Mastering The System #12 Sonic The Hedgehog

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Year: 1991
Players: 1
Played Before: Yes (Game Gear)
Also on: Game Gear
Progress: Completed

Oh, it’s a port of a game that’s on a superior system. There’s no way it’ll be any good. Let’s move along. No, actually, let’s not! Sega’s 8-bit consoles received their own Sonic games instead of downports from the Mega Drive. Is this first effort any good or will we wish we’d stuck with the 16-bit version?

A few months after the speedy blue hedgehog named Sonic burst onto the 16-bit scene and blast processed his way all over Mario’s reputation, Sega gave a little back to their loyal Master System supporters with this game, also released in virtually identical form for the Game Gear. I received my handheld copy, along with a system and numerous other games, for free from a guy who should have had more sense*, but I’m glad he didn’t. Bundled with that Game Gear was a multi-cart containing 16 games, one of which was Pengo, possibly the best version of that game available anywhere, but that’s a story for another day. I had an original Sonic The Hedgehog cartridge and played the hell out of it.

Given the 16-bit version’s overwhelming colour and speed, throwing sprites around like they were going out of fashion (they still haven’t!), it would be easy to assume that the Master System couldn’t possibly offer the same experience. Technically, this is correct. The 8-bit machine obviously can’t provide multiple scrolling background layers, stereo sound with bouncy bass lines and numerous large sprites, but that’s not to say it doesn’t deliver a satisfying experience for a first attempt.

While the levels themselves, known as acts in Sonic land, are a little sparse in the backgrounds and there are very few enemies to make life difficult, 8-bit Sonic still retains that unquantifiable quality of good gameplay, with platforming that hits the mark and presentation that’s as good as could be expected for the time. It’s a shame that backgrounds couldn’t have been made more lively with extra animation and there is a rather weird slowdown that can occur when as few as one single enemy is on-screen, but this doesn’t have a noticeable negative impact on the platforming.

For those who played the Mega Drive version first, a theme of familiarity is introduced with Green Hill Zone sporting similar music, backgrounds and some opportunities to get a decent bit of speed up. Populated with the three main enemy types from 16-bit Green Hill and plenty of rings (complete with sparkly sound effect) to get your white gloves on, there’s nothing unusual to test those who have experienced Sonic before. The Moto Bugs are a little small, for some odd reason, but this definitely looks, sounds and feels like a Sonic The Hedgehog game. A couple of new themes are introduced after Doctor Robotnik/Eggman is dispatched in Green Hill. Bridge Zone is packed full of collapsing… yes… bridges, weighted boost platforms and a new, happy piece of background music along with a slightly nasty forced scrolling act, while Jungle Zone challenges you to traverse instant-kill water traps via the medium of moving platforms and rolling logs, accompanied by a similarly bouncy musical theme. It contains one particularly evil act, a long climb upwards to the exit sign where touching the bottom of the screen results in instant death, whether a platform lies off screen beneath or not.

Halfway through the game, familiarity with the original is re-established in the underwater Labyrinth Zone, albeit with a different musical theme, where Sonic’s trademark speed is exchanged for dodging spikes and chasing air bubbles, then it’s on to another familiar name, Scrap Brain Zone. An industrial backdrop and large, ramped areas with a teleporter maze are featured here. The background music is also different from the Mega Drive version and is a short, but catchy loop. This is followed by the final zone, Sky Base, a night time stage full of lightning generators, canon batteries and flying platforms.

Every act contains a 1up monitor and collecting 100 rings also awards an extra life but comes with the unfortunate side effect of resetting the ring counter to zero, meaning you have to make a choice between going for a 1up or collecting between 50 and 99 rings to access the special stage. This is, of course, no choice at all, as the special stages contain a continue monitor, a 1up monitor and plenty of rings to make it more than worthwhile taking that route instead. While the Master System could probably have been cajoled into rotating a background and After Burner shows that it is possible to some degree, special stages are not an attempt at recreating the spinning Mega Drive bonus areas with morphing backgrounds and multiple exits, instead being areas filled with springs, bumpers and bouncy walls. Failure to carefully maintain Sonic’s trajectory can result in losing control entirely and running out of time or being catapulted towards the exit sign before managing to secure the requisite bonuses.

Suffice it to say, this is not a difficult game. However, unlike the 16-bit version, taking a hit while holding rings does not result in a scramble to collect the escaped golden trinkets; you simply lose all of them instantly, no matter how many you’re carrying. This can feel a little disappointing after the hilarity and panic of dropping hundreds of rings on the Mega Drive version, but it would be unreasonable to expect the Master System to throw that many sprites around in one go. An opportunity to grab perhaps three or five rings wouldn’t have gone amiss, however.

The challenge, such as it is, comes in locating the Chaos Emeralds. In contrast with the 16-bit original, they’re hidden within the zone levels themselves instead of in the bonus stages. While one or two are obvious if you explore fairly carefully, with Bridge Zone’s even being placed in plain sight, some are squirreled away in devious locations and will only be found with more effort than a cursory run and bounce through each act.

The game isn’t made any more difficult by epic, extended boss encounters. Doctor Eggman makes his usual third act appearances in various attempts to do away with Sonic, but these feature unimaginative movement patterns and lack a sense of speed, so don’t provide much of an obstacle in the quest to retrieve the Chaos Emeralds. The fact that there are no rings on any third act stage is probably a blunt instrument to counteract the ease of these end of zone battles. One has to wonder, if Eggman has a flying machine and the Chaos Emeralds are scattered within the zones themselves, why he doesn’t collect them up and hide them elsewhere, perhaps somewhere a bit more difficult to access than a platform beneath a collapsible bridge.

On the whole, while not as complete an experience as the Mega Drive version, Sonic The Hedgehog on still contains enough of Sega’s trademark level of polish to rank quite highly in the Master System library and is a more than adequate introduction to the series for 8-bit gamers.

Exciting SEGA rating:

(*he also owned Rise of the Robots on SNES and insisted that it was a good game, which says plenty)

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