Version Control: Sonic the Hedgehog

When games jump from platform to platform, changes are inevitable. Be they small differences in frame rates or fundamental changes in mechanics and features, these variations can drastically change the feel of a game. With Version Control we seek to catalog these differences, stack them up against each other, and determine which system, if any, hosts a game’s definitive port.

Very few games have seen as many ports as the original Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s hard to believe the blue blur was once a system-seller, since now his debut game runs on consoles, handhelds, PCs, phones, and even e-readers. Today we look at six of those ports to determine what’s the best (and worst) way to enjoy this classic platformer.

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Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991)

Talk to anyone who owned a Genesis or Mega Drive; it’s all but guaranteed they played this game. Yuji Naka’s creation originally stemmed from a rabbit character who used his ears to grab items, but after various re-designs, Sega found a generation-defining mascot in a speedy blue hedgehog (the rabbit would go on to inspire Sega’s cult classic Ristar). Thanks to a huge step up in technology from its predecessor the Sega Master System, the Genesis could process the technical algorithms of its games much faster than before. The Genesis’ Motorola 68000 processor made for prettier, faster games than were possible on the Mega Drive, and Sonic capitalizes on that. Though it would be technically outdone by Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the original game still made us believe in blast processing.

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Sonic 8-bit (Master System/Game Gear, 1991)

Sonic the Hedgehog hit the Genesis in June 1991, but an 8-bit version of the game released on the Master System in October of the same year. While the Genesis version flaunts the power of Sega’s flagship console, the Master System version makes a number of concessions to get it running. This version of the game was developed by Ancient as opposed to Sonic Team, and focuses more on exploration than high-speed antics. Chaos Emeralds are found in main levels rather than special stages, and hardware limitations make the game feel considerably slower. In fact, it’s almost an entirely different game. Power-ups hardly come into play at all, and levels are selected from a world map instead of transitioning into each other seamlessly. 8-bit Sonic the Hedgehog is a respectable platformer in its own right, but as an entry in the Sonic series, it’s seriously underwhelming.

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Sonic Jam (Sega Saturn, 1997)

Sonic Jam is a seven-game compilation of Sonic games released for the Sega Saturn in 1997. One of the only Sonic games released for the ill-fated console, Jam is best-known for Sonic World, an explorable gallery of sorts that marks Sonic’s first move into full 3D. However, it also contains one of the most impressive Sonic the Hedgehog ports on any platform. In addition to near pixel-perfect emulation of the genesis classic, Sonic Jam gives you a choice of multiple difficulty levels for each stage. Different difficulties have different level and item layouts, which gives the game a significant boost in replayability. The collection also features a Time Attack mode and allows use of the spin dash introduced in Sonic 2. The game suffers from the occasional graphical hiccup, but that’s more than a fair trade for all the new content. As with the Master System version, this 32-bit upgrade almost feels like an entirely new game, but the key difference is that it still feels like Sonic.

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Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis (Game Boy Advance, 2006)

Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis hit the Game Boy Advance in 2006 to celebrate the blue blur’s 15th anniversary, but it very nearly killed the festivities single-handedly. It ought to be simple to make a Genesis game work on the GBA, but Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis is infested with bugs, including physics glitches that let you cheese your way through most of the game’s bosses. Single-digit frame rates would be unacceptable in any game, but they’re especially egregious in a franchise built around speed. The zoomed-in graphics make dodging enemies difficult and look ugly to boot, while a poorly-arranged MIDI soundtrack massacres the game’s classic tunes. A few minor additions – namely the inclusion of the spin dash and a level select screen – do little to improve matters. Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis is an absolute disaster that makes many of the series’ 3D outings look good by comparison.

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Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (Xbox 360/PS3, 2009)

Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection hit last-gen consoles in 2009, bringing with it forty Genesis classics in addition to Sonic the Hedgehog. Like many retro remasters of its day, the Ultimate Genesis Collection version of Sonic the Hedgehog features a few gameplay enhancements such as save states and achievements/trophies. The graphics and audio can be customized to suit your preferences – you can upscale it to 720p and smooth its pixels with an optional HD filter. Audio is also customizable, and game sound, music, and sound effects can be adjusted individually. Sadly, this isn’t the most economical way to play Sonic the Hedgehog – unless you enjoy the other 39 games on the compilation, you probably won’t want to take the whole pacakge. The Ultimate Genesis Collection sells for a pretty cheap price these days, even new, but other compilations like Sonic Mega Collection Plus go for less offer far more to satisfy series fans (Sonic and Knuckles lock-on games are noticeably absent from the Ultimate Genesis Collection). On the other hand, if you’re a hardcore Sega fan, the Ultimate Genesis Collection offers you some serious value.

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Sonic 2013 (iOS/Android, 2013)

Sonic the Hedgehog got a facelift for its 2013 mobile release. The classic Genesis title works remarkably well on iOS and Android, running at a smooth 60 fps, with widescreen support and a remastered soundtrack. The game uses the same engine as 2011’s mobile remaster of Sonic CD. Not only does the spin dash make another appearance, but Tails and Knuckles are both playable, with some levels redesigned to compensate for their unique moves. It’s easily the most feature-rich version of Sonic the Hedgehog, but the virtual touch screen controls don’t feel nearly as precise as physical buttons. If you can handle the controls, Sonic’s mobile version has the most features of any port, and as a bonus lets you take the classic with you on the go.

Best Port: Sonic Jam (Saturn, 1997)

Worst Port: Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis (Game Boy Advance, 2006)