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Backlog Challenge 2014 - Sonic the Hedgehog

Gotta go at a respectable pace.
Gotta go at a respectable pace.

Tackling game series or genres all out of chronological order seems to be a recurring theme for me, and the classic 2D Sonic the Hedgehog series is no exception. It was close to two decades ago when I made for the bounty under the Christmas tree to find my first Genesis Model 2 with Sonic 2 packed in. My first encounter with its predecessor was still years away, but all it took was a few minutes of catapulting through the first act of Emerald Hill Zone at breakneck pace to know that this was a series I'd be getting a lot of enjoyment out of.

What I didn't realize until I picked it back up for my February challenge, though, is that the original Sonic the Hedgehog isn't really a game built for speed. High speed is possible, sure, and momentum plays an extremely important part in some of its more unique puzzles, but more often than not traveling at maximum velocity is one of the best ways to take a blow to the face and part with all those rings you've been gathering. The wide, spacious roller coaster stages that the series would later become known for are absent here, fairly standard 2D platforming fare with a focus on tricky jumping and maneuvering segments in their place. Speed is much more a gimmick than a goal here.

I'm hesitant to call this criticism because it's not as if the failure of the "gotta go fast" mantra makes the game lesser. If the process of knocking out older games in familiar series has taught me anything, it's that game series - like any ongoing series - require a little time and experimentation to find their groove. In particular, Sonic CD's emphasis on exploration makes much more sense when considering that it was developed before 2 given how much of achieving the best ending involves exploration to find the appropriate signposts.

As far as the original Sonic itself goes, it's pretty clear to see that the general design roughness extends into stage layouts in a very noticeable way: the progression of design philosophy shifts from organic layouts testing reflex and intuition on the fly to blatantly exploiting previously set patterns and erecting obstalces that require previous knowledge in order to navigate successfully. This came to a head in the penultimate area, Scrap Brain Zone (which is a fairly accurate description of my mental state at the time), wherein each and every turn produced some cheap, fresh new hell to beat my head against.

On the flip side of this is the perpetually rotating Special Zone, the technicolor pinball fever dream that grants access to the fabled - and in this game all but wholly ineffectual - Chaos Emeralds. I'd remembered having an incredibly difficult time with these stages in my previous runs with Sonic, but while I can't say age has made them simple by any means this month has led me to the conclusion that they're the best designed part of the game. Bumpers and reversal blocks are placed in just the right places to buffet you straight away from your objective and to an untimely end while allowing just enough nooks and footholds to keep you in place and wait out the rotation until gravity once again works to your favor. Even after growing accustomed to each of the six bonus stages, rare was the occasion when I wasn't gripped with white-knuckled angst over the knowledge that a single slip-up could lead to my demise. Which it did. Many times.

Even after completing the game with all Emeralds in tow I can't call Sonic the Hedgehog my favorite in the series, though it has jumped up a few slots on the list. It's simply too different a game from what I've been trained to believe is "proper" Sonic, and good as it might be on its own it lacks the personal nostalgia factor that 2 and the 3 & Knuckles suite carry for me. Still, a thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling experience and another game to strike from the list.

CHALLENGE: cleared (6 Chaos Emeralds)

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