You can’t really deny that the Sonic series has seen better days. While the cycle of hope and betrayal has continued with each new Sonic release for well over a decade, many fall victim to it time and time again. That much is easy to understand; the Genesis and Mega Drive games, divisive as even they may be, have spin-dashed their way into our collective nostalgia, and for many that will never truly go away. So while it seems that Sonic’s future never really panned out, what about his past? What would Sonic and his stupid friends have been like on, say, an 8-bit system? What you might not realize is that, in the same way recent years have given us a sub-series of middling-to-competent handheld games, this very same thing was happening during Sonic’s own golden era. Whether you remember them fondly or not at all, Sega’s Game Gear had its own parallel universe for its flagship rodent.
Actually, to say that these games constitute a handheld series isn’t quite right; the first three titles (Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic Chaos) actually had Master System equivalents, and if you were to grab these games on the Nintendo Virtual Console, you’d be playing those versions. The differences between the two versions are generally minor; mostly graphical alterations necessary to accommodate the different screen sizes, and some minor tweaking to the level design. If you grew up in, say, Europe or Brazil, you’ll likely remember these versions over their Game Gear equivalents, as the Master System was much more popular in these locations than in the States. Then again, if you’re a child of North America, you might not have even know the Master System was a thing until you read this paragraph.
These parallel games share many traits with their 16-bit brethren; Sonic 1 in particular shares a few stages and background tunes with its big brother, while rings and Chaos Emeralds are strewn throughout, and even snowboards make it into the mix later in the series. However, each game also tries its hand at some new things. Sonic 2 offers what might be Sonic’s first foray into hang gliding; Chaos makes it a point to let you choose whether to play as Sonic or wind down the difficulty with Tails; and Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble shows that it’s not above introducing more lamentable characters to the Sonic pantheon with Nack the Weasel, whose sole reason for being is to make special stages intolerable.
Regrettably, one thing these 8-bit outings were unable to steal from the main series is the sense of speed; while each game in the series became slightly faster—and by the time they released Triple Trouble, borderline-enjoyable—Sonic suffers from being squat, awkward, and, frankly, just too slow. Further, issues that plague most Sonic games like surprise enemies, bottomless pits, and other difficult-to-avoid impediments to speed are all just as rampant here as they can be in Sonic’s worst console moments.
A final trait that these 8-bit Sonic entries share (aside from confusing and disappointing Sonic fans well before Sega handed Shadow his first firearm) is that their music is fantastic. Particularly memorable is the music from Sonic 1, composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who also composed for the Streets of Rage and Ys series.
At this point, it’s pretty well known that Michael Jackson was in some manner involved in the soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 over on the Genesis, but what you might not know is that Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” shares some uncanny melodic tones with the theme to Game Gear’s Sonic the Hedgehog’s Level 2 Bridge Zone theme. Go ahead, YouTube it. Whether intentional or not, it’s interesting to note that the link between the Jackson family and Sonic’s score doesn’t stop at the Genesis level, and lends credence to the theory that this series of games are in fact relics from another universe not at all our own.
Article by Luke Osterritter
GameSpite Journal 12: Sonic on Game Gear