Gotta Go Fast... Enough To Stop | Sonic The Hedgehog 1991 | Retro Game Review
The 1991 retro gaming classic; Sonic The Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis (or the Megadrive as we call it in the UK) is this months Retro Rewind!
Sonic The Hedgehog sprinted his way into our homes in 1991, and for some there he stayed until now. I was never lucky enough to own a Megadrive with the Sonic title myself and didn't play through a full game in the franchise until Sonic Adventure 2: Battle & Race and Shadow The Hedgehog on the GameCube! I did at one point own a Sega Gamegear where I did experience more of the original title ported to the handheld however as we all know the battery issues made it very difficult to play through much of any game!
Everything I experienced playing through Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic & Tails (it's highly anticipated sequel) at a close friends house however, I absolutely loved! Save for the panic inducing under water moments of Chemical Plant Zone... But I digress, let's get into the review of Sonic The Hedgehog.
From the moment you start the game and see the SEY GAH (you know exactly what I mean, and I'm sure you heard it in your head) you know you're in for something iconic. The title screen that you're greeted with is genuinely wonderful and stands out above most other games of the same era and is only made better by the 90's cartoon-esque music that captures the fun tone perfectly.
Green Hill Zone is probably one of the most iconic visual styles of any game. Even to date. The visual style (inspired by the artist Eizin Suzuki) screams of late 80's early 90's nostalgia where you would see bright colours and early 3D renders being used in advertising. Whoever decided to try that checked pattern for the ground, well done!
It's an aesthetic that was so visually strong and eye-catching that it has stuck with me since trying the game back in the 90's. But there were things that only playing it now as an adult that made it even more impressive.
For anyone wondering about the art behind this game and the technical quality that the Genisis/Megadrive could give to players to enjoy, one of the amazing things is actually the animated background and how the world of Mobius is depicted.
The Megadrive could only display three layers, two background layers and one sprite layer. The sprite layer is used to display Sonic himself, items and all enemies where as the first background layer was used to show the far distance objects (like mountains and sky) and the second background layer was used to show the ground, trees and anything up close. It baffled me then how they managed to have a parallax scrolling sky... for that you need many more layers. On doing some research I found that the artists used an ingenious technique called "line scroll" where they broke up the background layer into thin horizontal strips which they scrolled horizontally at different rates depending on their height on the screen giving the illusion of depth!
The same technique was actually used again to simulate the shifting water effect while being paired with a another technique making use of the vertical drawdown (the displayed image is drawn pixel by pixel from the top left to the bottom right.) The colour shift meant they could display twice as many colours on screen as thought possible before!
This was all thanks to Yuji Naka who was labelled as a man who made "working miracles" by his colleagues at Sega. We have him to thank for most if not all of the ingenious techniques that were used to make this game so outstanding at the time! Whether it was dithering the water in the waterfalls (which granted did look better on CRT TVs and actually gave a blurry look) or those insane loop de loops that we had Sonic running around. The curved levels were allegedly something he learnt while porting Ghouls 'N' Ghosts from the SNES! Without that we wouldn't have one of the most iconic moments from the game.
Now I do have to preface something. This game is hard. There was obviously a reason I didn't remember much more than the first few levels and it's probably because I could never get through much more.
This surprised me! Along with how actually puzzle-platformer sections of the game are. In my mind it was much longer and easier straight runs! And in terms of the mechanics you learn from the environment I do like that those carry over into fighting the many iterations of Dr. Robotnik, some of them are pretty challenging too!
In the levels following Green Hill Zone the difficulty increases dramatically, and I think it damages the experience. As someone playing this game for the first time I genuinely found myself getting frustrated and as my cohost and I both said on our episode that released with this review neither of us think we'd have pressed on if we weren't playing this for an episode. The music of every level did it's best though to keep my mood up throughout the experience thought! Every level had a damn good chiptune soundtrack that was impressively complex.
Every zone has it's own brilliantly defined style and regardless of how hard or frustrating the levels can be with moments of unavoidable enemies and insta-death traps I did still enjoy elements of each. Spring Yard & Scrap Brain Zone (bafflingly named?) however were two that I found immeasurably annoying at times, those electric traps and saw blades felt like something more out of the Megaman franchise!
For notable moments I have to say the water tunnels in the Labyrinth Zone when Sonic is pulled through by the water current resulting in him grabbing on to bars you have to climb up and down on was something that I found impressive along with the infinite water slide moment. I genuinely thought my game had glitched! I didn't know this was possible back then!
I want to end this review by saying I can see exactly why this game has the legacy it does. It's damn impressive what Sega managed to do with the limited processing power of the Megadrive (OR GENESIS!) to create such an iconic crystalized moment in gaming. It captures the era it was made in perfectly and serves as time capsule for the gaming experience of that age perfectly. Yes it's damn f*cking hard, but the style in which it deals with the challenge is what sticks. People throw around the term "Style no substance" often and where this runs the razors edge of that tag, I think it's style and substance of the time.
If you haven't played it, try it. But maybe stick with the first Zone. Because it's genuinely wonderful.