Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Game Gear is perhaps not the game that immediately comes to mind upon hearing the name. Preceding Sega’s days as a third party publisher or before systems had the capacity to handle one of the company’s innumerable ports, the decision was made to create a companion title to the better-known Mega Drive game. This handheld version of Sonic the Hedgehog featured the same spirit but altered gameplay mechanics, levels, and bosses.
The result was a less commercially successful title but one that remains a classic in its own right. For starters, the visual and aural experiences have taken their own form rather than be content with aping Sonic 1’s console counterpart. Fresh tunes such as the one for Bridge Zone take center stage here, but even the retro renditions of levels like Green Hill Zone are infectiously catchy. The 8-bit aesthetics suit the blue blur surprisingly well, especially considering this was his first outing.
Unfortunately, it also lacks the superior level layouts of its 16-bit cousin. It’s actually not so much the design itself as the overuse and misuse of floating platforms. These platforms are often placed in obtuse locations where you have no time to react or the level design implicitly “tells” you to run and you inevitably overshoot them (probably not aided by the Game Gear’s reduced screen size compared to the Master System). Other times the visuals merely make it ambiguous whether a particular area is traversable or not. Were this the Master System version, the increased range of vision would rectify most of these hitches but alas.
Some gamers will also take issue with the level of slowdown that plagues the experience. Though I’m sure many can forgive that on the basis of this being a first generation Game Gear game with none of that lovely blast processing, others will find that Sonic is outright unacceptable (more so when slogging along in the water at a snail’s pace).
Generally speaking though, the Game Gear version of Sonic’s debut is still sufficiently gratifying. Sonic operates as smoothly as expected and the absence of the spin-dash (introduced in later games) is never problematic. Besides, there’s something to be said for busting through blocks by tucking in mid-run the old-fashioned way.
As mentioned earlier, the game also throws in several completely unique levels that ultimately lend this version its inventiveness. Even the stages based on the same concepts manage to feel fresh, thanks to clever placement of obstacles and the lack of loop-de-loops.
There is one key gameplay difference that also bears mentioning. When Sonic is hit by an enemy or obstacle, he’ll be unable to pick up any of the rings he just dropped. This means the value of one ring is equivalent to a hundred in terms of offered protection and thus they’re more like credits for reaching the special zones than practical in real-time.
Other than the occasional hiccup, the game is fairly generous in terms of its challenge level. Although there is always the threat of a game over ending all of your progress, extra lives and continues are handed out gratuitously and should help counter the illegitimate deaths. If you’re into the concept of using save states, they can rectify the problem entirely.
Even if you were to get a game over, the consequences wouldn’t be particularly intimidating since Sonic’s first Game Gear excursion is so brief. This is actually not a gripe but compliment in disguise. With levels that can be bested in thirty seconds to two minutes each and bosses that can be conquered effortlessly, this is a fairly solid introductory title for those new to the series or those simply seeking something to replay.
Furthermore, instead of keeping the coveted Chaos Emeralds (items needed to witness the game’s true ending) in special zones at the end of each level, this version sees it fit to hide them on an individual basis. Those replaying the game will have incentive to explore each level again at their own pace to track down them all.
Sonic the Hedgehog on Game Gear is a highly replayable little title with some nuisances that bring down its overall value. Though not as outstanding as the Mega Drive title was, those who appreciated its style will do themselves justice by picking this one up rather than shell out a comparable sum for another port.
– Clark A
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