Saturday 17 December 2011

Sonic CD

Shoobedy boo bap.

Another Sonic the Hedgehog game showing up on Blog Squirrel? It's as if I like the series or something. "So much for the obscure", you may say, but in its defence, Sonic CD lives further afield and so doesn't come to visit very often.

More importantly it's been released recently for Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, Android and iOS stores, and unlike every other re-release from Sega in recent times, this one is actually worth caring for.

My childhood was riddled with blue anamorphic hedgeghogs, but Sonic CD was not a game I played back in the day, most likely because it's not the sort of game middle-income families would invest in. It was released in 1993 to give life to the Sega Mega CD, a failed Sega Mega Drive add-on for those who needed some low resolution full motion video in their lives, and just like the Mega CD, failed to sell in large numbers because of price and other factors.

Being built on a rocky patch by an entirely different set of developers, Sonic CD has always been a bit of an oddball in the series... until of course "odder" oddballs came to pass. It is considered by some to be a "Sonic 1.5", or an "alternative Sonic 2" - comparatively few of the ideas it brought into the world were seen in the games that followed, as opposed to Sonics 2 and 3 which went on to influence everything Sonic related for the rest of the decade. It's difficult to deny that Sonic CD is a strange game, and perhaps this is why it always plays second best to the cartridge offerings.

Sonic CD has Dr. Robotnik kidnap the useless Amy Rose, take over a planet and screw up the space-time continuum. Your job is to set things straight, travelling across seven zones and inevitably defeating the doctor and his fancy new creation "Metal Sonic". You also get to travel through time, writing the wrongs of the past to ensure a "good" future. It equates to seven zones with three acts each, multiplied by the four different time periods (past, present, bad future, good future), which leads to about 70 "levels" in total (vs. the 12 in Sonic 3).

But many will quite rightly point out that Sonic CD isn't too dissimilar to the first Sonic the Hedgehog. And they'd be right - you get similar sprites and mechanics, and it's easy to note that Palmtree Panic looks a lot like Green Hill. It has its own (lesser) take on the spin dash, a super peel out (which allows Sonic to... run really fast) and sports a slightly different camera, giving Sonic CD its own unique look and feel, but this isn't always noticeable through still screenshots.

Sonic CD isn't just more of the same - the added space on the CD leads to much richer and vibrant levels with numerous fancy features and things to do. The XBLA port I'm reviewing today adds even more to this, but more on that later. Though it's arguably not much longer than an average 2D Sonic game if time travelling isn't your thing, there's clearly been a significant amount of effort put into Sonic CD, moreso than was probably required to make something great. We should be thankful.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Sonic CD is, predictably, its CD-quality music. This wasn't a common occurrence in 1993, especially with 2D platformers. There's a lot to love here, including the fancy pseudo-3D "Super Mario Kart"-esque special stages and hand-drawn cutscenes. At least, from a distance.

So... why is it not my favourite Sonic game of all time? I can load the game with praise quite easily, for there is much that Sonic CD does that's noteworthy. It gives the Mega CD a purpose and displays many elements of a great game, but despite of all this, I would never be the one to stand on a platform that states it's the best Sonic game ever made. Others will, and it's understandable why they might do so, but for me, it could have been better.

So let's tackle the elephant in the room first - the music. Sonic CD has a high quality soundtra- no, wait... it has two high quality soundtracks. The game was designed and built by the Japanese for export around the world, but at the last minute Sega of America decided to stick the big foot of localisation in, demanding an entirely new set of music was created to appeal to their audience. And thus, there are two Sonic CD soundtracks, both of which are included in this XBLA port.

Having two sets of music is not a sign of strength. It is a sign that someone in the development process wasn't happy with the product. It could be fault of the US marketeers, it could be the Japanese designers for not grasping the bigger picture, but the point is, someone failed, and suddenly that confidence that a good Sonic game should have in itself is lost.

You could argue that it's a petty thing to scrutinise, but it's an unnecessary division which sadly dictated how the franchise moved forward. We have fans of the Japanese/European soundtrack, and those of the North American version, and the two generally don't see eye to eye. The audio direction of the series is a crucial thing to get right, but because there are two camps, Sonic has since ranged between rock anthems and Japanese techno for the last twenty years.

And it just helps to amplify the idea that nobody at Sega knows how to make a Sonic game anymore. They can't get the music right because nobody knows what the definition of "right" is. No-one wants to be the musician whose efforts are tossed aside upon a game's release, and likewise, few want to be restricted to Mega Drive soundfronts for an eternity. And for those who aren't convinced this division still exists, compare the music of say, Sonic Adventure 2 to Sonic Rush some time. Sonic Team are still experimenting.

Speaking as a European, we've been treated to both soundtracks through the years, but these days I tend to align myself with the Japanese set. I feel this soundtrack captures the mood of Sonic CD - it quite literally matches the introduction sequence, and is quirky and energetic - more in-line with other Sonic games and better suited to the style of gameplay and art design the game offers.

I also reach this conclusion for perhaps a more obvious reason - the US soundtrack was never "finished". Regardless of which version you use, the "past" levels default to the same tunes, which in turn are based on the Japanese soundtrack. By voting for the US version, nearly a quarter of your vote still goes to the Japanese, so much like Afghanistan, it's never a battle the US can completely "win". You're striking a deal with those you set out to remove, rather than actually removing them completely.

It is also a fact that the US soundtrack was rushed, and once you go into the game armed with this knowledge you can soon spot the areas that need more polish. The fact you can switch between the two in this XBLA version at will just cements this point further, and hence why I tend to stick with Japan. If you like the US version that's fine (after all, the whole point of it was to appeal to the US audience), but it's not for me, and more importantly, probably shouldn't exist. At the end of the day, it's a symbol of pointless meddling from Sega of America.

That being said though both soundtracks are imperfect thanks to the inclusion of cringe-worthy vocals, and sadly most Sonic games since have followed Sonic CD's advice on this matter. This was the "start" of that horrible trend of Sonic games having theme songs, and stands as another reason why Sonic CD isn't my top choice of Sega platformers.

Luckily this isn't an issue in the XBLA verison, because licensing issues kept the vocals out of the Japanese set. The level themes tend to be great regardless, so it's not as if Sonic CD will kill your brain cells, it's just a bit of a minefield when compared to its non-CD counterparts, and that's part of Sonic CD's problem.

Graphically the game is pretty, but with foregrounds blending in with backgrounds, flashy things aplenty and messy level designs, it's a much more disorientating experience than Sonics 1, 2 and 3. An attempt to out-class the Super Nintendo? Who knows, but I've never felt the game's visuals have aged as well as its siblings.

There's a lot of scripted movements in Sonic CD, leading to a game that feels less fluid than other Sonic platformers. You will always travel through tunnels at the same speed, and there are several other additions that can throw you off slightly too. Diagonal springs for example - they use sines and cosines here! There's a speed cap, and objects such as flippers behave differently to those in Sonic 2. Combined with the new camera and the occasional cheap bit of level design, it sometimes feels as if the computer is in control of your life, and you don't get that so much with the other games.

The bosses are interesting but ultimately aren't that challenging, with most only seeming to need three or four hits to destroy (as opposed to the eight required in a "normal" Sonic game). I also can't stand Sonic CD's special stages, with their tricky controls and awkward layouts. Time travelling is entertaining but the fact it isn't instant does disrupt gameplay somewhat, and Metallic Madness Act 2 is a nasty piece of work regardless of when you visit it.

On the plus side, it's not as long and drawn out as Sonic 1. Most levels can be completed under two minutes by an average player, and there's never that fear of having to crawl through Marble Zone or Labyrinth at a snail's pace. It's fairly well balanced, and even after many years of playing Sonic it still manages to kill me every now and then.

But much of Sonic CD's ideas didn't survive. Time travelling, weird spin dashes, peel outs and saving Amy failed to become commonplace in the Sonic universe, as opposed to Tails who shows up everywhere. Clearly these are all tell-tale signs that Sonic 2 and 3 were considered the superior games, and that's a view I tend to share. They might lack the complexity of CD, but they seem to have a better understanding of what they're doing (and have been templates for the rest of the series as a result). For those reasons, they get more marks from me, but lest we forget Sonic 3 & Knuckles is likely my favourite game of all time so it was never going to be a fair fight.

Anyway, enough history. Sonic CD has made it to modern platforms, and is available for a stupidly low price. You should buy it.

You see, this isn't an emulated copy of Sonic CD - it's a remake, built by Sonic Retro resident "The Taxman" from the ground up. It fixes bugs, it loops music, it adds features (such as a playable Tails) and polishes the game up for the modern age. Make no mistake about it, this stands as the greatest version of Sonic CD out there, and so is well worth a look into.

Is it flawless? No, but only the purists really care that monitors should be in front of springs and not the other way around. Regardless, Sonic CD 2011 eliminates more problems than it causes, and makes a great game even greater. It's 400 Microsoft Points - there's a good chance you spent more on your lunch. It's half the price of Sonic 4 yet four-hundred times as good, if not better.

So yes, Sonic CD. Good game, good game. Buy it.


  1. I'm not from US, I'm actually from it's arch-nemesis, Russia, but I like the US soundtrack more. Sonic Boom is a cool song and there are no vocals on the levels themselves - as opposed to Japanese version. Japanese Palmtree Panic is awful.

  2. This is one of the best essays on the site. Good work!