Over the course of the next year, I’m going to try to write about 100 games. There’s no great selection criteria here: They won’t be in any kind of order, they won’t all be significant, and they probably won’t even all be good games. But they will be 100 games that I’ve played, and that in some small way or another contributed to my appreciation of gaming as a whole.
So, where better to start than the first game I played? Okay, so this part is actually pretty fuzzy. I don’t remember what age I was when my parents bought me a Master System II (or even why they bought it), but a bit of guesswork based on me remembering Sonic 2 being released makes me 5 or 6 years old when I got it. The model of Master System I owned came with Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in, so it’s possible that game holds the distinction of being the first I played. But what I do remember vividly to this day is this sitting on the floor of my parent’s pink wallpapered bedroom all day playing the Master System’s Sonic the Hedgehog.
This version of Sonic the Hedgehog is probably better known as the version that was released as Sonic the Hedgehog on the Game Gear, subsequently re-released on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service and as bonus content in Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Adventure DX. Rather than being produced by Sega itself, development of the game was handed to Ancient, a Japanese developer that nowadays almost exclusively makes games based on the Reborn! Shōnen Jump manga.
It’s impressive how well the game holds up after all this time. The 8-bit Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog is much more than a downgraded port of its 16-bit daddy, it’s a full, unique game in its own right. Despite being limited by a much less powerful machine, Ancient were able to successfully strip back the feel of the 16-bit game, only loosely basing it on the parent title but retaining the sense of speed platforming that eventually became Sonic’s signature. Most of the key gameplay elements are present – fast running, rolling through enemies, jumping over spike traps, collecting rings – with only a few compromises. These small concessions include being unable to collect lost rings once lost (something they managed to make work in a limited sense for the 8-bit Sonic 2) and some fairly basic boss battles, but in exchange they added some neat small touches, such as a world map (pictured left) that showed the location of the level in relation to the wider South Island.
As a kid I never actually beat the game, I still remember being unable to pass the Jungle Zone boss and progress further. I came back to the game in my teenage years, fuelled by nostalgia. It was an interesting feeling, akin to returning to your old stomping ground, and I still recall the feeling of surprise when I passed that boss on only my second attempt. I knew the first three zones inside-out as a child, but from that point on the game was uncharted territory. It was like returning home and finding an entire half of the house you never knew existed.
Even going back to it today, for the purpose of writing this article, I was still impressed by how much fun the game is. There’s an obvious veil of nostalgia there, but it really feels like a lot of love went into making this game, as though Ancient set out determined to equal the Mega Drive title rather than settling for a cheap imitation on inferior hardware.
I took dozens of screenshots in preparation for this article, and it’s been hard to whittle it down to the three you see here because so much of the game is still dear to me. Small corners an insignificant details of the map were all sources of wonder for me as a child, from the hidden floors of the second level to the rolling logs in the third zone. Still, I’d like to finish on Sonic the Hedgehog’s recreation of the famous Green Hill ring jump, one of the few areas of the game directly influenced by the 16-bit game. It’s a short section, and pared down from its Mega Drive equivalent, but to probably-5-or-6-year-old me, it was one of the most fun things imaginable. That’s what got me started.