Obviously, I’m not such a caveman that I’ve never played the original Sonic the Hedgehog. When I was first discovering what these strange distractions called ‘video games’, I used to play a level or two while at a friend’s house, but being only four or five years old meant we were unable to get past Marble Arch, Zone 1.
Being the Nintendo fanboy that I was, I didn’t really play any of the sequels either. I never had a Dreamcast so the much-lauded Sonic Adventure games were never accessible to me. In fact, until recently, my most comprehensive experience of a Sonic game was 2008’s Sonic Unleashed. I know. I can hear you eyes rolling from here.
With the Virtual Console on the Wii, I no longer had any excuses for my ignorance. I downloaded the original Sonic the Hedgehog and tried to make my way all the way through it.
And I say try because it’s still a remarkably challenging game. As with all retro platformers, the lack of health packs or regenerative health means you can’t take as many risks as you can in games today, and while anyone who has played the earlier Mario titles knows and expects this, the world of Sonic seems to be considerably more dangerous.
Maybe it’s an aesthetic thing. The floor of several levels is lined with razor sharp spikes, lava and/or acid, rather than a seemingly painless bottomless-chasm-o-doom. The enemies are vicious mechanical representations of piranhas, wasps and other hostile animals, rather than benign turtles or doughy-eyed fish. You get the sense that everything here wants to, and will, kill you.
The danger is reinforced by the sense of panic created whenever you take damage. The look of shock on Sonic’s face, the shrill chimes of your rings bouncing away, the alarming rate at which they fade away – it all creates a frantic moment as you try to grab as many as you can. Given how long you spend collecting them and the sheer volume you manage to amass in the early stages of each level, rings seem so much more precious than coins or any other platforming collectible. As such, anything that would threaten to take them from you has a greater sense of danger than it would in any other game.
Then there is the fact that every level feels like venturing into the unknown. Other platformers of the time – and especially games today – feel relatively pedestrian by comparison, allowing players to leisurely stroll through each environment at their own pace, facing dangers as and when they choose to. Sonic’s sheer speed means that you are constantly surprised by what you face next because you have had no time to prepare for it. Very few, if any, games made today cause the same level of anxiety or shock – perhaps with the exception of, say, the Call of Duty games (although that is largely through heavy scripting, rather than intelligent level design).
The result of all this is that playing Sonic is a much more punishing experience than its contemporaries, but not to the extent that it deters a new player. Every hit from an enemy or death, every mis-timed jump urges you to do better, to hone your reflexes so that you can react to whatever the game can throw at you, especially when playing at Sonic’s full speed.
And it’s here that the original Sonic becomes interesting to a modern gamer. Any report on a new Sonic game is rife with references to how fast it is, subtly urging the developers to make the hedgehog’s outings faster with each iteration. The character himself still bears the tagline ‘the world’s fastest hedgehog’ and yet if I compare his debut to later titles like Unleashed, I believe that if anything they should slow him down.
Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog is a fast game. Faster than Mario, Dizzy, Kirby and any other past platformer you’d care to mention. But it’s a manageable speed, a pace at which players still feel the adrenaline and yet maintain complete control over the character. It feels practically sluggish when compared with Unleashed, but while such a criticism would be negative for any other retro platformer, here it’s a blessing.
Granted, Sonic is even slower to control when not bolting through the level at full pace, but there’s an almost floaty nature about him that allows you to guide him onto ledges and find secrets that would otherwise be inaccessible if it weren’t for the fine-tuning in his controls.
Each world seems to be built to take full advantage of his speed, whether it’s the strategically lined-up loop-de-loops of Green Hill or the rapid-fire tunnel networks of Scrap Brain. Sadly this means that any slower levels requiring patience, such as the lava-drenched Marble Arch or sunken Labyrinth become increasingly frustrating – and almost boring.
Sadly, it appears I’m still as unskilled as my five-year-old self. I could only get as far as the Labyrinth without running out of lives (and the will to play). You can imagine how ashamed I became when my girlfriend took the controller and proceeded to beat the game in just under two hours.