One of the most interesting things about the downloadable game services provided by the likes of PSN, Xbox Live and Steam is the emerging confluence between community and industry. Whereas the traditional relationship between mere mortals and the lofty heights of game development was one of begging and grovelling, the relatively risk-free downloadable domain shakes up this dynamic. There’s perhaps no better example of this than Sonic CD. Noticing the talent of indie developer Christian Whitehead, Sega has opted to enlist his help in tackling their most recent Sonic conversion. It’s a move as uncharacteristic of Sega’s recent behaviour as it is ingenious. With rather stingy conversions of Sonic’s Megadrive outings littering every downloadable service under the sun, it’s easy to see how familiarity can breed contempt. There’s some irony, then, in the fact that Sega would choose to be more adventurous with Sonic CD, as it’s perhaps one of the least familiar Sonic titles out there.
Then again, Sonic CD itself is a playground of quirky ideas. Originally released on a system nobody owned—and even fewer cared about—it is perhaps one of the most experimental and ambitious games in Sonic’s history; a strange, niche curio with a love-it-or-hate-it take on the series’ formula. Apart from a PC release and an iffy conversion included in 2005’s Sonic Gems Collection there have been very few opportunities to experience Sonic CD in any form over the years. We won’t lie, it can be a polarising experience for those accustomed to Sonic’s more straightforward Megadrive titles. The bright (or gaudy) levels will either instantly make you fall in loves with the game’s 90s retro charm or make your eyes vomit. The music will either click with you, in which case it may well be one of the best Sonic soundtracks, or its strokes of Muzak will drive you crazy. And most importantly, the complex (or convoluted) level design will either delight with its multitude of paths and crafty spring placements, or it will infuriate those with more conservative platforming tastes.
Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s undeniable that the game’s central mechanic—time travel—is one of the most unique and intriguing experiments in Sonic’s history. Besides the usual checkpoint lamp posts littered throughout the stages are Time Posts, allowing Sonic to either travel into the past or future by passing the corresponding sign and building up enough speed. This effectively triples the number of levels available as each zone takes on a new form depending on what time period Sonic is currently in. By destroying Robotnik’s machines in the past the level’s future changes, removing enemies from the stage and changing the visuals from dark and depressing to bright and flamboyant.
This mechanic gives Sonic CD a high degree of replay value as you’re impelled to seek out every possibility and collect the time stones (this game’s replacement for the usual Chaos Emeralds), but it also imbues the game with a unique sense of agency, giving an otherwise fairly standard platforming experience an unusual amount of depth. Taken on its own Sonic CD is an excellent game, but it’s both the quality of conversion and the extras which make this release particularly impressive. Rather than giving us a cut-down port of the PC version (ala Sonic Adventure), Christian Whitehead has built the game from the ground up, and the results are immediately apparent. Smooth, vibrant, aurally perfect and (perhaps most surprisingly for a Sega conversion) displayed in widescreen, the amount of polish on show almost feels alien.
From the three visual filters which make the game look either more or less retro depending on your tastes to the included digital manual, the game plays like an overdue love letter to a largely ignored game. Sonic CD’s quirky spindash, which had a distinctly different feel than in other games, can now be swapped for the more familiar form if players so wish. Similarly Tails—who never featured in the original game—can now be unlocked, the verticality provided by his flying ability adding a unique way to approach Sonic’s stages. Perhaps most significant, however, is the fact that both the US and original Japanese soundtracks are included, undoubtedly resulting in further heated debates on forums about which is better (it’s the Japanese one, by the way).
And finally, of course, there’s that most iffy of subjects; pricing. Far be it for us to consider a game’s monetary value as determining its worth, but with this title its impossible to ignore, if only by contrast to the cheeky cost commanded by Sega’s other conversions. At the price of a fast-food meal Sonic CD is a bafflingly good value. Whether Sega has had a Dickensian change of heart in their pricing of re-releases or whether they have more cynical motives we cannot be certain, but either way we dare not complain. Whether you’re already a fan of Sonic CD will probably determine whether you intend to purchase this release or not, but Sega have succeeded in adding just enough tweaks and extras to convert the unconvinced. Conversions simply don’t get any better than this and we can only hope that Sonic CD might represent the new rule for Sega’s future handling of its old properties, rather than the long overdue exception.