Sonic the Hedgehog’s 8-bit years

Sonic’s 16-bit hits are incredibly renowned – million sellers that have been talked about for decades, torn part and praised within the gaming press countless times.


The blue-haired mammal’s 8-bit back catalogue doesn’t receive anywhere near the same level of coverage, and this is despite it being far more varied and interesting.

Not convinced? More than double the amount Sonic games released on the 8-bit formats than on Mega Drive, two titles were exclusive to Japan, three had different names in the east, and just one was a conversion of a Mega Drive outing.

Some of the games featured in this article also routinely sell for over £100+ on eBay. There’s a lot of rich history here.

Sonic The Hedgehog – 1991, Master System, GameGear

This is where it all started. And for US Master System owners, this is where it ended – Sonic’s original adventure was the last game published on the Master System stateside.

Only loosely based on the Mega Drive original, this version was slower-paced (the famous speed shoe power-up appeared just once) and it has a bigger emphasis on exploration.

Levels were chopped and changed – farewell Spring Yard and Marble Garden, hello Jungle and Bridge. In the Mega Drive version, the chaos emeralds had to be collected during the bonus stages. Here, they were hidden within the main levels themselves, with bonus rounds offering the chance to acquire more 1-Ups instead.

An excellent companion piece to the all-singing Mega Drive version, 8-bit Sonic set the bar for graphics and presentation going forward, ushering in a wave of polished platformers. It holds up incredibly well, and plenty of gamers – especially in Europe – have fond memories of it.

SEGA even later bundled it with the Master System II, replacing the ageing built-in game Alex Kidd in Miracle World.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 – 1992, Master System, GameGear

While a huge seller at launch, garnering favourable reviews from the ‘90s press, playing Sonic 2 nowadays highlights some major issues. The levels feel like they’re in the wrong order – it begins with a dull and unappealing underground stage, comprising of various shades of brown. The first boss, especially on GameGear was far too tricky – nobody expected a difficulty spike this early on.

Visually it was also very similar to the original game, only with a slightly brighter colour palette outside of the opening stage.

Dr. Robotnik takes a back seat during boss battles, with large robot animals taking his pace – and once the first boss is out of the way, the rest are a cakewalk. Hang gliding was the ‘big new thing’ – one of the few things talked about by the press during previews – basically requiring careful manoeuvring to fly and land.

Unlike the Mega Drive version, Tails wasn’t playable. Instead, the plot is centred around Sonic trying to free his foxy chum – as detailed in the short opening intro. There’s no spin dash move either, which likewise makes this feel like a sloppy sequel. We can only assume Aspect had a short development cycle for this one.

Sonic Chaos – 1993, Master System, GameGear

Known as Sonic & Tails in Japan, this was the game that Sonic 2 should have been, fixing most of its problems.

The sprites were larger and had been redrawn, levels were designed for speed and consequently full of loops and corkscrews, Tails was playable from the outset, and Sonic could now perform his spin dash move. Not only this but an additional ‘peel out/strike dash’ move, as seen in Sonic CD.

New power-ups were introduced too, including rocket boots and spring shoes.

Levels now featured more than one path – usually a ‘top route’ and ‘lower route’ – but by focusing on speed, there were far shorter than before. Most took just 30 seconds to complete.  

As such, this was the easiest Sonic so far, making it clear that by 1993 SEGA firmly believed the Master System was predominantly for younger gamers.

Sonic Triple Trouble – 1994, GameGear

Although the original Sonic is held in high regard, most would agree that was this the best 8-bit Sonic game. A pity, then, that it never made it to Master System.

The level design was excellent, the music made the GG’s sound chip truly sing, and the bosses were more innovative than before. It retained the speed from Sonic Chaos, too.

Knuckles made his first 8-bit appearance here, appearing in cut-scenes. As per Sonic 3, the red-hued dude has been duped into thinking Sonic was up to no good.

The snow level – Robotnik Winter – was a highlight, with a snowboarding section far superior to that found in the Sonic 3, offering more interactivity.

The ‘Triple Trouble’ part of the title relates to the new character Nack the Weasel (Fang the Sniper in the Japanese version) who appeared in the special stages, also out to nab the chaos emeralds.

If you haven’t played this one before, give it a go – you’ll be surprised by how closely it mimics the Mega Drive games. It’s a fan favourite for a reason.

Sonic Drift/Sonic Drift 2/Sonic Drift Racing – 1994/1995, GameGear

The Sonic Drift racing series remains popular with collectors – and it’s easy to see the appeal – but the games themselves weren’t too great.

SEGA tried to bring Mario Kart-style gameplay to a system that really wasn’t up to the job, resulting in something that plays more like Outrun, only with flat tracks and a severely limited field of view.

Sonic Drift was only released in Japan and had just four playable characters – Sonic, Tails, Amy and Robotnik. It’s easy to see why it never left SEGA’s home turf – it’s average at best, despite some colourful visuals. The sequel is an improvement, adding Metal Sonic, Knuckles and Nack/Fang to the roster while tracks were based on locations from the mainline games. Two players could compete via a link cable.

SEGA released Sonic Drift 2 in Europe and the US as Sonic Drift Racing. However, the title screen still refers to it as Sonic Drift 2. If you’re curious, skip the original and try the sequel, but even then, set your expectations low.

Sonic Spinball – 1994/1995 – GameGear, Master System

Of all the Sonic games brought to Master System and GameGear, this is the only direct conversion of a 16-bit game. The Game Gear version launched in 1994, while the Master System missed out on the busy Christmas period, arriving in January 1995.

It’s believed that SEGA requested this conversion following Sonic Drift’s poor reception in Japan, with this intended to be a replacement. Just like the 16-bit version, there are telling signs that this was a rushed project – it’s short and visually crude, with a soundtrack abrasive on the ears.

Like the colourful puzzler Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine – which also made it to both 8-bit formats, being a westernised version of Puyo Puyo – character design was largely inspired by the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon series.

If we exclude the Brazil-only TecToy release of Sonic Blast, this was also the final Sonic game released on Master System. By this point in the system’s life, most gaming magazines had greatly reduced their Master System coverage – it came and went without much fanfare.

A copy will set you back a hefty price nowadays. The GameGear version, meanwhile, is one of the handheld’s most common games – Majesco issued reprints in 2001, along with Sonic 2 and Sonic Chaos.

Sonic 2 in 1 – 1995, GameGear

SEGA’s Sonic multi-game compendium had proven popular on Mega Drive, and so a similar package was released on GameGear in Europe, paring together Sonic 2 and Sonic Spinball. Games were selected not by a menu screen but rather by power cycling the handheld.

This two-game cart is prized by collectors nowadays, being both a rarity and an oddity due to its European-only status.

Sonic Labyrinth – 1995, GameGear

At first glance, Sonic Labyrinth resembles the Mega Drive’s Sonic 3D (known as Sonic 3D Blast in the US.) The isometric perspective is the only similarity though, with this being more maze-orientated, involving collecting keys and locating exits while avoiding pinball table-style hazards.

Controls felt unnatural and slippery, Sonic’s trademark speed was missing – outside of spinning around in a ball – with enemies leaving behind puddles of glue when defeated. This made for a slow and clunky experience.

Credit to SEGA for trying something different, but really, this only served as a means to keep the GameGear in the public eye a little longer.

Tails Adventure / Tails’ Skypatrol – 1995, GameGear

Tails starred in two very different GameGear-only releases, both of which arrived in 1995. Tails Adventure made it to both the US and Europe, while Tails’ Skypatrol was Japan only. Just five months separated the two in Japan.

Tails Adventure was the better of the two, and by quite the margin – it’s a slower-paced adventure developed by Aspect, with a focus on using gadgets such as bombs and hammers to progress. Visually, it was pleasing, benefitting from a slightly muted colour palette. If you haven’t played it before, it’s worth seeking out, being a little different from typical Sonic games.

Tails’ Skypatrol, meanwhile came from Japan System House and SIMS. It’s a tricky game to describe, playing not unlike a horizonal shooter. Tails’ sprite was surprisingly large; certainly larger than in previous handheld games. Coupled with the fact that colliding with objects – even franchise staples such as palm trees – sent our hero plummeting to the ground, navigating the levels and avoiding obstacles was an arduous task.

In short, it wasn’t much fun to play. A better tutorial may have helped.

Sonic Blast – 1996, GameGear (1997, Master System, Brazil)

Sadly, Sonic Blast – known as G Sonic in Japan – nailed home how outdated the GameGear had become by 1996. SEGA tried to pull off something the system wasn’t capable of achieving, resulting in easily the worst side-scrolling Sonic title.

To wit: Sonic Blast copied the current trend of rendered, Donkey Kong Country-style, visuals. Presumably, this was to keep it in line with the Sonic 3D Blast.

The larger, chunky, sprites took up valuable screen space, levels were short and uninspired, bosses were crudely animated, and the screen scrolling was altogether choppier – everything Triple Trouble perfected two years prior had been ruined.

Oddly, even though Knuckles was playable (an 8-bit first outside of Sonic Drift) they didn’t feature on the box art for the European and US releases. Surely his presence was a selling point?

By 1996, the gaming press was fixated on the PlayStation and Saturn – Sonic Blast didn’t gain much coverage at all, making it the least ‘hyped’ of all 8-bit Sonic games. Unsurprisingly considering its poor reception, it’s pretty rare nowadays, especially the European version.

TecToy released a Master System conversion in Brazil in 1997; technical differences between hardware meant this version looked even worse than its handheld counterpart. What a sad way to end Sonic’s 8-bit legacy.

Matt Gander

Matt is Games Asylum's most prolific writer, having produced a non-stop stream of articles since 2001. A retro collector and bargain hunter, his knowledge has been found in the pages of tree-based publication Retro Gamer.

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