Sonic is 30 - so let’s celebrate by ranking his greatest hits.
Today marks thirty years of Sonic the Hedgehog, one of the most influential and important games in history and the genesis of a hugely important series to me personally.
Sonic was my first true video game obsession - the games, the cartoons (especially Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, the slapstick Looney Tunes style one), and the comic books. The first online gaming communities I fell into, before I was even in my teens, were Sonic communities. In many ways, those communities set me on the path to do this job, where I’m lucky enough to think and write about video games all the time.
Sonic has a funny old history, though. He has as many hits as he has… well, add a letter to the word hits, yeah? There’s a lot of rubbish on Sonic’s resume. There is, of course, a lot of good. Some of the best games ever made. But which are his best?
There’s only one way to find out! A list! And by find out, I mean for us to tell you our picks for the top fifteen Sonic games. Anything not included in this list… we consider worse than everything else on this list. Don’t get mad; if you disagree, go disagree in the comments respectfully, yeah? Grab a chilli dog and settle in - cos here comes the list...
15. Sonic R
It might be last on this list, but Sonic R is great - remember, there’s a whole shed-load of Sonic games that didn’t make the list at all.
Worth this placement for its music alone, Sonic R is hardly Mario Kart, and it certainly isn’t as good as Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing and its sequel (absent from this list for more being Sega games than Sonic games), but it’s an admirable Sonic racing game that actually keeps the characters (mostly) on foot, as they should be in this series.
14. Sonic Advance 1-3
When the time came for Sonic to grace Nintendo systems at last, the first all-new game from the blue blur to hit Mario’s neighbourhood was Sonic Advance - which gives this little trilogy huge historical significance if nothing else.
Beyond that, however, all three Sonic Advance games are strong 2D platformers that make a concerted effort to translate the Sonic Adventure style of play back into 2D - making its gameplay an adaptation of an adaptation that inevitably doesn’t have much in common with the Mega Drive titles. All three Advance games are decent while flawed, and crucially paved the way for the superior Sonic Rush titles on DS.
13. Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2 GG/MS, Sonic Chaos
Sonic was of course created to market the Mega Drive and give Sega a fighting chance against Nintendo. Sonic’s pinball-like gameplay and super speed was designed to showcase things that the Mega Drive could do better than the SNES, even - but as company mascot, Sonic also saw versions of his early games on weaker systems.
Enter the Master System and Game Gear versions of Sonic 1 and 2, which have broadly the same themes but also are fairly unique, with different zones, bosses, and music. Both are great Sonic games in their own right, though they’re absolutely more traditional platformers, with less opportunities for speed and less physics-based antics. This pair is well worth a look as a historical curiosity alone - but they’re also fun.
Rounding out this group is one original game that plays much the same as the other two, but is unique to those platforms entirely. This plays much the same, thus filing them all together.
12. Sonic Spinball
In the nineties, there were a number of attempts by Sega of America to make a Sonic game of their own - most of them ultimately aborted, including the infamous Sonic X-Treme on Saturn. One game made it, however, and it’s a good’un: Sonic Spinball.
Sonic hasn’t had the greatest luck with spin-offs; just look at his poor, god-forsaken attempt at a Mario Party clone - a game so bad it makes Mario Party look like a masterpiece. Sonic Spinball is a smart fit, though. The series was always based on pinball anyway, so a pinball adventure game makes perfect sense. It also has ridiculously crunchy music of the kind that only really the Mega Drive could deliver.
11. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
Speaking of Sonic’s luck with spin-offs, how about this one - a Sonic game that’s a BioWare RPG! No, really. Many people aren’t even that aware this game exists - a little talked-about Nintendo DS RPG that’s basically a kid-friendly version of what BioWare was doing in its bigger budget titles on HD consoles.
Sonic Chronicles is now mostly mocked for its music, which was completely botched in some sort of late-game swapping of music tracks that led to certain pieces of music sounding like a garbled mess, with the wrong instruments playing at the wrong times. However, dig a little deeper into this and you’ll find a surprisingly strong kid-friendly RPG that makes decent use of the dual screens of the DS.
10. Sonic Rush & Sonic Rush Adventure
As 3D Sonic seemed to lurch from one gimmick to another with greatly varied success, over on Nintendo DS a new breed of Sonic was emerging - a mix of the beloved 2D gameplay of the originals and the speed-focused dashing of 3D Sonic. It’s not quite a return to Sonic’s roots, but it’s not exactly something all-new either. It’s a little of both.
The sense of speed here is elevated above every other 2D title there’s ever been - and they have an absolutely killer soundtrack courtesy of Jet Set Radio’s Hideki Naganuma. Only available on the DS platforms, it feels as though these games are sadly slowly being forgotten.
9. Sonic Adventure 2
You can swap SA2 and its direct predecessor around on this list if you want; there’s not much separating the two games. On one hand, SA2 has half as many different ‘modes’ of play, jettisoning two of the character gimmicks from the first SA. On the other hand, this means there are twice as many of the traditional Sonic levels - the best bit of the game - thanks to Shadow the Hedgehog.
SA2 makes improvements in other areas, with a more confidently presented story, multiplayer modes (on certain platforms, anyway), and the definitive version of the excellent Chao Garden mini game to date. I don’t love it quite as much as the original Sonic Adventure, however.
8. Sonic Colors
With a remaster on the way, Sonic Colors is back in the spotlight - and it could actually deserve a little of that limelight. Perhaps it’s because it launched on the Wii, a console more famous for its non-conventional video games, but it’s easily one of the best attempts at 3D Sonic so far, introducing power-ups that feel like a more traditional platformer in execution when compared to Sonic’s usual shield-based power-up system.
Colors takes the formula from Sonic Unleashed and carefully refines it into something that’s actually purely fun - and crucially, something that isn’t interrupted by a slower-paced secondary mode of play that’s designed to stretch the game’s play time.
7. Sonic Adventure
In many ways, Sonic Adventure sets a bit of a trend for 3D Sonic: an incredible first level that blows your socks off, followed by a game that ranges in quality but never quite hits those highs again.
With that said, you have to admire Sonic Adventure for what it achieved. In terms of raw ambition it was a blueprint for Sonic in 3D that rivals Super Mario 64 - in fact, it’s arguably more ambitious, given it has six playable characters, each with unique skill sets and challenges to tackle. It’s perhaps too ambitious - which is why it’s a twitchy, buggy mess.. and yet I still love it.
There’s something special about Sonic Adventure. It has that X-Factor - there’s lightning in a bottle here that shines past the game’s many problems.
6. Sonic Generations
As an anniversary game goes, you can’t really beat Sonic Generations as an idea. Sonic has lived in two different worlds - 2D and 3D - so why not bring those versions of Sonic together for one game? The result is a brilliant romp across familiar levels in both styles - so you get a look at what a 3D Sonic version of Chemical Plant Zone looks like, and likewise for City Escape in 2D.
In many ways, Generation suffers from many of the same problems as its other 3D peers, but it’s raised up by the strength of the presentation and the quality of its dedicated fanservice. There’s even two different versions with entirely different levels - handheld and console/PC. It’s true that the 2D section physics aren’t quite spot-on to the originals, but close enough to be a blast.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog
The fact that the very first Sonic game is so high up on this list so many years after its release speaks to its quality and also the struggles that Sonic has had matching his early outings in later releases. It remains a ridiculous masterpiece; colorful, fast, and full of an attitude that just wasn’t found in platformers at the time.
The first Sonic also has that rare energy where you can practically taste the potential for this franchise excitedly frothing at the edges of this first entry, constrained for budget, and hardware, and a million other reasons. Even with those constraints, its team delivered a seminal, ground-breaking game. And that only led to the even better entries on this list...
4. Sonic CD
It’s fair to say that Sonic CD isn’t for everyone. It wasn’t in the nineties either, and that isn’t just because most kids couldn’t afford a Sega CD; it’s just… confusing, which makes it an acquired taste.
A relic of an age when games could just get away with not really explaining things, Sonic CD’s time travel takes some learning - but once you understand it, there’s replay value. The same is arguably true of its convoluted level layouts. The best expression of some of Sonic CD’s wilder ideas is now actually found in Sonic Mania’s tributes to it - but for the time-hopping adventure, you need the original.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Uh-oh. This is the point of the list where, inevitably, some people will get mad. But, no, Sonic 2 isn’t our top pick. It’s a stone-cold classic, obviously: Tails, Silver Sonic, Super Sonic, the Death Egg, that god damn Chemical Plant Zone music… I mean, ooof. What a game.
Creating a sequel to the break-out hit that was Sonic w can’t have been easy - doing it quickly even less so. But somehow, Sonic 2 manages to deliver an experience that is superior to its predecessor in practically every way. In many ways, Sonic 2 is the game that has towered and cast a shadow over the rest of the series ever since - which is remarkable considering the legacy of the original.
2. Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Yes, they’re one game. No, you won’t convince me otherwise. I understand that the two were actually released as two separate games that could be ‘locked on’ to bring them together - but S3K was always conceived as one single experience, and as a kid that’s how I always viewed it after getting my copy of Sonic & Knuckles. Even besides that, the two component parts are excellent, easily top five material.
Locking them together into the original form truly completes the game, however. It’s the biggest, most complicated and ambitious Sonic game ever, even to this day - and considering it features no dialogue, no text, and only 16-bit sprites, it somehow manages to tell a surprisingly complete and coherent story.
These days, fan mods like Sonic 3 Complete and Sonic 3 AIR have completed the original vision before the game was split in two in order to keep costs down - and while unofficial, diving into those might just be the best Sonic experience you can have.
1. Sonic Mania
Sonic Mania is honestly an astronomical achievement. Back when I was a kid, I used to hang out on many of the same message boards as Christian Whitehead - and the fact that this fan managed to slowly convince Sega first to let him port some Sonic games to new platforms and then eventually make his own, officially sanctioned Sonic is honestly mind-boggling.
What a Sonic his team created, too. Like Sonic Generations, it’s a tribute to everything that came before with a dash of new injected into it - but by focusing on a pixel-perfect recreation of the physics and feel of the original 2D Mega Drive games, it delivers a much tighter recreation of what made the originals great - in fact, it’s practically indistinguishable.
Sonic Mania doesn’t even stop there, though. The game’s original zones and content showcase the inner thoughts of fans who had clearly spent decades wondering what the next 2D Sonic would’ve looked like, had they persisted onto the Saturn or Dreamcast. It’s a wonderful love letter to the series - and now the best game in the series - by a hair.