For a twenty-year old hedgehog that Sonic fella certainly gets around. While most videogame icons of our (well, my) youth are happy to put their feet up and look forward to a potential iOS bundle release Sonic really never stops whizzing around trying to save the world. From appearing in acclaimed new releases to not so acclaimed versions of them, Sonic is so fast that he has even managed to visit the London 2012 Olympics already. Mention this to an ardent fan however and until recently you would have been treated to a blank stare, maybe a raised eyebrow. Because in Sonic’s deep past, back when the little chap was only just learning how to Spin Dash, he was given an outing on Sega’s MegaCD. And it was a good outing, an epic outing for the time. Fast forward to the modern day and Sonic CD is a game that these fans have been calling to see on modern consoles for a very, very long time, and its release before Christmas would have made those fans shed a tear of pure joy. Because Sonic CD, despite its age and naff original console, is still very, very good.
At first glance (to the uninitiated at least) Sonic CD is reminiscent of the more familiar Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, albeit with a shiny new ‘Super Peel-Out’ move which sees Sonic race off slightly faster than a Spin Dash but without the associated protection. However, after only a short amount of time the uniqueness of the design becomes apparent. Other Sonic games see our hero progress through the acts as fast as he can, stopping off only for the odd special stage along the way. While these acts may well have multiple routes the general aim is to always progress along the fastest one you can find, finishing the act with a comically amazing jump past the end sign. Sonic CD may still allow you to end acts with a gaming flourish (phew!) but the level design is significantly different. Instead of a single direction flow, to get the most out of the game (including the good ending) you are expected to travel back and forth through the main acts due to one concept very unique within the Sonic franchise – time travel.
Each act contains multiple time travel sign posts marked as either ‘Past’ or ‘Future’. Once you run past one (in the same manner as you would a checkpoint) you pick up time energy and you are set to try to time travel. In order to do so you need to find a stretch where you can pick up some speed and have enough room to keep it up for four to five seconds. If you manage not to lose your momentum you will travel though time and find yourself in a new version of the act. Essentially then each act is made up of four level variants, a past, a present, a good future and a bad future. The epicness is ratcheted up a notch when you realise that each one of those variants has its own soundtrack (including end bosses that’s around thirty, yes, thirty.) and background/art scheme. For a game released in the early nineties it shows breathtaking aural and visual innovation and this attention to detail still shines through today.
The whole point to the time travel is as plot-thin as ever, but in essence Dr Eggman/Robotnik has kidnapped a small planet, chained it to a mountain and is using its inherent time manipulating properties to travel back and forth into the past plonking his robot making machines down in order to take over the world before you know he has even started (cue evil laughter: muhahahahaha). To get the good ending Sonic must travel to the past and destroy these machines in each act and thus set the future right again. Or, he can ignore that and just collect all seven Time Stones (here in lieu of Chaos Emeralds) giving him the power to time travel and set things right (in a storyline kind of way). Of course, this being a Sonic, the Time Stones are collected within special stages, which this time take the form of a pseudo-3D playing field containing various UFOs that you must destroy. Crazy? Yes. Tricky to complete? You bet. Like the rest of the franchise the special stages here are truly marmite in how players react to them, but at least Sonic CD gives you another way to complete the game in a ‘good’ way if you sincerely detest them.
The level design in each normal act varies little in a general regard, but is mixed up with specific differences that has each one play slightly differently. Sonic CD can be quite a divisive game, and really the question of whether or not you can appreciate it in terms of pure gameplay all comes down to how much you buy into the time travel mechanic. To facilitate this each act is built around the concept and as a Sonic player you will have to approach the acts by changing your preconceptions about Sonic level design and how you feel you should be playing through the levels. For instance, many areas give you straight runs which are a fraction too short to allow you to time travel, thus potentially causing you to lose your momentum and your time travel energy. When you encounter a spring at the end of a runway throwing you back the way you came it becomes not an object to avoid as in previous Sonics but rather an item to give thanks for, a tool which to exploit as it effectively doubles your run up. And the comedy ‘two springs facing each other trap’, hated by people who can’t time jumps properly everywhere, is suddenly transformed into a guaranteed time travel, a wee font of salvation for those who can’t quite make it elsewhere.
The overall quality of the remake is top-notch; other publications have effectively covered the backstory and all you need to know is that the game has been remade (not ported) almost perfectly. There are some foibles – time travelling spots that worked in either the MegaCD or PC version sometimes don’t function here as expected and every so often it feels as though you can’t change direction as fast as you know you can. For those that stick with the game the Sonic community is already finding out about the replication of the game’s secrets, mainly through the skillful use of the Time Trial mode.
Sonic CD is still old school, it still asks you to learn the layout of the acts and the locations of the various risks and bonuses within them – the difference is that it asks you to do that over many different act variants while keeping an eye out for time travel signs and the place to use them. It is a very common occurrence that you will need to go forward to pick up time energy, head back to find somewhere you can time travel from, and then change path and run forward to find Eggman’s machine. The interaction with the acts is so much deeper than with other Sonic offerings, the demand on the player’s full engagement with the core concept so necessary. And this is really what Sonic CD boils down to; it was developed in a time when the conventions of ‘Sonic’ hadn’t been laid down fully, when the game and the character still had limitless potential rather than a ticklist of features that had to be included to meet expectations. The departure from progressive platforming with the odd alternative path to a multi-layered act system that can be played in many ways was a bold step that successfully delivered – it’s just a shame that not as many people played it in the early nineties as should have.
Sonic goes back to the future. Or the past.