Let's Rank (A Few) Sonic Games

Let's Rank (A Few) Sonic Games

Sonic the Hedgehog was weirdly 2020's movie of the year, since it was the last decent movie released in theaters before covid hit.
Sonic the Hedgehog was weirdly 2020's movie of the year, since it was the last decent movie released in theaters before covid hit.
Screenshot: Paramount Pictures / Sega

There are a lot of Sonic games. There aren’t too many Sonic games because one can never get enough of the blue streak, but in order to keep this list from spiraling out of control I created a few ground rules.

1. It must be a platformer. Sorry Sonic Team Racing and Sonic Spinball, we want OGs only.

2. It must be on a major console. Part of the reason why trying to rank the Sonic games would get out of hand very quickly is because of the preponderance of handheld titles. For this list, we’re keeping it to major games released on consoles. This one hurt a little bit because it means excluding one of my favorite Sonic games, Sonic Triple Trouble, which was only released on the Game Gear. Sorry too, Sonic Advance fans.

3. The game must star Sonic the Hedgehog. We are talking about Sonic after all. Sorry (not sorry, really) Shadow The Hedgehog and Knuckles Chaotix.

Without further ado, here’s our ranking of (some of) the Sonic games from worst to best.

Kotaku Staff Writer and Hornt Correspondent - Fanfiction Novelist - Unapologetically Black - Diversity Gelatinous Cube

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23. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006, PS3 / Xbox 360)

23. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006, PS3 / Xbox 360)

This is the most cursed, non-fanart image of Sonic ever created.
This is the most cursed, non-fanart image of Sonic ever created.
Screenshot: Sega

Wow. Okay. Where to start with this travesty? Sonic ‘06, as it’s called, was rushed to meet the 2006 holiday shopping season, leaving it a buggy mess. It had minutes-long load times, the head of Sonic Team left midway through development, and absolutely bad story and gameplay. This is the game infamous for memes like “It’s no use!” and the very weird interspecies kiss between Sonic and a human girl. This game tried very hard to be an edgier Sonic Adventure but with all of its flaws and none of its charm. Ironically, its countless bugs make it great for speedruns, and some of my favorite Games Done Quick runs are of Sonic ‘06.

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22. Sonic and the Black Knight (2009, Wii)

22. Sonic and the Black Knight (2009, Wii)

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I can feel my brain melting the longer I stare at this combination of images and words.
Screenshot: Sega / FCPlaythroughs (YouTube)

Remember when Shadow the Hedgehog showed up with a gun? Sonic and the Black Knight attempts to redress the unfairness of Shadow having a weapon by giving Sonic a sword. Too bad the sword, controlled by the Wii remote’s unreliable waggle, is terrible. In fact, everything about this game is terrible: controls, story, sword combat, everything. Sonic and the Black Knight also has the infamous distinction of getting “delisted” in 2010 as a part of Sega’s strategy to “defocus” attention on games with poor Metacritic scores (i.e. the shitty ones) in favor of higher-scoring games.

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21. Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007, Wii)

21. Sonic and the Secret Rings (2007, Wii)

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I want to know why Sonic Team was obsessed with isekai-ing Sonic in the Wii era.
Screenshot: Sega / FCPlaythroughs (YouTube)

Same as above. Both Sonic and the Secret Rings and Black Knight were a part of this weird fascination Sonic Team had in the Wii years with isekai-ing Sonic into fairytale books. Don’t ask me why.

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20. Sonic the Hedgehog Chaos (1993, Sega Master System)

20. Sonic the Hedgehog Chaos (1993, Sega Master System)

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Sonic Chaos’ only saving grace is that it paved the way for its much better sequel Sonic Triple Trouble.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sonic Chaos is the uninspiring little brother of the other Master System Sonic games. You can choose to play as Sonic or Tails and go through six zones collecting Chaos Emeralds along the way. Sound familiar? Yeah. Sound boring? Also yeah. There’s nothing special about Sonic Chaos. Of the Master System Sonics, it’s not exceedingly difficult like Sonic 2, nor is it an interesting departure from a 16-bit version like Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s just there. The sound you hear collecting rings and when you take damage is ear-splittingly high pitched, and the music made me want to perforate my eardrums—something Sonic Team greatly improved for the Game Gear-only sequel (and my favorite Sonic game) Sonic Triple Trouble.

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19. Sonic 3D Blast (1996, Genesis / Saturn)

19. Sonic 3D Blast (1996, Genesis / Saturn)

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Sonic 3D Blast committed the unforgivable sin of being both slow and boring.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sonic 3D Blast is the last Sonic game on the Genesis and the first isometric “3D” Sonic. It breaks with the series’ traditional “go fast, reach the end” formula in favor of a fetch-quest-like system that has Sonic collecting five Flickies before he can move on. Sonic does not go fast in this game. He’s slow, sliding over all the odd, sloped geometry of the levels. Tying progression to a collection goal makes levels tedious and the isometric view discourages a lot of the exploration present in earlier games.

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18. Sonic Lost World (2013, Wii U / PC)

18. Sonic Lost World (2013, Wii U / PC)

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For the longest time, I thought this game was worse than it was because I confused it with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric...which is an awful game.
Screenshot: Sega

Lost World feels like an attempt to replicate Super Mario Galaxy with Sonic. The levels feature a lot of weird, fragmented platforming sections that are reminiscent of Mario hopping from planetoid to planetoid. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities between the two games end, as what made Galaxy so refreshing and interesting just doesn’t work well for Sonic. He goes fast! He’s best suited for smooth levels that let him run, grind rails, and spindash to his heart’s content. But Lost World’s fragmented levels make him start and stop frequently to navigate tricky platforming sections. This game was originally lower on my list, saved only by its catchy songs and the game’s revival of the neat Sonic Colors “wisp” powers.

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17. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (2010, WiiWare / PSN / XBLA / PC)

17. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (2010, WiiWare / PSN / XBLA / PC)

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I wanted so badly for Sonic 4: Episode I to be good.
Screenshot: Sega

By 2010, Sonic was struggling. Plagued by a string of poorly received releases covered earlier in this list like Black Knight, Secret Rings, and Sonic ‘06, the franchise needed a shot in the arm to revive its esteem and to bridge the gap between older 2D and newer 3D fans. Episode I returned Sonic to his roots, being a 2D side-scrolling platformer that gives Sonic the homing attack ability of his 3D iterations. I appreciate that the levels and Special Zones are renamed/remixed versions from the original 1991 Sonic the Hedgehog, but the busted physics of Episode I make Sonic look and feel slow while the game itself is unsatisfyingly short.

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16. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega Master System)

16. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Sega Master System)

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The Master System Sonics are like your emo cousin who smokes underage.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

A few months after Sonic the Hedgehog debuted on the Sega Genesis, Sega released a Sonic the Hedgehog for its 8-bit Master System that bears only passing resemblance to its 16-bit cousin. There are new levels, the Chaos Emeralds are just out in the open (relying on exploration to find), the special stages function as loot pinatas granting Sonic extra lives and continues, and there’s a weird world map that shows the game takes place on an island. I’m guessing the Master System Sonic had to be different from the Genesis Sonic due to the reduced capabilities of the 8-bit console, but you can still see the shared design and gameplay elements. (There’s also a cool musical cue in the Bridge level that sounds curiously similar to Janet Jackson’s “Together Again.”) The game’s not bad. It’s not as visually appealing as its 16-bit cousin, nor is the music as catchy, but it’s still a solid Sonic game.

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15. Sonic Unleashed (2008, PS2 / Wii / PS3 / Xbox 360)

15. Sonic Unleashed (2008, PS2 / Wii / PS3 / Xbox 360)

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Why couldn’t you be just the day levels Sonic Unleashed?
Screenshot: Sega

Sonic Unleashed gets the 3D Sonic platformer formula exactly half-right, as it’s split into two distinct styles of gameplay. The daytime sections feature the typical 3D-style platforming, while night stages are combat-focused affairs that turn Sonic into the infamous “werehog.”

The day sections finally nail 3D Sonic platforming. Before this game, 3D Sonics often felt clunky and unevenly paced, with level designs that didn’t really let Sonic be fast. Unleashed gets it right, with levels constructed to let the blue blur just run, drift, and rail-grind seamlessly between 2D and 3D sections. But for some inexplicable reason, Sonic Team decided not to stop there, instead adding awful, laggy werehog sections in which Sonic plods through nighttime versions of earlier levels fighting monsters with his weird werehog powers. (Also, it’s hilarious that the world gets cracked into seven pieces at the beginning of the game but everyone seems remarkably ok about going on with their lives.) Oh Sonic Team, you were so close.

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14. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II (2012, PSN / XBLA / PC)

14. Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II (2012, PSN / XBLA / PC)

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As with Half-Life 2, there was never a Sonic 4: Episode III.
Screenshot: Sega

Annoying naming conventions aside (who do you think you are Sonic, Half-Life?), Episode II vastly improves on its predecessor. Sonic no longer feels or looks like he’s swimming in syrup, and Episode II feels more in tune with its original purpose: being a Sonic game that both the older and newer generations of Sonic fans would appreciate. It’s still too short though.

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13. Sonic Heroes (2003, GameCube / PS2 / Xbox)

13. Sonic Heroes (2003, GameCube / PS2 / Xbox)

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Yup, this is a game. Sonic Heroes is certainly a game.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Remember in Sonic 3 when Tails would occasionally act as a Sonic transportation service and helicopter you around? Sonic Heroes is that concept expanded into an entire game. In Sonic Heroes you control one of four character trios, and each character has unique powers that aid in traversing the levels. You can switch between your three characters at any time and perform a special team attack to take out large groups of enemies. I appreciate the ambition of Sonic Heroes, if not its execution. Different characters having unique abilities has been present in Sonic games since Sonic 2 introduced Tails’ helicopter butt, but Heroes allows you to make use of all the powers available to you at any time. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t control well, looks pretty budget, and is, regrettably, slow.

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12. Sonic Forces (2017, Switch / PS4 / Xbox One / PC)

12. Sonic Forces (2017, Switch / PS4 / Xbox One / PC)

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If there’s a Sonic hill I’m willing to die on, it’s the “Sonic Forces is actually good” hill.
Screenshot: Sega

I am a Sonic Forces truther, and this game is good, damn it! Sonic Forces never got a fair shake, overshadowed by and often compared to the nearly perfect Sonic Mania, which was released two months prior. But for my money, this is the best of the 3D Sonic platformers. Many past attempts struggled with making Sonic both feel fast and control well, and Forces learned from and improved on those mistakes. The character creator was a fun and interesting new iteration on the franchise, allowing players to do what the fandom’s been doing forever and create their own Sonic-sona. I’ll grant that the story’s a bit odd. It tries to be more mature, taking the conflict with Eggman from a lighthearted, one-liner filled contest between good and evil to a “war is hell”-style struggle that doesn’t fit all the bright, colorful characters like Big the Cat and Charmy Bee. I appreciate Forces for trying new things—the character creator, the player/Sonic team-up sections, and even the nod to the alternate-reality 2D Sonic that was introduced in Generations. Forces did a lot of cool, new things really well in a game that also played very well and deserves a second chance.

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11. Sonic Adventure (1998, Dreamcast / GameCube)

11. Sonic Adventure (1998, Dreamcast / GameCube)

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The opening to Sonic Adventure is a masterclass in late ‘90s edginess.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sega’s forward-thinking Dreamcast marked a monumental leap for game consoles, and Sonic Adventure was its marquee tech demo. It was also very experimental, throwing lots of new ideas at the franchise just to see what stuck. There are hub areas full of NPCs, high-speed 3D rail-grind courses, races, scavenger hunts, shooting segments, fishing(!), virtual pet raising, zero-gen DLC, VMU minigames, and whatever Amy Rose was up to with that hammer. And throughout, a butt-rock soundtrack for the ages and constant high melodrama as Sonic and gang try to prevent Eggman from reviving an ancient monster. They fail, of course, leading to one of the more epic-feeling final confrontations for the series up ‘til that point.

It doesn’t all work. Some bits are boring, the camera and controls can be all over the place, and the game’s buggier than any Sonic that had come before. But Sonic Adventure showed the nearly decade-old franchise still had plenty of room to grow, and Sonic Team was ready and willing to shake up past formulas—and find innovative new ways to be weirdos—as it moved toward an increasingly 3D future. — Alexandra Hall

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10. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Sega Master System)

10. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Sega Master System)

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Sonic had a bunch of different ways to get around in Sonic 2: mine cart, hang glider, and pneumatic tube to name a few.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

I’m just going to say it, this is the Dark Souls of Sonic games. Like the 8-bit Master System version of the first Sonic, Sonic 2 bears little resemblance to its 16-bit sibling. Sonic 2 doesn’t even deign to keep similar level names and styles; Sonic Team chucked everything into the bin and built a completely new game that was tough as shit. The first boss in particular inspires memories of dread as boss stages don’t give you rings and make you navigate some hazard-filled platforming before you can even make a run at the boss. Then you’re forced to dodge projectiles that you can barely see coming (the small field of vision got smaller in the Game Gear version, making it even harder) in hopes that you can dodge long enough to finally eke out a win. One mistimed jump and it’s back to the beginning. I don’t know how I got by that first act at all as a seven-year-old. The rest of the levels are less punishing, but still tough. Ultimately Sonic 2 for the Master System did its own thing, with its own levels, and was really cool.

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9. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001, Dreamcast / GameCube)

9. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001, Dreamcast / GameCube)

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“Chaos control!” - Shadow the Hedgehog.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

In 2001 Sega’s beloved but niche Dreamcast was rapidly succumbing to the might of Sony’s PlayStation 2 hype machine, so the release of Sonic Adventure 2, both a 10th anniversary celebration and the final Sonic platformer developed for a Sega home console, felt equal parts triumphant and bittersweet. It was also a hell of a ride, with stunning 60 fps visuals, one of the most inspired Sonic soundtracks, and boundless imagination on display everywhere you looked.

The game itself tossed out many of the wilder ideas of its predecessor for a greater focus on the speed, shooting, and scavenger hunt segments. A lot of folks only love the fast Sonic / Shadow bits, but I appreciated how even the janky-ass Knuckles / Rouge emerald hunts and blandly workmanlike Tails / Eggman mech segments let me spend more time in that gorgeous, fantastical world. Sonic Adventure 2 has plenty of flaws, but you can tell Sonic Team was working hard to build off the best parts of its previous Adventure and play out Sega’s home console era with style. In my eyes, it succeeded.

Oh, and Ash wants me to mention City Escape. — Alexandra Hall

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8. Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993, Sega CD)

8. Sonic the Hedgehog CD (1993, Sega CD)

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The time travel aspect of Sonic CD was great, if a bit awkward when you triggered it accidentally.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

I love Sonic CD and hate how it sometimes gets overlooked as an all-time great Sonic game. The time-travel element, the speed, the music, the absolute bitchin’ boss race with Metal Sonic—this game whips ass. Did I mention the music? I could rank this game as high as it is on the strength of its (Japanese) soundtrack alone. Hell yeah, “Work that sucker to death!” Metal Sonic has, to me, always been a more compelling and sinister villain than Robotnik / Eggman; I think that’s because of his character in the Sonic Saturday morning cartoon, which child-Ash lived for. His race against Sonic is one of the greatest boss fights in all of Sonic history and I’m glad it was revisited in Mania and Generations.

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7. Sonic Colors (2010, Wii)

7. Sonic Colors (2010, Wii)

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Love the energy of the guy who shouts the wisp powers in Colors.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

When Sonic Colors hit the Wii it felt like the generational curse of bad Sonic games had finally been broken. Remember when I wondered why Sonic Team didn’t just make Sonic Unleashed only have speed levels? That’s what Sonic Colors is—the best part about Unleashed expanded into its own game. Colors also added powers granted by “wisps,” which came to be my new, favorite Sonic power-up. Each of the eight wisp powers changes how Sonic moves, giving him new ways to explore each of the amusement park-themed levels. My favorite is the drill wisp that allows Sonic to chew through sand and dirt like a little powered-up earthworm. The rocket that just launches him straight up into the air is good too. I’m pretty sure half the appeal of the wisps is the audio cue of a guy screaming the power-up right before you use it. Sonic Colors was a sorely needed breath of fresh air for the franchise that seemed to usher in a new era of “okay, Sonic games are pretty good now.”

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6. Sonic Generations (2011, PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC)

6. Sonic Generations (2011, PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC)

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The Green Hill Zone theme is now playing in your head.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

For Sonic’s 20th birthday, Sonic Team released Sonic Generations as a love letter to Sonic fans old and new. Generations took levels representative of each era of Sonic and remixed them to suit both classic-style 2D side-scrolling and more modern 3D gameplay. The unique premise somehow found a canon way to have two different versions of Sonic exist at the same time, each representative of his respective game era. So in the 2D act of Chemical Plant Zone you’d play as the more kawaii 2D Sonic while in the 3D act you play as the “edgier,” modern Sonic. The game was like a living museum to Sonic and his history, letting you play through updated classics like Green Hill Zone, Chemical Plant, and Sky Sanctuary while also getting to sample newer favorites like the City Escape level of Sonic Adventure 2, all while getting reintroduced to Sonic’s friends, enemies, and frenemies.

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5. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Genesis)

5. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991, Genesis)

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My favorite achievement in any video game is the one where you burn this spike bridge with a flame shield in Sonic Mania. It’s named “Now It Can’t Hurt You Anymore” which is apt because fuck this bridge.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis is the OG, the big daddy, the classic, the Cadillac of ‘90s video game mascots. Through his debut on the Genesis, Sonic became his own celestial body around which gamers have orbited the last—as of this year—30 years. If I wipe away a bit of my teary-eyed nostalgia, I can see that of the original Sonic games, the first is the least remarkable. It’s still great, but it is the weakest of the original four games on the Genesis. It wasn’t too difficult (except for maybe figuring out the endless water slide puzzle in Labyrinth Zone Act 3). If players did want an extra challenge, they could always seek out the Chaos Emeralds to get the “good” ending. My memories of the special zones consisted of my cousin and I worming haphazardly through the mazes before hitting one of the premature exits—Chaos Emerald undiscovered. Fun fact, there are only six Chaos Emeralds in Sonic 1, and the seventh would get added with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Which begs the question of what that seventh Emerald was doing throughout the first Sonic, and who had it? (My money’s on Knuckles.)

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4. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994, Genesis)

4. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994, Genesis)

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Sonic let that poor island burn, Knuckles was justified in his anger.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is Sonic’s first real attempt to tell a story complete with cutscenes and a new enemy: Knuckles. Though developed in tandem with Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic 3 first debuted by itself in February of 1994. One of Sonic 3’s key additions is new shield power-ups that augment Sonic’s platforming abilities. The fire shield gives Sonic a powerful flame-wreathed forward dash that extends his hangtime. The bubble shield has a somewhat useless double-bounce ability but, critically, allows him to breathe underwater, and the electric shield attracts nearby rings to Sonic, makes him immune to electricity, and grants a double jump that opens up inaccessible areas. (Tails, of course, can just fly up, while new Sonic frenemy Knuckles can glide in or climb a nearby wall.)

Sonic 3 is the second Sonic game with suspected ties to Michael Jackson, as it was long rumored, then confirmed, then unconfirmed, that Jackson contributed to some of the game’s soundtrack. Regardless of his involvement or not, it’s one of the best—Ice Cap Zone is a certified, triple-platinum bop.

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3. Sonic & Knuckles (1994, Genesis)

3. Sonic & Knuckles (1994, Genesis)

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I can hear this image. The Sky Sanctuary theme is one of my favorite Sonic tracks.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sonic 3 is technically an incomplete game; time and development constraints necessitated cutting half the content just so it could ship on time. That’s where 1994’s follow-up Sonic & Knuckles comes in. It contains the rest of the originally planned zones, and in a very unique twist, connects with your existing Sonic 3 cart to create one massive, continuous game that allows you to play as Knuckles during the Sonic 3 portion. (I have fond memories of sticking other, non-Sonic games into that port and getting the “no way” screen; me and my cousin—who is formative to not only my Sonic memories but all my early video gaming memories—were delighted by Sonic wiggling his finger at us in admonition.) Though the two games could be tied, Sonic & Knuckles gets the edge because it has slightly better levels, specifically Flying Battery and Sky Sanctuary.

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2. Sonic Mania (2017, Switch / PS4 / Xbox One / PC)

2. Sonic Mania (2017, Switch / PS4 / Xbox One / PC)

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The Studiopolis weatherman miniboss is my second-favorite boss fight in all of Sonic history.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

Sonic Mania is pure joy distilled into video game form. It’s like being nine years old again, waking up on Saturday morning, and sitting down to a big bowl of sugary cereal just in time to catch your favorite cartoons. Later your mom says she’s going to drop you off at your aunt’s house, where you’ll spend hours playing through all the Sonic games on your cousin’s Sega Genesis. Sonic Mania is Sega finally heeding the fandom’s plea for a new Sonic game just like the old ones from the ‘90s. Remixed classic zones like Chemical Plant and Flying Battery brimmed with new mechanics and bosses to fight, while entirely new level experiences like Studiopolis and Titanic Monarch incorporated choice callbacks to the Genesis games, like the Crimson Eye miniboss from Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic Mania is every little thing that worked so well in Sonic’s early years—the spin dash, the shield powers, Tails’ flight, and more—stitched together into a quilt of color, love, and incredible music.

I teared up writing this, that’s how special Sonic Mania is. My cousin would have loved this game the way I do and it is the standard to which all future Sonic games should be evaluated. The reason it’s not number one is that, in this case, deference should be shown to its ancestor, without which we would not have Sonic Mania today.

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1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Genesis)

1. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992, Genesis)

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Chemical Plant Zone might be the greatest Sonic zone ever created.
Screenshot: Sega / MobyGames

The best innovations of the Sonic franchise came with Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The spin dash meant that Sonic could reach the needed speed to pass through loops and spirals on demand instead of having to rely on his momentum. This game gave us the first appearance of Super Sonic—the all-new, all-yellow, way faster (and much harder to control) version of Sonic achievable only by the most experienced and dedicated players. Special Stages improved with the new 3D-style tube stage, in which your success or failure depended on how well Tails could avoid getting hit by hazards as he tailed (heh) behind Sonic. But more than all of that, the introduction of Tails is, to me, by far the best thing that ever happened to Sonic because it meant my cousin and I could play our favorite game together for the first time.

We would race each other in head-to-head mode and I would often be the Tails to his Sonic in cooperative. My cousin had all four Genesis Sonics but it was Sonic 2 we played the most, mostly for its co-op mode but also because, for some strange reason, we simply preferred it to Sonic 3 or even Sonic & Knuckles. We played it for hours, often starting over once we got to the end even amid other options like Street Fighter II and Ms. Pac-Man. Sonic 2 was the one we always went back to, and the one I still always go back to.

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Kotaku Staff Writer and Hornt Correspondent - Fanfiction Novelist - Unapologetically Black - Diversity Gelatinous Cube

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