The original Sonic the Hedgehog was released for the Sega Genesis 25 years ago today. We pay tribute by ranking the 25 best Sonic games of all time.
What better way to crown more than two decades of juicing and jamming than getting your own VIP room at The Strong Museum’s World Video Game Hall of Fame? Over the last 25 years, Sonic’s identity as a platforming poster mascot has been used for games both conventional and controversial, harnessing exhilarating speed at one stage while toying with action elements at another, all the while delivering distinct soundtracks. That kind of impressive mileage is enough to fill multiple passports. Speedy acrobatics may be Sonic’s forte, but it’s a standard he hasn’t always lived up to. For a marathon this lengthy, occasional stumbles over swollen feet are hardly tragic. But, to quote Sonic Adventure, it doesn’t matter, as these 25 games from his 25-year run say “I deserve to be here.”
(Note: In the interest of keeping the focus squarely on the speedster, franchise mashups are not featured on this list. Neither are the series’ compilations, Mega and Gems.)
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25. Knuckles' Chaotix
The game where Espio, Vector and Charmy get their start (and where Mighty makes one of his only appearances), Knuckles' Chaotix feels like an unscheduled stop for the franchise with its inventive concept of controlling two characters tethered by rings. Common franchise traits are present in the standard levels (e.g., arched platforms) and rotating, 3D tunnel Special Stages. In addition to the structural deviation of five stages per world and randomized progression, what's most unusual about Knuckles' Chaotix is that it brings a layer of technicality to Sonic's gameplay conventions, where players need to perform coordinated moves that amount to whiplash. The execution feels complicated and hard to adjust to, but it's fun to tinker with after breaking through that early learning curve. Although held back by samey level designs, Knuckles' Chaotix is a noteworthy, forgotten piece of Sonic's past—with a catchy soundtrack, too.
Highlights: Marina Madness
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24. Tails Adventure
The better of Tails' solo outings for the Game Gear is essentially the equivalent of Kirby Super Star's The Great Cave Offensive. This adventure-based RPG may not feel like a Sonic game because of the non-traditional format, but the strict exploration focus and charming animations make for a surprisingly endearing spin-off all the same. For a modest game, Tails Adventure holds its own.
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23. Sonic Runners
Despite technical hiccups and a frustrating roulette system, Sonic Runners is a surprisingly fun endless runner with platforming elements that fit within Sonic's usual realm. Story Mode is bogged down by an absurd flurry of missiles and spiked balls that punish endurance in a way that's not conducive to extended runs. For that reason, the worldwide score competitions of Timed Mode is where Sonic Runners hits its stride. Tactics for prolonging your time and maximizing combos stem from your choice of character, along with any Buddies and Wisps you take for a given session. The Buddies are their own reward because of the throwbacks to earlier titles. There's nothing quite like having a giant Death Egg or the Orca from Sonic Adventure follow you while collecting Rings and Crystals and completing race-style bosses. It's a shame the service will be discontinued as of next month, as Sonic Runners is a competent mobile title with some depth to it.
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22. Sonic Shuffle
This Sonic-themed digital board game is far better than its undeservedly negative reputation makes it out to be. Sonic Shuffle is built on strategy first, not luck, and this foundation is supported with sizable, active game boards and engaging player dynamics surrounding its unique card system. Mini-games are varied and fall at different extremes, from the hilarious Sonic Parasol to creative ideas like Zero-G Snap Shot, but the majority are charming and complement board play well by not being the only enjoyable component to the package. Bizarre vibes notwithstanding, Shuffle is a gem more should check out —frankly, Sonic and the Secret Rings' Party Mode doesn't come close to this.
Highlights: Fire Bird, Riot Train, Gargantua
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21. Sonic the Fighters
Charm and accessible mechanics are the strong suits of Sonic the Fighters, a 3D cartoon fighter designed for arcades. It's rife with slapstick antics, from grabbing Espio's tongue to Fang's popgun moves, and the character selection is balanced with no faraway leaders (Bark is a powerhouse but can be outpaced by a strong Bean player). Mechanics may feel stiff initially, but the extent of control becomes apparent as you loosen your play style and become adept at aerial recoveries, sneaking around your opponent and exchanging barriers for special moves. The climb for the championship finishes with an intense showdown against Metal Sonic (and subsequently Dr. Robotnik) that makes you work for your victory. Advanced play may not be as far-reaching as other fighting games, but Sonic the Fighters can be wild when it gets going.
Highlights: Canyon Cruise, Casino Night, Death Egg's Hangar
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20. Sonic Advance 2
The first iteration in this sub-series served as a great template, but it was hindered by design flaws associated with enemy and trap placement, as well as off physics. And while some traces are present in the sequel, Sonic Advance 2 is an improvement over the original's serviceable design. As was the case previously, having characters with unique attributes boosts replayability and leads to discoveries of new paths you may rule out at first. Sonic Advance 2 also features Special Rings (before Red Star Rings in Sonic Colors), and while they're annoying prerequisites for Special Stage access, they also encourage exploration to even out the linearity in places. For its cases of weaker level design (Sky Canyon) and repetition making for indistinguishable areas, the game also has its share of well-done executions (Music Plant). Not Sonic's best handheld adventure, but still above average.
Highlights: Music Plant, Techno Base
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19. Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble
Sonic's 8-bit offerings can be hit and miss, but Triple Trouble ranks as one of the best. Some of its design elements do feel lifted from previous titles—the oddly-named Meta Junglira takes after Sonic CD's Collision Chaos with sections of bubble-encased fruit—but it also features interesting ideas of its own to help separate it from the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit). Tidal Plant lets you search underwater passages using protective bubbles or, in Tails' case, a submarine; Sunset Park closes with a train chase; and Robotnik Winter follows a scattered level design that sees the game at its most open. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to offer in the way of thrilling boss fights, but this in no way makes Triple Trouble a weak entry.
Highlights: Meta Junglira, Robotnik Winter
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18. Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity
The definition of "streamlined gameplay," Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity rethinks the foundation on which the original was based: the air system is scrapped, tricks are relegated to well-timed button presses, turbulence and boosting are all but gone and the level-up system is revised (for the better). The renewed focus on Gravity Dives—launching off environmental objects and accessing new paths with mid-air dashes—evened out races, but not all sacrifices were worthwhile. That said, the track design does benefit from the new theme, as seen with the ceiling and wall paths of Nightside Rush and Gigan Rocks. Its presentation does a good job selling the concept: it doesn't feel like navigating flat terrain when you're actually riding along a bending path, which is something Mario Kart 8 isn't always successful at.
It feels like you're learning a whole new set of rules coming from the original, and while not exceeding Riders' formula, the follow-up is still a capable racer with tricks of its own—not least of which, a cinematic-sounding soundtrack.
Highlights: Tempest Waterway, Crimson Crater, '90s Boulevard
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17. Sonic and the Secret Rings
The introduction to the Wii-exclusive Storybook series wasn't the first Sonic title to explore an on-rails movement system (Tails' Skypatrol did it before), but some felt it a dubious design choice when paired with untrustworthy motion controls. It's true that Sonic and the Secret Rings has more technical issues surrounding its controls than other mainline entries (mostly to do with backtracking), but the game is far from unplayable. In fact, the decision to map Homing Attacks to shakes of the Wii Remote makes for a fun experience.
Secret Rings' mission structure is also a game-changer, as it means replaying the same world in fragmented parts (e.g., avoiding traps in the tower of Levitated Ruin) following the main Go for the Goal objective. Sometimes this was a serious pain, as in the Hands Off and No Pearls missions. The core RPG element of learning and customizing skills makes Secret Rings a game of delayed reward: Sonic is slow-moving at the beginning, but later you can travel at crazy fast speeds. So in that sense, it's an acquired taste. But those who stick with it will find a rewarding game with intriguing features and atmospheric levels that make up for its drawbacks.
Highlights: Evil Foundry, Skeleton Dome, Night Palace
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16. Sonic Riders
A big reason why this extreme sports racer excels is because it feels wholly Sonic, with fast-moving highways, varied settings, spiraling paths and interactive track features. Riders radiates style both visually and in form, with its unique Turbulence mechanic, involving trick system and pulsing soundtrack. The character-type system borrowed from Sonic Heroes classifies player abilities for track advantages, while layouts feature path splits and vertical routes that work in sync with the mix-and-match aspect of equipment. Green Cave, for example, doesn't have a clear advantage for one character type, so that's where experimenting comes in. The learning curve isn't friendly, but it's these threads of understated complexity that make for a memorable racing experience more effective than the sequel.
Highlights: Ice Factory, Dark Desert, SEGA Carnival