My Top 5 Favorite Sonic Games

I’m an unusual Sonic the Hedgehog fan.  Although really, I guess that means I’m a normal Sonic fan at the same time.  Right around my high school years, I became absolutely hooked on the franchise.  The major appeal for me was the music, but I also love the universe itself.  Sure, it’s been overcomplicated and overhauled too many times over the years, but there’s just something lovable about it.

Sonic games vary in quality so much that two people liking all the same games is extremely rare.  But some things are consistent.  I like Sonic and his cast of friends.  The games’ worlds are always unique.  And the music is almost always spectacular.  In fact, without Crush 40, I probably wouldn’t have discovered my love of 80s metal.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are a lot of Sonic games I don’t like.  But there are a few that made a great impression on me, and I decided to talk about them!

5 – Sonic Rush

Few people seem to remember Sonic Rush for Nintendo DS.  I first picked it up for one reason: the soundtrack.  It’s composed by Hideki Naganuma, my favorite video game composer of all time, responsible for both Jet Set Radio soundtracks.  If you played those games, you could guess that Sonic Rush‘s soundtrack is eclectic, unique, and catchy as hell.

You’d be right.

In other news, the game was developed by Dimps, who make some pretty great 2D Sonic games.  It was also the first to use the boost mechanic, which carried over to most of the series’ major releases afterwards.  Blaze the Cat is a new character to the game — she has the ability to hover and rocket higher into the air.  Otherwise, her formula is pretty much the same as Sonic’s.  This is kind of a failing I guess, since the stage design is only slightly different for the two characters.

Thing is, Sonic Rush is really pretty fun.  For a DS game, its control is more solid than you might expect, and doing tricks on rails and in the air is a blast.   Sometimes the stages feel cheap, since they stretch across two screens by default.  They get pretty vertical, and some levels halt your progress until you defeat a gauntlet of enemies.  This kind of design drives me crazy, but it’s not a deal breaker.

In my humble view, Sonic Rush is the very best handheld game in the series.  Give it a swing.

4 – Sonic Colors

Fun fact, Colors was my first Sonic game ever.  And man, what a great entry point.  Critics complain that it’s not much of a Sonic game, and that’s fair.  The game is more generally about level exploration than speed, but it works as a more typical platformer.

The wisps add an incredible dynamic to the game.  The drill wisp lets you speed through earth and water, the laser wisp provides opportunities for crazy shortcuts, and others like the rocket wisp have levels design around them really well.  They worked so well that they were actually reused in more than one game afterwards, for better or worse.

Colors was a breath of fresh air for a series that many claimed was dead.  It was the debut of Roger Craig Smith as Sonic, and it took a somewhat Guardians of the Galaxy approach to its aesthetic.  It goes from lush vegetation to flashy amusement park at the drop of a hat, and its soundtrack is the perfect complement.  This game was the one that roped me into the franchise, and I can’t recommend it enough.

3 – Sonic Generations

Just when people thought Colors was an exception, Sega decided to go all-out for its 20th anniversary and make Sonic Generations.  Everybody was floored when they decided to compile the most iconic stages from Sonic’s history, and bring back classic Sonic himself to boot.

What we got was a pretty short game, but a great one.  The boost formula is the best it’s ever been, and the classic formula is reworked pretty faithfully.  Stages are beautifully remastered and remixed, with pretty neat minibosses.  It also has awesome features like buffs and custom music (which I love in any game).

The last couple bosses of the game are terrible, and not all of the levels feel like they fit the gameplay.  But I love this game particularly because of how much room there is to blaze through a level.  It even checks your time at every checkpoint.  The levels were built for speedrunning, which I assume is why it gives you so many lives.  I always have a blast playing this game, and to me it’s the standard for Sonic Team.

2 – Sonic Mania

I never dreamed Sonic Mania would be one of my favorite games in the series.  I have so many problems with the classic trilogy of Sonic games that fans seem to love.  Their design always strikes me as outdated, cheap, and contradictory.  But Sonic Mania, their eventual successor, is the classic game I’ve been waiting for.

I could go on and on about Mania.  Actually I already did, you can read it here.  The point is, this game not only optimizes an old formula, it puts that formula in a supremely creative game.  What drives it home is that it was basically made by highly talented fans of the franchise.  Honestly, I think they did the job better than Sonic Team ever could have.

Mania still has some god-awful insta-crush deaths and restrictive lives from the old games.  Also the true final boss is a drudge.  Nevertheless, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a Sonic game on first playthrough.  It’s overflowing with love and care, so for now, it’s one of my favorites.

1 – Sonic Adventure 2

About 5 years ago, Sonic Adventure 2 was ported to seventh generation consoles.  That was when I first played SA2, and five years later, I don’t think it’s objectively very good.  The story and voice acting are awkward, and it only has about one and a half fun gameplay modes.  The speed stages are fun, and the hunting stages are kinda fun.  The mech stages are a drag.  All of the game is inconsistent and glitchy as hell.

I love it anyway.

SA2 just has an overtone that I think really works for the series.  It’s silly and over the top, but strangely moving in a way.  The plot of Shadow and Maria at its core is interesting for Shadow’s character, and a good doomsday picture of what might happen to Sonic if he were to risk it all and fail.  The story is goofy, but endearing somehow.

The gameplay is also some of my favorite in 3D — it’s linear, but well-paced, and it’s picky about rewarding good maneuvers.  Getting an A-rank is difficult, and I appreciate that.  Grinding is also viscerally fun to do, and I’m glad it was carried through the rest of the games.

And the soundtrack.  Never have I seen acid jazz, metal, and hip-hop synergize so well to create such a fantastic soundscape.  I could honestly listen to Pumpkin Hill on loop for a half-hour.  Everything in SA2 just comes together.  In a lot of ways, it’s a mess.  In others, it’s magical.  I prefer to see the magic in it.

Cool Invisibility in Multiplayer Games

A lot of the best, most creative game design nowadays is in multiplayer games.  Especially ones from the indie side of the street.  Multiplayer games are hard for me to talk about though, because the simpler they are, the better.  A good presentation, good maps, and good mechanics are all you need, and there isn’t always a lot to say.

AAA games have mostly left couch co-op behind, minus companies like Nintendo that have flagship franchises based on multiplayer.  Indie games have thankfully picked up the slack and then some.  What’s great is that lots of different games will take a certain theme or mechanic and use it in a bunch of fun ways.

I have a few games I wanna talk about.  Individually I don’t think I could have much to say, but together they have a lot to say.  They’re all amazing examples of using invisibility in games.

Hidden in Plain Sight came out a while ago, in 2011.  It’s not about “invisibility” per se, but the name of the game is blending in.  Players are pitted against one another and forced to kill each other in a room full of NPCs.  But they have to do so without knowing for sure where each other are.  That means balancing walking around like the NPCs while trying to figure out which ones are other human players.

The game is exceedingly simple, and looks like an obscure Dreamcast game, but it built up a pretty big cult following online.  It’s a great example of a game that builds tension in a room full of players.  The beauty of the game is in the challenge of splitting your attention between seeing others while remaining unseen.

I first played the game that inspired this post a week ago with some friends.  It’s Invisigun Heroes by Sombr Studios, a game inspired by Bomberman and TowerFall with a twist.  The players can move left, right, up, down, they can shoot projectiles, and use a special character-specific item.

The catch is, all the players are invisible.

They’re not invisible 100% of the time — using certain items (like Revealers) can uncover other players, and firing a shot reveals the player for a second.  Bumping into objects also causes them to flash for a split second, giving a vague idea of where the player is.  This is supremely interesting, because it demands absolute focus to try to outwit another player.  Every directional tap moves the character one grid-space of each map.  It’s possible to count your steps and still be aware of your lines of fire without giving away your position.  When it comes down to a one-on-one duel and no one is firing, the suspense builds to a head until each one makes a move.  To be honest, playing this game gets me more on-edge than playing any cover-based FPS in the world.

Invisigun Heroes would already be fun without invisibility.  It has great map design, cool powerups, and so on.  But using invisibility in the top-down shooter framework makes the perfect party game.  A long waiting game followed by a chaotic scrap where anyone can win makes every round exciting.

Invisigun isn’t even the first foray into the invisible shooter.  In 2014,  Samurai Punk published a game called Screencheat.  The concept came about at the Global Game Jam, where it was very well-received.  During the GoldenEye 007 days of the late 90s, one of the biggest sins was cheating by looking at another player’s screen during multiplayer.  Screenlooking.

(GET IT.  HE SAID THE THING.)

So Screencheat cranks it up a notch by making it impossible to see other players on your own screen.  Apart from stray particle effects, the only way to see another character is by looking at the arena from their point of view.  In a competition with three other people, this is absolute chaos.  The maps are also brilliantly littered with color-coding to make it easier to work out where everyone is.

Like I said, a lot of these games would be fun and quirky even without emphasizing stealth, but the fact that they do makes them much more compelling.  I feel like this is the miracle of indie development in the modern age — developers keep coming up with incredible ideas in the strangest places.

Sonic Mania: The Second Coming of Sonic

The early Sonic the Hedgehog games are not my cup of tea.  I wrote about this last year.  I’m the exception, though. Sonic 1, 2, 3, and CD mean a lot, to a lot of people, and although I think their design is rough and dated, I respect them for how they make people feel.  I never expected Sonic Mania to give me that feeling.

After Sonic Boom, Sega decided to pull out all the stops, and make 2017 Sonic’s year no matter what.  The plan was to hit the gaming world with a double whammy of back-to-basics gameplay and the most popular cutting-edge gameplay in the series.  For the summer they would release Sonic Mania, and for holiday they’d release Sonic Forces.  Forces is meant to be a mixture of Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, while Mania is meant to be a love letter for the longtime fans of the series.

After the reveal at the beginning of the year, I was excited Sonic Forces.  Granted, I still don’t know  at the time of writing this if Forces is any good.  The formula is just what I’m used to.  Mania looked creative and all, but I didn’t trust it.  Sonic 4 was mediocre, and I never really enjoyed any of the Sonic games before the Dreamcast Era.  I figured Mania would just come and go as a nostalgic cash-in by a desperate company.

I was severely wrong.

As soon as it came out, Mania became the best-rated Sonic game in years, even beyond the redemption of the series around 2010.  I took the scores with a grain of salt, since people seem to enjoy the classic formula more than I do.  Then I learned something very interesting.  I learned that Mania is, from a developer perspective, a fan project.  It was developed by Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, and Christian Whitehead, who spearheaded several mobile ports of classic games in the series.  It’s a labor of love and creativity, and its execution is magnificent.

Source: Sonic the Hedgehog via YouTube

The fact that Sonic Mania was developed by experienced but young fans made it fresh, but it also led to some fantastic refinement of an old formula.  Almost every complaint I had about the early games is fixed in Mania.  For example, my favorite addition is the new Drop Dash ability, which allows Sonic to spin dash directly out of a jump.  This makes the pace of each level faster, and makes it easier to gain momentum quickly.  The best part, though, is it eliminates the need to come to a complete standstill before spin dashing.  This especially helps with sloped terrain like the kind you see in Green Hill Zone.

The game just feels like a better fulfillment of the series’s original intention: a sense of thrill and speed.  Instead of using speed like a carrot on a stick (like the originals) or sticking the player with deadly road blocks when they try to go fast, Mania lets you get through a level at a good pace and isn’t harsh about imperfection.  This philosophy reminds me, in concept, of Sonic Generations, where getting through a level was relatively easy, but the fun challenge was being efficient.  It also lets you go back and do levels over again to explore.  Even if you narrowly miss a shortcut, you can go back to it and experiment with different paths.  It just takes longer.  All in all, I find this better than making the rest of the level a pain just because of a failed maneuver.

Mania doesn’t use nostalgia as a crutch.

Every level in Mania is a joy to experience, and the selection is a mixture of old and new stages.  Old stages are laid out in a complex but balanced way, and feel much better with Sonic’s improved mobility and tighter controls.

Meanwhile, the new stages give me faith that there are still ideas the series hasn’t tried yet.  My favorite is probably Press Garden Zone, where you bounce off of zooming newspapers and platform across printing blocks in a giant greenhouse before sliding through a forest of cherry trees in winter.  The new mechanics are different and well-used, while the old ones are given new life.  Ziplines in Green Hill are a surprise, but a welcome one.

Some things still bother me.  The system of lives is still unfair, especially because you can still die instantly by getting caught between two objects.  The 1-up system and Game Overs that send you to the start of a time-consuming zone get tiresome, especially near the end.  Bad apples are bad apples.

But I never imagined myself getting so much enjoyment from this kind of Sonic game.  I have no great love for the games that inspired it, nor do I need it.  Sonic Mania oozes care, effort, talent, and love from every pore, a perfect expression of Sega’s recent change in attitude.  It’s the kind of thing that happens when we trust talented people to create products of genuine merit.

In short, play Sonic Mania.  It’s a joy, and I think it marks the beginning of a new era for this company.