Since his debut in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog has sped into the lives and hearts of countless fans. The blue blur has come a long way since his very public rivalry with Mario in the Great Nintendo/Sega Console Wars of the 90s (now the two just compete in Olympic events).
Some might say the hedgehog’s better years are behind him, but with the massive success of the Sonic the Hedgehog live-action/CGI film, we decided to take a look back on the little guy’s huge library of video games and rank them.
Now, Sonic has gotten around a lot over the years. Heck, I was first introduced to him on a PC port of his Sega Genesis trilogy, and I even remember seeing a Sonic mobile gaming title on my Motorola Razr back in 2007. All told, conservative estimates indicate that Sega’s mascot has starred in well over 70 games – so it’d be impractical to include them all here. I’ll only be listing the top 10 best and worst games in his catalogue.
So, without further ado, let’s begin!
The Best Sonic The Hedgehog Games:
10. Sonic Unleashed (2008)
Before you purists out there object to Sonic Unleashed‘s inclusion here, just remember it’s not in the top 5 on this list. Yes, it has its problems and the Werehog aspect is corny. However, the title has received quite a loyal cult following in the years since its release – so much so that it was even one of the first games to receive backwards compatibility on the Xbox One.
Honestly, if it weren’t for the annoying sidekick Chip and some of the slower paced levels, this would have been closer to the top. The daytime stages are some of the best designed 3D Sonic levels of all time, and while strange, the Werehog’s nighttime stages are fun to play in their own right. Sega found a good balance of mixing old and new with Sonic Unleashed.
9. Sonic Advance 2 (2002)
Sonic Advance 2 not only exemplifies and represents the best that the Sonic Advance series has to offer, but also some of the best that classic 2D Sonic gameplay has to offer. With some of the slickest controls around and awesome level designs that don’t rely on cheaply placed pitfalls, plus the introduction of an actually good character in Cream the Rabbit, this game really stands out. (The sprite art is top-notch too.)
It was the perfect follow-up to Sonic Advance and did everything a sequel is supposed to do: improve on the gameplay, broaden the scope/ambition of the original, and increase the difficulty/replay value. Some might argue it increased the difficulty a bit too much, but there’s no denying that it’s a quality video game title, Sonic or otherwise.
8. Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (2001)
It was difficult to decide on the placement of Sonic Adventure 2: Battle on this list. On the one hand, it marked the beginning of the Sonic franchise’s downward spiral into a laughably angsty and faux-edgy aesthetic. Sure, Sonic had always ridden a wave of “hip” culture, but this game took it to whole other, arguably less hip, level. Worse than that, this game doubled down on some of the questionable choices of the first fully 3D Sonic title by giving us tedious treasure-hunting stages with Knuckles and Rouge, as well as clunky shoot ’em up levels with Tails and Dr. Eggman, all receiving equal billing with Sonic and Shadow levels. Make no mistake, the Sonic and Shadow levels are the best things this game has to offer, and yet they only occupy one-third of the stage selection. I understand wanting to add more variety to the mix, but not when it comes at the expense of what should be the core gameplay of the series.
So, why is this even on the list then, you ask? Well, for starters, that one-third of the game I mentioned is an amazing one-third. Every single Sonic and Shadow stage is a home run. Metal Harbor, Radical Highway, City Escape, Pyramid Cave, White Jungle – these are all incredible stages that can be played over and over again. That’s in no small part thanks to the excellent soundtrack which includes modern classics like Live and Learn by Crush 40.
The multiplayer features included in Battle are also superb. I have fond memories going up against my siblings in this game. It marked the first time Sonic could genuinely rival Mario in the local multiplayer department. The Tamagotchi style Chao Garden was another fun addition to the proceedings. And let’s not forget the historical importance of this game: released on the GameCube, it was the first time a Sonic title appeared on a Nintendo console. By now, with his inclusion in Super Smash Bros. and crossover titles with Mario himself, it’s easy to take that for granted. But at the time, it was mind blowing. For all of these reasons and more, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle deserves a spot on this list.
7. Sonic Adventure DX (1998, Director’s Cut 2003)
This is another title that was hard to decide on the placement on this list. I considered just letting Sonic Adventure 2: Battle represent the Adventure series here, but upon further reflection decided the first Sonic Adventure deserved its own slot. Why? Because it successfully brought Sonic into the 3D platforming age, which was no small feat.
Developers still struggle to make Sonic work in a 3D space to this day, but Sonic Adventure stepped up to the plate and handled the challenge with remarkable results. It also brought the often overlooked echidna Tikal to the series, who is personally one of my favorite supporting characters. Plus, it introduced the Seaside Lagoon shenanigans with the killer whale that has become a staple of the series.
6. Sonic Rush (2005)
While Sonic’s 3D titles like Sonic Heroes and *shudder* Shadow the Hedgehog were receiving mixed responses from professional critics and gamers alike, the little blue guy was absolutely thriving on handheld devices like the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS with traditional 2D games. The aforementioned Sonic Advance series was a hit that spanned three entries alone. Still, as good as Sonic’s 2D offerings were, they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. Unlike the experimental nature of his 3D adventures on consoles, Sonic’s 2D exploits played things much safer. They really stuck to the formula.
And that was a wise direction to go for several years. However, by 2005 it was time to mix things up a bit or risk going stale. Thus, Sonic Rush blessed this world with its presence. It was the first side-scrolling Sonic game in years to introduce new gaming mechanics like the Tension Gauge which allowed players to rack up points by pulling off tricks and later use those points to do a Super Boost or Fire Boost. This mechanic has now found its way into many modern Sonic releases, but at the time it was just the right revolutionary kind of style needed to shake up the status quo. It made playing the game feel oh so satisfying.
The addition of the dimension-hopping Blaze the Cat was icing on the cake. Not to mention the sublime soundtrack composed by Hideki Naganuma of Jet Set Radio fame. I dare you to listen to the Back 2 Back track without bobbing your head to the beat. The sequel, Sonic Rush Adventure, was a quality entry as well – but the first Sonic Rush is still a more streamlined experience. Albeit, it does suffer from one too many cheaply placed pitfalls at times. Still, that doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment I get out of playing it.
5. Sonic CD (1993)
Words cannot describe how much I love Sonic CD, an entry to the Sonic franchise that holds a special place in my heart. It really is a gem of a side-scrolling platformer. It was ahead of its time with a fully animated opening by Toei Animation that stills hold up decades later, along with the debut of fan favorite characters like Metal Sonic and Amy Rose. The character designs on display are some of the best in the series too – these models are so good they’ve even been used in more recent animated shorts released by Sega.
The gameplay mechanics were also ahead of their time. I love the time-traveling feature. It adds to the replay value and truly makes this a game that gets even better with age – like a fine wine. You just can’t go wrong with Sonic CD.
4. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
Chances are, if you’ve only played one Sonic the Hedgehog game in your life, this was it. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has been ported to literally every electronic device on this planet. As prolific as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was somehow being played on other planets at this point. Sega made sure this title was available on everything from Apple TV to the 3DS. And for good reason – it is undeniably one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog games from start to finish.
The difficulty curve is perfect for both casual and hardcore gamers, making it Sonic’s most accessible game. The music is stellar. Its gameplay and frame rate are buttery smooth for its time. It gave us Sonic’s flying fox sidekick Tails. It put Sega on the map and made it a serious contender for the gaming throne in its early days going up against Nintendo. It perfectly lends itself to speedruns. What can I say – the game’s just that good. Like Sonic Advance 2, it outdid its predecessor in every conceivable way and then some.
3. Sonic Generations (2011)
It’s crazy to think Sonic Generations has been out for nearly a decade. The game is still a shining beacon of light for modern Sonic. This is the one title that undeniably did 3D Sonic stages justice without the need for any qualifying statements. Classic stages like Green Hill Zone are flawlessly re-imagined and rendered in both 3D and 2.5D here. The game serves as a beautiful jaunt down memory lane, serving up enhanced versions of classic and not-so-classic levels throughout Sonic’s vast library of classic and not-so-classic games. And somehow, it makes all of them work. It magnifies the best moments in Sonic’s finest games, and fixes all of the bugs and glitches present in his flawed games. Finally, we get a chance to play these levels as they were meant to be played. Finally, we can see the vision all of the previous creators, developers, and programmers had after all these years later.
Even stages from disgraced titles like the infamous 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog find a new lease on life here, trimming out all of the unnecessary fat to a deliciously lean slab of gaming steak. It really is something of a miracle that this game even exists. It’s much better than it has any right to be.
Plus, the 2.5D levels with classic Sonic, Tails, and Dr. Robotnik are a sight to behold. The fact that each stage has both a modern and classic rendition spoils the player with levels of high-grade nostalgia that had never been seen before. And as if the polished gameplay wasn’t enough, the revamped soundtrack that samples every era of Sonic music goes the extra mile to send the player into gaming bliss. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to play Sonic Generations.
2. Sonic Mania (2017)
Sonic Mania is stupidly good. It’s almost inconceivable just how good it is, actually. I’ll be honest, I did not play it right away after its release. It took me a few months to get around to it – and even then, I only got around to it because literally everyone I know who plays video games, Sonic fan or not, would not shut up about how good it is.
I’ve played every Sonic compilation there has ever been, like Sonic Mega Collection, Sega Genesis Classics, and Sega Ages. It just didn’t seem like there would be any fuel left in the nostalgia tank, no matter how lovingly crafted the game was. Turns out, I was wrong. There was, and is, plenty of room left in the tank – and Sonic Mania proves it.
Developed by freelance-animator/Sonic-fan-turned-professional-video-game-programmer Christian Whiteman, this is another title that spoils players, this time with a slew of character and gameplay options. What began as a fangame called Sonic Discovery quickly evolved into a full-blown official Sonic title after Sega had the good sense to give said fan full reign over a remastered and remixed version of all things 2D Sonic. The Plus update added Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Flying Squirrel as playable characters, along with new game modes.
Produced to commemorate the blue hedgehog’s 25th anniversary, Sonic Mania made old titles like Sonic CD and Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3 feel new again. With four original stages and eight redesigned stages from previous games, Sonic Mania is a work of passion that never fails to surprise the player even while traversing well-treaded ground. It sums up everything that people love about Sonic and delivers it in a neat little package with a beautiful bow on top.
Honorable Mentions: Sonic Colors and Sonic Heroes
Before revealing the top pick for the best Sonic the Hedgehog game, it’s only fair to recognize some other games that didn’t quite make the list but nonetheless deserves praise for their contribution to Sonic’s legacy. After some creative misfires, Sonic Colors (2010) signaled a return to form for the character and served as step in the right direction that would eventually lead to Sonic Generations. It also introduced Wisps to the franchise, which have gone on to serve major functions in both the comic books and spin-off titles like Team Sonic Racing.
Also, Sonic Heroes (2003) featured the cool tag team concept of swapping between multiple characters in-game that took advantage of the series’ enormous cast. Unlike the Sonic Adventure series, its overall theme stuck more closely to the Sonic/Shadow stage formula. However, the game was plagued with bugs and glitches that held it back from being a veritable classic.
Of course, the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis earns an honorable mention too. It won’t take up an obligatory placement on the list, but it deserves some love.
With that out of the way, it’s time for the top pick. The best Sonic video game is…
1. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (1994)
While it isn’t as accessible as Sonic the Hedgehog 2 nor as interesting as Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles still achieves the pinnacle of what a well-rounded Sonic adventure should be. It has the perfect balance of characters, each with their own unique abilities that change the way you approach every stage, and it fires on all cylinders with its creative level design that encourages exploration. That’s something many side-scrolling platformers struggle with, but Sonic 3 & Knuckles pulls it off without a hitch.
It expands on everything that made both Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 major hits. This is Sonic’s equivalent to Super Mario World. While Sonic’s first and second games made him a household name in the early 90s, his third outing solidified his position as a gaming icon that has endured to this day. Another part of the allure of this game is that it isn’t as widely available as the others in the series. It’s been suggested that this could be due to licensing issues for some of the music in the game, but either way it hasn’t been included on any recent compilations like the Sega Ages collections on modern consoles. Its semi-rarity in the gaming landscape adds to its appeal. And that’s what makes Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles the best Sonic game.
So, now that we’ve covered the best core titles in the Sonic the Hedgehog saga, there’s no better time to dive into…