Sonic CD. I so want to gush about Sonic CD!
I recall when I wrote about Sonic Generations that I had learned Sonic CD was most likely the best Sonic the Hedgehog game ever. Well, I have to revise that opinion slightly, but it does remain one of the most outstanding entries in the franchise and still stands on pretty firm footing to this day: excellent gameplay, revolutionary for its time even, amazing graphics coupled with a wonderful soundtrack that gives the game heaps of atmosphere and a thrilling intro and outro.
One thing I need to make clear is that I played the HD re-release, which means that while there is little change in the graphics and loading times are a lot quicker, most of the noticeable differences between the version I played and the original Sega CD release aren’t really game-impacting, save for one. I will make those clearer as I detail each segment below.
I’ll talk gameplay first, as this is the only platform entry in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise that deviates from the ‘speed through the level via multiple routes to get to the end’ mould. (Apart from any gameplay involving Team Chaotix that is…dammit Sega, MAKE A TEAM CHAOTIX GAME!) The levels themselves are short yet multi-storeyed, the reason being that you are encouraged to explore every route, nook and cranny. You need to hit a signpost, which says either ‘past’ or ‘future’, after which you need to do a timewarp in order to travel either backwards or forwards. In some levels this was really irritating, because you need to travel at speed for a set time and in some levels it’s easier to jump and bounce than run. Anyway, just going straight to the future means you end up in the bad future, which usually sees everything industrialised and decaying. In order to play the game ‘correctly’ and ultimately get the good ending, you need to travel back to the past to destroy the robot generator/teleporter (there are two different translations). After that, going to the future gets you the good future, which always resembles some beautiful paradise with machines and nature living in harmony. Also, instead of trying to get chaos emeralds when visiting a special stage, you’re trying to get time stones (how theme-appropriate). This is a key area that hasn’t aged well: it’s suddenly 3D and you’re controlling Sonic from behind. You have to run around a track and try to destroy all 7 UFOs (yes really) before the time runs out. As this is primitive 3D, however, the depth perception and distance-calculation is terrible. Not only that, but unlike current 3D incarnations, if you miss a UFO, you can’t just make Sonic turn around or jump back; you have to make the sprite swivel round and when you’re moving, he will curve round while running forward. It took me a while before I got my first time stone, I’ll tell you that.
So jumping to graphics and sound, all those transitions I mentioned when warping between time? Those are not separated by a loading screen that takes ages, oh no, the transition is instantaneous, with a fade to a ‘warping screen’, followed immediately by appearing in whatever time you travelled to. And the changes are vast! Small parts of the level are changed, along with all the designs, the background scenery, as well as music. And no matter what level you’re in, the background imagery changes depending on how high you are and where you are in the level. I’ll explain: in the past Quartz Quadrant, the top of the level shows the background as the top of the cave, while if you keep travelling right, you see a pool in the background. This transitional imagery was unheard of in the 16-bit era! Also, Sonic CD was the first Sonic game to have an actual menu as opposed to just a Start Screen, where you press start and then maybe select another option, then you start the game. And the menu screams early 90s (it’s the fluorescent colours trying to convince you Sonic is jumping out of the screen).
And final word on sound alone: this is of course the first game where Sonic speaks. He only says “yes” (when you get an extra life) and “I’m outta here” (when you have him doing nothing for 3 minutes, at which point he chooses to leave the game) but, these phrases precede the Sonic cartoons, so…I guess Jaleel White never did set the standard for the definitive Sonic voice after all. Instead it was the Japanese lady (I can’t be bothered to look up her name). Oh and that disturbing sound of laughter you hear when you get either ‘Game Over’ or ‘Time Over’? WTF is up with that? Just…why? Why something so disturbing in a platform game?!? For children!?!
Anyway, now to address the two soundtracks. Something that only came to light thanks to the internet was that the Japanese and initial European releases of the game had one soundtrack, while the American and later European releases of the game had a completely new soundtrack done for it (except for the past level themes). No one is really sure why this was done, but personally, I think the original intro/outro Japanese song(s) might be the main reason. At least initially. What should also be remembered is that Sega of Japan and Sega of America acted almost completely independently of each other, so couple that with the well-known reputation of Japanese marketing/presentation of media being different to that of America’s…well, it gets less mysterious. And just to confuse you further: the HD version has both soundtracks available on the game, so you can pick which one to have. Now it seems the original soundtrack used for the Japanese background of the time attack menu was replaced in the HD version; and due to copyright issues (the owner died) the original Japanese intro/outro songs were not used, instead replaced by instrumental versions. Frankly I find that an improvement. I won’t comment on my thoughts of each soundtrack for the game, all I’ll say is that I don’t outright prefer one over the other. Each soundtrack has pieces I prefer over the other version and each soundtrack has level music I love listening to over and over again.
And here’s another first: this was the first game to use automatic save states. In the original Sega CD release, the game would save your progress for you after every boss fight. In the HD re-release, your progress is saved after every level. In short, the continues from the cartridge Sonic games were done with. However, while the HD version had autosaves after every level completion, no doubt to conform to current gameplay norms, I would have personally preferred it if the autosave after every boss fight had been maintained instead.
Also, in the HD version, you get to play as Tails. I plan to do that at some point, this really is a fun game.