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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is bolting into movie theaters this week, which probably explains why we’ve been feeling a major itch lately to indulge our need for speed.
But before he ever dashed his way to the box office, Sonic had to lace up and pay his dues the old-fashioned way: In the hands of players, millions of whom have united around the unlikely video game savior of a world set straight on a collision course with Dr. Robotnik’s special brand of doom.
Over three decades and more than 30 games (not counting dozens more spinoffs and mobile titles), SEGA’s azure animal avatar has sped past planets, scooped up rings, escaped from cities, and punctured our gameplaying hearts with fast-paced optimism (and a side of sass) that perfectly suits his prickly pedigree. Ready to check out his track-day highlight reel? Here’s our curated starting lineup of the seven best Sonic video games that SEGA’s ever sent off to the races.
7. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 / Sonic & Knuckles (1994)
Yep, we’re counting it as one game — because if they were released today, they probably would be. Sonic’s universe had grown as large as the 16-bit era could manage by the time Sonic 3 shot out the gate in 1994, and SEGA’s Sonic & Knuckles add-on came as a gimmicky-yet-successful sales-boosting extra in the days before DLC expansions were a thing. Thanks to a physical adapter gimmick that sized up the Sonic 3 content into the expanded hybrid Sonic 3 & Knuckles, the pairing gave Genesis owners of the immensely large-for-its-time Sonic 3 even more ways to explore, with players choosing between Knuckles (in his big franchise debut), Tails, and Sonic himself to lead one of the best blue-streak adventures from the Sonic side-scrolling era.
6. Sonic CD (1993)
SEGA literally added a new dimension to the Sonic series with 1993’s Sonic CD, setting time travel as a key component. Breaking the laws of physics afforded Sonic more places to race through as he struggles to stop Dr. Robotnik from raising a robot army on a captive planet. Though it already came with an insane number of levels, the time-warping theme lent Sonic CD an even bigger feel, with our blue hero’s future-bending actions reshaping areas he’d already explored in ways that compelled players to explore them with fresh eyes. Sonic CD also gets big lore points as the game that first introduced fans to Amy Rose and Metal Sonic — not too shabby for a game that was only available to CD players who’d bought into SEGA’s wacky Genesis peripheral.
5. Sonic Mania (2017)
Debuting in 2017, Sonic Mania landed like a homecoming party that rolled out the welcome mat for every cool retro-themed thing that made the franchise’s early side-scrolling days so great in the first place.
Published by SEGA, but developed by a team of die-hard fans, Mania felt like the early-1990s platformer that SEGA probably would have made back then if the present-day tech had been available. All the classic throwback stuff gets a fresh coat of paint in a canonical 12-level story that pits Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles against Dr. Robotnik and the Hard-Boiled Heavies — the new gang of robo-servants on the block. It all plays like a well-tuned modern-day platform game while looking every bit the part of its 1990s-inspired predecessors, and it shows that Sonic still runs his fastest lap when he’s racing on an old-school 2D track.
4. Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992)
It’s hard to describe today how fresh the second games in then-burgeoning series like Mario and Sonic felt when they landed — on the same hardware, no less — on the heels of their first blockbuster installments.
Like Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 2, Sonic’s first sequel arrived not long after its franchise-debut predecessor opened to floodgates to fandom. And even though both Sonic games were made for the Genesis, Sonic 2 felt like a major next-level step up from the original. Though the console tech was the same as before, our blue hero just felt more dialed in for his second outing, gliding through bigger levels that showcased an evolved sense of cleverness and creativity in their blazingly color-saturated environments. A lot of players peg their Sonic nostalgia to the very first game in the series, and for good reason. But it’s a safe bet that many of the revved-up memories that race through longtime fans’ heads actually harken to the indelible impression that the sized-up Sonic 2 bequeathed to SEGA’s marathon series.
3. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
Sonic’s Dreamcast swan song is one of the biggest, baddest Sonic games ever to shoot out the gate. By the time it rolled along in 2001, pretty much all the ingredients were in place to finally tap the outgoing console’s full power, making Sonic Adventure 2 a players’ toybox filled with loads of mini-games and more engaging stuff to do outside of the main campaign.
Thanks to an expanded Chao Garden that evolved the ideas pioneered by its Sonic Adventure predecessor, it was easy for players to end up spending as much time tending their creature collections, which came with stats and affinities to manage, as they spent zipping around in SEGA’s most lavishly-rendered 3D world to date. Topping it all off? Sonic Adventure 2 is the game we have to thank for “Escape from the City” — the catchiest Sonic soundtrack anthem there’s ever been.
2. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
When the original Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on the Genesis in 1991, the side scroller’s warp-speed pace changed gaming. Trading Mario’s methodical NES hop ’n’ bop platforming strategy for an amped-up rocket race through iconic courses like the Green Hill Zone, the first Sonic did more than establish the solid groundwork that would come to define the series’ formula; it arrived with all the polish of an idea whose execution felt refined and perfected as though our hero had done this a thousand times before. The whiplash speed proved more than being a gimmick, it packed the same kind of well-concealed secrets and level discoveries that previously had rewarded careful, if sometimes plodding, exploration in platforming games that had come before. Sonic’s very first game is still one of his best — all because SEGA nailed the key ingredients right at the starting line.
1. Sonic Adventure (1998)
Sonic Adventure is the title that brought SEGA’s speedy hero into full-scale 3D gaming, ballooning the wild graphical backdrops that defined the older 2D games’ visual appeal into a new, go-anywhere world that felt absolutely breathtaking at the time.
Speed in three dimensions took on a whole new meaning in levels where Dreamcast players got to pick their path to the final goal, even as the game highlighted the early growing pains of a sometimes-tricky pivoting-camera system. Team Sonic — including Knuckles, Tails, Amy Rose, and newcomers Big and Gamma — provided the mostly-familiar character framework, but just about everything else about Sonic Adventure felt incredibly, vibrantly new. That wonky camera didn’t matter to players running laps in Sonic’s unshackled new shoes: No game before or since has marked such a giant leap forward in realizing the full potential that always lurked behind his speed demon skills. Playing Sonic Adventure for the first time felt like being set free from the side-scrolling restraints that, until this game turned him loose, no one ever could’ve guessed had been holding back our hero all along.