Friday 28 November 2014

Sonic the Hedgehog (Game Gear review)

Developer: Ancient
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1991

This handheld version of Sonic the Hedgehog was developed by Ancient and released six months after the Mega Drive version hit stores in North America.

The game features six stages with three acts each and once again your job is to free your imprisoned animal buddies and take down Dr. Robotnik. Although several of the games stages are inspired by those in its 16-bit namesake, both the Bridge Zone and Jungle Zone are unique to this version. One of the levels in Bridge Zone forces the screen to scroll automatically from left-to-right which is very uncommon in a Sonic game; likewise, Jungle Zone features a vertically scrolling level. Both are entertaining and add some nice variety and contrast to the usual gameplay. The Special Stages are a lot of fun too as you're bounced around a pinball-like area while trying to collect rings and continue boxes. There are six Chaos Emeralds to collect in the game and they're now hidden in each zone rather than the Special Stages. Some are in plain view (especially the one in Labyrinth Zone) and it's pretty easy to locate them all and access the secret ending. The bosses are similar to ones found in the 16-bit version and take place in the third act of each zone. The main difference is that you can't go into battle with any rings as none are available beforehand (although you can go in with an existing shield from the previous level). There's very little room for error but thankfully the bosses aren't too tough when you figure out their patterns. This Game Gear version of Sonic has some exclusive (and highly memorable) tracks by Yuzo Koshiro that sound great next to the original music. The developers at Ancient also did a fantastic job porting things over from the Mega Drive and I was genuinely impressed at how faithful everything is. In particular, the game is surprisingly fast at times which is a real achievement for Sega's underpowered handheld.

Unfortunately, there are some technical flaws that hinder the experience. Slowdown rears its ugly head on many occasions and button presses are sometimes ignored which results in unnecessary deaths. This is especially apparent in the dreaded underwater Labyrinth Zone where the pace is already slowed down to a crawl. The lag is even worse if you pick up a shield and this item also causes your sprite to flicker in a peculiar way.

Sonic the Hedgehog is still a great game though and the easy-to-moderate difficulty level and ample supply of extra lives / continues helps to lessen any technical frustrations. Overall, this is an impressive start for the franchise on the Game Gear and a worthy companion to the Mega Drive version.

Random trivia: There is also a Master System version that has minor level design tweaks. Due to the consoles commercial failure in North America this was the final Master System game released in that region. In contrast, Europe received a number of sequels including Sonic Chaos in 1993.

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