Sonic The Hedgehog – The 8-bit Years

Sonic’s 16-bit hits are incredibly renowned – if you didn’t own any, then you probably have at least played them or read about them countless times before.

It’s slightly odd, then, that the blue-hued mammal’s 8-hit back catalogue is barely talked about even though far more varied and interesting. Not convinced? Here’s some random facts to consider: there was there more than double the amount Sonic games release on the 8-bit formats than on Mega Drive, two of these were exclusive to Japan, three had different names in the east and only one is a straight conversion of one of Sonic’s Mega Drive romps. Two of the games featured in this article also recently sold for over £50 on eBay. Want to know which? Of course you do.

Sonic The Hedgehog – 1991 – Master System & GameGear
So, this is where it all started. And for American Master System owners, this is where it ended – Sonic’s original adventure was the last game Sega published on the Master System in America. Loosely based on the Mega Drive romp, this version was slightly slower paced and some might say harder. There was no Spring Yard or Marble Garden zones but instead there was a jungle-themed zone while the second level was set entirely on a bridge. In the Mega Drive version the chaos emeralds had to be collected during the bonus stages. Here, they were cunningly hidden in the levels. Incidentally, it’s only on the first level that the infamous speed shoe power-up is available. One short burst of speed and that was your lot for the entire game.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 – 1992 – Master System & GameGear
I got this for Christmas in 1992 and I thought it was awesome. In hindsight, it’s a really poor sequel, especially when compared to the Mega Drive version. Tails wasn’t a playable character, the animation was unchanged from the first game, the much touted hang gliding sections were rubbish and the levels seemed like they were in the wrong order. The first level was a dark cave; it wasn’t until near the end of the game that Sonic got to run around some lush green landscapes. Also, on the GameGear version the first boss is almost impossible due to the screen size – his bouncing balls of death were incredibly tough to avoid. Balls!

Sonic Chaos – 1993 – Master System & GameGear
Known as Sonic & Tails in Japan, this is the game that Sonic 2 should have been. The sprites were larger and had been redrawn, Tails was playable and Sonic could now perform his spindash move. The new power-ups were fun to use too, including rocket boots and a pair of spring shoes. The Master System and GameGear versions of the game featured different boxart from one another, which is a little peculiar – in most cases the cases were identical.

Sonic Triple Trouble – 1994 – GameGear
Not only was this the best 8-bit Sonic game – it’s also one of the best 2D Sonic games ever made. The level design was excellent, the music captivating and the bosses innovative. Knuckles made his first 8-bit appearance too cropping up in the “cut-scenes” to cause havoc, thinking that Sonic is his enemy. And the snow level – titled Robotnik Winter – had a snowboarding section that was more interactive and fun than Sonic 3’s snowboarding section. The ‘Triple Trouble’ part of the title steams from new character Nack the Weasel (known as Fang the Sniper in the Japanese version) who appeared in the special stages and was also after the chaos emeralds. Certainly not a load of old ‘nackers.

Sonic Drift 1 & 2 / Sonic Drift Racing – 1994/1995 – GameGear
The Sonic Drift series remains popular with collectors (a boxed copy of the European version sold for £64 on eBay earlier this month) but the games themselves aren’t too great. They’re fast and colourful but the GameGear had no ‘Mode 7’ or 3D capabilities meaning that the tracks were flat and lifeless. The first was only released in Japan and had just four playable characters – Sonic, Tails, Amy and Robotnik. The sequel included an extra three characters – Metal Sonic, Knuckles and Nack/Fang. Sega released Sonic Drift 2 in Europe as Sonic Drift Racing but didn’t bother changing the title screen which still said Sonic Drift 2. The lazy arses.

Sonic Spinball – 1994/1995 – Master System & GameGear
Out of all the games featured, this is the only one that’s a conversion of one of Sonic’s Mega Drive outings. Also, if we exclude the Brazil-only release of Sonic Blast, this was the final Sonic game released on Master System. Like Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine it’s based on the crudely animated Sonic cartoons with the unlikable likes of Sally Acorn trapped inside Robotnik’s inventions. For reasons unknown, the first level in this pinball-alike adventure had its name changed from Toxic Caves to Toxic Pools during the conversion process.

Sonic Labyrinth – 1995 – GameGear
The first time I played this I loathed it. After revisiting it for the purposes of this feature though, I found myself playing it for longer than expected. It’s an isometric affair, just like Sonic 3D was on the Mega Drive, and plays nothing like a traditional Sonic game with the idea being to collect keys in a maze and then locate an exit. Sonic games are famous for having tight controls and plenty of speed but not here – Sonic moved very slowly when not whizzing around in ball. To make matters worse, enemies left puddles of glue behind when destroyed which made Sonic move even slower. Not Sonic’s greatest moment but at least Sega tried to do something different.

Sonic Blast – 1996 – GameGear
Featuring Donkey Kong County-style rendered visuals this was easily the most impressive looking GameGear game to be released. At least it was when Sonic (or Knuckles) was stood still – there weren’t many frames of animation, so it did look a bit shoddy when in motion. I think it’s fair to say that developers Aspect had spent most of the development time on the visuals – the levels were short, with most only lasting thirty seconds or so. In Japan it was known as G Sonic and was not just the last Sonic game but the last GameGear game full stop.

Deformed fox Tails also started in not one but two GameGear games – Tails Adventure and the Japan-only Tails’ Skypatrol. Both feature nicely drawn visuals and have a slower pace than the Sonic games. A boxed copy of Tails Sky Patrol ended at £52 on eBay, although I’m not sure if it always sells for this much as it doesn’t appear too often. Sonic also made a bizarre cameo appearance as a tennis umpire in the dully titled Sega 4 in 1 Pack on GameGear. I wonder if Sega were tempted to make Sonic be the ball instead?