PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest Games, Headcannon
August 15, 2017
Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog has long been one of the most recognizable names in gaming. Whether you’re talking about multiple long-running comic series, the multitude of animated shows, or the recent live-action universe, it’s hard not to know who Sonic the Hedgehog is. However, no matter his omnipresence in multimedia, Sega’s mascot will always be known, first and foremost, for his gaming legacy.
The Blue Blur has had his shares of ups and downs, but when Sonic games are at their best, they rival the best the platforming genre has to offer. While Sonic has appeared in a ton of games, including extreme-sports spin-offs, kart racers, and even crossover titles with Nintendo’s biggest stars, we’re going to keep this list focused on the mainline entries in the series. Check out our ranking of the best mainline Sonic the Hedgehog games below, and let us know your thoughts and personal rankings in the comments section below!
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)
If you’re ranking a list of games from worst to best and Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is included, chances are it’s going to be dead last. Sonic ’06 was meant to celebrate the series’ 15th anniversary, but instead of ringing in the milestone birthday, it nearly dashed away any remaining goodwill from Sonic’s initial jump to 3D.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is known for its glitches (of which there are many), but that’s only part of the picture. A lifeless hub world doles out mundane and frustrating challenges before dumping you into half-baked stages that typically fail to deliver on any potential they seem to have. Players could potentially overlook those problems if the game played well or had a good story, but neither is the case. Sadly, what was supposed to be a next-gen showcase on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 instead became the poster child for when once-great franchises hit rock bottom.
For more on why Sonic ’06 is so awful, check out the highlights from our Super Replay dedicated to playing through the entire game, or read this feature all about why the franchise took such a downturn in the mid-2000s.
Sonic and the Secret Rings
When Sonic Team learned the Wii was less powerful than PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it split the team developing Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) to create a separate title called Sonic and the Secret Rings. This motion-controlled, on-rails entry features lower resolution visuals and less agency than the aforementioned 2006 title, but the curated level design works in its favor.
While Sonic and the Secret Rings clears the impossibly low bar of being better than Sonic ’06, thanks to unintuitive controls, inconsistent mechanics, and an uncooperative camera, it is still near the bottom of our ranking of the mainline Sonic the Hedgehog titles.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4
In 2010, Sonic Team and Sega announced a multi-part retro-revival called Sonic the Hedgehog 4. The naming convention and 2D gameplay gave fans hope this would be the true successor they had been waiting for since the mid-’90s. However, once Episode I launched later that year, it was clear something was amiss.
In addition to a bland, watered-down 2.5D art style, the physics of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I are vastly inferior to the classic series it purports to continue. Episode II, which followed just under two years later, was seen as an improvement but still not worthy of being considered a part of the classic series of games. Sonic Team eventually abandoned plans for a climactic third entry.
Sonic and the Black Knight
After a rough start to Sonic’s run on Wii, Sega Team doubled down on the popular motion-controlled platform with Sonic and the Black Knight. This time, Sonic was teleported to the world of King Arthur as the Blue Blur speeds and slashes his way through the famous kingdom.
While the presentation was better than Sonic and the Secret Rings, Sonic and the Black Knight’s controls didn’t click with players, even though the Wii Remote is seemingly tailor-made for a sword-based combat game. Sonic and the Black Knight was an ambitious title for the Wii. Still, it ultimately fell short of expectations, encouraging Sonic Team to explore other avenues with its approach to delivering Wii games.
Sonic Lost World
As part of a deal with Nintendo, Sega brought three exclusive Sonic the Hedgehog games to the ill-fated Wii U. Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and Sonic Boom are both spin-offs as far as we’re concerned, so they don’t make the cut for this list, but Sonic Lost World sure does. However, while the music and visuals make solid showings, the rest of the experience underwhelmed fans.
The game centers on stopping a menacing gang known as the Deadly Six. Introducing a new threat that even Eggman is seemingly worried about is a solid premise, but the Deadly Six characters themselves are often annoying, and their boss encounters are rarely fun. And for some reason, Sonic Team keeps using them in subsequent games. Add a frustrating control scheme centered on an inconsistent parkour mechanic, and you have a recipe for unfulfilled potential.
Announced alongside Sonic Mania during the 25th-anniversary party for the Sonic franchise, Sonic Forces was another game meant to celebrate a milestone birthday for Sega’s flagship franchise. Launching mere months after the critically acclaimed Sonic Mania, Forces had a ton to live up to and promised to do so through the return of Classic Sonic in a Modern Sonic game, plus a new character creation tool. Unfortunately, the game fell short of that high bar, and despite being the 2017 game developed by the core Sonic Team, it paled in comparison to the throwback that is Sonic Mania.
Even without the stark contrast in quality between the two games that year, Sonic Forces still fell short of its potential. The darker narrative, the return of fan-favorite bosses, the swapping between 3D and 2D gameplay – all of this added up on paper to spell one of the best Modern Sonic games to date. However, the underwhelming level design, a heavy-handed story, and poor controls amounted to a mediocre title in Modern Sonic’s up-and-down legacy.
Sonic Unleashed presents a tale of two hedgehogs. If we were solely talking about the daytime stages, in which Sonic is his typical, speedy self, Unleashed’s level design and controls are among the best the franchise has seen in its 3D era. However, when the sun sets and darkness descends, Sonic turns into a “werehog,” stripping him of his speed and grinding the pace to a screeching halt.
Don’t get us wrong: the werehog levels are fun in their own right, but when we want to play a Sonic the Hedgehog game, we aren’t thinking of slow, methodical climbing and God of War-inspired combat. It’s unfortunate to have the otherwise terrific game dragged down by its inconsistent-by-design pacing, but ultimately, Sonic Unleashed attempts to serve two audiences and, in the process, does a disservice to both.
Sonic Heroes holds a special place in the hearts of many Sonic fans. As the first all-original multiplatform console game for Sega’s mascot, this game opened the door for many non-Sega-owning fans to experience the speedy gameplay for the first time. Despite following the well-liked Sonic Adventure games, Heroes found an enthusiastic audience upon release and remains a fan favorite to this day.
Rather than focusing on exploration and varying gameplay styles based on the stage you’re playing, Heroes largely relies on speed and level design as you control the three characters on your chosen team. While the controls weren’t stellar and the camera still frustrated players, Heroes provided fun stages to speed through and the return of several well-liked characters.
Sonic Adventure 2
After Sonic Adventure turned the series on its head in 1999, Sonic Team followed that revolutionary entry with Sonic Adventure 2. This second mainline entry on Dreamcast kept much of the same gameplay but reduced Adventure’s dependency on exploration and diversity in gameplay. Sonic Adventure 2 is noteworthy for introducing fans to Shadow the Hedgehog, a new rival for Sonic that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Eggman, Knuckles, and Metal Sonic as the Blue Blur’s most beloved antagonists.
Sonic Adventure 2 also flips the script by allowing players to play through team-based stories, with distinct Hero and Dark stories to enjoy. The speedy Sonic/Shadow gameplay is top-notch, and the shooting-gallery Tails/Eggman stages are fun, but the Knuckles/Rouge hunting levels are nearly as irritating as they were in the first Sonic Adventure game. Still, Sonic Adventure 2 provides a worthy follow-up to Sonic’s Dreamcast debut.
Following Sonic’s success on Genesis, Sega decided to promote its new, CD-based add-on for the console with Sonic CD. This upgraded 2D adventure took advantage of the improved horsepower and features afforded by optical discs when compared to cartridge technology while introducing players to new characters, like Metal Sonic and Amy Rose, who are still beloved by Sonic fans to this day.
From the fully animated opening cutscene to the unique time-travel mechanic, Sonic CD gave players a ton to be excited about when it launched in 1993. However, the level design didn’t quite reach the heights of the other classic entries in the franchise, and despite having memorable sequences and stellar gameplay, it falls just short of the absolute best the series has to offer.
Sonic the Hedgehog
The one that started it all, Sonic the Hedgehog on Genesis created the template and foundation the rest of the games on this list have followed. The game was innovative in 1991 when it went head-to-head with games like Super Mario World. To this day, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is one of the few to have credibly challenged Mario for the platforming throne, and this debut entry is largely to thank.
Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog is the one that started it all and went a long way towards establishing the Classic Sonic formula, but the series truly found its stride in subsequent entries. Returning to Sonic the Hedgehog today as it exists on Genesis can be a tricky proposition, with now-established franchise features like the spin-dash, Super Sonic, and the ability to save your progress not available in this first entry. However, subsequent releases of Sonic 1 have added some of these features, making it a much more approachable game in the modern era. Regardless of what version you play, Sonic the Hedgehog is a historically significant video game that made serious waves in the early ’90s gaming scene.
It’s hard to overstate the wow factor of Sonic Adventure when it came out in 1999. Contrasting the eye-popping visuals to its late-’90s contemporaries made Sega and Sonic Team appear poised to continue their contention with the best the platforming genre had to offer. While that would prove less realistic a few years down the road, in the Dreamcast era, Sonic felt at the top of his game, and Sonic Adventure became the opening salvo for what Sega hoped to accomplish with what turned out to be its final home console.
Putting you in the roles of six distinct characters as you play through the same overarching story from differing perspectives was a novel idea, and Sonic Adventure executed it effectively. Sure, we weren’t on the edge of our seats as we tried to hook Froggy on Big the Cat’s fishing line, and we can still hear the annoying radar sound of Knuckles’ treasure-hunt levels, but this was the game Sonic fans desperately craved as they jealously looked over the console-wars fence at Super Mario 64 just a few years prior.
Pictured: Sonic Adventure DX
After two unremarkable Wii-exclusive titles, Sonic Team returned to the popular Nintendo platform with a vengeance in 2010. Sonic Colors is not only far and away the best game of the Wii bunch, but it makes a credible case as one of the best 3D Sonic games to date. Featuring a vibrant amusement park setting and a suite of unique powers from creatures called Wisps, Colors gave players the speedy gameplay they wanted without sacrificing much in way of pacing.
Sonic Colors delivers some of the coolest boss battles the series has seen, as well as some of the most impressive set-piece moments. The fun story hammers home that this is Sonic Team firing on all cylinders, delivering some of the best modern Sonic moments we’ve seen. Thankfully, Sega finally re-released Sonic Colors through a new Ultimate edition, freeing the game from the Wii library and delivering various visual and quality-of-life upgrades. You can learn more about Sonic Colors: Ultimate here.
As has been the case with multiple games on this list, Sonic Generations was released in celebration of a milestone anniversary for the franchise. However, unlike Sonic ’06 and Sonic Forces, Generations rings in the iconic hedgehog’s birthday with fireworks instead of sad trombones. Generations takes the greatest-hits approach, starting with Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone and working all the way through Sonic Unleashed and Colors to give players remakes of some of the most beloved zones in series history.
Not only do players get to rush through these mostly fantastic recreations of zones like Chemical Plant and Sky Sanctuary, but they also get to do so from both Classic and Modern perspectives and to the tune of some stellar covers of the original music. Sonic Generations serves as a high-speed stroll down memory lane for long-standing fans of the series while offering a modernized and well-made history lesson for those who are new to it.
In 2017, fans received two major Sonic releases. While the modern offering, Sonic Forces, disappointed a large portion of the fan base, Sonic Mania took the retro route and delivered the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in decades. In a significant twist, the game wasn’t even developed by Sonic Team. Instead, a team of indie developers with a history of Sonic mods, fan games, and mobile ports created Sonic Mania. The result is a celebratory title that pays loving homage to the series’ 2D roots while rewarding a patient fan base with phenomenal new and remade zones.
While Christian Whitehead, PagodaWest, and Headcannon deserve a ton of credit for the inventive approaches to the Classic Sonic formula, composer Tee Lopes masterfully blends his musical stylings with the compositions from the early-’90s Sonic games to create an exceptional soundtrack. Sonic Mania seemed too good to be true when it was announced in 2016, and thankfully for Sonic fans everywhere, it was even better than they anticipated. Additionally, it became even better in 2018 when the team released Sonic Mania Plus, which added two new playable characters and extra modes.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Following Sonic the Hedgehog’s success in 1991, Sega got to work on a bigger, bolder sequel. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 not only one-ups the strong debut in nearly every way imaginable, but it’s the best standalone game in series history. Sonic 2 expanded the formula in myriad ways, giving Sonic new moves like the spin-dash, bigger stages to explore with more branching paths, and more inventive boss battles.
Some of the stages Sonic and Tails run through are downright iconic. Emerald Hill Zone and Chemical Plant Zone kick off the adventure in the best way possible. Casino Night Zone and Oil Ocean Zone keep the momentum going with unique gimmicks and design conventions. And the climactic battle against Mecha Sonic and the Death Egg Robot (with no rings, mind you) gives you an intense, white-knuckled conclusion to the story. Sonic 2 also adds new 3D bonus stages through which you obtain Chaos Emeralds to transform into the most powerful version of our hero, Super Sonic.
When it launched, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 felt impossible to top. Sega even pulled out all the stops with its marketing campaign; it knew it had something special (read more about that here). However, fans had no idea that Sega and Sonic Team were planning something even bigger and better just two years later.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
When Sonic the Hedgehog 3 launched in 1994, it again improved over its predecessors like the sequel before it. New power-ups, better graphics, transitions between zones, and a popular new antagonist named Knuckles made it a worthy successor to Sonic 2 and Sonic CD, but something didn’t quite feel right. The game abruptly ends following a strange encounter with Knuckles and a tough battle against Dr. Robotnik in Launch Base Zone. Meanwhile, Sonic & Knuckles, which launched later that same year, almost felt like it picked up in the middle of the story, delivering the conclusion to Death Egg saga and Knuckles’ redemption arc.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is a top-tier Sonic game, as is Sonic & Knuckles. However, when you combine them using special Lock-On Technology (read more about its origins here), you get the best, most complete game in Sonic the Hedgehog franchise history. The cohesive story flows flawlessly from Sonic 3’s Angel Island Zone through the secret final boss in Sonic & Knuckles’ Doomsday Zone.
Not only does Sonic 3 & Knuckles string together all 14 zones of the two cartridges, but it fills in the missing pieces of the individual feature sets. The locked-on game spreads Sonic 3’s save functionality to the entire experience while including the option to play as Knuckles across the whole Sonic 3 & Knuckles journey. Each element of Sonic 3 & Knuckles – level design, story, music, characters – is among the best the series has ever seen, but the game is still somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Sonic 3 & Knuckles isn’t just the best Sonic game; it’s one of the best 2D platformers to come out of the ’90s.
How does your ranking compare to ours? Leave your comments, complaints, and personal lists in the comments section!
For more on the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, check out other stories:
Where Sonic Went Wrong
The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How Sonic 2 Became Sega’s Ace in the Hole
How Sonic 3 Became Two Separate Games
How Sonic Made the Leap to Nintendo
Sonic the Hedgehog Burning Questions Finally Answered
More Burning Questions About The Sonic The Hedgehog Franchise Answered
Sonic Team Looks Back On The Blue Blur’s First 30 Years