Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog has covered a lot of ground since his debut nearly twenty years ago. Some of that ground has been good, some bad, and, unfortunately, too much in recent memory has been absolutely awful. Sonic's fortunes seem to be changing with this week's release of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I for the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and — last week — Apple iPhone, but before we look forward, let's take a moment to took back. I invited my pal and Sonic aficionado Lucas DeWoody to help me narrow down Sonic's geography to the ten best levels that the franchise has to offer and banter back and forth a bit about what makes for a solid Sonic stage. My text is in red; his is in blue. Let's get right to it with the first stage on our list, shall we?
Sonic the Hedgehog: Green Hill Zone
The stage that started it all has to be included here. Reading my monthly gaming magazines as a kid, seeing the large maps of Green Hill Zone stirred my imagination. The checkerboard pattern of the ground and unusual loops had me wondering just what this Sonic the Hedgehog fellow was all about and, moreover, left me doing the mental acrobatics to trace a path for Nintendo’s Mario through Sonic’s world (couldn’t be done with the plumber’s Nintendo Entertainment System skill set, sadly). As a Nintendo child, I only sampled Sonic at demo kiosks while out shopping with my parents, so I logged a lot of time with this zone and only this zone.
It was the same way with me. My first exposure to Green Hill Zone was in 1991. I was at Toys R' Us when (unbeknownst to be) my Mom was trying to find me a Super Nintendo for Christmas. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World were both facing off on different sides of the aisle in rival kiosks. While I still believe Super Mario World to be the better of the two, I have to admit that even in 1991 Green Hill's iconic checkered structures and abstract visual design was far more interesting than Donut Plains 1. However, I was a Nintendo fan, so my torrid affair with Sonic the Hedgehog would have to take place back at the office or in hotel rooms – far away from the watchful eye of my Super Nintendo.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2: Casino Night Zone
The casino stage is a time honored Sonic tradition. Every classic Sonic game had one, and many of the 3D titles have featured some sort of casino paradise. Sonic the Hedgehog's Spring Yard Zone, with its various pop bumpers, flippers, and flashers would lay the basic foundation for what has become a defining Sonic characteristic, however it was Sonic the Hedgehog 2's Casino Night Zone that took the concept to the extreme. From the moment the swanky musical theme kicks off with that familiar snare drum, Casino Night Zone proceeds to pull you into an ever expanding dreamland (you could call it “Las Segas”) of gambling/pinball bliss with flashing lights, flamboyant designs, pinball pits, and slot machines that can either reward you with infinite rings, or take them all away. Seeing how well Sonic meshes with the concept, it makes you wonder why Sega never bothered to produce a full scale Sonic the Hedgehog pinball machine.
Don’t give them any ideas, Lucas. Casino Night is a viable template from which future Sonic casino levels would be based, all the way from Sonic 3’s Carnival Night to Sonic Adventure’s Casinopolis to Sonic 4’s Casino Street. Of course, it was also responsible for the entirety of Sonic Spinball. Can’t win ‘em all.
Sonic CD: Stardust Speedway
To this day over 17 years after its original release, Sonic CD is still a criminally overlooked entry in the series, as well as one of the best platformers you will ever play. Sonic CD took a more flamboyant route than the American produced Sonic the Hedgehog 2. For one, the visual and audio design of Sonic CD was arguably the most outlandishly trippy of the entire franchise. No one stage better exemplifies this than the sprawling roads, neo-steam punk inspired multicolored backdrops, and thumping new jack swing soundtrack of Stardust Speedway. The crescendo of the Sega CD's best game ends in a race to the death between Sonic and his evil mechanical equal, Mecha Sonic. With the house music pumping, the search lights flaring, and the blast processing running on all cylinders, Stardust Speedway was reason enough to own Sega's CD-ROM peripheral dud.
You can’t let mention of this stage pass without noting how Dr. Robotnik chases after the racing hedgehogs with his killer death beam in full operation. Slow up or slack off in the slightest and that inescapable laser will fry Sonic within what feels like milliseconds, turning the race into a pulse-pounding and heart-racing affair.
Sonic CD: Special Stage
The Genesis was released a full two years before the Super Nintendo finally arrived on the 16-bit gaming scene. Due to the separation in their release dates (and Sega's use of cheaper stock chips in the Genesis rather than dedicated hardware), the SNES far outstripped the Genesis in visual and audio trickery. The Sega CD was meant to alleviate this and boost the stock Genesis hardware to, or at least near SNES ability. While most software was simply mildly enhanced Genesisware, Sonic CD used the Sega CD's pseudo Mode 7 effect to pull off fully rotating 3D special stages. In these stages, Sonic has to run around multiple flat highway like tracks surrounded by water and destroy all of the floating UFOs under the time limit to gather the Time Stones. Touching water causes a loss of time. These stages were a great showpiece for the Sega CD upon launch, but more importantly, they were fun. Give them a try in Time Attack mode and see how much fun they are even today.
If there was ever a Genesis-era title that could have benefited from an analog stick over a traditional control pad, Sonic CD was it thanks to these special stages. Trying to steer Sonic through a locked-perspective 3D environment was tough with seemingly limited ranges of movement. How many times was my aim just slightly off when heading for rings or a power-up, leading me to plow poor Sonic into the water or an unintended bumper? Far too many, sadly enough.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3: Marble Garden Zone
While the main goal of any Sonic level is to reach the end sign post (or whatever else marks the end of a stage), the secondary goal involves collecting rings. Lots and lots of rings! Marble Garden Zone is the perfect place to rack up tons of the little spinning golden treasures thanks to generous placements of lightning shields and even more generous collections of, yes, rings. The steep slopes at the start of Act I are a perfect place to see the old Genesis Blast Processing in action, too.
From the perspective of game design, Marble Garden is a prime example of Sonic's platforming roots. People often assume that the Sonic brand is about nothing but pure raw speed, but that's not true. Sonic the Hedgehog was actually a nuanced and precise platforming experience with little bursts of satisfying speed tucked tightly in-between the jumping action for the sake of pacing. Try to bolt through Marble Garden and you won't last long. The focus on platforming precision is what makes Marble Garden Zone one of the franchise's best.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3: Ice Cap Zone
When a popular series is getting annual sequels it can be easy to suffer a burnout, especially for a franchise that in 1993 was barely three years old. Sonic still gets yearly sequels (for better or for worse), but in 1993, Sonic fans were enjoying some of the best 2D level design of the 90s. How could you complain? Sonic 3's Ice Cap Zone was a prime example of Genesis-era Sonic magic in full swing. Starting with a snowboarding air drop into the vast frozen void, Sonic treks deeper and deeper into a crystalline icy hell while some of the most hypnotic music (a heavily remixed tune on ocremix.org) to ever grace the franchise pumps along in the background to its "Smooth Criminal"-inspired beat. It all builds up to an epic mid-boss battle on the glacial surface with Dr. Robotnik's “Big Icedus” which forms a rotating shield made up of packed ice balls. Ice Cap is the perfect mix of wonder and danger, with a roller coasters wealth of thrills and some of the best atmosphere in the Sonic universe.
Don’t forget that given the right set of circumstances (hello, debug code) it’s possible to score tons and tons of rings in the Ice Cap Zone. There are also multiple opportunities to play the Blue Sphere bonus round for Chaos Emeralds, seemingly moreso than other stages in the game. I know that if I’m running short on emeralds by the time I reach this zone, before it’s over I’ll be back on track and Super Sonic.
Sonic Jam: Sonic World
While a new adventure featuring Sonic in full 3D would have to wait until after the Sega Saturn had come and gone, fans were able to get a little taste of things to come in the Sonic World section of the compilation title Sonic Jam. This demo-like environment allowed a crudely 3D Sonic to run and jump his way around a self-contained, goal-less world and interact with small museum exhibits that spelled out the history of the character circa 1996. While not winning any awards for gameplay or visuals, Sonic World promised that the character was ready for the next generation of video gaming. Fans would just have to wait a while to see him in complete action.
My first exposure to Sonic Jam was long after the Saturn had passed on to the console graveyard. It was hard to find one in the Midwest beyond 1995. Seeing Sonic World for the first time was sort of bittersweet. It was a small taste of what could have been. The life of the Saturn was short and troubled, yet deep down I believe a big Sonic game could have saved it in the West, or at least given Sega the financial footing they needed to keep the Dreamcast alive. Also, it was the last time we would ever see Sonic's old-school character design (and the only time in 3D).
Sonic Adventure: Emerald Coast
For the blue blur's much delayed grand debut in three dimensions, Sonic Adventure began with a rather strange cold open – a boss battle with Chaos 0. After that, you spend a little while wandering aimlessly around Station Square trying to unlock the first action stage, Emerald Coast. Once you get through that gate at the beach resort, the real Sonic 3D experience begins. Emerald Coast was like a crash course lesson in all the elements that make Sonic cool: sparkling beach fronts, blue skies, bumpers, springs, jungles, monitors, randomly placed spike traps, and raw speed while still giving the player a feeling of control of the action in the midst of chaos, a trait that post-Dreamcast 3D Sonic games would completely abandon. As for the most memorable moment? The high speed killer whale chase scene is hard to beat. Emerald Coast is simply 3D Sonic at its best.
Emerald Coast is a definite Dreamcast showpiece. How else to explain the careful attention to detail throughout the level? While the killer whale chase is a highlight, I’ve always been partial to the segment that allows Sonic to basically run up and across a wall. It’s optional, but skilled players can pull off the maneuver and snag the bonus rings at the top.
Sonic Heroes: Bullet Station
The level design? It’s alright if you like jumping from rail to rail. Bullet Station shows up on this list purely for its awesome theme song.
Sonic Heroes is flawed, but somehow I think it was the last Sonic title of the 3D era to truly understand the brand's character. All the elements were present and accounted for, even though somewhat crippled by the well intentioned yet clumsily implemented three character tag team gameplay gimmick. It was also the last Sonic game to feature Ryan Drummond as the voice of Sonic. Sonic Heroes is sort of symbolic in retrospect, because after Sonic Heroes is when Sega handed all US promotional duties for the franchise off to 4Kids Entertainment with the dub of the Sonic-X anime. Like Kirby and F-Zero before and after it, years would pass before Sonic would recover from the “kiddization” he endured at 4Kids. Sonic Heroes was basically a send off to Dreamcast era Sonic. In that regard, I tend to look back at it with fond feelings.
But yeah, that music is awesome.
Sonic Unleashed: Windmill Isle (Day)
Yes, the night half of Sonic Unleashed is terrible and should never see the light of day again, but the actual speedy daytime stages of absolute joy are what a modern console Sonic game should be. I actually keep the downloadable demo on my PS3 just to be able to run through it on demand whenever I get the urge. From its blue skies to its obvious design with momentum in mind, Windmill Isle is Sonic Unleashed in top form. Then it’s all downhill from there.
Sonic Unleashed is a game that I don't own. I've played it via rentals, demos, and friends, but by this point I had sworn off the franchise forever (or so I thought). Playing the daytime stages back at E3 was sort of a cruel tease. It was lightening fast, tightly controlled, and balls-to-the-wall fun. What I had played was amazing. I thought, “If the whole game is like this, we should be in great shape.” Then Sega showed us the “Werehog” nighttime stages and my heart sank. In the back of my mind, I told myself, “Somehow I bet we'll spend 70% of the game doing this crap.” Being right sucks.