Sonic CD: The Retro Review

Let’s level here for a second–if you’re a Sonic fan in any capacity whatsoever, you’ve heard of Sonic CD, the tried-and-true cult classic of the original Sonic “trilogy,” as it were. Released in 1993 for the SEGA Mega CD, spearheaded by Sonic’s original character designer Naoto Ohshima and developed by a completely different team than the first Sonic the Hedgehog game, the game has received wildly mixed views as both the best and worst Sonic game–and in some cases, platformer in general–of all time. Sporting surreal and immersive environments, a heavy focus on puzzles and exploration and an absolutely killer soundtrack overseas (courtesy of the collective genius that is Masafumi Ogata and Naofumi Hataya), Sonic CD stands out in a lot of ways from virtually every Sonic title that came after it. This is likely due to the fact that game designer Hirokazu Yasuhara had no involvement in it whatsoever, contrary to the original Sonic and the two sequels that followed it. Still, love it or hate it, Sonic CD has left a longstanding impact on those who played it–both good and bad. Sonic CD had one major flaw back in the day when it was released, though–accessibility. The SEGA CD add-on was pricy, a tad bit gimmicky and ultimately way ahead of its time. Its library was scarce and most people didn’t have the time or money to invest in the peripheral. As a result, Sonic CD was a game that not many people got to play when it was released. SEGA tried to rectify this with the PC port of the game in 1996 and again in 2005 with Sonic Gems Collection, but both ports had their own flaws, the most notorious of which relating to the total lack of consistency in the use of the original Japanese soundtrack and the U.S. re-scored tracks in their respective regions. Even still, these ports leave the game inaccessible to today’s gamers; the original PC port no longer works on modern PCs and the Gems port is limited to GameCube owners in the U.S. Enter Christian Whitehead–better known around these parts as The Taxman–and his iconic Retro Engine. In July of 2009, Taxman posted a proof-of-concept port of Sonic CD‘s first level, Palmtree Panic, running flawlessly on iOS devices using his engine. Like a moth to a flame, the video mysteriously disappeared, with much speculation abuzz that SEGA had allegedly decided to pick up the project for official release. Sure enough, in August of 2011, news surfaced of an Xbox Live Arcade port of Sonic CD up for release before the end of the year, which Taxman eventually confirmed his personal involvement in and as of the culmination of his previous work. SEGA’s plans with this port reached far beyond Taxman’s original intent, though–in addition to the original iOS port and the announced XBLA release, the game was also slated to come out on the Playstation Network, PC (via Steam) and even Android devices! To see something like Sonic CD go from an obscure title to something so insanely widespread took many Sonic fans and typical gamers alike by storm. The news of a Sonic community member’s involvement turned more peoples’ heads to the point where many pledged to buy the game on every platform available solely to support Taxman’s efforts. With all that in mind, you can see why this release is a pretty big deal to a lot of people! It sets a huge precedent for not only SEGA’s efforts to focus on quality in reviving old products on new platforms (I shouldn’t have to remind everyone that Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis was an official release), but their willingness to work with talented members of their own fanbase to make sure that things get done right. Right! All that aside, let’s focus on what this release has to offer. Upon starting up the game, you get a very pretty splash screen acknowledging Christian’s work on the title, followed by an even nicer–and extremely stylish–custom menu not present in the original game, allowing access to various options that alter how the game is played. Players are given an option to alter the screen smoothing, the style of Spin Dash the player uses (either the original CD move or the functionality from Sonic 2) and change the volume of the sound effects and music individually. In addition, the game sports a more streamlined Time Attack mode that uploads the player’s scores to online leaderboards, allowing them to compete with other players from around the world for the best time on each zone in the game. Extras such as the D.A. Garden and the ability to play the game’s animated segments are present and unlockable in much the same way as the original game. Another option exclusive to this port is the ability to choose which soundtrack to use during the course of the game–either the original Japanese score or the U.S. soundtrack by Spencer Nilsen and company. For players who were previously stuck playing the game with the soundtrack from their own respective region, this is a huge deal and no longer forces you to put up with music that you don’t enjoy. The one downside to this–and pretty much the only thing that keeps it from being definitive–is that the vocal songs in the Japanese soundtrack have no lyrics present. This is less blatant neglect and more a factor beyond SEGA’s control, though; while they own full rights to the backing tracks for the music, the lyrics belonged to Casey Rankin, who unfortunately passed away in 2009. This left the rights to use the lyrics outside of a standalone album release in total limbo, an issue that couldn’t be resolved before the slated release of the game. Fans of the US soundtrack will be pleased to learn that no such issues come into play for Sonic Boom, however. When it comes to the game itself, things are more straightforward. If you’ve played Sonic CD before, you’ll be happy to know that the gameplay is virtually unchanged–all of the original physics, level layouts and gameplay elements are completely intact and virtually indistinguishable from their SEGA CD counterparts. The game handles brilliantly, displaying in 16:9 1080p HD at a full, ultra-smooth 60FPS. The colors are crisp, clear and beautiful on most HDTVs, making the game feel fresh and completely at home on modern consoles. The special stages have been altered to display on a proper 3D plane instead of using Mode 7-esque rotation and scaling, making the experience far more cohesive and easy to navigate. One major change to the game is the addition of Miles “Tails” Prower, who can be unlocked as a playable character after completing the game as Sonic. Sporting a full set of sprites updated specifically for the game and all of his abilities from Sonic 3, Tails allows the player to experience the game with a whole new set of rules that radically changes the way the game is played and adds a generous amount of replay value. When unlocking Tails for play, the original “See You Next Game” easter egg is cleverly modified and utilized to denote your achievement. Nice touch! One of the things that strikes me about this port is the pure fanservice and attention to detail spread throughout the game. For example, hearing portions of Brand New World from the Sonic the Hedgehog – Remix album in the time attack menu made me smile. In addition, all of the game’s music is properly looped and even makes use of the previously unused SNCBNK files hidden in the original game’s directory structure. Seeing stuff like that is just so cool to me, especially being someone who has always been fascinated by the whole “Sonic secrets” scene and the little mysteries people have unearthed over the years this community has thrived. It’s easy to forget at first that this port was spearheaded by someone who was initially just an extremely talented member of our own flock until you see stuff like this. However, this port is not without its flaws. For example, some of the object behavior, while fairly close to the original game, is not exact; as a result, quite a few “tricks” in progressing through the levels or navigating them meticulously doesn’t seem to carry over. This won’t be particularly noticeable to casual players, but more experienced–dare I say, anal–connoisseurs may notice these differences affect their play experience. In addition, some of the music looping on the Japanese side is just a bit tacky; while I appreciate the use of the SNCBNK files for the sake of exploring the possibilities they offered for the game, some of them just… didn’t work. Breaking the flow of the track on the whole for the sake of including an extra isn’t exactly ideal and the game suffers a bit for it. Thankfully, these are rather minor nitpicks and fairly subjective to boot, so take that in whatever way that suits you. When it comes to this release of CD, it feels like SEGA put a lot of effort towards trying to make it the “definitive” copy of the game to own. In a lot of ways, they succeeded–Taxman’s port preserves the original game experience perfectly and treats it with all of the respect it deserves while simultaneously adding to the game in sensible, non-obtrusive ways that give the players more control over how they want to play the game. Nothing feels out of place at all; all the additions made to the game feel perfectly appropriate and are completely optional. Purists and more liberal Sonic gamers alike can take what they want and leave the rest alone. It’s specifically designed to where no matter what your flavor of Sonic CD is–U.S. or Japanese soundtrack, classic or Sonic 2 spin dash, Sonic or Tails–you can play the game the way you want without compromise and just have fun with it. I mean, unless you hate the game. Then you’re kind of screwed. At the end of the day, Sonic CD for Absolutely Everything™ is an superb piece of work and a must-own for any fan of the original Sonic games. With a $4.99 (console)/$1.99 (mobile) price tag and abundant platform availability, there’s really no reason to pass it up! Show some love for Christian and show some love to SEGA for choosing someone like him over… say, Backbone or something. Business decisions like this should be encouraged, so show your support in whatever way you can!

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