Sonic The Hedgehog (Master System) Review

Developer: Ancient
Publisher: Sega

Text Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is one of gaming's greatest icons. Created in 1991 to compete with Mario, it put Sega on the map and helped popularize the Mega Drive / Genesis in the west. Yes, Sonic has been rather hit or miss lately, but he still has millions of fans and it's hard to overstate the series' impact in gaming.

The blue blur's debut was a strong one and a Master System port was launched only a few months after the release of its 16-bit older brother, though this time, it would be developed by Ancient instead of Sega.

Sonic follows the same basic plot and gameplay mechanics as its 16-bit counterpart, though several concessions had to be made to account for the weaker hardware, levels feature fewer enemies, destroying badnicks doesn't liberate cute forest animals and you can't recover any rings when hit. The latter drastically alters how the game flows, by not being able to recover lost rings, the difficulty spikes considerably when compared to other entries in the series. 

Worse still, even with all these features scaled back, the game still suffers greatly from slowdown issues. The framerate is in a near-constant state of flux, making precision jumping particularly difficult in some spots as controls quickly shift from responsive to sluggish. 

Sonic's trademark speed is also missing in this game, there are no loop de loops and the game seems intent on halting your progress through several artificial means. For example, Bridge Zone 2 is a forced scrolling stage, so speed simply isn't an option here while Jungle Zone 2 has the player slowly climb the level. Even when you do reach top speeds the game can purposely force Sonic to a halt in certain segments.

However, the game's greatest issue might just be its level design. One criticism I hear with the Game Gear ports of Sonic the Hedgehog, is that the view area is too small, giving the player little reaction time to dodge obstacles and hiding death pits from view. It's true the Master System's larger view screen minimized such issues, but this problem persists even with the larger resolution on the Master System. it seems every spring on path that boosts your speed is met with an obstacle that immediately grinds you to a halt, if not outright kill you, while other times you're required to take leaps of faith and hope Sonic lands on the correct spot.

Even the game's own rules aren't always consistent, on the aforementioned Jungle Zone 2, Sonic will die if he touches the screen's bottom edge, however, on every other level, the game would just scroll up or down accordingly. As a result, this is actually one of the toughest stages, as you're given no margin of error and any mistake means instant death.

As a rule of thumb, when playing this 8-bit port, the player simply has to forget that Sonic is about speed, and must instead either memorize levels or progress at a cautious pace. In fact, it seems the player was never intended to hit top speed in the first place; there's a spot in the first level where this is possible, but when it happens Sonic goes so fast that the game can't keep up and is unable to create enemies, rings or stage hazards in time, so you essentially spend the rest of level walking in a straight line until you reach the ending. Oddly enough, there seems to be some hit detection issues, especially with springs as they don't always register and sometimes Sonic will just go through them.

Now, I realize I'm being harsh on this game and truth be told, there are positives here, the graphics are bright and colorful and the music by Yuzo Koshiro of Streets of Rage 2 and Revenge of Shinobi fame is outstanding. So outstanding in fact that there are at least two theories of musicians stealing melodies from this game, the first being that Janet Jackson may or may not have stolen Bridge Zone's melody for Together Again, and the theory setting its sights on Australian group, Frente! who may or may not have sampled Jungle Zone's theme into their Accidentally Kelly Street song.

I also have to say Master System Sonic has more level variety than the Genesis / Mega Drive version. Not only do you have regular water stages like in the 16-bit version, but this port also features the aforementioned forced scrolling and climbing levels. Of note, is the fact that there are no mini-games to collect emeralds, instead they are scattered across the game's stages encouraging players to fully explore each level.

But worry not, there are still bonus stages for whenever you cross a goalpost with 50 rings collected. Here, the rotation effects are replaced with short spring-loaded levels where Sonic has to gather as many rings, lives and continues before time runs out. On some stages even flippers are added, reminiscent of the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2, though this game predates it by a year.

In fact, it seems several ideas from this game would be later used in 16-bit Sonic games, such as Robotnik's final boss fight and Flying Fortress levels which seem eerily similar to their Sonic 2 incarnations, though the Flying Fortress stage also bears a striking resemblance to Bowser's Flying Airship in Super Mario 3.

Speaking of boss fights, most encounters with Robotnik are fairly basic and easy to overcome. However, questionable level design once again comes into play here as there are no rings to collect during these encounters. Again, it's not that the boss fights are difficult, the issue is that much like the Jungle Zone climbing stage, the player can't make any mistakes. At least you can minimize the issue by bringing a shield with you from the previous stage as the power-up carries over from previous levels, but even then this only grants you an extra hit.

I'm sad to say Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System isn't up to standard with other series entries of the time. Seeing many of the classic stages recreated for a weaker system makes for a neat little curiosity which is helped further by the attractive graphics and great music. However, the constant slowdown, inconsistent world rules, increased difficulty and punishing level design drags the experience down. The sad part is, there was real potential here, many of these issues could have been fixed with light stage tweaking, but as it is, Sonic the Hedgehog may be a great 16-bit title, but only makes for an average 8-bit experience.

Trivia: There's a rumor that Janet Jackson's 'Together Again' uses Bridge Zone's theme. 

Trivia 2: An Australian group called Frente! is also often accused of sampling music from this game, though in this case it was Jungle Zone's theme which may or may not have been used in 'Accidentally Kelly Street'.

Video Review:

- Bright, colorful graphics
- Amazing soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro
- The change in the ring mechanics completely changes the game's mechanics
- Lots of slowdown
- Questionable level design which needlessly punishes the player
- It's a Sonic game where speed is a liability

Final Score: C

Packaging Review:

I have to say, I like this cover much better than the Mega Drive one. Having some background color makes all the difference, something which is missing in the Euro version of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Mega Drive.

The manual is surprisingly decent as well. As always, this is a VCR-style booklet which shares only the faintest hints of a backstory, but at least we're treated to some nice concept art of most enemies. It's a shame all the screenshots and art are in blue and white, a full color manual would really have brought these designs to life.

Packaging Score: B-

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