Sonic the Hedgehog turned twenty years old this week, and there was much rejoicing. Well ... there was a bit of rejoicing. There was something, at least.
To keep everybody in the Sonic spirit, I have consulted the greatest professors in the history of the Sonic franchise (I haven't) to create the most competent and least refutable list of the ten greatest Sonic games ever made.
You cannot argue this list (you can).
10. Sonic Spinball
Sonic the Hedgehog, being a rampant whore, would appear in all sorts of spin-offs over the years, but one of the earliest and most successful was Sonic Spinball. At its heart, the game was a fairly unremarkable pinball experience, with a few notable differences -- chiefly the ability to have limited control over the "ball" and a set goal for each of the four interestingly designed tables.
Being developed mostly by Polygames, Sonic Spinball had a slightly different feel and visual style when compared to other Sonic games. Nevertheless, it was a fun little diversion and one that can still be enjoyed today. It's nothing that actual pinball fans could ever call good, but as a Sonic-themed bit of silliness, it does the job.
9. Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
You'll notice that the early picks in this list stretch the definition of "Sonic game" a little bit. Unfortunately, it takes some blurring of the lines to get this list up to a solid ten. With that in mind, it's worth noting that Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine doesn't even feature Sonic. It does feature Scratch and Grounder though, and those chaps really need to stage a comeback.
Mean Bean takes the form of a Puyo Puyo color-matching puzzler. The Scenario Mode has the player face off against various Badniks, and they're all rather merciless. In fact, the whole game is sadistic. You can be winning by a mile, only to have a lucky combo from the enemy snatch their board from the jaws of defeat and transfer a load of unmatchable "refugee" beans over to your side.
This game was fun, but boy was it an asshole.
8. SEGA Superstars Tennis
Shut up! The game was pretty damn good.
Okay, so being a SEGA-oriented game, it wasn't strictly a Sonic title but let's be honest -- the game was predominantly about the blue hedgehog and various other Sonic characters. Like I said, I was desperate for games that were both Sonic-related and good. I'll take what I can get.
The game succeeded by keeping things simple. At its core, Superstars Tennis is a fairly standard little sports title, and that's why it works. The only convolution comes in the form of super powers that are granted to each character. Outside of the regular matches were a whole bunch of minigames that were nearly all surprisingly great fun.
Plenty of fan service, solid tennis action and great minigames. A far better title than many will give it credit for.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog
The original, though not necessarily the best. While Sonic the Hedgehog was, for its time, a kick up the ass of platform adventures, it has not aged with quite the same level of grace as the rest of Sonic's Genesis outings. The lack of a now obligatory Spin Dash move, sluggish pace, and respectively drab levels don't make for a truly great game, but it's still a decent one when regarded in context.
It's certainly not bad, and at least deserves a place for its legacy. As the starting point for the series, it laid a lot of groundwork and helped cultivate the kind of gameplay that would make Sonic a quasi-legend. Plus, there are a few standout levels -- most notably Starlight Zone, which had a fantastic theme tune and some cool little gimmicks.
It was easily outclassed by its direct sequels, but the game has earned due respect.
6. Sonic Colors DS
Sonic Colors on the Wii was sub-par nonsense and that's scientific fact, proven by science. The DS version? Pretty good, as it goes.
A lot of this is due to the increased influence of Dimps on the title. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Dimps needs to be the primary Sonic developer and it needs some creative freedom, because the studio seems to understand what made the games so good to a degree that Sonic Team does not.
While not totally free of the extraneous gimmickry that has marred most console-based Sonic titles, Sonic Colors DS was at least a more grounded and sensible platformer with very little fluff, and that's why it was actually fun as opposed to infuriating. Decent level design that puts the focus on platforming skill over pure speed is what makes Colors DS a superior offering, and while a few frustrating levels and pointless narrative scenes remain, it is overall a pretty great offering.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
While Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 still remains a controversial game among the Sonic fan community -- many members of which despised it for the most arbitrary and ludicrous of reasons -- Sonic 4 was and is a lot of fun. Was it the huge mega comeback that everybody longed for? Not quite. What it was, however, was the first great Sonic game to hit a console in ages, and those who didn't demand the Moon floating in a bucket of Wish Water were left satisfied.
There are some definite low points. For example, there is a potentially excellent level in which Sonic rides decks of playing cards, which is summarily ruined at the end with an awfully dodgy pitfall section that undoes all the good the stage had previously done. A few bosses and gimmicky challenges reek of the game trying too hard to remain overly complex, when a simpler approach would be better.
Still, the overall experience is terrific, and that's despite the game's Zones being based on some of the least enjoyable levels found in the Genesis games. It takes a lot to make anything based on Sonic 2's Metropolis zone fun, but Sonic 4 managed it. That's worthy of a damn medal.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is viewed by some as the best Genesis game, but I always felt it lacked the same tight level design and unique nineties aesthetic as Sonic 2. It was still a solid followup though, with levels that ranged from great to decent, and a number of inventive boss encounters.
The only real downside to Sonic 3 is how obviously significant the focus on graphics was. There's a whole section in Hydrocity Zone that puts Sonic on rotating plinths. From a gameplay perspective, it's dull stuff, but you got to see Sonic rotate a full 360 degrees, and that was the point. Blast Processing, bitch!
While Sonic 3 is a fun game and worthy of its place among the series' best, it's interesting to note that, even this early on, there are signs of the overbearing gimmickry that would kill later games. Marble Garden Zone, for instance, was a boring, slow-paced mess of spinning disc platforms that could barely be controlled by the player, while Carnival Night Zone featured the barrel of mystery that required pressing Up and Down on the D-Pad to maneuver -- a trick that the player is never told.
But ... Sonic 3 had Ice Cap Zone, so all is forgiven.
3. Sonic & Knuckles
Sonic & Knuckles is, ostensibly, the second half of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. They were supposed to be one game from the outset, after all. Sonic & Knuckles has the edge over Sonic 3 thanks to more memorable levels, an excellent soundtrack (Flying Battery and Sky Sanctuary are amazing) and, of course, a second storyline that featured Knuckles.
Of course, both games can be considered as sharing third and fourth place once you lock the cartridges together to create Sonic 3 & Knuckles.
As good as the game was, it could have really done without the stage involving ghosts and doors that would slowly close shut. Screw that stage a thousand times.
2. Sonic Advance
Sonic Advance is the reason why I say Dimps has a better handle on the series than Sonic Team, because it did exactly what New Super Mario Bros. would do several years later -- it kept things simple.
Adopting a "back to basics" approach, Dimps put its energy into proper platforming design and utilized speed as a reward, not as a central gameplay device. Its range of levels and excellent soundtrack evoked feelings of old school Sonic titles and ensured its place as a game I still happily play to this day. At the time, people would ask if Sonic could ever make a comeback. In 2000, he did so ... at least for a time.
Unfortunately, a certain demographic whined that Sonic Advance was "too slow" because they didn't have a clue what had made Sonic games good. The non-existent problem was "fixed" by Dimps, leading to a pair of inferior Sonic Advance sequels that did away with good platforming and focused on running fast. It ruined what could have been a great series, because idiots didn't realize that Sonic Advance wasn't "too slow by Sonic standards" -- it had brought the speed BACK to standard.
As far as I'm concerned, Sonic Advance was the first authentic Sonic experience since the Genesis days and, more importantly, it was the last. Time will tell if Sonic Generations can change that.
1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
I hate to end the list on a highly predictable note, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still the best Sonic game made to date and up there with the very best that platformers have to offer. Never has a Sonic been so consistent, with nearly every level being intensely playable, even today, and a range of unforgettable boss encounters.
Sonic 2 featured some of the best Zones in the entire franchise -- the speedy Chemical Plant, the charming Hilltop, and the delightfully oddball Oil Ocean to name but three. Had the game not insisted on THREE ACTS of the dreadful Metropolis Zone, it may well have been perfect. Seriously, three acts? It's like they knew how awful that Zone was and wanted to punish everybody out of sheer cruelty. Wankers.
Anyway, there's a reason why I still play Sonic 2 up until the end of Oil Ocean before switching it off -- it's just that damn good. A run of excellent and varied zones, the best soundtrack in the series, and of course the playable Tails to keep younger brothers occupied instead of bugging you to play the game next.
Yet SEGA does all it can to NOT do things the way they worked best. I'll never understand that, but at least SEGA's released it ten billion times, so I'll never be far away from the best Sonic game ever made.