There was a time when Sega positioned Sonic the Hedgehog as a worthy rival to Nintendo’s Mario. Unfortunately, that brief period ended right around the point when the Sega Genesis stopped being relevant.
In fact, it’s widely accepted that the first few Sonic games are classics, while the majority of subsequent titles released over the last two decades are hot garbage. Much of this can be attributed to Sega struggling with how to translate Sonic into 3D.
Between the new movie from Paramount Pictures introducing Sonic to a new generation and Sega promising new announcements about the series throughout 2020, things are looking up for the Blue Blur. With renewed interest in Sonic the Hedgehog, there’s no better time than the present to revisit the best games in the series.
Sonic Adventure 2
As the last Sonic game to be released on a Sega console, Sonic Adventure 2 represents something of a swan song for the Sega’s nearly 20 years in the console business.
Developed by Sonic Team USA, Sonic Adventure 2’s level design was heavily inspired by the studio’s San Francisco location. In fact, the game’s iconic first level, City Escape, is clearly modeled after the city by the bay.
The game as a whole is much more stunt-heavy and overblown in its design than its predecessor, featuring levels with all sorts of grind rail sections and other environmental features designed to keep Sonic moving at a steady clip. Unfortunately, it’s also a much more uneven experience than the original Sonic Adventure. While the Sonic/Shadow levels are almost uniformly fantastic, the game’s pace is dragged down by Knuckles/Rouge’s tedious Chaos Emerald scavenger hunts and some uneventful shooting galleries with Tails/Dr. Eggman.
Although developed primarily for the Sega Dreamcast, most people played Sonic Adventure 2 when it was ported to the Nintendo GameCube. This port, with the subtitle Battle, added extra polish to the graphics, extended the multiplayer options, and retooled the fan-favorite Chao Garden. These additions made Battle arguably the definitive version of Sonic Adventure 2.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Sonic’s first foray into kart racing came much later than Mario’s. Although Sonic’s time behind the wheel has yet to prove as fruitful as the Mario Kart series, the Sonic Racing games are much better than they have any right to be.
In particular, the second game in the series — Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed — is a competent racer that does a better job with terrain transitions than the recent Mario Karts. Moreover, the transformations completely change the karts and tracks instead of little cosmetic changes.
Best of all, the game plays double duty as a piece of pure Sega fan service. Courses and characters are drawn from many different properties both popular and obscure, including NiGHTS into Dreams, Skies of Arcadia, and Football Manager.
While Mario Kart 8 Deluxe may still be the definitive kart racer, All-Stars Racing Transformed proves that Sonic has some skill of his own behind the wheel. Even if it still makes no sense why a character whose whole shtick is running really fast would need to rely on a car to race.
The early 2000s were an interesting time for Sega, as the company was transitioning to producing software for its former rivals. Seeing Sonic on a Nintendo platform may seem normal nowadays. However, at the time, it was a strange sight to behold.
While Sonic games struggled with consistent quality on consoles, it was a different story altogether on handhelds. Sonic Advance for the Game Boy Advance was not only a great 2D platformer, but it was also arguably the best 2D Sonic game fans had seen since the Genesis era.
In terms of gameplay, Sonic Advance doesn’t stray too far from series conventions. However, it did adapt staples from the Adventure games, like multiple characters, grinding, and the Chao Garden, to 2D with great success.
The success of Sonic Advance would spawn two direct sequels and a handful of quality portable Sonic games from developer Dimps. However, the game’s most important contribution to the franchise is proving that Sonic didn’t need to be on a Sega system in order to succeed.
Sonic the Hedgehog
The game that helped put the Sega Genesis on the map and kick off the console wars of the early 90s, the original Sonic the Hedgehog remains one of the best entries in this long-running franchise. That is quite impressive when you consider just how many Sonic titles there have been over the last quarter-century or so.
What’s really surprising about Sonic the Hedgehog is that even when you peel back the nostalgia blinders, it stands the test of time. Its deceptively simplistic gameplay contains layers of intricacy that reward repeated play. Plus, its levels are a master class of level design. In fact, the opening level, Green Hill Zone, is arguably just as iconic as World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
While Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are technically two separate games, they’re so intertwined that they were initially planned to be one game. However, time constraints and cartridge costs caused Sega to release them separately.
Despite the forced split, the Sonic & Knuckles featured “lock-on technology” that allowed Sonic 3 to be attached to the top of the cartridge. With the two games attached, gamers were able to access Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a melding of the two titles into one massive game.
As for quality, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is Sonic in its purest form. The platforming is pixel perfect, the music — rumored to be written by Michael Jackson — is outstanding, and the levels are among the best in the series. An excellent way to end the Fastest Thing Alive’s run on the Genesis.
Fortunately, there were a few bright spots among this dark period in Sonic’s history. One such bright spot was Sonic Rush for the Nintendo DS, which was developed by Dimps.
While Sonic Rush was yet another platformer, it took the series into 2.5D in order to modernize the gameplay. Most notably, it introduced boosting, a mechanic that would become integral to series in the coming years. Monitored by a refillable meter, boosting allowed Sonic/Blaze to drastically increase their speed. While boosting was mostly used for traversal, it could also take out enemies.
The biggest feature of DS was its dual screens. Sonic Rush used the two screens to great effect. Levels would stretch across both screens to build more verticality into the gameplay.
Although there hasn’t been a new Sonic Rush since 2007, these short-lived handheld subseries expertly bridged elements from 3D Sonic titles with the traditional 2D platforming.
In two decades since release, it’s rather obvious that Sonic Adventure just hasn’t aged well. Despite that fact, many — us included — still consider it among the best Sonic games. It is the Blue Blur’s Super Mario 64 moment!
Released right alongside the Dreamcast, Sonic Adventure brought a more cinematic feel and grander stage to the series. There were multiple characters to play and plenty of differing game-styles to experience.
Unfortunately, it could be inconsistent in places (cough Big the Cat cough). However, when all the pieces came together, it was special. Nothing can compare to the thrill of outrunning a killer whale or fighting a gigantic water lizard while “Open Your Heart” by Crush 40 blares in the background.
In the end, Sonic Adventure may not have revolutionized gaming like Super Mario 64. At least, it did a much better job of capturing the spirit of the series than Sonic 3D Blast.
Originally conceived as an enhanced port of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Sega CD add-on, Sonic CD represented a bold step for the at-the-time still young franchise. While Sonic 2 refined the gameplay popularized by its predecessor, Sonic CD focused on improving the animation and adding new mechanics.
Thanks to the Sega CD’s increased processing power, the visuals and animation were smoother than any platformer from the 16-bit era. Plus, the Back to the Future-inspired time travel mechanic made players rethink how Sonic levels work as they bounced between different versions of a level constantly.
In some ways, Sonic CD is a rather polarizing entry in the series. Primarily because it plays so different from Sonic 2. Whereas that game emphasizes speed, Sonic CD‘s levels emphasize platforming. In practice, this largely eliminated the “hold right to win” strategy that Sonic games have been criticized for. However, it also led to some frustrating moments.
With that being said, many enjoyed the tweaks Sonic CD made to the formula — some of which, sadly, were never replicated in future releases. Plus, it was the first game to introduce Metal Sonic who, for the record, is way cooler than Shadow.
Released in 2011 to coincide with Sonic’s 20th anniversary, Sonic Generations is a tribute to the entire series. It honors both 2D and 3D Sonic games by putting both styles — each represented by their own Sonic — in the same game.
Featuring remixed levels from nine mainline games that preceded it, Generations highlights the best of each playstyle. 2D Sonic’s precision platforming offers great weight and momentum, while 3D Sonic’s boosting gives players an incredible sense of speed. Plus, seeing classic levels recreated in 3D and 3D stages flattened to fit in 2D will make any fan — no matter how jaded — smile.
While Sonic Generations was made to celebrate Sonic’s 20th anniversary, Sonic Mania commemorated his 25th anniversary. Much like Generations, Mania is a tribute to the series. Also, it makes a strong case that 2D should be the future of the franchise.
Developed by fans working in conjunction with Sega, Mania mixes in the old with the new. Old favorites, like Green Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone, are remixed to feel like brand-new levels. New mechanics, such as the Drop Dash, expand the way to interact with the game world. Elements from past titles, including Sonic CD‘s special stages and Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘ elemental shields, are brought together without feeling jarring.
Where Sonic the Hedgehog 4 tried and failed to bring Sonic back-to-basics, Sonic Mania succeeded. In fact, it plays like a long-lost sequel from the Genesis era, which has led to universal praise.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
One of the greatest video game sequels ever made, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is about as close to 2D platforming perfection as the Sonic series ever got.
Sonic 2 is the game that established much of what would become Sonic’s core gameplay fundamentals. Most prominent among them being the Spin Dash. This move allowed Sonic to crouch into a ball and charge up speed. The boost helped Sonic quickly get back up to speed, even if he was stalled by an enemy.
Sonic 2 had been a lot more ambitious behind-the-scenes. Unfortunately, the development team had to cut a bunch of stuff out. Despite the cuts, Sonic 2 has a great amount of content, including the introduction of a new playable character in Tails, the aforementioned Spin Dash, and the best selection of levels in the series.
What more is there to say? Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the definitive Sonic game.