This article was originally published at Kombo.com on March 15, 2010.
It's sometimes difficult to accept that there are young fans of Sonic the Hedgehog who have never actually played the character's original Sega Genesis adventures. For these children, Sonic sprang into existence with titles such as Sonic Heroes, Sonic Advance, and Sonic Rush. Despite the fact that Sega has re-released their flagship character's early adventures in compilations such as Sonic Mega Collection, Sega Genesis Collection, and Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection, the holy quartet of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic & Knuckles (and the various lock-on technology combinations therein) have never turned up in a single collection for a handheld system until now with the Nintendo DS release of Sonic Classic Collection. Bundling the aforementioned games together on a single game card, Sega aims to introduce the blue blur to a new generation in preparation for the upcoming Genesis-imitating Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
Assuming that most readers have played a classic Sonic game before, there's no need to recap Dr. Robotnik's scheme to gather the Chaos Emeralds to power his Death Egg, nor should the concepts of spin dashes and collecting rings need additional explanation. Instead, the technical side of the Collection needs a closer look. Worth noting right up front is the fact that the games found in the Collection are not ports of the original Genesis titles, but are actually emulated using a properly licensed, legitimate, and slightly updated version of the jEnesisDS emulator that homebrew aficionados have been using for a while now. Emulating the games avoids the embarrassing results of half-assed ports like the Game Boy Advance title Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis, but introduces a few new quirks and changes that long-time Sonic fans will notice right away, while those who have never played the original games will likely remain unaware of any tinkering. Overall, this compilation presents a mostly faithful handheld version of the original classics perfect for new players and returning speedsters alike.
Despite early screenshots of the Collection teasing possible multiplayer options, not only are there no new ways to play with a friend (this official Sega-supplied screenshot is not actually playable in the game), but each game's existing multiplayer modes have been dummied out. The two-player races of Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 are no longer accessible, nor are the Options screens for those two titles. Sonic 2's choice of playing as Sonic, Sonic & Tails, or just Tails is now a title screen choice. Additionally, the original announcement for the Collection mentioned a historical Sonic video and a few other goodies, but all that has made it into the final product is a small collection of promotional character artwork that has previously been seen in compilations such as Sonic Gems Collection. It's underwhelming and feels like a token inclusion just to beef up the bullet points on the back of the box.
Each game is accessible right away without the need to unlock anything. The action plays out on the DS's top screen, and as the resolution of the Genesis is greater than that of the DS, each game as been vertically squished ever so slightly so as to fill the entire screen. This is mostly noticeable in the first Sonic and its sequel. The touchscreen is reserved for a brief textual story summary that in olden days would be presented as a little paragraph in the instruction manual. Touchscreen buttons toggle between the plot recap and instructions on how to control Sonic (and, when available, Tails and Knuckles). Curiously, the DS's own Start button becomes disabled once a game starts, so Pause functionality is handled through a touchscreen Pause button that does not pause the game, but the emulator itself. Removing the in-game Start button means that most of the classic cheat codes such as level selects and debug modes are inaccessible here (although the original Sonic level select — Up, Down, Left, Right, A + Start at the title screen — still works). By pausing the emulator instead of the game itself, any cheats that require control pad input while paused (such as a few commands in the original Sonic's debug mode) also no longer work. Moreover, removing the Options screens takes away access to the Sound Test needed to unlock some of the other cheats as well. It would seem that Sega is insistent that players experience these games as honestly as possible considering how many ways it is no longer possible to cheat.
Despite these alterations, the games of Sonic Classic Collection perform remarkably well under most circumstances. A save ability has been added to the games in the series that did not previously support it, but this feature will only save one's collected Chaos Emeralds and current zone. Unlike most emulators, Collection does not create traditional savestates that record exact position in a level. Aside from a few skipped frames here and there during the Blue Sphere bonus rounds in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, the old blast processing is alive and well. The way that the Collection handles music and sound effects is unusual in that they seem to play independently of the action at times. Collect Sonic's trademark speed shoes power-up and the audio for the entire game increases in pitch, not tempo. Sometimes music fails to play at all when an act or bonus round loads, while other times it restarts at odd times. As for sound effects, the familiar crash-*ting* that plays when Sonic takes a hit and drops his rings sounds degraded in the first two Sonic games, while the spin dash sound in Sonic 2 plays at the wrong pitch. There's definitely something dodgy happening here with the audio support, and while it may sound petty to focus on it, these little changes do affect the overall presentation. These are iconic sound effects being impacted here. It doesn't impact gameplay, but does hurt overall presentation. Imagine if Super Mario Bros. were re-released with Mario's trademark jump sound effect mangled, for example.
These are all picayune picks at a handful of some of what the Sega Genesis era had to offer. Despite a bad sound effect here and a dropped frame there, this is still Sonic the Hedgehog at his old fashioned finest. All of the single-player levels, playable characters, reliable physics, and bonus games are joyfully intact. Young players who have never been to Green Hill Zone nor explored Sandopolis Zone should not hesitate to dig into these adventures, while those who remember and still enjoy these games from years ago will still find fun here even if the experience isn't 100% faithful to the original Genesis rendition. It seems like a cheap shot to tear apart little inconsequential glitches in such detail, but when a classic game like Sonic the Hedgehog that is so deeply ingrained into gamer DNA is presented with even minor defects, one's gaming "Spidey sense" can't help but tingle that something is just not right. Still, it's perfectly enjoyable and probably as good as it gets from the modern incarnation of Sega.