Let’s not beat around the bush, Sonic the Hedgehog’s history has been...rocky, to say the least. Some games are absolutely of a higher quality than others, but that’s not to say the blue blur hasn’t had his fair share of classics worth playing to this day.
Despite stumbling over the odd hurdle, Sonic and Sega have managed to achieve something that the vast majority of 90s mascot characters couldn’t: decades of continued relevance. Love the series or not, it’s hard to argue Sonic still maintains a place among the most iconic video game characters of all time.
And his well of genuinely great games still hasn’t dried up. The older Megadrive/Genesis titles have mostly aged wonderfully, and the divisive modern 3D era is still home to some of Sonic’s best games.
Celebrations are in order for Sonic’s 30th anniversary, then, so we’ve put together a list featuring five of the Sonic series’ best games, as well as a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite hit the top spot, but are still excellent in their own right.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992 - Sega Megadrive/Genesis)
Sonic 2 was arguably everything the original game set out to achieve and more. The sequel was much faster, with levels designed to help keep Sonic’s momentum going, rather than awkwardly hinder it.
Sonic 2 is a much longer game than its predecessor, boasting over ten wildly varied Zones for Sonic to speed through. Many of these stages remain some of the most iconic in the series to date, such as the pollution-heavy Chemical Plant and the spooky Mystic Cave Zone.
Sonic 2 introduced the first of many of Sonic’s friends and sidekicks: the delightful Tails. Tails wouldn’t become very useful until the next game in the series, but his debut here started the near-ceaseless trend of anthropomorphic allies being added to the Sonic roster.
Of course, you can’t really talk about Sonic 2 without mentioning the exceptional soundtrack. A noticeable step-up from the first game’s already solid efforts, Sonic 2’s soundtrack is undeniably catchy, with each Zone featuring its own iconic theme.
Ultimately, Sonic 2 proved that the blue hog wasn’t just a flash in the pan. With the original trilogy constantly building and improving upon the prior entry, it proved that Sonic was here to stay. This makes Sonic 2 one of the most important games in the whole series.
If you're looking for a more accessible way to play Sonic 2 in the present day, then, you should keep an eye out for the upcoming Sonic Origins compilation due to release sometime in 2022.
Sonic Adventure (1998 - Sega Dreamcast)
Sonic’s first true foray into the world of 3D platforming certainly isn’t without its faults. Wonky camera angles, questionable voice acting and nonsensical storytelling would become something of a norm for the Sonic series from here on out. But despite all that, Sonic Adventure remains an impressively ambitious game for its time.
Sonic Adventure allowed fans to play as six different characters, each with their own separate campaign. Those were Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and newcomers Big the Cat and E-102 Gamma. The latter of which being one of Eggman’s robots, whose story is as bizarre as it is genuinely tragic.
Not all these campaigns are made equally, admittedly. Amy’s, while fun, can be finished in well under an hour. Big the Cat’s, meanwhile, might as well be one of the circles of hell. Mixing Sonic Adventure’s occasionally wonky controls with the sport of fishing, it plays very much like the poor man’s version of Sega Bass Fishing.
Sonic’s campaign is understandably the most robust, taking place across 10 unique stages sprinkled throughout three large, explorable hub zones. Back in the day, Sonic Adventure was arguably the perfect childhood game, with the sheer amount of environment to explore and secrets to discover.
Sonic Adventure is also well known for introducing the Chao Garden. This long-AWOL feature was a huge reason to continuously revisit the Sonic Adventure games, providing an addictive pet management experience for when you needed a break from the high-octane main story content.
Sonic Generations (2011 - PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Released as part of Sonic’s 20th anniversary celebrations, Sonic Generations delivered a nostalgic experience that hardcore series fans could be proud of. Pairing classic and modern versions of Sonic for the first time, Generations is a pure, unapologetic celebration of the series and its fans.
Sonic Generations takes players back to some of the most iconic Zones across the series, with representations from all eras up to that point. Each Zone has two stages, a 2D side-scrolling stage featuring classic Sonic and a 3D stage more akin to modern Sonic game design.
For the most part, Sonic Generations succeeds as not only a franchise celebration, but it’s also a genuinely excellent game in its own right. It features some of the tightest controls ever put to a Sonic game, making it somewhat anomalous among most of his other 3D outings.
The game’s expectedly littered with extra content, too. There’s a plethora of concept art and bonus stages to unlock, as well as plenty of challenges to overcome in between each major Zone. This makes Sonic Generations something of a completionist’s dream.
Sonic Generations also celebrates the music of the series, which is arguably the most consistently brilliant aspect of the whole series. Generations’ remix-heavy soundtrack is an absolute delight, pulling in talents and composers who worked across the entire franchise, and offers both modern and classic remixes that add their own distinct flavors to the mix.
Sonic Mania (2017 - PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC)
Sonic Mania did for classic Sonic what Generations did for his more modern counterparts. Focusing on that crisp Megadrive/Genesis aesthetic, Sonic Mania managed to deliver one of the best games in the entire franchise. And the crazy part? Sega didn’t even make it.
While Sega still published the game, Sonic Mania was developed by PagodaWest Games and Headcannon, spearheaded by Christian Whitehead, the man responsible for those excellent classic Sonic mobile ports.
Sonic Mania takes some of the most iconic Zones from the classic era and remixes them with all new twists and gameplay features. It even throws in some brand new Zones that fit in seamlessly with the tried and tested classic stages.
Composer Tee Lopes handled the soundtrack this time around, and it’s glorious. Lopes’s grasp of the classic games’ soundtracks shine through in his remixes, and the tracks composed for the new Zones pop just as well, especially that cool-as-ice Press Garden Act 2 theme.
Sonic Mania’s visuals are nothing short of stunning. In fact, it’s arguably the best looking Sonic game ever made. It perfectly recreates that classic Megadrive/Genesis aesthetic while adding in modern design touches like an expanded color palette and top notch visual effects.
Sonic Mania is a treat for fans of classic Sonic, to be sure, but it stands on its own as an excellent platformer that anyone can enjoy, which is something that arguably can’t be said for the more fan-centric (but still superb!) Sonic Generations.
The team kept the momentum going with Sonic Mania Plus in 2018, a DLC that added two obscure characters to the game in the form of Mighty the Armadillo and Ray the Squirrel, alongside a bunch of bonus features.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994 - Sega Megadrive/Genesis)
If Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the final game in the entire Sonic franchise, then it would probably go down as one of the best video game trilogies of all time. In our opinion, those first three Sonics still represent that, but Sonic 3 & Knuckles transcends to become one of the best platformers ever made, and arguably the one of the first games to genuinely shine with triple-A quality.
Technically two games in one, combining Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles together, this game was so big that it literally required two separate cartridges to be stacked on top of each other. “Lock-on technology,” Sega called it. A bit gimmicky, we know, but Sega was all about snappy marketing lingo in the 90s.
This lock-on technology allowed Sonic 3 & Knuckles to be incredibly ambitious. It’s one of the best looking games of the generation, has more Zones than previous games all with fantastic level design. And once again, the soundtrack is phenomenal.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles represents the peak of what Sega were able to achieve in that initial run of games. It’s aged supremely well, and to this day has remarkably few flaws. The only real sticking point is that due to licensing issues, the game is shockingly difficult to come by these days.
Thankfully, though, Sonic 3 & Knuckles will once again be made available via the Sonic Origins collection, due to release sometime in 2022. This retro collection not only features the long dormant Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but also Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD for good measure. It's definitely a collection we're very much looking forward to.
Sonic Rush (2005 - Nintendo DS)
An early Nintendo DS title, Sonic Rush represented Sonic’s first foray on Nintendo’s dual-screen wonder. And what a first impression it made. Sonic Rush was blazingly fast, appropriate considering the character introduced in this game who would go on to become a fan favorite.
In Sonic Rush, our titular hedgehog is joined by Blaze the Cat, a princess from a parallel dimension (she even has her own version of Eggman to deal with).
Sonic Rush isn’t going to win any awards for its level design. Actually, it suffers from issues the series regularly features, such as cheap instant death pits and drawn out, boring boss fights.
So why does Sonic Rush make the honorable mentions list, then? Because it gives us a reason to mention the phenomenal soundtrack that’s easily one of the best in the series. Composed by Hideki Naganuma of Jet Set Radio fame, his funky fresh beats fit the vibe of Sonic perfectly, and we’re genuinely surprised he hasn’t contributed to the series since.
Sonic Unleashed (2008 - PS3, Xbox 360, Wii)
After the infamously disastrous releases of Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic ‘06, Sega desperately needed a hit that would reinvigorate the Sonic franchise. And in 2008, that’s exactly what Sonic Team managed to achieve with Sonic Unleashed.
To this day, Sonic Unleashed features some of the most blisteringly fast gameplay the series has ever seen. Developed on Sega’s in-house Hedgehog Engine, this tech allowed Sonic Team to create enormous levels built to complement Sonic’s high speed, rather than hinder it. This led to impressively varied stages with worldly themes, packing in blazingly quick set pieces with smart platformer level design.
As is usually the case with Sonic games, though, Sonic Team couldn’t help but shoehorn in a major gimmick. In Sonic Unleashed, that would be the Werehog, a beast that Sonic transforms into during combat heavy brawling stages.
While these slower segments were divisive, in hindsight they don’t play badly at all, and somewhat succeed at breaking up the overwhelming speed featured in the regular daytime stages.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (2012 - PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U)
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed betrays itself with its awkward title, because it’s sincerely one of the most fun racing games around, coming very close to matching the quality of Nintendo’s prestigious Mario Kart series.
More of a Sega-centric game, Sonic characters still make up the lion's share of the roster in Transformed, justifying its place on this list. A celebration of everything Sega, Transformed features characters, tracks and music from series like Afterburner, Panzer Dragoon, Jet Set Radio, Super Monkey Ball and so much more.
The big twist in Transformed is that you’re not restricted to just driving karts. At various intervals, tracks will have you traverse water by boat or soar through the skies in a plane, with your kart seamlessly transforming to adapt to the environment. Tracks can even change their layouts between laps, keeping races fresh and unpredictable.
Transformed has arguably the most robust single player mode ever featured in a kart racer. The dozens of challenges offered are surprisingly varied and eventually grow to be pretty difficult. In that regard, Transformed is a great game for any player who loves a challenge.
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Rhys is TRG's Hardware Editor, and has been part of the TechRadar team for more than two years. Particularly passionate about high-quality third-party controllers and headsets, as well as the latest and greatest in fight sticks and VR, Rhys strives to provide easy-to-read, informative coverage on gaming hardware of all kinds. As for the games themselves, Rhys is especially keen on fighting and racing games, as well as soulslikes and RPGs.