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5. Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Without implementing a drastic revamp of mechanics, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 makes a lot of subtle changes that differentiate it from the first two games. Most striking is the decision to blend acts together and have players transition between worlds as a connected story, with more sequences and mini-bosses to bookend levels instead of a single climax. Along with a few new moves, the Spin Dash is now linked to level elements (e.g., wheels that raise platforms), expanding on how mechanics were explored formerly.
The philosophy guiding the level design is more devious (e.g., cruel spike traps, enemies masquerading as springs) and there's greater variety in how you can tackle certain sections (Marble Garden makes this clear with its directional signs), due in part to making Tails a lead character. Universal for all worlds is how speed is maintained through long stretches of sloped or wavy terrain, from the busy circus of Carnival Night to Ice Cap's repeating caverns. Additionally, the revised Special Stages are a fun twist—the best incarnation for some—while the mildly amusing circuits of Competition are a weaker alternative to Sonic 2's multiplayer. A favorite for many Sonic fans for reasons beyond the Michael Jackson touches in the soundtrack.
Highlights: Hydrocity Zone, Marble Garden Zone, Carnival Night Zone
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4. Sonic Colors
Sonic games don't always conceal their faults well, so you can sometimes pinpoint when the designers lost focus. For Colors to flourish rather than be hindered by its Wisp shenanigans is a big deal. Especially after seeing how Sonic Lost World mishandles Wisp Powers (among other things), you come to appreciate Colors' brilliance even more in the way that they add meaningful dimensions without coming off as counterintuitive or disconnected elements. That's probably the most awesome, outstanding, amazing part of the experience.
There's a gentleness and flair to the level design that should probably cave in on itself as the player advances, but just the opposite occurs. Colors is consistent in the way it cautiously breaks its rule set while distilling essential attributes of Sonic's formula, where pinball and dash mechanics as well as common stage accessories adopt new, often superior forms that are complemented in the game's discreet focus. Red Star Rings are unlike prior collectibles in Sonic games (e.g., Fire Souls in Sonic and the Secret Rings), as their primary duty is to invite exploration. Only by scouring for them and subsequently discovering hidden paths will you come to appreciate the underlying depth and non-linear design at the game's core.
Between responsive controls, high replayability, well-designed levels, a dazzling soundtrack and a surprisingly funny, self-aware story, Sonic Colors shines from top to bottom and represents the hedgehog at a level of characteristic whimsy.
Highlights: Aquarium Park, Planet Wisp, Terminal Velocity
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3. Sonic Generations
For what it represents as a celebration of the franchise's defining eras, Generations is a wonderful love letter to Sonic fans everywhere. Its tributes are comprehensive and undisguised, merging gameplay styles and mechanics from past titles—drifting from Sonic Colors, boost gauge from Unleashed, custom skills from Sonic and the Secret Rings—without the "catch" that would normally accompany Sonic's brimming moments. The soundtrack is full of nostalgic goodies and pulls from unusual sources like Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Heroes' multiplayer, and whether they're represented in stage form or not, most Sonic titles have a detectable influence here (e.g., armed robots that reference Shadow the Hedgehog, nods in Seaside Hill to Hydrocity Zone from Sonic 3 and Tidal Tempest from Sonic CD).
But this is not nostalgia substituting for conscientious game design. In many ways, Generations skillfully addresses the frustrations of previous games (e.g., camera troubles), although minor issues like missed homing attacks still creep in. This also means stronger level design that caters more to the principles of exploration that have surfaced in recent titles, where precision is not treated as a deadline, missteps aren't universally rewarded with bottomless pits and platforming is not crippling to the pace. Sonic Generations is the perfect middle-ground for a fanbase that has been pulled in different directions, with attractive design elements and remarkable moments that will even please Sonic fans at the fringes.
Highlights: Speed Highway, Seaside Hill, Crisis City (Can you believe it?)
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2. Sonic & Knuckles
As an extension of Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Sonic & Knuckles follows a similar format in its continuous act structure and shares several design qualities—robots and other traps are situated near ledges to demand more from the player than an instinctive jump between gaps. But the subtle tweaks on these resources, in company with the bold level design, position Sonic & Knuckles above its predecessor. Plenty of new gameplay elements are explored—rappelling and timed doors in Sandopolis, Death Egg's reversed gravity—with Knuckles' wall climb ability opening new exploration possibilities built into the design. Its levels, which adhere to a different pace than those of earlier games, are adventurous, even wild in some places, and don't rely on duplicating sections for longer length. Its excellence can be seen in the finer details, also: the Flame Shield introduced in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is put to better use here in Lava Reef, where the item adds a layer of caution over self-preservation. Sonic & Knuckles is a strong game boosted by intense boss encounters and an effective, show-not-tell approach to storytelling.
Highlights: Flying Battery Zone, Sky Sanctuary Zone, Death Egg Zone
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1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (16-bit)
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 successfully improves upon the original in every way, spawning new ideas rather than recycling old ones (e.g., elements of Star Light Zone are used in Chemical Plant for the iconic double-helix paths). The stakes are higher this time, with more ways to die (Mystic Cave's infamous death trap) and smaller margins for misjudged timing. Racing ahead carelessly will often result in punishment, not reward, as flow is a major element here. Sonic 2 actively furthers the first game's foundation, with new platforming devices that extract from the worlds they're associated with (bolt platforms in Metropolis) while elements of the environment also feed into the level design (Aquatic Ruin). As levels begin playing with alternate routes, vertical platforming and directional zigzagging, the conscious moving away from straightforward layouts to stages where you can lose your way, makes for more involving gameplay. With tight platforming, a jammin' soundtrack, enjoyable Special Stages and solid multiplayer, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a timelessly enjoyable platformer that's hard to top.
Highlights: Chemical Plant Zone, Casino Night Zone, Oil Ocean Zone