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15. Sonic Rush
After demonstrating they could usher in a 2D renaissance with the Advance series, Dimps went all-in with Sonic Rush, using the dual-screen setup of the Nintendo DS to expand on the platformer-racer crossbreed elements that characterized Sonic Advance 2. Presenting stages across both screens allows players to anticipate changes in direction without feeling disoriented. In also growing Advance's trick mechanics with fun aerial and rail acrobatics, cannon launches and rail grinding were never as fun as they are here.
Levels act like multi-path stunt courses that reward players for adaptability, capitalizing on Sonic's signature speed as an embodied design feature. And those that are less successful from a design perspective are aided by visually appealing settings, like Mirage Road. Featuring an infectious, chant-ridden soundtrack from Hideki Naganuma (famous for his musical contributions to the Jet Set Radio series), Rush is a Sonic game with great rhythm—musically and in action.
Highlights: Night Carnival, Huge Crisis
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14. Sonic Battle
Easily one of Sonic's most overlooked titles, this 2D-sprites-meet-3D-environments fighter for the Game Boy Advance features frenetic arena combat augmented by a card-collecting premise of programming mysterious robot Emerl with skills acquired as battle spoils. Mechanically, the game has a lot going for it—a fair arsenal of attacks that can be combined for ground or aerial combos, along with a system of rotating defensive strategies and special moves to prevent abuse. The eight-chapter story doesn't feature the strongest writing, but the characterization is entertaining enough to keep the average Sonic fan engaged as they get accustomed to each fighter's style (e.g., Amy is super agile, Cream has terrific healing, Tails relies on accessory attacks). Balancing its low barrier of entry with advanced skills to master (e.g., wall jumps and instant-KO specials), Sonic Battle is a fast-paced, exciting take on the genre.
Highlights: Metal Depot, Club Rouge, Battle Highway
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13. Sonic Unleashed
Unleashed marks a concentrated effort on SEGA's part to get back on the good side of purists, a 2D/3D hybrid featuring blisteringly fast gameplay and inspired landscapes. But there's a darkness that undermines the good SEGA did to solidify Sonic's hallmark. The brawler-style Werehog stages don't sit well with everyone, as the split personality in concept translates to opposing gameplay philosophies. For some, though, the good parts of the experimental approach—strong use of setting and greater emphasis on platforming, along with combat that has its enjoyable moments—outweigh the bad—constant battle theme interruptions, tedium, etc. Sonic Unleashed is the template for what would later become Sonic Generations, and so for its accomplishments in putting Sonic on track to future greatness, Unleashed is owed some respect. If nothing else, it gave us one of Sonic's most diverse, ambient soundtracks to date.
Highlights: Dragon Road, Rooftop Run, Arid Sands
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12. Sonic the Hedgehog (16-bit)
Even before titles like Sonic Adventure brought the attitude, Sonic's cool image dates back to his first game, represented in his character (the iconic "I'm waiting!" animation) as well as snappy music and detailed backgrounds. Some forget that adrenalin wasn't a major part of the early equation; momentum plays a more central role as the non-threatening zip through Green Hill Zone's open plains are replaced by the deadly obstacles and precise jumps required to navigate Marble Zone and beyond. Many of the design elements introduced here—pinball mechanics, open wall secrets, disruptive springs and sneaky enemy traps—later become staples for the series. For also setting the bar with a not-so-breezy difficulty, Sonic the Hedgehog still provides a worthwhile experience with qualities that still feel fresh in their connection to contemporary ideas. Legendary, this one.
Highlights: Marble Zone, Spring Yard Zone
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11. Sonic Rush Adventure
Sonic Rush brought innovation, yet Sonic Rush Adventure does not in any way take its sequel status for granted, boasting balanced, flexible layouts that don't sacrifice design attractions for sheer speed; new gameplay features (including 3D sequences) that make for stronger levels; and boss battles that take more liberties than those of the preceding game. There's more to account for here in both action and content (e.g., mission mode, online races when Nintendo WFC was still around), and thanks to the daring spirit overseeing its sea travel elements and level design, Sonic Rush Adventure thrives on cohesion and colorful design features.
Highlights: Plant Kingdom, Machine Labyrinth, Sky Babylon
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10. Sonic Advance 3
The best and least forgiving of the trio, Sonic Advance 3 is a satisfying evolution of mechanics introduced in preceding entries, strengthened by a team system (resembling Knuckles' Chaotix in some respects) with rewarding layers of technique and experimentation factored into the level design. It's not all nonstop running like the racing themes of Sonic Advance 2, and this revised direction of a more open and platforming-focused style of gameplay is supported with design features that are extensions of the chosen settings (Toy Kingdom highlights this with elephant slides and the like, while Ocean Base gives a Sonic 2 vibe with conveyors and trash chutes). In other areas too—superior boss battles, pleasing story and strong soundtrack (including one of the best Green Hill Zone remixes)—you can tell the third title has the most heart put into it, and consequently, it's a Sonic game I can say I love almost everything about.
Highlights: Sunset Hill, Ocean Base, Cyber Track
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9. Sonic Adventure
This major milestone in Sonic's history did much to position the hedgehog as a symbol of the 3D platformer during a pivotal era, but it also introduced new definitions of play that established how Knuckles and Amy fit in the expanding formula (I forgot she only had three stages!) while exploring experimental gameplay ideas with new characters Big the Cat and E-102 Gamma.
Sonic Adventure's open-world setup connects its levels, characters and story direction to bring cohesion and an engaging structure. It also marks the beginning of a series fascination with featuring dramatic heroics, as with the building run of Speed Highway, Windy Valley's tornado climb and the orca chase in Emerald Coast. Although it does feature several departures from the norm—an unusual hub-like design in Casinopolis and eerie vibes with Amy's version of Twinkle Park—Sonic's core qualities are not lost on Adventure's level designs even as verticality, scale and changing camera angles shape the revised foundation. Elements of other modern Sonic titles can thus be traced back here in one form or another, such as the puzzle-platforming of Lost World's snake chamber.
Sonic Adventure has its weak points, but it remains one of Sonic's most memorable titles.
Highlights: Hot Shelter, Lost World, Final Egg
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8. Sonic Heroes
Sonic Heroes makes one of the strongest cases in the series for multiple characters, thriving on its rotating three-person game mechanic and avoiding some of the related trappings of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2. Early stages like Ocean Palace showcase branching paths, while later levels dabble more with enemy walls and brief puzzle elements. Throughout, traditional qualities and structural elements common to the Sonic formula are exhibited in the varied level designs—the dizzying routes of Rail Canyon, perilous platforming in Lost Jungle and Mystic Mansion's creativity in setting. Regular detours along with subtle exploration elements arising from alternative formation changes establish that Heroes is not strictly of linear make. Furthermore, the game's latter half features back-to-back standout moments in the context of 3D Sonic. On the whole, there's a dominant lively atmosphere carried in a consistently solid soundtrack that matches the energetic pacing of gameplay.
I've been playing this game for a long time, so I'm well aware of its glitches and so on. But I also know that among Sonic's 3D outings, Heroes is one of Sonic Team's best efforts.
Highlights: Ocean Palace, Hang Castle, Final Fortress
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7. Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic Team made many accomplishments with Sonic Adventure 2, a sequel more loaded than its predecessor but ultimately more focused, thanks to the refinement of gameplay styles in keeping with its complementary story. Sonic and Shadow's stages boast a more distinct sense of speed, both mechanically (e.g., quicker ring dashes, slingshot effects) and in level design: Pyramid Cave is an effective amalgamation of traditional principles with its winding stretches and puzzle rooms, while the rail-heavy Final Rush excels through an emphasis on technique. Knuckles' treasure hunting premise from Sonic Adventure (which I loved) is also improved, with fuller levels lending to greater exploration and an openness that balances out the more linear running stages. Reprising Gamma's shooting galleries with Tails is a smart move, as it elevates a key aspect to his character—inventions and the like—that was previously confined to cut-scenes or mini-games.
Sonic Adventure 2 is a game with a clear vision, and because of it, highlights are many and frequent: satisfying boss fights, epic story moments, prime multiplayer (Sonic Adventure 2: Battle), strong replay value through a superior mission structure, an addictive Chao Garden and a spirited musical score. After paving a path of 3D platforming with Sonic Adventure, it was wonderful to see that Sonic Team's best ideas were not all spent on the first game, as the follow-up is, surprisingly, the more well-rounded of the two.
Highlights: Radical Highway, Crazy Gadget, Death Chamber
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6. Sonic CD
While not part of the Genesis lineup, Sonic CD captures the essence of those titles. Here, the principle of momentum is specifically geared for time travel, where you need to destroy contraptions in the past to prevent a bad future. Yet this is never an in-your-face element, similar to how Sonic 3's non-mandatory Special Stages are accessed via portals hidden behind transparent walls. Each world features its own distinguishing aesthetics and stage gimmicks, such as the bouncy floor and vertical focus of the unique Wacky Workbench stages. Stardust Speedway in particular features a balanced maze structure, creating all sorts of paths for players to discover. Sonic CD's flexible and creative approaches in its level design also extend to the clever bosses and fresh Special Stages, making this one a classic.
Highlights: Collision Chaos, Wacky Workbench, Stardust Speedway