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Sonic Jam - "Sonic CD" (1993)

In 1993, players were able to get peek into Sonic The Hedgehog's future. Nope, I'm not talking about Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Remember, that wasn't done yet. But see, over in Japan, an entirely separate studio was hard at work on another Sonic game. One that, for better, for worse, steered the franchise in a new direction. I'd argue that it's a direction the series has followed ever since, far more so than the direction of the "classic" Sonic titles.

Made as a killer app for Sega's questionable Sega CD, Sonic the Hedgehog CD (more commonly known as Sonic CD) is not only arguably the best title released for that add-on, but one of the very best titles Sonic's ever starred in.

Originally, Sonic CD and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were supposed to be one and the same. Sega wanted to capitalize on the Blue Blur's success in order to segue into what they thought, at the time, would be the logical next step for the Genesis/Mega Drive. That step? A bulky peripheral that the console sat inside of, which allowed for the play of disk-based games that could only be accessed with it.

In retrospect, we can obviously see that this was a bit of a bad idea, but at the time, it seemed revolutionary. A gaming console that plays CDs? Whoa, games that have real actors in them, just like a movie? Holy shit, where do I sign up? This is the future of gaming, right here!

The future of gaming.
What's hilarious, then, is that the best games for the system were the ones that didn't use much of the advertised gimmickry. Night Trap, Sewer Shark, Ground Zero: Texas... these were lost to the annals of time, and for good reason: they're garbage. They're cut-rate movies with no-name cast and crew, with barely any gameplay to speak of and abhorrent visual quality. But the games that tried to be, well, you know... games? Those fared much better. Lunar: Silver Star Story is one of the most beloved cult RPG gems of the 90's. Snatcher was an early Kojima title that gave the world a taste of his unique brand of lunacy.

And, of course, there's Sonic CD, a title that had no involvement from Yuji Naka, or anyone else behind the mainline Sonic titles. Well, that's not entirely true. A portion of the original dev team from the first game stayed in Japan and worked on it, including the original creator of Sonic, Naoto Oshima. But, for the most part, a new dev team had to be built from the ground-up for Sonic CD. The result is something that feels wildly different, both tonally and gameplay-wise, from the technically American-developed Sonic titles.

One starts to notice this immediately with the very conceit of the game. Sonic's on vacation to Never Lake, where a little planet called Little Planet (ahem) is said to appear during the last month of every year. So, you know. December. Anyway. Sonic finds the planet and realizes that Robotnik has chained it down and "mechanized" it, meaning his robots have royally dicked the ecosystem and turned the whole thing into a giant factory. Sonic runs up the giant chain onto Little Planet and proceeds to... travel through time... to stop this from happening? Also a little girl hedgehog happens? Also Metal Sonic? Also little girl hedgehog has a crush on Sonic?

Blue streak speeds by/ It's Sonic the Cradle Robber!

As you can probably make out by now, Sonic CD has much more of a plot than past games. It even has downright snazzy anime cutscenes from Toei Animation that look better than their modern output. Granted, it's not a particularly nuanced story, but there's more to it than "there's some animals in a thing, go get 'em out or something." There's a robot Sonic that's mucking everything up. There's a a little girl who likes Sonic for reasons. There's time-traveling junk. It's a step in a more story-driven direction. Sonic 2 was content to just be more of the same in that department, whereas CD is clearly trying to stake out a new direction.

The same can be said for the gameplay, which is leaps and bounds better than anything Sonic 2 ever managed to cook up. Yes, if you can't already tell, in the long-standing "is Sonic CD a good or bad game" debate within the Sonic community, I'm firmly in the "Sonic 2 kind of sucks and Sonic CD is a better game, come fucking fight me, nerd" camp.

Why exactly do I think it's better? Simple: it takes what made Sonic 1 work so well, and not only does it again, but puts a series of novel twists on it. Pseudo-3D ramps launch Sonic hundreds of feet through the air. Boss fights have sprawling set pieces that take up the whole level. The game has a surprising amount of branching paths and more than one way to access the "good ending." There's a whole lot going on here, and all of it is a total blast.

What it also does better than the "official" sequel is managing to keep up momentum. Sonic routinely goes at blazing fast speeds in CD, with none of the garbage obstacles and atrocious lag that are hallmarks of Sonic 2 to get in his way. Sure, there are numerous deathtraps and enemies to provide a challenge, but all of them can be taken out and avoided in an expedient fashion that doesn't detract from the sense of speed. In other words, the programmers here took what Yuji Naka did for revolutionizing fast platforming, then improved upon in a way that he simply didn't in his sophomore effort.

Basically? There's no equivalent to Chemical goddamn Plant Zone, and that's a good thing. A damn good thing.

Gotta drown fast!
There's also a significant improvement in terms of level design and palette selection. See, while Sonic 2 was perfectly content in recycling ideas from the first game and repeating the same types of levels we'd seen before, Sonic CD introduced entirely new types of environments. Not only that, but each level was given three versions of itself, complete with unique hazards and music. And not only that, but there was an overall tonal and thematic similarity between all the levels. which, instead of making the whole thing run together, gave the game a binding sense of cohesion and a unifying aesthetic.

That counts double for the soundtrack, which is, frankly, better than anything the series would get until Adventure. Well... the Japanese one, at any rate. The Japanese soundtrack is full of sweeping synths, cheesy rap, and hot beats. It's some of the best music in the franchise. But because Sega of Japan and Sega of America were two entirely different beasts at this point, the entire soundtrack was stripped and rewritten by Spencer Nilsen.

Now, nobody really knows why, exactly, the music was changed, but some theorize that it's because Sega of America had just built a super-expensive recording studio and wanted to use it for stuff. It makes the most sense. You spend millions of bucks on a pricey studio and, naturally, you want any excuse to use it. This was around the time Sega of America was raking in cash and figured that blowing it on dumb shit was a good idea.

There's still a bit of a debate, among fans, over which Sonic CD soundtrack is the better one. Now, I obviously have my preference of the Japanese version. It sounds the most like where the series would go in the future, and therefore feels like a predecessor to stuff we'd hear from Jun Senoue. That being said? Nilsen's soundtrack is still great. This is a guy who I consider to be one of the best composers in gaming, due in large part to his work on the Ecco series. He's no slouch. Sure, his approach to the music is totally different than the Japanese composers, but that doesn't make it bad. Just because he didn't sample George Clinton and Bootsy Collins doesn't mean the music sucks. It's just different.

Also, I'd argue that the American opening is way better than the Japanese one.

Just saying.

As an aside, I realized I've barely used any screenshots from the actual game. Uh...

It's super pretty! That screen's from the 2011 remaster, which is the best way to experience it. Which isn't to say the original looks bad.

See? Still pretty gorgeous. And it has one of the best boss encounters in the franchise, too!

There. Screenshots. It's out of the way now.

Sonic CD is, arguably, Sonic at his very best. It has a great deal of depth and pitch-perfect gameplay. Beyond that, however, it paved the way for future games. The overall combined effect of music, story, and visual aesthetic feels like a step forward for the franchise, and a stride towards the same sort of design philosophy that would define Sonic from the late 90's to the mid-2000's. It is, in other words, a masterpiece. I think a case can be made for it being the best Genesis/Mega Drive-era Sonic title.

Of course. There's a case that can be made for the next title I'll be covering... despite one of the more complicated development cycles of any title in the franchise.


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