This year marks Sonic the Hedgehog's 25th anniversary which once again makes me feel really old. Sonic has not been in the limelight for a long time, and it's easy to forget when the great Sega vs. Nintendo console wars were on. Thinking back, it was always difficult to decide what was better: Mario or Sonic. While Mario has obviously become the winner, I like to remember what made Sonic the Hedgehog such an amazing series back in the day.
The Level Design:
Sonic vs. Mario really begins with the levels of each game. This is one area where I felt Sonic was ahead of Mario during the 8 and 16-bit era. The Mario games tend to have more levels than Sonic, but I remember the zones and design of Sonic more than I do Mario.
There were of course some famous parts of Mario's design: Stage 1-1, the giant land of SMB 3 and the star world of Super Mario World. However, I can recall more interesting levels and challenges from the Sonic series than I do with Mario. This is helped by the structure of the Sonic games: Two acts per zone with one boss fight.
The first act introduces the challenge of the zone, and the second one expands on it. While the Sonic games weren't as long as Mario, I felt that there was less filler with more variety. This also goes with the strange mix of speed and slow that the Sonic series became known for.
You had sections where you literally just run through and it becomes a blur, and then parts where you have to slow down to survive. Some examples would be the water levels, Zone 2 of the original Sonic and the final zone of Sonic 1. It wasn't until the Super Mario Galaxy games that Nintendo started experimenting with theme levels and challenges.
Finally for this part, there were the boss fights. Sonic beat Mario in spades when it came to boss design. Every act ended with a fight against Robotnik in some crazy machine.
Each boss was completely different in its pattern, design and challenge on the player. The variety of boss fights also made the end of each zone a welcome treat, to see what the situation was going to be next.
Another part of what made Sonic's levels so great was the music.
Iconic music was a part of the early video games. I still hum themes from many of the Mario games in my head on a constant basis, but Sonic has the songs that really get stuck in my head. I can't remember many of the names of the zones off hand, but I can still hear the music. Even when the series moved to 3D, it had some worthwhile songs (at least in the Adventure era.)
I think it helped that Sonic just had more sound than Mario did. With that said, this isn't me saying that Mario had horrible music; give me a minute, and I can start humming multiple songs from the series. This is really an A+ vs. an A++, and yes, I did like "Sonic Boom."
A part of what made the console wars so interesting was the number of games, and I like to think that Sonic was more daring than Mario.
Both Mario and Sonic dominated during the early to mid 90's, and many children had to make the tough choice to own a Genesis or a SNES. When it came to the actual series, I felt that Sonic Team was more willing to experiment than Nintendo. If you look at the evolution of Sonic in the 2D era, we had the following growths: Asymmetrical two player, multiple endings, 3D bonus stages, pinball game and the first 3D game in the Sonic series.
The Mario series remained largely consistent in terms of design throughout the 8 and 16-bit eras. Again, this isn't a knock against Mario; the 2D Mario games are considered some of the best games ever made. However, in terms of trying something new and being different, Sonic was ahead.
The changes that did come to Mario were more of the incremental and minor stuff. I think this also had to do with Sega's marketing for the Genesis and Sonic: That he was the cooler, hipper version of Mario.
I still remember the craziness of playing Sonic 3 with Sonic and Knuckles, which combined both games into the largest 2D Sonic game. The fact that Sega was willing to experiment along those lines puts Sonic ahead of Mario in my opinion.
The End of the War:
Ironically, or sadly, the degree at which Sega and Sonic Team would change Sonic's design would ultimately lead to the problems today. When the series fully moved to 3D, the creative level design did not make the transition over. While there were some great levels, the quality as a whole just went down.
That didn't stop Sonic Team and Sega from trying more and more variations of the design; even copying Nintendo with variants of Mario Kart and Mario Party with Sonic. instead of speed, many modern Sonic games were known for weird gameplay, difficult design and annoying bugs. The best Sonic games of recent years were the 2D ones on the GBA and 3DS, while the 3D games continued to squander any good will Sonic had left.
Nintendo knew what was the main gameplay hook that brought people back to Mario, and instead of changing it, they expanded on it with more creative levels made to fit in a 3D space.
Any experimenting was done off of the main series, with games like Luigi's Mansion and the Mario and Luigi RPG series. While Sonic continued to be the innovator, that innovation simply did not lead to great games.
We could talk more about this here, but this post is focusing on the good of the Sonic games.
Winning the Battle:
In my opinion, I think Sonic was even more important to the console industry than Mario, and the reason has to do with what Sonic did to the market. Sonic presented the first major competition to Nintendo and ushered in the new console wars. Without it, Nintendo's monopoly would have continued longer and left us with only one game system producing company.
Without the Sega vs. Nintendo war, there's a good chance that we wouldn't have seen the Playstation been developed, or have a market where other major companies could attempt to take a piece of it away from Nintendo.
Overall, I think the Sonic classic games do deserve more credit than what they received. While Nintendo did have a better track record with Mario, there was a time when Sonic was the king, and left a major mark on the Game Industry.
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