It's a name nowadays that conjures up mixed feelings and emotions, all depending upon how old someone is and how well versed they are with the long series of games this little blue mammal. If you take a look at the more recent games, some will say that there's been relative success in capturing the fun back into the games with titles such as Sonic Unleashed and Sonic 4, though this is a point of contention amongst the extremely jaded and divided fan-base.
With which, I entirely sympathise. A series they've grown to love over the decades is being systematically fucked up beyond all recognition (yes, FUBAR'd) by rushed deadlines, cut corners and lack of decent quality control and testing which is being acted upon in post-development. Seems a lot of games have that little issue, they're tested and found to have faults but nobody is rectifying this stuff as it's the bottom dollar the company bigwigs are really interested in. But I'm not going down that particular route today.
I could go on about whether or not the Sonic games for Dreamcast and GameCube were any good or not, I may even review them at a later date. But for now we're going back to the Megadrive (...Genesis) and looking at the first outing by our 23 year old cerulean spiked one. (and let's get the giggles out of the system now before I start to mention Blast Processing... who the hell came up with that one needs to be given an award for having the balls to make that up then shot for being a prick)
Mr Needlemouse (look it up), lives in a wonderfully designed and colourful world where naturally growing and occurring loops, spins and corkscrews are common everyday happen place events. In this saccharine world however, is a royally fat-fuck asshat called Dr Robotnik (No, not Eggman, we don't talk about that in this game and that term wasn't coined for many a year) who was formerly Dr Ivo Kintobor and in some instances of back-story, helped Sonic to develop his speed and blueness through experimentation of a friendly sort. See kids, animal testing can be a positive thing! (This reviewer does not condone animal testing of any kind, except testing how many government politicians it takes to slake a carnivorous animal of its bloodlust)
The mean old naughty bad-man, Dr Robotnik, decided it would be a good idea to turn all the cute little animals in the land into robots. He also decided he'd take the Chaos Emeralds (of which just ONE is actually emerald coloured, must be some genetic testing by-product thing) so he can do more naughty things. Cue our cobalt coloured hero deciding that after many MANY robots have been made, that this cannot be allowed to continue and our journey begins in the first level where we, as players, basically run right. There may be some jumping and rolling at times, the occasional boss every 3rd stage of a level and a few bonus levels if you're great at collecting coins... I mean rings.
That's the game in a shell of nuts.
There's a lot to be said in the game for the fast flowing pace of the main character gradually building up speed, pressing down to roll and then sending our azure ball of spikes racing through ramps, loop-de-loops and soaring sky high on springs and bouncing things. The game belts along at an almost breathtaking pace that eventually becomes a test of "how fast can the game scroll through its own levels" rather than actually playing the game. Occasionally you may have to WALK somewhere back and forth and in some of the levels there's a considerably slower pace being forced upon the player with the whole "jumping onto platforms and being slowly, SLOWLY, moved across lava safely". Although, with this being the first game, there's some leeway in arguing that the designers may not have been sure as to what kind of game they were producing at this point.
Because this is the first game, there's no spin-dash move. That wonderfully typical, nay, ESSENTIAL technique in the second game onwards that allows you to build up speed while being motionless before racing off going from 0-60mph before you can say internal-organ-rupturing. So when you're faced with a ramp leading upwards and you're not going fast enough to clear it, you'll have to run back and try again with more momentum built up so that you can clear the ramp. It becomes a rather annoying point when you especially lack the speed and jumping height to simply hop over the ramp and instead start bouncing back and forth like a bus full of kids after all the passengers were given energy drinks for breakfast.
You still get the pre-requisite power-ups though. A shield to help you tank a hit of damage, any and every ring you pick up will allow you to take a hit of damage and drop all the rings, so having one ring at any time will save you from death unless that death is being crushed, landing on spikes and bouncing onto MORE spikes (mercy invincibility does NOT work on spikes) or falling off the bottom of the level, will kill you outright. Speedy shoes for moving EVEN faster and seeing even less of the level while you race through it quicker than Jessie Owen doing a victory lap through Berlin. Other power ups include extra lives and more rings as well as the invincibility effect that negates spikes but not being crushed or falling off the game.
Getting to the end of a level with more than 50 rings gives you the opportunity (unless there's a boss) to jump up into the giant ring, which will magically take you to a bonus round. Where you get the opportunity to navigate as a jumping ball through a constantly rotating maze with psychedelic backgrounds and hopefully attain either enough rings to achieve a continue, or get the Chaos Emerald hidden within the core of the level, before being dropped out by hitting a "goal" icon. Getting all of them nets you the lovely "good ending" where you make the science fat man cry and your character does something mildly impressive; walking left for a bit by himself.
Each level in the game usually has multiple ways of getting through the level, taking higher or lower routes depending upon how quickly you can leap up to various heights and land on outcrops rather than not, each route having its own share of tricks and traps to navigate while fighting off various enemies (there's usually 2-3 types of enemy per level) and the bosses which have a small level of ingenuity behind them not seen until the 3rd game and cross over with Sonic/Knuckles cart. Hit the boss 8 times to win, and then free all the collected furry friends from the large metal ball.
Variety between levels is diverse, but with this comes a lack of cohesion. One level has you running through the lush green (and mathematically formulaic) setting of the Green Hill zone, before turning up to lava and underground purples of Marble Hill with no real indication of whether it's simply a few steps away or there's been a long travel from one to the other filled with multiple hardships and angst on the part of our main character overcoming his doubt and self-loathing to see his way through towards taking up the responsibility of defending the land in which he inhabits.
No, you just turn up.
I've deliberately ignored one aspect of this game until now. Take the game as it is, bright, colourful, full of fluid motion and fast game play (when you get a decent run up) and then go a little further into the wonderful land of Labyrinth Zone. And already I can hear some people reading this and groaning in the dawning realisation of where I'm going with this. It's a simple enough set of levels where you'll face off against a few enemies which pose little threat but then the big threat is the water. Sonic can drown here and you'll get a few light warnings to escape. When there's about 15 seconds to go you'll be treated to some of the most harrowing, terrifying and rather upsetting music akin to a sped up and high-octane version of Jaws, before the music stops and Sonic just drowns. Complete with count-down timer, which all induces high panic levels and lack of co-ordination until you get yourself to an air bubble, or jump back out of the water.
Allow me to reintroduce you to your own nightmares http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Yw5jkAHgME with thanks to YouTube for hosting.
Now that I've ripped apart enough of people's childhood memories or introduced some people to a few new ones, I'll take my leave by departing with this little snippet. The game is not great, it never was. It served a purpose as a launch pad of mediocrity against poor competition and won many over with its speed and sacrificed actual game play mechanics to do it, repeated in later instalments with less control and more autonomy from the game. Given this game is missing some of the much needed improvements implemented in Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, there's little to be said for this one save that it served a purpose, started something reasonably impressive but failed to deliver even back in the day. If you've never played it before, don't. If you have, go back and see just how far we've come by comparing it to Sonic 3 and/or Sonic and Knuckles and be thankful that someone decided to make the changes the first game needed.