I’ve decided to revive the old Deeper Waters feature so that I could try writing an in-depth analysis of Sega’s original Sonic the Hedgehog, inspired by Jeremy Parish’s excellent Anatomy of Games series. I personally hold the first Sonic game in high regard, and while it’s not as groundbreaking as, say, Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, I feel that it is one of the shining example of 2D platform games from the genre’s golden era.
It’s well-known that Sega specifically created Sonic as a rival to Mario, but it’s also clear that he was meant to attract fans away from Nintendo’s iconic plumber. Thus, Sonic shares many similarities to Mario, both in gameplay and in style, and a lot of habits that players in 1991 would have developed from years of Koopa-stomping easily carry over to Sonic’s debut game.
However, if you were new to gaming, the demo that kicks in after the title screen gets you up to speed by showing a little bit of gameplay from the first acts of the first three zones. Sonic can run, jump, collect rings, and defeat enemies by jumping on them. It also demonstrates some of the key differences that set it apart from Mario, such as how you don’t necessarily have to jump on enemies to defeat them, but you can also jump through them from the side or underneath, so long as Sonic is rolled up into a ball when he makes contact. And if you take a hit, you will lose all rings you have collected, but you can recover a few of them before they disappear. Finally, the demo gives you a tantalizing glimpse of the rotating Special Stage, but does not show you how to access it.
Of course, if you don’t have the patience to sit through all that, you’ll likely just hit Start and learn as you go along.
The Green Hill Zone is the typical, friendly green grass/blue sky theme seen in many games, inviting the player to have fun and learn the game. Act 1 starts similarly to Super Mario Bros with Sonic standing near the left side of the screen and facing to the right. It should be intuitive that you need to move to the right, as per typical platform game structure, but I’ve also theorized that the HUD being positioned on the left side of the screen is intended to psychologically “push” the player to move Sonic to the right.
As the screen scrolls to the right, there are three rings placed in the air well above Sonic’s head. They bear somewhat of a resemblance to the coins from Super Mario Bros, so anyone familiar with that game should naturally want to collect them. Otherwise, they only spin in place to catch your attention. Collecting them requires making Sonic jump to reach them. Fortunately, all three buttons on the Genesis/Mega Drive controller do the same thing, so figuring out how to make Sonic jump doesn’t take much experimentation.
A little further to the right is a platform with a video monitor sitting on top. The icon displayed on the monitor is of a ring similar to the ones seen earlier, suggesting that that is what it contains. However, the first hazard also appears in this screen as a Moto Bug slowly approaches Sonic from the right. The Moto Bug only moves in one direction, and has no actual attack. Still, this enemy prompts the player to have Sonic jump up to the upper platform. If you didn’t learn how to jump earlier, it’s do or die this time.
If Sonic happens to bump the video monitor from beneath as he jumps, nothing happens. Sonic actually needs to hit it from above or the side to retrieve its contents, but nothing forces the player to learn this at this particular time. But again, habits from playing Super Mario would make it intuitive that you can interact with things by jumping on them.
Just beyond this, Sonic encounters a slightly more dangerous enemy, the Buzz Bomber, who quickly flies through the air in one direction, only to stop to fire a single shot at a diagonal angle. If Sonic is not quick to avoid it, he’ll take a hit and lose any rings he managed to collect earlier. Otherwise, it’s a life lost, and back to the beginning to figure out what went wrong.
Beyond this is something that set Sonic apart from most other platform games of the time: uneven ground. There’s a smooth incline that slows Sonic down as he ascends it. Super Mario Bros 3 already had this to a degree, but it’s much more prevalent here, and it serves to emphasize Sonic’s physics-oriented movement. This eventually leads to a dip and a ramp that, if Sonic has built up enough speed, he can launch off of. All it really serves, however, is to give the player a taste of how Sonic maneuvers.
Further to the right are a couple of “steps” with yet another enemy, Crabmeat, who moves back and forth and occasionally fires a couple of shots in an arcing fashion. In trying to jump over it, Sonic is likely to hit it from the side, teaching the player that Sonic can attack enemies without having to be directly on top of them.
Eventually, Sonic will reach a cliff with a yellow spring on the ledge that propels him upward. Just beyond it is a ledge with rings, inviting the player to use the spring to reach it. This is a little bit of a trap, however, as if you land on the ledge, it gives way beneath Sonic, and he’ll fall to a lower pathway. There are a couple more yellow springs on this lower level, of which allows Sonic to get back up high again, but each one is surrounded by spikes. If Sonic lands on them, he’ll not only lose any rings he’s acquired, but if he hits more spikes during the recoil, he’ll lose a life. The placement of the spikes seems harsh at this early point.
It’s in this area that the level opens up and allows Sonic to essentially choose his path. Does he jump back to the upper pathway or stay on the lower path? The lower path has more spikes, but rewards the player at the end with several ring monitors and one with temporary invincibility. They’re all placed in a row, so if Sonic attempts to jump on them, he’ll break them open, which would finally teach players how to retrieve items from video monitors. The upper path is slightly trickier to get to, but is generally safer and easier.
There’s also a middle path that the lower path leads back to, so most players will likely end up here anyway. It contains the first setpiece of the game: a loop in the path. It’s preceded by a long downhill incline to allow Sonic to build up enough speed to run through it. This was something never seen before in platform games at the time, and is one of the most iconic actions in the Sonic series. Why is there a loop here? What does it accomplish? Nothing, really. It’s just there for fun and to show off the capabilities of Sega’s 16-bit console. (I always wondered if there was an in-universe explanation for why Sonic’s world is filled with so many loops and corkscrews that seem to be part of the natural geography.)
The loop is followed by two consecutive S-shaped tunnels that Sonic will automatically roll through when he hits them, and he likely will since he’ll still have a lot of momentum coming out of the loop. This section really emphasizes Sonic’s speed, and also demonstrates his rolling ability. Initiating it manually involves pressing Down on the controller while running, but the game doesn’t seem to indicate this. It also might have made sense to put a few enemies in the path for Sonic to automatically defeat in order to show that rolling can be used as an attack.
After the “S-tunnels,” Sonic launches off another ramp into a bunch of floating rings in the sky, possibly hitting a Buzz Bomber on the way down. He’ll also have rolled through a Lamppost that works as a checkpoint, but it happens so fast that the player may not have noticed. There was another Lamppost earlier in the Act, but Sonic would have missed it if he took the lower path.
There’s another upper path that bypasses the loop and S-tunnels all together, but it requires a series of tricky jumps on moving platforms and platforms that fall a second after you land on them. There’s not much up there to reward Sonic for making the effort, but it does demonstrate that floating platforms often indicate where it’s safe to go. This is particularly useful next to cliffs where the player may not be sure if there’s ground below. If a platform floats up from off screen, then it’s safe. This is nice a bit of thoughtful game design.
Beyond this, the stage is mainly standard platforming fair, with more enemies and rings. At the end is a stretch of ground that leads to a signpost with Dr. Robotnik’s face on it. Once Sonic passes it, the sign spins until it changes to a picture with Sonic’s face on it (perhaps indicating that Sonic has liberated the area). If Sonic still has at least 50 rings in his possession at this point, there will also be a large floating ring just beyond the sign, inviting players to jump into it. If he makes it in time, it will transport him to the first Special Stage. Otherwise, Sonic automatically runs off screen, the score is tallied, and Act 1 ends.
OK, so it’s not quite as brilliantly designed as the original Super Mario Bros, but that game came out nearly six years earlier. After all, Super Mario Bros was one of the most influential games of all-time, and by 1991, most game players were probably familiar enough with how these types of games worked that it was simply understood. This first stage, however, is a good first stage for a Sonic game, introducing the basic mechanics and level structure that will be seen throughout the rest of the game. It has some unfriendly quirks, but it also allows players to get a handle on how Sonic controls.