Next year Sega will be celebrating their mascot’s 25th anniversary whereupon there will be many recollections issued on how Sonic the Hedgehog has managed to endure for so many years as a cornerstone character of video game history.
For years Sega’s image has been bolstered by their output of quality video game audio; frequently signing famous bands, pop stars and composers to help create a quintessential sound that still feels unique to the company as a whole.
The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has likewise never been afraid to change with the times and as a result the music in nearly every one of these games since the Mega Drive original has been memorable and highly evocative of the sort of cloud-free skies, hyperactive speed and pure joyful energy that the series was once known for.
When compared with the more advanced hardware in the Super NES, the Mega Drive may not have looked as sophisticated, but it’s amazing how many great musicians of the time still managed to achieve a clear arcadey sound and rocking synth whilst recording for it.
Such tremendous audio design plays an especially important role in Sonic; where a subtle change in the music’s style, pace or rhythm can indicate everything from a speed power-up, an impending time limit or even Sonic’s underwater air supply!
Some titles offer enhanced variety via remixed background music or “BGM” for each new stage in a level whereas others will feature callbacks to established tunes and compositions that fans already know and appreciate.
Such wholesome commitment to sound design – whether by Sega or another company for that matter – was pretty groundbreaking back in the early Nineties and the impression it has left on players over the years has been huge.
To that end I’d like to highlight a mere twenty of my favourite Sonic the Hedgehog music tracks, but I’ll be enforcing a few common ‘list rules’ in order to make things a little bit more varied and interesting to read.
Any individual Sonic the Hedgehog game was only allowed to be featured on this list once although I have listed several honorable mentions for each game at the bottom of its respective entry.
Each selection obviously had to be part of Sega’s core Sonic franchise too meaning no referring to cameo appearances or games where the character or at least his identifiable style of gameplay isn’t heavily featured.
This is going to be a particularly subjective topic for a list so if you happen to have your own favourite Sonic tracks then I’d be interested to see them in the comments.
Other than that I just need to stress that the Sonic characters and music samples you see below are all property of Sega America, Europe & Japan ®
Gotta go fast!
#20 – Cosmic Angel Zone …for Sonic Advance
Principal Platforms: Game Boy Advance | Composers: Tatsuyuki Maeda, Yutaka Minobe | Year: 2001
When Sega exited the console market in 2001 to become a third party developer, they wasted absolutely no time in releasing games for systems owned by their former rivals.
Luckily Sega had enlisted the help of a talented new outfit called Dimps who set about rebooting the 2D Sonic universe for Nintendo’s super popular handhelds that were still dominating at retail.
After more than a decade of corporate feuding, Sega’s Sonic Advance was one of the first Sonic the Hedgehog games to see release on a Nintendo console; it truly was the end of an era.
Featuring multiple playable characters, beautiful 32-bit graphics and a slew of fun secrets to unlock, Sonic Advance revitalized the hedgehog’s 2D fortunes and ushered in a fresh series of fantastic platformers for its new audience to enjoy.
The Sonic Advance original soundtrack has always been tricky to judge though because of the spotty hardware it was recorded for. The Game Boy Advance console is notoriously lacking in the audio department as its weak speakers and sound samples output effects that have a noticeable “8-bit” quality to them.
And I’m not talking about funky, retro-chic 8-bit audio that you might hear in a modern indie game neither, but rather the sort of corrosive ambiance characteristic of a speaker that’s had Ribena accidentally poured down it.
Tropical Ribena at that.
The ruinously fuzzy synth of the Game Boy Advance console comes close to spoiling this one then – yes Tropical Ribena was a thing; look it up – and yet Sonic Advance still manages to sound reasonably upbeat with just enough personality to help it edge out the anodyne Sonic 4 and secure an opening spot on this list.
My personal top pick from the soundtrack; the Cosmic Angel Zone, happens to be the final non-boss level in the game and as such the drama is on a decent high in this accompanying stage music. Final levels always need to up the stakes in terms of high tempo BGM and I think this composition is pretty effective in doing just that.
Special mention is deserved for the character select music too as it possesses a charm so irresistible, the entire piece was actually recycled for use in Sonic Advance 2.
Honourable Mentions: Character Select, Egg Rocket Zone, Secret Plant Zone
#19 – Toxic Caves …for Sonic Spinball
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive | Composers: Howard Drossin, Brian Coburn, Barry Blum | Year: 1993
Sonic Spinball had the dubious honour of being one of the first official spin-offs, as it were, for the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.
Combining a typical platforming adventure with that of a pinball game is certainly an original idea and to this day it’s hard to think of another title quite like Sonic Spinball. The spongy physics and steep difficulty curve let the side down however and make for a pretty mediocre experience overall.
Although the sound effects are abrasive – the tune that plays when a player loses a life is especially unpleasant – the background music tends to fare better.
Of course the main attraction in a pinball game is the table itself and in Sonic Spinball it’s no different. There are only four main stages in the entire game, but with the caveat of there being no scene transitions or hidden areas to interrupt the flow of the gameplay, and more crucially, the music.
Whilst there are only a handful of compositions on the whole soundtrack because of this, the few tunes that you are treated to follow a suitable ambient style; funky enough to be memorable, but not overbearing to the point of distraction during each of the game’s lengthy stages.
Toxic Caves is the game’s opening level and it’s also one of the very few sewer zones in history that isn’t downright awful in some way.
The music here fits the aforementioned ambient style really well and ends up sounding more methodical than your usual Sonic tune from the era, but certainly no less infectious.
Honourable Mentions: The Machine, Boss, The Showdown
#18 – Labyrinth Zone …for Sonic the Hedgehog (8-bit)
Principal Platforms: Master System, Game Gear | Composers: Yuzo Koshiro | Year: 1991
Yuzo Koshiro has a long and celebrated history as a video game musician, but even then I sometimes think that his 8-bit work is a tad underrated.
Releases, ports or “demakes” of more sophisticated releases (common to 8-bit systems and especially handheld devices) are always a troubling prospect for that game’s soundtrack due to the lack of power available for accurately recreating favoured tunes.
For the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog though, Koshiro effortlessly remasters the Green Hill Zone theme before composing all new background tunes for rest of the game’s small-scale stages.
The Labyrinth Zone also makes the transition from the 16-bit original, but Koshiro composed a brand new theme here that makes a previously intimidating area feel a lot more fun and lively.
This is a good job since water stages are often a nightmare to navigate and place an emphasis on slow movement and air supply management; hardly the sort of gameplay elements that play up to Sonic’s strengths!
So memorable is this soundtrack in fact, it appears on the Japan exclusive release titled Yuzo Koshiro: Best Collection 2nd+ in its entirety.
Honourable Mentions: Scrap Brain Zone, Jungle Zone, Bridge Zone
#17 – Sky Babylon …for Sonic Rush Adventure
Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Composers: Tomoya Ohtani, Seirou Okamoto, Mariko Nanba | Year: 2007
It has to be said that this particular Nintendo DS sequel is a bit lacking when it comes to memorable music.
Certain tracks are mere remixes of Hideki Naganuma’s stellar work on the original Sonic Rush whilst any brand new material tends to tow the line between adequate stage BGM and repetitive accompanying tunes for hub areas; an environment where Sonic music rarely excels.
The Sky Babylon Zone though is one of the later levels and the accompanying stage music here finally manages to deliver a flash of substance that the rest of the game lacks up until this point.
Much like its prequel, Sonic Rush Adventure is a very fast moving game and so to finally hear a track with some urgency and drama to it does this fairly mediocre title a real favour.
Sky Babylon is still one of those tracks that works much better in situ than it does as a standalone listening experience, but it certainly doesn’t detract from its success and still stands as one of the soundtrack’s highlights.
Honourable Mentions: Haunted Ship, Boss: Whisker & Johnny
#16 – Planet Wisp …for Sonic Colors
Principal Platforms: Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS | Composers: Kenichi Tokoi, Tomoya Ohtani, Fumie Kumatani et al. | Year: 2010
Of the two versions of Sonic Colors available I’ve actually only played the 3DS release, but after watching a few gameplay videos of the Wii version, I can see it turned out to be a pretty accurate, if not superior, rendition overall.
In truth, the relatively mellow and more relaxed sounds in Colors are not usually my preferred blend, but I can certainly see the appeal when listening to the Planet Wisp BGM.
This level really plays up to the game’s title, especially in the Wii version where you’re presented with a beautifully rendered world teeming with vibrant colour, clear blue skies and dancing alien foliage.
Unlike my previous mention of Sonic Rush Adventure, I feel that the Sonic Colors soundtrack works perfectly well as a standalone listening experience too and no doubt it has plenty of fans as a result.
Honourable Mentions: Asteroid Coaster, Terminal Velocity
#15 – Bullet Station …for Sonic Heroes
Principal Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube | Composers: Jun Senoue | Year: 2003
Sonic Heroes was the first time that Sega advertised a Sonic game with the brain-dead slogan of “we’re going back to roots”.
Strangely enough though, Sonic Heroes almost entirely fails in this mission as it awkwardly tries to support four separate campaign stories full of B-list characters over one very modern-looking 3D platforming adventure that bears little resemblance to the hedgehog’s glorious back catalogue.
As Sonic Team’s first multi-platform release, Heroes suffers from glitches, poorly implemented design decisions and a general lack of narrative drive that further hurt its chances of acceptance.
The energetic soundtrack by series regular Jun Senoue does a good job of scoring back some merit though and there’s plenty of cool tunes to go around this time.
Bullet Station is the second act in a two-part roller coaster ride of rail grinding, train hopping and cannon blasting across a solid 6-8 minutes of play time.
The accompanying background music here is one of the more rocking Sonic tracks ever recorded and whilst it may be a bit short and samey, it’s still possessed of a furious momentum that suits the level in question perfectly.
Honourable Mentions: Sonic Heroes, What I’m Made Of, Egg Fleet
#14 – Work It Out …for Sonic R
Principal Platforms: Sega Saturn | Composers: Richard Jacques | Year: 1997
Sega’s failure to develop a leading Sonic title for the Sega Saturn was just one of the many critical missteps that would cost both them and their 32-bit pariah dearly in the years to come.
The task of bringing Sonic the Hedgehog into this era would eventually fall to Traveller’s Tales; a British developer best known today as the innovators of the bestselling Lego-themed video games.
Much like their Sonic 3D remaster though, Sonic R felt too much like a concessionary effort. Whilst the 3D graphics in this racer were very nice for a Sega Saturn game, the sensation of speed was all but missing (hello again, Sonic 3D!) and the overall length and variety of the single player mode was lacking too.
The legacy of Sonic R won’t be in its gameplay then, but rather in the unforgettable soundtrack composed by Richard Jacques and fronted by the talented voice of British singer TJ Davis.
As one of the earliest Sonic soundtracks to feature vocals, Sonic R definitely turned out to be a trendsetter and who can argue with the results?
The team of Jacques and Davis (who Sega would hire again for Metropolis Street Racer) made for some irresistibly good vibes here; tunes that are catchy, upbeat and hilariously campy all at the same time.
Picking a favourite track is a tricky one, but I’ve decided to go with Work It Out mainly for its superb bass and slightly tougher vocals from Davis whose pitch-perfect presence really sets this one off.
When combined with Sega’s trademark blue skies and melodic pianos, the Sonic R soundtrack overachieves in practically every way it’s able to and it’s still a delight to hear it playing today.
Honourable Mentions: Super Sonic Racing, Can You Feel the Sunshine?
#13 – Scrambled Egg Zone …for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (8-bit)
Principal Platforms: Master System, Game Gear | Composers: Naofumi Hataya, Masafumi Ogata | Year: 1992
This 8-bit sequel predates the 16-bit main event by a month and thus marks the first ever appearance of Sonic’s awesome/annoying (delete as you find appropriate) sidekick Miles “Tails” Prower.
As it happens, this is also the final 8-bit piece to make this list, but what a high point it is regardless.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is blessed with plenty of memorable tracks, but none capture that heady feeling of tension and impending danger quite like this stage music to the penultimate level: the Scrambled Egg Zone.
The name is admittedly stupid and the poorly designed level itself is barely worth mentioning either, but what more could you really ask of the music? It’s fast, threatening and yet extremely deliberate; perfect ingredients for any platforming game’s home stretch.
So effective is this track, it’s actually used twice. As well as acting as background music to the stage it represents, the opening few seconds are also used to accompany the introduction movie that shows Dr. Robotnik’s kidnapping of Sonic’s poor/deserving (delete as you find appropriate) sidekick-turned-foil Tails.
Oh, the humanity!
Honourable Mentions: Underground Zone, Sky High Zone
#12 – Mad Matrix …for Shadow the Hedgehog
Principal Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube | Composers: Jun Senoue, Yutaka Minobe, Tomoya Ohtani, Mariko Nanba | Year: 2005
The spin-off that no sane person asked for and yet still got anyway; Shadow the Hedgehog is often labelled as one of the worst Sonic games ever made and is a frequent underperformer in the affections of even diehard series fans.
It’s really not hard to see why.
The attempt at a slightly more adult flavour is cringeworthy, the mission-based level design is perversely counterintuitive and the continuing story first established in Sonic Adventure 2 has been retconned into oblivion.
When it comes to the soundtrack, opinions are bound to be mixed. The approach taken here is certainly more experimental than your usual Sonic title for one; it’s a noisy and aggressive style, but then it can be satisfyingly heavy and melodic too.
Such abrasive music is certainly not for everyone, but I find it to my liking and will easily name Mad Matrix as a personal favourite.
This track is just plain relentless and its melodic guitars only add to the gleeful onslaught. There are a few techno samples dotted about here and there (the level takes place in cyberspace or something) and overall you won’t find a better representation of what Shadow the Hedgehog as a game is at least supposed to be about.
The level itself is horrible, the game is horrible, but the soundtrack is potentially less horrible depending on your tastes. Now how’s that for a recommendation?
Shadow the Hedgehog fans may have themselves partly to blame for this ill-advised outing, but at least we can take away the decent music as an serendipitous side effect.
Quick piece of weirdo trivia: this game has one of my favourite main menu/title screen themes in all of video gaming.
Honourable Mentions: Waking Up, Main Menu, Lava Shelter
#11 – Green Hill Zone …for Sonic the Hedgehog
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive | Composers: Masato Nakamura | Year: 1991
Buried deep within the grand statistics of time and the entire history of the universe, there will be a record somewhere that shows how many times this tune has been hummed by a human being. And that would not be a small number, let me tell you.
Likely the first ever piece of Sonic stage music that many of the old guard ever heard, how could I not pick the Green Hill Zone theme to represent the game that started it all?
The precedent for colourful level design and profoundly catchy music was firmly established in this stage and much like how the Ground Theme is synonymous with Mario, so too is the Green Hill Zone theme with Sonic the Hedgehog.
This tune follows that time-honoured retro platforming tradition where the first level sounds vibrant and inviting, before the gloomier sounds of more difficult stages start to creep in.
An incredibly popular and well known piece, the Green Hill Zone has been remixed many times, not just by the gaming community, but also for official releases such as Sonic Battle and Sonic Generations.
Honourable Mentions: Starlight Zone, Scrap Brain Zone
Continue to Part 2 »