ByAna Valens, writer at
Writer and games critic. As seen at the Daily Dot, Waypoint, Kill Screen, Bitch Media, and ZEAL.
Ana Valens

is Ana Valens’ weekly column introducing new players and non-gamers to essential gaming franchises.

If you want to talk about retro gaming, you have to mention Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega's Blue Blur has seen it all, from the early Genesis days to high-speed thrills off current-gen platforms. If you're following the Sonic Forces news closely and want to jump into the franchise's main games before Forces officially comes out for the holidays, now's the perfect time to hop in.

But first, some history about the series.

Sonic Came From Humble Beginnings

'Sonic 2' [Source: Sega]
'Sonic 2' [Source: Sega]

It's the 1980s, and Nintendo is performing quite well thanks to the Super Mario franchise. As Nintendo's direct hardware competitor, Sega is eager to find a mascot to compete with Nintendo to drive up software -- and therefore hardware -- sales on the market. Sega artist Naoto Ohshima comes up with an idea: a spiky hedgehog inspired by Michael Jackson and a bit of Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, developer Yuji Naka is working on a prototype that would allow Sega to produce a game where a fast character runs across a platforming level, essentially allowing players to reach high speeds without slowing down the game's framerate. The two begin working together, and the original Sonic the Hedgehog comes out for Genesis in 1991. Sonic Team develops the game.

'Sonic CD' [Source: Steam]
'Sonic CD' [Source: Steam]

The game quickly takes off, as does the Genesis. And thanks to Sonic Team's work, Sonic sees one sequel after another: first Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in 1992, then Sonic CD for the Sega CD in 1993, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on the Genesis in 1994, followed by Sonic & Knuckles that same year. Spin-offs abound and a variety of games are released, and Sonic is practically a household name among gamers.

Making the Move to 3D

'Sonic Adventure DX' [Source: Steam]
'Sonic Adventure DX' [Source: Steam]

The Sega Saturn was out, and after Sonic Team developed NiGHTS into Dreams..., the crew was eager to return to Sonic. Bringing Sonic over into the 3D world made sense, and development began. But the Saturn wasn't faring well, and the Sega Dreamcast was fast approaching. Development shifted over to a 3D Sonic game for the console as a launch title. That game would become Sonic Adventure, and it would go on to be highly received by Sonic fans across the world.

Sonic Adventure 2 was released shortly as a sequel, introducing several new characters: including Shadow the Hedgehog and Rouge the Bat. Like its predecessor, that game was critically acclaimed, and fans were excited to see where Sonic would go next.

Starting the Decline

'Sonic Unleashed' [Source: Sega Wiki]
'Sonic Unleashed' [Source: Sega Wiki]

But despite Sonic's success with both Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2, Sega began straying significantly away from the formula that made those two 3D games work so well. Sonic Heroes was released in 2004, bringing in character swapping to the series. That game was received with mixed reviews; while some reviewers enjoyed the gameplay, others found the game's camera system painful to control and voice acting lacking.

Things grew worse. 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog was originally praised before release as an attempt to bring the series back to its roots for the then-next-generation PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but the game was critically panned for everything from its load times to its sloppy controls to its terrible plot. The game was considered a serious failure, and to this day, 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog is considered one of the worst main Sonic games to date. Things didn't fair much better for a while, with 2008's Sonic Unleashed also facing harsh criticism.

It seemed like Sonic would largely face mixed releases for the rest of his lifetime. But then Sega brought back their classic 2D formula with 2010's Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1. The game was quickly received well, and while 2012's Episode II would face criticism, it was a good start. Sonic Colors was later released for Wii and Nintendo DS, and the game was critically hailed as one of the best Sonic titles in years. The game took the Sonic Adventure era's gameplay and improved upon it significantly, plus Sonic Team added in some side-scrolling elements.

'Sonic Generations' [Source: Sega]
'Sonic Generations' [Source: Sega]

Some up's and down's arose, but Sonic Colors's side-scrolling ability would appear later on as Sonic redeemed some of his former glory with Sonic Generations in 2011. The game let players take control of 3D Sonic and his 2D counterpart -- appropriately called Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic -- in gameplay modes reminiscent of both characters' greatest hits. The game performed well with critics, and thanks to its PC release, Generations quickly became host to a bustling modding community.

And while Sonic certainly has yet to fully redeem himself, Generations and Colors proved to be a good start. As 2017 lingers on, Sonic fans are keeping their fingers crossed that Sega will bring some of the best titles to date for the Blue Blur.

What To Play Now? Go Classic

So you've heard the history and want to know where to start? With Sonic the Hedgehog, the whole franchise is best enjoyed from the oldest to the newest. Because so many Sonic games in the 21st century faced serious problems, Sonic's classic releases are a great starting point for any interested gamer that wants to jump in.

From there, you can choose between 2D or 3D Sonic. If you want to experience Sonic the Hedgehog from the very beginning, start with 1991's Sonic the Hedgehog for the Genesis and work your way through the 2D games. On the other hand, if you just want to experience the 3D world from the start, go ahead and stick with 1998's Sonic Adventure as your first game and play 2001's Sonic Adventure 2 after.

Looking Into the Contemporary Games

Once you've experienced Sonic's past, now it's time to experience Sonic's present. And as you can guess, things get complicated here. We highly suggest starting with 2011's Sonic Generations, which blends the best of both classic and modern Sonic games. 2010's Sonic Colors is worth playing through too if you like Generations, as the game is considered a pretty strong Sonic title that made Sonic, well, fun again.

Then you can work your way over to 2010's Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I. If you really like the first episode, you can give Episode II a shot as well.

Otherwise, steer clear of most modern releases. If you're eager for more Sonic, wait for Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces later this year. Mania in particular looks to replicate classic Sonic gameplay, and the game looks like it's straight from the Genesis era. So sit tight once you've played through those titles.

In Conclusion: When In Doubt, Go Old School

'Sonic Adventure 2' [Source: Steam]
'Sonic Adventure 2' [Source: Steam]

If you're eager to play Sonic, here's where you should go.

The 2D Genesis Era

  • Play if: You want to experience Sonic from the very beginning. These are considered some of the best Sonic games.
  • Play if: You love 2D platforming and want to see what all the hype is about.

The Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 Era

  • Play if: You want to play through 3D Sonic during some of Modern Sonic's peak years.
  • Also play if: You finished playing through the original era and want to see Sonic in 3D.

2010's Sonic Colors

  • Play if: You're eager to try out a contemporary Sonic title that plays well.
  • But generally: Stick to Generations if you don't have access to a Wii or Nintendo DS.

2010's Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

  • Play if: You enjoy 2D Sonic and want to experience a modern take on the Genesis era's highlights.
  • Also: Check out Episode II if you like Episode I.

2011's Sonic Generations

  • Play if: You want a contemporary game that combines the best of 2D and 3D Sonic with fun, lasting gameplay.
  • Also play if: You're interested in the Generations modding community or want to take a shot at modding yourself.

Those are our Sonic the Hedgehog recommendations. Have a suggestion of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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