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Happy Birthday Sonic! A Retrospect on 20 Years of Gaming’s Favourite Hedgehog!

20 Years ago today Sonic the Hedgehog set out on his first badnik-bashing adventure on the 16-bit SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis console. That’s two decades to us humans and probably a lot more in Hedgehog years! But despite the crazy-fast critter’s seniority in the gaming biz, he’s still proving that he’s far from retirement – with Sonic Generations to be released in November 2011, celebrating SEGA’s world renowned icon’s many years of service.

Back in 1991, June 23rd to be precise, we saw the original Sonic the Hedgehog title blast its way onto SEGA’s flagship console, the Mega Drive (Genesis in the US) – introducing the gaming world to Sonic – a blue hedgehog with super-speedy red sneakers and ability to ball-up and bop foes on his battles through the six Zones, from the serene but hazardous “Green Hill Zone” to industrial nightmares such as “Scrap Brain Zone”.

This all in the name of rescuing his cute yet disproportionate animal pals from being enslaved inside robot shells by arch rival Doctor Ivo Robotnik (known in Japan, and then later in the West as Dr. Eggman) who would appear at the end of each Zone – usually comprising of 3 Stages – taunting our hero with a variety of mechanical vehicles and bodies which took skill and technique to best, getting increasingly more tricky as the game progressed.

In addition to bashing ‘bots there was an additional objective of grabbing Golden Rings (resemblances to Super Mario Bros’ coins are obvious). These were spread out across the Zones. Collect 100 for an extra life. Complete a Stage with 100 rings and a huge ring would appear at the end of that Stage – leading to a “Special Stage”. A very “trippy” mini-game in which Sonic would appear in his ball mode and be thrown around a rotating maze in search of the elusive Chaos Emeralds. If navigating the mazes wasn’t hard enough – one bump of an obstacle and it was back to “reality” for Sonic!

The character’s popularity was over with gamers before Sonic the Hedgehog was even released – and once the public came to love him Sonic became SEGA’s answer to Nintendo’s Super Mario – the company adopting the Hedgehog as their frontman (or front-hog).

A year passed and the gaming public wanted more – and SEGA delivered with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (on November 24th 1992 aka “Sonic 2sday”)

The format and theme of the sequel remained largely the same as the original, same baddie, new badniks to bash – but with noticeable addition in the form of a “charging” mode, which would allow the player to give Sonic an added boost while in ball mode. Bashing the button would hold Sonic in place while he spun into frenzy – release the button and Sonic was let loose to reach otherwise unobtainable heights and best specific obstacles along his path in a whole new world featuring a massive 11 Zones.

Another change to gameplay was the addition of a two-player mode featuring new gender-ambiguous character Tails – a fox with two tails (hence name) which allowed the character the ability of flight.

The “Special Stage” also made a return, but this time was achievable at set checkpoint if the player had collected 50 Golden Rings. Set within a less nauseating tunnel and played in a 3rd-person format, collecting enough Rings and dodging the obstacles would reward us with the Chaos Emerald. With all the Emeralds in Sonic’s grasp it meant that when playing the Zones and collecting 100 Rings, Sonic could become “Super” or “Hyper” Sonic – a yellow, faster and invincible version of our hero.

With Mega Drive add-on Mega CD in 1993 the Hedgehog was there first – bringing the action onto a Compact Disc gaming format (rather than the traditional 16-bit cartridge). Sonic CD meant that graphics through the SEGA Mega Drive were much-improved. “Cut-scene” video and a high-quality audio soundtrack could also be brought into the Sonic experience.

Following this the franchise returned to cartridge and Sonic 3 introduced the popular Knuckles character – an Echidna (we don’t know either!) who could break through walls with his fists – an initially was a foe brain-washed by Dr. Robotnik. However, in follow-up / add-on Sonic & Knuckles – the antihero became playable and could be used to play through the Zones of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3, when snapped together with the original carts.

The Sonic the Hedgehog Saga expanded onto SEGA’s successor consoles and once SEGA gave up the game where it came to their own consoles, Sonic came racing onto new exciting platforms, introducing new characters and formats – going “3D” and appearing on consoles such as Sony’s Playstation, and Nintendo’s Wii. A move never before dreamt of.

Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog in the same world? It was a game-boy’s wet-dream!

The Legacy of Sonic the Hedgehog has recently revisited its roots, with revival titles Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – recognised as the fourth in the “traditional” Sonic franchise recently released – and Sonic Generations on its way this year.

He’s been running for twenty years – and it looks like there’s no stopping the Sonic Boom!

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