After finishing the previous article on Sonic the Hedgehog, I realized that I’m nowhere near as good at level analysis as Jeremy Parish. So, rather than going too in-depth on the level design, I’m going to speak a little more generally about the game, but we’ll still go level-by-level.
So moving on, if the player collected 50 rings and jumped into the big gold ring at the end of Green Hill Act 1, then Sonic will be transported to the first Special Stage. What’s so special about it? Well, it’s a maze that’s constantly rotating 360 degrees. The effect is not as smooth as what would eventually be seen with the SNES’s Mode 7 rotation, but it was still pretty impressive at the time Sonic first came out. Sonic is permanently in ball mode here, rolling through the stage and bouncing off bumpers. Hitting certain icons changed the rotation of the maze, either increasing and decreasing its speed or changing its direction.
This first Special Stage is fairly easy compared to the rest. In fact, if the player doesn’t touch the controls at all, Sonic will automatically roll completely through the short maze and into the final chamber automatically. In the final chamber is a Chaos Emerald surrounded by a barrier that can only be destroyed by having Sonic make contact with it. This is tricky due to the maze’s rotation. The stage ends once Sonic either collects the emerald or touches a “Goal” icon. Further Special Stages get more difficult, consisting of either more complex mazes or just large chambers with lots or barriers to break to reach the emerald. There are six Special Stages and Chaos Emeralds in all.
Why is Sonic collecting these emeralds? I actually don’t know; I think they’re just unexplained MacGuffins. Getting all six doesn’t do anything except give you a slightly better ending. (The “bad” ending suggests that Dr. Robotnik is after the emeralds as well.) Unlike the sequels, Sonic does not transform into Super Sonic, and I suppose the in-universe explanation for that is because he actually needs seven emeralds to do this, with the seventh emerald first appearing in Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
The Special Stages do serve another purpose, however. Whether you get the Chaos Emerald or not, collecting 50 rings nets the player an extra continue. All in all, the Special Stages really only serve as novel bonus stages, and a nifty gimmick to show off the console’s capabilities.
And now it’s on to Green Hill Act 2, which is really just more of the same from Act 1, except slightly more challenging. Again, the level is fairly open, with upper and lower paths to take. This stage also has some breakable walls that can be destroyed with Sonic’s spin attack, but only while he’s rolling on the ground. Walls that can be destroyed are slightly discolored, and the first one is right next to a speed power up so Sonic can more easily get up enough momentum to roll through it (there was no Spin Dash move in the original release of Sonic the Hedgehog).
The stage is also more liberal with spikes, which are used to make it clear where Sonic can and can’t go, but they also make platforming more harrowing. The general message that applies to Green Hill, as well as the rest of the game, is “spikes = bad.”
Green Hill Act 3 follows suit by being very similar to the first two acts, so the player should have plenty of time to get a handle on the game’s mechanics. In fact, Act 3 contains the first instance of what I call “twitch platforming,” a trait that would become a defining characteristic of nearly all future Sonic titles, and something that distinctly sets it apart from Super Mario’s more methodical pace. Act 3 has another loop-de-loop that Sonic can speed through. Just after the loop is an incline followed by a red spring that sends Sonic backwards through the loop again. However, if the player times it just right, Sonic can jump from the top of the incline, and his momentum will allow him to land on top of the loop where he will be rewarded with a 1-up. This type of timing-based platforming would be much more prominent in later sequels, and still persists in the Sonic series today.
It also serves to demonstrate the extent of Sonic’s physics-based control. The original Super Mario Bros was probably the first platform game with consistent physics. Mario had weight and momentum, both on the ground and in the air, and once mastered, it allowed for incredibly precise movement. Sonic borrowed these mechanics and (if you’ll pardon the expression) ran with them. Sonic doesn’t have a “run button” like Super Mario, instead building up his momentum more gradually, but reaching higher speeds. This combined with levels filled with hills and ramps that Sonic can run across smoothly creates very fluid gameplay. Master Sonic’s physics, and he can do pretty much anything.
Act 3 ends not with another signpost, but a boss fight with Dr. Robotnik, himself. Robotnik has a fairly simple pattern of flying back and fourth in his Egg Mobile, swinging a wrecking ball back and fourth, and leaving just enough time for Sonic to jump off some conveniently placed platforms to hit him with a spin attack. Eight hits, and Robotnik’s contraption explodes, causing the mad scientist to flee. Beyond this area is a capsule with imprisoned animals in it. Jumping on the switch on top destroys the capsule, freeing the animals, and clearing the Green Hill Zone.
Overall, Green Hill is a good introduction to the world of Sonic. It demonstrates the style of the gameplay and level design, but it’s colorful, has its playful bits, and is filled with hidden invincibility power-ups, so the player has plenty of time to get a handle on the control and flow of the game. From here, it’s on to the Marble Zone.