Backlog review: Sonic CD (PC)

Yeah, I said I’d be cleaning up the backlog, and here’s the proof.  I bought Sonic CD on Steam during a sale years ago and immediately forgot about it.  I’d messed around with the game on Sonic Gems Collection on the Gamecube years before, and I remembered it being a sort of strange novelty and not much else (classic Sonic + time travel?  What a combination!)  But that’s not being very fair to Sonic CD.  It’s an interesting game in its own right, and a pretty good one too, despite its problems.  Probably more interesting than good, which is more or less what I wrote about Knuckles’ Chaotix a long time ago.

Let’s start with the basics: what the hell is this?  Sonic CD was released in 1993 on the Sega CD, a Genesis add-on that more or less flopped. Sonic CD was originally meant to be the sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog, but while Sega of Japan worked on it, legend has it that series brainchild Yuji Naka fucked off to California to get with a branch of the company named Sega Technical Institute that created what would become the actual Sonic the Hedgehog 2, aka one of the Sonic games you actually remember playing when you were a kid.  Sonic CD ended up the flagship title for the Sega CD and was pretty much forgotten until it was re-released in 2005 on the aforementioned Gems Collection, which contained otherwise crap novelty games like Sonic R and Sonic the Fighters.  Then it was semi-forgotten until it was re-re-released on Steam a few years ago with some serious upgrades and additions made by Christian Whitehead, the guy who ported this and a few other 2D Sonic games to Steam and other platforms and who also worked on Sonic Mania.

Future and Past signposts. I’d make a Moody Blues joke here but I don’t think I’ll ever be old enough to do that.

The premise of Sonic CD is that Sonic has to once again save the world from Dr. Robotnik. Yeah, very original, I know. But this time, he also has to rescue Amy Rose, a hedgehog girl who crushes on him hard (and yeah, this will come back in later Sonic games dozens of times) from the clutches of a robot version of himself that fans have dubbed Metal Sonic (or maybe the original manual called it that – I don’t know, I don’t have it.)  Sonic also has the option of changing the history of the world by time-traveling through the use of posts that let him travel into set points in the past or future and destroying Robotnik’s robot-making machines in each level Back to the Future style.

Sonic’s world also had Roman times in its past, just like our world. Coincidence???

Aside from the usual run past the final post and beat the boss at the end of each zone stuff, Sonic CD features a new style of bonus stage that I completely hate because I’m bad at it.  It’s in some kind of weird pseudo-3D track that Sonic has to run around while destroying UFOs for some reason.  Destroying all the UFOs before the time runs out nets you a Time Stone, which is this game’s version of a Chaos Emerald, because… because why the fuck not have a new kind of rock you have to collect?  Incidentally, destroying all of Robotnik’s machines in the past or getting all the Time Stones gets you the good ending and creates a good future that you can travel to if you want to see the fruits of your labor, which unfortunately does not include going Super Sonic because that wasn’t a thing when this game was being developed.  The good future looks nice and shiny and clean, whereas the bad future looks like a Captain Planet dystopia covered in oil and electrical equipment.

Robotnik still shows up to try to kick your ass in the good future, but unfortunately for him, all but one of the boss fights in this game are complete garbage.

I want to love this game.  I love Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles.  Sonic CD is hard to love, though.  It’s just too oblique with its ridiculous level design.  Almost every stage is stacked up in bizarre ways that don’t really work that well with Sonic’s style of play.  Other 2D games in the series let Sonic go fast, but Sonic CD tells Sonic to slow the fuck down.  Using speed to get through one section of a stage often ends with an obstacle stopping you or springing/catapulting you back to where you started.  There’s nothing wrong with that in itself – it’s not like I want a straight left-to-right course without any obstacles – but at times it feels like this game is giving me a middle finger.

This is doubly a problem if you’re going for a good ending by finding and destroying each one of Robotnik’s machines.  This requires you to travel to the past and to find and destroy said machine.  This might sound easy, but it’s not, for the simple reason that the god damn game makes it a chore for Sonic to maintain top speed for long enough to time-travel.  All too often you’ll find yourself faceplanting into a wall just before your jump.  The worst part of it is that losing momentum after a couple of seconds makes you lose the ability to jump until you hit another post, and the next post you’ll find is usually a useless Future post.  It’s frustrating, and the crazy level design only adds to the madness.

Okay, I already don’t know where to go and I’m only 18 seconds in, please help

But there is a lot of good in Sonic CD.  As much as I might complain about how much of a pain in the ass it is to navigate your way to a good future in each stage, it does add some replay value to the game.  The soundtracks, both American/European and Japanese, are also really good.  Sonic CD features a massive soundtrack for its time – each stage has a present theme, a past theme, a bad future theme and a good future theme.  This had to take a lot of effort, and it paid off.  For some reason, the western and eastern soundtracks feature mostly different tracks aside from the past themes, but I like all of them.

I also like the art in Sonic CD.  The style is pretty different from the Genesis Sonics.  I don’t know whether that has to do with the fact that it was made for a CD-based console or what, but it looks good.

The special stages look really good too, but I still hate them.

Major props go to Christian Whitehead, who made some great modifications to the original Sonic CD for its Steam release, cementing it as the definitive version of the game.  It lets you choose whether to play the NA/EU or the JP soundtrack, which up until this release was a huge point of controversy among fans.  It allows you to play with the Sonic 2-style spindash that wasn’t present in the original Sonic CD, giving Sonic more of a boost (this is a big deal, believe me.)  It even lets you play as Tails once you’ve beaten the game as Sonic, which is some Knuckles in Sonic 2-level game-breaking insanity.  Tails’ flying ability adds a new dimension of “fuck this level, I’ll fly over it” to some stages, and it’s just a lot of fun to explore parts of the stages you can’t get to with Sonic.  Tails is nowhere to be found in any of the older versions of Sonic CD, so this is a welcome addition.

Best of all, Whitehead added all that good stuff without taking out any of the weird little touches that made Sonic CD interesting, like the bit at the end of the very first stage where Amy chases after Sonic.  That’s important lore.  Establishing character and shit.

Maybe if I hide up here long enough she’ll go away

Sonic CD is the weird cousin of the classic Sonic lineup.  It’s still recognizably classic Sonic – all the elements are there – but it’s different in so many small ways that it just belongs in its own category separate from everything else.  That doesn’t make it a bad game by any means.  There’s a lot to recommend it: it’s got great music and plenty of action.  But I can’t ignore its main flaw.  Sonic CD suffers from such completely fucky, non-intuitive level design that large parts of it are frustrating to play, which is something I can’t say at all for Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles (it’s something I can say for Sonic 1, but Sonic 1 is still more enjoyable than Sonic CD, and it gets a break for being the first game in the series.)

Even so, I like Sonic CD.  Maybe it’s because I was the weird cousin too when I was growing up, so I feel some kind of strange man-to-game camaraderie with it.  It gets a 5 out of 7 on my stupid nonsensical scale.  It’s worth playing, but it’s not as good as any of the Genesis titles except for Sonic Spinball, which isn’t really that good at all.  If you haven’t played any of the old Sonics, I wouldn’t advise you to start with this one.  Get Sonic 2 or 3&K first and see how you like them, and get this if you end up hooked on those.  It’s probably worth it for the soundtrack alone.