When one stands in line at a Johnny’s Toys for a Sega CD peripheral, one can’t help but wonder what possibilities this new device and format will offer. My three offerings, my doorways into what this new world would offer me, were Sewer Shark, Sol-Feace, and Sonic CD. That last one was obviously my highlight destination and not without cause.
I won’t stand here and tell you the first disc-based Sonic game blew my mind even then. Instead, I’ll sit here and type out these words for you to read that even today, Sonic CD is a pretty damn lovable and complex showcase of what you can do within the Sonic conceit.
While most of the gameplay elements are relatively the same as other early hedgehog fun, the time travel aspect is something entirely singular. Each level is advertised as basically three in one: one from the past, one of the present, and one of the future. You start in the present section with time posts giving you a boost ahead or behind in time, but you have to maintain a burst of speed for about 3 seconds uninterrupted to really activate the wormhole.
As far as Sonic mechanics go, that’s a fairly complicated concept that can take a lot of frustrated trial and error to fully realize. On top of that, the “good future” ending requires you to find your way to the past in act one and two of every zone and destroy a mobile robotization machine that almost universally takes backtracking to find. It’s as close as Sega has come to marrying puzzles to the traditional formula and, once you find the grove of where your speed bursts can happen, I do wish they had played more with this concept.
The entire idea here is that Sonic can go back in time and stop the worlds from ever becoming the cesspools they’re otherwise destined to be. This felt initially amazing since it’s the first time you can see your actions have consequences as the blue blur. I can imagine what other choices and branches might be implemented within a modern version of this system, possibly giving Sega multiple games worth of ideas to mine.
Regardless, as the system stands in Sonic CD, it’s one of my favorite roads to the best ending in the entire series. The macguffin time stones are severely muted to the point where collecting them is a completely meaningless gesture. Yep, there’s no Super Sonic to be had, no real bearing on the ending, nothing this side of pride as a reward. I haven’t even bothered with the special stages in more recent playthroughs as a result.
There is only one special stage to find, which leads to the aforementioned lackluster ends. While not quite as polygonal and nasty looking as Sonic Mania’s, the general concept is the same as you traverse roadways to knockout UFOs (why Sega?). They’re not my favorite but not quite to the level of annoyance as Sonic 1 and 2 managed to inhabit with their stages.
Main levels in Sonic CD are beautiful, or horrifying, to watch evolve due to your actions. One of my absolute favorite aspects of games in general is when the music changes to the beat of what’s happening on screen. Collision Chaos, which is the second zone, has a futuristic synth music that’s fairly neutral in the present. It has a good beat and decent energy throughout with some flourishes that sound lighter and others that sound more sinister. The bad future third act plays with the theme and teases out an inverted beginning that belches forth a sinister bar into its own full song, making you feel the ominous nature of this black and red hellhole you could’ve saved. It’s subtle emotions in a Sonic game, which is…boy, is that weird to grasp given what followed.
The level design is where I think Sonic CD shows the most faults. Levels trend further and further away from the idea of harnessing inertia as an instrument of precision. Instead, you’re often rocketed from one instance of uncontrolled speed to another, laying the groundwork for the lack of control many Sonic Adventure players complained about. Stardust Speedway is the best possible showcase of that shift as you’re almost exclusively blasting from red spring to red spring inside of unstoppable speed tubes. Even the slow-ass Wacky Workbench gives simulations of speed between slower platform sessions. That new ideology started right here.
I certainly see merit in the concept, but I think something like that would be far more useful as a design conceit inside the special stages or in micro-stage offshoots. Sonic CD throws it front and center with less disguise as the game goes along, making the whole experience feel unnaturally paced and formulaic.
To call that decision a full derailment would definitely be an overshoot though because Sonic CD is still one of the best Sonic games ever made. The second best, actually. The music has followed me through the years alongside the game, and even with the stilted design, I’m still not going to let this CD spin off my fingers anytime soon.
Sonic CD Score: