The modern gaming scene may still be regularly broken down to battles of hardware technology and game exclusives, but back in the early '90s it was also a battle of mascots. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was the catalyst for the famous Tokyo-based company in the early days of the 16-bit battle for supremacy, as it delivered bright visuals and a rather different approach to Nintendo's moustachioed hero. Playgrounds were the front-lines in the contest between a hedgehog and an overweight Italian plumber; no wonder parents could become easily bemused.
In any case, it strikes us as an urban myth that Sonic the Hedgehog is a fast game — the Sega PR machine did its job. The franchise would move that way from its next entry onwards, with dizzying tubes and some levels that encouraged short spells of reckless abandon. This first title has brief flashes of that approach, but is actually a fairly steady, circumspect platformer when played with rose-tinted specs dutifully removed. It's solidly constructed and there are moments where the designers allowed themselves to flirt with bursts of speed, but on the whole this is a title that tested the waters while, in the process, placed great care in its environments and outstanding soundtrack.
Its revival as 3D Sonic the Hedgehog is, undoubtedly, a must for fans with nostalgia for the blue blur. This game has never looked so good and run so smoothly, with touches of fan-service that we'd barely conceived of for a relatively inexpensive download. There are minor options such as the ability to switch between PSG emulation (sound) for the Mega Drive or Mega Drive 2 — the latter has a meatier bass — while the Screen Mode is the most fascinating; you can enjoy the game in normal screen mode or 'Classic'. The latter is fun for reminiscence, as it replicates the effect of an old-school TV with a curved screen, fuzzy colours and resolution and all; yet we recommend the normal mode, which is fantastically clear. The quality of the pixel work shines in the latter setting, elevating the visuals to how our mind's-eye remembers them, but actually far cleaner and more refined than they were in reality.
Other major additions include autostereoscopic 3D, of course, which has a charming effect in providing subtle layering — the 'Fall-in' option is softer but pleasing on the eye, while 'Pop-out' is more drastic but, actually, slightly uncomfortable. Whichever setting works for you, the 3D is worth turning on, as it doesn't harm the rock-solid frame-rate and spruces up those lovely pixels a bit more. Two other major choices can have a more palpable effect on your experience: first of all there is a choice between the Japanese and International versions of the game. It unsurprisingly defaults to Japanese, as it includes superior but minor enhancements in some visuals and, more importantly, is generous in providing an extra life for every 50,000 points. It looks better and allows for the quick accumulation of lives, though veterans may be tempted to tackle the tougher International equivalent; be warned the International version retains annoying bugs, such as cruel deaths on Spikes and some enemies that have irrational hit boxes.
Next up is the Spin Dash, which wasn't available in the original and can be turned off for those seeking a more authentic experience. Although occasionally useful — especially as Sonic has always had issues running up hills without momentum — it's not particularly well-placed. When introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 it was accompanied by level design with a greater focus on momentum and far less verticality and death pits; using the spin dash is a risk with these original game level designs, which isn't a fault of M2 but worth bearing in mind. The final fan extra is the Special option that allows you to choose whatever stage you want to play, though our preference was to tackle the title in full, especially as it's an experience roughly an hour long — maybe slightly more if having difficulty — and the 3DS sleep mode allows for breaks.
Once again, M2 has done a wonderful job of adding fan service and retrofitting charming extras that either enhance the experience or, at worst, can be ignored. They add to an already memorable game but one, we'd suggest, surpassed by its 16-bit successors — with a special mention for Sonic CD. Its six zones (split into three stages each) with a final encounter serve up some classic moments, and PAL gamers that grew up with the inferior 50Hz version may now find it easier to make it all the way through. The Chaos Emerald special stages are also a welcome test, even if the spinning environment had us resorting to temporarily disabling the 3D effect; completing the game with all emeralds is more satisfying than ever.
Beyond the retro thrill, however, early growing pains betrayed by this original shouldn't be so easily ignored. This title doesn't have the enjoyable pace of its successors, nor does it require precision platforming so defined by Nintendo's rival of the day; it's an odd middle ground that seemed less of an issue when it was first released — as it was different to Mario, lest we forget — but failed to enthral us as much this time around. The second half of the game starts to run out of steam and fresh ideas, too; the Labyrinth Zone and its slow-mo water environments were never a good idea, and the final two zones (Star Light and Scrap Brain) throw up new enemies but largely uninspired level design.
Sega would hit wonderful peaks with the sequels, while the original is honourable for setting out Sonic's stall, if not quite discovering his strengths. It's the work of developers finding their feet before arriving at brilliance, full of care and commitment — and particularly memorable music — but not delivering the best of the concept's ideas. Those would come later, which perhaps makes this 3D re-release a delight and a slight disappointment at the same time — sentiment has triumphed over delivering one of Sonic's stronger experiences.
M2 has, once again, done a masterful job here, giving Sonic the Hedgehog a flash of 3D joy and including a number of charming options to satisfy fans and curious newcomers. The porting work is an outstanding effort, but doesn't hide the fact that this original Sonic game doesn't represent the very best of the 16-bit series, delivering cautious gameplay rather than speedy creativity. There are memorable and borderline sublime moments, but it eventually runs out of steam and therefore qualifies as an iconic but limited début for Sonic. This is highly recommended for fans and those looking for an enjoyable slice of retro Sega platforming, nevertheless.