Picture Jerry Seinfeld, painted blue and with spiky hair

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Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

I make sure to tell everyone who listens that I’m a 90s baby. And believe me, there are some ghastly pretenders out there who’ll call themselves 80s or 90s babies – even when they were born in December ‘99. These fools don’t even remember the Y2K bug, for heaven’s sake. Although I don’t remember any kind of bug like that either, to be honest. Something about the clocks in computers being all wrong. How’s that something worthy of global panic? They should have a word with my microwave oven, if they wanna know all about incorrect times. Fancy some nuclear sausage rolls?

You know, what you’re looking for from each decade is an identity of some sort. The 60s had pinstriped jeans, the Beatles and the Mini. The 70s had disco, and Star Wars I suppose. There’s even been a disco rendition of the Star Wars theme that you simply must check out. It’s not called ‘May The Funk Be With You’, but it should be.

The 80s had the music all to itself, no question about that. We should also throw action films and Nintendo into their pile. The 00s is where it all goes a bit Pete Tong, where the only cultural identifiers are the exalted MSN Messenger, the pox of modern social media, horrendous early YouTube memes and… I don’t know, Arctic Monkeys maybe. Franz Ferdinand and The Killers.

I couldn’t tell you a single cultural footnote of the 2010s. Not even Keeping Up with the Kardashians was 2010s – that guff first started in 2007, if you can believe that. I suppose Love Island will have to fit the bill here, and Taylor Swift. And we’ll see what the nu-twenties brings, although it’s not off to a particularly glorious start so far what with killer viruses, Iranian generals getting smoked and what would have been another lame duck F1 season.

So what then of the 90s? What flashes through your mind when you think of the 90s, if you were fortunate enough to remember them? For me, it’s the impossibly bright clothes, particularly cool white sneakers. There’s the Super Nintendo and later the PlayStation. The Prodigy and Trainspotting, especially Born Slippy. Never met a girl like you, althought I was a bit young to be meeting any girls in the 90s if the truth be told. But the best of all 90s culture, I think you’ll agree, was the Crystal Maze.

But I’m leaving one out here. What about the old Mega Drive, still chugging along well into the mid 90s? In general, the Mega Drive had laid quite a blow on the NES, but the SNES quickly had it licked. Now, sales figures for the Mega Drive in Europe, particularly the UK, showed that there was a huge Sega following here. It was more affordable, and captured the gaming collective consciousness where the NES hadn’t quite made the same impact. After all, there was a litany of sports games on the console, and a Mortal Kombat with blood. There was Road Rash, Streets of Rage and Super Hang-On. But most of all, there was a spiky hedgehog whose design and attitude typified the radical new decade.

Strangely enough, Sonic made his gaming debut as a hanging ornament in an arcade racing game called Rad Mobile. Isn’t that odd? You might as well debut Mario as a fridge magnet in Wall Street Kid, or have Crash Bandicoot change the tyres in Ridge Racer. But, with easily one of the best character designs in all of gaming, Sega had the mascot they needed to go up against Mario. Hence, the blue blur vanguarded 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, with a mission to make the portly plumber look slow, fat and knackered.

Looking back, and leaving aside the fact that the majority of Sonic games over the last fifteen years have been clag, Sonic’s design and character did most of the hard running for Sega here. Which was just as well, because Sonic 1 isn’t particularly impressive to sink your teeth into these days. If you stack it up against Super Mario Bros, being the closest equivalent game, it loses by a bit of a margin and that’s even taking into account the diddly old NES graphics. I wonder if Sonic 1 and 2 with their shiny, colourful graphics was part of the reason that Nintendo boaked out Super Mario All Stars? 

You already know the premise of Sonic the Hedgehog 1, I’m sure. I’ll at least give you that level of credit, since I’m a nice guy. It’s not as universally well known as SMB1, but unless you’re some sort of uncouth then you know about Sonic speeding through Green Hill Zone, collecting rings and going through the famous loop-the-loop. And that’s what the first couple of levels are like, but soon after that you’re onto Marble Zone and the speed and freedom dries up pretty suddenly.

There’s six different locales with three levels each, plus a Final Zone. So that’s 19 levels, and they look nice enough, especially when you speed through the levels and get hit in the face by the Sega’s BLAST PROCESSING, an ultimately meaningless technobabble term that kids on the playground simply couldn’t do without. It was a tremendous piece of marketing, although it must have been lightning-in-a-bottle as pretty well every marketing decision taken by Sega of Japan, Sega of America or Sega of Guinea-Bissau afterwards just went off like a wet fart.

I tell you what though guys, there’s not much speed on offer if you choose to play on the original hardware. Sega have been intent on re-releasing their games on every system up to and including your Bluetooth kettle – they even released a Sonic game to the Nokia N-Gage – but we need to look at how Sonic played from day 1. If you’re a PAL Mega Drive gamer, you simply won’t believe how slow and unoptimised the cartridge is. Hefty borders, slowed down music, and just a slight air of depressiveness about it.

Honestly, the PAL conversion really ruins it. You’d think, with speed being the name of the game, they might have pulled the finger out and optimised it a little. It means those little things, like that classic sinking feeling during the big drop at the beginning of Spring Yard Zone Act 2, all that is completely gone now.

Mind you, I’ll risk saying that the levels in Sonic 1, all said and done, really aren’t that terrific either. Green Hill is iconic, no question. And we all remember Marble Zone, although really it’s pretty slow and the music can get grating. Spring Yard is OK, but it got quickly eclipsed particularly by Casino Night Zone. Labyrinth is remembered for all the wrong reasons, Star Light is too easy although it has great music. And Scrap Brain is a pain.

But it gets worse than the PAL mix, by God. I told you that Sega love to re-release this game in case there’s one of those uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest who haven’t played it yet. Well, they defecated a port of this game onto the Game Boy Advance, and mutilating would be a friendly word to use. It’s probably just as bad if not worse than the R-Type 3 GBA port, a game which saw its creators tried for war crimes.

You may already know that the sound capabilities of the GBA are a bit “differently abled”, and even the Sonic Advance games sounded mule. But Sonic the Hedgehog GBA beautifully surpasses even these rock-bottom expectations. I’d recommend watching videos of the game, but only during the day and with the curtains open as it makes for such horrifying viewing. But still a video won’t do it proper justice, so download a ROM and give it a bash for yourself.

And yes, I will advocate ROM downloading and piracy on this occasion, because it’s not a question of ripping off the developers – I feel that they now owe me for giving it 7 minutes of my time. About 70 cent ought to cover it, Sega. Or about 50 pence, if you’d prefer 90s currency.

31 March 2020

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