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Sonic's Highs and Lows
On June 23, 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog raced onto the video game scene and reinvigorated Sega’s fledgling 16-bit Genesis system, ignited a console war with Nintendo, and gave the mighty Mario a run for his money. Sonic would go on to become one of the most popular video game characters of all time, appearing in comics, animated series, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and of course, dozens of best-selling games. Over the past 25 years, the blue blur has starred in games of all genres — platformers, puzzle games, racers, RPGs, even the Olympics — to varying degrees of success. 2017 is a big year for Sega’s mascot, with the excellent retro 2D Sonic Mania out now, and he’ll return with a new 3D platformer later this year in Sonic Forces. Here, we take a trip down memory lane and look at Sonic’s highest highs and lowest lows over the last quarter-century. Try and keep up.
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BEST: 5. Sonic Generations (2011; PS3, Xbox 360)
After a decade of 3-D Sonic games, fans wanted 2-D Sonic back. But when the 2-D Sonic 4 didn’t live up to expectations, fans then complained they wanted 3D Sonic again. So Sonic Team gave them both in this mashup that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Pulling from classic (and some not-so-classic) levels from the character's 20-year history and a remixed soundtrack that is a nostalgic treat, Generations sees Genesis-era Sonic teaming up with his modern incarnation for a retro-future romp that delivers the best of both worlds.
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BEST: 4. Sonic CD (1993; Sega CD)
There weren’t a lot of great games for the Genesis’ CD-ROM add-on (sorry, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch: Make My Video), but at least Sonic brought his A-game in what is regarded as one of the best platformers of all time. With an innovative time-travel mechanic, a gorgeous soundtrack that changed according to the time period (we prefer the Japanese soundtrack, sorry ‘bout it), and some of the series’ strongest level design, Sonic CD was long a hidden classic because of its low install base. Fortunately, the game was eventually ported to consoles and mobile, so fans could finally experience the thrilling race against Metal Sonic that really captures the series’ need for speed.
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BEST: 3. Sonic Adventure (1999; Dreamcast)
After largely sitting out Sega’s failed Saturn console, Sonic returned with a vengeance in this Dreamcast launch title that showed off the system’s capabilities. The first fully 3-D Sonic game, Adventure featured lush graphics, a quirky soundtrack with spectacularly cheesy vocals, and six playable characters, each with their own gameplay mechanics. Although some were stronger than others—we don’t really want a giant purple cat that goes fishing in our Sonic games—the titular hedgehog’s stages brilliantly translated the side-scrolling levels to blisteringly fast 3-D racing. Seeing Sonic run toward the camera away from a rampaging killer whale or race down the side of a city skyscraper truly felt like the future had arrived.
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BEST: 2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992; Sega Genesis)
The original Sonic the Hedgehog was an instant classic, but the sequel improved on it in almost every way imaginable. Bigger, better, and faster, Sonic 2 introduced best bud Miles “Tails” Prower (get it? Miles per hour!), as well as the spin dash, which instantly catapulted the player to supersonic speeds. The game’s launch was made into a spectacular event by Sega, with a brilliant marketing campaign and a then-unprecedented global launch (Never forget “Sonic 2sday”). Sega coined the phrase “blast processing” to show how the Genesis did what Nintendon’t, and even if they were just marketing buzzwords, there was no denying that Sonic ran circles around the competition. Sonic 2 remains delightfully playable to this day and is the purest distillation of what the speedy hedgehog with attitude is all about.
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BEST: 1. Sonic Mania (2017; multiplatform)
It may have taken two decades, but Sega has finally recaptured that 16-bit magic with this love letter to the series that celebrates the past while also catapulting Sonic into the (retro) future. The gorgeously animated pixel art sparkles, and the bouncy soundtrack hits all the right nostalgic notes. The game continually surprises, playing on players’ expectations by introducing fresh new ideas in familiar places. It’s the game you always wish Sega had made on the Saturn in the ’90s, but it was worth the incredibly long wait.
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WORST: 5. Sonic Unleashed (2008; Xbox 360 PS3)
Half of this game feels like a fast-paced return to form after the disastrous 2006 reboot. The other half grinds to a halt and has fans playing as a werehog—that’s half werewolf, half hedgehog, naturally. As Shakira sang in "She Wolf," "Darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy." Sadly, the joke was on us Sonic fans.
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WORST: 4. Sonic Riders (2006; PS2, GameCube, & Xbox)
Sonic runs really, really fast. That’s kind of his thing. So why does this game have him racing a zoo full of pals on hoverboards? It’s like late-’80s Back to the Future 2 nostalgia meets late ‘90s classic Sonic ‘tude in the mid-aughts, and it quickly runs out of gas. If you want to play a good Sonic racer, check out 2012’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
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WORST: Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (2014, Wii U)
When Sega tries to reboot the series, it’s rarely a good thing, as evidenced by this tepid tie-in to the Sonic Boom Cartoon Network animated series. Clearly aimed at kids, Sonic Boom focuses more on corny characters delivering bad one-liners and dull combat than the sense of speed the series is known for. Sonic Boom is more of a fizzle.
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WORST: 2. Shadow the Hedgehog (2005; PS2, GameCube, & Xbox)
“Hm, you know what the Sonic series could really use? Guns!” said no one ever, except possibly the NRA. This “dark” take on the series introduced Shadow, an amnesiac hedgehog created by the military to be the ultimate weapon. It also marked the point when fans realized Sega had no idea what it was doing with its most popular franchise.
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WORST: 1. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006; PS3, Xbox 360)
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of its most popular character, Sega decided to release the worst Sonic game of all time. Not only is it a glitchy, buggy mess, but the failed reboot spends way too much time taking the ridiculously melodramatic narrative seriously and culminates with Sonic (the hedgehog) kissing Princess Elise (the human). Oh, and she’s voiced by Mean Girls’ Lacey Chabert. That is so not fetch.