Portable Pedigree: The handheld history of Sonic The Hedgehog - part one

Dig out your Game Gear and joins us for a sprint down memory lane

Portable Pedigree: The handheld history of Sonic The Hedgehog - part one
| Portable Pedigree

With the arrival of Sonic The Hedgehog on iPhone we decided it would be the ideal time to look back on Sonic’s past mobile exploits as part of our Portable Pedigree series.

Given the startling amount of ground we have to cover (the spiky one’s first portable appearance was in 1991), this feature has been divided into two easy-to-digest parts (the first of which you’re gazing at now and charts the Sonic-related releases for Sega’s own Game Gear console) to avoid giving you a poorly tummy.

Bon appetit!

Sonic The Hedgehog (1991, Game Gear)

For those of you that aren’t aware, Sega’s Game Gear console was basically an 8-bit Master System that had been shrunk in the wash.

The key difference was a smaller screen resolution and, despite the fact that many existing Master System games were ported to the device almost intact, this shortcoming invariably had an affect on the quality of these conversions.

In the case of the first portable Sonic game, it wasn’t such a massive issue. The core gameplay of the home console edition (which is radically different from the 16-bit Mega Drive original) remains intact.

The biggest headache is that the Game Gear’s backlit colour screen was so blurry that when Sonic got up to speed, maintaining control of the action was akin to driving a car at 100MPH through a snowstorm whilst wearing a blindfold. Still, it was a fairly positive portable debut for everyone’s number one marsupial.

Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (1992, Game Gear)

Interestingly, this sequel was released a whole month before the more critically acclaimed Mega Drive version, and therefore marks the first appearance of Sonic’s somewhat irritating sidekick Tails.

Again, as was the case with the previous title, the Game Gear release is essentially the Master System game with a lower resolution, and once again the thorny issue of screen blur raises its ugly head when things become hectic.

There are other insignificant differences (mostly to do with the music used at certain points in the game) but otherwise this is another encouraging release, even if it lacks the all-important Spin Dash that was made famous by the 16-bit version.

Sonic Choas (1993, Game Gear)

Jettisoning the numerical sequel convention, this third handheld outing was notable for including the Spin Dash attack and allowing the player to select Tails as a playable character (in Japan it was actually called Sonic & Tails).

The game also introduced the Strike Dash, which was similar to the spin dash but was performed by tapping the jump button whilst holding up instead of down. This ingenious move permitted Sonic to accelerate at an even faster rate.

Aside from the ability to step into the shoes of Tails (something that only a select band of nutcases would have been pleased about), Sonic Chaos was very much the same kind of proposition as the previous two titles.

However, it marked an important point in the relationship between the Game Gear and the Master System: the death of the latter meant that this was the last Sonic platforming title that would be released across the two machines.

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (1994, Game Gear)

Based heavily on the Mega Drive version (which is turn is basically a re-skinned version of Compile’s Puyo Puyo), this puzzle title plays in a similar fashion to Sega’s own Columns series. By matching up three or more coloured beans, it’s possible to clear the screen and make life difficult for you opponent.

The Game Gear version actually looks pretty similar to its 16-bit counterpart, but it adds an additional Puzzle mode which removed the need to face off against a CPU-controlled opponent.

Sonic Triple Trouble (1994, Game Gear)

With the Master System officially put out to pasture, the next big portable release had the distinction of being coded especially for the Game Gear from the ground up.

This resulted in a startling increase in graphical quality as the designers attempted to mimic the look of the more recent Sonic 3 on the Mega Drive. Another element to be carried over from the third 16-bit title was the appearance of Knuckles the Echidna, a character who would go on to become a firm fan favourite.

Sonic Drift (1994, Game Gear)

Nintendo fans had long accused Sega of merely copying Mario’s gameplay when it came to the Sonic titles and they were given even more ammunition when this disappointing ‘me too’ kart racing game hit the gird in 1994 - two years after Nintendo had placed its mascot behind the wheel in the sublime Super Mario Kart on the SNES.

Naturally, the Game Gear was no match for the SNES in technical terms and the Mode 7 rotational effects that made Super Mario Kart so appealing were obviously missing from this copycat release. Although it gives a fairly decent impression of speed it’s a pretty average game, all told.

Sonic Spinball (1994, Game Gear)

Based on the 1993 Mega Drive version, the Game Gear version of Sonic Spinball takes what was already a pretty poor fusion of pinball game and platformer and makes it even less appealing. The visuals are pitiful, the action is dull and the entire concept is half-baked.

Sonic Drift 2 (1995, Game Gear)

Despite the cool reception garnered by the first Sonic Drift title, Sega duly got to work on a sequel, which arrived around a year later.

Clearly willing to learn from its mistakes, Sega made sure this was a more worthwhile outing for its premier mascot: the visuals were improved and an all-important two player link-up option was included. Unlike its predecessor, this actually received a western release, although in Europe it was rebranded Sonic Drift Racing.

Tails’s Skypatrol (1995, Game Gear)

By the time ’95 came around Sega clearly thought that Tails was popular enough to warrant an adventure all his own. The result was this aberration, which was mercifully only released in Japan.

A complete deviation from the usual Sonic gameplay, Tails’s Skypatrol sees the player flying through various uninspiring levels whilst attempting to avoid smashing into the drab scenery.

It’s possible to keep enemies at bay by hurling a ring at them, but the botched controls make what is already a thankless task even harder. Definitely one to avoid, despite its intrinsic appeal to collectors.

Tails’s Adventure (1995, Game Gear)

After the train-wreck that was Tails’s Skypatrol you’d have thought that Sega would give Sonic’s annoying sidekick a wide berth, but the company did the opposite and gave him yet another headline role.

Thankfully Tails’s Adventure is a far more enjoyable romp than its predecessor: although it lacks the speed associated with other Sonic games, the enjoyable focus on locating items and exploration more than makes up for this. The fact that the visuals are great also helps matters.

A western release was forthcoming, but finding a copy of the game is tricky these days. Like many of the games mentioned here, it was included on the Sonic Gems Collection, which appeared on the GameCube and PS2 in 2005.

Sonic Labyrinth (1995, Game Gear)

The fourth Sonic-related game for the Game Gear in ’95, Sonic Labyrinth is a somewhat strange entry - it adopts an isometric perspective (similar to Sonic 3D on the Mega Drive) and sees the player collecting keys which will allow the blue hedgehog to successfully exit each level.

Sadly, the controls are irksome and there’s a general lack of pace about the entire adventure. Some rather nice tunes help raise the game’s standing a little, but not much.

Sonic Blast (1996, Game Gear)

Sonic’s Game Gear swansong was actually quite a fitting way to end his involvement with the platform: Sonic Blast uses pre-rendered graphics to create some of the best visuals seen on the portable, although it could be argued that the low-resolution display doesn’t really do them justice.

After Sega’s apparent obsession with mucking about as much as possible with the core Sonic gameplay, this entry reverts back to a more traditional structure. It’s not a complete success, sadly: Sonic doesn’t respond as quickly as he should and the large sprites result in a rather claustrophobic feel.

Join us for part two of this Sonic-themed retrospective where we investigate his outings on formats such as the Neo Geo Pocket Color, Game Boy Advance, and the legendarily bad Game.com.