SEGA on Xbox Live Arcade? About bloody time. Having lovelessly thrown anything and everything onto the Megadrive channel of the Wii's Virtual Console - complete with those wonderful 50Hz borders we know you all love - we knew it was only a matter of time before it started repeating the trick on the Xbox 360. And with typical determination to eke every last cent out of its biggest franchise, it has rolled out one of the big guns first. Yes, the inspirational Yuji Naka Mega Drive masterpiece, which catapulted the firm to worldwide success way back in 1991, Sonic The Hedgehog. Truly, if there were a proper gaming Hall of Fame to speak of, Sonic would be one of the first entrants.
As such, the game's ubiquity and endless re-issues ensures that this 16-bit platformer needs absolutely no introduction. By now, the blistering side-scrolling, ring-collecting gameplay and distinct, detailed visuals will be etched in your minds to such an extent that you'll already be humming the various theme tunes as if they'd just been on the radio. We've all been exposed to the game that many times over the years, you could practically relive the entire experience in your head by just sitting back, closing your eyes and sinking into a Sonic-themed trance for a few minutes. There. I've just saved you some money. Donations via PayPal, please.
When Mario was The Enemy
As with a lot of games of its time, it wasn't especially long, but that hardly mattered one bit. In fact, taking a glance at the 12 Achievements, one of them is finishing the entire game in under 40 minutes, or finishing Green Hill Zone One in under one-minute-thirty-five. The challenge, really, is being so practised at the game, and so aware of its secrets and shortcuts that you can just bomb through it in a dizzy frenzy of timed leaps of faith. At times it's just so intense and relentless, your eyes might never be the same again. But like any good platformer should, it ebbs and flow, with more considered trap-laden sections breaking up Yuji Naka's grin-inducing desire to show off just how much the Megadrive could do. At the time, it was as much of a tech demo to wow people into buying the console as it was a game. It worked.
Then, as now, it's a well-honed, refined, secret-packed yet lovably simplistic jump-and-collect affair, complete with an almost unending number of traps designed to catch you out and send you careering back to the last checkpoint. But with a paltry three lives to get through the game, such arcane design mechanisms don't really wash with today's less patient gamers - so SEGA has thoughtfully included a save-game function that allows you to chip through the game at your own pace, and mercifully avoids the potential irritation of having to replay the same levels over and over again. If doing it the old school way is your preference, you can do that, too, but it's good to see SEGA considering that not everyone has Ninja 1991 skills, and might just, you know, want to get through the game and see what the later levels have to offer. Such an approach works in other senses, too, in that it gives players the chance to practice specific levels as they see fit, before, perhaps, playing the whole thing in one go. Not everyone really wants to have to play the same zones over and over again, and rightly so.
A word of caution, though. Although Microsoft and SEGA might make a big deal about upscaled graphics and so on, the effect of having the game displayed in high definition really doesn't help mask the limitations of blowing up low-resolution retro games onto gigantic high-definition screens. Naturally, what looked sharp, bright and beautiful in 1991 doesn't look so great in 2007. But, helpfully, they have provided a solution, with the option to smooth out the visuals within the game's menu. It's a bit weird to begin with. Your eyes might not appreciate the stylistic change, but, on balance, it does a decent job of retaining the cartoon quality of how the game was intended to look. Either way you want to view it, the game still stands out as a landmark title even now. The very fact that it represents a huge leap for 2D games back then has meant that it hasn't actually dated that badly at all - and with its fast, smooth-scrolling, excellent character design, and cute animations all looking great even now, it's not hard to see why.
The halcyon days of borders
What is harder to accept, though, is the curious decision to leave small borders on the top and bottom of the screen by default - as if SEGA and Backbone Entertainment were actually trying to remind European gamers what it was like in the days before console games were properly converted for PAL. We can only assume it was to ensure it complies with 50Hz TVs, but you don't see this on other XBLA titles, so who knows? Maybe our US readers can tell us if their version is bordered initially, too. Either way, it seems like an odd thing to do. Happily, you can go into the settings and stretch the screen out (both horizontally and vertically) - just as you can in the SEGA Mega Drive Collection, so it's no big deal.
Beyond that, there's really very little to report about Sonic The Hedgehog on Xbox Live Arcade. There's a single 'All Time Best Score' leaderboard, but no attempt at injecting new modes, new difficulty levels or any kind of multiplayer, thankfully. It matters not. For your 400 points you get an absolute nailed-down classic that is, in many respects, just as much fun today as it was back when it was released. Sadly, you can't talk about Sonic without also making reference of the fact that it has been released on goodness knows how many compilations for, comparatively, a fraction of the cost, and that most of you will have played the bloody thing to death. But sod that argument for a moment: this is undiluted, old-school platforming goodness at its most refined for a few quid, and a true landmark title that any fan of the genre should have in their collection. And with a free trial available for the doubters, it'd be rude not to have a peek.