Considered widely to be one of the best Sonic the Hedgehog games made by Sega, Sonic CD was released in the way back when of November 1993 and became the Sega CD’s flagship title. Although it came out one year after Sonic the Hedgehog 2, in some ways the game feels more like a direct sequel to the first game because of certain visual similarities. Sonic CD was a departure from the franchise because of a time travel mechanic that affected the zones Sonic visits. Depending on your actions, the future of each zone will have changed for better or for worse.
The story of Sonic CD is pretty unique. Dr. Robotnik (or Dr. Eggman, if you prefer) is up to his old tricks in his quest for domination, this time involving his latest scheme to capture a mystical planet that has peculiar temporal properties. Robotnik’s aim is to control the planet and find the seven Time Stones which would allow him to implant his robot technology into the past in order to secure a future of his own making. Sonic the Hedgehog steps in to thwart Robotnik’s plans, which happens to ensnare his girlfriend Amy (in her first appearance).
Sonic CD plays just like its old school forebears. You’ll traverse a series of zones split into three stages, collecting rings and defeating enemies before reaching the end. If you manage to secure more than fifty rings at the end of each stage, you’ll gain access to special stages involving the destruction of UFOs in order to collect the seven Time Stones. Where Sonic CD differs is through the implementation of a time travel mechanic that will take Sonic to the stage’s future or past. In order to travel, you’ll have to pass through a marked sign post and then maintain a fast speed for about five seconds. Ideally, you’ll want to visit the past in order to seek out and destroy Robotnik’s robot conversion machines – one for each stage – that threaten the cute little woodland creatures. Destroying the conversion machines in the first two levels will lead to a “good” future in boss stages and conversely, not destroying them will cause the future to become a dark, industrial terror.
If you fail to collect the Time Stones or don’t get a Good future in every level, you’ll get the game’s bad ending. However, fulfilling at least one of those requirements will grant you the Good ending and doing so is a lot easier said than done. Earning a Good future on the first level is simple enough, but later levels become a jumble of paths and routes which makes maintaining the right speed for proper time travel a tricky affair. Interestingly enough, if you go into the Past and destroy a robot generator and then venture into the Future, obstacle and enemy placement will be reduced. The effect is reversed, however, if you leave the robot conversion machines alone before going to the Future.
Sonic CD came out in 1993, so the game is a cut above from the graphical work of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. However, thanks to the magic of high definition resolution upgrading, you can play through Sonic CD without any sort of 16-bit pixelization, resulting in a nice, clean picture. At the time of the game’s release, Sonic CD had a bold visualization, as levels were often filled with bright color palettes and neon effects that still hold up after all these years.
On the other hand, the game’s bonus levels look dated. Instead of the pinball style bonus rounds of Sonic 1 and the bobsled tracks of Sonic 2, the Time Stone stages were a precursor to Sonic Adventure, as the camera shifts behind Sonic and follows him around a track similar to what you’d find in the Super NES game, F-Zero. The stage come off as Sega’s attempt to show up Nintendo’s Mode 7 tech which had been established in 1991.
Sonic CD is the best game in the series for a reason. The use of time travel takes Sonic away from the “Run to the right” formula and encourages you to explore considerably larger levels that are affected by actions in the past. Unless I am mistaken, Sonic CD was the first mainstream video game to use time travel as a game mechanic, so it certainly was unique at the time (Chrono Trigger wouldn’t see a release until two years after). That being said, a quit note of caution is in order.
While time travel is a key factor to the story and game mechanics, the game will never force you to use it. There is no in-game explanation for travelling through time and one could easily miss the purpose of doing so. If you were to play through without attempting to create a Good future or collect Time Stones, you’ll find that the game is over in about two hours. Upon successful completion of the game (whether you earn a Good or Bad ending), you can play through the entire game again as Tails, which might be a selling point for some. I’ve never really cared for Sonic’s menagerie of friends, but I’m probably a minority.
Sonic the Hedgehog has had it rough lately thanks to a number of middling games that have departed from the spirit of the first three games. Sonic CD is best served to those who played the original games back in the day and want a chance to relive the glory days. If you’ve never played Sonic CD and are a fan, then by all means spend the five bucks to play a game that’s wildly different from any other.