In true Sonic fashion, I will speed write this review and you can speed read it. Ready? Go!
Done? Good! Let’s look back and discuss what we read.
Speed is really what Sonic boils down to. The game is known for being fast, action packed, and lots of fun hidden items. Crosstix and I recently raced through it (fitting huh!?) to see who could master the speed the best. In cases of classic games like this I do not like to look at it and evaluate if the game is good, but if the perception actually fits.
Sonic was Sega’s response to Mario. They needed a mascot, especially an edgy mascot that fit Sega’s marketing and reputation. Building off of a tech demo, Yuji Naka created Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991. It was received well and became a franchise that outlasted Sega’s console business. In recent years it has been ported to many other platforms. Sega only now is trying to look back and rediscover what made Sonic, well Sonic, with their game Sonic Mania.
What is the essence of Sonic?
Sonic has the reputation for speed. I remembered running haphazardly through levels. When you lost speed it was painful to try and get started again and get through the loops. Speed was the key to Sonic. At least I thought so before we replayed it at Last Boss Gaming.
Speed did bring a new element to the platformer genre that Mario did not match. What really set it apart though was the level design. Linear speed becomes boring. Go play the infamous Battletoads level if you want to experience speed with minimal creativity. Aggravating! What really captures you about Sonic is the same for Mario, the level design. The Green Hill Zone are the perfect Sonic levels as they capitalize on his speed and mechanics with a plethora of paths to take. New routes allow for replay, discoveries, and secrets. If there are two things that stick with gamers it beating something hard and finding something hidden. Konami’s Code, Mario’s first hidden box, Adventure’s Easter egg are all prime examples of secrets that draw a player in. Sonic is littered with them in the multiple paths to take.
Combine these two elements, speed and multi path level design, and you have what I believe is the core of Sonic. When these elements come together Sonic shines, like in Green Hill Zone. Unfortunately, Sonic does not always keep up. Many of the zones inhibit and punish speed. Marble Zone feels like a painful drag after Green Hill Zone. Spring Yard picks up the speed again, only to come to the most grinding halt in Labyrinth. The problem with these two zones is they focus a great deal on waiting. You wait to slowly cross the lava. Wait for an air bubble. Wait for the conveyor belt to come around again. The game feels wrong and slow when you are forced to stop and wait. Sonic does not have to be running, but he should always be moving.
Boss fights tend to get the speed/movement dynamic, but they fall into another trap. Each boss fight becomes repetitive. None more so than the final fight. Hit, run to corner, wait, and repeat. There is no change to the formula for each boss. No raising the stakes. The only boss fight that seems to get this is Spring Yard as blocks are slowly removed. What about Labyrinth Zone you ask? The race to the top feels forced and obnoxious, but at least changes the formula.
Memories of Sonic made it out to be more than it was. Good game with solid mechanics, unique speed elements, smattering of some great level design. Ultimately held back by its inconsistent pacing, repetitive bosses. Sonics speed in the first game is more reputation than an actuality. As Sega looks to recapture Sonic’s essence, I hope they go back and focus on what really made early Sonic games good- great level design with multiple paths, secrets, and utilize his gameplay mechanics to their fullest.