Ranking the Classic Sonic Games

Why is now a good time for ranking the classic Sonic games? Not only is it Sonic’s 30th anniversary, but I’ve been obsessed with the Sega Genesis! I recently bought both a Nomad and a Model 2 Genesis, as well as several games I had as a kid. The Sonic series was a big part of my childhood, so I had to pick up and play each game again! I even decided to cap it off by blasting through Sonic Mania on my Switch. It was interesting to run through each classic Sonic back to back with a more modern and critical lens. (I always say replaying games is the best way to combat nostalgia, even if it’s impossible to completely separate). I was surprised to see how my opinions have changed over time!

Sonic 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles game cartridges on Sonic Mania Switch box

How I go about ranking the classic Sonic games

I love Sonic for three major factors. The beautiful graphics, the sense of speed and momentum, and the rockin’ soundtracks! The actual platforming, while serviceable, doesn’t ever quite approach the glory of the Mario or Donkey Kong series for me. So those three aspects have the biggest impact on how much fun I’m having.

Retro Gamer Sonic Issue cover
This issue of Retro Gamer arrived with perfect timing for replaying the series!

As always, this is my personal opinion. I was a Sega kid back in the day, and Sonic was my series of choice. Today, it’s not as near and dear to me as Zelda or Metroid, but I still love it. So for nostalgia and as a 30th anniversary celebration, let’s get into ranking the classic Sonic games!

Sonic 3 & Knuckles carts played in Sega Genesis Nomad
Is Sonic 3 & Knuckles even better when played in the Nomad? YES. YES IT IS.

6. Sonic the Hedgehog 1

I’ll never forget the first time I turned on this game on my brand new Sega Genesis. Green Hill Zone was absolute revelation, especially coming from the NES library. It was gorgeous, the music was atmospheric and catchy, and Sonic could go so fast! All three acts are basically huge playgrounds to experiment and enjoy Sonic’s moveset at your own pace. It’s wonderful, and I’d argue all these feelings still hold true today.

Sonic 1 Green Hills Zone Act 1 screenshot
Pure nostalgic bliss.

But then there’s…the rest of the game. Once the Green Hill nostalgia fades, you quickly recognize some pretty dated gameplay elements compared to the later Sonic entries. Sonic has no spin dash and thus trouble quickly picking up speed. There’s way too much sluggish and frustrating platforming in the later zones. The special stages are clunky and difficult, and Labyrinth Zone is the stuff of nightmares. But hey, at least Star Light Zone is still wonderful! I’ll often enter the level skip code just to play through it again, since it’s all about that sweet speed and has amazing music and atmosphere. Overall, the original Sonic still has charm, but it’s just not as enjoyable as later entries.

Sonic the Hedgehog 1 box, manual, cart, and poster
Is the “NOT FOR RESALE” label nostalgic for anyone else?

5. Sonic CD

I only recently *finally* finished this game! I’ve never owned a Sega CD, so I downloaded the re-release done by Christian Whitehead in 2011 on my Apple TV and played using my XBox One controller. And I was surprised to see how much Sonic CD does well all these years later! The graphics are quite stunning and bursting with color (I do love bright colors in my games and game accessories). The time travel mechanics are a neat idea (I’m a sucker for a good time-traveling tale like Chrono Trigger). I thought it was so cool to see each zone in the past, present, and either a “good” or “bad” future. And while the US soundtrack is just fine, the Japanese soundtrack is freaking amazing! (you can toggle each in the 2011 version of the game). It was way ahead of its time and reminds me much more of Streets of Rage than Sonic. Plus the special stages where you destroy UFOs in a 3D space, while a bit tricky to control, are innovative and fun!

Sonic CD Palmtree Panic screenshot
Even the font in the game has such experimental style!

So what holds Sonic CD back?

To get the “good future” in Act 3 of each zone, you need to find and destroy robot generators in the “past” of both Act 1 and 2. This requires not only a lot of hunting and exploring, but travel into the past. You do so by hitting a signpost then moving very fast for about 5 consecutive seconds. If you get stopped, you have to find a different signpost to try again. The stages in Sonic CD are PACKED with crazy obstacles, so this ends up becoming a big chore, particularly in the later zones. I generally found myself getting tired of in-depth exploration and time-traveling, and just wanting to “go fast” and enjoy the sights and sound of the level again! If you take this approach, the game does finish pretty quickly and ends up a bit underwhelming. It’s absolutely still worth playing, though!

Stardust Speedway Act 1 screenshot from Sonic Mania
I’m really glad Stardust Speedway made it into Sonic Mania. It’s gorgeous and the soundtrack rocks!

4. Sonic & Knuckles

I understand that Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the “complete” experience as intended, but I’m going to split them up for this list. I love the introduction of Knuckles as an interesting playable character, and both the novelty and functionality of the lock-on cart with Sonic 3 and 2. And for the most part, the zones of this game are excellent! Mushroom Hill is a chill blend of speed and exploration potential. Flying Battery is thrilling and kinetic, and has killer music. Lava Reef is gorgeous, atmospheric, and the perfect amount of challenge. Sky Sanctuary might be the prettiest zone in all the series, and has a lot of meaning in the story.

Sonic & Knuckles box, lock on cart, manual, and inserts
Definitely utilized my tips for buying games on eBay to get this CIB S&K. That merch insert is a thing of beauty.

But two zones detract from what I most love about Sonic. Sandopolis (particularly Act 2) is a massive slog that kills the momentum of the game and always wares on me. Death Egg Zone also moves from “tough but fun” to just “annoyingly hard” territory for me, so I just don’t enjoy it much. But the story resolution of having Knuckles realize Dr. Robotnik’s treachery and join you, as well as the epic chase with Super Sonic through space in the “true ending”, help stick the landing!

Sonic Mania Flying Battery Act 1 screenshot
I was psyched when Flying Battery appeared in Sonic Mania. It’s awesome!

3. Sonic the Hedgehog 3

If you asked 4th grade Zach to try ranking the classic Sonic games, this would be #1. I never actually owned Sonic & Knuckles, so this was the definitive end chapter of the Genesis games for me. And I played the heck out of this game after I got it for my birthday! The graphics were breathtakingly gorgeous (they still are today) and I loved the seamless transitions between acts and zones. Angel Island really seemed like a cohesive world! The “Blue Sphere” special stages made collecting the Chaos Emeralds actually feasible for once (I’m not a fan of the special stages of Sonic 1 and 2, especially in retrospect) and Super Sonic was a blast to use once unlocked.

Sonic 3 box, cart, and manual
Is that supposed to be Knuckles’ eyes in the bushes? I’ve always wondered that…

The new shields offered a lot of variety in gameplay and strategy, and the zones were fast, beautiful, and HUGE! Hydrocity and Ice Cap in particular were absolutely amazing in their mixture of pure speed, novelty mechanics, and killer soundtracks. Hydrocity Act 2 might even be my favorite track in the entire series-just try not to get hyped listening to it:

In my opinion, the only zone “misfire” here is Marble Garden. It’s too long, too slow, and far too easy to run into those always-in-the-way spiked ball and chains all the time. But that barely weights down an otherwise amazing game that’s a joy to play and very light on its feet. I love Sonic 3-it’s still very nostalgic!

2. Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Until very recently, I would’ve told you this was my favorite Sonic game. And I still absolutely adore it. It massively improves over Sonic 1 in every conceivable way. The spin dash was introduced here, now ubiquitous with Sonic gameplay. Tails made his debut, as did the glorious Super Sonic! There are a lot more zones, yet they’re all insanely polished and fun to play, and over in just the right amount of time since they were cut back to two acts (except for Metropolis Zone, which just keeps going).

Sonic 2 box, manual, and cart in Sega Genesis Nomad
I’ve played this game 2 many times.

Art design across every zone is insanely detailed and gorgeous today. Just look at Aquatic Ruins and Mystic Cave-lovely! The entire soundtrack is very catchy and perfectly complements the gameplay in each zone. And most importantly (for me), pretty much every act allows for Sonic to move at crazy speeds. I mean, there are parts of Chemical Plant Zone where you’re going so fast you don’t even know what’s happening. It’s glorious. I’d also argue that Casino Night Zone does pinball better than the entirety of Sonic Spinball ever did-it’s just a delight to mess around in those levels.

The whole game is fast and furious in all the right ways, and the finale is very satisfying. I still get nervous facing the final boss today-it’s so high stakes and the music is legendary! Sonic 2 remains an amazing experience to (2?) this day because it really embodies what Sonic does best, and is a joy to play from start to finish.

Sonic 2 Chemical Plant Zone Act 1 screenshot
Chemical Plant might be my all-time favorite Sonic zone. It’s just that awesome.

1. Sonic Mania

Is it fair to declare a game that depends on its predecessors to be better than them when ranking the classic Sonic games? After replaying all of the series, I’m going to unequivocally say “YES”. Christian Whitehead and his team did absolutely spectacular work hand-picking the best elements of all of the previous classic Sonic games and blending them into a modern, yet very nostalgic, masterpiece.

Sonic Mania Plus on Switch box and Genesis cover
You better believe I always have the Genesis cover variant on.

First, the zone selection from the classic games is a perfect, balanced mix of fan favorites, each with new surprises. Generally, one act weaves the best elements from its origin game into a single cohesive experience, while the other shows off largely new mechanics. The whole thing works well by pulling the nostalgia strings but still surprising you! The bosses are similar-some fun throwbacks to older games but all “new” in some capacity. Second, the little gameplay tweaks! Everything is so much faster. Sonic can “jump dash”, which is huge for speeding through levels (I’m all about that speed). Every type of shield from the earlier games make an appearance, and have new functions! You can save your game, and toggle several quality of life features to ensure the smoothest experience. And though it’s a lengthy game, no zone overstays its welcome.

Screenshot of first Sonic Mania special stage

Welcome to the Next Level!

Third, the special stages are a delight. They’re by far the most fun of any of the classic Sonic games! Mechanically, they’re the most similar to Sonic CD’s UFO stages, but you’re just trying to catch one fast-moving spaceship with a Chaos emerald. They’re easier to control, beautiful to look at with their Saturn-esque graphics, have more reasonable mechanics, and again, utilize SPEED. Blue Sphere from Sonic 3 also makes an appearance, accessed through signposts, but is largely just for fun unlockables this time.

And fourth, the new zones are spectacular. Each of them seriously could have come right out the other 90s Sonic games-they each nail the atmosphere and mechanics in the best way possible. Titanic Monarch is easily my favorite “final zone” of the series, and the second act of Press Garden in particular is absolutely stunning! And let’s not even get started on Studiopolis-it’s an almost euphoric Sonic experience. The atmosphere, the fun mechanics, and the music. Sweet mother!

Sonic Mania Studiopolis Act 1 screenshot
Everything about Studiopolis is just perfect.

Ultimately, Sonic Mania is my favorite of the classic Sonic games because it’s simply the most fun when you take it all together. I’m always having a blast (processing) anytime I play it, and that’s what matters the most!

How would you go about personally ranking the classic Sonic games? Is it heresy not to consider Sonic 3 & Knuckles as one glorious entity? Let me know in the comments below!

9 thoughts on “Ranking the Classic Sonic Games”

  1. S3&K is the GOAT, but if I must separate, I’d say that each subsequent game got better! Mania though…. I love so much about it! But it gets tiring to have to play through such similar/rehashed territory in those derivative Act 1s which you can’t skip on a completed file.. and the story doesn’t measure up to that of S&K, especially the anticlimactic ending.
    The new stages (excluding studiopolis) are awesome, the special stages are great, and I love the polish of each character, though! Just wish they hadn’t reused so many level themes. I’ve played more Chemical Plant Zone in my life than I ever needed.

    1. Everything you’re mentioning in your comment is exactly why I’m hoping that Sonic Mania 2 is in development! I was imagining that there would be a “flip” in the zone distribution: mostly new this time, with a few throwback/remixed. But from what I’m seeing online it doesn’t look like there’s anything definitive in progress for the game, which is a true shame.

      And all that said, Sonic 3 & K does indeed rule 🙂

  2. I recently picked up Sonic Mania but there were some gaps in my classic Sonic experience (never played CD or S&K, never finished 3), so I’m playing through them all now before trying Mania.

    For the ones I’ve played so far, I totally agree with your ranking and reasoning. I’d probably also slot Master System Sonic 1 in just ahead of the Mega Drive version, even if 16-bit Green Hill Zone is better than anything in the 8-bit game. The other Master System Sonics… not so much!

    1. I only recently just played the Master System Sonic 1 and seriously loved it! I would definitely agree with your entire assessment-it’s better than the Genesis version, and the soundtrack rocks too!

  3. Well done, well done. I think you nailed it yet again.

    Not to be ageist, but I think you have to be a certain age to appreciate how novel, fully realized and such a counterpoint Sonic 1 was to other mascots of the day.
    And then Sonic 2 came along and refined everything to perfection.

    When considering how far later entries (especially the 3D ones) strayed from the original 3 games, having Sonic Mania “right the ship” and make its own marks on the series make it #1 like you said. When there’s so much negative inertia, to completely undo it and forge a great path forward is no small feat.

    I’ll have to go back and play more sonic mania (thanks Zach!). Sonic 2 will always be my most nostalgic choice even though Mania’s genius is undeniable. Mania is a big “Sonic hug” through and through.

    1. Thanks Kamal! Brilliant analysis of Sonic Mania-I literally think “a big Sonic hug through and through” could have been a tagline on the back of the game box. It kind of reminds me of The Force Awakens in Star Wars-not necessarily packed full of originality, but absurdly fun and blending the best of its nostalgic history together into something new. And you should definitely play through it again! I blew through it twice in just in the span of a few nights since I was having so much fun :).

      Very much agreed on how iconic Sonic was when he debuted. I was obsessed. I would constantly draw and trace pictures of Sonic from the manuals of my games-he was so just so cool!

        1. Oh man could that issue be any more nostalgic?? I love it. And I only wish I drew my own courses! I didn’t have enough talent or confidence 😂 I do remember drawing some crude “Zelda overworld” maps with dungeon placed around them though! Good times.

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