Friday 23 August 2019

Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Master System

I remember well seeing Sonic the Hedgehog running for the first time. It was at a long defunct Japanese import emporium in Derby, it was on the MegaDrive, and it looked every bit as pretty as the magazine screenshots promised. I just had to have it, and at some point in the Autumn of 1991 that's exactly what happened - for the princely sum of £34.99 it became the third game added to my trusty collection, where it resides to this day along with the first two. Much fun was had to the point where my brother developed a deathly obsession, going into debug mode and playing it in every way it was never intended to be. And then came something of a surprise. This supposed MegaDrive exclusive conceived to trounce Nintendo's Mario and sell the machine, which it did (for a time) ended up getting an outing on the Sega Master System. And, truth be told, it was well worth the effort.

Naturally, Sonic in its new surrounds could not match the premium product of Sega's flagship console, but nevertheless accomplished a number of commercial objectives in its own right. The Master System was dead in Japan and the US, but the hype attending the MegaDrive version ensured sales were brisk everywhere else. When the Master System II was released as a stripped down budget system, making Sonic the inbuilt game helped endear the console and the character to entry level gamers, and by offering a quality platformer on a system littered with ropey games, it hints at the mega fun that can be had not just with the inevitable sequels (the humble MS received its own version of Sonic 2 and an original game, Sonic Chaos), but by upgrading to the better, more expensive machine.

Anyone familiar with the MegaDrive version, which would be a fair chunk of 30 and early-40-somethings, knows the score. Run (at pace) across a landscape littered with chutes, springs, and loops. Collect all the rings for entry into the bonus stage, and a hundred for an extra life, and grab all the chaos emeralds. The Master System, however, changes it up a little bit. While there are sections for Roadrunner-style sprinting they are, understandably, truncated. When you're hit by a baddie you lose all your rings and you can't collect a few of them up, as per the sibling's iteration. And the third act of each stage is a boss confrontation with Dr Robotnik, of whatever he's called in the Sonic universe these days.

Some borrowing was inevitable. Green Hill zone, Labyrinth zone, and Scrap Brain zone are repeated in 8-bit glory, but we also find new additions: Bridge, Jungle, and Sky Base. Each have their original lay outs, and are soundtracked by a mix of bespoke tunes (pleasingly composed by Yuzo Koshiro) and renditions of the original jingles. And considering the poor regard the sound chip was held in (and the complete inability of many dev teams to programme it properly), the compositions are superb - especially Bridge zone's, which is one of the best 8-bit chip tunes ever. And as for the game play, well, it's Sonic. At a slightly slower pace to be sure, but those habituated to the 16-bit platformers know what to expect. Though do spend some time exploring the levels for the chaos emeralds are secreted in hidden locations. No stomach-troubling rotating bonus mazes on this occasion.

In short, this is as near a perfect game you'll find on the Master System. And an important one. Not just for what it did for Sega in terms of brand recognition and underlining the then trajectory to mascot-themed video games, but thanks to the introduction of another very 90s trope: the weird tendency to corporate green washing.

While some games clobbered their audiences with environmentalist creds, Sonic took a more subtle, some might say Lord of the Rings approach to these matters. Here the game begins with pleasant, leafy landscapes otherwise blemished by Robotnik's mechanical minions which, as any Sonic player will tell you, entombs a furry animal. Smash an enemy and off hops a furry little friend. As you make your way through, you start seeing the darkening hand of technology run amok. Prior to each level the game provides a route map through the imaginatively-named South Island which is nice and pristine, save Robotnik's hideout atop the mountain that spews out poisons and pollution. Apart from Sonic's famous running shoes, the only technology on your side are the monitors to be smashed for rings, shields and temporary invincibility. The rest of it is geared toward your demise. Your job then is to break the mechanical enslavement and despoliation of your world and presumably return it to how things were. And to make matters worse, the blighting of the landscape is the result of just one power-crazed scientist. Imagine if there were other humans in the game - what a shambles everything would be. Ironic then how Sonic's/the player's allying to good/nature opposed to the evil/machine takes place while abiding by the prescribed, repetitive and almost mechanical input of timed button presses and making their own contribution to carbon emissions. A bit like mining bitcoin to fund Greenpeace I suppose, but on a lower, entirely virtual level in which a simplistic anti-technology message is conferred, but wrapped up in a package designed to make you play more and buy more similar games. A nice wee contradiction, to be sure.

Nevertheless, a great game and one oft-overlooked in retrospectives of the 8-bit console era.

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