Sonic Booms and Sonic Busts
Sonic fans haven't exactly had it easy over the years. A number of mainline entries in the Sonic series have been deeply flawed games that struggled to bring fast-paced 2D gameplay into 3D environments. But despite the checkered history, Sonic is still remembered for the highlights, and fans keep pulling for the Blue Blur.
In fact, the series seems to be taking a positive turn with Sonic Mania, a love letter to the original Genesis games made by some of its biggest fans, for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch. To celebrate that title's release, we've ranked all the major Sonic games from the most lamentable up to the very best.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (2014; Wii U)
Sonic was deep in a rut by the time Sonic Boom released in 2014. The series had garnered a reputation for clunky controls, a bloated plotline and a lack of polish, but Sonic Boom managed to lower the bar from even those standards. While no Sonic game has ever been utterly broken, Sonic Boom comes as close as it gets for a game released by a major studio.
Sonic games always look slick, and Sonic Boom at least keeps that alive. But the tortured level design, continued difficulty of controlling Sonic in a 3D space, numerous performance problems and repetitive combat leave this game squarely at the bottom of the heap.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006; PS3, Xbox 360)
Not far behind Sonic Boom is the even more infamous "Sonic '06." It committed a lot of the same mistakes that Sonic Boom would, but eight years earlier. The game's sprawling hub world just wasn't executed well, full of tedious side quests and boring characters. The game also has its fair share of glitches, almost like it isn't designed to do the thing Sonic was meant to do: go fast.
By the mid 2000s, Sonic games had begun emphasizing a grandiose plot and piled on all kinds of ancillary animal-friend characters that mostly just got in the way of the fun.
Shadow the Hedgehog (2005; PS2, GameCube, Xbox)
Shadow the Hedgehog eeks out a place ahead of Sonic '06 partly because this title at least tries something different, by giving the grungy, gun-wielding anti-hero Shadow the Hedgehog his own game. We were in peak anti-hero mode in video games at the time, and Shadow the Hedgehog is a perfect example of the era that also brought us Prince of Persia: Warrior Within.
But outside of that novelty, Shadow the Hedgehog is part of the tradition of clunky and buggy 3D Sonic games that are probably best enjoyed MST3K-style with some friends and a fair amount of patience. Or booze.
Sonic Unleashed (2008; PS2, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360)
Sonic Unleashed has some really great ideas that came from fan reactions to 3D Sonic games. People wanted something more closely resembling the 2D games, and Sonic Team seemed keen to listen. Or at least half-listen.
Sonic Unleashed is split into daytime and nighttime levels. The daytime levels recapture some of the old charm of the Sonic series by including constrained level design and focusing on running from point to point.The nighttime levels see a sad return to the slower combat and open-world designs of prior 3D Sonic games, but this time you transform into a clumsy werewolf — or rather, a werehog! It's one step forward and two steps back.
Sonic Spinball (1993; Sega Genesis, PC)
Sonic Spinball belongs toward the bottom of this list, because it's just an unpolished Sonic spin-off game with squandered potential. A Sonic pinball game makes a lot of sense, but it should be more than just a straightforward pinball game if it's going to make good use of the Sonic name.
It's a simple case of not enough substance, but at least you get a decent pinball game out of the deal, if you're willing to abide some slowdown issues.
Sonic the Fighters (1996; Arcade, PS3, Xbox 360)
You'd be forgiven for forgetting about this one, but Sega did once make a 3D fighting game using Sonic characters. It was canceled from its original Sega Saturn release and had only a limited arcade run, so most players experienced this game through the Sonic Gems Collection on GameCube and PlayStation 2 or via the HD remaster version released for PS3 and Xbox 360.
This fighting game is free from any glaring faults or bugs, but it's also free from any outstanding qualities whatsoever. The combat is very simplistic, with many far more competent alternatives to pick from at the time, and its early polygonal graphics haven't aged well. Still, diehard fans will enjoy a chance to pit Sonic characters against each other as long as players keep expectations in check.
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (2010; PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC)
Long after the kart racer phenomenon died out, Sega published this very competent game that at least kept the Mario Kart series company. Sega's deep roster of beloved characters rivals that of any old game company, and the solid racing mechanics and varied tracks help keep this from being another forgettable Sonic spin-off.
Like in Diddy Kong Racing, you get different vehicles to choose from, each of which drastically changes how you play on each track. This adds more variety than Mario Kart had, but it doesn't quite unseat the old champ.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 (2010; PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mobile)
Sonic 4 was split into two episodes, both of which were meant to recapture the original feeling of the 2D games. The games were largely successful in doing so, but not without adding their own share of problems. Like a lot of the more flawed Sonic titles, this one tends to get in its own way a lot by slowing things down with boring puzzles, combat or weak level design that doesn't center on you being a fast, blue hedgehog. It's a mistake Sega loves to make. But when the game finishes making those mistakes, it flies as high as the best 2D Sonic game. It just doesn't do so very consistently.
Sonic Lost World (2013; Wii U, 3DS, PC)
Sonic Lost World is first on our list of 3D Sonic games where the good actually outweighs the bad. It's not the first Sonic game to show that the series can work well in 3D — that distinction goes to Sonic Colors — but Lost World borrows a lot of ideas from that game.
The wisp power-ups are a great idea, and they add some fresh new mobility options to Sonic's repertoire, but they come alongside a clumsy, speed-throttling game mechanic. Having more control over Sonic's speed sounds good on paper, but it's just not easy enough to control.
Sonic Adventure (1998; Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Sonic Adventure may look and feel very dated by today's standards, but it's a very bold step into the realm of polygons for the Sonic series. It's a showcase for the short-lived Dreamcast, and it has all the pop and flare of a flagship console title behind it. The Sonic games may not have transitioned as successfully into 3D as Mario or Zelda did, but this game easily made as much of a splash as Mario 64 or Ocarina of Time.
The level design is primarily made to wow new Dreamcast owners, and that may have come at some expense to playability. It can be difficult to control Sonic as he's running toward the camera from a killer whale crashing through a pier, for example. But doing so sure looked stunning in 1999!
Sonic Adventure 2 (2001; Dreamcast, PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Sonic Adventure 2 capped off the Dreamcast era with a capitalization of everything the original Sonic Adventure did. Back then, 3D game worlds were still very new, and the Sonic series takes a lot of bold steps into the unknown with both Adventure and Adventure 2. Parts of the level design are modeled off of real locations in San Francisco, which gives this early 3D game an even greater sense of realism.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012; PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC)
The original Sonic & All-Stars Racing game is a solid kart racer, but Transformed is easily right up there with contemporary Mario Kart games. The the standout visuals and deep (deep) dives into the Sega vault of lovable characters start the game out on the right foot, while strong track design and great handling seal the deal.
Rather than having players pick different vehicles at the start with advantages and disadvantages, the game has each vehicle transform to suit the environment it's in. This allows the tracks to do more interesting things without worrying about catering to every vehicle type, and it gives us beautiful flying sections and conventional karting sections on the same track.
Sonic Colors (2010; Wii, DS)
Sonic Colors sits high on most people's lists because it proves the 3D Sonic formula can actually work. Coming off of games like Sonic Unleashed and Sonic '06, Sonic Colors adds meaningful changes to the gameplay with Wisps. Each of these color-coded helpers powers up Sonic in a different way, giving him special abilities that emphasize his speed and mobility. The pace was kept brisk in Sonic Colors, which is largely what earns the title this spot on our list.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1991; Genesis, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC, Mobile)
The very first Sonic set everything in motion and was a compelling alternative to the much slower-paced Mario games of its day. Sonic was devised as a way to showcase the speed and performance of the Genesis in a way that specifically contrasted against the Mario games. Sonic was quick and blue; Mario was slow and red. Sonic's worlds were flashy and arcade-inspired; Mario was far quieter, and the visuals were much simpler.
Getting good at the 2D Sonic games took more trial and error than some people preferred, but there's no substitution for zipping around Green Hill Zone once you do nail it down.
Sonic Generations (2011; PS3, Xbox 360, PC, 3DS)
Sonic Generations is a mixture of the old-school 2D Sonic games and the newer 3D games that began life on the Dreamcast. Sega even revived Sonic's original, chubbier design as a separate playable character, together with the sleeker modern Sonic — sort of like Mega Man and Mega Man X teaming up.
Side-scrolling classic stages are played alongside 3D stages similar to games since Sonic Adventure. The combination works well by focusing on what people want and leaving out the excessive combat and open-world exploration that bogged down other new Sonic titles.
Sonic CD (1993; Sega CD, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mobile)
Sonic CD shows off some relatively advanced 3D polygons in bonus stages, considering this game was developed for a system made in 1992. Sonic CD builds on the formula established by Sonic 2, with wilder plot elements, more power-ups and more level variety. The time-traveling mechanic adds some depth and replayability to the game by letting you pick from among four versions of each stage.
The old 2D Sonic games shine brightest when players commit themselves to learning each stage and running it like an obstacle course, and Sonic CD provides the most content for that kind of play style.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992; Genesis, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mobile)
Sonic 2 set the stage for what the series would become beyond just Sonic and Dr. Robotnik. Tails debuts in Sonic 2, which means we get co-op and competitive modes for the first time in the series. The running theme of Chaos Emeralds is also established, and with it, much of the sprawling backstory this series would accrue. This also marks the beginning of the 3D-style special stages.
Sonic 2 comes close to capturing our Number 1 spot, but gets outdone by...
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles (1994; Genesis, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mobile)
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were released as two separate titles, but we're cheating a bit and giving them both the top slot. Both games represent the high-water mark for 2D Sonic titles, thanks in no small part to Michael Jackson's contributions to the soundtrack. The levels features some of the fastest and most colorful 16-bit gameplay of their time.
The two game cartridges are designed to combine and unlock special content ('90s gaming was weird), but you can also combine Sonic & Knuckles with Sonic 2 to play as Knuckles in that game. Fortunately, you can also just pick up Sonic 3 and Knuckles on Steam to save yourself all that hassle.
It almost feels like the Sonic series has been trying to one-up itself since pulling off this wacky cart-combo stunt, and maybe it will with Sonic Mania. We can hope.