With Mania being the best Sonic game in two decades, and with most of Sonic's back catalogue now on Steam, we thought we'd rank them for reasons we can't entirely remember. We decided to just include the ones you can buy digitally on PC, mostly for our own sanity. Apologies in advance.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Samuel Roberts: Why did I think this list was a good idea?
Phil Savage: I already disagree with this. Sonic 3 & Knuckles has Sky Sanctuary, which has the best music. It also has a bonus stage minigame that Tails can't screw up by being useless at dodging bombs. It is clearly the best Sonic game.
Samuel: The level design is so consistent in Sonic 2, though, and I would argue the music is the best in the series (sorry, MJ). The first four levels in particular are the most easily replayable and enjoyable in 2D platforming history (give or take a Mario): Emerald Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Aquatic Ruins Zone and Casino Night Zone, where you can spend ten minutes playing the slots to get those extra lives. That's just a perfect run. And the rest of the game's alright too. The last boss is shittingly hard, though, and makes me a sad, 29 year-old child.
Andy Kelly: Sonic 2 is peak Sonic. It’s hit after hit, with no weak levels. Casino Night Zone, Metropolis Zone, Oil Ocean Zone… all classics. And the music? Perfect. Every game since (except maybe Mania) has cowered in its shadow. The platforming is about as refined as it’s ever been, and there are multiple paths through the levels that reward you for replaying them and uncovering their hidden secrets.
Joe Donnelly: Hang on a spin dashing minute, Phil, Chemical Plant Zone has the best music.
Phil: Chemical Plant Zone doesn't even have the best music of Sonic 2. Bang on some Metropolis Zone and get down to that funk.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Andy: I replayed this recently and I was surprised by how difficult it is. The Labyrinth Zone in particular is a nightmare of lava, spikes, and metal crushers. But it’s still a really well-designed platformer, even if the levels aren’t quite as wildly rollercoaster-like as the sequel. It hasn’t aged as well as Sonic 2, but it’s still just a really good Sonic game. I don’t really have much else to say. It’s good. It’s, y’know, Sonic. It’s got jumping and running. Man, writing about games back then must’ve been really difficult.
Samuel: I don't know what Andy's talking about, because this is the only one I was able to finish as a kid without cheats. Sonic and Sonic 2 are the only two classics in my opinion. I could replay these levels over and over again. My one problem with Sonic 1 was the use of the colour purple in Marble Zone. They really overdid it. I mean, purple: we get it. Also, going from three levels per world to two in the second game was a smart decision. You spend a bit too long in the same places here.
Phil: OK, what the fuck. We're ranking this one above Sonic 3 & Knuckles? It doesn't even have a spin dash! If you want to curl into a ball you've got to run and then crouch, like a rube. Pathetic. I've never been so angry about PC Gamer's content.
Andy: You gotta respect your elders. Sonic 1 is the OG. Blind nostalgia always wins in the end. The lack of a spin dash only adds to its charm. Probably.
Tom Senior: This is the only Sonic game I have played. I went really fast down a hill and did a loop. Then I hit a giant hoop and chased a floating thing around a 3D racing track. Then I sort of completed the level by accident. I don’t understand. How do we have so many opinions about this?
Phil: What happened, Tom, is you played a Sonic game. That's what a Sonic game is. That's what you do. You just sort of run right and press jump every so often and sort of hope the game just completes itself.
Andy: I won’t stand by and watch Sonic be reduced to merely ‘running right’. It’s about keeping the pace, maintaining the rhythm. Every time you stop you’ve FAILED. Sonic is about momentum and sheer SPEED. The faster you go, the better it is. It’s about quick-fire reactions and choosing the fastest route through the level.
Phil: You sound like that wank in every Nike advert who won't shut up about how spiritual running is.
Andy: You just don’t get it, Phil. You don’t get Sonic. And that’s fine. But as a pure expression of what a Sonic game is, Mania nails it. It has the speed and mind-twisting level design of Sonic 2, but keeps things interesting with imaginative boss design and one-shot gimmicks that never outstay their welcome. The bouncy Portal jelly in the new Chemical Plant Zone is an example of this, pinging Sonic around the level like a mad pinball. Fans will disagree, but I reckon this is the only really great one since Sonic 2.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Samuel: My parents couldn't afford a second hand copy of this when I was a kid (I ended up with Bubsy instead, the fate of all '90s working class children), so I ended up playing it as an adult, and the levels are way too long. And the bonus stage is rubbish. Fight me, Phil.
Phil: This is an outrage. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a genuine masterpiece; a two-part odyssey so epic that it would make Homer break down in tears. Angel Island Zone, Mushroom Hill Zone, Sandopolis Zone, Sky Sanctuary – these are the true good zones, my friends. The classics. The hardcore bangers. Actually, not Sandopolis Zone. That had this weird thing where you had keep turning on lights or a ghost would eat you. I hated that zone. Shit, I'm starting to doubt myself now.
Samuel: The music in this one is great, but when I played it for the first time about five years ago I found it slightly too hard. I enjoyed it and it's far better than most of the Sonics that followed, though. A lot of people insist this is among the best ones, so we can stick it in this position out of polite deference to what people probably believe, which is the foundation of any great list feature.
Phil: I really wanted this, but my parents wouldn't buy me a Sega CD. It's this penchant for wanting dumb, useless things that probably explains why they own a house and I just own an Xbox One that I haven't turned on in nine months.
Samuel: I wouldn't put this above Mean Bean Machine in the pantheon of Sonic spin-offs, but the blue hedgehog plays a decent game of pinball. Like all of the Mega Drive/Genesis games, minus Sonic 3D, it looks real pretty, too.
Phil: There's a bit in the 2006 game Sonic The Hedgehog (which was never released on PC) in which Sonic literally kisses a human woman, and yet Sonic Spinball is somehow still the eeriest and most unsettling Sonic game.
Andy: That deaf, dumb, and blue kid sure plays a mean Spinball.
Samuel: Laboured reference, or most laboured reference?
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Tom: Actually I have played this one as well and it’s pretty good, given the lack of Mario Kart on PC. It introduced me to Sonic’s extended cast, like Amy Rose. Why does she have a human name when everyone else is called things like ‘Ulala’ and Pudding?
Phil: DeviantArt probably knows the answer to this, but unlocking that knowledge comes at a price.
Samuel: It's great fun, plus you can buy Ryo from Shenmue in a moving Outrun arcade machine as DLC. That's strong fan service, and the driving in this is superb, as a result of Outrun 2006 developers Sumo Digital making it. Just one question, though. Why does Sonic need a car to go fast?
Andy: It’s no Mario Kart, but this is a decent arcade racer with some of the most colourful, dazzling visuals you’ll ever find on PC. I played it for a couple of hours and never played it again, but that’s okay. I bought it in a sale for a few quid and got my money’s worth. Although quite why ‘Football Manager’ has a place on the roster is beyond me. It’s just a bloke in a suit driving a football-shaped car. Who signed that off.
Samuel: I think that's hilarious, actually.