Review: Sega of America Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog is a fallen icon. Since 1991, he has been synonymous with Sega, the company that marketed the action-platforming character as an edgier, faster alternative to Nintendo's Super Mario. And he has starred in roughly 30 games, which have sold 45 milion copies, but over the last five years have fallen into dramatic and almost stunning decline. Now the original crowd-pleasing Sonic the Hedgehog game has been released as a $5 downloadable game for fifth-generation iPods, third-generation iPod nanos, and iPod classics, and though the translation from the 16-year-old Sega Genesis/Mega Drive original title isn't perfect, it's close enough to satisfy most players. Updated May 21, 2009: A year and a half after our December 20, 2007 review, Sega has released a new $6 version for the iPhone and iPod touch; we've updated this page with details at the bottom of the Click Wheel iPod review below.
The basic premise of the early Sonic games was simple: have fun running around and jumping in large, open environments, collecting rings until you reach the exit on the far right side of each large map. Rather than funneling you into a single straight path, Sonic’s stages were often both long and tall, with multiple routes to the exit, and different sorts of obstacles in your way. One route would take Sonic through a loop-de-loop—previously never seen in a game—while another might force you to bust through a wall of destructible blocks, or another could have a secret path hidden behind what appeared to be a wall or dangerous impasse. Each route is packed with robotic enslaved animals, who Sonic frees from their cyborg suits by jumping into them, shattering their armor and releasing them into the wild. Every few stages, Sonic fights against a boss—Dr. Eggman, aka Dr. Robotnik, in a variety of different large but vulnerable vehicles—and after pouncing him into oblivion, frees another collection of animals trapped inside a processing machine. A rotating maze bonus stage awaits after each victory against Eggman.
Keeping Sonic alive is straightforward, but not always easy. Golden rings are scattered all over the levels, and if you’re carrying at least one, it’s all but impossible to die: only crushing or falling off the edge of the screen will kill you. Otherwise, getting hit will dislodge all of the rings you’ve collected, and though you can gather one or more back and keep yourself going, you may lose all of them and find yourself vulnerable to enemies and elemental dangers until you find another ring. To keep the game fun rather than frustrating, the game gives you five lives and unlimited continues to complete all six of the original stages, which are divided into multiple acts and Eggman encounters.
The three best parts of the Sonic on iPod experience are the similarity of the graphics, sounds, and general stage elements to the original Genesis/Mega Drive game’s elements. Though it’s 16 years old, Sonic’s colorful, detailed level designs and speed blew people away at a time when games were often slower and less interesting visually, and—make of this what you will—the graphics are a standout by current iPod standards, putting Vortex, Sudoku, and a couple of other relatively ambitious titles aside. Similarly, there’s something to be said for the fact that there’s actually a real soundtrack here, even though it’s the same chip-based music that was in the Genesis cartridge so long ago. And, except for almost invisible tweaks to the graphics, what you’re getting here looks just like the fast, impressively detailed platformer from years ago, rather than the numerous less impressive cell phone and handheld versions that followed.
Unfortunately, as with virtually all of the iPod’s action games, control precision is again an issue in Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega includes two control schemes, one designed for one-handed play with firm Click Wheel button presses, the other for two-handed play with light Click Wheel touch surface movement and center button jumps, but neither replicates the accuracy of the old Genesis controller: among other issues, Sonic’s precision jumps and block-busting rolls are a problem with the one-handed scheme, and the game becomes almost spastic in the two-handed scheme, which adds too much momentum to Sonic’s movement. Early levels, which were kids-easy with a normal controller, become more difficult now merely by virtue of the iPod’s Click Wheel, and not in a positive way. With all the jumps, enemies, and obstacles found in its levels, Sonic begs for a real controller—we wish Apple would just make or let one be released already.
By contemporary iPod standards, Sonic the Hedgehog is a great game with plenty of stages, variety, and music; less than great controls are the only reason that it doesn’t rate our high recommendation. For the $5 asking price, it’s as good of an action platformer as can currently be found on the iPod, and though based on old software, a better value for the buck than most of the pre-Nintendo DS Sonic-branded handheld and mobile games that have been released. With the right controller plugged in to the iPod, we could easily get excited about Sonic 2 and any number of other titles in the Hedgehog family, as well.
iPhone/iPod touch Version, Released May 2009
On May 21, 2009, Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog for the iPhone and iPod touch ($6), interestingly with an icon labeled “Sonic 1” as if to indicate that additional titles in the family are on their way to the iPhone OS platform. Unlike the Click Wheel iPod version, this version of Sonic has its own on-screen translucent D-pad on the left, and an action button on the right, and in default mode uses upscaling to fill the device’s 480x320-pixel wide screen. A settings menu lets you flip into a pixel-accurate mode that surrounds the smaller screen with a carbon fiber pattern, making the D-pad and action button opaque, while adding a Sega Genesis logo and Start button to the screen’s center.
While the game is entirely intact from the Genesis original, and appears to be running in an emulator, Sega either has unimpressive emulation code on its hands, or hasn’t bothered to optimize the emulator for the iPhone. Once known for his brisk speed, the hallmark of the Genesis console’s “Blast Processing,” Sonic now runs, jumps, and gathers rings to an unsteady frame rate on the iPhone 3G, never as smooth as on the Click Wheel iPod version of the game. When the game begins to chug, which doesn’t take much—and happens even in the mini-window display mode—so does the music, and control becomes more of a challenge as well. We had problems getting Sonic to have sufficient momentum to smash completely through rock walls in balled-up form, something that was easy on the Genesis original, and the pacing of the title becomes a little more deliberate when you anticipate that there might be an interruption in your runs and jumps. Second-generation iPod touch gamers will find the pacing to be closer to “right,” with occasional audio and frame rate hiccups, but given the fluid performance of the Click Wheel iPod games, there’s frankly zero excuse for a less than completely smooth presentation of this 1991 title on any device with as much horsepower as the most basic iPhone.
It’s also worth noting how Sega has built the game to manage interruptions from phone calls or other mid-play exits from the application. Unlike the Click Wheel version, which saves the stage and level you left off at, the iPhone OS version preserves your position within the stage, as well. You’re given zero continues, and basically have to keep racking up extra lives or avoiding death if you want to complete the game, a classic challenge that keeps Sonic from being too easy to beat on your first play-through. Apart from the emulation stuttering and occasional momentum issues, the game is otherwise easy to control thanks to the D-pad and button design, and enables you to traverse platforms, loop-de-loops, Chaos Emerald bonus stages, and boss encounters with a relatively strong degree of precision.
Overall, Sonic the Hedgehog for iPhone and iPod touch is a good but less than great platformer for the iPhone OS platform. Slightly more expensive than the Click Wheel version, it delivers a less impressive experience in some ways, but also does better than it might have with its wide-screen default presentation and on-screen D-pad and button controls. While it’s an embarrassment for Sega that a game this old could run anything less than optimally on devices as powerful as Apple’s, we’ll hold out hope for an update that remedies the title’s inconsistent performance and provides a more stable emulation environment for future Sega Genesis ports. The iPhone’s in need of more and better platformers, and though they’re full of cobwebs, Sega’s vaults have plenty of Sonic games, Kid Chameleon, and other titles that would be fun to play—particularly in compendium form.