Sonic The Hedgehog arrived in Europe twenty years ago, in June 1991, and brought with it a number of firsts. Not only was it the first title to launch the character that would later become synonymous with SEGA gaming systems, and later still the SEGA brand, but it also marked a point in time at which the dynamic of the 16-bit console race would be shifted forever. Sonic The Hedgehog gave SEGA’s Mega-Drive (known as Genesis in the US) a leverage over Nintendo’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that not even Super Mario World could contend with, giving SEGA a head-start in Europe that would Nintendo would never recover from, despite having arguably the better system.
Still cherished to this day as one of the greatest videogame releases of all time, Sonic The Hedgehog was considered a feat in videogame design at the time of it’s release. But twenty years is a long time in the videogames industry, with change and progress being swift and decisive, and rose-tinted glasses can be as misleading as nostalgia can be redeeming.
Sonic The Hedgehog begins in the Emerald Zone, with Sonic himself having taken-up the challenge of stopping Dr. Robotnik’s (later renamed “Eggman”) evil plans. The evil scientist has snatched the animals of the Emerald Island and turned them into robots. Racing through six dramatically different Zones – each with three Acts – Sonic must free the animals and defeat Dr. Robotnik for the sake of the Emerald Island.
The level design immediately provides the player with numerous options; multiple routes to travel through most of the levels at high speeds, encountering different hazards and rewards in each. Presenting an unparalleled level of replay value when originally released, Sonic The Hedgehog was undoubtedly a progressive title, being an early demonstration of what 16-bit hardware was capable of. However, while the level design still stands as a shining example of how to create deep and inviting virtual worlds to explore, the player’s abilities within could well be considered extremely limited when compared with modern 2D Platform releases.
All three buttons on the Mega-Drive control pad are used for just one command: jump. This is the considered limit to the player’s available actions, and aside from the option to enter into a roll mid-run, is the sole option for tackling the various challenges that arise throughout the game’s eighteen levels. While the steady difficulty curve will soon allow the player to progress from a nippy jog through lush green pastures with a handful of enemy encounters to sprinting across a neon skyline filled with floating platforms and instant death, it’s the boss fights that truly test your mastery of the simple control system. One-on-one battles with Dr. Robotnik in a variety of different vessels, the player will be challenged in both their manoeuvrability and precision at the end of each Zone.
Despite the age of the title, Sonic The Hedgehog still presents a clear, vivid and imaginative playscape. Bright and colourful and animated with believable life, few games from even the most modern software development studios could claim to offer such a cohesive world. The soundtrack is also fantastic despite technical limitations, immediately recognisable to this very day.
While Sonic The Hedgehog is still very playable, there’s no denying that it’s veneer has faded. Age has not been kind to the first outing of the blue speed freak, with even it’s successors on the same hardware proving that much more can be achieved with greater creative freedom. Sonic The Hedgehog is certainly a pioneer, a basis upon which Platform game tradition has been founded, but it’s only with those rose-tinted glasses that players would maintain that it hasn’t long since been superseded.