The 3D Sonic The Hedgehog Games, Ranked From Worst To Best

The 3D Sonic The Hedgehog Games, Ranked From Worst To Best

Much like a Sonic the Hedgehog level, Sega’s platforming franchise has had its ups, downs, loop-de-loops, and bottomless chasms. With the Knuckles show out, a third live-action movie premiering in December, and Sonic X Shadow Generations coming out this year, what better time to look back at the Sonic franchise’s best and worst moments? Since the series has been divided into 3D platformers, 2D sidescrollers, spin-offs, and adaptations, it only makes sense for us to do the same. So rather than rank everything the blue blur has done in one confusing list, we’ve split things up the same way. Today: 3D platformers.

These are some of the series’ most experimental entries, and that’s also made them divisive. Even the high points are riddled with contention. Let’s sort through all the good and bad of the games where Sonic runs forward instead of left to right.

16. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

The Sonic Boom sub-franchise brought us a pretty good animated series, but the Wii U-exclusive Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric remains one of the worst games in the series’ long history. While it may not be as memed to hell and back as the next game on this list, Rise of Lyric deviates so drastically from the speed-driven platforming of the Sonic franchise that it loses a lot of the series’ identity. Instead, it’s pretty much a beat-em-up that occasionally lets Sonic and friends run fast. Its 2D segments feel more evocative of classic Sonic games, but even these are built around momentum-killing puzzles between bursts of adrenaline. Even when Sonic games are at their worst, they’re rarely this generic and devoid of why people like these games. At the very least, it has some of the Boom series’ decent comedic writing, but that’s about all it can claim.

15. Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)

Sega / LongplayArchive

Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is widely considered the worst game in the Sonic franchise, and for good reason. It’s buggy, has insufferably long load times (that are placed even in the middle of levels) and that’s the second most frustrating part behind the camera being an all-time worst for the franchise. Sonic ‘06 feels so flimsy and imprecise in its character controls and level design that its use of multiple playable characters feels more like a gimmick than something the game is built around.

Fans have even tried remaking Sonic ‘06 to help some of its better elements shine through, because despite being perhaps one of the most frustrating video games to play of its time, there’s actually some redeeming qualities. The writing specifically around Shadow the Hedgehog and his team is genuinely introspective, the soundtrack is full of bangers, and it was one of the last games in which the Sonic cast felt like fleshed out characters instead of Flanderized caricatures of themselves. It is a prime example of the Sonic series having interesting, bold ideas but executing them so poorly that it pushed the developers to retreat back to basics in future games. It’s a shame because the series got a bit generic in the aftermath.

14. Shadow the Hedgehog

Sega / LongplayArchive

Speaking of a Sonic game with a lot of poorly executed ideas, Shadow the Hedgehog is another broadly loathed entry in the gaming lexicon. Again, for good reason. But at least it doesn’t have Sonic ‘06’s load times. Instead, we get an extremely busy, unfocused creation that has glimpses of a decent Sonic game sprinkled throughout. When Shadow’s getting to run through levels uninterrupted, blazing through the environment and being his speedy self, Shadow the Hedgehog feels about as good as any other 3D Sonic game of that era, but it also weighs down all that speed with unnecessary, amateurish action-game bloat.

Shadow gets firearms in this game that he can’t properly aim. He can ride in vehicles that are slower than he is on foot. Instead of running through levels, he ends up completing obtuse objectives and time-consuming collectathons in order to reach alternate routes and story branches. Yeah, Shadow the Hedgehog has alternate endings, but none of them is canon, and are basically “What If” scenarios where you learn more about his past. Oh, he also swears this time around, too.

Shadow the Hedgehog has ideas. A game that lets you reach multiple conclusions and interpret a character’s past in different ways is pretty neat, even by modern standards. It’s just handled so poorly that it is impossible to unearth the gems in the mountain of shit. The theme song, “I Am… All of Me,” is still an all-timer, though.

13. Sonic Lost World

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

Sonic Lost World (2013) was the last step on the retreat to safety the series took after Sonic ‘06. It keeps to a lot of the basics for the Sonic franchise in terms of tone, aesthetics, and level design. But it is so basic in the grand scheme of thing. It doesn’t quite stick out, even among the rest of Sonic’s 3D adventures. It does, however, have some really cool Nintendo crossover levels as part of it being a Wii U exclusive at launch. Sonic running around The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule and collecting the Triforce is kinda dope, actually.

12. Sonic and the Black Knight

Sega / LongplayArchive

The Sonic Storybook subseries—a Wii-exclusive fantasy duology—has always been a little silly, and seeing Sonic wield a sword in Sonic and the Black Knight is no exception. While the mainline Sonic games were entering an identity crisis at this time, Black Knight and its predecessor, Secret Rings, were at least still experimenting with the spiky blue ball. For Black Knight, Sonic is summoned by the granddaughter of the great wizard Merlin into a fantasy realm where he not only runs fast, but gets in sword fights with fantasy versions of his friends and rivals. It’s a fun scenario, but the entire thing was hampered by its unresponsive and imprecise controls. After two of these games with middling to bad reception, perhaps it was a good thing this subseries hasn’t returned.

11. Sonic and the Secret Rings

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

The Wii-exclusive Sonic and the Secret Rings came out shortly after the motion-control-driven console launched, so it naturally had to implement the Wiimote’s movement-based input into the Sonic formula. Rather than directly controlling Sonic the way you would in previous games, Sonic moves on his own with you steering him in different directions, similar to one of the series’ classic Special Stages or a modern-day endless runner. You can already imagine how this kind of indirect control of a character—whose entire schtick is speed—could prove frustrating. That being said, Sonic and the Secret Rings and its sequel both have a Mario Party-style minigame mode that kinda ruled.

10. Sonic 3D Blast

Sega / World of Longplays

Sonic’s first 3D outing looks very different when compared to its modern counterparts. Sonic 3D Blast isn’t quite the fast-paced rollercoaster that has become synonymous with the franchise, instead using an isometric perspective for more of a collectathon platformer. Looking back, it definitely feels like Sega was still testing the waters with a 3D space, and hadn’t quite figured out what a 3D Sonic would be. What it lacks in breakneck speeds and thrills, it makes up for in its simplistic charm.

9. Sonic Forces

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

Sonic Forces (2017) feels like a game almost out of time. Its self-serious story about Sonic and friends going to actual war with the series’ baddie, Dr. Eggman, feels like something out of the series’ early 2000s phase when it was trying to write more “mature” storylines. However, it lacks the same gravitas that has made games like Sonic Adventure 2 more beloved. What’s here is a crowded ensemble cast with little to do, beyond giving Sega a chance to play with all its toys.

The story does give Forces a unique element that still stands the test of time: the player avatar. After years of fans making Sonic OCs, Forces let players create their own characters and take part in Sonic’s resistance. Its creation options weren’t too expansive, but it was a really cool thing for Sega to put into a game after creating original characters had become so ingrained in the Sonic community.

8. Sonic Unleashed

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

2008’s Sonic Unleashed exists in the weird window immediately following the backlash to Sonic ‘06, trying to return to basics, but not quite shaking off some of the experimental aspects of Sonic’s aughts era. Yet, it trims down to only having Sonic as a playable character, and its speed-based levels are some of the best of the era. The gimmick of the game is that, during the night, Sonic turns into a Werehog. Yes, that means a werewolf hedgehog. When Sonic undergoes this transformation, the game shifts into a beat-em-up platformer, complete with more box moving, puzzle-solving, climbing, and slapping enemies around instead of running past them. While it’s not the most popular diversion from Sonic’s speed, it is relatively restrained. Unleashed takes some swings, and while they don’t all land, it was a decent recentering following some overcrowded games.

7. Sonic Frontiers

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

2022’s Sonic Frontiers is one of the most recent games on this list, and it takes the series in a slightly different direction, drawing inspiration from open-world games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Sega apparently wants it to be a foundation for the future of the franchise, and while it’s not the most lived-in open world, Frontiers giving you a vast map to run around as the world’s fastest hedgehog isn’t a bad pitch for what’s next. Some of the Sonic series’ most frustrating moments come from feeling restricted when you just want to run wild. Frontiers feels like letting your dog out into an open field, free to run to their heart’s content. The puzzles you solve, the enemies you fight, and the collectibles you find are just extra.

6. Sonic Colors

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

When Sonic Colors launched in 2010, it was practically a complete rebrand for the franchise. The Wii-exclusive fully moved away from the darker learnings of the Adventure era, Sonic was once again the sole playable character (without a werehog gimmick), and Sega even delisted old Sonic games that had lower Metacritic scores because they wanted it to be a fresh start. It was considered a return to form for a franchise that had lost its way, and beautifully merged the 2D and 3D formats into a colorful, adrenaline-pumping platformer that got to the heart of what some fans wanted. The ensemble cast’s absence was felt, and it only now feels like the franchise is getting back to including characters who aren’t Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles. But Colors was a perfectly distilled version of what Sonic needed to be after years of not knowing what it meant to be a Sonic game.

5. Sonic Dream Team

Sega / YTSunny

Like Colors, Sonic Dream Team is about distilling a Sonic game to its core loops. He’s gotta go fast, it’s gotta be simple to read where you need to go, and it has to control smoothly in the process. The Apple Arcade game is snappy, gorgeous to look at, and is a really solid summation of what a Sonic game should feel like. It’s a shame it’s not on consoles, because more people should be playing it.

4. Sonic Adventure

Sega / LongplayArchive

The original Sonic Adventure (1999) was a blueprint for the franchise for years. The transition to 3D had everything: multiple playable characters whose gameplay differentiated substantially from Sonic’s, a storyline with emotional stakes and some capital L Lore, pseudo-open-world elements that had Sonic and friends traveling through hub worlds to get to levels, and a banging soundtrack led by butt rock band Crush 40.

Sonic Adventure has stumbles, such as Big the Cat’s cumbersome fishing levels, and setting the standard for Sonic’s wonky camera. But it is a quintessential moment in the franchise’s history that even Sega seems to have newfound nostalgia for, as evidenced by darker games like Sonic Forces and the lore-driven story of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 movie. Its interwoven character stories were a deviation from its platformer contemporaries, and as the series has narrowed its focus to just the blue guy, it’s been missing that magic.

3. Sonic Generations

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

2011’s Sonic Generations is a greatest hits compilation made into a video game. It’s Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, but for the blue blur. When Sega was still wrestling with what it meant to be a Sonic game, it felt apt to go back and revisit everything that got us to that point for the 20th anniversary. Generations marries the series’ 2D past with its 3D present, remixing and revamping old levels from throughout the series’ history, giving modern and classic fans the best of both worlds. It’s a nostalgia trip, but it’s one of the tightest platformers with Sonic on the cover. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to look back, and Sonic Generations examines the old and the new to give the best and worst a second chance to shine along the way.

2. Sonic Adventure 2

Sega / FCPlaythroughs

Sonic Adventure 2 is arguably the best story in the franchise, introducing Shadow the Hedgehog as a malevolent foil to Sonic’s whimsy, and structuring the game around the shifting perspectives of its leads. The sequel brings back multiple playable characters, with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles facing off against Shadow, Dr. Eggman, and Rouge in distinct playstyles. Sonic and Shadow keep the fast-moving platformer side of the series alive, while the other rivals use mechs or hunt for treasure. Sonic Adventure 2 hits a sweet spot in using its ensemble cast to give players variety without overwhelming the experience.

All of this works to make Sonic Adventure 2 one of the most memorable games in the series (albeit with some frustrating camera nonsense and finicky controls), but the best part is still the elaborate story full of twists and turns that elevated Sonic and Knuckles’ new rivals to series mainstays, set a standard for Sonic final acts. From the sound of it, this will be at the heart of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 when it premieres in December. Sonic Adventure 2 is peak, but there’s one game we have to give the crown to…

1. Sonic Heroes

Sega / LongplayArchive

Coming off of Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Heroes (2004) is an underwhelming bummer in the story department. But it is, without a doubt, the most clever game in terms of integrating the series’ ensemble cast into the way you play. Heroes stars four teams of three, each made up of a fast-running speedster, a powerful tank, and a flight-based hero. Heroes has you swap between these characters on the fly, making use of their unique talents to overcome obstacles, defeat Eggman’s robot forces, and occasionally face one of the opposing teams as their interests collide.

Heroes was foundational in defining who the Sonic the Hedgehog cast would be for the next 20 years. It brought back recent favorites like Shadow and Rouge, as well as more obscure characters at the time like Team Chaotix. Rather than having these characters just be cameos in a crowded room, Heroes’ team-based gameplay gives every character a chance to shine, and manages to do so without bloating the game with too much nonsense or cumbersome modes.

Like most Sonic games of the era, Heroes hasn’t aged perfectly, and some of the imprecision and clunkiness can frustrate 20 years later. But it’s still the best example of a 3D Sonic game doing right by its cast and weaving their distinct abilities together into level design. Over the years, the Sonic franchise has struggled to marry its huge, much-beloved cast with the speed-centric expectations that come with the Sega’s speed demon. Heroes is the best example of everything clicking into place. Its story may be underwhelming after the Adventure games, but a game all about the power of friendship and teamwork that gives everyone equal spotlight can hit just as hard.

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