Happy Birthday Sonic!

20 years… 20 years?!? Has it really been that long? Yes it has.

On June 23, 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog first appeared on the Sega Genesis.  Since then, the little blue speed demon has gone on to sell over 70 million games across more than 130 different titles on nearly every console from the Genesis to the PS3. The games have had varying degrees of quality over the years, ahem, I’m looking at you Sonic Unleashed, but there’s still something exciting about firing up a new Sonic game and going on a mad dash for rings.

Let’s take a trip back to the early 90’s when I had put away my Atari 2600 and 5200 and was gaming entirely on the Apple IIC.  I had played Mario Bros. in a friend’s dorm room on the NES and while it was interesting, it really didn’t do much for me.  The colors were kind of bland and the gameplay seemed to match.  Besides, coming from Atari joysticks, that NES plastic rectangle of a controller was incredibly uncomfortable in my non child-sized hands.  I felt confident that I wouldn’t be headed down the console gaming path again any time soon.  Then about a year or two later I went to a friend’s house off campus and saw the Sega Genesis for the first time.  The colors were so bright, the games felt more alive than Mario, Punch Out or Excite Bike (it must have been the blast processing), and the controllers actually felt comfortable in my hands.  This was not a good sign for my sad, barren, student’s wallet.

That was when I first saw Sonic flying through the Green Hill Zone.  The speed was bewildering, the colors breathtaking and the music downright awesome!  There were multiple paths, many more than Mario offered from what I could see, a timer, sweet power ups and cool boss battles.  Sonic also had something I’d never seen in a video game, idle animations.  The idea is that the character has a life of their own and when you put down your controller for a while they’ll start doing their own thing on screen.  Sonic’s most iconic idle animation had him tapping his foot, pointing at his watch and giving the player an annoyed look as if to say COME ON!  LET’S GET MOVING!  It reinforced the idea that Sonic was all about speed.  Learning your way through each of the levels while trying to find the fastest path was always a challenge, especially when you couldn’t save your game, forcing a restart every time you turned it on again.  Well here was a game I could spend a lot of time with.

Sonic 2 added bigger levels, more challenges and cooler special stages.  This release also saw the addition of Tails, a sidekick/second playable character.  Now you could actually have two people play at once, both collecting rings and attacking Dr. Robotnik’s creations.  One of the more interesting additions to the game however was the 2 Player Versus Mode where 2 players control either Sonic or Tails in a split screen race to finish each Act with the highest score and fastest time.  I spent hours and hours with friends in that mode just having a blast the entire time.

One of my favorite Sonic games came along in late 1994, Sonic and Knuckles.  It was certainly a good game in it’s own right, bringing in a new character, Knuckles, who had different abilities which changed up the gameplay significantly.  You could play through two different stories (on essentially the same levels) by using the two different characters.  Knuckles’ ability to glide and climb certain objects and walls made your approach to the game very different and for me, it was a really fun and interesting change of pace.

However, that was nothing compared to the other little trick this cartridge had up its sleeve, one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen in a video game, lock on technology.  The top of the cartridge had a small flap and when you flipped it open, you could attach either Sonic the Hedgehog 2 or 3 to the top of it and play through those two games with a completely different experience.

While Sonic 2 would only let you play as Knuckles, it offered up some newly accessible areas due to Knuckles’ abilities.  Sonic 3 is where the power of the technology shined.  This is largely due to the fact that Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles were developed at the same time.  Not being able to meet their deadlines for Sonic 3, Sonic Team took a number of the levels and concepts (including Knuckles himself) and moved them to a secondary project which became Sonic and Knuckles.

When Sonic 3 is attached to Sonic and Knuckles, Sonic, Knuckles and Tails all become playable characters.  New special stages are added, new paths through levels, new boss fights and so much more.  It’s the only time this type of technology was used to completely modify existing games.  The cool thing is, if you buy the digital downloads of these three games on XBLA or the Wii Shop Channel, the lock on technology is enabled, allowing you to experience this unique gameplay all over again.

Many other Sonic games were released over the years and I’ve played quite a few of them.  Some great, some mediocre and some downright terrible.  Sonic CD certainly ranks among the best along with Sonic 1-3 and Knuckles, which is why I was so excited for Sonic 4 Episode 1 which came out on PSN last year.  Speaking of which, where’s my Episode 2 Sega??  While Sonic 4 changes things up a bit in the gameplay department with homing attacks and such, it’s still very much an old school Sonic game at it’s core and I love it for that.

Sonic Generations is coming soon and the demo is out today on the PSN an XBLA.  If you have any interest in Sonic, go get it now.  The updated Green Hill Zone I played at E3 is a wonderful treat for any Sonic fan.  I’m very excited to see what they’ve done with all the other classic levels and I’m really looking forward to the full release with all its 3D goodness.

Sonic was synonymous with the Sega Genesis and the flagship title for Sega consoles.  When Sega pulled out of the hardware business in 2001, it left a lot of people wondering what would happen to the iconic little blue guy.  While he certainly hasn’t seen the same success that a certain fat little plumber has across the past 20 years, and he’s definitely hit a few speed bumps along the way, Sonic is alive and well and the release of Sonic 4 and Sonic Generations points to a brighter future as it seems that Sega is realizing what we love about the little blue Hedgehog.

Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

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  • Nice article, now im off to play some Sonic 1.

  • Anonymous

    Great article Josh.  Sonic was a blast to play back in the Sega Genesis days.  I never even picked up anything after that until the recent Sonic 4.  You are right on the mark about Sega needing to continue the 4th adventure with another episode.  Let’s hope Sonic Generations doesn’t delay that process.

  • Anonymous

    Ya know, with all of the photos of Sonic you can see how game consoles came along graphics wise. Pretty cool. Good work on the article Josh.

  • Thanks all. Since writing the article I have learned that Sonic 4 Episode 2 is indeed on the way.