There have been so many terrible Sonic games. So many. Sonic Boom. Sonic the Hedgehog from 2006, where he had a human girlfriend. Sonic Labyrinth, the game that dared to ask the question: What if Sonic couldn’t run fast? Year after year, the Sonic Team has debuted a new title that promises to re-ignite the nearly 30-year brand. But unlike Mario, Solid Snake, Donkey Kong, and even Tetris, the fast-running hedgehog seems doomed to an eternal climb on the steep hill of cultural relevance, like Sisyphus with spiky blue hair. They just can’t seem to get him right.
Sonic games aren’t always bad, though. Once every fifth or sixth game in the dozens of titles that Sega has released since 1991, Sonic manages to remind us why he’s stuck around for so long. Sure, most of the best offerings from the franchise hail from its earliest days—when the high-speed platforming still felt new—but with the release of the old-school yet self-assured Sonic Mania in 2017, Sega proved to the gaming industry that its iconic mascot deserved more than just a Hall of Fame nod in the Smash Bros. roster. After all these years, the spunky little blue guy could still work.
The best proof of Sonic’s enduring, albeit bizarre, cultural relevance is the Sonic the Hedgehog movie that’s debuting this weekend. We never ask for more Sonic, but Sega gives it to us anyway. Based on early reviews, it looks like the film isn’t half bad. Maybe a new era of great Sonic games is upon us. Probably not.
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9. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
Sonic didn’t have an easy time transitioning into 3D. Maybe it was because the high-velocity speed of his 2D platforming couldn’t be translated into the third dimension. Maybe the physics of Sonic were only ever intended to be experienced left to right. Or maybe fleshing out a storyline for the hedgehog and his gang of fuzzy friends was just impossible from the start. Whatever the case, Sonic Adventure 2 clocks in at our favorite—and only—main series 3D Sonic game. With its three-sided storyline, moody Shadow the Hedgehog missions, and weird San Francisco-esque setting, Adventure 2 is always fun to play, even if it is so painfully early 2000s that you might want to dig out your old Shrek DVDs. And also, “City Escape.” —D.N.
8. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012)
Are you even a real collection of video game company mascots if you don’t have your own kart racer, bro? Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed was a solid entry into the stuffed karts-characters-and-power-ups genre, with some quality whips—like MeeMee’s buggy and Sonic’s hedgehog-eared ride—and memorable maps (each one is an entire island suspended in the sky). Plus, the character list was hard to beat. There was Shadow the Hedgehog, Wreck-It Ralph, Sonic, of course, and… Danica Patrick? Hell yeah. —B.L.
7. Sonic & Knuckles (1994)
Back in the ’90s, Sonic & Knuckles was a really novel idea. The cartridge, which featured “lock-on technology,” allowed players to alter other Sonic games by inserting them into the hatch on this strange multi-use piece of hardware. You could insert Sonic 2 into the & Knuckles cartridge, which would allow you to play as Knuckles the Echidna—the red dude who was basically Sonic’s more buff older brother—in the beloved sequel game. Other things would happen if you inserted Sonic 1 or Sonic 3 into the cartridge, making Sonic & Knuckles one of the industry’s first experiments with post-release content. It didn’t quite catch on, but today DLC is a central part of the medium. You have to give some credit to Sega for experimenting on this one. —D.N.
6. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (2007- )
It’s incredible that the Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games series even exists. It’s about as random and improbable as us getting Solid Snake and PaRappa the Rapper at the Westminster Dog Show. We’ve continually had new games in the series, where you play as a character from either Mario or Sonic’s crew in a Mario Party-esque collection of Olympic events, ever since the 2008 Summer Beijing Olympics. We’re glad they’re still comin’. If you’ve ever wanted to Cobra-Kai fools as Luigi, take archery practice as Tails, or throw an equestrian uniform on Bowser and go for a pleasant horse ride, Mario & Sonic will scratch that weirdo itch of yours. —B.L.
5. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
The second Sonic game quickly established itself as among the best the medium had to offer. Sega was competing with the behemoth that was Nintendo, with its Mt. Rushmore of mascots like Donkey Kong, Link, and Mario, so it’s a pretty big deal that Sonic managed to find his own speed in the midst of all that greatness. The third game promised some new mechanics, mainly with his furry buddy, Tails. In 3, Tails could fly, he could swim underwater, and you could control both characters at once. The third game isn’t as beloved as the second, but it represents one of the best and most consistent runs in the history of a franchise—one that would ultimately start to fade into irrelevancy as 3D took over gaming. —D.N.
4. Sonic Spinball (1993)
Sonic Spinball? So high on this list? Can we do that? Anyone who owned a Sega Genesis has the foggy memory of playing Spinball. That grungy sewer level, those chunky synth sound effects, Dr. Eggman’s face on a weird scorpion spider thing. For some reason, Sonic was doomed to be the ball of a pinball machine; his torment was our entertainment. It was a bizarre experience, putting the little guy through hell. But he’s been through much worse. I mean, have you ever seen him get kissed by a human woman? —D.N.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Before the endless sequels, before he starred in his own network TV cartoon show, before he became a horrifying live-action monstrosity, Sonic was a cute, simple, 16-bit hedgehog. Some might argue that the first Sonic adventure, 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog, is the GOAT of the series. And for good reason—the speedy, creative gameplay holds up, nearly 30 years later. Even after all the time Sega has spent trying to improve upon the OG, Sonic the Hedgehog still has everything you’d want in a Sonic game, gold rings and all. —B.L.
2. Sonic Mania (2017)
With fumbles like Sonic Boom and all the human girlfriends, fans for years were asking for Sonic to return to his classic roots. And Sega finally came to its senses, licensing the blue blur out to Headcannon, folks well known for their work on Sonic ports. Sonic Mania is a celebration of the retro Sonic. It featured new worlds and twists on old worlds, and a ton of playable characters, along with deep cuts like Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel. The game was a throwback through and through, but with the added features it hit that sweet spot between nostalgia, new gameplay, and polish. Sonic Mania is one of the best titles in the Sonic catalog, and easily the best in the last decade. —C.S.
1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Gotta go fast, and gotta spam the shit out of bosses with Tails. Sonic 2 did so much right that it’s still our most-played Sonic title. The game is fast, smooth, and inventive. It expanded on the first in all the ways a sequel should. Plus, those blue ball bonus levels still get us all hot and bothered. The game encapsulates everything that made Sonic distinct, and added so much that we still see in the series. Hell, this game introduced the spin dash and homing attack, two of the moves Sonic is best known for. It was also a lot of kids’ first experience with little brother co-op. A second player could take control of Tails, who had infinite lives and was kind of invincible, but would spend most of his time (save for boss battles) eating Sonic’s chili dog dust. Sonic 2 is truly what established Sonic as an icon of gaming and helped create the legacy that’s kept him on the map even after all his blunders. —C.S.
Bonus Round: Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (1993)
There have been arguments. But screw the rest of the Esquire Gamer Zone, I’m going AWOL. The best Sonic game of all time is actually Dr. Robotnik (Eggman for you noobs). He’s mean, he’s got a puzzle machine, get used to it. This game was essentially a re-skinned Puyo Puyo featuring everyone’s favorite pre-Jim Carrey Dr. Robotnik. What was going on? Who knows. It was a very fun puzzle game, with a great soundtrack and the sexiest villain in gaming leading the charge. What more could you ask for? —C.S.
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