As one of gaming's most iconic mammals, Sonic the Hedgehog needs no introduction; he's graced consoles, comic books, crossovers and clothing lines in his double-decade career, and this is where it all began. Well, nearly — Sonic the Hedgehog on the Game Gear isn't a port of the Mega Drive / Genesis classic, but rather of the 8-bit remake for the Sega Master System which was released following the success of the 16-bit original. The result is a wonderful portable platformer with a distinct identity from its console cousins; it might be bite-sized, but it's a whole lot of fun.
Even in this early outing, the Sonic formula as we know it today is alive and well: Sonic speeds through six zones of two stages and a boss battle each, looking for Chaos Emeralds — now hidden in the levels themselves — along the way. If you finish a stage with at least fifty rings in tow, you'll be transported to a Special Stage where Sonic can bounce around in a springy, ring-filled wonderland, stocking up on the life-giving loops before the next level.
Sonic's moveset is limited, but not limiting; he can run, jump, and roll into a ball, and by combining those three simple actions, players can do quite a lot with the humble hedgehog. Running and rolling takes considerably more skill to pull off than the Spin Dash introduced in later Sonic games, but it's also a lot more satisfying. The controls are tight and precise — a necessity given the tiny platforms Sonic navigates here — and the Circle Pad feels especially well suited to the action.
Veterans of the Mega Drive original will notice some substantial differences in the levels of this version: the new Bridge and Jungle Zones stand alongside three returning zones (in modified form), and there's a redesigned final stage as well. Whatever the reasons behind the stage-swaps, these changes are far from a downgrade — in fact, the 8-bit exclusive zones are among the best in the game, and bring welcome new gameplay ideas like forced scrolling and a vertically-oriented climbing stage.
In every zone, level design is top-notch and streamlined for the small screen, with multiple paths to explore and a good balance between thrilling speed and precision platforming. The stages are a big part of what makes Sonic games so much fun to play, and this one is an excellent example. The only letdown lies in the underwater sections, which are miserable, stressful slogs thanks to Sonic's glacial swimming speed and seriously subpar breath-holding skills. Thankfully, these make up a very small portion of the game.
Redesigned levels aren't the only difference from Sonic the Hedgehog's console counterpart, of course, and there are a few tweaks to the gameplay as a result of its new handheld hardware as well. The biggest change is that Sonic can't reclaim any rings dropped after running into an enemy. It would've been a big ask for the Game Gear to display dozens of transparent ring sprites all at once, so you simply roll back to zero every time you take a hit. During boss battles, meanwhile, you can't use any rings at all — Sonic expires after a single strike in his encounters with Eggman, and they're much more demanding as a result. There's also plenty of slowdown when the screen gets crowded, especially with falling platforms. It certainly doesn't ruin the game, and felt par for the course back in 1991, but players accustomed to a more consistently speedy Sonic will find it jarring.
Framerate dips aside, Sonic looks great on the Game Gear. The hedgehog wears his 8-bit colours very well, with a simple, colourful style that's full of retro charm. Later Game Gear titles would add more detailed sprites and busier backgrounds, but to our eyes, the clean lines and bright colours of this first release have aged much more gracefully.
Likewise, Yuzo Koshiro's original soundtrack is a timeless chiptune classic, from the familiar opening notes of Green Hill Zone to the sublime Special Stage song. Sonic's first 8-bit adventure is also the only place to hear the phenomenal Bridge Zone track — one of the most memorable melodies in the series' 22-year history, and one that fans will recognize as the basis for Tails' theme in Sonic Adventure.
As always, Sega's excellent Virtual Console amenities round out the retro package with a generous coat of modern polish. Along with restore points, you'll find fully customisable controls and a bevy of display options, including a lovingly detailed Game Gear frame that comes in four different colours. You can even recreate the blur effect of the handheld's battery-guzzling screen, if you're after the authentic early-90's experience.
Perhaps as a concession to the original hardware's notoriously brief battery life, Sonic the Hedgehog is quite a short game by modern standards — you can easily run from start to finish in a couple of hours, and well under that if you know what you're doing. It's short, but it's sweet, and the search for the six Chaos Emeralds certainly adds some replay value.
The Game Gear version of Sonic's first adventure isn't just a competent conversion of a legendary game — it's also a fantastic platformer on its own merits, with tight controls, a great sense of speed and plenty of personality. Players with fond memories of the Mega Drive version will find fresh surprises alongside the nostalgia trip, and for first-timers, the excellent 8-bit exclusive zones and soundtrack make this just as easy to recommend as its big-screen sibling — and well worth a double dip. The series might have expanded onwards and upwards over the last twenty years, but there's a real joy to Sonic the Hedgehog that hasn't diminished with age. This is the Blue Blur at his basic best: a speedy, smile-inducing classic.