Sonic the Hedgehog will officially turn 25 years old in June. Holy hell.
The series has had its ups and downs, but the music has always been a strong suit. The early Sonic games all have strong claim to the title of best video game music from their era.
Note: I am referring to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic and Knuckles together as Sonic 3 and Knuckles throughout this piece. The locked together cartridge is the way the game was designed to be played. It was split in half because of space issues and to financially capitalize on two Sonic releases.
There are way more than 10 good Sonic songs. The 2D Sonic games were always incredibly aesthetically pleasing, and the music and sound design were huge reasons why. The level themes always sound big, audacious, and in your face, but the best ones have a surprising amount of complexity in their compositions.
Here are 10 (technically 11) of my favorites, in no particular order:
Emerald Hill Zone: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
This is best first level music in the series, so it is a natural place to start. One thing that will come up over and over again in this list is how well these tracks are at setting a place, both in the game itself and at a meta level for the player.
The track is perfectly executed simplicity: a catchy synth line is bolstered by a bouncy rhythm section. The music communicates fun, discovery, and wonder, which great opening level music for this type of game should set out to do.
Emerald Hill Zone is not complicated. A moderately skilled player can blow through the level in a few minutes. The levels of Sonic 2 would get more complicated, and the music would follow suit. But for now, it is bright day on a beautiful island, and you are running at the speed of sound.
Mystic Cave Zone - Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sonic 1 and 2 music composer Masato Nakamura is a bassist in the J-Pop band Dreams Come True. I didn’t know that fact until about a week ago, but it makes sense. The best Sonic 2 songs generally have killer basslines.
Mystic Cave Zone trades pretty heavily in a spooky, haunted house vibe, but what holds the thing together is that bass line. Goddamn. It singlehandedly lifts this song from a Castlevania retread to a funky, instantly memorable ear worm.
As a side note, Oil Ocean Zone also has a pretty underrated bassline, but I think people forget about it because they are too frustrated by the damn seahorses. I have played through Sonic 2 a ton of times, and they still get me.
Star Light Zone- Sonic The Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog is the weakest of the Genesis titles, and that includes the music. However, this track is a major standout and subtly hints towards the kind of music Nakamura would produce in Sonic 2.
All of the 16 bit Sonic titles had what a breather level, and Star Light Zone has that role in Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s predecessor, Labyrinth Zone, is a slow, challenging water level set to deceptively cheerful music. After Star Light, you have to deal with Scrap Brain Zone, which I would argue is the hardest level in the first three Sonic games.
Star Light Zone is a showcase for Sonic’s speed, and it is pretty easy to glide through this level. The later Sonic games are better paced, but Star Light Zone’s placement in the first one of the best decisions developers made. It is smart to allow the player to stretch their legs a little before the end game.
Hydrocity Zone: Act 2- Sonic 3 and Knuckles
Did Michael Jackson write the music to Sonic 3 and Knuckles in secret? We may never know for 100 percent certain. I do know that this would be a hell of a Michael Jackson song. Bonus points for being the music for literally the only water level in gaming that I look forward to playing.
Water is a major component of Hydrocity, but the level design means that drowning isn’t nearly the threat that it is in other Sonic levels. The mix of water, platforming, and sheer speed makes for a varied, challenging, and ultimately satisfying experience.
I like this level’s music better than Ice Cap Zone. I know that is borderline sacrilege.
Endless Mine - Sonic 3 and Knuckles
This is a song that some of you might not even know exists.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles has a pretty bad multiplayer component featuring four levels that are not in the main game. None of the levels are particularly memorable, and at worst, are pretty poorly designed. If you have never played it, you aren’t missing out on much.
The only reason to play the multiplayer is to hear the music. Sonic 3 and Knuckles is one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, and that comes through even in the deep cuts. This one is my favorite of the multiplayer tracks, but all of the music is surprisingly great for a game mode that looks and feels tacked on.
Wacky Workbench (Present) - Sonic CD
I wasn’t going to put a Sonic CD song in this list, but realized that not acknowledging this game would be a terrible, terrible mistake. Sonic CD is a historically important part of the series, and a damn good game to boot.
Sonic CD was released on the Sega CD around the same time that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 came out, but is vastly different. Lead Programmer Yuji Naka was tired of Sega’s corporate culture and moved to the United States to develop Sonic 2, while Sonic designer Naoto Ohshima stayed in Japan to create Sonic CD.
While Sonic 2 is a refined version of the original game, Sonic CD features a plot and gameplay mechanics tied around time travel. Your actions in the different time periods as well as whether or not you collect all of the Time Stones dictates the ending you get. The levels change as well, impacting the way the stages look and sounds. Looking at a screenshot of Sonic CD doesn’t tell you much, but anyone who has played the two games can tell you just how different they feel.
Also, not posting would be a mistake because the music is too good to ignore. Notably, Sonic CD had different soundtracks for the Japan/EU and North America versions. I am not about to get into the quagmire of which version is better. I grew up with the North American versions of the songs, but the Japan/EU tracks are undeniably solid.
Death Egg Zone: Act 2 - Sonic 3 and Knuckles
The best final level music in the series.
Death Egg’s music in Sonic 2 is ok, but you will barely hear it between the boss themes. Scrap Brain Zone is too overbearing and has no sense of fun, kind of like the level itself. I don’t consider Launch Base Zone to be a true “final” level, because Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles locked together is the way the game was originally meant to be played.
Even without the “final level” modifier, this track stands on its own. The synths are sharp and mechanical, fitting of a level set in a flying super weapon. The music tells you that the level you are about to play is going to be intense and gets you amped for the challenge ahead.
Lava Reef Zone Act 1: Sonic 3 and Knuckles
This track succeeds for many of the same reasons that Death Egg Act 2 succeeds. The rhythm section is on point, and the build to the big synths at the end of the loop really puts out a feeling of danger around every corner.
Most importantly, the music sounds like the level looks. It sounds like the music that would play while you were fighting robots in an active volcano. The audio and visual design of Lava Reef Zone work in perfect harmony.
Contrast this with Sonic 1's Labyrinth Zone track. It is a fun, bouncy track, but doesn’t really fit where you are. Labyrinth’s music sounds like something you would hear on a beach level or a carnival level.
Even though I am not calling it out specifically here, it should be noted that Nakamura would later get the “flooded maze” aesthetic right with Aquatic Ruin Zone’s music.
I waffled a lot on adding this one, but it is such a personal favorite that I can’t pass up talking about it.
Sky Chase Zone is the easiest level in Sonic 2. You can die, but you would have to really screw up to make it happen. After the incredibly difficult Metropolis Zone, Tails is taking you to Robotnik’s flying base by airplane.
Sky Chase Zone might not seem like much, but it is an integral part of Sonic 2's pacing. Again, this is a breather level, and the music fits perfectly. Sky Chase Zone sounds hopeful. You have overcome a difficult challenge, and are on your way to put the finishing touches on the game.
The harmonies of the Sonic songs are what really set them apart from other tracks of the time. Sonic Team pushed the limits of what was possible for a 16 bit sound card. Can you imagine what this would sound like without its harmony? It is easy to get caught up in the brilliance of the compositions of good 16 bit music, but the technological side can’t be forgotten.
Chemical Plant Zone - Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Is this the most famous song in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise? If not, it is in the top three or four.
The classics are classics for a reason. This is a song that anyone who has played Sonic has heard a million times, so I am not going to spend too much time expounding on its greatness. You know why it is great. It is everything a good Sonic song needs to be: Maximalist, immediate, and surprisingly complicated in its composition.
The melody is an instant classic. The next time you listen to this one, pay attention to the drums. They don’t get enough love.