Our earliest memories of gaming from days gone by are often our strongest – whether it’s the new experiences, what they taught us, or simple enjoyment. N64 Jamesy talks about his first console and game, and the life lessons learned from the sheer determination to beat Sonic the Hedgehog.
I don’t remember exactly what year it was, the first time I ever played a computer game – possibly 1990 or 1989, I’m not sure. All I remember is my Dad letting me have a go on his VIC 20, playing a game called Blitz, where you flew above skyscrapers dropping bombs to knock them down, or else ended up flying into them.
I also remember looking with fascination through Commodore and Spectrum books with codes in, which I think were probably strategy guides. The memories are all a bit hazy, but I guess I liked and enjoyed the experience, as the next year I’d have a computer game of my very own.
It was Christmas Day, 1991. My sister and I both had the same main present: a Sega Master System II, hers with a game called Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in, along with Columns, and New Zealand Story cartridges; mine had a game called Sonic the Hedgehog built in, with World Soccer and Lucky Dime Caper.
I also remember us having 14-inch TV-video combis for our bedrooms, while these new consoles were made to plug in to our respective “tellies” and we’d be able to play games through them. To my six-year-old self, this was the best thing ever.
Learning the basics
On Boxing Day, the family always got together at ours. That year was dedicated to Master System gaming, and soon we had Sonic up and running. Unlike this awesome blue hedgehog, my progress in the game was slow. I’d gotten as far as Green Hill Zone Act 3 and was confused by this bald man flying round the screen in a blimp. “You need to hit him eight times,” my cousin told me. “I am, look,” I replied, jumping up at the boss. “Hit him so he flashes.” Ah. This was going to be a long game.
Sonic’s debut on the Master System hit the shelves on October 25th 1991, a few months after the now-legendary Mega Drive title of the same name. Going from a 16-bit to an 8-bit console meant a straight port wasn’t doable, so the game was redesigned and simplified, while keeping Green Hill, Labyrinth and Scrap Brain zones, as well as the core gameplay.
The plot was almost identical to the original Mega Drive game. Mad scientist Dr Robotnik had snatched the innocent Flicky inhabitants of the planet Mobius and turned them into robot slaves known as Badniks, in order to find the six elusive Chaos Emeralds – large gems that gave whoever possessed them the power to rule the world. The only animal on the planet with the balls to stand up to him was Sonic – a blue hedgehog capable of running at the speed of sound. Sonic set out from his home, Green Hill Zone, on a mission to collect the Chaos Emeralds himself and stop his evil plans once and for all.
A dream half-dozen
Each of Sonic the Hedgehog‘s six zones had two main acts, and a shorter third act which culminated in a boss fight with Robotnik. Winning these allowed the player to progress further through the game, eventually taking on Robotnik in his own base and completing the game. “Eventually.” It’s hard to imagine this now, as I blast through it so effortlessly, that in my earlier days it proved a real challenge and progress took a really long time.
As with all Sonic titles, collecting 100 gold rings in each act granted the player an extra life, though the ring counter only counted from 0-99, reverting back to zero when picking up a 100th ring. The in-game life counter also maxed out at nine lives, yet on the score screen when you’d completed an act, it counted up into double figures. Strange. Something unique to this Sonic title was the inability to retrieve any rings lost when you were caught by an enemy or trap; ring loss was permanent. Similarly, with extra life items, once you had found it, that was that. If you lost a life and went back, it was gone.
The second stage, Bridge Zone, didn’t prove too much of a chore – for the first act, at least. In the second, for a reason I still don’t understand to this day, the scenery scrolled by at a painfully slow rate, forcing you to stay within the current screen – ironic, considering that Sonic is supposed to be the fastest hedgehog on the planet. This restrictive movement did the game no justice, and this stage got a massive thumbs down from me.
When I finally completed the level, it was time to tackle the game’s second boss. Going left from the start, I discovered there was an extra life hidden just off screen that way. It turned out there was one strategically placed in every third act, some a lot more difficult to get than others. These proved to be something of a lifeline, given that there were no gold rings in the boss stages, meaning you needed a perfect strike rate to get your eight hits against increasingly challenging bosses without getting hit at all.
The weeks ticked by, and I’d made progress as far as Jungle Zone: a green, wooded theme world with logs on blue water, as well as a brilliant, funky VGM track. The first act quickly became a firm favourite, as I was blown away by what I was seeing. This was a massive contrast to Bridge; it felt new and fresh.
The second act proved to have a steep learning curve, as you climbed up a huge waterfall on relatively narrow platforms. The dreaded “bottom of the screen”, which led to instant death, crept up with you as you progressed, leading to many a game over and forcing you to start from the very beginning. Robotnik’s appearance in Jungle Zone was the most difficult challenge I had faced so far in the game. After what again felt like several weeks of attempting it, I finally got the better of him. I’d reached the halfway point of Sonic! Every act I’d completed gave me a massive sense of achievement, but this milestone was something else.
Next up was a level with a name which, to this day, fills long-time Sonic fans with sheer terror: Labyrinth Zone. This version of the infamous underwater world was a less painful experience than its Mega Drive counterpart, mainly due to the ‘running out of air’ music being scrapped in favour of subtle beeping, which became more prominent as the timer counted down and the player’s situation became more desperate. Once I’d learned where the air pockets were, it wasn’t an overly difficult stage to beat – aside from the race to retrieve the Chaos Emerald from the spike trap.
Tagging the bonus panel at the end of each act resulted in one of four possible outcomes:
- Robotnik: Nothing happened
- Ring: Ten rings were added to your total ring count
- Sonic: Earn an extra life
- !: Enter the special stage
The Chaos Emeralds were hidden in the main stages, so the special stages weren’t a requirement. However, they were worth playing through for the rewards on offer. Among the differing strength springs and bumpers reminiscent of Wall’s Twister lollies, there were a plentiful supply of rings, an extra life and a continue monitor to be found. These could get a bit wild, and finding these bonuses meant nothing unless you found the bonus panel; it was enjoying and frustrating in equal measure.
The big sticking point
The weekend I finally beat Labyrinth and got onto Scrap Brain, my Dad had gone away with work, and being the cute(ish) six-year-old I was, I drew him a picture of Labyrinth Robotnik I’d beaten, plus the first part of Scrap Brain Zone. This zone would prove to be the biggest sticking point in any of my games up to that point.
Act 1 was relatively easy to complete given how far in I now was. Act 2 wasn’t so bad at first; I picked up the Chaos Emerald, then not far from the end, there was a switch that swapped two barriers open and closed. There was only one open at a time and I could never get past the first one, no matter how quickly I tried to go. There was an area above that dropped down to here, but with no way of being able to jump up there to investigate, and no way getting past the barriers, I was truly beaten. Time for a break.
I swapped my Sonic console for the Alex Kidd one my sister had fallen out of favour with, and spent time playing that. Soon, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was out for the Master System. I found this one to be an amazing game and a worthy successor to what I had been playing – but that’s a story for another time. Then along came Sonic Chaos, and eventually for Christmas 1993 I was given a Mega Drive, along with a Master System Converter so I wouldn’t miss my old games.
First up was the Mega Drive version of Sonic. This was an enjoyable experience, and I couldn’t help but start drawing parallels with what I’d been playing a while back, especially with the zones that crossed over. The background music on these levels was really bold, while the 8-bit version’s tracks were softer and subtler in comparison. The big difference was that I could actually complete this version. Then came Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, which I played to death. I was well and truly becoming a “Sonic nut” by now, even wetting my hair on school playtimes and running round like an idiot, trying to emulate my hero. It was serious.
Eventually 1995 came around, and the only Sonic game at that point which I had never played was Sonic 2 on the Mega Drive. I’d made it plain to my parents that it was the game I would like for my tenth birthday. That November my birthday came around, I eagerly opened my present and had… Master System Sonic 1. Not quite what I had been hoping for, but I’d enjoyed it when I played it at the beginning of my gaming life. I gave it another go a few days later, but after all this time I still couldn’t get past those doors to save my life.
My friends had moved on from Master System, and most were playing the newer 16-bit games. Some were even on the brand-new PlayStation, which had been released the previous year, so their only advice was “just run really fast through it”. Nothing I hadn’t tried before. After getting fed up and one specific rage quit, I remember storming downstairs and mouthing off at my mam, asking why she’d bought me this crap game. Big mistake. I believe her exact words were, “You ungrateful little shit!” and something along the lines of “Get to your room now and keep off that Sega! Just wait till your father gets home!”
There’s a lesson there. Losing your rag is no way of dealing with the challenges that life throws at you. A couple of hours after the telling off from my dad, I skulked down with a grovelling apology. Luckily my mam was quite understanding, as she knew I’d had my heart set on Mega Drive Sonic 2. But I had what I had. We weren’t financially well-off as a family, and my parents tried their best to get me decent games. My mam was absolutely right – I should have been more grateful. But we can’t always get what we want – gratitude for what we have is important, which I obviously know now. I enjoyed Sonic 1 – I just wish I could progress on it.
The Eureka moment
There had to be something I was missing on this stage… something so obvious, I couldn’t see for looking. Playing through for what felt like the thousandth time and paying attention to every nook and cranny, I noticed something. When dropping down the large area, there was a pathway to the right I’d never explored. Maybe there was a clue there?
The only thing with dropping right down was not being able to move left or right as you fall. There was another way down; working down the left side, I gained access to a previously unexplored area to find a teleporter. Using this took Sonic to a high-up place where I dropped down to find myself between the two doors that had been plaguing my progress in this game for nearly five years. I’d done it! I couldn’t believe it had been so obvious all that time. I was really looking forward to the next boss fight.
Soon I was exploring the final area, Sky Base Zone. After a lot of thinking, I managed to get hold of the final Chaos Emerald. However, Sky Base Zone Act 2 is one of the toughest levels in any game I can remember from the 8-bit era. After finally overcoming it, it was just a case of finishing Robotnik off. For a game of its time, it was a really difficult fight, but I couldn’t give up now… I was so close. With persistence and perseverance, I finally had him backed into a corner and overpowered him. I’d finally completed the first game I’d ever played, nearly five years after getting it! It was an amazing feeling, watching the lives I’d accumulated added to my score. Even though the in-game display maxed at nine lives, I had 11 when I finished, and a nice 55,000 points added to my final score.
A life lesson learned
It’s been a long time since then, but it’s one of the games I’ve gone back to on a regular basis. The perseverance to beat games rubbed off on my younger, more impressionable self. Growing into an adult I was happy, but never satisfied. I always wanted more, wanted better from life. Maybe it was some kind of inferiority complex, I don’t know. Even now I’m determined to get the best that I can at life, and thinking back, I might just owe that to the challenge of Scrap Brain Zone Act 2.
Sonic the Hedgehog was the first-ever game of my own, and it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. It’s simple, but not easy, and makes for an excellent pick-up-‘n’-play version of Sonic when I want something different.
- Similar to, yet different enough from, its Mega Drive counterpart, meaning a familiar yet fresh experience
- Bright and bold visuals and a fantastic soundtrack – among the best of the 8-bit generation
- Simple gameplay that offered a real challenge
- Rings were lost permanently if you were hit while carrying them
- Bridge Zone Act 2 in its entirety
- Some parts of the game were confusing and plain frustrating, unless you were well practised on Sonic games
N64 Jamesy’s take
You never forget your first love. While the Mega Drive’s Sonic the Hedgehog may be the title that kick-started the character’s revolution, this is a more than worthy early entry to the series, if only for the memories alone.