Since the mid 2000s, one of the many complaints levelled at the 3D Sonic the Hedgehog games is that they have unnecessarily convoluted stories. While this may be true for some of the games (notable offenders being Shadow the Hedgehog and Sonic 06), what some outsiders to the series may not realise is that although the core conflict of the original 90s platformer Sonic games has always been simple and effective (Eggman’s being a rude dude, sort him out Sonic), they are actually steeped in a surprising amount of lore and world building which the series’ developers unfortunately seems to have forgotten in recent years. In this handy dandy guide, I’m going to rattle off each of the game’s backstories in what I believe to be a chronological order. Of course the chronology isn’t officially confirmed, but what’s important here is the story we don’t necessarily see in the games, so let’s get started:
#1: Sonic the Hedgehog – SEGA Master System/Mega Drive/Game Gear (1991)
The game where it all began, or not as the case may be, since the Japanese manual tells us that this is not the first conflict between Sonic and Eggman, as Eggman’s opening dialogue states that “Thanks to him [Sonic] my great plans are always laid to waste!”
As for the story proper, we follow Sonic, a nomad born on Christmas Island, visiting South Island, one of his favourite sightseeing areas, when he notices that all the wildlife has been enslaved by Eggman for the purpose of digging up the island to find the elusive Chaos Emeralds, powerful gemstones that give life to all life and allegedly the means by which South Island is able to mysteriously move at all times, never staying in one place.
Since this was the first game in the franchise and was more or less a simultaneous release between platforms (give or take a few months), the story doesn’t deviate between the 8-bit and 16-bit versions of the game, unlike the next instalment…
#2: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – SEGA Mega Drive (1992)
Despite the fact the 8-bit version of Sonic 2 came out a month before its Blast Processing counterpart, the Japanese manual explicitly details that this game was the first meeting between Sonic and Tails, contrary to the suggestion made by the English manual.
While travelling in his biplane, the Tornado, Sonic decides it’s time to take a break, so he heads off for the silhouette of an island in the distance, named as Westside Island. Once there, a young fox named Miles “Tails” Prower started tagging along with him. Indifferent to his new follower, Sonic decides it can’t hurt to let him hang around as he explores the island.
A few days later, as Tails is examining Sonic’s biplane while the hedgehog naps, a huge explosion goes off nearby. Like the last game, it seems that Eggman is mining for Emeralds hidden on the island, so Sonic sets out to stop him once more.
In its manual, Sonic 2 details some interesting tidbits which aren’t apparent in the game proper. For example, I only learned while researching for this article that Sonic had travelled to Westside Island for some down time and that it took a few days for the Mega Mack to hit the fan. Furthermore, I’ve always found it interesting that at the time of Sonic 2, the Emeralds came in different sets (though this was retconned as quickly as Sonic 3, with Sonic Adventure completely streamlining it into one set of Chaos Emeralds with no Super Emeralds). However, the auxiliary version of this game tells a completely different story, and should be considered its own adventure.
#4: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – SEGA Master System/Game Gear (1992)
The 8-bit version of Sonic 2 is where I’m going to deviate a little for reasons which will soon become clear. The Japanese manual of 8-bit Sonic 2 makes reference to six Chaos Emeralds, but also has Sonic already familiar with Tails, so considering that 8-bit Sonic 2 came out just before 16-bit Sonic 2 and was outsourced to the developer Aspect, we can take a few liberties with the story.
Anyway, in this game, Sonic returns to South Island after a day of adventuring only to find that Tails has been kidnapped by Dr. Eggman (as well as all of Sonic’s animal friends), of which Tails informs Sonic via a letter sent from his prison in the Crystal Egg Zone. To reach Eggman’s latest fortress, Sonic must collect all the Chaos Emeralds (for some reason…) as he speeds through 7 more Zones.
While this game is light on explicit lore from the manual, I’ve decided to slot this version of the game between Sonic 2 and 3 because it’s a short adventure that seems as though it only spans over the course of a day, so it’s plausible that the abduction of Tails and the Crystal Egg were distractions by Eggman to stall the inevitable of Sonic finding out about the Death Egg’s landing on Angel Island after the events of Sonic 2 on the Mega Drive while he had his forces working on its repairs, since Sonic and Tails go to Angel Island to investigate mysterious energy readings (caused by the crash of the Death Egg, presumably) rather than catching wind of Eggman being up to his old tricks again.
#5: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles – SEGA Mega Drive (1994)
Since much of the plot of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is told within the game proper (a first for the series), I’m going to keep this summary rather brief.
Essentially, the Death Egg crashes into Angel Island after Super Sonic trashes it in the end of Sonic 2 (yes, I know you can’t normally access Super Sonic in the Death Egg in that game but the “Genesis” arc of the Archie comic pulled it off really nicely so let’s roll with it, m’kay?), with Sonic and Tails thinking that they have now seen the last of Eggman.
However, Eggman miraculously survived the crash of the Death Egg, which plunged Angel Island into the ocean, as well as dispersing the Chaos Emeralds, which were currently residing the Emerald chamber in the Hidden Palace Zone guarded by Knuckles the Echidna (who was knocked unconscious by the Death Egg’s impact). We all know the story from here: Eggman dupes Knuckles (who believes Eggman to be the “dragon” he saw prophesied on the Emerald chamber’s mural) into thinking Sonic is a malevolent attacker after the Chaos Emeralds, and so begins the epic saga of Sonic 3 and Knuckles. What is not apparent, however, is that Knuckles’ campaign almost certainly takes place after Sonic’s, which is dissected here.
While this is easily my favourite game from the original series (only topped by Mania) with its grander story being part of that place in my heart, the relative scarcity of obscure details from the manual makes it a little less exciting to talk about than the others in this context.
#6: Sonic the Hedgehog CD – SEGA Mega CD (1993)
Although this game is perhaps most famous for its kickass opening cinematic, Sonic CD is fairly light under the hood in the story department. The story of this entry takes place on Little Planet, a mysterious “star” that appears over Never Lake for only one month every year. Sonic had initially set out to explore the planet (with his admirer, Amy Rose Hedgehog, being hot on his heels) and had only found out by complete chance that Eggman had chained Little Planet to a nearby mountain to use as his fortress for world domination. And lurking in the shadows was a metallic facsimile of our hero, Eggman’s latest creation built solely to surpass and destroy Sonic. The race for the Time Stones had begun on the planet where time itself runs freely.
Despite being released a year after Sonic 2, CD was initially conceived to be a “Mega CD version of Sonic 1”, sporting many similar locales and enemies to the original Mega Drive game, so it makes sense that the plot was fairly low key at this time, not pushing the status quo too far, unlike the next few games on the list.
#6.5: Tails’ Sky Patrol – SEGA Game Gear (1995)
Released towards the end of the Classic era of the series, Tails’ Sky Patrol is one of two Game Gear games to feature everybody’s favourite sidekick rather than the main man (hedgehog?) himself. According to the Japanese manual, Tails’ adventure was one he embarked on without Sonic by flying around aimlessly, confirming this to not be a prequel to Sonic 2. While up in the skies, Tails spotted an island with a huge railway. Worrying this may be another one of Eggman’s bases, Tails decided to check things out, but surprisingly this island already had its own tyrant – one Wendy Witchcart, who, along with her flunkies, asserted hers as the ruling power of the island, threatening those who would dare oppose her with being turned to crystals, prompting Tails to set out on his adventure to stop Wendy and rescue this (unnamed) island’s animals.
Since this game makes no reference to Sonic outside of its manual, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Sonic CD and Tails’ Sky Patrol take place in around the same timeframe, since Tails wasn’t featured in the former game until its 2011 remake by Sonic Mania project lead Christian Whitehead, and had no relevance to that game’s plot whatsoever.
#7: Sonic Chaos – SEGA Master System/Game Gear (1993)
Wouldn’t you know it, we’re back at South Island again! According to both manuals for Sonic Chaos, Sonic and Tails overhear Eggman’s latest plan to get his hands on the Chaos Emeralds, but once they arrive on South Island to try and stop him they find out Eggman’s already taken the first Emerald, causing the other Emeralds to scatter across South Island, which has started sinking into the ocean.
While this is a pretty barebones plot with little world building or lore, it does provide some context to the gameplay (albeit only as much as the other Sonic plots do) and even adds a new lick of paint to the adventure’s catalyst, with Sonic and Tails racing to save South Island before it is lost to the watery depths. However, it is this game’s 1994 sequel that people remember more, and for good reason…
#8: Sonic Triple Trouble – SEGA Game Gear (1994)
If I’m being honest, I feel like Sonic Triple Trouble is remember for really only two things – Introducing Fang the Sniper (who would later go on to appear in Sonic Drift 2 and Sonic the Fighters) and the Sunset Park Zone boss, what with its set piece involving running along the top of a moving train and the kickass tune that plays during said setpiece. Since train boss fights don’t generally provide fountains of backstory for a series, let’s take a closer look at that first “thing” and see how Fang the Sniper (who is in fact based off of a jerboa, not a weasel) fits into Sonic Triple Trouble.
Really, this game doesn’t have too much of a story beyond “Eggman was experimenting and triggered an explosion that scattered five of the Chaos Emeralds!” (the JP manual specifies this as five of the six Chaos Emeralds, which is bizarre seeing as this game released in the same year as Sonic 3 & Knuckles, by which point it had been firmly established that there are in fact seven Chaos Emeralds), but there is some meat to be found in the US manual’s character biography for Fang (or Nack the Weasel as he was known at that time). Specifically, Nack was not a mercenary hired by Eggman (unlike Knuckles, who has once again been tricked by the good Doctor, though Triple Trouble establishes Knuckles as a stranger despite the fact that this game released a month after Sonic & Knuckles), but a third force in play, out to collect the Emeralds not for their power (both manuals imply he does not know of the Emeralds’ power), but to sell for a pretty penny. Additionally, the fact that he appears as a boss for four of the game’s Special Stages (when up to that point only playable characters have been seen in the series’ Special Stages) has led to speculation that Fang may have originated from the Special Zone, though I am unable to find any official game sources that corroborate or contradict this claim. Ultimately Fang has remained an interesting footnote within Sonic lore due to his scarce appearances.
#9: Tails Adventure – SEGA Game Gear (1995)
The second of the two Tails Game Gear spinoffs, Tails Adventure continues to keep the core narrative nice and simple, but introduces a fair bit of world building which would go on to influence the later arcs of the Sonic the Hedgehog Archie comic (before said comic’s unfortunate demise earlier this year).
Although the JP and US manuals for Tails Adventure present different placements for the game’s story within Sonic’s chronology, the plot remains the same: Tails is enjoying a nice bit of down time on Cocoa Island when suddenly he is awoken from a nap by a large explosion on the island (it’s always the damned explosions with these guys…).
Turns out the island’s under assault by the Imperial Battle Kukku Army, whose dictator, Grand Battle Kukku XV (I swear I’m not making this up), has discovered that Cocoa Island is the current resting place of the Chaos Emeralds, which the army intends to use to take over the world, meaning Tails must stop them.
While the plot of this game obviously hasn’t had a lasting effect on later releases in the series, as I have already stated it did influence the Archie comics run in big ways. Specifically, they are introduced in a retelling of Tails Adventure in a 4 part arc of the Sonic Universe comic book, serving as one of Eggman’s legions across the world, yet a powerful force in their own right, which writer Ian Flynn used to link them to the other birds in the series, such as Sonic the Fighters’ Bean the Dynamite and Sonic Riders’ Babylon Rogues, who all had ties to the army in their past, with later world building within the comic book leading to a confrontation arc between the Battle Kukku Army and the Babylon Rogues in the “Babylon Rising” story which took place a couple of years before the comic’s reboot. It’s ultimately unfortunate that all this came from auxiliary, non-canon media.
#9.5: Knuckles’ Chaotix – SEGA 32X (1995)
Like Sonic Triple Trouble, Knuckles’ Chaotix isn’t remembered for much else besides its contribution to the series’ cast of characters; this game introduced five new playable characters to the cast in the form of Espio the Chameleon, Vector the Crocodile (who was reworked from this concept art of Sonic’s band), Charmy Bee and the two rogue badniks Heavy and Bomb, with Mighty the Armadillo debuting in 1993’s SegaSonic the Hedgehog arcade game.
In terms of the plot itself, Knuckles’ Chaotix actually has quite a bit of worldbuilding and continuity going on in the Japanese manual. Turns out that sometime after the events of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a new island rose up from the ocean in the Southern Ocean as a direct result of tectonic interference from the Master Emerald, with the new landmass rapidly shifting in its geography. Disturbed by this sudden occurence, Knuckles decided to head down to the island (which the US manual dubs “Carnival Island”) to investigate.
However, Doctor Eggman was already on the island with a new iteration of Metal Sonic, investigating a strange ring with ancient text, which proved the island was once home to an ancient civilisation. Furthermore, Special Rings were present on the island, identical to those on Angel Island which served as a gateway to the Special Zone. As it happened, all these artifacts were linked in mysterious ways with an unspecified pillar on the island, the result of which manifesting itself as the Chaos Rings, metamorphoses of the small ring Eggman had in his possession as well as five others. Setting up his base of operations on the island and manufacturing a seventh “Dark Ring”, Eggman now sought to use the Chaos Rings to summon the Master Emerald from Angel Island and take over the world, and it’s up to Knuckles to stop him. Oh, and Mighty, Espio, Vector, Charmy and two rogue badniks are there too…for some reason…that the manual never specifies (though to its credit the US manual does state that those first four are Knuckles’ friends imprisoned by Eggman).
I would be lying if I said I knew all of this before researching this article, but I’m genuinely surprised at how deep this story is, as well as how much it expands on the consequences of the events of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. As with Tails Adventure and the Battle Kukku Army, it’s a shame these events were never further explored in the games proper, or that Knuckles’ Chaotix didn’t communicate its story in its locales in the same way Sonic 3 & Knuckles did.
Bonus: Sonic Mania – Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, XBOX ONE, PC (2017)
I wasn’t originally planning on adding Sonic Mania to this lore guide due to both its recent release and its relative excuse plot (Eggman has the Phantom Ruby and he’s doing uncool things, kick his ass, Sonic!), but there are some interesting bits and pieces that I think are worth going over, so let’s run down them in bullet point format:
- First of all there are some of the new Zones, Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon. Thanks to the game’s level transition cutscenes, we know that these Zones are located on Westside Island from Sonic 2, while the game’s final Zone, Titanic Monarch, is located on Little Planet from Sonic CD, which is clearly shown in the game’s ending.
- Although Little Planet is supposed to appear above Never Lake for one month each year, it is in fact visible within Lava Reef Zone’s background, and an unused sprite of a giant chain which is very similar to the one seen in the intro to Sonic CD also exists in the game’s files, suggesting Eggman used the Phantom Ruby’s power to forcibly drag Little Planet back to Sonic’s world before chaining it to Angel Island.
- One of the Hard Boiled Heavies (characters who debuted in Mania as Eggman’s flunkies), Heavy Rider, rides a motobug with a telescopic wheel named Jimmy. While this is not a direct reference to Sonic lore, it is a touching tribute to community member Polygon Jim, who created the Sonic 1 hack Motobug the Badnik, which replaced Sonic with a motobug who jumped using a telescopic wheel, before tragically dying in a car crash in 2013.
So that’s all the interesting lore and backstory I could think of/dig up on the Classic Sonic games. As I said in the outset, despite their simple nature, these games actually offer rich backstories and worldbuilding behind the scenes that allowed a living, breathing world to be built without ever distracting from the core games and immediate plot. Again, I must stress that the order in which I’ve placed the games is by no means official and was based on my own headcanon and a desire to have as few continuity conflicts as possible, though changing some aspects of the Game Gear games’ stories was unavoidable. If you want to suggest your own chronology, feel free to. Manuals for these games were primarily sourced from Sonic Retro with the exception of Tails’ Sky Patrol – I was unable to find a manual for this game so I used what little plot information I could find on the game’s page on Sonic News Network. Since these are fan authored wikis which use fan translations of the Japanese of manuals in the case of Sonic Retro, be warned that the information is unlikely to be 100% accurate.