Yes, you can play it
It was 1996, and we'd just got a dial-up Internet connection at my house. I was 11, and eager to read everything I could find on the web. We'd had AOL earlier in the year, but they didn't have a local number, so we would only sign on to retrieve and send e-mails.
My father watched over my shoulder as I conducted my web searches for video game codes, making sure I didn't stumble upon something inappropriate. Somehow I convinced him to let me browse alone if I stayed on sega.com.
I remember it vividly - black background, green text. It was near Christmas time, and the front page had a Christmas tree ornament theme. That was the year the Sonic 3D Blast games were coming out, and I was trying to find out everything I could about them, since I anticipated getting at least the Game Gear version for Christmas.
The site had a forum section - Sega Threads, which I was careful to not let my father see. My favorite section was the Open Forum, since it had the Hooked On Sonics topic. I particularly enjoyed reading posts from one user, whose handle was Green Gibbon!. His messages stood out; he wrote in complete sentences and used proper capitalization and punctuation.
GG! posted reviews of Sega Saturn games (man, did I want a Sega Saturn), tips on how to play through other games, and even flamed a troll (bumboclot, if I recall correctly) so thoroughly that he never posted again. He was 15 at the time, and I thought he was super cool. I tracked down his messages to make sure I read them all.
That spring, GG! started teasing the launch of his own website. Its tagline, Can you play it?, was scattered through the forum. On May 17th, 1997 he launched it - The Green Hill Zone. It was on Geocities, and I can tell you the full URL two decades later.
The Green Hill Zone is, of course, the name of the first level of the first Sonic the Hedgehog game. GG!'s site had lots of information about that and other Sonic games (it would be, for a time, the most complete source of Sonic game information on the Internet), his reviews of new games, and - crucially - its own forum.
Launching a website was probably the coolest thing I'd ever seen another kid do. I threw myself into making my own Sonic site. Not knowing how to do that, I copied almost everything GG! had done, down to the URL (he was TimesSquare/Dungeon/5491; I was /5419). I learned HTML from reading his code, and probably hot-linked some of his images. He was gracious enough to help me correct my mistakes, and even made me a logo for me. (South Island is, of course, where the first Sonic game takes place)
I'm not sure if I visited Sega Threads again after The GHZ's forum launched. All the cool people had come over, and at some point my father had given up trying to restrict me to sega.com. We quickly formed a community based on Sonic fandom - the games, the comics, the cartoons, everything.
These were my people. I was in 5th grade at the time, and was still the new kid at school, having moved to a new small town in time to start 4th grade. Delphine, Martin, WB, Eternal Gamer, Zero, GG!'s younger brothers - I spent hundreds of hours conversing with them.
The GHZ had a live chat section, but in the beginning it was hard to catch someone there. I had the idea of coordinating a "chat party" in which we'd all show up, and I recall it being a great success - except my computer's hard drive crashed and I missed the inaugural event. (We would later spend December 31, 1999 together, remarking at the lack of Y2K-bug destruction as the clock struck midnight)
The site and community both grew. It changed hosting providers a few times, and acquired a reputation as the best Sonic site. Satellite communities formed, based on Sonic-adjacent games like NiGHTS Into Dreams (I spent many summer afternoons in 1998 playing a NiGHTS chat sim, because that's where the girls - Delphine, Alethea, Larenae - were). I can still tell you the real names and late-1990s life situations of most of the participants.
As with every group of kids, we developed our own in-jokes and memes. Drano Cookies. The Veal Cane. Gilbert Lyle. The Bunkey. Evil Tails Doll. GG! wrote a Christmas story starring all of us one year, and later a pretty compelling multi-part saga in which I for some reason wielded a gun and discovered I was a brother to Eternal Gamer.
It felt like every sub-combination of us had our own history. GG! and I traded game consoles and games by mail (he sent me his Sega Saturn plus a list of recommended games; I sent him a hex-edited savegame of Shenmue so he could play the Japanese version). Delphine, Alethea, and I had the NiGHTS stuff. Pepperidge, Isambard, and I played Phantasy Star Online as a group for months.
We started marveling at the longevity of the site pretty early on. In 2001, GG! made trading cards commemorating the site's regulars and lore. I think he pretty much nailed mine. (GG! would later say of me, "I think he's God, and I hate God.")
The Sonic series had peaked and declined by 2001, and I mostly lost my interest in video games in high school. However, I stayed somewhat active on the GHZ forum until I left for college in 2004. I popped in occasionally after that, but mostly lost touch in my early 20s. I didn't outgrow the community in terms of maturity (hardly!); it outgrew me in terms of size By the mid-2000s most of the traffic was from people whose life stories I didn't know thoroughly.
Despite two decades of participation, I didn't meet a GHZer in person until 2014. A new co-worker, the same age as me, mentioned his early love of Sonic games. In talking about that, he said he "remembered me" as a part of the Sonic community. "Christ, I hope he's not the Bunkey," I thought, but played it cool. He and I excitedly discussed Sonic Mania, the "return to form" Sonic game that came out in 2017.
What makes me remember all this now? I never really forget; each May 17th I think back to coveting Sega games in Spring of 1997. I check in every year or two, and am happy to find the site still up. My own son was born this winter, and I wonder if I'll want to make sure he falls in with a good crowd online once he's 11.
Green Gibbon!, Delphine, Esrever, G. Silver, Jim Doe, Martin, Moon, Pepperidge, Popcorn, Segaholic, WB, Isambard, j-man, big_smile, and many others* - I'd give you guys a kidney if you needed one. My blood type is Drano positive.
* If I didn't mention you, it's because you offended me in 1999 and I still haven't forgotten it, jerk!