With the release of Sonic Mania, Sega is emulating and enhancing the 16-bit look of the original set of Sonic the Hedgehog games from their Genesis/Mega Drive console. The Sonic Mania team has gone as far as remixing levels from old games while retaining their classic look, albeit with souped up animations. So what better time to look back at these classic games and pick out which levels have the best combination of speed, music, boss fights, and gimmicks, and, in turn, which are the most worth revisiting for Sonic Mania and beyond.
The disorienting Death Egg Zone is Dr. Robotnik’s equivalent of the Death Star and the climactic final stage of Sonic & Knuckles. The level features gravity switches, electromagnets, and spiraling light tubes. It’s also rotten with traps, but Robotnik himself makes up for the frustrations by providing some of the most grandiose and clever boss fights in the series.
Water levels are oft maligned, and for good reason, but Hydrocity is a standout with its Roman bathhouse tilework and emphasis on breaching out of the water instead of slogging through it. You rarely need to hunt for air bubbles with so many springs and ramps about. The coolest aspect of Hydrocity Zone is getting enough speed going to literally run across the surface of the water.
As the OG Sonic stage, it’s hard not to view Green Hill without at least some degree of nostalgia, but the franchise launchpad did give us Sonic’s first checkerboard patterned loop-de-loop and set the standard for “blue sky” environments that the vaporwave kids seem so fond of. Still, like any solid opener Green Hill offers a little bit of everything, delivered at a jaunty, carefree pace.
Like so many platformer games, Sonic is no stranger to stereotypical sand, snow, and lava levels, but Launch Base Zone offers something unique. Taking elements of security checkpoints, harbor industry, and astronaut training, Launch Base Zone is wholly original. The low-key turntable funk of the soundtrack is also Sonic music at its most adventurous, even daring to break into total silence for a split second as the track loops into itself.
Mystic Cave is a mid-game treat in Sonic 2 before the menace of Oil Ocean and Metropolis zones. Not that Mystic Cave is a breeze, but there is a playful spookiness to it what with being a cave and all, plus the fright night soundtrack of bass-strumming ghosts. The hidden switches and drawbridges help play into the Goonies-style exploration as well.
In most cases, the levels of the original Sonic the Hedgehog don’t hold up as well as those from the sequels, in part because they weren’t designed with the zippy spin dash move in mind. They may be a bit slower, but Spring Yard Zone sidesteps this issue by focusing on verticality instead via, you guessed it, springs. Spring Yard is all about bouncing and ping-ponging your way around obstacles. The delightfully simple yet terrifying Robotnik encounter features the villain in his trademark egg pod with one singular metal spike poking out the bottom, plunging into the ground and pulling out the floor block by block. Best take him out quickly while there’s still somewhere to land.
Casino Night is the fulfillment of Spring Yard’s promise, distilling that stage’s general boingyness into a combination pinball/slot machine where players can risk their hard-earned rings in hopes of hitting the jackpot. The Vegas strip neon and big band swank set the tone for a level where many players find themselves unknowingly close to the 10-minute time limit, because they’re so preoccupied in sticking it out for “one more spin.”
Sonic’s take on the airship from Super Mario Bros 3 is one of the most propulsive in the entire series (and a soundtrack to match) with huge drops and curved surfaces everywhere to keep momentum going. Flying Battery is also a great showcase for the lightning shield, magnetically attracting nearby coins to Sonic so players don’t have to backtrack to collect them all. The level balances engine-inspired interiors with breezy propeller-laden exteriors, where one misstep means being crushed by a spiked ball or tumbling into the great blue abyss.
An unassuming level, Mushroom Hill may stealthily be one of the best designed Sonic outings with lots of traversal options thanks to the springy mushroom caps and an incredible sense of speed. Players zip along looping vines and uncover a multitude of secrets and branching paths by hitting ramps at high velocity. The boss battle at the end of act 2 is an engaging chase sequence that makes you wonder why more Robotnik stand-offs didn’t keep Sonic on the move the whole time. That’s kind of his shtick after all.
The only thing wrong with Chemical Plant Zone is how short it is. What’s there is blisteringly fast (sometimes too fast for the game to keep up) with a toxic palette of caution tape yellow and radioactive purple, encased in metal and glass pipeworks that give players just enough control to feel like things could go off the rails. The high energy synth wails of the soundtrack is the closest a Sonic game gets to a keyboard solo, mimicking the sine wave rollercoaster that begins the zone. Following up the utopian blue sky of Emerald Hill Zone, Chemical Plant is the polar opposite: edgy industrial cool.
Dan Solberg is a digital artist, writer, and professor, producing works about videogames, music and art. You can check out more of his work on his website, dansolberg.com, and see his not-work by following him on Twitter.