Sonic for the Master System – An Oddball Retrospective!

Sonic for Master System - Featured Image


Back in the old days of 16-bit consoles and the marketing wars between Nintendo and SEGA, the latter company had an invaluable mascot, franchise, and brand in its hands, Sonic the Hedgehog. In regions outside of the US, they also had a huge base of users for their 8-bit SEGA Master System, as well as the Game Gear handheld. By developing Sonic games for these two consoles, a lineage of lesser-known entries in the series have been spawned, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 being two of them.

Developer: SEGA
Released: 1991
Price: N/A

Platforms: Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear
Available on: N/A

Sonic for the Master System - Bridge Zone Act 2
Bridge Zone Act 2, an autoscrolling level.

Unlike their Genesis/Mega Drive siblings, the first game was different. Only three zones remained, and two of them had new soundtracks. Act 3 of each zone contained a small platforming and a boss fight without any rings to collect. The Chaos Emeralds weren’t in the special stages but hidden in the game’s stages! Oh, and you couldn’t pick up rings after getting hit, making the game much harder. The second game took a radically different direction, with all-new zones, and a plot involving the eponymous hedgehog rescuing Tails rather than having him as his sidekick. All in all, both games are loosely related to their originals, if at all. In this piece, I’ll look at the first of the two oddball backports.

Sonic 1’s New Zones

When you start the game, you get to see a map showing your progress. While not as nice or seamless as the zone transitions in Sonic 3, it does give your progression a sense of coherence that is missing from the original game. Aside from that, you begin in Green Hill Zone as usual, and though it is different, it feels the same. Act 2 however sends you into an underground cave system overflowing with water from the zone – a nice way to turn a background detail into a playable element even if for a brief section. It is also in these cave systems that you can find a Chaos Emerald just chilling in the waters.

Sonic for the Master System - Chaos Emerald
The Chaos Emerald hidden in Green Hill Zone Act 2’s caverns.

Rather than go through Marble Zone, you end up at Bridge Zone, which draws parallels to Super Mario Bros’s bridge worlds, down to the spacy areas and pitfalls. The zone is known for the falling bridge tiles and most infamously, the autoscrolling Act 2, one of the earliest instances in the series. Sonic 1 SMS also features Jungle Zone, an entirely new local with lush vegetation. It featured Act 2, a vertical level long before Sonic Jump had them, with the camera going up as you go higher, with lower areas becoming inaccessible.

Labyrinth Zone is just as stressful as its big console version, although the lack of the drowning music makes it somewhat easier to handle, and the zone boasts a different soundtrack. In Act 3, you fight Dr. Eggman underwater without even running out of air, for some reason. Scrap Brain Zone is the same deal as the original except for fewer outdoor areas and a soundtrack which I find superior to the Genesis version and more befitting the strange environment you’ve been put in. But rather than defeat him there, he escapes to Sky Base Zone, an 8-bit take on Wing Fortress from Sonic 2, with the first act serving as a test to your platforming skills (of not falling out of the sky), and the second act sees you ascending the flying ship and going into its inner chambers for the final encounter.

Sonic for the Master System - World Map
A world map! Showing your progress from act to act.

Other differences

There are more differences that make Sonic for the SMS feel almost like a complimentary title if you’re looking for speedy action or got tired from playing the Mega Drive games. One of these differences is the absolute lack of the iconic loop-de-loops or half-pipes to roll in. Another big one is the special stages. You still need 50 rings by any act’s end to access them, but they’re just a way to accumulate lives and continues. Just the fact you can’t pick up rings you lost from a hit makes the game a hard endeavor, although this is mitigated by the shorter zones.

In Conclusion

The SMS/GG version of Sonic 1 is interesting for a backport, becoming a whole new game that’s overshadowed by its more popular sibling. It doesn’t help that SEGA doesn’t currently offer any official way to access the title in an easily obtainable and affordable manner. However, when you do get the game, it’s worth experiencing it just as much as any other Sonic game.

Sonic for the Master System - Jungle Zone Act 1
Running in Jungle Zone Act 1, a zone exclusive to the 8-bit game!

A more easily available version of the game is Creative Araya’s fan remake for Windows and Android. Although it takes some liberties such as putting the Emeralds back into the special stages or giving Sonic abilities such as the Drop Dash from later games, as well as add Marble and Spring Yard Zones, it otherwise remains faithful to the unique experience of the 8-bit port.

We also covered the (pretty terrible) port of the 16-bit Sonic to the Gameboy Advance! You can also check these retro gems out:
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