The Sonic the Hedgehog games have been on quite the ride over the past 29 years, with some of the best games ever made and…well…some of the worst games ever made too. One thing that has been relatively consistent throughout the franchise, however, is the music, which has remained incredible.
The Sonic soundtracks have gone through a few phases of their own as it so happens. There are the classic 16-bit soundtracks, the late 1990s-early 2000s punk-rock and even a small foray into pop music towards the turn of the 2010s. The main point is that (almost) all of it has been great. Every level in every game is paired up with a track that is able to capture the feeling and setting of the surrounding level, while still being able to provide an exhilarating ride as you roll around at the speed of sound (little spoiler for you there).
So, let’s have some fun and explore some of the best tracks the franchise has ever produced. Before we start, I should clarify that several of these tracks (especially the classic ones) have been reused and remixed in many games throughout the franchise over the years. So, for each one, I will specify in which game it originally appeared and which version of the track I like the best.
10 – Haunted Ship
First Appearance: Sonic Rush Adventure
Best Version: Sonic Rush Adventure
Arguably one of the best stages in the DS title Sonic Rush Adventure, it has a fast and tense track to go with it.
The colour palette for the level in incredibly muted. There are grey and white coloured ghosts all over the place, while the ship itself is lined with a dark yellow and pale turquoise. Combine this with the thick fog that covers both the background and the foreground of the level, and you’ve got yourself a level with a very intimidating presence (when you’re not bouncing off of bright blue trampolines). The music looks to add to that while also helping bring some of the action to the forefront.
The beat starts off very fast, but also quite quiet. Immediately the tense factor is there, pushing you to get a move on and blast your way through the rundown area. Then the guitar kicks in as things in the level get going, and it matches up perfectly with the Sonic Rush series’ boosting mechanic which, if you do it right, should persist throughout almost the entire level. The quick and complex bassline continues throughout the entire track, helping that sense of unease persist throughout every moment in the level.
The track also has a bit of a disjointed nature to it, as the melody swings wildly through different phases. This is absolutely perfect for the feel of the level, which is one of a stage that could fall apart at any moment. It’s being held together by bits of fraying rope and splintered wood. Nevermind the ghosts, the whole level feels like it could collapse in on itself at any moment, which is what helps make this track quite an intense one.
9 – Ice Cap Zone
First Appearance: Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Best Version: Sonic the Hedgehog 3
It’s widely known by this point in time that Michael Jackson was at one point among the artists that were putting together the soundtrack for Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Although he did eventually leave the team as he was unhappy with the poor sound quality that Sega Genesis/Mega-Drive produced, his fingerprints are still all over the game’s soundtracks, and this is the level where that is the clearest. If you’ve never seen it, look up ‘Smooth Criminal – Ice Cap Zone Remix’ on YouTube, you’ll see what I mean.
Much like Haunted Ship, this track starts out with a quiet, but fast beat that lines up perfectly with the opening section of the level where you rocket down a mountain on a snowboard. Once you crash down into the cave, the main melody kicks in, which is absolutely beautiful. I don’t know what kind of instrument they used for that melody, but it fits the cold and frozen feel of the level so wonderfully. Ice Cap Zone is arguably one of the prettier levels in Sonic 3, and this soundtrack goes along with that.
It doesn’t sacrifice everything to nail the level’s feel, though, as the constant bassline is once again used as a brilliant tool to keep the feeling of speed. In a level with so much variety like Ice Cap Zone, it’s nice to have a track that stays relatively consistent to tie the whole thing together, keeping you going with a beautiful melody as it does so.
8 – Sonic Boom
First Appearance: Sonic CD (US Version)
Best Version: Sonic CD (US Version)
You want slightly outdated 90s pop? This is basically all you could ever want of it rolled into one song. It’s got a synth melody that’s just outdated enough to feel charming to modern ears, a beat that’s basic enough that it doesn’t distract from all of the other wonderous stuff going on in the song, and the lyrics, oh lord, the lyrics, I’ll eat all of that right up.
I know that the Japanese version of the soundtrack is far superior when it comes to, well, every other song in the game, but I’d say the whole endeavour was worth it just for this. It’s very much a ‘not for everybody’ kind of track, but it plays right into my hands for a track that just won’t leave my head, and I just can’t bring myself to have even a mild dislike for it. It’s stupidly catchy, and the lyrics are dumb enough to make me smile on every listen. Lines like “If your strong, you can fly” which make absolutely zero sense still fill me with that inspirational pump that I need before racing through a Sonic game.
If anything, the only real downside of this song is that the title will forever make me think of one of the worst Sonic games.
7 – Studiopolis Zone
First Appearance: Sonic Mania
Best Version: Sonic Mania
I’ve talked about it loads by now, but Sonic Mania was a wonderful celebration of the best of Sonic’s past. As you’ll see as this list goes on, Mania did a perfect job of remastering many of the classic tracks, adding just enough new elements to make them feel modern, while still capturing the retro feel of the style. This is somewhat impressive when a large chunk of the composition was already done for them with the old tracks, however, what blew me away was how amazing the original tracks are in Mania. Press Garden and Mirage Saloon were viable contenders for a spot on this list (in fact, I’d say Press Garden is the unofficial number 11), but where Tee Lopes shows his real talent for creating a Sonic track, it’s in Studiopolis Zone.
What many composers for modern Sonic games don’t understand is that a track doesn’t necessarily have to be fast-paced to fit the gameplay. Sure, it can’t be too slow, otherwise, it would feel extremely out of pace, but you don’t have to be putting your foot on the accelerator all the time. Studiopolis is a track that understands this. It maintains a steady pace that’s fast enough to feel satisfying along with the gameplay but then spends the rest of its time engrossing you in the world around you. This isn’t just the track that plays during Studiopolis Zone, this IS Studiopolis Zone. The big and brassy melody, the broadway feel of the track and the background noises of what sound like studio equipment and the classic “lights, camera, action” line, it all meshes perfectly with the visual design of the level to create a stage that feels truly alive as you blast through it.
If SEGA allows the team that worked on Sonic Mania to make a new 2D Sonic game anytime soon, then this is exactly the kind of stuff I want to see from them. The remastered old stuff is great, but the totally original stuff is what has the potential to be the greatest.
6 – Egg Reverie
First Appearance: Sonic Mania
Best Version: Sonic Mania
Final boss themes in games come in a few different flavours. Some games like to make them a grand emotional moment, to draw you to the climax; some games want to bear down on you with big, intimidating themes that press upon you the challenge you face; and some just want to rock the fuck out and give you one hell of a fun ride. This theme falls into the latter category.
From the word go (quite literally in this instance), this is a track that wants you to feel like a superhero. The simple guitar riff that undercuts as the whole track gives the feeling of intensity in the fight, but it’s not overly intimidating. The game wants you to know that this is a fight you can win and that you should have fun while doing. A feeling that is taken to the moon and back when the synth melody kicks in. The melody summons ska vibes to bring the energy in a major way and pulling a small element of chaos into the mix when it breaks down.
Then it gives way to a guitar melody that I love so much I can barely put it into words. It draws together, the intensity, the chaos and the fun of the track so smoothly. It hits the emotional high of the track while keeping the energy and pace at the max. At the end of the day, this is a track that’s endlessly fun to listen to, and I can listen to it over and over again.
5 – Live and Learn
First Appearance: Sonic Adventure 2
Best Version: Sonic Adventure 2
Aaand here comes the Crush 40.
When I think of rock music in the 2000s, this is the kind of music that immediately springs to my mind. Crush 40 embodies a period in musical history that I wish I could’ve been old enough to properly appreciate living through. Johnny Gioeli’s voice is what a pure-rock voice should sound like to me. He’s not perfect, but his range is incredible, and the slight graveliness in his voice means he can carry the vocals so smoothly, despite having to get his mouth around some more out-there wordings.
Getting to Live & Learn specifically, it was quite literally instant love. I heard the intro and immediately rewound the song to listen to the intro again before the verse even kicked in because I loved it that much. It’s the quintessential cheesy 00s rock song. It doesn’t try to do anything complicated or special, it just takes some electric guitars and GOES TO TOWN on them. It creates a simple riff that is endlessly catchy and refuses to let up for a moment.
When the vocals do kick in, the whole thing gets kicked up a notch. The words don’t make a great deal of sense, but I honestly couldn’t care less because they fit the melody better than even some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard. They’re not the feature-point of the song, instead, they’re another tool to elevate every other part of the song and solidify the pure rocking energy and in-your-face nature of the whole thing.
To put it simply, it’s an incredible all-out rock song, which is the kind of music I live (& learn) for.
4 – Escape from the City
“Rolling around at the speed of sound.” Perhaps the cheesiest line I’ve ever heard in a rock song, and it’s what makes this song such a joy to listen to.
The opening level of any Sonic game is always the best opportunity to bring as much light-hearted joy into the game as possible. That’s why opening Sonic levels are usually some form of bright grassy field or beach, with open levels designs that allow you to take things at whatever pace you want to ensure you get the most enjoyment out of it. They’re levels designed purely to get the most out of the momentum-based gameplay before throwing more versatile mechanics at you.
City Escape doesn’t follow any of these rules. The level is an endless cityscape with a muted colour palette and tight streets. How do you make that a fun & memorable opening level? Well, for one thing, you ride down these streets on a broken piece of the helicopter you just leapt out of, and secondly, you give it one of the most hyperenergetic rock tracks in the history of the franchise. I’ll be honest, the trick of lining up the guitars to kick in perfectly in synch with when Sonic hits the ground was all it took for me to fall on love with this one.
City Escape is an all-time classic Sonic level, with some of the best 3D level design the franchise has ever given to us, and this track amplified its iconic status amongst the Sonic fanbase.
3 – Chemical Plant Zone
If you look up “catchy” in the dictionary, there’s just a URL link to this song.
The main melody is one that seems specifically crafted to stick into the brain. The chord progression is so simple, and yet the pace at which is circles around those chords drives the thing into your skull and makes it stick there for hours and hour upon end. I’m not sure if this was the intension of the composer, but the track gives me vague jazz vibes with his main melody. I know it’s a lot faster than most jazz music, but I can very easily imagine the melody being played on a saxophone, I bet it would sound great.
The breakdown is utterly incredible too, and it’s where the main feel of Chemical Plant as a level comes in. The percussion takes a more prominent role in the track, and you get the industrial vibes of the level. The grey & yellow colour palette of the level gives just enough life for this track to carry the whole level to be one of the all-time greats. It’s a chaotic and winding level that isn’t afraid to throw you through a loop and send you off in all kinds of weird directions. The main melody is cohesive with that feeling as the chords of the main melody never linger, the song is always looking to get onto the next one, and it creates almost a maze of notes, just like Chemical Plant itself.
Besides, regardless of what you think of it, it’s going to be in your head for the rest of the day, so you might as well enjoy it.
2 – Flying Battery Zone
The intro to this song is easily the best intro to any Sonic level. That high descending note that sends you flying right out the gate as the beat goes crazy in the background. It’s like someone took hold of my adrenaline levels and pumped them up to maximum.
This is a track that refuses to let up for even a second. It’s intense, it’s threatening, it’s fast, and it’s fun. For context, during Flying Battery Zone, you will be making your way through, and then running along the top of, a gigantic airship that earlier in Sonic 3 bombed Angel Island until it was engulfed in flames. This track needed to be loud, proud and epic all in one, a feeling that I believe it nails.
I’ve already talked about the intro, but things keep the craziness from there. The majority of the track relies on downward chord progressions to establish the feeling of threat, but then it moves into the breakdown, and things reach their emotional climax. The shift into a higher octave brings all those intense emotions rising to the surface as you navigate an increasingly chaotic level. All the while, the baseline sits there, carrying the track and maintaining a ludicrously fast pace that means the whole thing never needs to slow down or take a breather.
This track helps me get the most fun of a crazy level like Flying Battery. I often preach that Sonic games aren’t just about speed, but when you’ve got a track like this playing the background, how could you possibly focus on anything else?
1 – Lava Reef Zone: Act 1
Up until now, I’ve lumped the Act 1 & Act 2 variations of tracks together, because they embody very similar feelings and styles. However, Lava Reef Zone’s Act 2 track is so wildly different from Act 1, that I felt I had to specify.
Lava Reef Zone has a lot going for it as a level. It’s the last level before Sonic & Knuckles properly reaches its climax, so it has to carry the feeling rising tension that you get from seeing the Death Egg ready to rise in the background of the level. So how did the composers achieve this? By making it the most intense 16-bit track you could possibly imagine, that’s how.
The intro is incredibly threatening. It hits you with the looping beat that will sit under the whole track, that makes sure to stay low in pitch and steady in pace. While I wouldn’t call this track slow by any means, it’s definitely one of the slowest tracks from this era of Sonic music, and that makes it stand out all the more. It’s the game’s way of telling you that shit is about to get real, and I feel it when I’m playing through the level.
Then the main melody kicks in, and you realise that this track isn’t just trying to make you scared, it’s trying to bring your emotions to the surface so that it can kick them around for the final climactic levels of the game. It’s such a wonderful melody, the specific tone of the synth that was chosen is perfect for this sort of thing and these sorts of emotions. Ironically, you wouldn’t have to put too much effort in if you wanted to make this quite a relaxing track, but just enough of an edge is kept on things to make it feel intense instead.
The breakdown is the emotional centre of the track, and I feel it every single time I listen. Sonic & Knuckles isn’t even very heavy on plot, but this music is so powerful that I feel invested in the adventure regardless. I think that’s the secret as to why I love the music in the Sonic franchise so much, it creates a story, and world, even when the game gives us very little to work with.
And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what Sonic tracks you love the most, either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be covering WWE Clash of Champions!