Roll yourself into a ball and rev it up, we’re about to begin blasting through the classic games that defined the Sega experience. Bright and bouncy, full of life and motion, the Sega Mega Drive defined my Saturday mornings growing up. The only console we had, my brother got it for his tenth birthday way back in the day and it now lives with me, still fully functioning. Thanks to The R.A.G.E. on Fade Street, Dublin 2, I was able to replace the ancient AV cable. It’s a beautifully simple machine, where most problems that arise can be solved by blowing air into the cartridge or the port on the console (don’t quote me on that though, I should probably invest in a compressed air spray). Today, I’ll begin a rundown on the iconic Sega offerings that defined childhoods the world over, starting with the best – Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic first rolled his cheeky way into gaming history in 1991, with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Mega Drive (aka. the Sega Genesis stateside). A 2D platform game, it’s clearly influenced by Mario but offers the chance to players of speeding through without missing anything. By that, I don’t mean that the length of the levels or the difficulty is compromised – I mean that the levels are intricately built so that Sonic can hurtle through at a high speed and he is still going up, down, upside-down and the player is on tenterhooks trying to avoid spikes and creepy robot enemies. Inside every enemy, is a cute little critter that the evil Dr. Robotnik has enslaved to… well… I guess slow Sonic’s roll so that Robotnik can get the six Chaos Emeralds? It’s not hugely clear why the critters have to be involved if the robots are robots but whatever, it makes for a nice reward when you stomp on a metal fly and a bunny jumps out of the wreckage, scampering to safety. It’s even better when, at the end of the level, you jump on a giant tank and legions of bunnies, birdies, and piggies are released to your delight.
The greatest strength of Sonic is the varied and well-designed levels. Each one has a fully realised aesthetic, with a score to match. There are six main levels.
1. Green Hill Zone
Green Hill Zone is iconic. Bright and verdant, the plants seem full of life, but trawling through the high grass are Robotnik’s creepy creations. Sonic slides down steep valleys and up high hills, past waterfalls with robot piranhas, avoiding the flies overhead who calmly blast little balls of energy at Sonic as they pass him. Springs are hidden in the undergrowth that bounce Sonic up high to get rings (the currency in the game – for every hundred rings you get, you get another life. If you are hit by an enemy, you lose your rings. If you are hit while having no rings, poor aul Sonic is dead) or to little televisions (? is all I can say) that contain power-ups such as a protective orb, super speediness or invincibility. Incidentally, I learned the word “invincible” from watching and listening to my brothers playing this game when I was about six or seven.
2. Marble Zone
Marble Zone is one of the reasons why, as a kid, you assume lava is gonna be a really common issue you run into in adult life, like John Mulaney says in his stand-up about quicksand. Full of secret chambers and shortcuts, but rife with descending weights and spikes, this level introduces the player to how features of these levels are, depending on your playing, helpful or hazardous. You can stand on an iron block as it pulls you up, but watch out if you’re under that block as it crashes down once it has reached its apex. It’s a cool, apocalyptic, gothic kind of level.
3. Spring Yard Zone
My personal favourite. This is the level I would painstakingly carry out the cheat for (up, down, left, right, A and Start, but only hit A if you hear the ring sound effect while Sonic waves at you in the intro screen – these things were fiddly). It’s like a kind of bonkers casino Las Vegas-type of place, inspired by a pinball machine (this idea is taken to an even madder extreme in Sonic 2‘s Casino Night Zone). A tinkly, sparkly, synth-ey tune with an almost sleazy bassline drives you along as you bounce impossibly high and speed down vertical hills, jumping at the last minute to avoid the dangers awaiting you whenever you get too comfortable. Neon signs pulse in the background, and everything is red, magenta, blue or green. It’s so fun in Spring Yard Zone that, despite the difficulty ramping up, it feels like a reward after the slightly bleak Marble Zone.
4. Labyrinth Zone
I used to annoy my brothers by begging them to play this level over and over again before I was good enough to play it because it’s just so pretty. It’s an ancient vine-laden ruin, with crystals growing from the plinths and carved stones decorating the platforms, and you move mostly underwater. After Spring Yard Zone, where speed and precision are key, it is a real change of pace as you come to grips with swimming out of the path of peril and you really deal with the up and down axis as well as side to side. Sonic can also drown, so rushing through an area might make you miss an essential air bubble that allows Sonic to stay submerged for another thirty or so seconds. Though it’s a really tricky level to get through, it is also the one that most makes you want to book a holiday to some country with nice ruins and warm sea temperatures. Which I know, that’s not exactly something one looks for in a game, but damn, this level is gorgeous.
5. Star Light Zone
As a child, I found the music for this level so pretty that I would hum it when my Bratz were getting married. Star Light Zone is, overall, a nice, chilled-out space. It is what you need after the frenetic button-mashing of Labyrinth Zone. Stripped down, minimalistic, Sonic roams this nighttime starry scape, with hints of a city in the background. Rather than any natural landscape, the platforms are pale green strips with dimly flashing red lights. The game really lets you play around here, as there are many times at which you just let Sonic off the leash, building momentum and flying through the air. By now, you know that hazards await at the end of these rhapsodic moments, and you’re ready for it, to land Sonic on the platform temporarily suspended in space and to hop up to safe ground from there. It’s not all sweet and nice though – there are walking bombs that, while adorable, have a relatively large damage radius. Creepily enough, if you fall you die as you go into an endless abyss. But it’s a goddamn picnic compared to our next destination.
6. Scrap Brain Zone
Firstly, let’s look at this name. It’s a wee bit foreboding. I’ve heard of scrap metal, and ‘scrap brain’ does a good job of maybe hinting at why Robotnik (rotund, mustachioed, a bit of a buffoon) is actually a fairly scary villain. This level is shiny steel and black and yellow stripes – giving an industrial, factory kind of vibe. But this is not a factory that has a health and safety officer (as far as it appears – then who put up all those yellow and black hazard signs?). A grinding, mounting theme with the odd drumroll pulses, adding to the industrial atmosphere and the rising sense of foreboding as you get closer and closer to the final boss stage. Act 1 of this level has Sonic outside the factory, while Act 2 has him inside. There is fun to be had with tubes that transport you from place to place, but apart from that, this level isn’t playing. Walls move, conveyor belts lead you doomward, fire flares out of broken pipes (c’mon Robotnik ya cheapskate, think of the workers) and there is a claustrophobic creepiness to being in this weird factory (in which brains are, apparently, scrapped). Act 3 takes Sonic to a place like Labyrinth Zone except with purple water and grey stone, leading you to the final zone, which is a kind of factory space in which Sonic must try to beat Robotnik without taking any damage whatsoever as he has no rings. The battle music is epic but will become your least favourite tune after the second or third time this final boss stage obliterates you.
If you didn’t grow up with this game, I hope this inspires you to find a way to play it today. It is a gaming cornerstone for a reason and it hasn’t been left behind by the technological progress of the last decade or two. In fact, it remains as colourful, inventive and entertaining as ever. If you aren’t as lucky as I am to have a Sega still functioning after all this time, the rise in appreciation for retro gaming has made it fairly easy to find these old consoles. If you’re Dublin-based, I would again recommend the R.A.G.E. on Fade St, just off George’s St, for buying Sega consoles and games. But you’re a smart cookie, you’ll find a way even if there are no retro purveyors in your area.
Any Sonic veterans, tell me – what was your favourite level of Sonic the Hedgehog? Least favourite? I’d love to know. Imagine me as an impatient Sonic tapping his foot, as I await your answer.