Sunday, February 07, 2010
Videogame Classics - Sonic CD
June 25, 2005
I knew a friend of mine who bought himself a Sega CD soon after it was released. I suppose he thought it would boost his popularity or "status" with other gamers. Unfortunately, lady luck just didn't seem to go his way. For starters, the unit cost $300, which at the time was a rediculous amount of money to spend on a videogame machine, especially when the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo cost $150.
To compund problems, the games for the Sega CD turned out to be duds. Complete, utter flops. Despite months of endless hype, all we had to show for it was barely enhanced versions of Genesis cartridge games. Sure, it was kinda cool watching the cartoon intro to Sol-Feace, but that was only good for five minutes.
I suppose you could suggest the Full-Motion-Video games, but the novelty on those, ahem, "games" wore off pretty damn quick. Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective at least was fun for twenty minutes or so, but what good is that? And the less said of Sewer Shark, the better.
So, my friend ended up paying $300 for a doorstop. I eventually bought it from him for a song, which probably wasn't the wisest decision from me; but that's largely because I believe money should never be exchanged between friends.
Perhaps this will give you an understanding of why so many gamers from the 16-bit era will swear on a stack of holy book that Sonic CD was the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread, perhaps even the greatest of all the Sonic games. At the time, we were seriously starved for anything good, and the Sega CD debut of Sonic exceeded our wildest dreams.
The game's long disappearance from future compilations and greatest-hits packages only seemed to strenghen its status. Sonic CD achieved the status of mythic legend.
It wasn't until now, in the year 2005, that Sega finally brought its classic back from the mists and onto a console again. What will the average Playstation 2 owner think? There's more to overcome than the passage of time; the two-dimensional platform game has become all but extinct.
I don't think it should be too difficult. All you need is a chance to sit down with a controller in hand and a couple minutes. Sonic will have sunk his claws into you by then. Anyone who isn't seriously hooked should question their love of videogames. You know, real games, not pre-rendered movie clips.
The First Four Sonic Games - Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic 2, Sonic CD, and Sonic 3 & Knuckes - represented Sega at their creative and commercial peak. I'm always reminded of the first four Ramones albums, which wrote the book on punk rock and spawned countless imitators. Of these four, I think the original Sonic is the weakest, but this is how it should be. The creative talent later refined and perfected their formulas.
After S3K, I'd say Sonic CD is my favorite in the pack. It's different from the others, a little off the beaten path, and it suggests another way Sonic could have evolved it Sega CD's fortunes turned out different.
Imagine, if you will, that the Sonic branches in two different directions after the original. In one direction, Yuji Naka, the crack programmer who left Sega Japan for work in America. He found himself working at the Sega Technical Institute, with the independent American talent. By a bold surprise, he was handed the Genesis sequel to Sonic, with considerable creative freedom to mold the character in his own likeness.
Naka took that opportunity and ran, resulting in Sonic 2, the Genesis' most successful game and the standard for every Sonic game that ever followed.
Back in Japan, a second branch moved away. This was led by Naoto Oshima, the other major talent from Sonic. He was given a team to design the Sonic sequel that would appear on the Sega CD.
Naka's contribution to Sonic was speed, but Oshima's contribution was intricate, tightly designed platform levels. His inspiration was Super Mario, games that rewarded exploration and depth above barreling through as quickly as possible.
What he and his team created is a marvel of game design. The worlds in Sonic CD are vast, enormous. These are the largest levels in the 16-bit era. I want you to notice an especially striking feature. Note how vertical these levels are. Note how long some of these drops are.
Sonic, of course, can still fly at lightning speed, but that speed must be tempered against plaftorms, ledges, towers. There's a lot of territory to climb and explore. You could, if you wish, simply run to the finish line as quickly as possible, and it shouldn't take more than a minute or two. But look at how much you've missed. It's not the destination that matters, but the journey.
This brings us to Sonic CD's most famous feature: time travel. The worlds are seperated into three time zones: past, present, and future. Scattered about are sign posts that enable you to travel forwards or backwards in time. In the game's story, the ever-present villain Dr. Robotnik has corrupted the world of the future. By travelling into the past, you can destroy his machines and set the course of history straight.
Each level has four parts: past, present, future, and the good future. And this is the real genius, isn't it? We can see the steady progression through time, in each of Sonic CD's worlds. The attention and dedication to consistency of style is striking. And, for players, there are more than enough variations to make you want to explore each time zone as much as possible. The standard ten minute time limit can get stretched thin pretty quickly.
I've mentioned the level design, and the architecture, but observe how Oshima uses them to counter Sonic's speed. After hitting a sign post, you need to run at full speed for a length of time (think Back to the Future). The trick is that, as you progress, there are fewer places to just barrel ahead without running into something. You need to explore a little, and find a place where you can loop or bounce between springs.
Each of the seven zones in Sonic CD carries its own style, and often require different tactics to progress. There's the bright, green valley that starts off every Sonic, and the industrial factory at the end, but we see some locations that have never been revisited in the series, like a crystalline cavern or a colossal series of trumpet horns. One zone even features an electric floor that shoots everything - including you! - dozens of stories high. You have to wonder why the recent Sonic sequels always rely on the same schtick. Where's the creativity?
One thing that really strikes me about Sonic CD is the look of it all. It's very psychedelic; not loaded with trippy visual effects, but very heavily saturated in color. The Sega CD offered a larger palette over Genesis, and Oshima's artists took great advantage of this. It's one of the best examples of acid-drenched pop art seen in a videogame. Turn me on, dead man.
Classic gamers also happen to remember Sonic CD for another reason: the soundtrack. In Japan, they took advantage of the then-new CD medium and recorded a terrific musical score. It's not too loud, not too far removed from cartridge music, but the quality is a grand improvement. The past and future zones play variations on the main theme, and it all gels perfectly.
For some reason, Sega decided to rescore the game when bringing it to the States. That task fell to Spencer Nilsen, who wrote a lot of game music for Sega during the 16-bit era. I will, in his defense, say he did a very good job. He recorded a variety of synth-pop tunes, some with backup vocals; for some cruel reason, it reminds me of Paula Abdul. That's just mean.
But it has to be said that it doesn't match the Japanese original. More importantly (and this is where I firmly oppose dubbing foreign movies), Sega of America intruded upon the original vision. It's as if a gallery owner decided a certain artist's paintings needed more green, and then started in with a paintbrush.
The fanzines back then were really upset about this. I also remember Diehard Gamefan reminding its readers (?) every chance it could. Does it really matter in 2005? Probably not. The internet took care of that. It's a sort of karma; a way of bringing a sorely-overlooked classic to modern audiences.
Not that I'm telling you to download the old files so you can play Sonic CD on your emulator. Oh, no, not me. Wink, wink.