Sonic the Hedgehog has been running and spinning since 1991. Introduced as Sega’s counterpart to Mario — focusing on speed, intricate level design, and a not-so-healthy admiration for gold rings — Sonic has since moved into all sorts of sequels and genres, often with mixed results.
So, how exactly do you rank the best games in a series as convoluted and uneven as this? Along with my own subjectivity, I focused on two criteria: the quality of the high-speed gameplay that made Sonic iconic in the first place, and the success of the new ideas brought to the table.
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12. Sonic Spinball
(Sega Genesis, 1993)
Developed on a short timeline, Sonic Spinball filled a slot for Sega when it delayed Sonic The Hedgehog 3, and in some ways it shows.
The first level, set in the sewers, is probably the only one 90% of players will get to see due to the challenging controls. And the game never quite gets over its gimmicky hump, despite being a relatively good fit for the character.
Still, it feels true to Sonic’s roots. And though it could be a little faster and have a little more to it, it’s strong enough to earn a spot on this list. It’s a shame that we’ve never gotten to see a modern iteration of the idea, apart from a small tribute in Sonic Mania Plus.
11. Sonic Unleashed
A controversial entry in the series, Sonic Unleashed went over the top in multiple ways. Levels would change perspectives. You’d get a score and combo counters after hitting several enemies.
But most of all, Sonic Unleashed introduced the Werehog, an abominable transformation that occurs at night that changes the game completely. Movement becomes slower while exploration gets replaced with beating up enemies. Wii players can even control the Werehog’s arms using motion controls.
Unleashed makes the list more for its experimental nature than because it’s a perfect platformer, but in my eyes, it holds up well despite the gimmicks.
10. Sonic Heroes
As the title suggests, Sonic Heroes is a game built around teamwork, and the game demands that players switch between characters on the fly to make the best use of their abilities. Switching isn’t as seamless as you might hope, but it adds a puzzle twist to the overall experience that sets it apart from the rest of the franchise.
Confusing camera controls and questionable voice acting still plague the experience, but the focus on groups makes for a welcoming change nonetheless (and was probably a big inspiration for fan artists).
9. Sonic Generations
Sonic Generations does the unthinkable and mixes classic and modern Sonic experiences together in the same game. The first half presents 2.5D levels revisiting classic zones, focusing on abilities such as the classic spin dash and staying as close to the good old pace as possible.
Meanwhile, the other half is all about the 3D behind-the-character perspective, moving Sonic through a crumbling city and bumping Sonic against flying enemies made of lava. Generations highlights how much the series has changed for the better and worse, but it’s worth revisiting for the first few levels if you want to relive old memories in a new engine.
8. Sonic Adventure
(Sega Dreamcast, 1998)
It hasn’t aged well. Its camera is confusing and hard to control. But upon release, Sonic Adventure marked a new phase for the franchise on Dreamcast. It featured all three main characters alongside Amy Rose, Big the Cat, and E-102 Gamma, the latter bringing a gun into a speed battle for some shoot-‘em-up action. I mean, why not?
Classic elements like power-ups and golden rings were present, and while there were familiar faces almost everything else felt new. The transformation to a 3D plane set the standard for Sonic games going forward, and luckily for fans and for the criteria of my list, it was still all about going fast.
Of course, the voice acting was forgettable at best, and that’s being on the kind side of things.
7. Sonic Adventure 2
Sonic Adventure 2 is similar enough to its predecessor, though this time the story takes some unexpected turns. You can play with either Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles on one side or Shadow, Dr. Eggman, and Rouge on the other, offering parallel perspectives.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the revamped version of the Chao Garden from Sonic Adventure. Way before Ooblets, the blue hedgehog was harvesting and watching Chao creatures hatch, each with their own alignment towards either hero or dark directions. They all have five stat attributes and can evolve over time (but also die and reincarnate for some reason?) and take part in karate and racing minigames. It’s a huge and rather unreasonable mechanic, but it works all the same.
6. Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
(Nintendo DS, 2008)
If you hadn’t been there at the time, you’d be forgiven for not believing this game exists. But in 2008, BioWare, the studio behind Dragon Age and Mass Effect, made a Sonic role-playing game for the DS. And it’s not bad!
It starts with Dr. Eggman presumably dead, Knuckles being kidnapped by a group called the Marauders, and the Chaos Emeralds compromised once more. The story unravels in comic book-style cutscenes, making use of the console’s dual screens. Gameplay is as you might expect, divided into exploration and turn-based combat moments. Some special movements require certain characters to be in the party at the same time, with players also tapping the lower half of the DS rhythmically.
Sonic Chronicles didn’t go down in history as a hidden gem, but it was a fairly interesting take on Sonic and company and far from the worst of the series’ spinoffs.
5. Sonic The Hedgehog
(Sega Genesis, 1991)
People don’t tend to remember much of their childhood years, but one moment that is bound to never leave someone’s mind is their first trip through Green Hill Zone. The debut of the series introduced a new way to experience platformers, trading careful jumps for high speed traversal. There were secrets scattered around and boss fights at the end of each level, but the game felt like a foundation for something entirely new in the genre.
It marked the beginning of a race against Nintendo, competing as the mascot living in another house on the same block. No one dared to question Sonic’s origins, or why Sonic’s fur was blue. It just made sense in the ‘90s.
4. Sonic CD
(Sega CD, 1993)
Remember when Sonic discovered time travel?
Sonic CD plays similarly to the games that came before it, but areas can be altered by going to the past and changing the future. If done correctly, this causes enemies to disappear from levels, and everything gets displayed in brighter colors. There are also good and bad endings, depending on whether or not you collect all the Time Stones. Probably a bit over the top for the time, but impressive nonetheless.
I’m also pretty sure that all this time travelling was the main cause for the spin-offs that didn’t make the cut for this list, leading Sonic to a timeline where Shadow The Hedgehog would fire weapons, among other examples.
3. Sonic The Hedgehog 2
(Sega Genesis, 1992)
One of the industry’s most famous sequels introduces a familiar plot: Dr. Eggman is planning to destroy the world once more and Sonic is the most capable person to stop him, again. Fortunately, Tails is presented as a new protagonist, and you can either switch between Tails and Sonic or have a friend play local co-op with you.
While there aren’t many substantial changes, the ones in there hold up for the long run. Sonic is faster and can spin dash, charging up like a car’s wheel to boost against an enemy or reveal a hidden secret behind a fragile wall. The 3D running sequences also provided a glimpse of what was to come in the following years, and Tails quickly became the second emblem of the series.
Sonic 2 was a faithful follow up, and one that established a new standard for the formula.
2. Sonic The Hedgehog 3
(Sega Genesis, 1994)
Using a unique two-cartridge gimmick, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles turned a development challenge into a playful way to get extra money from players years before Pokémon came along.
As of its release, Sonic 3 was the biggest Sonic game Sega had made. Robotnik’s creations were everywhere, now appearing as mini-bosses. The level design was cranked up as well, featuring bottomless pits, spikes, breakable walls, and the iconic vertical loops. Tails went through a 2.0 process as well, now being able to breathe underwater and spin his tails like a helicopter to maintain momentum in midair.
1. Sonic Mania
Christian Whitehead had wanted to work on the Sonic franchise for years when he showcased his version of Sonic CD running on an iPhone to the world. Following various official port jobs from Sega, Whitehead (and a team) then got the chance to try something new. Sonic Mania was a tribute to the classic foundations that had been altered and transformed for decades.
Everything was there. The pure 2D perspective mixed gorgeous pixel-art with intricate levels that felt rewarding to traverse and Easter Eggs that boosted the experience. Sonic Mania Plus, released a year later, made the game go full circle with Encore mode, giving a fresh perspective on classic levels. Revisiting a different version of Green Hill Zone with the sunset in the background provided a lot of closure for fans of the series.
The love from the developers behind the game was clear. Sonic Mania understands what made Sonic so appealing in the first place, even if it retains a few of its shortcomings.