actually get to see the effects on the world.

All the prior and future Sonic games were pretty straightforward; get to the end, free a bunch of animals from a capsule and move on. Sure, you know you're doing good, but there's no effect on gameplay. Not in CD. Each zone defaults to a bad, Robotnik controlled future, but if you destroy a roboticizer in the past, the future becomes a utopian wonderland free of Robotnik or his robots. Not only does the ending you get depend on this, but each boss takes place in the future, so you're definitely going to see if you freed the zone or left it to its doom.

This kind of thing simply didn't happen in games of that era. This game had ambition. This game is fantastic.

If there's a downside to this game, it's something entirely beyond its control. A lot of fans just haven't played it. This gem was put out on the Sega CD, one of Segas numerous failed add-ons, which was out of reach of most of the people who would want to play this game. Curiously, Sega never seems to include this one in re-releases; the Genesis four have been re-packaged to the point of ridiculousness, but CD has only ever made it into a compilation once.

It really is a shame, because playing it the original way is a damn hassle.

The Score: 10 out of 10

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: November 24th, 1992

Bigger. Bolder. Better.

The first proper sequel to the original - Sonic CD started out as Sonic 2, but ended up going in a different direction - Sonic 2 just ramped everything up. This game is mammoth, having the most levels of any single Sonic game in the classic series with eleven zones; and this is before you take into consideration the fact that this one was originally going to have six more that ended up scrapped. New moves, new bosses, a new sidekick, a new 3D special stage and a metric ton of new levels. If they set out to double up on what the original contained, they pretty much succeeded.

I've got a soft spot for this one. Even when I knew in my heart 3&K was the better game, for most of my childhood I liked this one more. It could have something to do with the Casino Night Zone. It could be the plane right to an airship fortress. Hell, it could even be the final battle on what is essentially the Sonic version of the Death Star. Whatever the reason, I've always loved Sonic 2. But what the hell do I need to justify that love for anyways? This game is awesome.

Sadly, it's not perfect. While it's the biggest single, standalone Sonic game in the classic five, it also has the highest number of zones I just do not care for. I really could have done without Mystic Cave and Oil Ocean looks good but as a level is nothing to write home about. There's also Hill Top Zone, which I like but don't love; could have something to do with the insta-death pits I abhor in Sonic games.

This stings worse when you consider what we could have gotten. Hidden Palace, for one thing. That zone had a great look to it and even had the first act mostly finished early in development. It made the rounds on a game show or two as well. What happened? Sure, we got a Hidden Palace in Sonic & Knuckles, but it was a completely different deal. Then there's Dust Hill, which got as far as the concept stage and even had a few promotional screenshots, but never saw the light of day. These plus four others fell victim to Sega pushing Sonic 2 out the door to meet the holiday season deadline; meanwhile, Mystic Cave made it to completion.

Still, this game is better than the original and has a lot to offer. It's just falls short of perfect. But what the hell, at least Sonics first sequel wasn't a Doki Doki Panic game with a different coat of paint on it.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Console: Sega Genesis
Release Date: 1994
Note: This one is actually two games in one. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. They were originally intended to be one game, but as usual Sega decided the holiday season was more important and pushed Sonic 3 out the door with more than half the overall game removed. Nowadays, the game is widely recognized as being one game, so despite being two of the classic five in all, I'm treating it as the full, locked on game.

Generally the last game of the classic era - though not necessarily the classic series, as Sonic 4 exists - Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a hell of a swan song.

Pound for pound, this game has the most content of any of the classic games. This one gave us the concept of the mid-boss, giving each act a closing battle, several memorable boss battles, some of the best zones in the series, a future franchise mainstay in Knuckles, playable Tails, numerous shields with special powers and so much more. The game even had dedicated paths for each character, as well as a dump truck full of secrets and alternate pathways. They even threw in a save feature that's damn near godly; once you beat the game, you can start from any level you choose, meaning they basically cut out any tedious level select codes and just gave you the goods after you stomped Robotnik.

By this point, the gameplay had been honed to perfection and it shows. Level design is top notch, the music - which even had Michael Jackson involved - was similarly great and the game was just a benchmark that the 2D iterations of Sonic have yet to reach again. There are so many cool moments and gimmicks in this one, including a zone that frequently dicks around with gravity.

Earlier I said that I personally think Sonic CD is the best - and I hold to that opinion - but this one gives it a run for its money. Like CD, there is very, very little wrong with it; all the new additions feel organic, the mid-bosses make the entire game feel like a step up from Eggmans usual antics and there's not a bad time to be seen.

Well, mostly. Remember that rule I talked about earlier? You know, the one about how most Sonic games have that one terrible level that sticks out from the pack? This one does too. It's called Sandopolis Zone and despite the numerous good ideas present, it just doesn't work as well as the rest of the pack. But you know what? While I hated it as a kid, today I think it's an okay level. I think that says something when the worst level of the game is merely okay.

The Score: 9.5 out of 10

That's it for the classics. The next look back at the past of Sonic will likely tackle the main Game Gear games. Or I could just go for the Genesis era spinoffs next. Time will tell. When I do get to it, I hope you'll join me.

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