Sonic CD – Why It’s Still the Hedgehog’s Most Important Adventure

First Word from Louis Santiago:

So, sometimes, a video game series has a really weird installment… right? Like, I’m thinking Silent Hill: The Room. Or Link’s Adventure. Or The Return of Samus. Now, I’m not saying these games are bad—they’re just weird. Weird, and in a lot of ways, really significant, because they’re these crazy experiments that say a lot about what developers thought a series… could be. Like… Well, okay, I didn’t play The Room, but I watched a lot of it and it was obvious that it had this really weird, alternative gameplay involving ghost things that were super hard to kill and easier to run from and a weird, psychologically unsettling hub world that really could’ve been a hallucination—awesome ideas. With Zelda II, they thought, “Maybe we can make this more like Mario Bros. and it’ll be even better?” With RoS (and man, I love that game), they possibly tried to give players a more solid goal tied more closely to the titular Metroids by dropping you on a planet inhabited by a finite number of them that was always clear to you.

Maybe someday we'll endeavor to play and then write about Chaotix. And relive all of those great... childhood...

Now, that last point—the clearly established goal defined for the player right from the get go—has come up in Egoraptor’s Sequilitis series before (the Theming in Megaman X) and I feel that’s what makes Sonic CD the weirdest of the Sonic games… and also the most important (Knuckles Chaotix? That #$*don’t count).

Before we even get started though, this isn’t a review—if that’s what you’re looking for, David Rodriguez wrote a great review for Infinite Ammo months ago, so you should totally check that out.

This is more an opinion piece that Darth Healthcare and I thought we should write because we had a lot to say about CD. Doesn’t mean we’re saying this is the best in the series though.

What I’m saying, for starters, is that Sonic CD has the series’ best Theming.

Now, of course, this is arguable; Sonic 3 & Knuckles had plenty of cinematic moments that really put you in the characters’ shoes, even without dialogue.

But in CD, the Theming really came out in the gameplay.

Okay. So, your basic Sonic gameplay is all “run to the right.” That’s really it. You can also jump, but that’s usually to help you keep running right. Sure, there’s exploration and sometimes, levels are hyper long and send you in all kinds of directions, but even in those cases, you’re still just trying to go towards the end of the stage. Regardless of which game you’re playing, you don’t really care about why you’re running right—it’s all just to get to Robotnik and jump on him eight times and then go to the next place so you can run around there for a while.

Of course, all of that changes with the Time Shift gameplay. It has obvious effects on the game, but I’m more concerned here with the affects it has on the player. All that mindless running to the right suddenly has a purpose you can feel—a goal that you immediately feel as a gamer because you experience it when you first reach a Bad Future.

And the Bad Future is brilliant.

Particularly brilliant because SEGA made sure a Bad Future was inevitable. You could totally run to the right and not care about anything like you normally would in any Sonic game, but Act III of each Zone is always set in the Future, no matter what you do. So if you blaze through without a care in the world, you’ll eventually find yourself in a terrible wasteland after playing through two Acts of the Zone’s relatively pleasant present. The result is an extremely clear and emotional, “Oh man… This is my fault.”

And that’s such a weird and intense reaction for a relatively straightforward genre to get out of a gamer. Particularly in a series where you’re honestly not supposed to really care. It’s kind of amazing that SEGA went so far in an alternate direction with the series, but it’s even more awesome that they went to such great lengths to nail it. Chances are, you probably experienced the Future before Palm Tree Panic Act III anyway because there are always Future posts everywhere. I never noticed until I played CD again, but there’s almost always a Future sign post within 30 seconds of the start of Act I of any Zone because SEGA is inviting you to see what will happen if you don’t actively try to change it.

And they get you to care by playing the always relevant environmental awareness card.

The Bad Future is always a muted wasteland. Particularly in contrast to the hyper lively Pasts of each act. Again, genius; it would be one thing if the future was a bunch of machinery everywhere but there were still bright blues and primary colors, but there totally aren’t; skies are grey, grass is a dead brown or rust colored. Sometimes, the ground looks burned and scabbed. Seriously, it’s terrible.

But it’s terrible and super genius because it’s something you as a human can totally relate to—definitely more than trying to save a princess from a crazy dinosaur (although I’m definitely not trying to start that argument). None of us want to see our blue sky blotted out, and SEGA’s presenting gamers with a chance to very clearly stop that from happening is such a weird and serious move that… Well, I feel every gamer should play this game.

Sonic CD is not my favorite in the series, but it’s definitely a masterpiece in Theming. And, considering that it came before 3 & Knuckles, it stands alone in this weird void, where I feel the series took a step forward that no one noticed. A step that was slowly taken back a year later when the series returned to its “run to the right” roots. A step that just shouldn’t go ignored.

And Now, a Word from Darth Healthcare:

I can’t claim any real authority when it comes to talking about video game level design.  The only experience I’ve ever had actually creating anything in a game comes from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and even then half the time I’d just throw things around until it felt good.  So it’s in the same way that I can talk in very specific ways about why certain songs/bands move me without being able to actually read or write music that I can say why I feel Sonic CD’s level design helps make it the most significant Sonic game to ever be released.

As we already know, Sonic has the ability to move back and forward in time in each and every zone.  But no matter what time period you’re in, the stages are all laid out very differently from what you might expect from a Sonic game.  In the Genesis-era Sonics there is, more or less, very little obstructing your forward progress.  Stages are laid out in such a way that there’s always at least one path that promotes speed runs, and while you definitely have the option to explore and find the many alternate routes you’re also completely free to ignore them and keep on the straight and narrow.  Not so in Sonic CD.  There isn’t what I would call a single “direct route” through any stage in the entire game.  This lack of a straight path encourages the player to break out of the “hold right to win” mentality that most people seem to associate with old-school Sonic and actively promotes exploration of different paths through the zones.  The player must also evaluate their decisions more carefully and take note of their surroundings because, more than in any other Sonic game, jumping on a spring carries real consequences.  Sure, it could send you exactly where you want to go, or it could send you flying through corridors to a completely different part of the stage, or it could bounce you to three or four of its spring buddies that ultimately put you right back where you started.  You won’t know what happens until you jump on it, which in my mind only encourages more exploration (also worth noting—in my mind exploration = fun).  SEGA gets a little crazy with the springs later on in the game but it’s all in good fun.

It took me a while to notice this last point, but Sonic CD is the first (and as far as I know, only) game in the entire Sonic series where there are barely any pits to fall into in any zone (only in the very last Act of the game does one rear its ugly head).  Maybe I feel like this is a bigger deal than it really is, but think about it.  Would you want to go blasting through time only to find out once you arrived in the past or future that the floor is gone?  Of course you wouldn’t!  It’s an incredibly smart design decision on SEGA’s part.  I just found it fascinating that absolutely none of the times I died could be attributed to the fickle gods of momentum and gravity teaming up in the form of a bottomless pit.

A Final Word

There’s nothing wrong with playing video games just to be entertained. In fact, that’s probably (maybe [I guess]) better than paying a lot of attention to how particular ones were crafted and what decisions led to their making.

But if you’re the kind who does like to observe particular games like art, then you really should take another look (or a first look) at Sonic CD. Because it’s full of merits that shouldn’t just be left in the past.

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