Review by SethBlizzard
Reviewed: 10/01/13 | Updated: 01/02/14
PC-gaming in the 90s felt like a lot like playing the Atari 2600 back in the 80s. The computer interface was simple as could be, and the games were light and easy to run. Sonic CD falls under this category and stands as a testament from an older time, as well as one of the toughest adventures the blue hedgehog ever got into one that's in serious danger of being forgotten. The problem with games as a medium is that they only last as long as the console does. With PC games, an even stranger alternative is the danger; the game outlasts the system. As PCs get more powerful, they strangely become more and more incapable of playing older games. Kind of the opposite of the PS3, huh? It was even impossible to completely set up the game at all on Windows XP and 7 until a fan-made patch allowed you to get past it. Thus, Sonic CD used to be obscure with a capital O... until SEGA wisely capitalized on its legacy and released it for the PS3 and Xbox 360, making this tricky gem available for a new generation of gamers.
Sonic CD was released in 1995. The CD was taking its first steps into replacing the cartridge as the default format for games. The Sega CD, the peripheral for the Sega Megadrive, was created to showcase this, but there can be little doubt that Sonic CD was the best game found on the machine. With this new format of CDs at their fingertips, SEGA had a stroke of genius; reaching out to a neutral party that was also using CDs, namely PCs. Thus the SEGA PC line of games was born, where a number of Sega titles were imported to the PC in very faithful versions. Because Sonic CD was born out of an unsuccessful peripheral, it's small wonder why the game became almost the holy grail of the series, much like Rondo of Blood was for Castlevania. But believe it or not, it is very possible to play Sonic CD on modern PCs (Windows 7, that is, I can't vouch for Windows 8). An easy-to-search-for patch will allow you to fire up this bad boy, though you can expect signs of age like music tracks not looping and the like, but just the fact that you can get a game like this to work at all is more than can be said for other Sega PC titles like Virtua Fighter 2, sadly.
Sonic CD is like playing the original, but with a twist. The art style is identical, but you still have your Sonic spin (although animated as a standard spin attack). The sound effects sound charmingly tinny, and the loop-de-loop archways are on call as always. This is a perfect example on how to design a game in the style of another; indeed, to the untrained eye, people might mistake this game for being the first Sonic game. Already the first level, Palmtree Panic, ought to induce a, shall I say, strong feeling of deja vu in Sonic fans. This probably stands to reason, as part of the team that developed Sonic 1 stayed in Japan to work on Sonic CD while the rest worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Thus you have a definite blast from the past.
The Sonic games can be said to be a very environmentally conscious series, but perhaps noneso more than this game, where the goal is to destroy the machines and release the seeds for flowers to grow. Taking place on the Little Planet, which comes close enough to Mobius to be able to get to in the last month of every year, Sonic tries to break Robotnik's control on the planet and free his admirer Amy (who looks completely different to her Sonic Adventure version). The planet is host to seven gems called the Time Stones, able to manipulate space and time and which explains the anachronistic hodgepodge that is the Little Planet. You can rest assured that finding the Time Stones is on your agenda. However, they're only the tip of the iceberg, and this is where Sonic CD's innovations begin to really show.
The goal of each Zone is not just to find your way to the end of the stage. Each act exists in three time periods; past, present and future. However, your only real interest is to go to the past. In the past, there is a machine to be found somewhere in the stage, sucking the life out of the place, and whose ramifications you will get to see on the stage in Act 3, which takes place in the future, if you don't take it out in both acts. Additionally, there is a Metal Sonic hologram keeping the animals hostage, for you to destroy to free your friends. Both these are needed to remove Robotnik's influence on the land and get a Good Future. To perform these deeds, you need to activate posts marked Past and then flawlessly build up a momentum of speed enough to activate a time warp. It is an annoyance that there is no counter to show how close you are to activating the portal, as you are not always successful and each post can only be activated once. Once you are in the past, another world, more primal, awaits you, complete with a completely different style of music. The topography of the level is different, too, so trampolines and platforms may not be where you are used to them in the Present. As you can imagine, this makes Sonic CD a very tricky game. If you are to get the Good Future in every Zone, you can bet that you have your work cut out for you.
However, should that prove too complex for you, there are alternatives. Enter the Special Stage. If you collect all seven Time Stones the Little Planet's version of Chaos Emeralds then every Future will automatically turn good and you don't have to go to the past to look for the machine. If you want to go for this stratey instead, keep in mind that you gotta carry at least 50 rings to the goal as per Sonic 1 tradition, and which is more than a little tricky when you've got getting a Good Future on your mind as well. Even if you do manage to jump into those giant rings, the Special Stage itself is one tricky beast. On a 3D-style (but still 2D) background, you are given a course you have to weave yourself through, jumping and taking out hovering robo-blimps. Jumping off-course and going in the water (which is very easy to do) will viciously cull the already limited time you have. Throw in spring-boards you constantly bump into along the edges of each track and that the depth perception (necessary for actually hitting those blimps) is pretty awkward, and you've got the toughest Special Stage of all time. However, the temptation of getting all the Good Futures should be enough fuel to tempt you to brave the challenge, and it is quite satisfying indeed to nab those gems.
Sonic CD is not afraid to throw in some exciting moments. The boss battles are tense affairs that always feel like a challenge, and are rewarding to overcome. The very scary boss music does wonders for the atmosphere. One particular boss stands out, though, featuring another character than Robotnik entirely and one which is one of this series' most iconic moments. When you get to the boss I'm talking about, you'll know (especially if you've played Sonic Generations).
Sonic CD is the only game in the series to have two totally different soundtracks, one for the game released in Japan/EU and the other for the game released in the US. For once, the US version (composed by Spencer Nilsen) is my preferred one. The Japanese soundtrack is very J-pop, whereas the US version covers a wide array of styles and moods, all spectacularly too, and thus I will focus on that. This is the first Sonic soundtrack to feature voices, but they feature very appropriately, such as in the infectious theme for Tidal Tempest. Every track is produced accordingly, you see, without limitations of bits to take into account. On the other hand, the past melodies (shared with the JP/EU version) have a style far more techno, more primal and full-blooded than the present and future melodies (the Metallic Madness past tune in particular is bombastic). The future melodies depending on whether you got the good future or not will either be bleak and techno-centered or serene and joyful. The music alone's a good reason to try for the Good Future, as those themes are generally more gripping (in particular the Stardust Speedway tune). All in all, a visceral soundtrack that gets you excited about saving the Little Planet. Sonic CD's bombastic main theme, Sonic Boom is exquisite in both its thumping opening version and the more low-key credits version.
My main gripe with Sonic CD is the confusing layout. Because it changes between the time periods, finding the machines will become a task way too tough for your own good when you hit level 5 in particular. However, the cartoon cutscenes by Toei Animation help give the game a ton of character and cinematic feel indeed, Sonic the Hedgehog the Movie takes after the style of those cutscenes.
If you want the toughest Sonic game ever made, look no further. Getting the Good Future in each act or collecting all seven Time Stones are each challenging tasks on their own, to say nothing of the challenging boss battles. Fortunately there is a save system, but hit a Game Over and you've gotta redo the entire Zone over from the beginning. As an added bonus, this PC version features an encyclopedia that features not only in-depth instructions on the game (and lyrics to Sonic Boom), it features the history of all Sonic games up to that point (pre-Sonic Adventure, folks). Sonic CD is as terrifically fun as it is challenging. While this PC version is definitely getting on in years, it is still very much playable, but you'll probably have an easier time to nab a console version of the game. In any case, it's one of Sonic's best adventures that deserves all the attention it gets whichever soundtrack you prefer.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Sonic CD (EU, 10/03/96)
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