This review was originally published at Kombo.com on September 5, 2005.
Several years ago Sega stuffed the best that Sonic the Hedgehog has to offer into the compilation title Sonic Mega Collection. The title sold well enough on the Nintendo GameCube to prompt the release of a Plus version for other platforms, but one highly demanded title of days-gone-by eluded both iterations: Sonic the Hedgehog CD. Fans clamored long enough and loud enough that Sega has finally brought Sonic CD back to the store shelves along with several other seldom-seen Sonic titles with Sonic Gems Collection. Considering that Sonic Gems Collection is a compilation disc, it would be inappropriate (and unfair) to review the collection taken as a whole. Instead the parts that make up the sum must be showcased separately, highlighting the bright spots and briefly dwelling on the disappointments.
Sonic the Hedgehog CD is what Sega considers to be the highlight of this disc (the case even brags as such), but this is not the 1993 Sega CD version of the game. Sonic CD was ported to the PC in 1995, and that port is what made it into Gems. Don’t fret – the changes are for the better. The original animated clips that play in the beginning and end of the game are now displayed in fullscreen mode instead of the tiny window from the Sega CD days, plus the animations are no longer compressed to fit on a mere compact disc. The animations can now be seen the way they went meant to be seen all those years ago.
Time travel is a key element in Sonic CD as Dr. Robotnik is out to harness the time powers of the mysterious Little Planet. Sonic must venture across three different time periods (past, present, and future variations of the various levels) and the usual assortment of wacky environments to recover the Time Stones and save Little Planet. Fans of the original Sonic the Hedgehog titles from the days of the Sega Genesis will feel right at home here, as Sonic CD is somewhat derived from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The powers of CD storage allowed the developers to add extra animation to Sonic’s actions as well as enhanced music to the game. Those who know Sonic CD’s long past know of the ongoing debate regarding which soundtrack is better: the original Japanese music or the unique American tunes. Only the American soundtrack is available in the North American version of Gems, and while this would have been a perfect opportunity to make both soundtracks available for players to choose between, Sega chose not to offer both due to licensing reasons.
Sonic CD is certainly fun and familiar, but suffers from a few issues. The side-scrolling platformer genre has evolved in the last decade, and as such there are some poor level designs that seem so easy to fix knowing what gamers and developers know now. Spikes pop out of the ground in seemingly random places, large bricks fall from above, and enemies toss projectiles at key moments. Just as Sonic begins to gather speed, something appears from out of nowhere and stops him. While this is expected in a classic Sonic game to some extent, it should not happen over and over and over again in the same few seconds of gameplay. This can be especially frustrating because in order for Sonic to travel through time, he must tag a signpost and run, run, run at top speed for five seconds. Slowing or stopping cancels the time jump. A time trial mode rounds out the game, although only the levels from the Present time period are available. On the whole this rendition of Sonic CD is done well, but there are problems in its original design that are beyond the scope of what a simple revival can enhance. Sonic CD is so legendary because so few gamers have played it (until now). For many it is the last new classic Sonic game to conquer, and while the game is fun, high expectations may fall as flat as Sonic after being knocked down by a falling brick.
Sonic R originally appeared on the Sega Saturn in 1997 and was ported to the PC in 1998. That PC incarnation is what appears in Sonic Gems Collection, bringing with it random weather effects and enhanced visuals to the game’s levels. This is a racing game without the vehicles. Sonic and friends run through the 3D racetrack levels on foot (except for Amy Rose and Dr. Robotnik). This can be confusing, as the first impulse is to play the game as one would a 3D action platformer such as Sonic Adventure. Doing so will not work. Sonic and friends control like a vehicle, yet move like a platformer character. Holding either the B button or forward on the control stick accelerates the characters, the L and R buttons execute sharp turns (as in F-Zero), and the A button engages a special move: a jump, a glide, a bomb, and so on depending on the character. Although it clocks in woefully short with only five racetracks, Sonic R is one of the stronger games in the compilation. Each track contains hidden Chaos Emeralds and emblems that must be collected in order to unlock new characters, such as Metal Sonic or Eggrobo. The Time Attack mode is a standard time trial with a twist, challenging players to tag the other characters in the race or to collect the balloons hidden on the track in out-of-the-way places. Two players can even race together in multiplayer mode. The weakest point of the game is the insipid lyrics found in every single background tune. A sample, part of a larger block of words that repeat endlessly: “Living in the city / You know you have to survive / You've got to keep that dream alive / Where everything is free / Can't you see?” Thankfully the vocals can be disabled in the game’s options menu.
A good sign that a video game is in trouble right out of the gate is when the developers misspell the name of the villain during the game’s opening credits. Such is the fate of Sonic The Fighters, originally released in Japanese arcades in 1996. Fans of Sega’s Virtua Fighter titles will feel right at home here in Sonic’s first fighting game. Fighters is a pure button masher from the good ol' days in which characters battle amongst themselves for the privilege of fighting Dr. Robotonic Robotnik. Some faces, such as Sonic and Knuckles, are familiar. Others, such as Bark the Polar Bear and Bean the Dynamite [Duck] are not. Each of the game’s nine levels feature one on one 3D brawling with slaps, kicks, and a special move unique to each character. Sonic spin dashes foes into the ground, for instance, while Fang the Sniper (known as Nack the Weasel in the west) shoots with his pistol.
There is little strategy to be found in Fighters; players can simply jam the buttons repeatedly until the match is over and will often times win. Playing against the CPU is a rather uninvolved affair as these things go, but playing against another player is where the fun can be found. For those dead-set on competing against the CPU, however, the arcade machine’s original settings can be tinkered and tweaked to increase the difficulty level. Overall it’s a fun game, but hardly deep or engaging for long periods of time.
With the exception of the two Vectorman titles for the Sega Genesis, the remaining six games found in Sonic Gems Collection come from Sonic’s Game Gear library (all of which were previously found on the Nintendo GameCube as unlockables in Sonic Adventure DX). Simple, smaller in scope, and slower in speed, these titles range from passably fun to dismally horrid. Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 are the strongest of the Game Gear set. They are traditional 2D platformers in which Sonic must collect the hidden Chaos Emeralds and defeat Dr. Robotnik’s mechanical monsters. Nothing new to see here, but at least the expected elements are done well for the small screen.
Working down the list from “fun” to “merely adequate” are Sonic Spinball and Tails’s Adventures. Spinball is a dumbed-down adaptation of the Sega Genesis Sonic Spinball last seen in Sonic Mega Collection "featuring" much slower speed, less levels, fewer enemies, and a Sonic that is even more stubborn to control than his 16-bit counterpart. The song remains the same, however: collect the Chaos Emeralds, bounce through the pinball fortress, and defeat Dr. Robotnik. Tails Adventures is another 2D platformer, this one starring perennial sidekick Tails. Taking a page from Capcom’s Mega Man, Tails eschews speed and loops for caverns and platforms. The two-tailed fox must collect items and weapons in order to progress through different levels on the game’s map screen, and there is actually some puzzle-solving involved regarding how to open a blocked passage or how to scale an unjumpable cliff. Both titles are enjoyable in small doses, but are too frustrating for any long-term play.
The bottom of the stack contains, regretfully, the unplayable dreck of Sonic Gems Collection: Sonic Drift 2 and Tails’ Skypatrol. Both games are an example of genres Sonic attempted to conquer half-heartedly. Sonic Drift 2 is a racing game that wants to be Super Mario Kart, but actually comes closer to the old Atari title Pole Position. Sonic and friends race around curvy racetracks (in vehicles this time), collecting an occasional ring or spring item in a bid to win the race. The gameplay here is nonexistent; race cars are either in motion or not. Steering is not required so much, surprisingly. Weak visuals (even for the Game Gear) and simple one-tone beeps for sound effects drag the game down even further. The absolute worst of the compilation is Tails’ Skypatrol, a side-scrolling shooter in the vein of Gradius, believe it or not. Released only in Japan in 1995, the game follows Tails as he flies from left to right without stopping and knocks enemies with his handy handheld ring. The problem is that Skypatrol is so infuriatingly frustrating that it is unplayable. A typical round of Skypatrol consists of the game starting, Tails crashing into a wall or floor almost instantly during the practice stage, and then the big Game Over.
As players spend several hours with the games of Sonic Gems Collection, the two Vectorman games unlock. Both games follow rendered hero Vectorman in his quest to save the Earth, first from a twisted nuclear war robot and later from a biological threat. These 2D platformers were Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country games at the time, but while Donkey Kong is about running and jumping, Vectorman is about running and jumping and shooting. He must blast his enemies to bits with a variety of weapons, and while the gameplay can be repetitive it is certainly fun; they just don’t make games like these two anymore. The first Vectorman title is instantly unlocked if another Sonic Team title’s save file (such as Sonic Heroes) is present on the memory card inserted in the GameCube. Otherwise it is worth the time to play through the other games on the disc to unlock it and its sequel. It’s also worth noting that the Japanese version of Gems also includes all three Streets of Rage titles as well as Bonanza Brothers, but those games were excluded from the North American version in order to retain an “E” rating for the set. It’s not right to penalize Gems for the exclusion, but it is worth pointing out.
Sonic Gems Collection contains a slew of unlockable artwork and music remixes for those who spend enough time with the compilation. After playing each game a certain number of times or for a certain period of time, promotional artwork is unlocked in the disc’s Museum where it can be viewed, zoomed, and panned on demand. Games represented in the Museum include the titles present in the compilation plus Sonic Heroes, Chaotix, and the PC’s Sonic screensaver. Musical remixes from the tunes of Sonic CD and Sonic R can also be accessed after playing for a while. The original manuals of each Sonic game are available for viewing, and games that appeared on multiple platforms (Sonic CD and Sonic R, for instance) include separate manuals for each version for posterity’s sake. Persistent players will eventually find game hints and demos after enough playing time has passed. Sega has updated the mechanism through which game progress can be saved to the memory card from Sonic Mega Collection. The Game Gear and Sega Genesis titles can be saved at any point in the game at the hefty price of twenty-seven memory card blocks in up to eight save slots. Sonic the Fighters and Sonic CD save their data automatically to additional smaller save files, while Sonic R's data must be saved and loaded manually each time the game is played. On the visual side of things, the Game Gear games can be played at either a fullscreen resolution or a small box representative of the original Game Gear screen's size.
Sonic Gems Collection's strongest pieces are Sonic CD, Sonic R, and Sonic the Fighters. The Game Gear titles are hit and miss and come off as an afterthought, as if Sega needed more games to add to the compilation but wanted to hold on to the last remaining unported Sonic titles for a third collection somewhere down the line. Sonic fans will enjoy adding another nine Sonic games to their collections, while more casual fans of the blue blur may be disappointed by what the set has to offer. Despite its flaws the game is recommended as long as players know what they are signing on for when picking up Sonic Gems Collection.