Remember when Sonic the Hedgehog was actually pretty great? Pepperidge Farm remembers. I should point out that I’m from the UK and have no idea what Pepperidge Farm even is. Anyway! Sonic used to be great in the Mega Drive era. Then 3D happened and pretty much everything went to pot for the blue blur. Hurtling along at high speeds worked well in 2D as fine control was less essential when dealing with a flat plane, but the switch to 3D made precise control more important and much more difficult to do at high speed. Things like a homing attack helped, but quick movement and sudden camera cuts made controlling a high speed hedgehog quite challenging.
That’s not to say there weren’t any good stages in the 3D games, it’s just that most of them were a hard to control mess. With Sonic Mania here now (and my not having enough time to play it yet), I thought I’d look back at some of the Sonic games I’ve played and pick out a level from each of them that I found memorable and enjoyable. These are in chronological order and are from games in the series I’ve played. I’ve made sure to include a couple of 3D levels as they weren’t all appalling, honest! Oh, and Sonic Generations isn’t allowed as they’re mostly redone versions of ones from previous games. On with the show!
Sonic the Hedgehog
Ahahaha. Just kidding. No. No way in hell.
Green Hill Zone
Yes it’s the obvious choice, but this is as memorable to me as World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. The bright colours, the catchy music, and the pace to the level. Everything combines to make this a fun level and a great introduction to the character and the core of the game. We have loops, simple enemies, and a silly boss to take down at the end, as well as access to the Special Stages if we can hold onto 50 rings by the end of the acts.
This is one of those Sonic levels that recognises that the speed is one of the best aspects of the game, and it avoids dropping hard to predict obstacles and limits the slower paced platforming sections. There were other great levels in the game, but this is the one that will stick with most players.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Chemical Plant Zone
I could throw a dart blindfolded at a Sonic 2 level dart board and hit a fantastic stage without any trouble. The vast majority of the levels in Sonic 2 were brilliant, but the one that stuck with me (other than Emerald Hill Zone, but I can’t just pick all the opening stages) most was Chemical Plant zone. A far cry from the first world, this toxic facility is filled with purple water that can slow down the careless player significantly. There are multiple paths to taken with plenty of opportunities for high speed sprints along with those iconic loops. Plus those tunnels that send you hurtling around the levels!
This is one of the stages I would play repeatedly to get better and better times. I can’t remember exactly but I think I managed to finish act 1 in under 45 seconds once I’d figured out the best route. To my mind, that’s when Sonic is at its best: a level that’s enjoyable enough to make you want to strive for your personal best. Normally I avoid water levels like the plague, but avoiding the water is part of the fun in this one. It’s nice to see this one make an appearance in Sonic Mania.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Sonic 3 & Knuckles was great. Slotting the Sonic 3 cartridge into the back of the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge turned it into one super long game with additional features. I can’t think of any other game that did this, but I could be wrong. In a similar vein to Sonic 2, there are a lot of good levels here, but I’ve gone for Sky Sanctuary.
This is a bit of a slower level than others being as it’s a late game zone. Unlike most late game Sonic levels though, this one is bright and colourful. The music is excellent and the multiple paths that levels in later 2D Sonic games tend to be known for are even more prevalent here as the level takes place over multiple tiers accessed through teleporters. The boss is good fun and the end of level dash up a collapsing pillar looks great. A rare good stage that goes against Sonic’s strengths.
Sonic Adventure 2
Yep, I’m skipping Sonic Adventure. Looking back, most of those levels were pretty poor, although Emerald Coast had it’s moments. Like the whale bit. Anyway, I really liked most of the Sonic stages in this game. Some of them were really hard to control, and most of the bosses were awkward to fight, but there were some fun ones to play. City Escape is the obvious one for so many reasons.
It plays to the usual idea of first levels in a Sonic game: fast paced, bright colours, and a catchy soundtrack (if you’ve played it, I know you’re singing it to yourself right now). From a fun “skateboarding” section at the start, to grinding rails down staircases, culminating in being chased down by a truck. It used pacing well, with slower sections to take down enemies followed quickly by another burst of speed. I loved that in Sonic Adventure 2 you could come back to the level with newly acquired items to find new routes.
Ahahaha! Are you kidding?!
I like Sonic Unleashed. Sure there “Werehog” stages were weird and constantly having to talk to other characters got in the way of the gameplay, but the Sonic levels were actually pretty good fun. You didn’t have to worry about stretchy arms for one thing.
Rooftop Run was an insanely fast paced stage that rapidly switched between 2D and 3D sections. Tons of loops and grinds, plenty of enemies to burst through using your dash, a great soundtrack (seriously, it’s one of the best ones) and fantastic visuals. It’s a shame that more of the game didn’t make use of this style.
There are tons of Sonic levels I’m a fan of. Star Light Zone, Sky Chase (controversial!), Icecap, Metal Harbour. Researching for this I found loads of Sonic games I hadn’t played before (mostly handheld ones) which I plan to rectify where possible! What are your favourite Sonic stages? Is there one I’ve missed? Let me know!