There was a time when SEGA positioned its Sonic the Hedgehog games as worthy rivals to Nintendo’s Mario platformers, but that brief period ended right around the point when the Genesis stopped being relevant. In other words, 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 Nintendo having much more success transitioning the Mario franchise from 2D to 3D, whereas SEGA continues to struggle with how to make three-dimensional Sonic games to this day. The real problem with Sonic games though is their lack of consistency, as the series seems to alternate between polished experiences and glitchy messes on a whim, sometimes even within the same year.
Fortunately for fans of the blue speedster, things have been looking up as of late as the most recent installment in the long-running series, Sonic Mania, is being haled by critics as a return to form for the speedy hedgehog. While we’d heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys the classic Genesis games from which it draws its inspiration, there are many other Sonic games besides Sonic Mania worth checking out. Here are our 10 favorites.
10. Sonic Adventure 2
The last Sonic game to be released on a SEGA console, Sonic Adventure 2 arrived at a time when the Dreamcast was on the way out and as such, the title represents something of a swan song for the short-lived console. Developed primarily by Sonic Team USA, Sonic Adventure 2’s level design was heavily inspired by the studio’s San Francisco location, with the game’s breakneck opening level 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 because while the Sonic/Shadow levels are almost uniformly fantastic, the game’s pace is dragged down by Knuckles/Rouge the Bat’s tedious chaos emerald scavenger hunts and some decent, if not truly memorable shooting levels with Tails/Dr. Robotnik. Sonic Adventure 2 would later be ported over to the Nintendo GameCube with some added features, including an enjoyable versus mode, making it arguably the definitive version of the game.
9. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Sonic’s foray into the kart racing genre came much later than Mario’s and though Sonic’s time behind the wheel has yet to prove as fruitful as Nintendo’s portly plumber’s, the Sonic & All-Stars 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 honestly does a better job of terrain transition than recent Mario Karts, as the game’s transforming vehicles keep races fun and interesting.
Best of all, the game also plays double duty as a piece of pure SEGA fan service, with courses and characters drawn from many different properties (NIGHTS!) both popular and obscure. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe may still be the definitive kart racer, but 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 with.
8. Sonic Advance
The early 2000s were an interesting time for SEGA, as the company was now out of the console business and had transitioned to producing software for its former rivals’ platforms. Seeing Sonic on a Nintendo platform may seem normal nowadays but at the time, it was a strange sight to behold and not necessarily something hardcore SEGA fans were happy about. It helped then that most of the Sonic games released in the years following Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast weren’t very good … at least when it came to console releases. It was a different story altogether on the handheld side, as Sonic Advance for the Game Boy Advance was not only a great 2D platformer, it was 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 Sonic conventions, but did add melee attacks to the mix, allowing characters to defend themselves as they race through levels. Sonic Advance would spawn two sequels, but it’s most important contribution to the franchise’s history is proving that Sonic didn’t need to be on a SEGA console in order to be good.
7. 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, which is quite impressive when you consider just how many Sonic titles there have been over the last quarter century or so. While later titles would expand upon the series’ fundamentals, Sonic’s signature speed and attitude is on full display here and the opening Green Hill Zone is perhaps just as iconic as World 1-1 in the original Super Mario Bros.
What’s really surprising about Sonic the Hedgehog though is that even when you peel back the nostalgia blinders, it arguably stands the test of time, as its deceptively simplistic design contains layers of intricacy that rewards repeated play. Subsequent Sonic games have polished the core gameplay to such a degree that there really isn’t much point in returning to the original outside of reliving old memories, but it’s an incredible achievement that SEGA was able to get so much right on the first try.
6. Sonic 3 & Knuckles
While Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles are technically two separate games, they’re so intertwined that we’ve decided to lump them in together. What’s interesting about Sonic 3 & Knuckles is that although SEGA released them as separate titles, the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge featured a “lock-on” technology that allowed it to be attached to Sonic 3, essentially creating one massive, combined game. This is because both titles had initially been planned to be part of the same game, but SEGA had to separate them due to time constraints and cartridge costs.
As for the quality of the games themselves, they’re classic Sonic through-and-through, and along with Sonic 2, represent the “golden age” of the franchise. The introduction of Knuckles as a playable character is a welcome addition and overall, the game plays like a greatest hits of Sonic 1 and 2 … which is also what holds it back a bit, as you can tell that SEGA was starting to run out of ways to keep things fresh, at least on the aging Genesis hardware. Then again, when a game has a soundtrack written by Michael Jackson, it’s kind of hard to complain too much!
5. Sonic Rush
The mid-’00s represented perhaps Sonic’s lowest point, with the franchise drowning in some seriously crappy games; among them, 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog, easily one of the worst games ever made. Fortunately, there were a few bright spots among this dark period in Sonic’s history, such as the 2005 Nintendo DS title Sonic Rush which, coincidentally, was developed by Dimps, the same studio that had delivered Sonic Advance just a few years earlier. While Rush was yet another 2D platformer, it had some notable features that helped modernize the familiar gameplay.
Most notably, the dash or “rush” attack allowed players to not only bring Sonic back up to top speed quicker, but could also be used offensively to take out enemies, which helped eliminate those situations where Sonic would be brought to a standstill after running into a poorly-placed enemy like in past games. Sonic Rush also made great use of the DS hardware, with specific level sections that would utilize the handheld’s two screens to build more verticality into the gameplay. Although there hasn’t been a new Rush game since the DS era, the series’ expert bridging of elements from 3D Sonic titles with traditional 2D platform design makes it one of Sonic’s finest moments.
4. Sonic Adventure
As mentioned previously, SEGA has never had much luck with making Sonic work in three dimensions but you can’t say they haven’t tried! Released right alongside the Dreamcast on 9/9/99, Sonic Adventure had admittedly not aged well in certain respects and we’re definitely letting our nostalgia color our opinions a bit here, but seeing Sonic run through 3D environments for the first time is something you never truly forget. From top to bottom, Sonic Adventure is an inconsistent experience but when it works, it works like gangbusters.
The opening level is one of the greatest in franchise history and although the cheesy dialogue and addition of dumb characters like Big the Cat were a precursor to even more embarrassments down the road, they hold a certain charm (look, it wasn’t just Sonic games that were cheesy in the late ’90s). In the end, Sonic Adventure may not have been anywhere close to the level of quality on display in something like Super Mario 64, but at least it was better than Sonic 3D Blast!
3. Sonic CD
Developed alongside Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD represented a bold step for the at-the-time still young franchise, as it not only had to help sell the SEGA CD console, but also compete with the aforementioned Genesis title, which was released a year prior. Sonic CD’s big selling point may have been its visuals, but it’s really a title that shines in the gameplay department, as it’s time travel mechanic made people rethink how Sonic levels are supposed to work. In some ways, Sonic CD is a rather polarizing entry in the series, primarily because it plays so differently from Sonic 2.
Whereas that game emphasizes speed, Sonic CD’s levels are claustrophobic and emphasize more pure platforming sections. In practice, this largely eliminated the “hold right to win” mechanic that Sonic games have been sometimes criticized for, but it also led to some frustrating moments. That being said, we enjoy the tweaks Sonic CD made to the formula — some of which, sadly, were never replicated in future releases — and it’s one of the Sonic games we have the most connection to. Sonic CD was also the first game to introduce Metal Sonic who, for the record, is way cooler than Shadow.
2. Sonic Generations
Released in 2011 to coincide with the Sonic’s 20th anniversary, Sonic Generations really couldn’t have come at a better time. After years of subpar, derivative games like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic and the Black Knight, SEGA took the bold step of marrying 2D and 3D Sonic games together in the most literal sense, as Generations features both versions of the character coming together for the first time. Featuring levels inspired by previous titles in the series, Sonic Generations may contain a mix of both 2D and 3D gameplay, but it happens to be the best 3D Sonic game SEGA has ever produced, with the opening Green Hill Zone being about as perfect a Sonic level as you’re likely to ever see.
Like the title implies, this is a Sonic game for every generation, as it’s hard to see any fan of the franchise taking much issue with it since it tries (and largely succeeds) in pleasing all of them. This is still the best Sonic game of the modern era and would take the top spot if it wasn’t for a pair of classics that belong at the top of this list …
1. 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. This is the game that established much of what would become Sonic’s core gameplay fundamentals, with the Spin Dash being the most prominent and important. The original Sonic may have introduced the world to the blue speedster, but the game itself really didn’t let you go that fast, as it took a long time for Sonic to reach top speed and even when he did, there was almost always some annoying obstacle there to halt you in your tracks.
Interestingly, Sonic 2 had been a lot more ambitious behind-the-scenes, but the development team had to cut a bunch of stuff out, with much of it being saved for later titles in the series. That being said, this game has a ridiculous amount going for it as is, as the introduction of Tails, the aforementioned Spin Dash move, and the best selection of levels in the series arguably make this the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog game.