Sonic the Hedgehog’s Weird Sega Saturn Games

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Sonic the Hedgehog is most fondly remembered for his games on the Sega Genesis, or rather, Sega Mega Drive. After the release of his first game in 1991, Sonic took the world by storm and was a large factor in why the Sega Genesis came so close to outselling the Super Nintendo.

However, when Sega released their successor console to the Genesis in 1995, the Sega Saturn, things were not quite as prosperous. The Sega Saturn was announced in North America officially at the first ever E3, and was released to the shock and surprise of many on the same day. This surprise launch caught consumers and developers alike off-guard, and along with Sony announcing that the soon to be released Playstation would retail for a full one-hundred dollars less than the Saturn in the United States, went on to set a grim tone which would last the entirety of the Saturn’s life.

Not all was terrible with the Saturn though. Many great games were released for it, especially in Japan where it was a commercial success. Yet, many passed on it due to there not being a “true” Sonic game for it. With the exception of ports of Genesis Sonic games, fans would have to wait until 1999 and the release of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast for the next big adventure in the Sonic series.

Despite this, the Saturn still had several opportunities for players to take control of the blue blur. To be exact, there were four different games for the Sega Saturn where Sonic was playable, all of which are both often overlooked and weird in their own ways. Thus, today we’re going to be taking a look at all four of them.

Sonic R

Sonic R is by far the most infamous of the Saturn Sonic games. Reception for this one is mixed at best, with Sonic fans either adoring or despising it.

This title, along with Sonic 3D Blast, was developed by Traveller’s Tales. Released in 1997, Sonic R was originally going to be a formula one game until they were approached by Sega to make a racing game based off the Sonic licence. Originally known as “Sonic TT”, this Sonic racer reportedly had an incredibly tight development schedule.

In this game, Sonic and friends set off against one another in a variety of races. Why are Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Robotnik racing each other? Apparently Sonic and friends are entering races set up by Robotnik in order to stop him from getting the numerous Chaos Emeralds, which are the Sonic series’ plot macguffins of choice. Nothing is said of this virtually nonexistent plot in-game, meaning that if you do not have the manual, all these races are happening for no real reason.

Unlike Sonic Drift or Team Sonic Racing, Sonic R is mostly a foot race. Each character has their own respective abilities, mostly based off the Genesis titles. Sonic can perform a double jump, Tails can fly, Knuckles can fly, and Amy for some reason is in a car. There are also numerous unlock able characters, including the nightmare inducing Tails Doll and, if you collect all seven chaos emeralds, Super Sonic, who is faster than any other character than the game.

Where Sonic R initially seems to falter is in both its course selection and controls. There are only five available courses here, though they are all quite expansive. Each of the courses contain numerous collectables and alternate paths. Mainly, there are rings, Sonic Tokens, and Chaos Emeralds. Collecting a certain number of rings will open certain previously blocked shortcuts, while collecting Sonic tokens will unlock additional characters. Collecting all the Chaos Emeralds while simultaneously finishing in first place will unlock Super Sonic. While this seems fairly simple on paper, it may be easier said than done.

If you try to play Sonic R only using an analog stick (or heaven forbid, a d-pad), you are not going to have a good time. The characters all have wide, stiff turns, with only the widest of turns feeling smooth. The trick to turning here is utilizing the “L” and “R” buttons. Holding one of these in while turning can allow you to turn at an extremely sharp angle, leading to a great sense of flow if mastered.

The most controversial aspect of Sonic R, though, is its soundtrack. Traveller’s Tales got award winning composer Richard Jacques to do the soundtrack here, all feature pumping beats and inspirational lyrics sung by TJ Davis. While many hate this soundtrack as it just does not sound “Sonic”, I personally have found myself listening to it while driving around town. Songs like “Can You Feel The Sunshine?” and “Living in the City” are so catchy that if you listen to them, I bet they will be stuck in your head for days to come.

Oddly enough, Sonic R is the only game on today’s list to have ever been properly re-released. While the Sega Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast (which is also featured on today’s list) has seen numerous re-releases, these have all been of its Sega Genesis version. Sonic R, however, was later re-released as part of the Sonic Gems collection on the Nintendo GameCube.

While Sonic R is by far the best known of the Saturn Sonic games, it was not the first. That honour goes to another title which was released a little over a year earlier in 1996.

Sonic 3D Blast

Sonic 3D Blast is an odd title. While it does feature Sonic, it is only debatably “3D” or a blast to play. It also likely was not a strong first impression for the spiky blue hedgehog on the Saturn, as it was a port of a Sega Genesis title.

There was for a long while a Sonic game in development for the Sega Saturn called “Sonic X-treme”, which would have been Sonic’s first ever 3D adventure. However, this title spent years within development hell before finally being cancelled in 1996. The Saturn version of 3D Blast then was quickly commissioned by Sega from Traveller’s Tales so they could have a Sonic game on the Saturn for Christmas that year.

Sonic 3D Blast is a top down isometric platformer. In this game, Sonic goes to the mysterious “Flickie’s Island” where Doctor Robotnik is kidnapping mysterious birds known as “Flickies” and turning them into robots. Thus, it is up to Sonic to save the Flickies, collect Chaos Emeralds, and stop the mad doctor.

Gameplay here is quite different than in your average Sonic game. The game is not truly 3D, but rather uses a combination of the isometric perspective and pre-rendered sprites to create the illusion of moving within a 3D environment. Sonic can run, jump, and spin like in the Sega Genesis titles, but now does so in eight different directions. Instead of being merely a point-a to point-b affair, Sonic 3D blast requires you to seek out robots containing flickies within each level, with every flicks in the level being required to move on.

To be honest, this becomes rather tedious after a few zones, meaning that this is a game best enjoyed in short bursts. The 3D platforming itself can also be a little finicky. While Sonic controls fairly well and has a nice sense of speed, any section requiring precise platforming can be irritating due to the isometric perspective. Furthermore, controlling Sonic in a semi-3D environment using a d-pad is tiresome, meaning that the Genesis version feels a bit awkward and the Saturn version is best experienced using the Saturn analog controller.

It’s not all bad, though. Using the analog stick on the Saturn makes this game feel wonderfully smooth and this is bolstered by a pleasing graphical aesthetic and soundtrack. While not as colourful as the Genesis version, there are some nice graphical effects here and the Saturn version does on the whole look better than the Genesis version. The soundtrack here is also rock solid, with the compositions once again provided by Richard Jacques. While the soundtrack on the Genesis version is perhaps more memorable and “Sonic-eqsue”, Jacques’ tunes on the Saturn version are still worth listening to. My favourite pieces from Green Grove Act 1, Spring Stadium Act 1, and the boss theme.

The Special Stages that Sonic must traverse to collect the Chaos Emeralds are also different in this version. Instead of Sonic slowly walking across a bridge like in the Genesis version, these special stages are instead full 3D remakes of the Sonic 2 half-pipe special stages. Fast, frantic, and full of twists and turns, these are perhaps the best special stages in the entire Sonic series.

Though perhaps not a “classic”, Sonic 3D Blast is still a decently good time on the Saturn. The Genesis version has gotten countless ports and re-releases, but unfortunately the Saturn version never has.

Sonic Jam

And speaking of ports and releases, perhaps the “biggest” Sonic release on the Saturn was Sonic Jam. This game was a compilation of Sonic 1, 2, and the now hardly ever re-released Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles. All these games could be locked on with Sonic and Knuckles as well, which combined with pretty good emulation makes this a solid compilation.

On the whole, Sonic Jam contains things that are pretty standard to classic game compilations nowadays. Along with the classic games, there’s an “Easy Mode” for each game which honestly makes them near impossible to game over in, along with a collection of concept art and classic commercials and other promotional materials.

What truly makes Sonic Jam special is Sonic World.

Sonic World is a fully 3D hub world where you control Sonic and can run, jump, spin, access the various features of the game, and even take part in platforming challenges set by the game. None of these challenges are long or difficult, but this is nonetheless impressive as it is the first time in the series where Sonic could be controlled in a 3D platforming environment. It is also the only time in the series where this could be done before Sonic was given his “modern” redesign in Sonic Adventure.

Sonic Jam definitely isn’t impressive by the standards of modern games. Sonic World, as colourful as it is and as well as Sonic controls, is rather limited and is very obviously an early 3D platforming environment. While Sonic 1, 2, 3, and Knuckles all run well here, the emulation isn’t perfect and these games have since seen numerous re-releases on newer platforms.

Pictured: Probably the worst handheld game console ever.

This one is perhaps for Sonic fans and Saturn collectors only. However, I should also note its terrible “port” to the Tiger Game.Com console (that’s pronounced “Game Com” and not “Game Dot Com”). This handheld was pretty much a Game Boy with a primitive touch screen, and this version of Sonic Jam is almost completely unplayable. I would go as far as to call Sonic Jam on Game.Com worse than Sonic ’06, Sonic Genesis, and Sonic Boom.

As for the original Sega Saturn version, while unremarkable by today’s standards, the existence of Sonic World makes this one a must own for any Saturn or Sonic aficionado, and makes me wonder how gaming could have been different if this mode were fleshed out and we were given a true 3D Sonic game on the Sega Saturn.

Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams

The strangest and final game we are discussing today is not even a Sonic game. Technically, it isn’t even a full game, but rather a promotional demo version of NiGHTS into Dreams, though Sonic is playable here.

NiGHTS was a game released on the Saturn that was bundled with the analog controller. Players take control of Nights, an androgynous jester-like creature who must defend the world of dreams from the evil Wiseman. The game takes place in a mostly 2.5D perspective with some 3D sections, and is rendered completely in 3D. Nights can fly around levels, collecting items and performing tricks in order to complete each stage with the best possible rank.

Christmas NiGHTS is a two level demo that contains a more Christmas-y aesthetic. It was given away with either a Christmas Sega Saturn bundle in Japan or for free with a purchase of certain Sega Saturn games and gaming publications in North America and the UK.

Despite having “Christmas” in the name, Christmas NiGHTS actually takes advantage of the Saturn’s internal clock. The Christmas features of the game only are available during December, with the game appearing merely as a NiGHTS demo for most of the rest of the year. However, some changes occur within the game on certain holidays such as New Year’s Day and April Fool’s Day.

What really makes this title go above and beyond by the standards of game demos is it’s various unlock able features. Included here are features such as a music mixer, a time attack mode, and even a sound test mode. Perhaps the best of these unlockables, though, is the two level extra mode “Sonic the Hedgehog: Into Dreams.”

In this mode, players take control of Sonic on foot within the Spring Valley level. As Sonic is controlled on foot, the entirety of the level is explored in 3D rather than from a 2.5D perspective. Sonic does not control as smoothly as in Sonic World in Sonic Jam, though he is still very easy to control. Upon clearing the one level, the player must take on a balloon-like Doctor Robotnik, who’s boss encounter has a remixed version of the final boss music from Sonic CD.

Overall, Sonic Into Dreams is a neat extra. It’s incredible to think that so much thought and detail was put into a demo version of a game which was given away for free. According to Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka, Christmas NiGHTS was meant as a cool incentive to increase sales of the Saturn in the west, though it unfortunately failed to do so.

These four Sonic the Hedgehog experiences are definitely interesting notes within the span of gaming history, but ultimately none of them were the Sonic game that many wanted in the 90s. With the cancellation of Sonic Xtreme and Sega ultimately waiting to develop Sonic Adventure for their later Dreamcast console, many in the west passed on the Sega Saturn. This, in turn, hastened Sega’s ailing financial situation which lead to them ceasing development of new first party hardware in 2001. Perhaps if the likes of Sonic Xtreme had been released the Sega Saturn would have outsold the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, but instead what we have are these four titles and thoughts of what could have been.

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