Originally debuting in 1993 for the Sega CD (aka Mega CD), a CD player add-on module for the 16-bit Sega Genesis (aka Mega Drive) cartridge based console system, Sonic CD (aka Sonic the Hedgehog CD) has become one of those cult classic titles of the bygone era (aka old geeks like it). Due to the relatively poor sales of the Sega CD, Sonic CD was a game that was talked about a lot more than it was actually played. I was one of the lucky ones. Having sunk dozens of hours into the original release of Sonic CD back in the day, the news of an updated version piqued my interest. You see, I was one of those people who had proclaimed Sonic CD to be the best title in the franchise. No other Sonic game has ever been able to recreate whatever magic pixie dust had so intoxicated me all those years go. This new release promised not to be a simple emulated version of the original, but an entirely new batch of code written specifically for modern hardware and delivering a tidied up version of the classic game at its original performance level to my cell phone. While this certainly seemed appropriate and possible, I was intrigued by a larger question: Can an eighteen year old platformer from the 16-bit era even compete with the art of gaming today, let alone in the heart of a jaded ol’ gamer who only ever enjoyed a handful of platformers to begin with?
In short: Oh, hellz yeah! The classic 16-bit versions of Sonic the Hedgehog differentiated themselves from other platformers of the time by putting the emphasis on speed rather than precision. Sonic is less about perfectly timing your jumps across falling rocks as it is preserving your momentum, flying past those rocks, and knowing when to pull out before hitting a bumper that will shoot you back into the chasm of death you just crossed. Timing and pattern recognition is still a crucial part of the game but they take place on a macro rather than micro scale. Most of the time you won’t be concerned about a single spike trap, but how that spike trap fits into the path across half of the level. I was surprised to find myself thinking of runner style games such as Bit.Trip Runner or Mirror’s Edge while playing. Sonic CD one ups this formula by adding an amazing amount of vertical space to the traditionally horizontal plane. Huge amounts of many levels are devoted to cunningly placed bumper and springboard chain reactions that send the blue blur hurtling through loop de loops, around underground caverns, and through giant pinball machines at speeds so fast that Sonic travels through time.
Yes, our indigo amigo can travel through time in this title. While each level of the game can be learned and completed with relative ease in a few minutes, true mastery of a world is much more complicated. The first two levels of each of Sonic CD’s seven worlds contain four remixed variants for different time periods. Touching a flag pole labeled either past or future sets you up for a time jump. Keep our spiky hero’s speed over 88mph for a couple of seconds and you break physics, traveling into alternate whens. The goal for hardcore players so inclined is to avoid the “bad” future. To do so Sonic must travel back to the past, destroy the robot producing machine, return to the present, then jump forward again to the newly created “good future” before passing the goal line. Do this for the first two levels of a world and you’ll be able to play the boss battle stage in an alternate “good” future instead of the default “bad” one. It is a wonderful gimmick for replayability that easily trumps the traditional ‘find all the unrelated hidden crap’ trope that dominates gaming. Even players not attempting to complete this advanced goal will enjoy their accidental trips to alternate time periods as each timeline features remixes to the world’s graphics, level design, and soundtrack. There are also a series of bonus rounds that can be activated when finishing with 50 rings or more. These take the form of a 3D running game where Sonic must jump up and destroy a number of UFO styled machines before time runs out in order to collect Time Crystals. They feel like the sloppy, tacked on gimmick they were when the game was originally produced, but are short, optional, and easy to ignore.
Originally releasing at the dawn of the multimedia age started by the invention of optical disks, you can practically feel the composers stretching their wings for the first time. Neither the forced-retro feel of chiptunes of the modern indie scene nor the overproduced symphonies of today’s darker titles, Sonic’s soundtrack remains genuine. This is a soundtrack created for bright, candy colored digital toys by people who had no illusions about what they were making. It is authentic to the fun, frivolous nature of classic video games without forcing itself to take full advantage of the new technology. Well, at least the Japanese soundtrack is.The American version is a good deal more overproduced and ‘modern’ with its guitar riffs, operatic feel, and its catchy, kitschy “Sonic Boom” theme song. Fortunately, you’ll be getting both in this version and can switch between them from an option on the main menu. And there’s a lot of it! Every time period of each world features it’s own unique theme. The remainder of the soundscape is fairly average: Springs go boing, enemies go pop, and our hero screeches to a stop when directed to do so.
The game controls very well with its virtual d-pad and button. The directional pad feels a little large on a tablet, but just right on smaller devices. The only other control is a single jump button that takes up the bottom right corner of the screen. As you might expect for a game that was never intended to have its controller on the screen, your thumbs will occasionally obscure the action on display, but this was far more of the exception than the rule and did not cause a problem while playing. While authentic to the original, the rapid rodent could use some new tread on his sneakers. On the few occasions where precise jumping is required, Sonic’s penchant for sliding rather than stopping can be infuriating. Fortunately the Sonic series has never enforced its difficulty through meaningless deaths, but rather a lack of progress.With instant death traps rare and bottomless pits nonexistent, Game Over screens are few and far between. Any tricky jumping sequence can be conquered with a little perseverance. The exception being Sonic CD’s final world which has a rather absurd difficulty spike. Pfft, video games 101. An autosave system allows you to restart from the last completed level however, making this final chore of the game a good deal less painful than it otherwise might have been.
You get a fair amount of content in this app for your $5. Containing not only the four possible time periods of the game’s seven unique worlds, each with its own style, enemies, and music, this Sonic CD also contains a time attack mode, online leaderboards, alternate soundtracks, and post game unlockables such as the ability to play as Sonic’s sidekick Tails. Rounding out the package is a list of 12 challenging Game Center achievements that go beyond the ‘Complete World 1-1’ bog standard. It is an impressive package that owes much to the fact that this was once a top tier, triple-A production.
I have always wondered how best to consider releases of this nature. Do we look upon this as a rerelease of an old title, catering to fans looking for a bit of nostalgia, or should it be evaluated just like any other product released on the market, competing for the same dollars and minutes of gamers. Fortunately, and surprisingly, Sonic CD preforms admirably in both scenarios. This is undoubtedly the best version of Sonic CD there has ever been. No simple port, this game has been lovingly recreated on modern mobile platforms with care. The rough edges and blinking graphics of the 16-bit generation have been cleaned up and Sonic looks better than ever as he blazes through his colorful, creative worlds on devices smaller than a the controller originally required for play. More impressively, Sonic CD is remarkably competitive in the modern iOS or Android ecosystems. The amount of art, creativity, and design skill on display simply dwarfs the modern competition. The gentle learning curve and fast playing levels work perfectly for a mobile game and Sonic’s speedy style of platforming around the large levels with multiple pathways is still unique. The depth is there for those who wish to dig into the title, but none of it is ever forced upon the player. Sonic CD is not just a must play for fans of the original games, but for anyone who has ever enjoyed a platformer or infinite runner styled title. Sonic CD time traveled 18 years into the future and we discover that this rarely played, often praised adventure is still one of the very best available.
Sonic CD is available as a unified app for all iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad devices running iOS 3.1.3 or later via iTunes for $4.99. An Android version is available for devices running Android 2.1 or higher via Android Market for $4.99. Reviewed on iOS 4.2.1 iPod Touch 2nd gen and iOS 5.0.1 iPad 2.