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Sonic CD

(Sega; US: 14 Dec 2011)

The past few years have seen numerous older games updated and released.  This can be interpreted cynically as a quick money grab by publishers looking to cash in on aging gamers’ nostalgia.  Yet it seems that for every attempt at a quick buck there is an example of a respectful remastering.  Sonic CD is one such example: it provides ready access to a classic game, allowing us to indulge our nostalgia, experience the game in a contemporary context, and reevaluate its historical legacy.


Sonic CD modernizes the game without erasing the fond memories that many players will bring to it.  The updated graphics smooth out the game’s rough edges, resulting in visuals that look like manifestations of your hazy memories from the early 1990s.  For those that like the look of pixels, the game’s “retro” visual mode reproduces the original game’s blocky goodness.  The new widescreen perspective feels natural and is complementary to the game’s emphasis on speed and exploration.  When you’re traveling at full speed and also looking for secret items, extra screen-real-estate is always a good thing.


Although the updated visuals are nice, I found the game’s sound to be the welcome memory to revisit.  A combination of weird techno and industrial-sounding rock create a perfect score for the game’s flashy environments.  The familiar chime that sounds when you collect a ring is still one of the most rewarding sounds in video games.  By the same token, the awful, chaotic jingling that ensues after taking damage is one of gaming’s most disheartening sounds.  In an instant, all your momentum is broken, and your hard work spills out across the stage as you scramble to piece things back together.


Collecting rings and maintaining momentum is the core dynamic in Sonic CD, but this is where the game runs into problems.  Architecturally, the game is interesting: the levels are deceptively non-linear and full of obstacles and different routes to traverse.  Unfortunately, exploring them exposes the weaknesses of the Sonic formula.  Once Sonic slows down, he’s out of his element.  The jumping is floaty and inaccurate, it’s hard to find enough flat ground to re-build your speed, and enemy hit boxes are inconsistent.  Compared to Super Mario (a comparison that Sega itself invited in the 1990s), Sonic is simply outclassed.


Much has been said about Sonic’s rough transition into the third dimension.  The franchise has been in trouble for years now, but looking back at Sonic CD, we can already see many of the ills that plague modern Sonic games are actually old problems.  Most levels contain extended sequences in which you don’t actually control the game at all.  Bouncing off of bumpers and being propelled by speed boosters offers a good sense of speed, but also very little interaction.  All too often, these sequences end by flinging you into a set of unavoidable spikes or into a bottomless pit.  It’s a cheap way to add difficulty to the game, as a first-time player has little chance of avoiding such obstacles and little incentive to draw any lessons from the experience.  Random, unavoidable obstacles don’t teach you anything besides the fact that the game is unfair.  Modern Sonic games, with their uninspired level design and clunky controls aren’t actually that different from one of the series’ more beloved entries.


Sonic CD’s mechanical awkwardness detracts from an interesting time-travel dynamic that effectively triples the number of levels in the game while also sharpening your skills.  Speeding past posts that say “future” and “past” gives you the opportunity to warp through time and explore alternate versions of each level.  Your actions in the past impact future versions, changing the types of enemies and obstacles that you find.  Those dedicated enough to map all the levels and repair all the timelines are treated to a classic 1990s reward: the “good” version of the ending, rendered in the form of an anime-style full-motion video.  It’s a difficult task, as the levels offer very few areas long enough to build up the necessary speed to break the time/space barrier.  But for folks looking to fully explore the game’s environments and mechanical depth, it’s a welcome one.


Sonic CD is the most faithful kind of re-release, if not the most flattering.  It’s been updated enough to exist on modern technology, yet it is content to reproduce, rather than replace, its original sound and art.  The game’s systems are rendered with similar faithfulness, which leaves us with a disappointing truth: the Sonic games have always had issues.  Sonic CD reminds us that the series’ ongoing struggle between speed and precision has its roots in the 1990s.  Viewed in this context, more recent Sonic games can be viewed as part of a longer struggle to reconcile the novelty of speed with the fundamentals of platforming. 


Sonic CD probably won’t change anyone’s mind.  Long time fans will welcome the nostalgic trip, while relative novices will be confounded by the rough design.  However, everyone stands to benefit from examining the game in a fresh historical context, as doing so yields unexpected insights.  For example, it’s ironic that a series built around speed has changed so slowly over the years.

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Scott Juster is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He has an academic background in history and is interested in video game design and the medium's cultural significance. In addition to his work on PopMatters, he writes and creates podcasts about video games at http://www.experiencepoints.net/.


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