Given Sonic the Hedgehog's extensive library, how is one supposed to sift through the riffraff and deduce which games are the best and worst in the series since its 1991 debut? By playing them all, of course! As TG's resident Sonic expert, I've had hands-on experience with every game on this list, and I have completed the vast majority, too. I'm not including some of the lesser spinoffs (Sonic Spinball, Knuckles' Chaotix, etc.), handheld titles (Rivals) or party games (Shuffle, the Olympic Games) to keep this list as focused as possible; the key handheld, spinoff and main-series games are all here.
Be it hoverboards, Arthurian swords or racing transformed, let's find out which of Sonic's wild adventures are the worst and the best of the blue blur's storied legacy.
28. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric
Though it occasionally shows glimmers of the game it wants to be, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric never quite lives up to its aspirations. Featuring slow, plodding movement; bland puzzles; and uninteresting platforming, Rise of Lyric has only one saving grace: the mildly interesting gameplay variation between its four playable characters. The game has a decently lengthy runtime, well above the woeful sub-6-hour total at which most modern Sonic games clock in. But that almost doesn't matter given how meh the game is to play through. While it'd likely be entertaining enough for very, very young gamers who've yet to experience a real action-platformer adventure game, few others will find anything worthwhile in Rise of Lyric.
27. Shadow the Hedgehog
The whole concept behind this game is unsavory. Giving a cartoon hedgehog a gun and making him use edgy language (unironically, mind you) while brutally pummeling aliens, Eggman and even Sonic himself to a pulp? It's bizarre, and not in a good way. Experimental is one thing, but this is too off-brand, even for a spinoff. Plus, the gunplay isn't refined; it feels like a twin-stick shooter mutated into a 3D platformer. While not unplayable, and fun enough when it occasionally focuses on speed, Shadow the Hedgehog includes a lot of strange decisions that sour the overall experience.
26. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
Though Sonic 1 gets big points for kick-starting the franchise, it's still hard to believe how it did so, given the lackluster design of the game. After the Green Hill level, almost every zone is designed specifically to stop Sonic from being fast, leaving the player to push blocks, hit momentum-destroying walls, traverse through slow water levels and tackle stationary, painfully annoying bosses. The game almost never rewards precision platforming with speed, and it makes playing through the levels an absolute chore. Couple that deeply flawed foundation with the game's nauseating special stages, and there's little redeeming value in Sonic's first outing, besides the debut of the awesome titular character himself.
25. Sonic Adventure
While a bold and respectfully competent move into three dimensions, Sonic's first true 3D outing ("but what about Sonic 3D Blast?" the peanut gallery inquired) remains one of his least entertaining titles. And it's a shame, because the Sonic and Tails portions of Adventure are pretty solid! Sure, the level design is janky and at odds with the player's speed, but overall, the Sonic and Tails stories offer up stretches of good fun. Heck, even Knuckles' treasure-hunting escapades are kind of entertaining. Gamma's linear, third-person shooter segments are inoffensive, though not terribly engaging.
Unfortunately, Amy's plodding play style and Big's fishing (yes) really, really weigh the experience down, especially when you consider how rough around the edges the other four characters' gameplay styles are. And I'm not even addressing the painfully bland hub-world content and miscellaneous fluff that constitutes the bulk of the game's overall experience, nor am I mentioning the (very) poorly aged graphics. Though good for its time, Adventure just doesn't hold up as well today.
24. Sonic 4 Episodes 1 & 2
Like any high school reunion, Sonic 4 Episodes 1 and 2 are varying degrees of disappointing. While serviceable platformers in their own right, neither recaptures the physics, level design or scope of the classic games, making both episodes feel like graphically enhanced shells of their peers.
With that said, Episode 2 does improve upon the first episode in a few ways (slightly better music, more-imaginative zones, etc.), but overall, neither installment of Sonic 4 is quite worthy of its name.
23. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)
The plot's a mess and the interspecies romance is uncomfortable. The glitches are superabundant. The graphics are strange and character designs unsettling. Sonic '06 has a lot of issues, most of which aren't easy to look past.
Still, you can't deny the raw ambition of this game, as it tackles nine different gameplay styles, all linked to the same core physics and movement system. Its most risky inclusions, Silver the Hedgehog and his telekinetic gameplay, could've been awful — but, in actuality, are pretty interesting. And as for the other styles — Sonic's, Blaze's, Shadow's and Tails' — they're all varying degrees of fun for those who didn't mind the janky speed of Sonic Adventure.
When you combine that diversity of gameplay with boatloads of content and a surprisingly elaborate, fully fleshed-out story, there's no arguing that the game delivers ample bang for your buck. Add in its bright spots, like the killer soundtrack and imaginative zone aesthetics, and this title is definitely not the worst of Sonic's track record, despite its faults.
22. Sonic the Fighters
Sonic the Fighters is a Soulcalibur-esque arena fighter with virtually no depth, and that's A-OK. Character animations are amusing, the controls are simple, and executing combos is fun enough. Plus, Fighters remains the only game where you can play as fan-favorite characters Nack the Weasel, Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite (check the Archie comics for proof of their cult status). This game's biggest drawback is its blatant lack of content. Sonic the Fighters was originally built for arcades, so this shortcoming is understandable, but this game remains nothing more than a shallow, passing fancy on the timeline of Sonic's history.
21. Sonic Rush Adventure
Though it has just about as much 3D gameplay as Sonic Colors and retains the core 2D speed-platforming of the first Sonic Rush, Adventure's weirdly prominent boating minigame and generally uninspired level design (and equally forgettable music) sink an otherwise-capable ship. If you can overlook these shortcomings, though, this is still a high-profile Sonic handheld game worth grabbing for cheap.
20. Sonic and the Black Knight
Sonic and the Black Knight's pretty graphics and occasional bouts of exciting speed aren't enough to justify the swordplay — or even the presence of swordplay in the first place. The franchise is no stranger to odd gimmicks, but this particular entry doesn't build upon its Wiimote-waggling nonsense enough to warrant a peculiar detour down the Arthurian trail. The story delivers some surprises, especially in an uncomfortable moment when Sonic's wolf-in-sheep's-clothing wizard companion, Merlina, domestically abuses him toward the finale. Still, despite crisp visuals, a great soundtrack and a neat medieval aesthetic that reimagines characters like Knuckles, Blaze, Shadow and Jet as Knights of the Round Table, style can't overshadow this game's fundamental lack of substance.
19. Sonic CD
Though Sonic CD has awesome cinematics, unique zone concepts, dope soundtracks (both the U.S. and Japanese versions are stellar) and neat mechanics, these pros can't outweigh the cons. Sonic's Super Peel Out move is classic, and the game's overarching time-travel gimmick leads to a lot of interesting environment variations, but none of that fixes the obnoxiously vertical, spring-loaded level design that makes moving forward a hassle. Even worse, the special stages are 3D spaces rendered with 2D sprites, and janky animation means these environments haven't aged all that well.
18. Sonic Lost World
Lost World is a game with interesting ideas and middling execution. While the solid controls make good on the promise of Lost World's parkour system, the level design does not. It constantly relegates the game to 2D, where half of Lost World's mechanics are useless. Even in 3D levels, this game rarely uses its tools to the fullest. Couple the underbaked level design with a short runtime, and Lost World ultimately falls flat as a cohesive experience. However, when glimpses of the parkour system's true potential do appear, it's an absolute blast.
17. Sonic Heroes
Standing alongside Sonic '06 as one of the only main Sonic games to be entirely 3D from start to finish, Sonic Heroes gains massive brownie points for not lazily resorting to 2D padding. And within this game's 3D geometry, it provides engaging level design and solid stage length in order to make each and every zone a worthy and memorable inclusion. Mind you, zones might be memorable only because the game forces you to venture through each one four separate times to unlock the game's true ending, but that's just one big gripe in an otherwise-solid game. While the controls are a little slippery, the combat dull and some stages a bit too long for comfort, the overall package is a competent trio-themed adventure that gives some underloved franchise characters their due time in the limelight.
16. Sonic Forces
Though a big letdown in the story and runtime departments and only a partial victory in the gameplay sector, when Forces works, it works. The game is divided into three chunks: Classic Sonic, Modern Sonic and Avatar stages. While Classic Sonic's stages are a mess due to strange physics, Modern Sonic's are often quite fun (albeit terribly brief) and the Avatar's stages feature some real flair. Plus, in a handful of levels, you can control Modern Sonic and the Avatar at the same time. These levels are expansive, speedy and everything else you'd want in a Modern Sonic game, and they're easily the crown jewel of Forces' content. Plus, Forces features a fun character creator and a jammin' soundtrack, making the game's numerous shortcomings a bit easier to swallow.
15. Team Sonic Racing
Team Sonic Racing is by no means a bad kart racer, just an underwhelming one. A big part of the problem is that this title recycles far too much content from the next game on this list, the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, while greatly paring down the characters, tracks and multivehicle mechanic that made the second entry in the series, All-Stars Racing Transformed, such an epic experience. In place of that game's features, we have a new cooperative style of gameplay that, to its credit, brings a dash of novelty to an otherwise-staid genre by encouraging teammates to work together to slip by the competition. Unfortunately, team play is really fun only when racing with friends, and the Story Mode — though well voice-acted and full of cute little jokes — simply fails to engage. At least the soundtrack is on point, with an excellent theme courtesy of franchise musician Jun Senoue and his band, Crush 40.
14. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
This ensemble kart racer has tight controls, satisfyingly weighty physics, high speeds and loads of content. If you ever wanted to see Sonic go wheel to wheel with Samba de Amigo, that weird spaceship thing from Fantasy Zone and other ghosts of Sega past, this is the game for you. It's polished, packed with personality and a worthwhile purchase for fans of Sega, Sonic or good racing games in general. It's also the most straightforward "what you see is what you get" experience on Sonic's resume.
13. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 learned plenty from Sonic 1, it's still not perfect. Its difficulty is uneven, level design is hit-or-miss, and special stages are a bit of a mess (and nigh unbeatable if you have a computer-controlled Tails stuck with you).
Still, if you can get past those big holdups, Sonic 2 is a classic. Its better levels, including the iconic Chemical Plant Zone, define what speed in Sonic is all about, rewarding players' smart platforming with gotta-go-fast bliss. This game also introduces the spin dash, Super Sonic and the trend of epic music in Sonic games. For these things, we must be grateful.
12. Sonic Free Riders
If there's one game that'll make you as skinny as the blue hedgehog himself, it's Sonic Free Riders, the Kinect-only hoverboard racing game for Xbox 360 and arguably most fun exercise program of all time. Though some people were unable to enjoy this game, due to the Kinect's dodgy functionality, I fortunately had a seamless experience and enjoyed Free Riders the way the developers intended.
Gameplay is intuitive and truly involves the player's entire body, which makes the experience more immersive than any other racing game I've played. Plus, Free Riders comes loaded with content (tons of maps, a story mode, online play, etc.) and a sizable roster of characters, making it one of the only Kinect games that actually feels like a complete product as opposed to a glorified tech demo.
11. Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic Adventure 2 did a lot to improve upon the first Sonic Adventure, and it shows. Obviously the graphics are much better, but so is the fundamental design. Levels are more attuned to the game's controls, the annoying hub worlds are gone, and the Chao Gardens are improved.
SA2 divides gameplay into three types instead of six, limited to Sonic/Shadow speed stages, Knuckles/Rouge treasure hunting and Tails/Eggman mech combat. The speed stages remain some of the coolest 3D-platforming levels in Sonic history, the treasure-hunting maps are a bit too big but otherwise tolerable (though the timed treasure hunts are hell), and the mech stages take the good aspects of Gamma's gameplay from the first Adventure and spice things up with more-challenging environments. By halving the diversity to consolidate resources and doubling down on polish, Sonic Team ensured SA2's gameplay's quality. The debut of Shadow the Hedgehog and an endearingly pulpy story are just icing on the cake.
10. Sonic Rush
Though Sonic Unleashed is known for its boost-heavy gameplay, Sonic Rush actually invented the mechanic, doing so within the confines of a 2D handheld adventure. Rush also delivered some of the coolest stages to ever grace the franchise, including Water Palace and Night Carnival. Not only were these levels infused with zany visuals, but each zone's aesthetic creativity also bleeds into the gameplay gimmicks, ensuring backdrops aren't just static eye candy. For these reasons and many more, Rush remains the king of handheld Sonic experiences. The wild, funk-infused soundtrack by legendary Sega composers Hideki Naganuma and Teruhiko Nakagawa doesn't hurt the game's standing either.
9. Sonic Riders: Zero Gravity
While it lacks the hard-hitting physics and mechanics of the original Sonic Riders, Zero Gravity makes up for those shortcomings by introducing gravity manipulation. This means that every map has you riding on walls and ceilings, slingshotting around 30-degree turns and, as the game's title would imply, defying gravity. With Zero Gravity's bonkers mechanics, you can fly through the air at rocket speed and ricochet off objects to increase velocity, all of which help maintain the high-octane pace of races. All maps are expertly crafted to best suit the gameplay, and the result is an epic racing experience that's unique to this game. Not to mention, Zero Gravity's aesthetic is timelessly cool, with its futuristic environments and one of the best musical themes of the entire series.
8. Sonic Colors
Featuring cute alien "wisps" that give Sonic bite-size powers to shake up the usual 3D-boosting and 2D-platforming action, Sonic Colors sports a plethora of gameplay styles that flow well together and make for a fun experience. Though the game is a bit too easy and short, so-so in the story department, and far too reliant on unengaging side-scrolling to pad game time, the overall experience is pleasant. That's thanks mostly to the (overall) technically sound gameplay experience and environmental wonder provided by Colors' interstellar amusement-park setting. Plus, the music is silly and over-the-top in all the right ways.
7. Sonic Riders
Sonic Riders' finely tuned physics do an impeccable job of making the player feel agile, while also providing a satisfying sense of weight that you can really feel in the corners. Riders' stages perfectly complement this movement system, thanks to track layouts that reward the player's ability to maintain momentum. The environments themselves consistently depict unique, radiant biomes, and the game's visual luster remains a sight to behold, even though this title is from the GameCube era. Beyond top-tier graphics and gameplay, Riders is also the game that gave us the Babylon Rogues and arguably Sonic's best rival, Jet the Hawk. Riders was innovative for its time, and it remains a blast to play with friends.
6. Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Though not quite as imaginative or fast as Sonic Riders' hoverboarding fare, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed manages a feat that might be even more impressive: combining three different racing games in one. You can boat, drive and fly through stages in this game, which takes the foundations of the first Sonic & All-Stars Racing title and turns that into a bigger, better experience that's built to captivate every kind of racing gamer. The physics for all three vehicle types are tight and responsive. And each vessel handles exactly how you imagine it should, so transforming from one mode to another feels seamless. In addition, Transformed has a roster and track list that pulls from even more eras of Sega's history than the previous All-Stars Racing game did, so it's every bit as much a love letter to fans of the publisher as it is a stellar racer in its own right.
5. Sonic Generations
Sonic Generations is basically Sonic Colors 2.0, at least in the oddly ratioed mix of 2D and 3D that defines the Modern Sonic stages. But it also features Classic Sonic, whose gameplay is entirely 2D. In that sense, the game is 75% 2D, but it's A-OK, if only because the physics are great for both Sonics and the level design is universally loaded with branching paths, exciting set pieces and modernist pizzazz. Generations assembles some of the best parts of Sonic's history and, for the most part, capitalizes on his legacy in a way that does the blue blur proud. Plus, delightful musical remixes and fun cameos from Sonic's pals round out the experience. And though I won't count this toward the official ranking, on PC, the game has a massive modding community that's made sure Generations will go on to be the biggest and best Sonic game of all-time. (Seriously, people are porting entire other Sonic games inside this one.)
4. Sonic and the Secret Rings
Sonic and the Secret Rings is a prime example of what big budgets can do. Almost every song in this game has vocals and premium production values; the story is grand and loaded with narrative twists and turns; every level is aesthetically inventive, solidly lengthy and jam-packed with exciting set-pieces; there are a whopping 100 missions in the game in addition to multiplayer and a ton of unlockable Easter eggs — heck, even the graphics are among the best on the Wii. And underneath all of that Arabian-flavored aural and visual beauty is a Sonic experience with unique gameplay that beat Sonic Unleashed to the boost mechanic. Secret Rings lets Sonic slow time, speed time up (which acts as a pseudoboost), and move with an unparalleled sense of agility that means no wall or obstacle can bring his forward momentum to a halt. There's a surprising depth to Secret Rings' gameplay, ensuring ample substance to back up the game's series-defining sense of style.
3. Sonic Mania
Though more of a retread than an innovator in the Sonic series, Sonic Mania isn't simply a comfortable return to 2D form; it's a title that weaponizes nostalgia and pumps out the most intoxicating retro-styled fun gaming has seen since 1994. Featuring the return of classic Sonic locales like Lava Reef Zone and Hydrocity Zone, complete with remixed musical scores and level layouts, Mania brings back the classic entries as we'd like to remember them. Plus, the game even injects a few inventions of its own, such as the awesome Hollywood studio-styled Studiopolis Zone and desert-flavored Mirage Saloon, the latter of which features the return of fan-favorite characters Nack, Bean and Bark. Easter eggs like these show just how much effort and heart director Christian Whitehead and his team of fans-turned-official-developers put into Mania, the game now known as the technically soundest, most universally charming Sonic title of all time.
2. Sonic Unleashed
Unleashed divides its titular character into two personas in two settings: the ever-speedy Sonic the Hedgehog, seen during the day, and the Kratos-esque brawler Sonic the Werehog, who lurks at night. While the werehog fails to capture the core ethos of the series and serves as a noble, though misguided attempt at gameplay variation, even the full moon he's birthed from can't overshadow the glory of the overall product that is Sonic Unleashed. Not only does this game nail Sonic's personality, his sense of speed and the tone of the world he should inhabit, but it also gives us the most lovingly developed, big-budget spectacle of a video game this series has ever produced.
Every reimagining of a real-world location, from Indonesia to Italy, is brimming with life and personality, making Unleashed as much a celebration of the globally iconic character as a triumph of gameplay. This is the birthplace of the 3D-boost formula that Colors, Generations and Forces copied, though this game did it first and still does it best. Its levels stretch on for dozens of miles while offering up countless alternate paths. Couple that with the game's amazing score, astounding production values and killer story, along with the best (and hardest) final level in Sonic history, and Unleashed, for many fans, remains the highlight of Sonic's gaming resume.
1. Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a masterpiece. It has three playable characters, which all bring unique (and fitting) gameplay mechanics to the table; two entirely separate campaigns (Sonic and Tails more or less share one, while Knuckles has his own); an epic story devoid of spoken word that introduces the series concept of "true final bosses"; some of the best music in the entire franchise (with help from Michael Jackson); a bunch of awesomely designed zones, including Launch Base, that have never seen the light of day outside of this game; enjoyable and simplistic blue-sphere special stages — the list goes on forever. Sonic 3 & Knuckles perfectly captures the essence of the series' four main characters and the core of what Sonic gameplay is all about. It remains the pinnacle of the classic games and, on a broader scale, arguably the closest to flawless a Sonic game has ever come … yet.