Sonic CD (PlayStation 3) review
"Gameplay is another way in which Sonic CD doesn't meet the standard set by its more vanilla Genesis counterparts, though it doesn't fall nearly as short as it could have. Levels always have enough unique gimmicks to prevent them from blurring together in your memory. Each level effectively has four versions. By running past special posts, Sonic can travel through time and his actions in the past can change the future. This means that every level has a present version, past version, good future version, and bad future version (the good future is basically the bad future with fewer enemies). It's an interesting mechanic that can be used to keep things fresh for multiple playthroughs. "
If you're a fan of Genesis games, you've probably played one or two of Backbone's PSN and XBLA ports this generation. Such releases are more convenient than pulling out an actual Genesis and cartridges, but they're often missing features and don't run as well as they should. Graphic filters and sound bugs are common, and I swear the downloadable version of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has some minor input lag.
Hopefully, the days of shoddy retro ports are over. Indie developer and Sonic fan Christian “Taxman” Whitehead developed the Retro Engine, ported Sonic CD to run on it and submitted it to Sega as a proof of concept. The engine was meant to easily port retro games to iOS, but the people at Sega were so impressed that they decided to bring it to several other platforms as well.
After playing the game for a while, it's easy to see why. Sonic CD runs remarkably well on the PS3. The customary graphic filters are included, but they somehow look better than what Sega fans have become accustomed to by now. You're also not required to play with them applied. Either way, the sprites look great and the game even runs in widescreen.
It's a shame these new graphical perks are wasted on such a poor looking game. On a technical level, it looks great. There's no blur and everything looks sharp. It’s like the game was meant to be played in HD. Unfortunately, Sonic CD was always kind of ugly. The backgrounds and foregrounds alike are cluttered. It's often hard to tell if a platform is part of the solid foreground that can support your weight, or just a piece of background artwork. Underground tunnels seem as though they were built by simply erasing sections of solid ground from existence. Instead of a border or a line to make these areas look like part of a natural environment or even something built by a machine, there's simply the absence of a pattern. The Genesis Sonics knew what they were doing. Backgrounds looked distant enough to be distinguishable from foregrounds. Objects and characters you could interact with were always the center of attention. For whatever reason, Sonic CD is a mess. It’s just too busy.
Gameplay is another way in which Sonic CD doesn't meet the standard set by its more vanilla Genesis counterparts, though it doesn't fall nearly as short as it could have. Levels always have enough unique gimmicks to prevent them from blurring together in your memory. Each level effectively has four versions. By running past special posts, Sonic can travel through time and his actions in the past can change the future. This means that every level has a present version, past version, good future version, and bad future version (the good future is basically the bad future with fewer enemies). It's an interesting mechanic that can be used to keep things fresh for multiple playthroughs.
One weird quirk many Sonic CD levels feature that other classic Sonic levels rarely do is a spot that seems to have no purpose but to confuse you. The time travel mechanic requires you to maintain a high speed for a few seconds, and there are a few sections of levels designed to help you do this, sometimes by bouncing you back and forth between bumpers. This is understandable and welcome. Then there are parts that just send you in a big circle for some reason. They're not there to help you time travel, since a lot of them involve running into walls or hitting the ceiling (not helpful when you're trying to bend time). They just seem to be there to slow you down as you look for a way to escape. In most Sonic games, any one of several routes you might take will eventually bring you to the end of the level. In Sonic CD, following some routes will return you to a location you've already visited. It’s not a huge problem since you'll probably be able to find the true path forward after a few trips around the loop, but it’s still a common enough occurrence to be irritating.
The Special Stages in Sonic CD were impressive in the early 90s for their 3D presentation. They didn't feature proper polygonal 3D and instead opted for Super Mario Kart-style Mode 7 3D with 2D sprites moving on a flat 3D stage. In these stages, Sonic must run around the area and destroy UFOs to earn "Time Stones." These stages don’t hold up well now that developers have had 15 years to implement proper 3D gameplay (including a handful of good 3D Sonic games... and a bunch of bad ones). Controlling Sonic in the artificial third dimension is awkward and it's difficult to aim your jumps properly. Thankfully, the Time Stones are optional, and collecting them doesn't yield anything as cool as the ability to transform into Super Sonic. You won't stress out when you fail to get them all in a single run through the game.
This version of Sonic CD also includes a welcome new play mode. After completing the game once, you can play as Tails. Tails, of course, can fly. This totally breaks the game, but in a good way. Playing as Tails in Sonic CD, a game that clearly wasn’t designed for flight, is like playing as Knuckles in Sonic 2. The experience is incredibly easy, but it's a welcome bonus. Exploring old games in new ways is fun.
The music is where Sonic CD's biggest strengths lie. At the time of its original release, Sonic CD had a different soundtrack in North America than it did in Europe and Japan. The debate over which soundtrack is superior (the American one) has been long argued, and finally, for the first time ever, the individual player gets to make his own decision. Both soundtracks are present, minus the lyrics in the Japanese opening theme. It's not entirely clear why they were omitted, but it's probably a licensing issue (isn't it always?). You can switch between soundtracks on the main menu. Whichever one you choose, you might be tempted to play the game just for the soundtrack. They're all great and you really can't go wrong unless you choose the Japanese soundtrack.
Sonic CD is not the perfect Sonic game many people remember it being, but Sonic CD on the Retro Engine is the new gold standard to which all future 16-bit ports will surely be held. It strikes the perfect balance between old and new. Fans of the original will be pleased to find that their beloved Sonic CD remains intact with all the bells and whistles (and more), and newcomers will appreciate the game as an example of proper retro gaming implemented on modern consoles. I'd gladly buy Sonic 2, 3, and Sonic & Knuckles for the millionth time (with lock-on, of course) if they’re running on the Retro Engine. We’d finally be able to forget all about those Backbone ports. The future looks bright.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (December 31, 2011)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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