One Giant Leap, 1991: Sonic The Hedgehog

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: Mario gets a super fast, super cool rival in Sonic The Hedgehog

In the late 80s and early 90s, Nintendo dominated the console market in a way that nobody since has even come close to. Five of the last six articles in this series have been about Nintendo games, and that is not an outlier; in 1992 they were estimated to control 80% of the American console market, and in a lawsuit brought by Atari over some of Nintendo’s less savory business practices1 a jury ruled that Nintendo had “monopoly power” in the US games market.2

The Sega Genesis3 was released in North America back in 1989, but despite being technologically superior had failed to make a dent in the popularity of the NES, and by 1991 it was already falling behind Nintendo’s own 16-bit system. And so, to avoid becoming an eternal footnote4 Sega decided on a new strategy. Nintendo had famously convinced retailers skeptical of video games after the 1983 crash that the NES was primarily a toy, and that it should be stocked and marketed accordingly. So, if Nintendo made toys for children, Sega saw an opening.

That’s right, we’re cool! We aren’t for kids, we’re for tweens! Perhaps even teens!

Of course, no amount of fast cars or Sega Screams or “blast processing”5 was gonna move units unless there was a game just as cool to go with it. And so, Sonic The Hedgehog was born, the epitome of early 90s kid-friendly cool.

Sonic, above all else, is fast. It’s there in the name, it’s there in the ads. It’s the game’s primary selling point, and it’s what makes it stand out. Like, just look at this:

Regardless of whether or not the SNES could pull this off, it didn’t.6 And beyond the raw technical prowess, Sonic The Hedgehog makes a lot of choices to really sell this sense of speed. Sonic famously has an exaggerated sense of momentum to his movement, taking several seconds to build up to top speed; once he gets going fast you feel like you really earned it. There are lots of curves and slopes and loops to act as big set-pieces for going fast; you can see several in just the gif above. And the gorgeous layered backgrounds aren’t just a showcase of what the Genesis offers over 8-bit hardware, but also a good way to show Sonic’s movement in context even when he’s going so fast that he jumps above the regular level geometry.

Of course, going fast looks impressive, but it’s pretty easy to imagine how such speed might be more frustrating than fun when actually playing, with enemies and obstacles hitting you before you’ve even had a chance to see and react to them. And indeed, some of that does happen. However, Sonic makes a few choices to really help mitigate these drawbacks. First, the massive, sprawling levels often feature multiple paths. Unlike in most other platformers, missing a jump doesn’t have to mean death; it might simply result in you falling into a different path. And second, the game’s famous ring system. Last month we talked about how Yoshi added a neat wrinkle to the hit points in Mario; you could recover him, potentially without penalty, but only if you moved decisively into potential danger. Sonic takes this idea and runs7 with it. If you take damage but have at least one ring you will survive the hit, and instead all your rings will fall out. You’ll have a few seconds to collect as many as you can before they all go away, so theoretically you can’t ever die, merely be inconvenienced. It’s a great way to have dangerous traps and also allow for reckless speed.

Sonic losing his rings

Well, at least in theory. Unfortunately Sonic doesn’t commit. Sure, you can fall of the stage, and land on a lower path…except for when you land in a bottomless bit instead. And yeah, taking damage has a safety net…except when it’s “squeeze” damage, where Sonic gets trapped between two moving walls, which is an instant death. And this game has the most aggressive squeeze system I have ever seen; you will die suddenly and, even knowing logically that it had to be a squeeze death have absolutely no idea what could have possibly triggered it. Also, several bosses don’t have any rings available between the final checkpoint and the encounter, so if you don’t beat them the first time you have to do it perfect.

And beyond undermining its own innovations, Sonic moves back the clock on lives. If you run out of lives, you start all over, from the very start of the game. You can collect “continues” in bonus stages, which allow you to restart the current level instead. But they’re a limited resource, and tricky to acquire. Unlike Mario, Sonic is not interested in helping you win. It is often a deeply frustrating game because of this.

So, because the game is so punishing of failure, your instinct is to play it cautiously, to advance slowly, to look before you leap. It’s a good way to avoid danger, and a good way to collect the rings necessary for both extra lives and access to bonus stages. But, if you play this way aren’t you defeating the entire point of Sonic? This is a game that’s supposed to be about going fast; why won’t it let me go fast?

And this is something of a contentious point. For reasons I’ll be getting into in future articles, Sonic is a series that’s been discoursed to death, so basically every possible take you could ever have on it already has an equal and opposite counter-take. There are plenty of people who can play fast, for whom rings and layers are more than enough to keep the momentum up. And it’s not just rote memorization; they can do the same with new Sonic games they’ve never played. But it’s also not just practice. Unlike a lot of games I’ve covered before, I’ve played a lot of Sonic The Hedgehog before. It was one of the first games I ever played as a kid. I’ve put dozens if not hundreds of hours into both it and 2D Sonic games in general. And yet it’s never clicked. Even my most recent playthrough, just a few weeks ago, ended in frustration.

I feel like at least part of this has to reflect badly on the game. Flexing about your Gamer Skills is the absolute worst thing a person could ever do8 but I’m not bad at platformers. I feel like if I can’t figure out your game after this many attempts, it’s maybe a bit obtuse. But also, let’s circle back to the top. Sonic The Hedgehog is cool. And the thing about cool is that it can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t, and if you have to ask you’ll never know.

So in conclusion:

Stray Observations:

  • Okay so despite the ending I want to complain about one section in particular. At the start of the boss fight in Labyrinth Zone, there are three corks, the kind that rise with the water level. Previously there have been traps, where these corks are directly below spikes just off screen, so I avoid stepping on them, having been trained by the game not to. Except it turns out this time the corks take you up to the next area, and if you don’t step on them you’re stuck forever and have to go drown yourself and retry. But also better step on the right one because two of them are still traps with spikes. What fun.
  • I couldn’t find room for it in the main body, but I think part of the reason Sonic is so unforgiving is to cover for how short it is. There are only 6 zones, and 18 levels total (not counting the final boss), far shorter in number than even Super Mario Bros. These levels are absolutely massive in terms of raw size, but because you move so quickly they still go by fast.
  • Like most series, there’s some first installment weirdness here. Most notably, Sonic’s iconic spin dash move isn’t present, as that wasn’t added until Sonic 2. But what’s really odd is that, in several rereleases, the spin-dash has been added to Sonic 1, and it works and feels natural. That’s weird, right? For them to just plunk a mechanic into a game that wasn’t there initially, and for it to all just work out?
  • The thing about Sonic games is that they always, always have A+ soundtracks.9 Seriously, just throw this on and vibe

Other 1991 platformers of note:

1991 saw a sequel to Metroid released on the Game Boy of all platforms. Metroid II is something of an odd game in the 2D Metroid canon, being a far more linear game, focused on exterminating the entire Metroid species as revenge for the events of the first game. The game is most notable for its ending, surprisingly poignant for a console game of this era. After completing her genocidal mission, Samus finds a single baby Metroid. Rather than kill it, Samus chooses to show mercy, and the two escape the planet together.

Additionally, Capcom continued the Mega Man series with Mega Man 4. Whereas 2 and 3 are often viewed as the pinnacle of the NES era, 4 is something of a shark-jumping moment. There’s a weird fake-out, where a new villain named Dr. Cossack is framed as the bad guy before an 11th hour twist revealing that it was all Dr. Wily, per usual, which mostly serves to double the number of the fortress levels at the end. It’s not bad, but it’s inessential, a sure sign that the well was dry and it was time to move on, a sign I’m sure Capcom took.

Next Time: First you draw a circle, then you dot the eyes, add a great big smile and presto, it’s Kirby’s Dream Land!