15 Sonic Games That Changed the Series for the Better

Ranking the Blue Blur's most impactful games.

Sonic games are a mixed bag. With camera problems, pacing issues, and game-breaking glitches, they have a poor reputation of being rough around the edges. But behind those flaws exist brilliant and creative ideas from Sega and the Sonic Team. Some are so bold that they’ve changed the franchise, or even gaming as a whole, for the better. So in honor of Sonic’s 30th anniversary, I’ve carefully considered and listed the 15 most impactful Sonic games of all time.

15. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric

Alright, look. It may seem bold and outright bonkers to include Sonic Boom in a list of most impactful Sonic games, but hear me out. Sonic Boom was unafraid to try something new: It’s a hybrid speed platformer, a character-switching puzzle platformer, an open-world hub, and a brawler, all in one. It may not have reached the ambitious heights it aimed for, but with the right amount of time and care, Boom could have been something great.

Sonic Boom has a lot of issues, but it features some of the most expressive animation, and possibly the best, of any Sonic game. The characters are almost elastic, with faces that squash, stretch, and exaggerate in ways that had not been seen since Adventure and Riders, where the technology could not keep up with ambition. Sonic Boom is far from being perfect (or even playable), but it stands as one of the most important Sonic games for the outstanding designs across the board and for the impact it could have made on the series with the proper time and care to execute its vision.

14. Sonic Forces

Sonic Forces isn’t well received, mainly for dropping the ball and not fully committing to some of its ambitions, but the title is filled with bold choices. Though the game suffers from sparse level design, repetitive boss fights, and leaving behind its initial dark tone, the story is more or less pulled right out of the fan-coveted Archie Sonic comics. Eggman has succeeded in taking over the world and a group of freedom fighters struggle to take it back with Sonic’s help. The intriguing premise unfortunately doesn’t stick the landing, especially since Infinite doesn’t feel like the right villain for the story, and his Replicas (duplicates of Sonic’s greatest past enemies) feel shoe-horned into the mix. But it’s refreshing to see the game borrow elements from other media. That said, Infinite is still a cool villain, and a great addition to Sonic’s rogues gallery as a reality-warping foe whose abilities contrast the physical and athletic abilities of Sonic.

Speaking of characters, another bold addition was the customizable character creator. Though the player avatar is awkwardly written into the story, the fact that Sega saw the importance of Sonic fan characters and put them in the game shows an understanding of Sonic fandom. However, this kind of appeal to fandom is a double-edged sword. Giving into fan desires, be it suggestions or demands, can impede creative freedom for the developer. Forces (alongside Mania being developed by a fan game creator) pulled ideas from the fandom and found something fun. Hopefully, some of those ideas will bleed into future titles.

13. Sonic Rush

Sega’s first Sonic Nintendo DS title, Sonic Rush, upgraded the side-scrolling Sonic gameplay seen in the Sonic Advance games to a new generation in a spectacular, flashy, and fun way. But more importantly, it introduced the Boost mechanic to the series, which is still used to this day. Boost grants players the ability to launch Sonic into Mach speed and clear out enemies quickly. Fans can sometimes be divisive about Boost, but it has radically improved 3D games, not only building off the original concept of Sonic (to go fast) but also giving players a fun and satisfying way to zoom past obstacles.

Sonic Rush did a lot with a little, completely changing later Sonic games with the introduction of Boost and also just being a blast to play. The levels are creative and elevate the groundwork from the Sonic Advance series. The game is a visual joy, giving us an expressive 3D Sonic on immaculate pixel art backgrounds. A lot of titles included in this list contributed something important to the Sonic franchise but have a lot of faults. Sonic Rush changed Sonic games and is one of the series’ best experiences.

12. Sonic Heroes

Like Sonic Forces and Sonic Boom, Sonic Heroes stands as one of Sonic’s most impactful titles for its ambition. Though the game is still a speed-focused platformer, Heroes changed up the formula with team mechanics, adding flight and combat to each level that required the player to switch characters to take on each challenge. As is usually the case with Sonic games, not every piece fell into place, but it was an idea that shook things up, and largely succeeded in doing so.

Heroes also deserves credit for expanding upon the large cast of the Adventure games, including a lot of characters and actually letting them have a stake in the story. It’s something that would become important for future games and something fans would miss after the disaster of Sonic ‘06. The Chaotix, who hadn’t been seen for a decade (since Knuckles’ Chaotix), made their return in this game as a private detective trio. Cream the Rabbit, who had only been in the Sonic Advance games prior, was also integrated into the mainline games. Though each team campaign is roughly the same, only with differences in difficulty, Sonic Heroes earns my respect for how it divides gameplay between three different styles. Sonic Heroes might not be as beloved as the 3D games that came before it, but it was one of the first modern games that proved Sega was willing to take risks with the franchise.

11. Sonic Advance

Fans of classic Sonic games often ask for a return to form, going back to what made the original 2D games great. However, the Sonic Advance series is often bafflingly left out of the conversation. Sonic Advance is exactly what classic Sonic fans wanted while the console titles went in different directions. This game and its predecessors are near-perfect progressions of the classic Sonic playstyle.

Sonic Advance plays like classic titles, but with a new, added sense of speed and style. From the incredibly expressive sprite work to the reimagined sunset version of Green Hill Zone, Sonic Advance is a visual delight, all in the convenience of the handheld Game Boy Advance. Full of life, color and action, it pushed 2D Sonic gameplay to new heights. And, ultimately, it stands as one of the best and most underrated titles in the series.

10. Sonic CD

Sonic CD is a visual treat, with a memorable anime intro, vibrant visuals, and delightful level design, which elevated the pinball-esque format from earlier Sonic titles. Sonic CD took advantage of the Sega CD’s increased power to build a game full of spectacle. It also introduced a monkey wrench into Sonic gameplay: time travel. Each zone is given three acts, the first two taking place in the present and the third in an undesirable future, which can only be fixed by finding the time warp. After completing a past version of the level, you can unlock the good future.

Time travel expands the playability of each zone and gives you reason to play the game repeatedly to unlock the good future ending. This mechanic also gives the game a killer soundtrack, with different remixed versions of a zone’s music in both the good future and bad future levels. Time travel would only make one other appearance in the Sonic series via Sonic ‘06, but the innovation and unique approach to storytelling — diverging paths, alternate endings, and changing scenery — would continue in several titles to come.

9. Sonic The Hedgehog 2

This was a tough call in terms of ranking. Sonic 2 is, in many ways, better than its predecessor: it adds the spin dash and is an improvement from the original with more focus on speed, better level design, and enhanced colors. That said, Sonic 2 wouldn’t have any foundation to build off of were it not for the original. It’s the better game for sure, but perhaps not as influential as the one that started it all.

Sonic 2 also introduces the adorable sidekick, Miles “Tails” Prower, which adds a second player option. With Tails comes the ability to fly past certain obstacles, bringing another layer of strategy to each level. This was the beginning of Sonic experimenting with multiple playstyles in one game, making Sonic 2 one of the best classic gaming sequels of all time and forever changing the series.

8. Sonic The Hedgehog

The original Sonic the Hedgehog changed the face of gaming, quite literally. Prior to its release, Nintendo had an iron grip on the market, and Sonic led the Sega Genesis to outsell the Super Nintendo for a brief time. Sonic was cooler and more mature than Mario, and the game reflected its mascot. Focusing on speed, memorization, and a unique world of color, robots, freeing animals, loops, and wildly unique zones, the very first Sonic the Hedgehog is easily the most important game in the series. 

But is it the best or most impactful in the series? That’s up for debate, but I think the original falls right around the middle. It skyrocketed Sega into the big leagues of early gaming, but it’s also a tough game to play, both because of its difficulty and unpolished controls. All that said, Sonic the Hedgehog still holds up as one of the best in the series, and will go down in history as one of the most influential games in the medium.

7. Sonic Unleashed

Putting Sonic Unleashed ahead of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is a controversial choice, but I stand by it for the sole reason that Sonic Unleashed, specifically with its day levels, completely redefined 3D Sonic gameplay. The night levels are annoying and out of place and should have just featured Knuckles. They’re combat and puzzle-based, which is much more fitting for Knuckles’ playstyle, and the character would have been right at home in a story about the Earth shattering as the guardian of a floating island. 

On the other hand, the daytime gameplay is a damn-near perfect evolution of everything that came before. By simply adding the Boost of Sonic Rush to 3D, as well as drifting, side-stepping, open level design, and 2D side-scrolling segments, Unleashed’s daytime levels feel fast and great to play. It would take a few more iterations to get right, but these additions made for some of the smoothest, adrenaline-pumping Sonic levels. For all its faults, Unleashed deserves praise for this reimagining of 3D Sonic.

6. Sonic Colors

Sonic Colors is the first Sonic Game to get a remastered re-release since the Sonic Adventure games came to Gamecube — and that says something. Sonic Colors was first released in 2010 and attempted to Mario-ify Sonic with added power ups, lots of color, and a variety of levels stemming from its interplanetary theme park setting — from the candy-themed Sweet Mountain to the exciting and bright lights of Starlight Carnival. As a result, Colors is one of the most inviting Sonic games in presentation and gameplay. 

Improving upon the groundwork laid by Sonic Unleashed, Colors is a blast. It has long, open stretches to zoom through with Sonic’s Boost and all the speed mechanics introduced in Unleashed, as well as plenty of satisfying side-scrolling platformer segments. Colors also comes with a whole new set of abilities via Wisps, adorable alien companions that give Sonic various power ups that provide fun, satisfying, and visually stunning ways to plow through enemies, difficult sections, and any other obstacles. Without a doubt, Colors is one of the best explorations of 3D Sonic gameplay, and it deserved its remaster.

5. Sonic Mania

Fans had been hoping for a return to 2D classic Sonic for years, and Sonic Mania finally delivered with upgraded visuals and fan-made levels to boot. Sonic Mania originally began as a port of original Sonic games for mobile, commissioned from developer Christian Whitehead by Sega. Eventually, it began to take on new life as a completely fresh game, becoming a full console title.

Sonic Mania is the culmination of all the 2D Sonic titles that came before it, including remixed levels and new content that feels like a colorful parade of what 2D Sonic has been and can be. The color and sprite work is easily one of the best parts of Mania, and the game plays smoothly as well, capturing the past with a modern approach. It is a masterpiece of classic Sonic gameplay and stands as one of the most refreshing in the series.

4. Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Sonic 3 & Knuckles is easily the best of the original trilogy and brilliant from concept to execution. It’s not just because of the ability to play Knuckles, or the streamlined gameplay that clearly incorporated lessons from everything before it, but also because the game is one of the most ambitious ventures into storytelling in video games ever created. By including an expansive story and flipping the player’s perspective, the developers crafted a story that would have a major and lasting impact on the Sonic series.

The Master Emerald has been stolen, and Angel Island has suddenly appeared to Sonic and Tails. Knuckles, isolated from the outside world, believes they’re the intruders who stole the Master Emerald. With this new island comes a vast new location to explore and an ever-changing landscape full of unique levels that transition into cutscenes in seamless and effective ways. Aside from the story, it has innovative gameplay with Knuckles’ unique playstyle, which encourages exploration via his climbing abilities. Sonic 3 & Knuckles, on top of having diverse and expansive gameplay, laid the groundwork for the ambitious storytelling of the Sonic Adventure games.

3. Sonic Adventure

Though Sonic 3 & Knuckles deserves all the credit for pushing storytelling in Sonic forward, Sonic Adventure took the baton and ran. It was the Sonic Team’s first foray into full 3D gameplay, and though it’s far from perfect, so much of their passion, ambition, and creative thinking shine through.

3D Sonic has had its ups and downs, and the first Adventure game was the first to display these issues. However, it stands out for keeping 3D gameplay linear when all other 3D platformers were moving towards free exploration, resulting in a satisfying experience. But the true core of Sonic Adventure is its cinematic approach to storytelling, which solidified the game as a fan favorite for decades. The story is wild, incohesive, and even kind of dumb at times, but the heart, long reach, and grand scale are palpable. From Gamma’s story to the tragedy of Chaos as a villain, the emotional beats hit hard, forming a powerful narrative that complements its energetic gameplay.

2. Sonic Generations

Though Sonic Generations may often be dismissed as a nostalgia fest, it’s also one of the best Sonic games ever made, serving as both a celebration of 20 years of Sonic and a remix of the series’ greatest hits. Generations takes the great 3D Sonic elements and mechanics that came before it and streamlines them, giving the player chances to satisfyingly chain Boost, use homing attacks, and side-step. The title also gave 2D Sonic a playstyle that evokes the original games with some slight updates that make it feel slick and responsive. 

Switching between classic and modern Sonic gives two different perspectives of old and new to each level, since you play as both Sonics to clear zones. It’s a brilliantly executed concept that celebrates all eras of Sonic. While the story is slightly lacking and the Time Eater isn’t a memorable villain, Sonic Generations reminds people why Sonic is great. It also gave Sega and the Sonic Team a clear guide for Sonic’s future: to be unafraid in celebrating and deriving inspiration from the past, while simultaneously flipping it into something new.

1. Sonic Adventure 2

Sonic Adventure 2 is a game that many Sonic fans of a certain generation will easily claim as their favorite of all time, and it’s easy to see why. Sonic Adventure 2 builds upon what came before it, taking the cinematic storytelling and dramatic narrative of Sonic Adventure and expanding it into a memorable adventure that has, in many ways, stood the test of time. On top of its gameplay being a streamlined, updated version of its predecessor’s, Adventure 2 also offers a wide variety of playstyles and a unique story mechanic. To this day, the decision to have players experience the story from two perspectives feels like one of the most groundbreaking decisions in video game history.

By giving players the ability to play as both heroes and villains, Sonic Adventure 2 offers two sides of the story, and not just different parts of the narrative like Adventure. You see the villains’ perspectives and learn about the depth of its characters, such as how Shadow isn’t just evil and how Eggman fears his own ambitions will take him too far. It’s a bold and brilliant move that, packaged with all the creativity, new characters, and gameplay elements, makes Sonic Adventure 2 the best and most impactful entry in the Sonic series.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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