Few games have had the impact on the world that the original Sonic the Hedgehog did when it launched back in 1991 on the SEGA Genesis. The entire gaming landscape shifted from a Nintendo-centric world to the competitive industry we know today. While SEGA’s marketing strategy certainly had a lot to do with that, the high-quality of the Blue Blur’s Genesis games made competing with Mario possible.
With Sonic Mania’s release and highly positive reception, classic Sonic gameplay is being brought to a whole new generation. But which of the original four games is the best? Let’s take a look.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
The first entry in the Sonic franchise became an international phenomena by making good on the promise of high-speed platforming that made Super Mario World look bland by comparison.
Green Hill Zone is perhaps the best first stage ever created, introducing players to the thrilling world of Sonic through courses designed with speed in mind. Loops, slopes, and ramps abound, making it just about impossible to trudge through the stage. Still, exploring turns up plenty of neat finds. Breaking down walls to create short cuts in Act 3, figuring out how to reach that mysterious extra-life monitor on top of the loop in Act 2, and scouring Act 1 for rings results in an experience every bit as fun as clearing the stages in less than 30 seconds.
The ensuing zones never quite hit the same highs as the first, but there are plenty of gems to be found. Starlight Zone, in particular, belongs near the top of any “Best Sonic Zones” list. The same goes for Spring Yard Zone. Catchy tunes add to the atmosphere of each of the game’s six distinct zones, and Dr. Robotnik’s Badniks make for stylish grunts.
Still, Sonic 1 falls short of its peers. While there are a few enjoyable boss battles (again, Starlight Zone is a stand out) most are bland and repetitive. Having three acts in each zone, compared to two in the sequels, doesn’t work when there are only six zones, and the following games have more memorable worlds because of it. Chaos Emerald challenges frustrate more often than not, with bad breaks the player can’t control often derailing quests to collect all six gems. Collecting them all doesn’t offer many rewards either, as Super Sonic nowhere to be found.
3. Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994)
Sonic fans universally adore Sonic 3 & Knuckles, often calling it the best game in the franchise. In terms of sheer size, they’re right. S3&K features so many zones (14!) that they start to blur together when you try to remember them all.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles actually released as two separate games, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Originally, Sonic Team wanted to release the games together, but due to time constraints and the small memory size on Genesis cartridges, the projects ended up releasing separately. Thanks to creative lock-on technology, however, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 could be attached to the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge to allow the games to be played together as originally planned.
Lock-on technology alone makes Sonic 3 & Knuckles stand out, but what makes the game even more special are the smart tweaks it added to the Sonic formula. Players could play as Tails or Knuckles, each with different abilities (flight for Tails, the ability to glide and climb walls for Knuckles) that made playing through the game as each worth while. Elemental shields changed the game as well, allowing Sonic to double jump, blast through walls, and breath underwater indefinitely.
Blue Sphere Special Stages offered a challenge that never felt unfair and removed the frustrating Tails-induced failures that plagued Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s half-pipe stages. Creative and challenging boss battles, including an absolutely thrilling final chase through space, propel the game past the original as well. S3&K’s soundtrack is superb as well, with pop legend Michael Jackson playing a role in its creation. An easy to follow story made Sonic’s world feel more tangible as well, making the game feel more meaningful than the others.
What holds S3&K back, however, are its relatively weak stages. Most of the levels are alright, but there aren’t many that just let Sonic run. Green Hill Zone and Emerald Hill Zone blow Angel Island Zone away, and you just can’t compare Marble Garden to Spring Yard and Aquatic Ruin.
The emphasis on exploration makes Sonic 3 & Knuckles the most unique of the primary three Genesis games.
2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 hits on all cylinders from the moment the game boots up. It introduced Tails to the world, featured a plethora of incredible zones, and gave players the ability to transform into the iconic Super Sonic. Coming up with bad things to say about this game is almost impossible.
While Sonic 3 & Knuckles slips on stages, Sonic 2 thrives on them. Emerald Hill, much like Green Hill, is a master class in level design. Its peppy music screams adventure, and the quality doesn’t slide from there. Chemical Plant bucks the classic platforming trend of a weak second level, bringing high-speed thrills and a tune that rivals the original Super Mario Bros. theme. Aquatic Ruin, Hill Top, and Mystic Cave all are a delight to play, each offering different challenges without compromising on speed. Casino Night slows down the pace but captures the fun of a night on the town in a way that everyone can understand. Sky Chase takes away Sonic’s speed advantage and doesn’t have perfect controls, but it’s an epic stage with tangible drama.
As flawed as it was, the ability to have player 2 tag along as Tails improved the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise dramatically. Even all he really was good for was tanking bosses, giving the option to have two players made the game fun. As fun as abandoning player 2 often was, Sonic Team succeeded in creating a bond between co-op partners that was every bit as strong as the bond between Sonic and Tails.
Traditional 2D Sonic games never got better than this, although the game still had room to improve. As excellent as most of the zones are, Metropolis Zone definitely is one of the worst levels in any 2D Sonic stage. Broken enemy placements plague the stage, and the fact that it’s the only stage with 3 acts makes matters way worse. Boss battles, although an improvement over Sonic 1, fall well short of those found in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The final showdown with Robotnik is the literal definition of tedious, ending an incredible game on a sour note.
Any good Top 25 Video Games list should have Sonic the Hedgehog 2 somewhere on it. It may well be the best platformer to come out of the 90s.
1. Sonic CD (1993)
Sonic CD offers a dramatically different experience than any of the other 2D Sonic titles, and it’s better for it. The best sequels take the formula of the original and change the concept enough so the game feels entirely fresh while still retaining its identity. Sonic CD fits that bill perfectly, offering a game that focuses on exploration while requiring players to go fast.
In Sonic CD, players explore seven zones with three acts each. While darting for the goal will get you through a stage, it won’t result in Sonic achieving his goal. In Sonic CD, the blue hedgehog must travel through time to save Little Planet from becoming a dystopian robotic wasteland. Dr. Eggman has traveled to the past of each zone and placed a robot creator in secret areas that will over time transform the natural world into a polluted wasteland.
The stakes are bigger than ever in this adventure, and the zones each tell a unique story. Palmtree Panic looks like a lush canyon where dinosaurs would casually stroll in the past, but without breaking Robotnik’s machine its future transforms into a grotesque world devoid of life. Polluted pink water, a dour skyline, and dead grass fill the world. Once Sonic tracks down the machine and breaks it, however, the future transforms into a paradise. An advanced irrigation system brings fresh water to the thriving ecosystem, and heavenly music plays in the background.
Every zone features these four different worlds, each with different layouts. The past always contains fewer enemies and natural traps, while the present looks like any other sonic zone. The dystopian futures genuinely convey a sense of dread and hopelessness, created by the visuals and the soundtrack, while the good futures feel holy and peaceful.
In order to travel between time periods, Sonic must hit a sign with the word “past”, “present”, or “future” and maintain his max speed for a few seconds. This sounds simple enough, but if he loses his max speed for any reason he’ll lose the ability to teleport. With a limited number of signs in each level, finding a clear space to run is critical. While Sonic 3 & Knuckles encourages exploration, Sonic CD requires players to think critically as well.
Special Stages to find the seven Time Stones unlock by having 50 rings at the end of each stage, just like the first game. The actual challenges are the best in the series, placing sonic in a 3D environment and forcing him to break a number of UFOs in a set time limit. Stepping out of bounds speeds up the timer, and forces players to find the perfect angle to approach each UFO. Collecting all seven results in a permanent Good Future, allowing Sonic to head straight for the goal on each stage without worrying about Eggman’s machines in the past.
The game also features the best boss battle in the series, when Sonic faces off against Metal Sonic in a race on Stardust Speedway. With his own life and that of Amy Rose on the line, Sonic has to out race the only being faster than he is. It’s a heart pounding battle that serves as a great example of a game creating palpable tension without using lengthy cutscenes.
All this is not to say that the game is perfect, however. It does have a few flaws. Wacky Workbench, the game’s fifth zone, may be Sonic Team’s worst creation ever. The bouncy floor that shoots Sonic to the roof, forcing him to slowly descend, is nearly unavoidable, and it can be an absolute nightmare to travel back in time without an easy way to gain speed. Outside of the Metal Sonic battle, squaring off against Robotnik never feels satisfying. The fights do have some cool ideas, but most are just too easy to flesh out their solid concepts.
Even so, Sonic CD is the best Sonic game ever made. It has all the charm and personality players expect from a Sonic game (that intro animation!), changes the formula in an effective way, and creates a tangible sense of danger that permeates throughout.