Sonic The Hedgehog Races Onto The iPhone. But Do Its Fake Buttons Slow Him Down?

The iPhone is quickly becoming the platform of choice for nostalgia-inspiring classic games, with releases like Myst and Wolfenstein now landing on a regular basis. The latest addition, and the one that may strike closest to home for those console gamers of the early 90’s, is Sonic The Hedgehog. The game is now available for a reasonable $5.99, and you can download it here.

Now, I’d consider myself a pretty experienced gamer, and there are few games that I feel more attached to than the original Sonic the Hedgehog series. At a time when most popular games consisted of hopping and bopping on enemy baddies at a leisurely pace, Sonic brought something new to the table: speed. Sonic could race across the screen at a breakneck rate, clearing entire levels in under a minute or two (if you knew what you were doing), with the framerate keeping up the whole way. And he had an edgier attitude to boot, making him substantially cooler than the colorful plumbers representing that other gaming company. So does the iPhone edition do justice to its console predecessor?

To be honest, I was ready to bash the game when I first saw it. I’m not a fan of the control scheme some developers are adopting to port these classic games, which typically consists of a virtual joypad in the bottom left hand corner of the screen with a few virtual buttons on the right side. Visually the buttons successully mimic the gamepads of yore, but they lack any tactile feedback at all, which gets frustrating when you’re trying to dodge bullets or leap from cliffs and you accidentally hit the wrong button.

Fortunately, Sonic doesn’t suffer too badly. Make no mistake, the controls are far from perfect, and I’d prefer a gamepad to a glass screen any day, but Sonic’s simplicity keeps it mostly playable. This is primarily because the vast majority of the time you’re going to be holding down the right arrow button, with occasional quick taps to the left, so your thumb doesn’t have to do much hunting. But while the controls are acceptable, the game suffers badly from lag – an oddity given that Sonic was originally supposed to show how fast the Genesis was. It’s unclear if this is something that could be fixed with a software update or if the iPhone’s RAM and CPU simply can’t keep up with the blue hedgehog, but the gameplay definitely suffers. I found myself plummeting onto deadly spikes far more often than I should have been, and I’d like to think most of those falls weren’t due to rusty thumbs.

In any case, I think the game is worth a download, particuarly if you were a fan of the original. That said, I’m hoping that if Sonic is a hit for Sega, developers don’t take it as an indication that they should be porting every game in their archive with this virtual joypad setup. Because frankly, it often stinks, and is only passable in this case because of Sonic’s basic control scheme. Sega has apparently built an iPhone emulator using the joypad that would allow them to pump out these games at a rapid fire pace, and at this point I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Fortunately the iPhone 3.0 software update will allow for the release of actual joypads that can plug into the phone, which would make it a device that could really do these classics justice.