Video games have a superstar, and Sonic is his name. Look at what he has done: Back in the old days of video gaming -- oh, say, 2 1/2 years ago -- the Sega Genesis was a sleepy little game deck that had trouble competing even against its longtime rival, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Then in the summer of 1991, Sega introduced Sonic the Hedgehog, a dizzyingly fast action game that gave the Genesis instant credibility -- and a popular advantage over the Super NES, which Nintendo introduced shortly thereafter. Today Sonic is to Sega what Super Mario is to Nintendo: the trademark character (and a nonviolent one, to boot) on which the company's reputation has been irrevocably staked.
Well, Sega must be taking its competition pretty seriously these days (foes include Nintendo's Super Mario All Stars, Star Fox, and the NHL Stanley Cup hockey game), because it recently has debuted no fewer than four Sonic games. First, for the $200-plus Sega CD add-on, there's Sonic CD. Speedy yet crystalline, with a hypnotic techno-rave soundtrack, Sonic CD may be the first disc to utilize fully the Sega CD's potential. The game itself, though, in which Sonic pursues his evil, robotized double, is a bit too easy; experienced kids may buzz through it in a couple of days.
Also on the less-challenging side, but equally impressive technically, is Sonic Chaos, for Sega's handheld Game Gear. Once again, the basic Sonic setup is in place: Playing as either Sonic or his pal Tails the Fox, players spin and bop their way across funky, robot-infested landscapes. The on-screen characters are huge, making this the perfect game to buy your 7- year-old for that next long car trip.
Finally, for the Genesis, we have Sonic Spinball and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. The first, a video pinball game in which Sonic is the ball, boasts a terrific concept but an ultimately flawed execution -- Sonic often moves like a leaden marble. Sonic 3, by contrast, represents the apotheosis of the Sonic concept: Unlike previous games, the stages are linked cinematically (Sonic and Tails literally tumble from one scene to the next), and the characters have some stunning new techniques -- I, for one, never thought I'd see a spiny blue hedgehog on a pair of skis. Sonic CD: A- Sonic Chaos: A- Sonic Spinball: C Sonic 3: A+