Join us in toasting Sonic’s 25th birthday with a nostalgic trip down Mega Drive lane…
It’s been over 30 years since Sonic the Hedgehog’s loop-the-loops and pinball speed revolutionised our console lives. Before the little blue cannonball burst onto the scene in 1991, the Mega Drive was struggling to lure us from the charms of the Nintendo NES and a certain mustachioed plumber.
But that all changed thanks to an incident on the technicolour South Island. With his eye on the island’s six Chaos Emeralds, Dr. Robotnik started imprisoning local animals and (naturally) turning them into robots. Sonic came spinning from a hedgerow into the Green Hill Zone, and the rest is gaming history, with the hedgehog resurfacing every now and then in new games, rereleases of classic titles, and even movies.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Sonic the Hedgehog’s searing speed, eye-popping colour and catchy tunes were so good that we barely touched the copy of Altered Beast that came bundled with our Mega Drive.
And it was the perfect gateway drug to dozens of trailblazing classics that suddenly made Mario look drab and monochrome. Here are the brilliant Mega Drive games we turned to after finishing off Dr. Robotnik in Final Zone…
Nintendo had Tetris, and the Mega Drive had Columns. It didn’t start off life on the console, having been originally developed for the Atari ST, but Sega snapped up the rights when it saw just how damn popular Tetris was with Nintendo gamers.
Take some classic match-3 gem stacking, add some repetitive yet strangely compelling music, and throw in an ancient roman theme for good measure, and this was the result. Guaranteed to eat hours of your life in huge chunks of gameplay.
Sure, the Mega CD version sounded better, and Tetris was so addictive it’s got an honest-to-goodness medical condition named after it, but if you wanted a puzzle fix in the ’90s and weren’t a Nintendo owner, this was your go-to game.
Altered Beast (1990)
A beloved arcade port involved a buff dude punching and kicking beasts and the undead, while consuming enough steroidal power-ups to transform into a variety of werebeasts.
Set in Ancient Greece, it evokes old school stop-motion epics such as Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. Interestingly enough, it was the original pack-in game of the Mega Drive in many countries before a rebranding exercise changed it to Sonic the Hedgehog.
The Revenge of Shinobi (1990)
Also known as Super Shinobi, this series was probably the main reason why the gaming world was so obsessed with ninjas in the ‘90s.
It was a terrific side-scrolling, hack and slash (and shuriken) action game, in which you play a ninja (duh) on a quest for vengeance (duh).
One of the hardest games on the Mega Drive, the game was also infamously known for featuring several iconic level bosses; or rip-offs of iconic characters. Revenge of Shinobi was soon followed by several well-received sequels, and became one of Sega’s most famous franchises.
Fantastic Dizzy (1991)
Your girlfriend’s been kidnapped, your best bro is frozen in ice, monsters are crawling all over your treetop village, and you’re a giant anthropomorphic egg. Welcome to Fantastic Dizzy.
This explore-em-up had no combat, just a massive side-scrolling map and plenty of head-scratching puzzles that left you cursing your tiny three-item inventory every time you forgot where you’d left that one crucial key a few hours before. The soundtrack was phenomenal, too, pumping out atmosphere from the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612 audio chip.
The best thing about OutRun, apart from the Ferrari, winding open roads, epic skids and huge vistas, was the music. Not only did they completely nail the authentic* handling and feel of driving a Ferrari Testarossa Spider, the soundtrack was the perfect accompaniment to your checkpoint-filled coast-to-desert race.
‘Passing breeze’, ‘Splash wave’ and ‘Magical sound shower’ were all mega chiptune hits that would still sound radical if you were cruising the west coast in your drop-top 458 Italia today.
*Having never driven a Testarossa, we can’t actually vouch for the authentic handling.
World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (1992)
Known in Japan as I Love Mickey and Donald – The Mysterious Magic Box (seriously, what an amazing name), this third title in Disney’s Illusion series blew our tiny little minds away with its incredible (for the time) visuals and superb soundtrack.
Its co-op gameplay let two players pick up gamepads and trawl through gloriously vivid, rich levels as both Mickey and Donald, and unique combat mechanics like magic cloths and flying carpets made for some memorable gameplay, fuelling our passion for all things fantasy from a young, impressionable age.
Dynamite Headdy (1994)
Treasure made some utterly brilliant Mega Drive games, and sure, Gunstar Heroes is normally top of most players’ lists, but don’t ignore Dynamite Heddy.
It was almost as fast-paced, just as colourful, and unless you were a gaming god, impossible to get through in a weekend rental from Blockbuster (we never managed it, anyway).
This bonkers single-player platformer was hard as nails, had some properly wacky power-ups, and saw you fight off demented bear puppets with your disembodied head. Hey, we said it was bonkers.
Alien 3 (1992)
Remember when film tie-ins were good? Neither do we, but this came pretty close, mainly by not sticking to closely to the film’s plot. In Alien 3, Ripley crash lands on a penal colony full of men without any guns and a single canine alien in waiting, then tries to save them all.
In the Mega Drive version Ripley appears running full tilt with an arsenal of pulse rifles, flame throwers and grenades and what appears to be an entire prison full of acid blood-filled aliens. Oh, and all the prisoners are stuck to the walls, their chests waiting to burst if you fail to free them within the pretty strict time limit. A pretty loose retelling of the film, but all the better for it.
To this day, some people maintain that this is the best video game adaptation of the Dark Knight ever made.
Nostalgia goggles aside, this side-scrolling beat’em up was probably the first movie tie-in that wasn’t a complete flop, combining solid gameplay with recognisable characters from the DC universe.
Of course, the success of the Tim Burton movie didn’t hurt sales either.
Shining Force (1992)
Yet another classic turn-based tactics RPG, Shining Force is held in high regard and has seen more re-releases than the Star Wars movies.
You play Max, a young swordsman who has to gather allies to aid his quest to stop the evil Kane. Like all evildoers, Kane is up to no good, and by that we mean he intends to opening the Shining Path and resurrect the Dark Dragon.
The gameplay is challenging and addictive, with energetic cutscenes punctuating the strategic movement of your troops. A gem in the Japanese RPG (JRPG) genre for sure.
One of the earliest comic book game successes, the X-Men Mega Drive game allowed two players to take control of various X-Men on a mutant-powered beat’em up adventure.
Much of the game’s aesthetics were carried over to future Marvel-based fighting games like X-Men: Children of the Atom, which evolved into the highly successful Marvel vs Capcom franchise. It was also incredibly difficult thanks to some shoddy game design, which upped the satisfaction factor when you did complete it.
ToeJam & Earl II: Panic on Funk-o-Tron (1994)
This second outing for the two titular aliens was lightyears ahead of the original in terms of looks, soundtrack, and a level of funkadelic brilliance that just can’t be beat.
Turns out you should check your cargo hold for stowaways when hightailing it off of Earth. That’s how TJ &E’s home planet got overrun with the worst kind of people: tourists (shudder).
OK, so the procedurally generated levels got ditched in favour of more traditional side-scrolling, but we can forgive all that thanks to the bizarre mix of bonus stages – and for catching humans in jam jars, Ghostbusters-style.
Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990)
A classic movie tie-in, this game was one of several made (including arcade games) in conjunction with the Michael Jackson movie of the same name.
Although the gameplay itself was nothing special, the incorporation of Michael Jackson’s dance moves into the player’s attack animations made for hours of fun, driven by the instantly recognisable melody of Smooth Criminal.
Say what you will about the late King of Pop, but at the peak of his career, he made the Mega Drive all that much cooler.
Golden Axe (1990)
Golden Axe was the predecessor of all arcade-style hack and slash games. Disappointingly, there was a dearth of actual golden axes in the game, but let’s not split hairs.
This side-scroller placed two players in a proto-Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy landscape, working together to chop monsters into confetti. Medieval weapons and loin cloths never looked more awe-inspiring and realistic. Back then, that is.
Ecco the Dolphin (1992)
Imagine pitching Ecco the dolphin to the Sega board today. You sit down opposite the all-powerful men in charge of budgets, take a sip of triple filtered volcanic glacial water and deliver your well-rehearsed opening line.
“It’s a game about a dolphin who mysteriously loses his pod and, on his journey to save them, meets the oldest living sea creature, travels back through time, visits the ancient city of Atlantis, gets rescued by a Pteranodon, defeats an alien vortex queen (on her spaceship) and rescues his pod.”
Silence. “With the greatest of respect” says the budgets man “we’ll pass, it just sounds too weird”.
EA Hockey (1991)
You might not have had a clue what ‘icing’ or ‘power plays’ were, but EA Hockey’s mix of cartoon violence and lightning-fast skating were way too fun to put you off.
The fights were almost as big a draw as the hockey and it was hard to beat the satisfaction of sending someone crashing into the hoardings with an ankle tap. But smarter tactics were needed if you were to ever going to steer the United Kingdom to victory.
Super Monaco GP (1991)
Back in the ’90s, the awesome Super Monaco career mode let you challenge rivals and replace them at their team if you beat them. Every F1 game since has been too precious over the licence, trying too hard to be realistic and challenging to be actual fun.
Super Monaco got the balance right, mixing clever innovations like a rear-view mirror and digitized ‘keep it up’ vocal encouragement from your pit crew with a brilliant, arcadey driving experience.
Earthworm Jim (1994)
In an era when Sonic and Mario battled to be king of the platformer, an altogether less bony challenger rose from the soil in an attempt to compete for the title.
Earthworm Jim, a gun-wielding invertebrate in a spacesuit, brought a much-needed dose of surreal humour and imagination to the genre, and while his fame never reached the same heights as Sega and Nintendo’s in-house heroes, Jim’s 16-bit outing was packed with inventive gameplay ideas that became standard issue for years to come. Groovy.
Desert Strike (1992)
This ingenious shooter got around the Mega Drive’s lack of 3D power by using 2D isometric backgrounds for game maps, with only the chopper rotating in 3D. It worked well, and a variety of mission objectives – from strafing Scuds to airlifting freed hostages – kept it fun.
Picking the right copilot was crucial – Xavier’s speedy work with the winch was often undone by wayward gunfire – as you worked towards a final showdown with General Kilbaba and his nuclear bomber.
Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe (1992)
One of the spiritual predecessors to Rocket League, this cyberpunky classic was like a cross between EA Hockey, Robocop and a pinball machine. In other words, a total blast.
Use the arena’s powerups and multipliers wisely and you’d soon take your armoured team up to the first division, upgrading them with ‘speed boots’ and ‘Bitmap shades’ along the way. It was brutal, fast and one of the Mega Drive’s best sports games.
NBA Jam (1993)
Before NBA Jam arrived, if a stadium announcer exclaimed “he’s on fire!” during a basketball match you’d reach for the nearest extinguisher – but Midway’s two-on-two dunkathon gave the phrase an entirely new meaning.
Sink three in a row with the same player and the ball would burst into flames, burning the net with each additional basket scored. NBA Jam was a hectic, end-to-end multiplayer smash, but these days it’s not available to play, having been removed from mobile app stores and console streaming catalogues.
Road Rash (1991)
The Mega Drive wasn’t exactly short on racing games, but Road Rash‘s heady confection of speed and violence sent its rivals rolling into roadside shrubbery. As you blasted around illegal street races in Sierra Nevada and Redwood Forest, you’d have to keep one eye on the track and the other on flinging a perfectly placed fist into Rude Boy’s face.
It wasn’t complete anarchy – a pesky police bike was always around to bust you and hand out a hefty fine. But assuming you avoided him and finished in the race’s top three, you’d get to upgrade your bike to the likes of a Diablo 1000 and tear around extended versions of the courses. Fancy a re-run? Check out its spiritual successor Road Redemption on Steam.
Micro Machines (1991)
Like a cross between a racer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, this Codemasters classic was way more fun than virtual toy racing cars had any right to be. Its addictive brilliance came from two things: the surprise element of its top-down view, and the huge variety of its superbly designed tracks.
One minute you’d be driving a speedboat around Soap Lake City’s bathtub, the next ploughing into a giant waffle in The Breakfast Bends. The only real way to succeed was to memorise each track’s twists and turns – but it was all worth it to see your vehicle plonked into the middle of another nerve-shredding household adventure.
Streets of Rage (1991)
Another insanely popular side-scroller, Streets of Rage (also known as Bare Knuckle) was arguably the first game to attempt to realistically portray real street fighting in recognisable urban settings.
The move sets of the characters were so iconic that a group of hardcore fans accurately reproduced them in a lovingly shot, live-action version of the game that inexplicably lasts 49 awesome and ludicrously glorious minutes.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Yes, many will argue (with some justification) that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the better all-round game, thanks to its introduction of Tails, bonus levels and the ‘spin dash’ that let Sonic rev up on the spot before firing off like a cannonball.
But we’ve plumped for the original game for our number one spot, and not just because today is its 25th birthday. Not only did it introduce all the elements that made its sequels so great – the speed, timeless graphics and levels with hidden depths – it helped trigger an avalanche of brilliant and hugely varied games that forced Nintendo to up its game with the SNES. Happy birthday, Sonic!
Oh, and if you have an Android phone and fancy taking Sonic through a 3D obstacle course for free (with in-app purchases), Sonic Dash is now a free download.