Sega does what Nintendon’t, and nothing quite summarizes 90s culture like a blue hedgehog being treated like the epitome of cool. We were a Sega household but a little bit late to the party – my mother got a Genesis for cheap after the Playstation and Nintendo 64 were already on the market. It came with a collection of six games – the original Sonic, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Columns, Revenge of Shinobi, and Super Hang-On. For the first eight years of my life, this console was all I had, picking up used games for cheap from the local video store. It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2000 that I received a Game Boy Color and my very first Mario game, so Sonic was my introduction to the platforming genre.
The second game in the franchise, my personal favorite, felt like the first to truly capture what Sonic was promised to be, a carefree speedster with attitude. The addition of the spin dash to get a quick start certainly helped. The levels were better designed to leave you running at high speeds, forcing quick reactions as obstacles popped in the way. Even certain slow segments forced a frantic energy; I’m forever scarred by a certain corridor in the Chemical Plant Zone where you have to escape drowning by jumping up a series of moving platforms – and to add to that horrifying drowning music, there’s the added risk of being crushed to death by the platforms.
This sense of motion set the series apart from more methodical platformers, and key to this is a sometimes false sense of security. Like most platforming heroes, Sonic will die in only a few hits. Rings protect you from damage, but a single hits sends them all flying. Every damage turns the game into a frantic chase to either collect those dropped or finding the next one. This game is not too difficult, but it pushes the tension in just the right way to reinforce its core tenants. The protection of a few dozen rings makes you feel invincible, which is why anyone ever dared to go charging through these levels in the first place.
The levels themselves are gorgeous; no two zones looked alike. Emerald Hill Zone is a classic opener, followed by the nightmarish industrial Chemical Plant which captures everything right about the series with its twisted paths. Casino Night Zone is an absolute blast, while Mystic Cave Zone captures this perfect sense of peril. Nothing about these levels could be called generic; Metropolis Zone could certainly be called something, but not generic. Sonic the Hedgehog was cool – not the character himself, but his games pushed a certain aesthetic that made other platformers look cheap in comparison. Add in the excellent soundtrack and you really get an unforgettable experience.
While Sonic has rarely outdone the plumber, the first two sequels did etch themselves a particular style few other platformers have successfully imitated. As more and more throwback platformers move toward brutal precision, I hope to someday see someone expand upon the pure frenetic energy Sonic managed to pull off.