You may remember that the last time I talked about a Sonic the Hedgehog game I dropped this little nugget: "Now the thing to keep in mind is that my two favorite entries in the franchise are the first game and Sonic CD." Well here we are. This is a review of Sonic CD, or more specifically the excellent port that was just released on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network (in Europe), and smart phones. It's necessary that I explain my reasons for absolutely loving this game, because it's considered a "black sheep" of the series. If I were talking about maybe Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles, hardly anybody would bat an eye and this review would be several times shorter. I could also have just said something to the effect of the game not being for everyone, it spoke to me emotionally, and blah blah. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that's impossible.
Every zone in this game is designed for both exploration and speed-running.
First let's get the important stuff out of the way. For a pittance you'll receive the best port a Sonic game has yet seen. Christian "Taxman" Whitehead has delivered a phenomenal port, there's no question about that. To call it perfect would actually be doing it a disservice, since the frame of reference is the original Sega CD version. This edition kicks that and all other versions down a hundred-dozen flights of stairs. The entirety of the game runs at a flawless sixty frames per second, the controls and physics are immaculate, Tails is playable. Thanks to the improved frame rate, the special stages are at least tolerable instead of absolutely infuriating. Even both the US and EU/JPN soundtracks are included, which won't stop forum-goers everywhere from arguing over which one is better, but hey. I've gone through this version multiple times and can confirm that it is beyond flawless. The only problem is . . . well it's still Sonic CD, and for some people that's a bad thing.
I've always thought that Sonic the Hedgehog worked best as fast character in a slow world. The most popular Sonic games always seem to have an overabundance of speed boosters, springs, and other objects that send Sonic in every which direction. In-between those instances, maybe I'll jump on some blocks and grab a few power-ups before I get shuffled off to the next sequence of loops, twirls, and corkscrews. The way I see it, Sonic should have the advantage. Where a slower platformer-hero would have to land on every floating platform to traverse a bottom-less pit, Sonic could skip two, three, or even the entire pit if he's fast enough. This is part of the reason why I think so highly of Sonic CD, because it challenges my ideal vision.
One would think that after nearly twenty years I'd have already figured this game out in its entirety and could write a grand thesis explaining its every intricacy and provide sufficient reasoning for what works and what doesn't. Even after so many play-throughs I still don't understand it. Sonic CD is an ambitious game, mainly because it was trying to do things one wouldn't expect in a Sonic game. It's easy to write this game off simply because it works so hard to go against what we are familiar with. At the same time, however, that's part of what makes Sonic CD work so well. We're supposed to feel lost, like we're in a world that doesn't welcome a little blue hedgehog with super-speedy shoes. The loops and twirls are still around, but some are incomplete, like somebody was in the middle of designing a Sonic game and said "why bother?" and just left everything as is. All expectations are thrown out the window from the first act onward and it's all on the player to make his way through. However, there is one sure thing: this game was designed with limitations in mind. If Sonic could just jump over every obstacle, what's next? Maybe he'll get a cape and fly over entire stages. In a way I got what I wanted, but the most important rule of game-design is to not always give the player what he wants.
Sonic CD's level-design is very unique, because the first two acts of all seven zones have to account for three different time periods and their slight, yet also noticeable, differences. After touching a future or past post, Sonic can travel to the corresponding time if he can maintain a certain speed for a few seconds. You may remember in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past how if Link tried to return to his world and there was a rock or a wall in the way he'd get kicked back to the Dark World. The level design in Sonic CD has to account for every possibility so that Sonic doesn't find himself trapped, forced under the stage, or tossed in some inexplicable corner of nowhere to rot. This is probably why that in the entire game there is only a single bottomless pit, and it's located in act 3 of the final zone, free from any time-travel shenanigans. Also unlike most Sonic games, there is plenty of backtracking involved and most of the time the player can start from near the end of an act and still make his way back to the very beginning of it.
This, however, does not stop Sonic CD from featuring all manner of twisting passages, tight corners, and an assortment of obstacles thrown around solely to frustrate the player. There are the expected dangers like robots and traps, but like almost any other Sonic game, they're only a threat if you're after a specific goal. In the case of this game, it's to make a good future by either going to the past and destroying generators or completing the special stages. This makes for two goals, one that players can achieve through exploration and the other through finesse, as at least fifty rings must be held to open the way to the special stage. It's as if the developers behind this game realized the inherent flaw that is the lack of challenge in a Sonic game. After all Sonic only needs to hold onto one ring at all times in order to survive. So why not focus the level design towards hindering the player as much as possible?
This goes beyond robots or the occasional bed of spikes. Every aspect of this game is designed to waste the player's time. Enemies along a seemingly quiet road, springs and bumpers that kick Sonic away from his objective - and since Sonic needs a few seconds and plenty of speed to time travel, that means outside of a few locations designed specifically for such an endeavor Sonic is going to have to make his own route. The penalty for failure is exceedingly low since if the player doesn't get what he's after, he can restart the act without so much as one of his remaining lives getting taken away. There are gamers out there who don't believe in retries or reloading saves, and I salute their resolve. Attaining everything flawlessly in Sonic CD is where the real challenge lies.
While exploration is key to Sonic CD, the levels have also been designed with speed in mind. Unlike what some will tell you, getting through a Sonic game quickly involves more than just holding right and tapping the jump button occasionally. In the time attack mode it's all about timing and memorization. Each act has that optimal path every speed-runner strives for and there are a number of maneuvers that can be performed to shave those precious seconds. This can involve jumping at the right moment to get Sonic that necessary momentum, figuring out the patterns of moving platforms, and generally making a lot of moves while knowing instead of seeing what comes next. Every zone in this game is designed for both exploration and speed-running, even though it's not obvious. Even a much-maligned zone like Wacky Workbench has reason for its madness. It's all the more rewarding when such a convoluted stage can be bested.
All in all, the game plays with both my expectations and ideals. The solution is never apparent, so I have to work around the game's terms to find it. This may be one of the easiest Sonic the Hedgehog games to stumble through, but there is a very special appeal in working through the level so that I can achieve every goal I have for it. This is where its open level design really excels. Of course, it helps that this game is backed by two wonderful soundtracks and some solid art direction, even though it's not on the first game's level.
The other major reason why I'm so fond of Sonic CD is that even though it has goals, it also gives me ample opportunity to ignore them. This game provides reason enough for players to go into the past, but what about the future? Sure, the good future makes for a nice visit with its pleasant scenery and music, but nobody bothers to see the bad future. I have to visit all time periods and explore, even if there's nothing of value to be found. Maybe there is some creative trap that isn't found anywhere else in the game, or it could be just a few rocks designed specifically to hold the stage together. I guess maybe I just enjoy exploration more when there isn't a reward to be had. It's like how in the first Sonic game there were alternate paths that held nothing of value. It gives the game a more atmospheric quality; offering a bit more than level design that simply expects the player to go through the motions to reach the end. What can I say? I'm also the guy who would play through NiGHTs solely as the kids, which goes against the entire goal of the game.
As a reminder, in no way am I saying that the people who dislike this game are "playing it wrong" or don't understand it. Sonic CD is a divisive game, and its best qualities are not easily definable. In nearly every respect, it could stand alongside the most acclaimed entries in the franchise, but where it differentiates itself from the pack could be considered its greatest weakness. Still, Sega and Taxman have offered the perfect opportunity for everyone to experience this game, and I see no reason why everyone shouldn't at least give it a look.