Sonic CD exists to be hip. While the more ubiquitous Sonic the Hedgehog 2 settled for solid evolution of the creative mechanics that the first game introduced, Sonic CD wanted to be at the absolute forefront of games by injecting the Sonic formula with new idea after new idea, something that became much easier to pull off thanks to the advent of the Sega CD add-on. But though it often felt like it tried a bit too hard, you couldn’t help but be impressed with the daring design on display.
All you need to do to realize you’re playing something willfully different is to listen to the music in the game, at least if you’re playing the Japanese version. Many of the tunes featured the same upbeat tempo as other Sonic game soundtracks, but less muted and tinny. Others clearly drew from rave music as inspiration (starting a trend within Sega that would culminate with classic music rail shooter Rez), as pounding rhythms marry with speedy synths, especially in the bonus stage’s theme. Though the U.S. version featured more conventional tunes, those lucky enough to experience the original could hear and feel Sonic CD’s ambition.
But even if you weren’t lucky enough to play the Japanese version of the game, the gameplay itself also laid bare the game’s desire to be on the cutting edge. The game added an ambitious extra wrinkle to the normal Sonic stage template: The ability to travel through time to one of three different versions of the same stage. Each counterpart, representing Past, Present, and Future, featured slightly different level design while still being based on the base level’s architecture. Though the transitioning between time periods is a bit finicky and superfluous in practice (it only really determined the ending you got, and even then, you only needed to travel to the past), it was a fun new feature that added an immense amount of replayability to the game.
In addition to the ambitious new design choices, the level creators figured out that Sonic is at his best when he’s running fast and bouncing around all over the place while, at the same time, allowing the player to be in control of the chaos. Stuff that launched or bounced Sonic was everywhere, forcing players to adjust Sonic’s trajectory to find a path to progress on or create enough room to pick up speed for a time leap.
Sonic CD isn’t completely successful. Many of its daring design features added nothing to the core game, and the levels at times felt too cluttered with obstacles to allow for any time jumping. But these same aspects made Sonic CD feel like a game from the future, a harbinger of where the medium was going. In a way, it was, as developers reinvented the platformer many times since then, proving that a creative idea can take a tried-and-true genre to exciting new places.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Sonic CD