There’s a point in Sonic CD where you start to realise that maybe it’s not actually all that people have claimed it to be. This point occurs around half way through the first level. Pre-release hype suggested that Sonic CD was about as close to the second coming of Jesus as gaming would ever come – indeed, it’s a little known fact that the CD of the title actually stands for “Christ Deployment.” Then, alas, there’s that first level.
And then the second level, and then the third and it’s clear where this is going by now. The problem is that the levels simply haven’t been designed for speedy blue hedgehogs. It’s as if the game was originally designed for some other terrible mascot (Bubsy?) and then Sonic was thrown in at the last minute in an attempt to sell the game to hedgehog lovers. There’s barely a minute of the experience in which you feel like you’re playing a Sonic game.
Go back. Play Sonic. Play Sonic 2. Look at how loops lead in to hills which lead in to jumps, that lead in to springs which throw you graciously through the air, landing on a downward slope and keeping your speed up for a glorious run to the finish. Marvel at the design. Then, play Sonic CD. As soon as you attempt to gather any kind of speed, an obstacle will be put in your way. A rock. A poorly placed enemy. Worst of all is where flat ground is broken by a small ridge, no more than a few pixels in height but enough to stop Sonic in his tracks. There’s no speed anymore and when you take speed away from Sonic what is it that you’re really left with?
The real kicker is that, for once, gaining speed is actually essential to the gameplay. The speed was beautiful before, it was fun, but it was never necessary. In Sonic CD, Sonic can travel through time by passing special signposts and then maintaining a high speed for a few impossible seconds. Here’s where a lazy reviewer would make a joke about going at 88mph, or DeLoreans, but this reviewer is too lazy even for that. Requiring the player to maintain speed and then making it incredibly difficult to do so – there’s just so little thought gone into the design. Of course, there are exceptions. At any point where you don’t want to travel through time, expect to encounter a bafflingly precise series of springs and ramps that are so perfectly designed for speed that they could only be there because some code from the original Sonic game was left in by mistake.
There are three time zones, past, present and future. The present is where you begin and in order to make “good futures,” you must travel to the past and destroy the machines that reside there. Aside from a Trochievement there’s not a huge impetus to actually bother with that. The game can be completed without travelling through time in significantly under an hour, even during the first play through. Along with that, there will be very few occasions in which the player will even lose a life, so pitifully easy is the game. There are bosses, but even these are devoid of challenge with the final boss in Sonic CD being as difficult as the first encounter with Eggbotnik in Sonic’s Green Hill Zone.
There’s a kind of challenge somewhere, with the special stages going straight in to the file marked “who the hell thought that was a good idea?” Pseudo-3D affairs in which Sonic must run around a small arena jumping at UFOs with his fingers crossed. There’s not much in the way of skill needed here, because the collision detection is so bad that it would embarrass the director of a low budget Kung-Fu movie. You’ll be convinced you hit a UFO only for it to fly away, you’ll destroy others from a distance, all the while trying to work out what on earth is going on. They’re doable, but they’re not often fun.
All of the above are criticisms of a game that is nearly twenty years old, and while they’re as relevant now as they were when we were all stupid kids that didn’t know any better, there’s something to be said about the port itself. It’s phenomenal. Anyone used to playing Sonic games on current-gen hardware will be familiar with Backbone’s shoddy work in getting the games across. There’s no love, no effort, just functional releases that do the minimum required in getting the games working. Not so with Sonic CD, which is the perfect example of why ports should be handled by people that care about them. Christian Whitehead cares, and so rather than dumping a ROM in an emulator, code has been re-written to take advantage of it being the 21st Century now. What we get is proper widescreen support, a newly playable Tails and among other tweaks, a choice of soundtracks. The US soundtrack is often derided, and that we’re given a choice between it and the original Japanese soundtrack is as much a demonstration of a developer that knows his audience as could ever be needed.
The problem is not that Sonic CD is a bad game, it’s that it’s a bad Sonic game. With some editing of levels and a new mascot (not Bubsy!) the game could have been something special. The fact is, though, that it’s being sold as a Sonic the Hedgehog game and it’s far from being that. Little that you love about the series is present here and, incredible port aside, there’s not much that makes it possible to recommend it over the Sonic games that came before it.