Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sonic CD

Platform: Sega CD
Developer: Sonic Team
Released: 1993
Genre: Platformer

The Game
For one month every year, the Little Planet, home of the Time Stones, appears over Never Lake. Intent on harnessing the power of the planet and its stones, Dr. Robotnik takes over the place and starts doing his mad scientist thing. Sonic, as the designated hero, zips his way up to Little Planet and starts kicking robot booty.

Sonic CD (or Sonic the Hedgehog CD when its mama wants to make sure it knows it's in trouble) is the product of an interesting set of circumstances. It was developed by good ol' Sonic Team, the group responsible for making most of the Sonic and Sonic-related games in existence . . . but only part of Sonic Team. Yuji Naka, one of the most prominent members of the team, had himself a fit, grabbed up a bunch of the best and the brightest from Sonic Team, and went over to the US to start working with Sega Technical Institute on developing Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Naoto Oshima, the actual creator of Sonic, took what was left of his team and started developing Sonic CD.

Originally, the two were supposed to be the same game, but eventually they branched off from one another (quite wildly, I'd say) and became their own thing. So how does the CD side of the equation hold up? Well, let's see.

The Characters
Sonic the Hedgehog is the same rude blue dude as always, the somewhat callous but still heroic figure who beat Robotnik once and aims to do so again. The tools at his disposal are his super speed, his cutting quills, and a new figure-eight extra fast running move that was not in the first Sonic game and has never, to my knowledge, ever been seen again. He just revs up his legs in a figure-eight cycle and then blasts off. Whee!

Dr. Robotnik is the goofy but still somewhat threatening evil genius bent on dominating all in his path and turning everything and everybody into robots. He appears at the end of the third zone in each area with a new mecha monstrosity with which to smash, slice, crush, or puree Sonic.

Amy Rose got her introduction here in Sonic CD, though for American audiences she was renamed "Princess Sally", I suppose because Sega thought that American kids wouldn't understand why Sonic would have a love interest that wasn't Sally from the animated Sonic series made by DiC Entertainment. The fact that Sally and Amy look look absolutely nothing alike besides both being female didn't seem to deter them. Anyway, Amy is a young pink hedgehog with a complete and utter crush on Sonic, though Sonic does not return her affection in any way whatsoever. Her entire purpose for being in the game is to follow him around in a couple of the early stages while cartoony hearts float around her head, then get abducted by Metal Sonic.

And speaking of Metal Sonic, he's Dr. Robotnik's newest creation, a machine shaped like and (almost) as fast as his namesake. He is the primary antagonist in the Stardust Speedway level, in which he and Sonic compete against each other in a deadly race.

Besides these four, there are the usual array of evil robots trying to drill, saw, spike, or beat Sonic to death and - if you save them from a nasty Metal Sonic hologram - a bunch of happy, peace loving animals that bounce about the screen, forcing the player to consider if those mushrooms they ate just before starting the game had gone bad.

The Writing
What writing there is I cannot fault. It's a pretty interesting setting . . . a tiny world in temporal flux. Sadly much of the rest is pretty much boilerplate. An evil twin (albeit a very cool one), unrequited love, bid to take over the world, so on and so forth. Structuring one entire zone into a race was fairly inventive for the time, tho', so good on 'em for that.

The Gameplay
First off, let me say that I am a complete and total old school Sonic fanboy. The first one I played was Sonic 2, and almost every 2D Sonic I've played has made me quite happy. So it was that I sat down with Sonic CD with the expectation that I was going to have more or less a pretty good time. But . . . I didn't.

Oh, it was alright, I suppose. There were some interesting ideas going on in the game. But overall I found myself constantly frustrated, and it wasn't until I was almost finished that I realized why.

See, Sonic - both the character and the game series - is all about speed. Wooshing around like a maniac, grabbing rings and kicking 'bot butt. It really goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway, and the reason I'm saying it is because Sonic CD isn't about speed.

It was when I was jumping from an inconveniently situated pit to an inconveniently situated ledge to another inconveniently situated pit et cetera in the Metallic Madness level that I came to this realization. One of the gameplay conceits of the game is that Sonic's temporal state on Little Planet has some leeway. If he touches a lamppost marked "Past" or "Future" and then keeps up his top normal running speed for a certain amount of time without stopping, he will shoot into either the past or the future where the zone layout is a bit different, the enemies are altered (or, in some cases, no longer present at all), and Sonic can make the future better by destroying the robot manufacturing machines in the past, thus eventually going on to get the Good Ending. Because of the need to run without stopping in order to time travel, the stages are built specifically to be a hurdle in this process. Even in areas where there aren't any timeposts nearby, there are little obstacles in the way that will keep Sonic from reaching and maintaining his top speed for very long.

Thus Sonic in Sonic CD is slow, and my brain rails against the entire concept.

Now, I like a thinking game as much as the next braniac. I rather enjoy puzzlers, games that test my wits and force me to figure out the optimal positioning to do whatever it is I need to do to proceed. But that's not what I play Sonic for. I don't go to McDonald's for their Chinese food, y'know? So it is that this game in which I have to pick out a good spot for an extended run, clear it of enemies, find a timepost, and hang on to the charge long enough to pull off a temporal jump just so I can go on a scavenger hunt instead of just blast through from beginning to end doesn't feel like a Sonic game at all. The entire gameplay mechanic has been toppled by a new paradigm of level design built to accommodate a new story element, and it bothers me.

I understand, of course, that this was actually very early in the game and it wasn't known at the time that Sonic 2 would pretty much forever place its stamp on all future Sonic titles, pushing the whole speed thing even further, perhaps even to ludicrous levels. Maybe if I had played Sonic 1 first and then went straight to Sonic CD, I would have been able to handle the change and even come to prefer it. But things didn't happen that way and I'm looking back at the game from the standpoint of being used to Sonic moving so damn fast that he leaves the screen at times because the camera simply can't keep up.

But I think you all get the point, so I'll stop harping on it. Instead, I'll go on to say that the temporal jumping is rather nifty and I found myself trying to make the leaps even when I didn't actually do anything ending-altering with it. The music and scenery changes enacted by those leaps made it worthwhile enough for me.

I also found the shrink ray areas in the last stage to be absolutely delightful. Running around as teeny tiny Sonic was both a blast and utterly hilarious. I kind of wish they'd had those rays in more areas of the game.

While I may not have enjoyed Sonic's new paradigm, I totally dug Robotnik's. Instead of just finding different ways to wail on him, you have to instead find different ways of getting to where you can wail on him. Eh . . . that sentence might not make too much sense right now, but you'll get it when you actually play the game. Just trust me, it's interesting.

I also liked the special stages, though I was a bit rubbish at it at first. I finally got the hang of it and got my first Time Stone, however, so yay me!

The Challenge
Even though they slowed things down a bit and put more environmental dangers in the way (hell, I'd say 75% or more of the game was entirely environmental dangers with only a handful of 'bots thrown into each level just to make things interesting), it's still a Sonic game in many other ways, and I've been playing those for more than half my life. I pretty much blasted right through it, with only the last stage giving me any sort of real trouble. Relative Sonic newbies might find it a bit harder, but not terribly so, I don't think.

The Sights
I read somewhere that Sonic CD was one of the only games on the Sega CD that looked worth a damn, and now that I've played a couple of other Sega CD games, I can definitely see where they're coming from. The game doesn't really try anything fancy (most of it would look right at home on the Genesis), and where it does it keeps the fanciness pretty understated. The result is deceptively simple, hiding subtle beauty wherever you look.

Once again I praise the special stages, and I was almost shocked at just how good their pseudo-3D look came off. Also wonderfully done were the animated sections at the beginning and the end of the game. Very reminiscent of animation in the Sonic OAV from way back, and I'm kind of curious now whether or not it was made by the same people. Not curious enough to actually look it up, mind.

If there's one place this game does not disappoint, it's in the looks area.

The Sounds
Dreams Come True, the composers of the music from the first two Sonic games, has spoiled me. Every bit of music in the series gets compared against the masterpiece that is the Sonic 2 soundtrack especially . . . but this does hold up well on its own rights. I liked the main theme - Sonic Boom by Pastiche - especially and may be playing it every once in a while and humming it to myself in the shower.

I've come to understand that the soundtrack I heard while playing the game isn't the original, and that there was some big hullabaloo over the change when it was first released over here in the states. I might end up joining the haters if I ever hear the original Japanese soundtrack, but for now I'm quite happy with what we got myself.

The Bottom Line
I want to like this game. I really really do. But I just can't get over my own preconceived notions of what a Sonic game is and isn't supposed to be. If it were something completely different, like a fighting game or an RPG, then maybe it wouldn't be a problem, but it's just too close to a regular title in the series for me to not see the differences.

Still, it's a gorgeous game, the music's pretty cool, and there are some few gameplay changes that I can get behind, so I'm gonna grade this one "well above average". I did beat the game but haven't gotten the Good Ending yet, and I find myself not entirely disgusted with the idea of giving a Good Ending run another try later on.

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