Friday, 11 September 2009

Retro Review - Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis)

Every now and again, I'll take a look at an old game and review it. To begin, I've decided to revisit Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Mega Drive.

GAME: Sonic the Hedgehog
FORMAT: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

Back in the early 1990s, Sega ran a marketing campaign in the USA with the slogan, "Genesis does what Nintendon't." The idea was to differentiate their 16-Bit Genesis (Mega Drive) console from Nintendo's 8-Bit NES. Whereas the NES was seen as safe and family-friendly, the Mega Drive was intended to be seen as its sleeker, cooler, edgier, brashier, more exciting rival. While Nintendo would be the Strictly Come Dancing of the gaming world, Sega would be The X-Factor. The Mega Drive's range of games would consist of arcade conversions and sports simulations - good old 'man' games, not the girly crap you'd get on the NES. We'll ignore the fact that games like Mickey Mouse's Castle of Illusion and Alex Kidd in something probably Enchanted were two of the Mega Drive's more popular early games. One game that would demonstrate the Mega Drive's difference to the NES more than anything else was Sonic the Hedgehog. A blur in blue, as the stuff that you never read on the back of the box likes to describe him. Whereas Mario was slow and middle-aged, Sonic was fast and young. Whereas Mario liked rescuing a forever-getting-kidnapped Princess from castles in rather boring-lookng landscapes, Sonic would be whizzing around vibrantly colourful zones and through surreal pinball tables and suchlike to defeat Dr Robotnik, or Dr Eggman as now likes to go by his maiden name.
The first time I saw anything about Sonic the Hedgehog was in a news article in either Mean Machines or Computer and Video Games magazine. There was simply a screenshot of the famous intro screen and something about it getting launched in summer. But even that screenshot looked so much more polished and exciting than anything I'd seen before. Shortly afterwards, more and more of the game began getting revealed, until I was nearly piddling myself with excitement over the release of it. Sometime shortly after its release, I saw the game running in a shop in Llandudno. I recall having mixed feelings about the game. After all the hype, I was expecting Sonic to run faster through the levels than he did, and there was something I didn't like about the music. But, once I picked up the control pad and guided the little blur in blue through Green Hill Zone, any doubts about the game vanished. The speed issue may have been down to the fact that on PAL Mega Drives, Sonic does run slower than he should. After returning home from my short Welsh break (I was in Wales in my last entry too - must have spent most of my childhood there!), I traded in my Master System and games for a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog. The money I had left over was used to buy Fantasia at a later date. Not a good decision. I still feel guilty about selling my Master System to that shop. It didn't work! Well, it did work, but not properly. There was something wrong with the power button meaning it only powered up properly about one in every twenty attempts, and you sort of had to push it in slowly and only in fully as soon as you heard the Sega logo fanfare. Anyway, where was I? Still in Llandudno? Oh no, I'd returned home, sold my Master System and purchased Sonic the Hedgehog. And for many weeks, months, possibly even years, I assisted Sonic the Hedgehog in his quest to rescue animals from their robotic shells, collecting Chaos Emeralds and giving Dr Robotnik/Eggman a good old slap. For a long time, it was my favourite game ever. Possibly until the release of Sonic 2.

Today, Sonic the Hedgehog still stands up well against its contemporaries. Despite its age, it doesn't seem to have aged badly. Quite clearly, seeing as it seems to get rereleased every other year in one way or another, it is still in demand. Playing the game on a Mega Drive, rather than on a retro compilation or (whispers) through emulation, is sometimes a frustrating experience. When I was younger, I wasn't aware that UK Mega Drives played slower than American and Japanese ones. I just thought we had squished screens and that was all. But when you've played the game as it should have been played, and go back to how you played it, you do notice the difference. And playing the Labyrinth Zone feels more like a chore than a pleasure. Why it was never optimised for Europe, I'll never know. Even so, the game is still instantly playable as soon as you start it up. The levels feel as fresh as ever; the bright, colourful graphics still give you a happy feeling and the music, well, I did eventually grow to like it. The game is probably a little too easy when compared to a lot of newer games. The difficulty only really ramps up to anything near challenging towards the last zone. Then again, the last zone can't be played at speed, unlike the previous ones, and seeing as Sonic's speed, and the fact that the most fun you have with the game is rushing through the levels, spinning into anything in your way and not having time to take in the scenary, means that making the game tougher would probably be more off-putting than beneficial to it. I don't have a clue if that last sentence made any sense! One thing I've never been a big fan of and I never understood all the praise it got on its original release, is the game's special zone. I've always found it quite frustrating. Although it clearly requires skill, it just didn't feel like you were in complete control over Sonic as he floats around the level like a drunken tramp. Although the level obviously needs to be hard to make getting the Chaos Emeralds a challenge, it just felt unfair rather than difficult. And the music on that level really annoys me!

Despite a couple of flaws, Sonic the Hedgehog is still regarded quite rightly as a classic. Sonic 2 took all that was good about the game, and made it ten times better. The two games represent an era of when Sonic games were good. Sega have recently admitted that they need to "fix" Sonic. I'm not too sure if that means they're going to get the heavies on him and have him done over. They simply need to take him back to his roots, not necessarily back to his side-scrolling days. There's nothing wrong with doing 3D, just as long as it's done well. Nintendo managed it with Mario. Even though Mario's roots are two-dimensional, his third-dimensional exploits still feel like a proper old-school Mario game. Sega chose to pick on Mario many years ago and made him out to be past it and slow. But Sonic would do well do follow his example rather than try his best not to be him.

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