The broadly accepted critical narrative about the Sonic The Hedgehog games is that they used to be good but are now bad, plotting their quality as being on a gradual downward trajectory over time. Really, if you were to chart the highs and lows of the series’ 25-year history, you’d get something resembling the seismogram of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. Sonic games have come in every color of the quality rainbow for as long as they’ve been around. There were stinkers during the series’ early ’90s heyday and great Sonic games as recently as 2011’s Sonic Generations. To describe the quality of the series as “mixed” would be overly diplomatic—the Euthanasia Coaster has less severe ups and downs—but Sonic’s journey has been full of more peaks, troughs, and go-nowhere cul-de-sacs than its mostly unquestioned “once-great mascot now slumming it” narrative suggests.
Best: Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992)
After the smash success of the original Sonic The Hedgehog in 1991, that game’s lead programmer, Yuji Naka, and lead artist, Naoto Ohshima, spearheaded two separate follow-up projects. Ohshima directed Sonic CD, a game whose time bending, Swiss-watch level design was an experimental transformation of the original title’s run-and-jump simplicity, but it also proved to be an evolutionary dead-end for the series. Naka’s direct sequel was a much gentler evolution of the design that made the original an instant classic. It paved the way for the bells-and-whistles of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and eventually the entire Sonic series to date. Sonic The Hedgehog 2, the first step down that path, was where the series hit its sweet spot.
Sonic 2’s design is airtight—nothing could be taken from it without compromising it, and anything added would be unnecessary. The biggest improvement was the introduction of Sonic’s spin dash move, which allowed him to rev up on the spot and launch forward at high speeds. This ability to instantly accelerate from a standstill totally changed how the game’s levels were designed. Now that Sonic no longer needed vast spaces to build up momentum, they were compressed horizontally, becoming much more dense. At the same time, being able to hit a ramp at top speed without a running start allowed the levels to expand vertically, amplifying the series’ “two path” level design where a precarious high path offered greater rewards than the safer low path. The spin dash proved to be so important to how the character handled that re-releases of the original Sonic have added it to the earlier game retroactively, an honor none of Sonic 3’s additions can boast.
Sonic 2 is also the series’ artistic zenith. Sonic The Hedgehog started things off on the right foot, establishing a bold look defined by bright colors, geometric shapes, and repeating patterns. Sonic 2 took that aesthetic and ran with it, pushing it until it was practically surrealist. Its use of color was unmatched, with every level presenting a new palette rich in inventive combinations, from the nauseating pea soup greens and Kool-Aid pinks of Chemical Plant Zone, to the bizarre teal soil of Hill Top Zone, to the foreboding purples and oranges of Oil Ocean Zone. Sonic 3 would rein the look back in, with most of its stages relying on one dominant color and a greater reliance on neutral tones like beiges and grays. That step toward a more realistic look for the series was a step backward that stuck. It wasn’t until 2010’s Sonic Colors that the series’ knack for visually bombastic stages returned, and it has yet to regain Sonic 2’s heights.
None of this is to say that Sonic The Hedgehog 3 or its follow-up/expansion Sonic & Knuckles are bad games. On the contrary, they’re superb, and even better when combined Voltron-style into Sonic 3 & Knuckles. But S3&K is also where the weaknesses that would sink the lesser Sonic games began to manifest. Relative to Sonic 2, it has a more muted visual style, a larger cast of supporting characters, and a greater emphasis on storytelling. Sonic 2 features none of this baggage, and is the superior game for it. These elements are mild enough to not tarnish S3&K, but the poison is in the dose, and from this point on, the series would include them in greater and greater quantities—eventually spectacularly passing the toxic threshold in 2006.
Worst: Sonic The Hedgehog (2006)
There is a rigorous and ongoing debate about which game deserves the title of “best Sonic game.” There is no such debate about which is the worst. This might be reaching for low hanging fruit—and if this fruit were hanging any lower we’d have to dig it up—but there is simply no other honest answer to this question. 2006’s Sonic The Hedgehog for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is so inconceivably terrible on every level that it’s become something of a perverse legend. Today, it’s treated more like an endurance test for rubbernecking Let’s Players than a proper game, and its crumminess is so undeniable that even the cheeky official Sonic The Hedgehog Twitter account regularly joins in on mocking it. Just what the hell happened?
Sonic 2006, as it’s known, had a troubled development history marked by key staff resignations, large swaths of its workforce being split off to work on other projects, and stubborn pressure from Sega brass to meet an unrealistic holiday 2006 launch date. In order to meet their ordained release milestones, the development team had no choice but to essentially ignore the many protestations of their quality assurance department, and the finished product bears out their concerns. The game is buggy almost to the point of being unplayable. Sonic and pals can fall through solid floors to their death without warning one moment, then casually stroll up vertical surfaces in total safety the next. Enemy attack patterns were untested for exploits, and one boss is notorious for the ability to lock players in place without ever actually killing them, leaving the game in eternal limbo. Most fatally, the game’s load times are unacceptably long and incredibly frequent—one Let’s Play group calculated that almost 12 percent of their total playtime was spent on loading screens.
Its many debilitating glitches are what it’s best remembered for, but worth noting is that the game underneath is a mess as well. Like the earlier Sonic Adventure, Sonic 2006’s action stages are separated by long stretches of milling around in bland environments, talking to the locals, and struggling to figure out how to progress the plot. The meat of the game, rancid though that meat may be, is walled off behind mini-games and side-quests that add nothing other than more time to its already bloated length. As if that weren’t bad enough, once you’ve jumped through the hoops (sometimes literally) to unlock the actual levels, you’ll find they’re all sprawling disasters. There is nothing about the stages that guides players to their objectives or even indicates what those objectives are—many of them feel like they were generated at random rather than crafted by an actual level designer.
All these elements combined would be enough to make Sonic 2006 handily the worst entry in the series, but its status as a shining beacon of awfulness is owed to something more fundamental. Even if the game had been programmed competently, had its time-wasting fat trimmed, and its levels redesigned with the focus of the Genesis classics, Sonic 2006 would still be a bad game because the ideas at its core were unsalvageable. A grittier Sonic set in a realistic world populated by lifelike humans, telling a melodramatic tale of apocalypse and time-travel—it’s a premise too insurmountably terrible to generate a good result. Sega, to its credit, at least learned from the game’s thermonuclear failure. The next main entry in the series, Sonic Unleashed, went for a more cartoonish look, and with its follow-up Sonic Colors, the series rediscovered its strength for whimsical tales with light tones. Sega would only take one more crack at Sonic 2006-style long-form storytelling and world building, and it would smartly bury it in a handheld spin-off.
Weirdest: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (2008)
In 2006, just as Sonic The Hedgehog was in the middle of crashing and burning, Sega teamed up with BioWare, the legendary role-playing juggernaut, to create a Sonic RPG. The intention—perhaps inspired by Square and Nintendo’s fruitful collaboration on Super Mario RPG a decade earlier—was to combine two great, dissimilar game styles into something both familiar and unique. At this point in time, BioWare was most famous for its adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars, and strange though it may sound, the Sonic series, like those two, had a large cast of colorful characters, an interesting setting, and an established fan base. It could have been just crazy enough to work. Instead, the result was 2008’s Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood for the Nintendo DS, a game that was less “chocolate and peanut butter” and more “toothpaste and orange juice.”
Sonic Chronicles was produced between the public bed-wetting of Sonic 2006 and the minor course correction of Sonic Unleashed, when it wasn’t yet totally clear that a narrative-heavy Sonic was an inherently crummy idea. Falling into that trap, Chronicles started by taking Sonic’s 15 years worth of stand-alone adventures and recasted them as chapters of a single epic story. This meant that the destruction of a major city by a vengeful god in Sonic Adventure, a giant space-faring lizard nearly destroying the Earth in Sonic Adventure 2, and 4,000-year-old combat droids being dug up in the instantly forgotten Sonic Battle were all expected to carry equal weight in the game’s mythology. The people at BioWare, to their credit, poured their hearts into building one of their signature RPGs on top of this nonsense—the focus on a core group of characters, the branching dialogue trees, and even a codex for catching up on the game’s lore are all present here—but the foundation just isn’t strong enough to support it.
Sonic Chronicles is also an aesthetic fiasco. BioWare had the good sense to drop the hyper-realistic look that helped sink Sonic 2006, but walked it too far back. The world of Chronicles looks like a cheaply made Saturday morning cartoon, lacking the vitality and specificity of the Genesis and post-Unleashed games. Sonic and pals themselves almost always look vaguely off-model, like something from an amateur’s DeviantArt profile, which is distracting at first but becomes increasingly hilarious as the game goes on. Most confusing of all is how the game’s music ended up so pitifully generic. BioWare’s in-house composers had worked magic with Mass Effect’s score just a year earlier, and even Sonic’s worst games tend to bring the jams—Sonic 2006 itself has some genuine rippers on its soundtrack—but the personality-free bleeps and bloops of the Chronicles score is some of the saddest stuff to ever come out of a Nintendo DS’ speakers.
Perhaps the wildest thing about Sonic Chronicles is how close it comes to succeeding before it fails. Unlike Sonic 2006, which was doomed from day one, there was actual potential for a Sonic RPG that the game almost taps into. When it sidelines its needlessly convoluted story of inter-dimensional invaders to just hang out with Sonic and the gang, the potential strengths of a character-driven Sonic game shine through. Amusingly enough, that focus on characters is where the Sonic series finds itself today, with the cast-focused Sonic Boom spin-off. The Sonic Boom cartoon is a treat, demonstrating that, by now, the series’ cast is strong enough to support a low-stakes hangout show. Unfortunately, the first game in that series was another one of Sonic’s many flops. The hedgehog is back in one of the series’ many valleys right now, but given how wildly the quality of these games can change from entry to entry, he’ll be back on a mountain before long—or at least exploring an interesting off-the-beaten-path loop-the-loop.