Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2 8-Bit Retrospective
Sonic the Hedgehog
What with the recent announcement that a number of Sonic Game Gear titles are making their way to the 3DS Virtual Console library (which you can read more about on sonicstadium.org), it seemed only fitting that now should be the time take a retrospective look at some of these classics for SEGADriven. Developed by Ancient, Sonic the Hedgehog was released in late 1991 on the Game Gear and Master System and was the 8 bit world’s answer to the Mega Drive title. Although the game takes its’ cue from its’ 16 bit older brother, it is very much a unique game in its own right, with its own levels, graphics and music. Even where there is overlap, such as the relatively similar Green Hill and Scrap Brain zones, there is still enough difference in level design to make them two wholly different experiences.
This feature will examine the Game Gear version, featuring much comparison with the Mega Drive version. It will start by providing the game’s background before going on to look at the graphics and the music.
The game takes place on the scenic South Island, an area of Sonic’s world which is also the setting of the 17 bit version and later appears in the arcade title Sonic the Fighters. Sonic’s task is to travel through its 6 zones, including the aforementioned Green Hill and Scrap Brain, along with new additions such as Bridge Zone, facing badniks as well as the evil Dr. Robotnik in a mini boss battle at the end of each zone’s 3rd act. The final battle comes (as is tradition) at the end of the last level, which here happens to be the Sky Base Zone, the successful completion of which will get one of two endings depending on whether you managed to collect all 6 Chaos Emeralds.
The player can find the emeralds hidden around the 6 zones themselves, as opposed to in special stages as in the Mega Drive version. The special stages in this version are merely places to collect lives and possibly, continues. Aside from rings and emeralds, the games’ other collectibles are mainly to be found in monitors (something also seen in the 16 bit version), chiefly power-ups like shields and invincibility. Interestingly, and uniquely, checkpoints are also activated in this way and are represented by monitors with downward arrows on them.
As you’d imagine, the Game Gear Sonic the Hedgehog’s graphics are lower resolution and have less colour than their Mega Drive counterparts. They lack those massively detailed, animated backdrops you see in places such as the 16 bit’s Spring Hill Zone. Level elements, such as monitors, also look less sophisticated, and even Sonic himself looks considerably rougher. Yes, what you have here are altogether simpler visuals, but this in no way detracts from their functionality. Plus, to be fair, they still look pretty damn good. Also, although the background detail is severely cut down from the Mega Drive version, the landscapes still looks a darn sight better than those of its 8 bit peers, for example any of the NES Super Mario Bros outings.
In addition, new levels such as Bridge and Jungle Zone represented two very funky looking, fantasy landscapes, from the innovative criss-cross patterns on the Bridge Zone’s pillars to the Jungle Zone’s foliage-based tightropes, log platforms and fruit-filled landscape. The design of the Sky Base Zone Act 2 may well have provided the inspiration for the 16 bit Sonic 2′s Wing Fortress itself.
I don’t think it would be unfair to suggest this was the best-looking hand-held, or indeed the best looking 8 bit, title around at the time of its release. And its blue skies and cute patterns still hold up pretty well even today.
The music is a serious high point of this game. My absolute favourite musical moment is when you’re bouncing around the bonus stage, listening to its’ insanely poppy/cheerful soundtrack, which is then offset by the brilliant squishy sound effects made when you hit springs and bumpers. Its almost orgasmic! I’d definitely go as far as to say I prefer the 8 bit Sonic’s soundtrack over the 16 bit’s. By quite a margin. Sure the 16 bit’s tunes are more complex and include more instruments and beats, but as songs in themselves, the 8 bit tracks give me cheery delights like the Jungle Zone tune over the moody Marble Zone piece any day!
The sound effects too, really appeal to me a lot more. They somehow sound more homely, more cute, and come across as less intimidating somehow.
So in conclusion, Sonic the Hedgehog for the Game Gear is an incredibly fun game and, dare I say it, a worthy competitor to its 16 bit brother. While the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the Mega Drive version or of the later 8 bit Sonic 2, this game’s originality, brilliant soundtrack and general cheery disposition really make it shine. And to pack all this into a portable title (which were somewhat notorious for being sub-par in those days) just elevates its’ many achievements to new heights.
I have no doubt that if this game joins the titles to become available on the 3DS (which, as of writing, consists of Sonic Drift 2 and Sonic Triple Trouble) a whole new generation of gamers will absolutely relish this title as much as us old Sega fans did all those years ago.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Unlike the first 8 bit Sonic, Sonic 2 for the Game Gear and Master System were actually released a month before the 16 bit arrival of the game of the same name, at least in PAL territories. It came out on October 16th for Master System, and October 29th for Game Gear, making it the first retail release to feature Tails the Fox. That said, Tails plays a reduced role in the 8 bit version, merely appearing in the title, level intros, and story-telling animations, whereas in the 16 bit Sonic 2 he is a fully playable character in addition to these things.
As with the first 8 bit Sonic the Hedgehog release, Sonic 2 was chiefly developed by a third party company, this time Aspect Co. Sonic 2 to me, largely seems to be more a sequel to the first 8 bit outing than it does a companion to the Mega Drive Sonic 2. Unlike the first one, there are no levels of the same name (although, interestingly, there is a Green Hill Zone), no spin dash, no starposts, nothing that made Sonic 2 stand out, bar the inclusion of Tails. Not that that takes away from the experience at all.
This feature will once again, look at the background, graphics and sound.
Sonic 2 sees you back in South Island, the beautiful island from the first 8 bit adventure. This time, Sonic is expected to traverse 7 zones, each with 3 acts, picking up Chaos Emeralds as he goes (hopefully) and ultimately, Tails. Dr Robotnik’s up to all his old tricks, imprisoning the island’s critters in badniks, kidnapping Tails, building vast mecha landscapes and so forth.
When looking at the 8 bit Sonic 2′s soundtrack there is, undoubtedly, one tune that stands out above the rest. It is a tune that many of us (including myself, I’m not sure I’m embarrassed to admit) sat in our bedrooms and, in our 10 year old minds, composed our own little lyrics to. The tune I’m talking about is the background track to the Green Hill Zone which, unlike in Sonic 1 of any format, appears as the fourth zone in this 8 bit romp. It features an instrumental version of Sonic CD’s “Sonic – You Can Do Anything” and, honestly, no where does that tune sound better place. Among the heart shaped flowers and succulent greens of that level, the tune is simply luscious!
The rest of the music, while falling short of that level of epic, are still very, very good. From the moody and story-telling Sky-High tune to the brilliant Christmassy Crystal Egg tune, composers Masafumi Ogata and Naofumi Hataya did a brilliant job with this soundtrack, which is at least as good as first 8-bit venture (which was also fantastic I might add).
I’m sorry to say but the graphical progress between the first 8 bit Sonic and the second demonstrated more than anything their host devices’ limitations. Sonic 2 does look better than the first Sonic release. Honestly there were moments, such as seeing how well-rendered the antennae Sky High Zone boss was, the cactus in Crystal Egg Zone, and welcoming loop-do-loops to the 8-bit world in the Green Hill Zone, where I was actually seriously impressed with this game’s visual abilities.
But ultimately the difference between the first and second 8 bit Sonic outings do not (and no doubt because of their hardware limitations) could not represent the same graphical development that gamers saw between the first and second 16 bit release. The Mega Drive Sonic 2 could afford to have such things going on as Tails randomly flying in on the scene and doing his own thing and it could afford to do such things as experiment with 3D in the special stages. The Game Gear version did not have such a luxury.
For me, the first Sonic outings to appear on both the Mega Drive and the Game Gear/Master System were on a somewhat even keel, both outdoing the other in some ways. I wish I could say the same here, the 8 bit Sonic 2 is genuinely amazing and very much an improvement on its predecessor. Its just that nothing compares to the 16 bit Sonic 2 in my heart. The unrivalled (for its time) multi-player experience, the music, the Hill Top Zone! The 8 bit Sonic 2 is special to me indeed, but the 16-bit version is on another level!
That said, it is an improvement over the first 8 bit Sonic game in just about every way. Enjoyable levels, better music, better graphics, this is the ultimate 8-bit Sonic experience in my opinion. Also, the Game Gear version, while not trouncing its’ Master System rival in quite so many arenas this time, still pips it to the post, mainly because of portability. A must-have in every Sonic fan’s library.
Written by Helen Doherty 15/03/2011