The best sonic game ever! Sadly forgotten due to the failure of the sega CD.
My family has been cursed since the dawn of electronic media. We always hop upon the wrong bandwagon; we had betamax, 8-Tracks, Divx discs, Laserdisc, HD-DVD, etc. Although it would see success down the road, we also rode the very early Data CD train. We had a 3D0 and a SegaCD attachment for our genesis. I actually think the system itself isn't THAT bad, sure there's a lot of crap, but that was simply developers trying their hardest to make "Interactive movies" and other such pursuits and at the time it seemed like a cool idea. Yet there were still some very, VERY good games for the Sega CD that get buried underneath the disastrous Sega CD lifespan. One of them happens to be the best Sonic game out there.
What makes Sonic CD great? Well, for one, Sonic is at the top of his game. Everyone knows that Sonic is all about speed, and Sonic CD can sometimes get dizzying at how fast it gets. It also includes a time trial mode, which is always a blast in Sonic games, even for people like me who normally aren't completionists. Like any good game the level design is great. Like other Sonic titles, levels have various routes that can take you to your goal faster or slower, and the levels here have a bit more variety. Sometimes you'll replay a level and accidentally stumble upon a route that finally gets you that bonus for beating a level in 40 seconds.
Another interesting level mechanic is the time travel feature. Scattered around the level are "Past" and "Future" posts. Pick up one of these posts and it will be saved in your inventory for a little while. In order to activate them, you have to do.. well, what else? Run really, really fast. Go top speed without losing momentum. If you come to a halt mid-travel, you'll lose the post, but the levels often have special areas tucked away that make it impossible to lose the momentum for easier time travel. This adds a lot of variety as well as replay value because the three possible time periods shake up the level design and style. One level has a dam, but in the future where Robotnik has taken over, the dam is broken and the level is flooded. Go back into the past, and there is no dam but there's streams and lakes. Another cool thing is you can get special bonuses for changing the timelines, if you find a certain spot in the past and destroy it you might make the future a better place. This once again changes the levels design up a bit. It's a creative concept, and its done well.
Although it doesn't really affect gameplay, another clever aspect of the past/present/future aspects are changes in graphics and music. The future, ruled by Robotnik, is a ravished dystopia, often with much darker and moodier soundscapes. The past is technologically underdeveloped both in theme and literal console technology, the developers added in a clever element to the past where the graphics and music are all played by the genesis rather than the Sega CD, which also shows the player the difference in graphics/music as well.
This has always been a strength in the Sonic games, at least in my opinion, but boss fights are always clever and fun. Although some may have inconsistent difficulty aspects, Robotnik's machines are still a ton of fun to see and fight against and there's still a somewhat silly sense of humour with them as well. One level you can't actually hit him, but his protective shell is being ground away by a sander and as it grinds away he starts to freak out. No two boss fight here is alike, and yet again it adds a ton to the variety.
Although it's not the greatest soundtrack in the world, there are a few cool tracks on the soundtrack (I like the main theme "Sonic Boom," even if it gets stuck in your head...), and the sound quality is awesome. Sega claimed there was a mechanic called "Q-Sound," but my theory is simply that the data was fairly small so they made use of the extra data on the disc for higher quality sounds and music. There are various classic sound effects as well as some revamped ones too.
The graphics are colourful and varied. While it's not as good looking as Sonic 3 or Sonic & Knuckles (Though this game came before those, so it makes sense that they'd look better), the graphics look cool and the sprites are great. They also have some great animations and there's a wider variety of things happening on screen thanks to the Sega CD's extra horsepower. There are also some cool background effects and special effects that play with your mind, including an effect seen early on and later on where Sonic goes into a massive loop-de-loop and the camera turns around and it shows you a pseudo-3D effect of him running up and launching into the sky after getting off the ramp.
Great controls. They are very tight and there's a little more precision than the earlier Sonic games, you are even given a bit more control over Sonic's spin-boost move and can alter how fast the boost is. Despite the dizzying speed, you can always slow it down quick and precise if you are about to hit a spiked wall, although there will still be times that you make an unexpected stop but that's not really a negative since its always been a part of the gameplay in Sonic games.
The auto-save feature is nice.
This is partially a problem with the Sega CD itself, but load times are a pain in the ass. The game takes awhile to boot up and sometimes level load times are inconsistent, often when loading an auto-save the game will take up to 2 minutes. Boss levels, despite often having less action on screen have an annoying load time too. I can't slight the game for this, but the load times have actually gotten LONGER over time since obviously the disc has gotten a little dirty and my SegaCD has gotten older.
There are a few bugs. Sometimes Sonic will get trapped in a confusing animation loop where he will stand still, but still move. One time he got stuck in his spinning animation loop, and I bumped into an enemy and expected it to die, but instead the spinning animation stopped in place and all the rings scattered. The framerate also takes a few hits, particularly on the 3rd act, the "Tidal Tempest" levels. When in the water, the game seems to slow down a bit and sometimes it'll even skip. This is especially annoying when fighting the third act boss, which is also underwater. That effect that distorts the background visuals is cool, but maybe they should've cut it back a bit.
The music isn't the best. A lot of the tracks annoy me a little or just sound silly. One track is comprised of annoying "Ladde-dadde-doos" and girls going "Ahh, ping pong poing" as well. It's also annoying how the songs often restart and then loop if you can't get through a level fast enough, and if you have a scratch on the disc sometimes when a song restarts you'll be treated to a skipping noise; at its worst this will actually cause the game to freeze. I've heard that the Japanese/European releases have a better soundtrack, but I wouldn't know.
God help you on the "Wacky Workbench" levels. Dear god, someone was taking a bit too much LSD on that level. It took me a literal month to figure out how to beat them when I first played the game since you constantly bounce off of the walls without any control over where you go or when you bounce or how you bounce.
The Bottom Line
Sonic CD is awesome! I know I'm not the only Sonic the hedgehog fan out there, and back in the day I played this more than I did Sonic 2 or even 3. It has tons of replay value and variety thanks to the well implemented time travel aspect, time trial, and just the fact that its really fun to play! The sad thing is not many people played it because of how the Sega CD crashed and burned, and when the game was released on Windows 95 three years later no one played it because that port sucked royal thanks to the fact that its framerate was totally busted even on a brand spanking new Pentium processor, making the game unplayable. If you are a Sonic fan and have a SegaCD or are interested in collecting a segaCD, get it with this game! This game alone is worth it! Although I am praying that Sega will re-release it on the Wii or Xbox 360 as part of their vintage collection.