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Sonic CD review

Excellent

I may have to hand in my Sonic badge: I never completed Sonic CD. That shock aside, chances are you haven't either, as it was released on Sega's short-lived Mega-CD add on in 1993 before fading into collectors-only obscurity. Yet it's comparable to Mario's Lost Levels because this is just as much a sequel to Sonic 1 as the real Sonic 2. While Yuji Naka was off in America making the second game that we know and love, Sonic's designer, Naoto Oshima, was in Japan making Sonic CD. This is an essential and authentic 2D Sonic game - and now it's obscure no longer.

Above: Sega's wisened up to Amy's reputation and now continues to poke fun at her

The reason I haven't finished it (until now) is that I came to it late. Every time I load up my beautiful copy of the Mega CD original, I get sad when I see the jerky movement as the hardware struggles to run all those lovely layers of parallax. I was also excited to see the Gamecube re-release on Sonic Gems collection until found out the original JAP/UK soundtrack had been ditched in favour of the vastly inferior US soundtrack, and turned it off in disgust. Yes, really.

So it's taken this re-release to allow me to see how truly great Sonic CD is - and boy, have I been missing out! Firstly, both of those previous annoyances are fixed. The new version runs at a breathtaking 60fps and not only is the 'best' music back in, but you can even select the US music if you really want it. Everyone's happy.

Flogging a dead console

It's a crying shame Mega CD died on its ass, because this was clearly a massive project for Sega. The sheer scope of the design is incredible, taking in four variations of each zone thanks to a totally bespoke plotline of time travel. Basically, you get the chance to go back in time in every level, stop Robotnik's evil creations from spoiling the party, then warp back to the future (hey – that's a catchy line) and see the fruits of your labours. 

Above: Yeah, he did! Do this in every stage to see the real ending

To see this ambition realised so convincingly and with such style is the stuff of fantasy. The care and attention lavished on the soundtrack alone is formidable – already great main melodies are dismantled and broken down for dystopian futures, or augmented and smoothed out for idyllic wonderlands. Add in the free, happy animals bouncing around in these peaceful worlds and your successes literally feel like you're running through the end sequence of Sonic 1, only during regular gameplay. Few games reward careful play like Sonic CD.

Above: You literally fixed time. Now you get to run around with the squirrels, danger-free

The Japanese soundtrack is particularly famous and it's easy to see (hear) why. I was going to say a lot of it is reminiscent of NiGHTS into Dreams, especially when Robotnik laughs, but that's because the music was reused in the Sonic into Dreams bit in Christmas NiGHTS. Regardless, the same breathtaking hi-fi production and MIDI style is present. Some of it is even worthy of Jet Set Radio with its funky guitar and early 1990s rap influences. What must've dated very quickly in the 1990s is somehow totally fresh today – and listening to the game through headphones easily doubles the experience. Do it.

I like the way you move

But what of the gameplay? Well, to put it simply, it's what everyone's been wanting from modern Sonic games. The inertia of Sonic 1, 2 and 3 is still present, only somehow the sense of fluidity is even greater. Something about the way Sonic moves over undulating terrain feels different – perhaps due to the improved frame-rate or the abundance of fancy scrolling effects. It brings back the joy of simply moving as Sonic. When basic movement is a joy, the rest just comes naturally.

Not that you'll be doing much running, mind. This is an incredibly claustrophobic game. Sonic rarely ever hits his infinity-feet stride before being pulled up by a wall, spring or bizarre rotating platform. If you play Sonic games by holding right and jumping now and then, you'll fail hard at Sonic CD.

Above: Blazing speed like this is wonderful when it comes, but it's used sparingly throughout

It's like everything Sonic 2 brought to the table was thrown out the window. The many paths here intersect with impossible complexity and exploration is now the most important aspect, as you hunt first for time-travel icons and then for Robotnik's dastardly creations. The result is a game that's way deeper than its contemporaries, even if it is essentially the bastard sibling of the series.

Above: Speaking of bastards, look what Metal Sonic is doing to that poor bunny!

With this complexity of level design comes a very busy look to the graphics. By comparison, Sonic 2 looks like an 8-bit game, as Sonic CD sees you spending way more time in each screenful of in-game scenery, as opposed to just dashing over the top of it.

Some of it can be bewildering for newcomers and even long-term Sonic fans as there's just so much to take in at any given moment, especially when elements of scenery are flickering and pulsing with bright lights and vivid colours. However, despite the cramped surroundings, persevere and you'll discover everything is there to be played with, as you enjoy building up speed in half-pipes, bouncing off bubbles and springboards and messing around with pinball flippers. 

Above: Even more densely-packed scenery elements than Sonic 1 make this a very intense experience

With all this time-travel malarky, it would have been enough for Sega to have left the game at that, but there are also the traditional bonus levels to conquer. Set in Mega-CD's answer to SNES' Mode 7 technology, these pseudo-3D special stages are rock hard, requiring you to take down a set number of UFOs without letting your time run out. These days, they look uber-naff, but the challenge they pose isn't to be sniffed at.

Above: Back when 3D was 'suggested' by clever use of sprites. This is one of the better-looking stages. Eew!

While the graphics are untouched, the conversion does add one thing. Tails! Complete the game once and the furry fella appears. He doesn't have Sonic's Super Peel Out special move, but he CAN fly. This should make the time posts easier to find, at least.

Above: Looking like Sonic 2's sprite but playing like Sonic 3's (he can fly), Tails is a welcome surprise

Last of its kind

Like I say, it's highly probable you haven't played Sonic CD as you'd really need to be a fan to have sought it out before now. Coming to it all these years later and seeing old-style Robotnik being chased down by 'old' Sonic makes me feel jubilantly happy and yet so sad at the same time. I once described Sonic CD's sprite as "the original Sonic sprite's final, most evolved state - and it's awesome". Looking at the visuals, it's clear that this was always meant to be 'next gen' Sonic, as it ramped up everything while retaining the stylised scenery of Sonic 1.

Above: Robotnik's super, thanks for asking! The 'good future' version of the first boss is hilarious

Can Sonic 5 be like this, please?

Basically, I love this game. And I love it in a way that both fans and Sonic CD newcomers should be able to love it too. Fans will love the care and attention given to the conversion of one of the all-time great Sonic games. Newbies will share the same journey I just had, discovering a gem of a platformer that's been buried in obscurity for far too long. It's still relevant and only the ultra-hardcore level design is likely to put gamers off. If it does, go back to Sonic 2 instead - it's far simpler.

Above: Chibi-Sonic! Shrunk by a shrink-ray and now far too cute to be taken seriously

One final note: This is a multi-platform review, and while all of the above (and the score) applies to all versions, the iPhone conversion in particular is incredible. Easily the best handheld Sonic game ever, and it pops from the retina display of an iPhone 4S. It's incredibly cheap, yet makes the emulated Mega Drive offerings from Sega look Mega Shabby. iPhone or iPad, 360 or PS3, this is how it's done.

Above: Sometimes, Sonic, you're just too fast for your own good

More Info

Available Platforms: PS3, PC, Xbox 360, iPhone, iPad
Published by: Sega

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33 comments

  • middleyjo - November 28, 2013 8:03 p.m.

    hm why did i not see this on the app store? will have to check this out! my comment is classified as spam? :(
  • S0ULEATER - December 16, 2011 10:23 p.m.

    I think I am going to get this because this was the sonic of my childhood. I near had a sega genesis but I did play this on pc, never did beat it though I think I got stuck on the water stage
  • S0ULEATER - December 16, 2011 10:26 p.m.

    derp read the comments guess this was on sega cd makes since in retrospect
  • Nikku7 - December 16, 2011 11:16 p.m.

    Yeah, I remember getting it on the PC when I was really young. I know that I finally made it to the last stage but I don't think I ever beat it. I have been trying to get it to run again for a few years now, but my newer computers don't have all the right components to run it ever.
  • Moondoggie1157 - December 16, 2011 6:03 p.m.

    So I am hearing different things right now. Is Sonic CD being released on PSN on the 20th? Or is that only in the UK? I have heard a few people say it is a XBLA exclusive here in North America. I can't even begin to tell you how much this game means, Sonic babysat me. For real.
  • IceBlueKirby - December 16, 2011 5:36 p.m.

    Sonic CD was so awesome...I don't remember if I ever finished it, but since I just bought it, I can make sure!
  • talleyXIV - December 16, 2011 5:05 p.m.

    Looks like an eye sore. However I always thought that of the Sonic series.
  • Nintygameplayerperson - December 16, 2011 4:58 p.m.

    I have this on Sonic Gems Collection. It's pretty much the only good game on the disc.
  • ThatGamerDude - December 16, 2011 3:57 p.m.

    I've been waiting 9 years to play this game. I must get it as soon as possible!
  • alexfruen - December 16, 2011 2:29 p.m.

    The US soundtrack is NOT vastly inferior. It's a obvious that a gamer will tend to prefer which ever he our she hears first. The US soundtrack is deep and atmospheric (Tidal Tempest Bad Future?! COLLISION CHAOS?!) Nice review non the less!
  • AleeR - December 16, 2011 4:20 p.m.

    Agreed. Having the US soundtrack included is a dealbreaker for me. I understand why people may not like it, but if you played this in American on the Sega CD, it's just not the same without that music.
  • DaveGoose - December 16, 2011 2:09 p.m.

    God Damn Brits and your Sonic love..... Wait a minute? I'm half British.....and I love Sonic... NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoo (Great Review)
  • WTeen8 - December 16, 2011 1:02 p.m.

    I own the gamecube version on gems collection...didn't care for it too much. Still prefer sonic 2. also this line from the reivew bugs me. "By comparison, Sonic 2 looks like an 8-bit game" Ahem, Sonic CD uses mostly the same graphics from sonic 1, Sonic 2 Improved on sonic ones grpahics....also I find the picture below that paragrpah to have a somewhat 8-bit background...argument invalid, and this is only my opinion so don't hate me.
  • GR_JustinTowell - December 17, 2011 4:56 a.m.

    Maybe I didn't make myself clear. I mean the complexity of level layout. Sonic CD makes Sonic 2 look like Sonic 1 Master System does to MD Sonic 2. That probably made even less sense. Wonderful :)
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - December 16, 2011 12:44 p.m.

    Might pick it up in a year once it drops in price and there aren't as many games out.
  • Fuzunga - December 16, 2011 11:55 a.m.

    I had the PC version of this when I was a kid.
  • NelosAngelos - December 16, 2011 11:33 a.m.

    Gah! A blast from my past. I never had it on the Mega drive, but I did have it as a PC version and it was great! I never finished it, being as complex as it was and me being only about 6 years old and just starting to dip my feet into gaming, but I played the hell out of it. I'm glad to see it getting more attention, it really was one of Sonic's best, most unique outings.
  • Galgomite - December 16, 2011 10:43 a.m.

    Very psyched to finally be picking this up-- and with selectable music! In most ways I'd rate this game after Sonic 1 and 2, thanks to long loading times and occasionally ugly graphics, but it's WAY better than Sonic 3, etc. IMHO. But one request, GR: can we have some other editors' opinions of Sonic games? I'm starting to feel like I'm reading a not-so-objective personal blog, since Justin appears to write each and every Sonic article.
  • CancerMan - December 16, 2011 11:35 a.m.

    But Justin knows his s**t! I would prefer to hear his opinion over anyone else where Sonic is concerned.
  • Arucard04 - December 16, 2011 10:02 a.m.

    Sonic 2 is still the best of the series to me but I'm glad to see this game widely available.

Showing 1-20 of 33 comments

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