Review: Sonic CD (1993 & 2011)

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Today marks the start of June, which means it’s finally the month of Sonic the Hedgehog’s 25th anniversary! Yes, everyone’s favourite speedy blue critter first raced onto SEGA consoles on 23rd June 1991, and while we’re still waiting for word of a new game to commemorate this landmark celebration, I’m going to take a look back at one of the most interesting games the series has ever offered up.

Sonic CD – sorry, Sonic the Hedgehog CD, to give it its full title – was the stuff of legend for a long, long time. Originally released in 1993 for the ill-fated Mega CD add-on to the SEGA Megadrive, it was a game that only a select few had ever owned or played, a lost piece of the puzzle in the classic Sonic era. However, unlike other certain hard-to-find Sonic games (Knuckles’ Chaotix for the equally ill-fated 32X add-on springs to mind), Sonic CD had one thing going for it: bloomin’ good reviews. Its rarity and its sterling reputation made it like gold dust for any die-hard Sonic fan in the 1990s and early 2000s, until finally the mass market got a chance to try it out for themselves as part of the 2005 Sonic Gems Collection compilation for Nintendo Gamecube and PlayStation 2. It’s here that I first went hands-on with the game, and… honestly? I was a little underwhelmed.

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Let’s not be ambiguous here: Sonic CD is a good game. It’s very much in the vein of the other classic Sonic titles, with the added oomph of the Mega CD offering up beautifully colourful environments, CD quality soundtrack, and some amazing animated cutscenes at the beginning and the end of the adventure. But playing through this relic from 1993 just left me thinking one thing: this game is overrated. Something about the whole thing just felt… off. Despite being released after Sonic 2, the game was actually developed closer to Sonic 1, meaning the physics engine worked slightly differently – the newly-implemented spin dash, for example, was a shadow of its Sonic 2 iteration, both less useful and disorientating in nature. The level designs and bosses, too, were incredibly gimmicky – to this day, Collision Chaos and Wacky Workbench remain two of my least favourite Sonic zones ever because of their ping-ponging perils (and seriously, to hell with that pinball Eggman boss). After all that mystery and hype, the game had failed to live up to the insanely lofty standards that history would have led me to believe.

So, for the next 6 years, I went back to playing the newer Sonic games, in all their varying quality – highlights for me being Sonic Colours, Sonic Generations, and Sonic and the Secret Rings (yes, I went there!) – until in December 2011, as part of Sonic’s 20th anniversary celebrations, SEGA released an enhanced remake of Sonic CD on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and mobile devices. Developed by Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, the re-release had been built from the ground up with a newer physics engine, extra features, and a rather generous price point. Again, people raved about this new edition of the long-lost classic, so I decided to take the plunge and give it another shot.

At first, I made the mistake of downloading the game for my Android phone. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with the game on mobile devices, but platformers and touch controls just don’t get along as far as I’m concerned. The game was the same familiar experience that I’d had back in 2005 and I played through to the end having a pleasant enough time, but it still hadn’t sold me that this was a true diamond in the rough. Fortunately, my journey with Sonic CD didn’t end there. Having recently acquired a PlayStation 3 and browsing the online store for some digital games to play, I found myself re-downloading Sonic CD all over again… and, at long last, it clicked for me. It had only taken 18 years since the game first released, but I could finally appreciate it for all it was worth. Third time’s the charm, eh!

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So, confusingly, I’m now in a situation where Sonic CD is simultaneously one of my favourite Sonic games of all time, and also one that I find incredibly overrated – which is why, as the title of this review suggests, I like to differentiate the two between the 1993 and 2011 releases. Because, honestly, they feel like totally different games. The levels are exactly the same, the story is exactly the same, the graphics (bar a little HD polish) are exactly the same. But Sonic CD (2011) just feels better. That new, improved physics engine is part of the reason – this time around, Sonic actually controls like you remember from the other classic games, with the “normal” spin dash replacing CD’s naff knock-off version for a start. It’s hard to explain until you actually have the controller in your hand, but the gameplay experience just fits in more seamlessly with what I remember Sonic’s heyday being like, more so than the 1993 release ever did. And it’s because I was having much more enjoyable time playing the game that I could stop to take in all the quirks and creativity that make Sonic CD truly stand out as one of the finer Sonic titles.

Sonic is typically known for being about speeding through stages in the fastest time possible, but CD also caters for those who want to slow down and explore a bit. In fact, the game outright encourages you to traverse the different areas and look for secrets – at least, if that’s the way you want to play. You see, there’s an awful lot of options in terms of how you can play through and complete Sonic CD. You can just play through it normally, reaching the end, beating the final boss, seeing the credits – easy. Or, if you want the “good” ending, you can collect 50 rings, jump through the big gold ring at the end of a stage and collect all seven Time Stones (this game’s version of the Chaos Emeralds), you can do that too. Or, if you want the real complete adventure, you can go about making a “Good Future” in every single zone. To do this, you have to take advantage of Sonic CD’s most innovative new feature – time travel. By passing various signposts throughout the levels and building up enough velocity (“when this hedgehog hits 88 miles per hour, you’re going to see some serious shit!”), you can transport Sonic into the past or the future. There, you’ll play through an altered version of the same stage, with slightly different music and aesthetics to match the time period. Of course, you can just zip back and forth through time as and when you get the chance with no real consequence whatsoever, but to ensure Eggman is well and truly beaten you have to head into the past and destroy the robot generators – in turn, this saves the future, and if you travel forwards in time after doing so, you’ll be greeted by a far cheerier and safer version of events. It’s a really nice feeling of cause and effect where your actions have a tangible, genuine reward, making not only the adventure feel far more extensive than it normally would but also utilising the time travel mechanic in a way that doesn’t feel shoehorned in or out of place. If there’s one complaint about this feature, it’s that often the level design doesn’t seem to be particularly well suited to building – or rather maintaining – enough speed to blast to or from the past, but I suppose that’s half the challenge. It’s not just about knowing where to find the robot generators, it’s about knowing how best to get there.

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This sense of choice extends into many of the 2011 remake’s improvements, doing a much better job of giving the player a lot of freedom to customise the experience to fit their preferences. Not only do you unlock Tails after beating the game for the first time – a feature exclusive to the new version, controlling exactly as he did in Sonic 2 (his flight making it a lot easier to go in search of secrets!) – but you can also switch between the Japanese/European and US soundtracks for the game at will. Because, yes, there were two soundtracks for Sonic CD when it originally released, and they’re pretty wildly different. The almost unanimous opinion seems to be that the JP/EU soundtrack is better, and thankfully it’s the game’s default option – unlike the Gems Collection port, which was locked to the US soundtrack. Unfortunately though, due to rights issues, SEGA couldn’t actually get the vocals for the opening and ending themes, “You Can Do Anything” (aka “Toot Toot Sonic Warrior”) and “Cosmic Eternity (Believe in Yourself)”, which is a shame – but the instrumental remixes are serviceable enough, even if I do ultimately prefer the American theme “Sonic Boom”. Strange, isn’t it?

What else is there to say about Sonic CD? Well, in addition to its fairly compelling story, it serves as the debut of two iconic characters: Metal Sonic and Amy Rose (who, for once, actually isn’t too annoying!). It’s also, as of 2012, canonically part of the classic Sonic narrative – the events of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 directly reference the events of this game, with comebacks for Metal Sonic and Little Planet as the plot progresses. It’s also the only game to feature Sonic’s nifty Super Peel Out move, performed by holding up rather than down for the spin dash. And that’s about it, really. If you’re a Sonic fan and you’ve never played Sonic CD before, you owe it to yourself to take the 2011 version out for a spin – it’s a far more refined edition than the original, it’s far more accessible, and it’s at a price point you just can’t argue with.

It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not as beefy as something like Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but Sonic CD has a reputation for a reason: it dared to be different, and it’s the only Sonic game quite like it. Do yourself a favour and guarantee yourself a Good Future by giving it a try!

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