If you told a SEGA fan in 1999 that some of Sonic the Hedgehog’s best games would soon be Nintendo exclusives, you’d probably be picking your teeth up off the sidewalk. But when the Dreamcast croaked in 2001, SEGA’s third-party afterlife was inaugurated with the most unexpected partnership. Hey—if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
A lot of things happened to SEGA’s first-party franchises when the company’s IPs were suddenly homeless. Phantasy Star Online and its sequel became the only online titles on Nintendo’s GameCube outside of Japan. Shenmue II, Crazy Taxi, and Chu Chu Rocket were immediately ported to the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Game Boy Advance respectively. And Sonic Adventure 2—the last platform-exclusive Sonic game to be published on a SEGA console—got an enhanced port on the GameCube.
That’s right; Sonic the Hedgehog was sharing lockers with Mario. It was as if Trump and Hillary had to share the same life raft. Hijinks had to ensue, right?
Well, it turned out Sonic was perfectly at home on Nintendo hardware! Go figure.
From 2001 to 2007, Sonic Team and co-developer Dimps released a string of original handheld Sonic titles that, while popular in their day, seem to be sorely overlooked two console generations later. Modern critics of the Blue Blur draw Sonic’s lowest point somewhere between Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Colors, but during that entire spell five fantastic platformers and two bizarre spinoffs were released under Sonic’s name. Long before Mario and Sonic would slug it out in Beijing, the fastest thing alive had to earn his keep in foreign territory, and boy did he ever. While Sonic Heroes tried desperately to reclaim the series’ roots—flanked by two retro Sonic collections, no less—Dimps had not only revitalized Sonic’s side-scrolling action but had innovated beyond it.
15 years ago, Dimps teased its very first title at a 10th anniversary celebration for Sonic the Hedgehog. In San Francisco, SEGA and Yuji Naka held a birthday bash complete with cake and a gallery of playable Sonic games stretching back to the Master System. It was a bittersweet moment, as fond memories intermingled with an uncertain future.
In that context, it makes sense, then, why Sonic’s very first multiplatform outing was somewhat conservative. Released both for the Game Boy Advance and the Nokia N-Gage (why, though?), Sonic Advance, AKA Sonic N (2001), was the most true-to-its-roots platformer the series had seen since 1994. Combining the character selection of the Adventure titles with the signature momentum-based level design of the original Genesis classics, Advance swiftly captured the hearts of players new and old. In trying to bunt it in, Sonic Team and Dimps had inadvertently swung for the fences. It even had a goddamn Chao Garden.
It’s also worth mentioning that veteran Sonic composer Tatsuyuki Maeda, who has Sonic 3 & Knuckles under his belt, was brought on to write some tunes that rival the maximalist swagger of Sonic’s brattier, pre-“Live & Learn” days.
Advance’s bright and colorful aesthetics and variety of playstyles were the perfect accompaniment to the refreshing simplicity of the game’s premise. Instead of apocalypse-seeking water gods and exploding moons, it was just Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy versus Eggman and six zones. Tried and true.
Whatever Sonic Team was betting on with this game, it paid off. Sales breaking 1.5 million copies convinced SEGA that Sonic was going to do just fine in his new home, and two more titles in the Advance series were developed.
Sonic Advance 2 (2002), arguably the best of the three, was an adrenaline pumping rollercoaster that cranked the game’s speed past 11. I’m pretty sure Sonic games hadn’t ever been this fast. I mean, look at this thing:
This guy’s speedrunning, but its a testament to the face-melting tempo of this game that he can blow through it in about twenty minutes. Unlike its predecessor, Sonic Advance 2 departed significantly from its console forbearers and implemented tricks, ramps, massive screen-spanning loops, boosters, copious grind rails, and goal lines that rewarded you for finishing a stage at the highest possible MPH. The game doesn’t even let you stop for the boss fights, keeping you running during every Eggman battle.
Wisely, Sonic Team brought back Tatsuyuki Maeda to match music to the frenetic pace of the gameplay. Advance 2's thumping blend of electronica and guitar rock would come to define the handheld Sonic titles during this timespan, and with good reason. Music like that demands you to shoot through the game like a blue bullet.
Sonic Advance 3 (2004) is the weakest game of the trilogy, partly because the sweet spot Sonic Team and Dimps had tickled in Advance 2 had become something of a cavity by the third entry. A plethora of characters coalesced into an awkward Sonic 2-esque buddy system, where anyone could be paired up for the ultimate shipping fantasy. Sonic & Amy, Tails & Knuckles, Cream & Cheese & Knuckles, you name it. But 3 piled a frustrating overworld on top of that and made the levels more of a labyrinthine mess to accomodate the plethora of different partnering possibilities and collectibles. (Also, Omochao. No one needs you, go away.) Still, though, Advance 3 is an absolute charmer. The levels boast a unique visual style, and some of the match-ups can be quite funny.
Two spin-offs were released for the GBA in 2003, and they were...well, one was a pinball game and the other was a four-player 3D brawler. Sonic Pinball Party is a totally unnecessary pinball game that includes NiGHTS and Samba de Amigo tables, but why play that when you have the far superior Sonic Spinball?
Sonic Battle, however, was far better than it gets credit for. While it’s not some forgotten gem like the other titles on this list, it was a decent portable fighter for a four-button console and even featured Shadow the Hedgehog, the greatest Sonic character of all time, in his first handheld outing. So that’s gotta be worth something. It also continued the convoluted series-spanning story arc about Shadow’s origins, death, and quest for revenge or something, as well as beginning a story arc about Emerl and Gemerl that would be concluded in Sonic Advance 3. Back in the day, that was pretty neat.
Sonic’s GBA outings were a hit, and by the time the Nintendo DS was announced, Sonic Team and Dimps were riding a potent high. A dinky, wrist-destroying prototype of a Sonic-themed torture device with music from Sonic Advance 2 and Adventure 2 was seen at E3 2004, but SEGA ditched it for a much less strenuous game.
And so, Sonic Rush was born in 2005. Cutting back on the dizzying number of guest starts Heroes and Advance 3 were criticized for, Rush offered two campaigns: one as the speedy Sonic and another as the more acrobatic Blaze the Cat. Similar to how the Advance games’ Chao Gardens and Vs. modes took advantage of the GBA’s robust connectivity features, Rush utilized the DS’s signature dual screens for more vertically challenging gameplay, and based its “tension gauge” boost system on the advanced graphical and processing power of the console. I’m sure more people have played Sonic Generations than the Rush games, so you may be familiar with the modern boost mechanic that was curbed from Rush. It was just that good.
Ditching the overworld and refocusing on speed and tricks gave Rush a fresher identity, helped in large part by the three-dimensional boss fights that tasked players with fighting on multiple planes. Further differentiating it from its GBA forbearers, Sonic Rush boasted a deliriously bouncy big beat soundtrack courtesy of Jet Grind Radio composer Hideki Naganuma, perhaps its most impressive accolade. Raucous sample-heavy tracks like “Back 2 Back,” “What U Need,” and “Wrapped in Black” are some of the best music to come out of SEGA in its entire history.
Its weird sequel Sonic Rush Adventure (2007) took inspiration from the 3D titles and placed a large emphasis on story, vehicle gameplay, and even RPG elements in the form of a village Sonic and Tails could explore and a sea chart used to traverse the water in pursuit of a robotic Robotnik. While the action levels themselves are fun and retain the style of the original game, the RPG overlay is utterly forgettable (like, literally, all I remember is Tails teaching me how to water ski).
The Rush games should have cemented Dimps’s legacy as a perfect foil to Sonic Team’s less-than-stellar habit of making unfinished and bloated Sonic titles, but their subpar work on sidescrolling DS ports of console Sonic games like Colors and Generations and the lackluster reception of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 saw them fall from their good graces. Which is sad, but that’s what you get for making Sonic the Hedgehog 4. It’s hard for me to feel bad about that.
Oddly enough, while the games sold tremendously well, the Advance and Rush series rarely enter any discussion about Sonic’s better moments. Official PR channels like Sonic’s infamously self-aware Twitter never mention them. Not a single Advance level was included in Sonic Generations, though some songs are featured and a Sonic Rush level was included in the 3DS version. All three original Advance titles have been re-released on the Wii U Virtual Console in Japan, but that’s as far as they’ve gone.
It’s a real shame, because I feel like a mass reevaluation of these five titles would give the series a huge nostalgia boost. They’re incredibly fun, lighthearted platformers that tried to capture the spirit of the Genesis originals but instead forged a totally new and way-past-cool identity for a series that can’t seem to commit to one. When critics champion Generations as a “return to form,” they mean the 16-bit games, not these little masterpieces. (Well, two or three of them are masterpieces, but they blow Sonic Heroes and Unleashed out of the water.) It merely testifies to how much dust they’ve gathered over the past decade.
I know this write-up may seem longwinded, but these games have always held a special place in my heart. I came of age in an era where SEGA was bowing out of the console market and porting their classic first-party titles to anything with an electrical signal—a crusade that continues to this day. Even though I had seen Sonic the Hedgehog 2 running in a Funcoland one time while picking up a GameShark, my first introduction to the series was through Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Advance. As any adult Sonic fan has done, I’ve gone back and struggled to understand why I liked the buggy, frustrating mess at the heart of Adventure 2, but revisiting Sonic Advance and Rush reminds me why I poured hours into those games as a kid. They’re damn good, which is a compliment Sonic Team doesn’t get much lately.