Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: Sonic CD (XBLA version): A Blast From The Past, Present, and Future

Sonic CD is one of those games that can’t be brought up without half the room going, “… Sonic what?” Released on the expensive, ill-fated Sega CD (a Genesis/Megadrive accessory that was plagued by horrible, FMV-based “games”), only the more dedicated fans will have heard of it, let alone beaten it, and it’s not an easy game to show to fans who are more accustomed to Sonic’s … modern achievements. But underneath its obscurity, Sonic CD is a real treasure, and Sega was smart enough to make sure that treasure feels as beautiful now as it was then, using Sonic fanChristian “Taxman” Whitehead’s “Retro Engine” for all the ports.
For starters, the game now runs at 60 frames per second in all situations, and features true widescreen support. Sprites can be smoothed out to make them seem better to bystanders, but I’m perfectly happy to play with their old, unfiltered selves (granted, I have an old CRT TV). The USA and Japanese soundtracks are included (defaults to JP); while the JP soundtrack is considered to be vastly superior by many, the USA one has its merits. (My two cents: play as Sonic with the one you like most, and then play, with the other soundtrack, as …) Tails shows up in this port as well, as an unlockable character, awarded by beating the game once as Sonic. He features his flying and swimming abilities from Sonic 3, and a few new sprites for situations he’s previously never been in (the Special Stages come to mind). Tails is great for leisurely exploring the levels to learn paths you may have been timid or too much in a hurry to go down as Sonic (that 10 minute limit can be haunting!). Finally, the game saves after each Zone (Act, as it’s called in later games), instead of only after you defeat a boss, and you get four save slots.
Sonic, of course, is where the action all is, and he’s a joy to control here. I found myself able to peel through stages like they were nothing in Time Attack mode, while able to elegantly explore the stages in the main game, scouring the land for time posts and rings. Sonic accelerates and stops smoothly (contrast: Sonic 4 Ep. 1), and you’re given the option of using the original Spindash (that is, the one in the original Sonic CD) or the Sonic 2-style spindash (the good one, in seemingly everyone’s opinion). Sometimes I really didn’t care if I was moving towards the goal or away; it was just funto move Sonic around, especially on the obstacle-course sections of the Zones.
Sonic CD’s Special Stages – accessed by finishing a Zone with at least 50 rings - have been perfectly preserved as well – maybe a little too well. The pseudo-3D design can be jarring for audiences that didn’t grow up in the Mode 7-esque days, and even old-school fans will have to adjust to the now incredibly-smooth framerate (60 FPS vs. 30 FPS in the original), as jumping timing is a little different. I found it fairly easy to get used to, and before I knew it I had three Time Stones. (Good luck, of course, on getting the other four!) The objective, for those wondering, is to run around the 3D stage and destroy multiple UFOs floating in the air by jumping into them – with a 99 second time limit that drops by ten seconds if you walk into water. Succeed, and you win a Time Stone.
Players of modern Sonic who are used to holding right and jumping from time to time won’t find much of that here. The stage designs are dense, packed with obstacles that ensure that Sonic will rarely reach top speed. There are multiple possible reasons, all benign. It becomes all that more joyous when you can move Sonic at top speed for those precious seconds. Time travel becomes a challenge as you struggle to maintain good speed to start the warp (and it becomes harder to do it by accident). Time trials are more challenging as you struggle to find a fast route (if you find it, you canblaze through most Zones). The slower pace lets you take in the scenery better. Maybe the level designers just got giddy about the extra storage space. Whatever the reason, Sonic CD’s levels can seem convoluted and intimidating at first, but with time they become elegant, beautiful paths that can be tackled without breaking a sweat.
The game does have a few nits, like the score tally at the end of each Zone occuring after the music has played (and feeling like an arbitrary delay if you happen to be playing your own music), but the game offers plenty of redeeming qualities that all the negatives can be brushed aside with ease. And to top it off, this thing is $5 (at least on Xbox Live Arcade). It’s practically an impulse buy. What more could you ask for from Sega, who, at long last, has given a formerly forgotten title its welcome return.
Gameplay: 4.5/5. The Sonic 2-style Spindash is a welcome improvement. Sonic is fun to control.
Visuals: 3.5/5. They didn’t remake the sprites, just added a smoothing filter. Special Stage looks dated as a result.
Sound: 4.5/5. Is it 18-year-old music? Yes. Is it lossless? I don’t know. Does it sound fresh and exciting? OH YES
Controls: 5/5. Back to basics. You could play this with an Atari VCS joystick. Again, Sonic moves great.
Difficulty: 4/5. I’m not really sure how hard this would be for a newcomer. I’ve technically played this game before (on the 1995 PC version), so I know the game fairly well.
Storyline: 2/5. This was back in a time when Sonic wasn’t about story, so just ignore this number and go play the darn game.
Overall: 5/5.
Sonic and all affiliated characters and elements are © Sega, Sonic Team. Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade are © Microsoft Corporation.
This review was originally published on Tumblr in December 2011. View the original post.
Sonic CD on Steam