Blast processing. Sega had it, Nintendo didn’t. I had no idea what it was and most other kids didn’t either.
Of course, we now know it was a made up term used by the Sega marketing department, but that didn’t matter to us in 1991. All we knew was that there was this blue hedgehog named Sonic spinning around loop-the-loops and blazing around the screen at speeds unseen before. Commercials don’t lie, right?
Well, it didn’t matter. I still wasn’t going to buy a Genesis with the money I was making at my after-school job just so I could play Sonic. I had a drivers license and a car and other reasons to spend money (mostly on music and the occasional new NES game). So I was relegated to just watching the commercials while wondering what the big deal was. When I finally purchased my used Genesis in the late 90’s, Sonic the Hedgehog was high on my priority – he was the Mario of that particular console after all. Iconic and intriguing, I needed to own Sonic the Hedgehog and play it through just like I did with the 8 and 16 bit Mario titles.
Sonic the Hedgehog tells the story of a brave young hedgehog that sets off to save the world against the evil Dr. Eggman aka Dr. Robotnik (don’t ask why he has two names), who has captured all living creatures and enslaved them to do his bidding. Sonic can use both spin attacks and jumping on top of enemies to kill them. Sonic must keep rings collected throughout the levels in order to prevent himself from one hit deaths but he also must collect enough rings before reaching the end of the levels in order to earn a chance at the bonus screens. It is during these bonus levels when Sonic can steal the magical Chaos Emeralds back from Dr. Robotnik. Sonic turns into a ball and bounces around rotating environments trying to maintain control during these bonus stages, but if you can get the 6 emeralds you don’t have to worry about these annoying stages any longer. Collecting these Chaos Emeralds is ultimately the difference between just completing the game and completing the game with the best ending.
Any level in Sonic the Hedgehog, with the exception of the water levels (forget those levels), have their individual strengths but for me, the iconic first level or Green Hill Zone is the one where you discover everything you need to know about Sonic the Hedgehog. In the Green Hill Zone, you are not forced into as many traditional platforming scenarios, such as waiting for moving platforms or having to stop while deadly spikes drop from ceilings, as you are in later levels. You are allowed the freedom to move as fast as your little blue heart desires, including through those iconic loop-the-loops and tunnels that Sonic must go through as a kinetic ball of energy. Green Hill Zone also introduced you to the game’s spring boards. If hit while running at top speed, you can fly high through the air to the point where it feels like you’re missing a quarter of the stage! I also like how you can backtrack in this level with ease. When I think of Sonic, this is the level and music I think of.
Sonic is clearly the best character in the original of the eponymous series. Later titles in the franchise would introduce characters such as Tails, Knuckles and Metal Sonic, but Sonic is rightfully the star of his own show in his first effort. Sure, he is fast, and that’s cool, but it was the little things that endeared him to gamers. In the opening title screen, he waves his finger at you as if to say “You aren’t ready for this. Turn the game off and go back to playing Mario.” Additionally, he would tap his toes on the ground if you stayed still for too long or if you stood too close to the edge of a platform, acting like he was about to fall off and having to regain his balance. It’s no wonder kids of that era were so enamored with him. Sonic helped usher in the radically extreme 1990’s, and this is the game where his attitude was still a novelty.
Power ups exist all over in Sonic the Hedgehog, and most of them mirror the type found in all platformers of the time. You can find 1-Ups, bonus rings, a shield that protects you from hits, etc. The best of the power-ups is the invincibility power-up because it allows Sonic to do what he does best: go fast! You don’t have to worry about running into enemies at the wrong angle and getting your rings taken away from you. Of course, you’re not invincible to pits and spikes, but the feeling of going as fast as you want with little fear is the best thing about the game.
Sonic the Hedgehog quickly became the face of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive after the game launched due to its unique concept of speed-encouraged gameplay combined with typical platforming elements gamers (levels, boss fights, left/right scrolling). The sense of freedom you felt while wandering (or blasting) around the relatively straightforward levels allowed gamers to feel like they were experiencing something completely new, even if it was a little bit of a gimmick. Due to its common status as a pack-in title, Sonic the Hedgehog was and still is cheap to find. After several standout proper sequels, Sonic was whored out to other lesser titles such as Sonic Spinball and Sonic 3D Blast in an attempt to capitalize on name recognition. The fact of the matter is, Sonic the Hedgehog is a classic game, and it still holds up today like it did upon release in 1991.