There is probably no video game icon more polarizing than Sonic the Hedgehog. The character has had more than his fair share of ups and downs, and the quality spectrum of Sonic games is literally all over the place. This uneven mixture of gaming enjoyment has given the little blue guy quite a bad rap in recent memory, and even the most avid fan cannot ignore the existence of some glaring misfires that have tainted the franchise. This really is a shame, because Sonic at his best can be really, really awesome.
As huge fan of the series for almost twenty years, and I am often found defending the greatness of Sonic games. There are duds, no doubt about that, but the occasional bad game does not take away the enjoyment of several amazing ones. Here is a list of seven games featuring the Blue Blur that rest in the latter category. This list is not comprehensive; there are several more great games that make a strong case for Sonic, but the ones presented here are my all time favorites. While most of these games are all "classic" by definitions of antiquity, they exhibit qualities of timelessness that keep them relevant enough to warrant continuous revisitation from casual and hardcore gaming enthusiasts alike.
One last thing to note before we continue: the unique gaming environment in modern console history allows players to access almost any Sonic game without prejudice from system manufacturers, creating absolute accessibility for longtime fans and curious new-timers alike. Most of the games on this list are available on at least two competing devices, and intentionally excludes games that are proprietary to any one system (sorry Sonic Colors, you're great but you don't count right now).
7. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
This is where it all began. Released in 1991--primarily as a pack-in game--for the still budding Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, depending on where you lived), Sonic the Hedgehog was truly something different. There was an emphasis on both speed and simplicity, which was unique for the action platforming genre. Sonic has no weapons, no continuously upgradable armor, and only three basic movements: run, jump, and spin. No special skills are awarded to the player through advancing levels, and the goals for each level remains remarkably similar throughout the entirety of the game. The player is expected to run from the right of the level to the left, attack enemies, avoid dangerous obstacles, and find the exit check-point within ten minutes. There are six levels, broken down into three acts, with a boss guarding the ending of every third act. Each boss is defeated after sustaining damage eight times. That's it.
It sounds pretty boring on paper, but the first Sonic game is anything but. The true beauty in this game lies in it's overall simplicity. Even with it's basic, non-changing premise, Sonic 1 is a test of skill that can only be obtained through multiple play sessions. Levels become more challenging as the game advances, thus forcing players to actually become better gamers in order to reach the ending. While seasoned veterans can surely beat the game in a singular session, the added bonus of scoring six Chaos Emeralds in the bonus stages in order to achieve the best possible ending gives a whiff of re-playability for the uninitiated.
Graphically, the game was largely unbeatable at the time of its release. The bright, colorful canvas has a childish surface which gives Sonic the Hedgehog inviting tonal qualities, but never dives too deeply into Hello Kitty cutesy kitsch. The soundtrack is also bright and punchy, emphasizing on the underlying heroism of Sonic's mission to rescue the forest animals of his homeland from the sinister and unforgiving antagonist.
Sonic the Hedgehog can be purchased on just about any gaming platform currently available. It is also featured in numerous anthology collections. Avoid the Game boy Advance port, it is just not good.
6. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Game Gear, Master System; 1992)
Though not as groundbreaking as its 16-bit counterpart, the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog is memorable based on differing merits. The Genesis was a more powerful machine than it's predecessor, the excellent but largely forgotten Sega Master System. Because of this, the developers wisely avoided an inconsistent porting by building a completely different game for those not fortunate enough to keep up with times. The first 8-bit Sonic game attempted to maintain the overall aesthetic of the original Genesis title and provided the player with a similar, if relatively inferior adventure for Sonic.
When it came time for an 8-bit sequel, similar tactics were used, but with enough differences to truly set Sonic the Hedgehog 2 from any other Sonic title. There was a greater emphasis on darkness this time around, with bright and happy levels being replaced with ones set during the night. The game literally begins underground, a truly juxtapositional arrangement in comparison to almost any other Sonic title. Unlike previous games, weather conditions were also used as an obstacle, giving players another challenge to add to the list of dangerous environment.
On the topic of challenge, this game is hard. Really, really hard. Levels are relatively complex, with numerous trial-and-error situations scattered throughout. Sonic is not allowed any rings at all during boss fights, making even the simplest foes deadly by immediate interaction. Chaos emeralds are not earned, but must be found in certain levels. If the level is complete before an emerald is obtained, there is no going back to retrieve it. This provides both absolute precision and incentive for what may seem like infinite cases of re-playability.
While it can be a frustrating experience, the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a unique Sonic game because of this extreme challenge. It also goes to show that there is variety in the Sonic canon if variety is indeed the goal.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is not as widely available as other classic Sonic games, but can be downloaded on the Nintendo Wii via Virtual Console. It is also an unlockable title in Sonic Adventure DX for the Nintendo Gamecube and in the Sonic Gems anthology collection on Playstation 2.
5. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
Critics suggest that the modernization of Sonic games introduced a dip in quality for the franchise. This is not entirely untrue; some of the titles released in mid-2000s were not nearly as memorable as the classic side-scrolling adventures of yore. It is easy to write off a three-dimensional environment as an uncomfortable fit for the Sonic enterprise, but that would be a misguided assumption. While the transition to third-person gameplay semantics was not a perfectly smooth transition, the true culprit towards the dark days of Sonic the Hedgehog was the introduction of gimmicks.
The first Sonic Adventure, released for the Sega Dreamcast in 1999, was groundbreaking as an obvious stepping stone for the modernization of the franchise, but it is also notorious for introducing three infamous gimmicks into the Sonic gaming universe: the dramatic narrative, the sandbox over-world in between action levels, and the requirement to play multiple characters in order to reach the ending. Adding variety as a means of evolution is not a bad thing, but the force-fed buffet stylings of the game kept it away from achieving greatness. By the time Sonic Adventure 2 was released in 2001, these errors were largely corrected.
Unlike the first Sonic Adventure, the sequel is a tighter, strongly constructed and true to its roots. The sandbox styling is replaced with a streamlined level-by-level approach, more reminiscent of its Genesis predecessors and better because of it. The narrative is still highly dramatized and overwrought in presentation, but also more ambitious in nature and easier to follow. The multiple characters are still a playing requirement, but greater focus is placed on action. It was everything the first iteration should have been, and aside from the tedious scavenger-hunting levels, Sonic Adventure 2 has the urgent immediacy of modern action games.
The best parts of this game are undoubtably the fast-paced Sonic/Shadow levels, so it is unfortunate that later installments of modern Sonic shy away from the visceral excitement that make this type of gameplay so fun in the first place. Even though it ushered a dark period for the Sonic gaming library, Sonic Adventure 2 is proof that the overall mechanics of three-dimensional Sonic were not necessarily broken in the first place.
Sonic Adventure 2 was re-released as an enhanced port for the Nintendo Gamecube. Hardcore fans will attest that the best way to play this game is on a Sega Dreamcast. The first Sonic Adventure is available for download on Xbox Live Arcade and on the Playstation Network.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis, 1992)
A sequel to any video game should always be an improvement over its predecessor, and the best ones always retain the qualities of an original while adding enough differential elements to warrant a play-through without capturing excessive deja vu moments. The direct sequel to the first Sonic game is a prime example of how video game sequels should work. It sticks to the formula established by the first game, but feels fresh and redeveloped from the ground up. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a longer and more exciting game than the first one, and upon completion it gives the player a sense of both satisfactory closure and giddy anticipation for another entry.
Instead of six locations for Sonic to run around in, this game provides ten unique and varied levels. The boss fights are more challenging, but never unfair and based solely on luck. The added bonus of a second player character in the form of Tails, his trusty fox mascot, gives the game a fresh spin on the standard running and jumping mechanics. The graphics are colorful and lively, the soundtrack catchy and appropriate to given environments, the control physics are unique and easy to learn. It is a grand success both as an entry for the Sonic library, and as a stand-alone video game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 contributes several elements into the series that are now often taken for granted by virtual hedgehog enthusiasts. The introduction of the spin-dash as a primary action for Sonic enhances the perception of speed in gameplay. The antagonist, Dr. Eggman (or Dr. Robotnik, depending on who who ask) is presented in a more sinister light, with angrier robots and larger boss contraptions getting in way of battle. Getting all the chaos emeralds rewards the player with the ability to transform into Super-Sonic, a mostly invincible and faster version of the protagonist.
Most importantly, however, Sonic 2 is notable for the way it elevates the Sonic from simply being another video game character to heroic status, given the epic scope of the adventure. The first Sonic game was a fine introduction to the gameplay and physics that define the series, but its sequel is a more effective beginning to the overall narrative by giving greater sense of the big picture at play.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is available on practically all modern platforms, and is featured in numerous anthology collections.
3. Sonic Generations (2011)
Modern Sonic has come a long way to finally reach the epitaph that is Sonic Generations, and it has been quite a bumpy ride. Things started out mostly fine with his two Dreamcast adventures, but lost course on the way towards popular acceptance. Take Sonic Heroes (2004) as an example. The game is bright and lively, but doesn't feel like a real Sonic game in comparison to its predecessors. Similarly, Shadow the Hedgehog (2005) focuses too heavily on gun battle and felt even more out of touch with its platforming roots. The next-generation console "reboot," Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is largely unplayable thanks to unresponsive controls and an awful camera. Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007) is an on-rails mess, glitchy and frustrating to complete. Things started looking up with Sonic Unleashed (2008), but so much emphasis was put on the bland beat-em-up night-time stages that the excellent day-time stages felt like nostalgic afterthoughts in comparison. It was very difficult to be a fan of the series during this gaming recession. Sonic Generations is the first glimmer of hope in a long time, and an excellent game to boot.
This is the only game on this list that can be categorized as "Modern Sonic" by definition, and it is ironically an intentional throwback to the classic games that introduced the series. Make no mistake, however, this is not an anthology game. Every single level is based off of one from a previous Sonic adventure, spanning from his Genesis days all the way up to his excellent 2010 outing on the Nintendo Wii (Sonic Colors). These levels are not imitations of the past pixel by pixel, but are rather tributary re-creations capturing the spirit and honest pleasure from Sonic's 25-year plus history. They take everything that was ever right about Sonic games and make them relavent given today's gaming expectations.
Playing through Sonic Generations is both a familiar exercise and a surprising experience. Making Sonic the only playable character gives the game consistent grounding, but the variety in level design keep it away from feeling static and rote. Any Sonic fan frustrated with recent outings should really give this one a try, since it really does prove that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Sonic Generations is available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.
2. Sonic CD (1993)
Sonic games have always been associated with speed. While the Sonic character is best known for zipping around levels at a much faster pace than his platforming rivals, to solely place the emphasis on velocity does the franchise a disservice. There has always been the element of exploration in these games, as the player is usually given many different routes in order to achieve the desired outcome in question. There is a sense of adventuring happening on top of all the bouncy blue action, and no Sonic games touches on these qualities greater than Sonic CD.
Sonic CD is claustrophobic in comparison to most other classic Sonic games, with levels that are greatly enclosed and obstacles scattered literally everywhere on the screen. What sets this game apart from in the Sonic library is the inclusion of time travel. Each level is divided into three time-dimensional settings: a potentially dangerous past, a standard present and a variable future. Players must find particular time-posts that grant permission to particular time zones, and then must find a clear path in order to achieve enough velocity to transport to that specific era. The achievements of the past will influence the outcome of the future, which can either be dark and apocalyptic or hopeful and bright. The best ending occurs if players "fix" the future in all levels.
The time travelling is a little difficult to explain with words, but feels fluid and natural in gameplay. It adds a layer on top of the traditional Sonic action that is largely untouched in any other game within the series, and gives Sonic CD a sense of depth that the Genesis games arguably lacked. The game is as challenging as the player wants it to be. The levels are easily beatable in a quick, casual gaming session, but the extra task of reworking the future and collecting all of the "time-stones" by beating special stages is not a simple feat.
Upon release and for several years after that, Sonic CD was a challenging game to find. It was released exclusively for the unsuccessful Sega CD add-on, which was unpopular due to its high cost and non-impressive gaming library. It was shortly available thereafter for PC CD-ROM, but the port was inconsistent and buggy in comparison to its original form. The PC version, although inferior, was used as the basis for its release on the Sonic Gems anthology for the Nintendo Gamecube. Sonic CD was ported in 2011 by indie game developer Christian Whitehead and released for Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network, iOS and Android platforms. The 2011 port is perfect--undoubtably the definitive version of the game.
1. Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994)
Allow me to break the fourth wall here, it is the only way I can effectively describe the greatness that is this game. I have been playing video games my entire life. I am not the most hardcore video gamer around, and I am not particularly good at many of them. I partake in console gaming on a casual level, but I enjoy them thoroughly and will likely always have them around. Regardless of my personal merit as a gamer, I have played a lot of them. I cannot think of a game that is better than Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
I remember being initially disappointed with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 for the Sega Genesis. It was definitely a fun game, but it was short. Much too short, in fact. After being spoiled with the epic qualities of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the third installment hardly felt like a worthwhile second sequel. Everything about the third Sonic game felt so anti-climactic. The game was polished, no doubt about that, but everything about it was so incomplete. By the time I reached the final boss and defeated him after eight measly hits (the last boss in Sonic 2 needed twelve hits on order to be damaged), I found myself asking: why is that it? Why does the third Sonic game feel so unfinished? Anyone familiar with the history of Sonic games surely knows the answer to this question. It felt unfinished because it literally was an unfinished game.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 was rushed into circulation due to a deadline crunch. The developers had a much bigger game in mind, but had to release only half of their vision thanks to an impatient marketing division. Sega remedied this by releasing the other half of the game, Sonic & Knuckles, the following year.
Sonic & Knuckles, played by itself, is an even smaller game than Sonic 3, and just as one would suspect, is climactic in nature but has no effective beginning. In their original forms, the Sonic 3 cartridge could be placed on top of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge to combine them into one, a "super-cartridge" if you will. Aside from providing a relatively awkward vertical appearance on top of the mostly horizontal Sega Genesis platform, the combination of the two cartridges literally combined the two games into one. This combination resulted in what is known as Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the game that the developers intended to release all along. This unfortunately required players to purchase two separate cartridges, but the high price of admission was worth it.
My parents scoffed at the high price of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, so I was never able to play the game on my Sega Genesis as a kid. Much later, while I was in college, I purchased a Sonic anthology collection for my Nintendo Gamecube. After unlocking the ability to combine the Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles into its superior dual form, I was finally able to play the third installment of Sonic as it had always been intended.
The game is long and rewarding, with superior level design and a definitive beginning, middle and ending. The game begins on land, then underwater, then high into the sky, deep into an arctic tundra, into a volcanic pit, into the sky again, and finally ending with a challenging battle in space. How's that for variety?
Players can breeze through all the levels and finish the game without ever thinking about collecting the chaos emeralds, but diligent gamers are rewarded with a truly satisfying conclusion. In order to reach the final level, players must collect all the chaos emeralds, giving Super-Sonic his first effective role in a Sonic game. Pitting Super-Sonic against the final boss has become a staple in recent Sonic games, but none of them are as effective as Sonic 3 & Knuckles. The true ending to this game is not provided, it is not a given. It is earned.
I can go on and on about why I love this game so much. There are no filler levels, the bosses are great fun to defeat, the special stages are the best in any Sonic game, the graphics are top-notch, the soundtrack is amazing. No words can truly define a playing experience, so I urge any one who has never given Sonic 3 & Knuckles a try to simply do that.
Perhaps my overall fandom for Sonic games provides bias to this review, and I know that if prompted, several readers will happily list games that they feel are better and more revolutionary than Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Please allow me to fully disclose my bias now, and to acknowledge that my statements are my own opinion and not that of every single Sonic fan. I love many other games (the Metroid series comes to mind), but none as much as this one.
As mentioned, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is available on anthology collections that feature Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. It is also available on Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network and for the Wii Virtual Console. Unfortunately, not unlike the dual cartridge fiasco requirement on the Sega Genesis, getting Sonic 3 & Knuckles on modern platforms requires the purchase of its individual parts, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles.
Honorable Mentions and Conclusion
There are many great Sonic games, there are several acceptable ones, there are a few terrible ones. By effectively weeding out the bad ones, players are presented with a gaming library that transcends most counterparts. I mentioned that I am often found defending my position on Sonic games, but I will no longer do that. The great ones speak for themselves, and if anyone challenges that assumption, then they are encouraged to play any of the seven games listed above.
Here are a few Sonic games that were not described here in detail, but make a strong case for Sonic the Hedgehog.
- Sonic Rush, 2005. Nintendo DS. Excellent, fast paced portable Sonic action. Short, sweet and to the point, this proprietary Nintendo title is great fun for 2-D platform enthusiasts.
- Sonic Triple Trouble, 1994. Sega Game Gear. Undoubtably the prettiest 8-Bit Sonic game. There is not much of a challenge, but this one has a contemporary feel that places it alongside the Genesis counterparts thanks to smarter artistic choices.
- Sonic Rush Adventure, 2007. Nintendo DS. Similar to the feel of its predecessor in relation to overall level design, Sonic Rush Adventure provides an adventure-game sandbox element that enhances game length and replayability.
- Sonic Colors, 2010. Nintendo Wii. The first truly great modern Sonic game, taking everything that right about Sonic Unleashed (the daytime stages) and building an entire standalone adventure around it.
- Sonic 4: Episode 1, 2010. Multi-platform. The game is short and easy, and the control physics feel a little off at times, but as a return to form this 2-D platformer is mostly successful.
P.S.: One's to avoid
It has been mentioned throughout this article that there are some bad Sonic games. I touched on a few of them, here are some more for the curious consumer.
- Sonic and the Black Knight, 2009. Nintendo Wii. Frustrating gameplay and stupid Wii-mote waggling gimmicks make this one an obvious miss.
- Sonic 3D Blast, 1996. Sega Genesis. Don't believe the title, this game is not really in 3-D. It's has a slanted isometric design, and is painstakingly slow for a Sonic game. The boss fights are fun, but everything else about it is lame.
- Sonic Spinball, 1994. Sega Genesis. One of the most frustrating games ever made. With rusty controls and a terrible physics engine, winning is dependent on luck over skill. Not recommended for anyone with a short temper.
- Sonic R, 1997. Sega Saturn. Not really a Sonic game at all, this racing game is just bad. Curious players are encouraged to swim with sharks or walk on hot coals before giving this one a try.
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on May 07, 2017:
I grew up on Sonic the Hedgehog. I remember my parents buying me a Sega Genesis with Sonic 2. I had Sonic 3, Sonic and Knuckles, and Sonic 3D Blast. Sonic 3D Blast was different but I beat them all. Sega Dreamcast was last console they bought me as I was now 13. I had Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2. Beat them! Due to money if not would have tried to get them all. I did buy a Sonic game on Playstation 3 but with kids now it's nearly impossible to play. For the sake of experiencing how it was I strongly recommend you play Sonic and Knuckles on the Genesis with Sonic 3 and Sonic 2 connected! Fun!! Great read
Jeremy Gill from Louisiana on March 25, 2015:
As a long-time Sonic fan, I agree with your recommendations! I'd like to add that Sonic Adventure 2 includes a mode where you raise mystical "Chao" creatures in a very in-depth fashion. Chao raising is almost its own game. Best of all, its fun too!
Sam Islam (author) from Vancouver, WA on June 14, 2012:
Thanks Olde Cashmere!
Olde Cashmere on June 14, 2012:
One of the most fun hubs I've read. While growing up, I played Sonic games on my Sega Genesis often and it was always a blast. Thanks for an excellent and well written review on one of the video game world's most iconic characters. Voted up, awesome, and interesting :)
Sam Islam (author) from Vancouver, WA on March 20, 2012:
Thank you! Yes, Sonic was awesome in Smash Bros.
MrAungst from Penna on March 20, 2012:
I used to have a Sega Genesis and have been a huge Sonic fan for years. I was so psyched when it started coming onto new systems, since I'm largely Nintendo biased. I agree with your picks here. The more recent Sonic games have been a real let down. That said, Generations really turned things around and is an awesome game. And Sonic's cameo as a playable fighter in Super Smash Bros. Brawl was also great. Awesome hub!