Sonic the Hedgehog CD (Sonic Team, 1993) released on this day back in 1993. Produced alongside the blockbuster Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1992), Sonic CD expanded upon the Blue Blur’s original debut title with lush graphics, a time travel mechanic, gorgeous anime cutscenes, and introduced players to Metal Sonic (one of Sonic’s most popular and enduring rivals) and Amy Rose. Considered by many to be one of the best of the classic Sonic titles, Sonic CD might not be one of my favourites but it’s still a classic in it’s own right and it’s worth looking back on today of all days.
Released: 14 December 2011
Originally Released: 23 September 1993
Developer: Christian Whitehead
Original Developer: Sonic Team
Also Available For: GameCube, PC, PlayStation 2, Mega-CD (Original); Mobile, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Remaster)
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991) was specifically created and marketed as SEGA’s Nintendo-beater and, thanks to selling over 15 million copies, succeeded in its goal. Naturally, SEGA were eager to produce a sequel but, rather than create one game, they ended up making two! With Sonic creator Yuji Naka having moved to America to work on Sonic 2, Sonic’s designer, Naoto Oshima, spearheaded an entirely separate title built on the bones of the first game that would be exclusive to SEGA’s ill-fated CD add-on for the Mega Drive.
With Sonic 2 more focused on speed, Oshima placed Sonic CD’s focus more on platforming and exploration with its speed-based time travel mechanic (which was cut from Sonic 2) and included gorgeous anime cutscenes from Toei Animation (which would later be the basis for the feature-length original video animation). Artist Kazuyuki Hoshino designed Sonic’s metallic doppelgänger and biggest fan, Amy Rose (though that character actually debuted, in a slightly different form, in a 1992 manga), both of which were as pivotal to the game as the time travel elements. Despite the game’s U.S. release being delayed for an entirely new soundtrack, Sonic CD was met with widespread critical acclaim but, for many such as myself, the game was somewhat elusive since no one I knew had a Mega-CD and it just wasn’t the same playing the PC version. I first played the game properly when it was included in Sonic Gems Collection (Sonic Team, 2005) but jumped at the chance to play the HD remaster when it first dropped on the PlayStation 3. Developed by Christian Whitehead, this new version of the game was widely available, included Achievement support, numerous bug fixes, and a whole host of new elements that make it the definitive version of this cult classic entry in the franchise.
When the mysterious Little Planet has makes its annual appearance, Sonic travels to Never Lake but finds the planet has been overtaken by Doctor Eggman’s Badniks! When Sonic’s number one fan, Amy Rose, is kidnapped by his robotic doppelgänger, Metal Sonic, Sonic must race across time itself to keep Eggman from polluting the past, recover the seven Time Stones, and ensure a good future for Little Planet!
Sonic CD is a 2D, sidescrolling action platformer that once again sees you guiding the titular blue hedgehog across seven stages (known as “Zones”), each split into three parts (simply called “Zone 1” to “Zone 3” rather than being called “Acts”). At the end of each third Act, Sonic must battle Eggman in one of his contraptions but there’s quite a twist this time around.
This time, as well as passing Lampposts to create a checkpoint, Sonic will also run past special signposts; once one of these has been triggered, Sonic will begin to sparkle as he runs and, if he builds up enough uninterrupted speed, he will travel to the past or the future depending on which post he activated. While the general layout of the Zone remains the same in the past, present, and future, there are numerous aesthetic and difficulty differences in each one. The past is generally much more lush and vibrant, lacking many of Eggman’s traps and Badniks; the present is a standard-fare Sonic stage; and the future is a pollution and hazard-infested mechanical hell. When in the past, Sonic must search high and low for a Robot Transporter and a holographic projection of Metal Sonic; destroying both in Zone 1 and 2 ensures that Zone 3 earns a good future, which strips it of all Badniks and hazards and even makes the boss battles noticeably easier.
If you’ve played the first Sonic game then you’ll be immediately familiar with Sonic’s controls and physics. Sonic’s speed, jumping power, and abilities all carry over, making him as tight and responsive as ever, but he is afforded two new abilities. One is a variation on the Sonic 2 Spin Dash (it’s not quite as useful or as fast as in that game, though) and the other is Sonic’s Super Peel-Out manoeuvre, which sees Sonic rev up his legs until they become little more than a blurry figure eight and then rocket ahead at full speed, which is perfect for the few instances where you have the room to travel fast enough to time travel. Sadly, there’s not always the opportunity to do this; like in the first game, Sonic has to earn his breakneck speeds and, all too often, you’ll go running or rolling ahead in a blur of spikes only to slam head-first into a wall, a pit, a bumper, or poorly-placed enemies and hazards. This makes the time travel much harder to pull off than it needs to be as you’ll constantly be fighting to find a long enough stretch of ground or the right opportunity to build up your speed only to accidentally screw up the attempt at the last minute. Similarly, there’s a much greater emphasis on exploration and platforming this time around; every Zone feels like a mixture of speed, loops, and obstacles and the level design is questionable at best and haphazard at worst, with Golden Rings floating inside of the environment and your progress to the many alternate paths either blocked or protected by dead-ends and endless loops. As a result, when you travel back to the past, it can be extremely difficult to navigate through the Zones to find the Robot Transporters and projectors even in the more linear Zones; the bigger, more complicated Zones like Wacky Workbench and Metallic Madness make it nearly impossible to do without a guide or copious amounts of trial and error.
Still, speed is a prominent factor in the game; thanks to the Super Peel-Out and new gameplay mechanics, Sonic is much faster than he was in the first game and is still bounced all over the place like a pinball in Zones like Collision Chaos. Indeed, there are technically two ways to play; the slow, methodical Sonic CD way which has you hunting down objects in the past or the faster, more Sonic 2 way which has you racing through Zones as fast as possible and completing them holding fifty Rings or more to enter the game’s Special Stages. Once again, Golden Rings act as your protection from damage; they’ll scatter everywhere when you’re hit and, as always, Sonic is in danger of drowning when underwater in the distinctly Labyrinth Zone-like Tidal Tempest but, thankfully, you don’t seem to spend anywhere near as much time underwater in this Zone. As is to be expected, every Zone has different gimmicks (such as moving or crumbling platforms, tubes, conveyor belts, bumpers, and the like) but these actually change when you travel through time, meaning different routes become accessible in each time period. Zones also take on more and more gimmicks (most of them very dangerous) as you progress but even the first Zone, Palmtree Panic, is crammed full of different ways to navigate. As a result, you’ll be bouncing all over the place in Wacky Workbench but fighting against treadmills and cogs in Quartz Quadrant, racing along tunnels and vast stretches of ground in Stardust Speedway, and dodging spikes, buzzsaws, and a bevy of hazards in Metallic Madness (which also features a unique shrinking mechanic). Thankfully, bottomless pits are a rarity in Sonic CD but crushing weights, sudden spikes, electrified coils, and falling boulders and stalactites more than make up for that! Also, Sonic CD is as difficult as you make it be; if you choose not to try and take the higher, easier, and faster routes or purposely visit the bad futures, then you’re going to have a much tougher time of it than if you actively try and create a good future. This places much more emphasis on your actions actually having consequences as, normally, you only restore (or fail) the world when you lose all of your lives or fail to collect all the jewels but, in Sonic CD, you can actively affect and improve each Zone on a case-by-case basis by collecting the Time Stones or destroying Eggman’s machinery in the past.
Graphics and Sound:
Thanks to the graphical enhancements of the Mega-CD, Sonic CD may very well be one of the most visually striking and vibrant games in the franchise, especially amongst the classic titles. Every Zone is awash with colour and life and full of little details and background elements; every time you travel to the past or future, the Zone gets a complete facelift and takes a much more verdant or ominous light depending on how well you play which really adds to the replayability of the game as every Zone has, essentially, four parts to it (past, present, good future, and bad future) that all present a different aesthetic and challenge while still maintaining the basic structure of the Zone.
Zones have a real depth to them, allowing you to see into the distance and take in just how badly Eggman has affected each environment. You might see a vast sea full of ruins in the past of Palmtree Panic but all you’ll see is pollution and machinery in the bad future; similarly, Tidal Tempest is an unblemished cave in the past but has been transformed into a mechanical base in the future. Zones are also full of interesting and unique graphical mechanics, such as the pseudo-3D ramp at the start of Palmtree Panic, the Mode-7-like Special Stages, how a certain tube in Palmtree Panic will send Sonic smashing through the background and leave a Sonic-shaped hole in his wake, and the way graphics change size as you bounce and run all over the place. Unfortunately, though, I often find Sonic CD’s Zones to be a little too busy; there’s a lot going in the background and foreground, a lot of competing, clashing colours (especially in the garish pink of Collision Chaos), and it can be difficult to keep track of where you are and what’s going on sometimes.
The sprites have, however, benefitted greatly from the graphical upgrade; Sonic has more animation frames and a more dynamic moveset and seems far more lively and energetic despite the majority of his assets being lifted from the first game. Sonic also speaks a little bit, shouting out “Yes!” when he grabs and extra life and “I’m outta here!” when left idle for a few minutes (which causes an instant game over). Other sounds, however, are not quite as appreciated, such as the sound Sonic makes when he jumps (which is decidedly squeakier and much more annoying and it also bugs me when it is recycled in both fan-made and official Sonic games). The bosses, too, are bigger and more elaborate than in the first game, requiring actual strategy on your part to defeat and even Amy Rose gets a lot of personality as she follows Sonic around like a love-sick puppy, desperately trying to hug him while love hearts adorably fly from her head.
Of course, you can’t talk about Sonic CD without mentioning the anime cutscenes and the soundtrack. The opening and ending of the game features gorgeously animated anime sequences that showcase Sonic at his best, in my opinion; I loved that these were expanded upon in Sonic the Hedgehog (Ikegami, 1999) and I would absolutely be over the moon if they were brought back for future Sonic games. Sonic CD’s soundtrack is also one of the most beloved and contested in the franchise; many prefer the original Japanese soundtrack and, while that is good, it’s much more peppy and vibrant and happy-go-lucky than Spencer Nilsen’s version for the U.S. As a result, while I prefer some tracks from the Japanese soundtrack, overall I prefer the U.S. one; the invincibility music is better, the boss theme is better, and the U.S. soundtrack is much more in the style of rock and metal than anything else, which I prefer.
Enemies and Bosses:
Once again, Sonic must contend with Eggman’s Badniks; unlike in the majority of the classic Sonic titles, Badniks don’t drop cute woodland critters and, instead, blossom flowers upon defeat (again tying into the game’s overall theme of restoring Little Planet to health) and, honestly, they’re far less prominent than in other 2D Sonic titles. Indeed, Sonic CD’s Badniks mainly exist to screw up your run-up to a time travel attempt and cost you your hard-earned Rings right before the goal and they’re probably some of the most unremarkable in the original games. Eggman’s theme this time around is definitely geared more towards bugs than anything else as needle-nosed Mozzietrons try to skewer you from above, Arachnisprings jump out at you, Damsiltron and Buzz Bomber 2s hover overhead and take shots at you, and Poghoppers bounce around the place on their springy bases. Probably the worst enemies are the Snail-Spikers due to their spikes, Motherbombs (which are invulnerable to your attacks and explode into a shower of projectiles), and the Flashers, which must be hit at just the right time to avoid taking damage from their laser beams. Your main opponent, though, will be the abundance of spikes, springs, bumpers, and other obstacles that mess up your momentum and cost you valuable Rings.
The bosses, though, are a completely different story. Sonic CD features some of the biggest and most unique and interesting boss battles of all the classic games and, while each boss only takes three hits to defeat, they all require different strategies on your part and are affected by whether you battle them in a good or bad future. The first time you battle Eggman, he’s inside of his EGG-HVC-001 mech, which is either a striking pink or an ominous red and sports spikes on the feet. Eggman protects himself from attacks with two bumpers but, after a couple of hits/bounces, these will break off and allow you to land the decisive blow. It’s, quite possibly, the easiest first boss in any Sonic game as even Sonic 2’s Eggmobile took eight hits to defeat.
In Collision Chaos, Eggman hides at the top of a giant pinball table and drops weighted balls down at you that can force you to drop down to the lowest level or into some annoyingly-placed spikes. The whole battle is structured very similar to the Star Light and Casino Night Zones and is a clear precursor to Sonic the Hedgehog Spinball (SEGA Technical Institute, 1993) in that players must make use of the flippers to bounce Sonic up each level of the arena, ricocheting off of bumpers and such to ram into Eggman’s machine three times. Your enjoyment of this boss may vary as it all depends on how well you get on with the pinball-based Zones and mechanics of Sonic games; for me, this meant it was quite an annoying boss as it can be tricky to get the angle of your trajectory right to go where you need to. At the end of Tidal Tempest Zone 3, you’ll have to chase Eggman around a short maze similar to the end of Labyrinth Zone; unlike in that encounter, though, this time it’s a simple loop that repeats until you land a few hits and you don’t need to worry about spikes or other hazards. Also, after Eggman flees, he floods the area and surrounds his craft with air bubbles and shoots projectiles at you; in order to finish Eggman off, Sonic has to suck up a couple of the bubbles to make a gap in his defences, which is certainly a unique spin on Sonic’s notorious underwater mechanics.
Probably one of the more frustrating bosses is encountered in Quartz Quadrant; here, Eggman hides behind a giant piston and Sonic is forced to perpetually run on a treadmill lest he be skewered by spikes on the far left of the arena. Unlike the other Eggman bosses in Sonic CD, this boss isn’t about attacking but surviving as Eggman drops bombs onto you, which must be avoided, and you have to wait for the friction of the treadmill to destroy Eggman’s machine and defeat him. Because of how difficult it can be to maintain your speed and footing when avoiding the bombs and their projectiles, this can be a particularly challenging boss for your patience, if nothing else. In comparison, the final boss is a fairly anti-climatic and simple affair; Eggman surrounds his craft with four blades and hovers in a slow pattern around the arena, shooting them at you or occasionally spinning your way. However, it’s ridiculously easy to attack between the blades and, each time you land a hit, he loses one of them so, even though he speeds up and becomes more erratic, he’s made more vulnerable to attack and, honestly, this final boss is easier than the one in the first game!
Of course, the most iconic boss battle of Sonic CD comes in Stardust Speedway where you’re forced to race against Metal Sonic! This is a thrilling, if frustrating, experience as Eggman flies along behind you firing an instant-death laser and it can be difficult to get up a good run of speed because, again, of spikes, obstacles, and sudden drops or edges in the path. Metal Sonic is completely invulnerable to harm and will charge at you full-speed or electrify its body, which is helpful for breaking spikes and clearing a path for you. Because of the way the screen is locked, though, this isn’t quite the fast-paced experience it’s often thought and interpreted as and is, instead, a strangely-paced, annoying affair that generally comes down more to luck than anything else. The best thing to do is to stay ahead where you can, jump over Metal Sonic, and then blast past it at every opportunity so that you’re on the right side of that wall when it comes crashing down.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As is the standard for most Sonic games, a number of power-up monitors are scattered throughout the game’s Zones. Unfortunately, though, there are no new or exclusive items to be found in Sonic CD; instead, you’ll have to make do with either ten Rings, a shield that protects you from damage for one hit, an extra life, speed-up shoes, or a brief invincibility just like in the first two games.
Sonic CD has twelve Achievements for you to earn, some of which are pretty simple; you’d be hard-pressed to play through the game without travelling through time, for example, and you’re guaranteed to get a hug from Amy after defeating Metal Sonic. Others, though, are a bit trickier, requiring you to collect two hundred Rings rather than the usual one hundred, or to find the upper goal signpost in Collision Chaos 2 and a hidden angel statue in Wacky Workbench. Probably the most troublesome Achievements, though, involve beating Metal Sonic without being hit and destroying all of the Robot Transporter and holograms in the past.
As in the first game, finishing every Zone except the third with fifty Rings or more allows you to enter a Special Stage by jumping through a Giant Ring. These Special Stages are much more elaborate than in the first game, though, and arguably a bit more forgiving than in the second; here, you must race around a flat area against a tight time limit, avoiding water and other obstacles as you hunt down and destroy a number of UFOs. If you land on water, or similar surfaces, your time will drain exponentially so be sure to avoid these at all costs but don’t go too fast on the booster pads as it can be very difficult to make tight turns. As you destroy UFOs, you can earn Rings and even a time bonus, which is helpful, but while fans can be used to float into UFOs, spiked grates will cost you valuable time. Depth perception is a real issue here as you have to be very precise with your jumps but, if you see your time is about to run about (when it hits, say, ten seconds), you can pause and quit to the main menu and then retry the Special Stage from your save slot, meaning you basically have unlimited tries at each Special Stage and can easily grab all seven Time Stones and get the best ending.
I mentioned before that this was the definitive version of the game and it’s true; you can pick from a variety of display options in the menu, choose between the U.S. and Japanese soundtracks (but can’t mix and match, unfortunately), choose which Spin Dash you want (I recommend the superior Sonic 2 one), and have access to four save slots. Unfortunately, these don’t work like in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (SEGA Technical Institute, 1994), meaning you can’t pick and choose a Zone to replay, which is disappointing. You can, however, unlock a stage select, D.A. Garden (basically a sound test which you can also use to enter a variety of cheats, though Achievements can’t be earned this way), and “Visual Mode” (a gallery for viewing the anime scenes) by completing the “Time Attack” mode fast enough. Perhaps the most notable addition to this version of the game is that you unlock Miles “Tails” Prower after beating the game in any way; Tails controls exactly like he did in Sonic 3, meaning he can fly and swim, but Achievements are disabled when playing as Tails as it’d be too easy to get around Sonic CD’s more annoying level layouts.
Sonic CD is an absolutely gorgeous game; it took everything that worked about the first game and expanded upon it wonderfully, bringing a much greater sense of speed and liveliness to the core gameplay and really utilising the power of the Mega-CD to its fullest with its anime sequences, animations, music, and unique time travel mechanic. Yet, as much as I love how visually appealing the game is, I find it lacking in a lot of ways; it’s frustrating at times, the level layouts are massively annoying for a game whose main mechanic is based on speed, and the amount of exploration and trial-and-error needed can get annoying at times. Still, I love how every boss battle is unique and how your actions have actual, visible consequences as you play; it really invites multiple playthroughs to see what each Zone looks like in different situations but, similar to the first game, I find myself less excited to replay Sonic CD and more aggravated as it can be a chore at times. When it shines, it shines brightly and I’d love to see more of this style of 2D Sonic in the future but its more irritating features and mechanics definitely need polishing up first.
Did you enjoy Sonic CD? Did you own this, and a Mega-CD, back in the day or did you first experience it on PC or through some other port? What did you think to the game’s presentation and which of the two soundtracks is your favourite? Were you a fan of the level layouts and time travel gimmick or, like me, do you think they could have been better implemented? Which of the game’s Zones and bosses is your favourite? Are you a fan of Metal Sonic and Amy Rose? How are you celebrating Sonic CD’s anniversary this year? Whatever your thoughts on Sonic CD, or Sonic in general, feel free to leave a comment below.