SEGA’s forays into the 8-bit realm of Master System games came in many forms. To begin with you have exclusive experiences like Zillion, Phantasy Star and Golden Axe Warrior and then there are the lesser known ports of Mega Drive games.
During the twilight years of the Master System in the early ’90s, the console was still fairly popular in Europe and South America. It was in SEGA’s best interest to continue supporting a console that was selling reasonably well and ported several Mega Drive games to the Master System, while other developers continued supporting it with multi-platform ports.
Amongst the many ports of Mega Drive software came Sonic the Hedgehog. It was in SEGA’s best interest to propagate this title across as many platforms as possible as it had set the gaming scene on fire with its slick graphics and refreshing gameplay. However, could it be possible to scale down a Mega Drive experience to the Master System while retaining playability and graphical appeal?
Sonic the Hedgehog was developed by Ancient and published by SEGA and sought to condense the Mega Drive game down into a title the Master System could easily handle. It succeeded to the point of giving players the same story as the original game with Sonic venturing across South Island to thwart the evil plans of Ivo Robotnik, as he seeks to trap all of the islands animals and make little robot butlers.
The flow of the game is generally the same with Sonic traveling through the familiar Green Hill, Labyrinth and Scrap Brain zones, however to make the game easier for the Master System to handle, certain zones like Starlight, Spring Yard and Marble zone were omitted. You may be disappointed by this, however the unique nature of the replacement zones; Bridge and Jungle make Sonic the Hedgehog feel like a unique entry in the series, as if it is an “alternate cut” of the original game.
The game plays very similarly to its original namesake with Sonic handling more or less the same. He does, however, have a certain weight to him that is not present in the original that takes some getting used to. Sonic seems to have lost a little of his trademark acceleration, which may be due to the smaller levels.
Jumping on enemies, spinning into them and collecting rings are all present, as is the collection of Chaos Emeralds. Emeralds are obtained in a different way to their Mega Drive counterparts as they are now a regular pick up in levels that are either cleverly hidden, or require some sort of platforming prowess to obtain.
That isn’t to say bonus levels are done in with as they are still accessible after collecting 50 rings during gameplay and hitting the goal, only now they are simply an avenue for collecting continues and extra lives. Unlike the rotating maze from the Mega Drive game, the bonus stages on display here play like a miniature Spring Yard zone with giant pieces of candy poking out of the ground to impede you.
Existing levels from the Mega Drive game have been simplified to make them more Master System friendly and while they are missing a lot of detail they maintain what made each of the levels fun to play. Green Hill still contains a lot of jumps and open sections to pick up speed and Labyrinth Zone is still annoying. I never liked it and I never will, though I did enjoy the theme.
Jungle Zone contains a lot of verticality to it, with Sonic having to negotiate a lot of waterfall based platforming and an Act centered entirely around climbing. That most interesting added level is Bridge Zone, however. If you listen to the Janet Jackson song “Together Again” and then the theme to Bridge Zone they match up almost perfectly.
Considering the amount of involvement that Michael had at Sega during the early ’90s, it stands to reason that Janet may have been inspired to utilise the melody for use in her song from this game. Whether that is legal or not, it is still interesting to consider.
Graphically, Sonic the Hedgehog fails to consistently impress. It is one of the better looking Master System games ever made, however, for every clever transparent water effect, there are dull or out of place colours, which really impact on the visual appeal of the title. There is a lot of pinkness to Sonic the Hedgehog, and it makes Sonic himself look as if he is made of marshmallow. It’s odd and unappealing.
Even subtle effects, like scrolling, are oddly missing from the game. Some environments are spot on, like Labyrinth Zone, considering the limitations Ancient was working with. That said, the console was capable of more, and it’s disappointing to see potential underutilised for such a high profile game.
Sonic the Hedgehog for Master System is a solid platformer, but it has a certain hollowness to it. You are aware that a lot from the Mega Drive version is missing, and although it could be considered a sort of “alternate cut,” the abject simplicity of it is a little off-putting.
The dulled colours, the weird pinkness of Sonic himself and the lack of scrolling and missing detail causes a lot of charm to dissipate. The whole game feels slower and more methodical, which some may like, however, having played the original since I was a child, I pine for the excessive speed, the crisp graphics and the immaculate control of the Mega Drive game.
I like a lot of what Ayano Koshiro did with Sonic the Hedgehog on Master System, and Ancient did the best they could to build a foundation on the console for what they believed to be the building blocks of a good Sonic game on the system.