When I was young, one of my most treasured possessions was ‘The A-Z of Sega Games Volume 1’, a compilation of Sega reviews published in 1992. I spent hours flicking through its pages, reading about mysterious games I’d probably never see at the second-hand game store I frequented, let alone play. One of the games I read about in this revered tome was the Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog. According to the sacred texts, the Master System version of the game was even better than the Mega Drive original, but since I never owned a Master System I had no way of experiencing its tantalising delights. Fast-forward to 2011, where a remastered version of Sonic CD is about to be released. Struggling with the wait for this previously-unconsumed treat, I decide to whet my appetite with another previously-unconsumed treat – the hallowed Master System edition of Sonic the Hedgehog, downloaded using the Wii’s Virtual Console service. Was it worth the wait?
Developed by Ancient, Master System Sonic the Hedgehog is only the second Sonic game ever created. It borrows the visual templates of a few Zones from the Mega Drive version but is otherwise completely comprised of new content. Because of the lack of precedent, a few levels deviate from what we would now think of as the Sonic formula. One level automatically scrolls onward, and in another you ascend vertically but cannot scroll downwards, meaning you die if you touch the bottom of the screen. Another level contains an unusual little switch/door puzzle, which has you warping around the level. Some of these elements feel a little Mario-inspired, and it’s possible these Mario-esque elements are the reason my old review guide preferred this version to the original. While these little deviations from the now-established Sonic template are noticeable, they don’t feel especially incongruous with the rest of the game and, in general, Master System Sonic does a very good job of staying true to the Sonic experience – the look is right and, most importantly, the physics are right (which is more than can be said for Sonic 4 Episode I).
Although the graphics aren’t as sophisticated as those in the Mega Drive version (there’s no parallax scrolling here), they’re more than acceptable – Sonic looks like Sonic and the Labyrinth Zone in particular is almost a doppelgänger of its Mega Drive counterpart. A combination of the PAL borders (a leftover from the bad old days of European gaming) and the unused space at the top and bottom of the screen meant I was able to get the picture to fill my widescreen display without stretching or cropping off parts of the active display area. I did this using the zoom function of my TV, and it made playing the game a slightly more comfortable experience, compensating for the outdated 4:3 display ratio. The music, as you might expect, isn’t as sophisticated as the Mega Drive game’s either, but the new tunes are pleasant and jaunty.
The difficulty level is somewhat higher than in your average Sonic title. I think this is partly because, unlike in other Sonic games, you can’t recover your rings when you take damage. Take a hit and the various obstacles become lethal hazards until you can source more rings. Also, most of the boss levels don’t provide you with rings at all, so Eggman/Robotnik (delete for preference) can take you out in one hit. It’s not an especially frustrating game but it can be surprising (and a little amusing) to see a Sonic game occasionally showing some claws.
According to my old review compilation, the Master System version of Sonic is “as close as you are going to get to the perfect game”. Alas, I’m not quite sure I can agree with that. The gameplay is generally faithful to the Mega Drive version but the little differences eventually grate. I’ve mentioned the irreversible loss of all rings when taking damage above. In addition to this, the knockback from damage feels awkward and is a bit of a nuisance. Sonic is unusually slow and awkward to control in water, and this is particularly noticeable in the Labyrinth Zone, which contains significant underwater segments. The collision detection is also less than pixel-perfect in places, despite “accurate collision” being mentioned as a plus point in my old review compilation.
One design decision in particular doesn’t make sense. The game features the same Chaos Emerald collection quest as the original game, but now the gems are hidden in the levels themselves, with the Special Stages reduced to bonus stages that just contain continues and extra lives. In the original Sonic, there was no real definitive point at which it was no longer possible to collect all the Chaos Emeralds – you could enter a Special Stage and collect one at the end of any level if you collected enough rings. In the Master System version, once you reach the end of a Zone without collecting a Chaos Emerald along the way, you know you’ve fluffed getting the good ending – and if you want it you’ll just have to restart and try again. The way the gems are hidden can actually be quite clever in places – but the mechanics of the original Mega Drive version make more sense.
Sonic the Hedgehog for the Master System is, in the end, merely quite good. It has its flaws, but at the same time it does successfully recreate the Sonic experience for 8-bit hardware, and there aren’t very many sources of classic Sonic gameplay around. It’s perhaps not the game that ‘The A-Z of Sega Games’ led me to believe it was, but I’m glad I played it. With the re-release of Sonic CD featuring a rebuilt version of the game on a new engine, it seems Sega is moving towards remaking, rather than merely emulating, old Sonic games. Master System Sonic might not be the perfect game but if it were remade, if its little 8-bit kinks were knocked out… well it would certainly be a little bit closer.