I'm sure that you, like me, have bolted upright in bed in the past, around midnight, and screamed at your loved one, or simply at yourself in a mirror, eyes blood red and lips desert dry: What is the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog game ever made? It's a perfectly reasonable question, at any hour of the day. There have been so many video games featuring SEGA's pointy-of-shoe and blue-of-hue anthropomorphized mascot that it's a minefield trying to sift the stars from the sludge from the shit. Twenty-five years of memories, several best forgotten. But then, wasn't, no, wait... Was Sonic Drift any good?
Nope, it was a wreck. Total garbage. A desperate Mario Kart clone (OK, OK, spiritual successor to SEGA's own Power Drift) bashed out in 1994 for the slowly dying Game Gear. And it's far from alone in sucking amid the Sonic catalog. It's not that there are more crappy Sonic games than not as the hedgehog celebrates his 25th, with the announcement of next year's Sonic Mania, but there's certainly a slew of series entries that aren't ever worth returning to. Some of those middling affairs, while holding up pretty creakily today, really didn't seem like complete disasters at the time: step forward, Triple Trouble. True missteps were rare in the 1990s, the isometric nightmare of Flickies' Island aside—it wasn't until the three-dimensional adventures of sixth-generation consoles that Sonic's stock began to fall, hitting rock bottom with 2014's Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. (Still, as a Wii U exclusive, at least only eight people played it.)
'Sonic Mania,' debut trailer
I've played a lot of Sonic games (but, disclaimer, not all of them, because no person alive is that much of a masochist) since getting the original into my sticky clutches—and that was the Master System version, not its more famous Mega Drive cousin, which was quite the different game. Because it's a thing to do, and due to the renewed interest in Sonic's early days because of the throwback aesthetics of Mania (which looks terrific), and this weekend's big Summer of Sonic get-together in London, I've put together this (unranked, so don't even) top ten without overthinking the whole thing too much. Just the games I remember being ace and a few words on why.
Sonic the Hedgehog (Master System, 1991)
The first I played, the first I finished, and the one that I can still watch a walkthrough of on YouTube and remember every bounce, beat, and great accompanying tune before it's introduced into the mix. Yuzo Koshiro was the man behind the music, adapting the 16bit melodies for SEGA's lesser-powered system but bringing in his own influential arrangements—the game's "Bridge Theme" was sampled for Janet Jackson's 1997 number-one single "Together Again." While the Genesis's Sonic had special stages hiding away its collect-them-all Chaos Emeralds, here it's tucked away in the regular levels, requiring a little cunning to reach—a better system, IMO.
Sonic CD (SEGA CD, 1993)
There aren't many reasons for dusting off SEGA's love-it-or-loathe-it, but-these-games-come-on-discs peripheral, but Sonic CD sure as hell represents one of the main ones. It had the fastest gameplay of any of the series at the time, introduced Metal Sonic, and had all of the best (awesomely cheesy when they're not pulsing techno) songs, too (just not in the US version, sorry). Don't even think about arguing with me—just listen and watch.
'Sonic CD,' EU/Japanese ending (which had different, awful music in the States)
Sonic Rush (DS, 2005)
Sonic lost some of his trademark speed when making the move to 3D—necessary, really, so as not to blur around the screen with no accuracy. Sonic Rush lived up to its title, though: Here was a Sonic, rendered in 3D but set within 2D levels, who couldn't stop running. Indeed, some might have found the game too fast, but for me, just seeing Sonic hammering through stages that nodded to their 16bit forefathers in brightness and clarity was enough to feel that the old favorite was hitting form again. The boss stages were awesome, popping out of the top screen at Sonic, all metal limbs and snapping jaws—a 3D(S) version of this would be pretty special.
Sonic Advance (Game Boy Advance, 2001)
Because who doesn't want to sky-surf Knuckles or Tails down an outer space drainpipe in pursuit of a Chaos Emerald? Also, Advance is noteworthy for being the first Sonic game made for a Nintendo console, and it set a solid precedent: Two direct sequels followed on the same platform, which I've not played personally, but their review scores are up there.
Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball (Genesis, 1993)
In my head, this was amazing back when. But when I fired it up earlier today, in advance of writing these words that you're looking at right now, I was struck by how slow it was. Here were my teenage memories, being crushed by an unexpected reality. And then I found the option to switch it up from "normal" to "fast" in the options, and I breathed one super-sized sigh of relief. Spinball is pinball with Sonic himself as the ball, except for in its bonus stages, when Sonic is at the flippers of a regular machine. I didn't get any further than the very start of stage/table/zone two (of four), though – this game is nails.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis/3DS, 1992/2015)
I already told you that the M2-made 3DS version of Sonic 2 is the best damn Sonic game ever, so go and read that.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (loads of platforms, 2013)
Get past that absolute dog's dinner of a title, and you've the best cartoony racer (with short cuts and power-ups and all that good stuff) for still-active systems that isn't Mario Kart 8. It's nowhere near as good as the Wii U's must-have, but when you've a handheld and a 90-minute commute, this is as good a time-killer as they come without getting deep into a sporadic-save-point JRPG. And there's nothing worse than having to step off the train knowing that there's still half a boss battle to get through before you've any chance of powering down. Transformed loses a mark because no death stare, though.
Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast, 1998)
Look, I'm an advocate of Fat Sonic, so Adventure got off to a bad start with me. Check that prick on the cover—that's not the cutesy mascot of the Mega Drive years. That's some punk who'd knock your ice cream out of your hand down on the promenade, or spitball your back in French class. Dickhead. Adventure is pretty good though, isn't it? Biggest-selling Dreamcast game, you know—I own two copies (and no, you can't). One of the best 3D platformers of its time (and racer, and snowboard game, and flight simulator)—and 1998-ish was peak time for said genre. Made a star of Big the Cat. Hey, some people like him. (But then, some people also like poutine, so.)
Related, on Motherboard: GOG Just Released Some Classic 16bit Disney Games
Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (Mega Drive, 1993)
If you were a SEGA Boy in the early 90s, there was one game that Nintendo-favoring friends would always waft in front of you, because you could never have it. Tetris. Bloody Tetris. It was everywhere, but if you didn't have that so-sought-after monochrome handheld—and my dad was dead against me having one (I wouldn't until my late teens, when I got a Pocket model)—it was always just out of reach. SEGA had Columns, a match-three puzzler that was OK, but nowhere close to the genuine killer-app status of the Game Boy–bundled blocks game from the other side of the Wall. But Nintendo's other big falling-blocks puzzle game of the period, Dr Mario, was trumped by something from the company's biggest rivals, namely this mouthful. Mean Bean is Puyo Puyo, basically: Match four beans of the same color, and they vanish, preventing your stack of them from breaching the top of the screen. And Puyo Puyo is, obviously, brilliant. Enough said, I think.
Sonic Heroes (GameCube, 2003)
It just looked so, so pretty. And the triple-protagonist setup, allowing you to switch between Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles (assuming you're using Team Sonic; other trios were available) to use each character's unique abilities, was a neat new twist on the series's staple gameplay. Heroes marked the debut of Sonic on Sony and Microsoft systems as well as the GameCube, but mainly, for me, this was less about the precedent it was setting for widening the franchise's audience and all about the visuals: genuinely like a cartoon come to life.
OK. I think that went OK. But if you want to tell me I'm a moron for not mentioning Knuckles' Chaotix (yes, I am one of those idiots who bought a 32X), you know where to find me.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.
More from VICE Gaming: