It is a month from Sonic the Hedgehog's 20th anniversary, and, while the series is not exactly going strong, it is showing signs of improvement. The new games are looking less and less terrible and they aren't introducing as many new characters, so with luck Sonic will be a quality franchise again by the time the 25th anniversary comes around. In celebration of this milestone, I will be going through every single Sonic game in release order(small spinoffs will get compilation posts every once in a while), talking about the background of the game, the gameplay, and whether or not it still holds up today. Here we go with the game that started it all: Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic 1 was released back in 1991 as SEGA tried to take some market share from Nintendo. They went through some alternate character designs including an odd-looking rabbit, before settling on the Sonic we know today, first called Mr. Needlemouse. The character design was inspired by Michael Jackson for the boots with Santa Claus' color scheme and the can-do attitude for the character was taken from Bill Clinton (Seriously, they said that).
Sonic's character was influenced by members of SEGA of America as well. In order to better reach U.S. audiences, they removed fangs from Sonic's mouth, softened him up a bit, and removed the rock band he originally had as well as his human girlfriend, Madonna.
This caused some problems as members of Sonic Team did not like the modifications that were made. However, the modifications stayed and after a few more refinements, Sonic was born. Years later, Naka admitted that the changes were probably for the best.
SEGA of America also made another other bold change to Sonic by choosing to bundle the game with the SEGA Genesis and lowering the bundle's price to $150. According to Tom Kalinske, then President of SEGA of America, he was flown to Japan where literally no one in the meeting he was called to agreed with his ideas. SEGA of Japan decided to trust him, however, and they were rewarded with the success the Genesis would bring them in America.
Both Sonic the Hedgehog and the SEGA Genesis were advertised heavily with a very aggressive campaign. The famous SEGA scream and the emphasis on speed and attitude helped differentiate them from the competition (Nintendo). The "SEGA does what Nintendon't" advertising campaign was designed around convincing children that SEGA was not only cooler than Nintendo, but significantly better in terms of technical prowess.
Sonic himself is almost the definition of 90s, full of attitude and "extreme!", Sonic is definitely a product of his time, but redesigns over the years have taken some of the 90s out of the character while letting him continue to be as full of the attitude he was known for.
From the beginning, the game itself was meant to be about speed. At one point, Yuji Naka had made the game so fast that he was getting motion sickness, so he tweaked it until he had found the speed he was looking for while remaining unqueasy. The game also keeps things simple with jump being mapped to all of the buttons and the only attack in the game being the spin attack.
The first zone in the game, Green Hill Zone, perfectly showcases the basic Sonic gameplay, allowing players run freely through loops and open spaces while still having enough enemies and obstacles to keep the level interesting. This didn't come easily though, as, according to Yuji Naka, Green Hill Zone took six months to complete as they redesigned the layout and visuals of the zone many times before they were satisfied with the result.
One of the biggest problems I have with Sonic the Hedgehog is the second zone, Marble Zone. It's much slower than the other zones, as you sit and wait for lava to finish falling or platforms to move. In the Sonic Jam! strategy guide, Yuji Naka had commentary notes on each zone. This is what he had to say about Marble Zone:
Early in production, Labyrinth Zone was going to be the second stage. But Labyrinth is much harder than the early stages, and it would have been a sudden spike in the difficulty. Sonic is really a different sort of action game compared to anything that had been made at that time, so we really wondered if it was OK to have him running through every stage so quickly, so we wanted there to be a moment for the player to catch his breath.
While I understand the desire to take a breather, the zone is a rather big departure in style. Act 3, with too many cheap deaths, is my main issue with Marble Zone. Thankfully the other Genesis games did not feature stages built around slowing things down to this extent, showing that they became more confident in their design decisions.
The other zones are quite good for the most part, with Spring Yard Zone being a lot of fun and a sort of prototype to the recurring Casino levels that would appear in later games. Most of the level design consists of periods of speed where little platforming is necessary (but is rewarded) and breaks where careful jumps and timing are needed. This setup works very well and keeps the running and loops from getting stale through overuse. There are some zones and acts where things seem to be going too slow, but that is to be expected from the first game in a series.
Each of the zones is divided into three acts, with the third act featuring a battle with Robotnik at the end. The Robotnik battles are all variations on a theme. They all go down after eight attacks and they all revolve around jumping carefully and/or timing. I found the most interesting boss battle to be the Labyrinth Zone boss. Instead of fighting Robotnik head-on, the battle involves chasing Robotnik through a hazardous maze. It is possible to attack and defeat Robotnik through spin attacks, but it's a bit easier to just chase him through it. This idea would be later revisited in Sonic CD and Sonic 4.
One aspect of Sonic I have always found original is the rings. Rather than having a set amount of health or HP, Sonic can keep taking attacks as long as he has rings. All collected rings shoot out of Sonic's body upon being hit in Sonic 1, but this has changed in the 3D games and some of the newer 2D ones. The game incentivizes avoiding cheap tricks as getting hurt and collecting the rings as they scatter from Sonic's body in the promise of a 1UP at 100 rings and access to the special stage if you finish with 50 or more rings. Players obtained Chaos Emeralds in the special stages, but in Sonic 1, collecting them all only nets you the good ending.
Sonic the Hedgehog was the game that helped put SEGA on the map. It helped the SEGA Genesis gain marketshare against Nintendo and started console wars on playgrounds everywhere. Sonic the Hedgehog was a unique idea and a gamble for SEGA, but it paid off in a great way. The original game has some flaws, with some levels going too slow or containing too many cheap deaths, but the other levels make up for it and the game is still worth playing today.