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Review: Sonic Origins

3 Jul 2022

If there was any sort of competition for the most re-releases in popular media in comparison to the original Star Wars trilogy, the Genesis-era Sonic games are definitely up there. Hell, the fact that there have been multiple compilations since then signals to most gamers and even passing fans that SEGA knows how timeless the character and overall franchise is. With Sonic being with us for over three decades, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s got his fingers in a lot of media pies.

With the release of the first Paramount movie in 2020 and the sequel this year, SEGA thought it would be a swell idea to bring the newer generations up to speed with the series roots. Not like it takes much for them to want to port Sonic The Hedgehog for the millionth time, but with this specific compilation it comes with the allure of the debut of the definitive versions of Sonic 1, Sonic 2, and Sonic CD made in Christian Whitehead’s Retro Engine along with Simon Thomley’s Headcannon working on bringing Sonic 3 & Knuckles up to a similar standard for modern platforms.

Save for Sonic 3 & Knuckles (at least recently), these games have been available on modern and semi-modern platforms for some time. Hilariously, I covered M2’s port of Sonic 2 that released on Switch a couple years ago. While I’m happy that the best versions of much-loved classics are now available to new players, sometimes I find myself looking back at the horrendous Sonic the Hedgehog: Genesis on GBA and hoping that lessons were learned. The ball has been dropped before, so forgive me for being a little wary.

Developed by Sonic Team/Headcannon and published by SEGA, Sonic Origins released on June 23, 2022 and is available on PS4/PS5, Xbox One/Series S | X, PC (Steam/Epic Games Store), and Switch. The Switch version was played for this review.

Supersonic Refresher Course

By now, any old school gamer could tell any newcomer the story of any of these four games by heart. Sonic 1 set the stage and started off the “evil mad scientist forces animals into robots and you must stop him” plot. Sonic CD has our hero liberating the Little Planet from the control of Dr. Eggman/Robotnik with Amy Rose making her debut along the way, as well as Metal Sonic. Sonic 2 had Eggman doing his best impression of the Galactic Empire with the construction of the Death Egg, while Sonic gained a new friend in Tails. The most story heavy of the collection is obviously Sonic 3 & Knuckles, where Eggman picks up where he left off and fools Knuckles into thinking that Sonic and Co. are after the Master Emerald when he in fact was looking to nab the Emerald for himself to resurrect the crashed Death Egg.

I’m not spending too much time on stories of these games, mostly due to the fact that games from this era usually told their story briefly in instruction manuals and just sort of left it at that for the most part. It wasn’t until Sonic 3 that we get in-game cutscenes in some form (considered somewhat rare for the era), and even those were short and punchy little accents meant to not get in the way of the gameplay too much. Being someone who actually grew up on these games, that was enough at the time.

Though with Origins, there are some added cutscenes to help tell the story in the familar Sonic Mania Adventures art style. The added cutscenes are cute, and it was definitely nice to see Tyson Hesse back to do more Sonic animation. I mean, the opening cutscene for Sonic 2 gives us Tails literally getting trolled for his two tails. It’s meta as hell, and I looked forward to each of them, as they generally served as bookends in a manner similar to how Hesse’s work in Sonic Mania panned out.

Really, I’m just happy to see any sort of update and general story expansion for these games. Granted, it’s not much. But I’d be lying if I didn’t see the plot in these four games as more of a motivation to finish the game rather than playing to get to the next cutscene. In a way, you made your own story along the way to the destination. That’s just how it was in that era. Sometimes you used your imagination to fill in the blanks, and these cutscenes have that vibe.

Cosmic Zoom Through Time

Let me start off with saying that I often find myself falling back on a handful of games for comfort. I often consider the games included in this collection as a security blanket of sorts. Something comfortable, infinitely replayable, cohesive, and surprisingly standing the test of time. It’s part of this simplicity and game design that spawned numerous fan hacks and full on fan games that Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley cut their teeth on 2D Sonic level design. Because of this and the Retro Engine that spawned from it on Christian’s end, a relationship spawned with SEGA.

This relationship laid the groundwork for the Retro Engine versions of 1, CD, and 2 that released on mobile devices and largely stayed there until now. I personally found it frustrating that these versions (save for CD) were locked away on a platform that was starting to move towards a model that better suited the touchscreen interface that came with it. Playing old school games on smartphones without some sort of physical input accessory was a less than ideal way to play. With the release of Origins, I can’t say that I wasn’t pleased to hear this wasn’t yet another original ROM dump.

That said, the gameplay in each entry included here is essentially a faithful (and in most cases improved upon) version to the vision of the original with some extra tweaks and additions in comparison to the original release. One such addition across the compilation is the Drop Dash from Mania. I had mentioned previously that the move would more than likely be used as a way to keep momentum going in places where they made sense. Though the move is better suited for games that had more of a horizontal level design. CD‘s level design tends to lean in a more vertical direction, so the use case for this move can be limited given that game can have pretty tight spaces.

Another addition that would alter the gameplay a bit is the addition of characters in games they didn’t originally appear in, which opens up different methods of exploration. Playing as Knuckles or Tails in Sonic 1 feels weird, but their abilities don’t necessarily break the original level design any more than what speedrunners are already doing. It’s fun going through a classic with a character that wasn’t originally there. This extends to Tails being included in Sonic CD. It’s cool that he’s included, but it’s not like you could cheese it any more than you might with Sonic.

Really, it feels like the Whitehead versions of 1/2/CD have been mostly left intact as they were when released on mobile devices. The additional content for Sonic 2 is still there, all the improvements that he and his collaborators made are left as is, and they perform as well as you’d expect from a mobile port of a set of games around 30 years old. I can still hop into the reimagined Hidden Palace Zone in Sonic 2 that was scrapped in the original release, which is nice. Special stages across the spectrum run at a smooth framerate, and play as well as a fan would hope.

What I was more curious about with this compilation was how they were going to handle Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Whitehead had expressed interest in making his own version of the game and even had a proof of concept for it, but this never got off the ground. With Origins finally giving players an easy way to play this, this was what I was hoping to see have the most improvements.

Sadly, I walked away feeling a little mixed on the whole thing. Thomley and the team at Headcannon took point on the remastering duties for S3&K, but not without some pains along the way. Simon did explain what was going on via a recent tweet thread on how things panned out from a development standpoint, and I can’t say I wasn’t surprised that he was sticking with this for the good of the overall execution of the compilation. From front to back, it’s still by and large the S3&K we all know and love. Really, it’s a wonder we were able to get the game on modern platforms at all. This is a totally rebuilt version of the game, and not just a simple ROM dump of the original.

Mechanically speaking, the momentum is different from what I’ve been used to, but I was able to adjust quickly enough. Though it’s worth mentioning that I did run into numerous glitches that were more annoying than game breaking in S3&K, but did show up in the other games on occasion. Narrow spaces that were once easy to squeeze through before became precarious death traps. Your selected character could outrun the screen more than you could in the original. Sometimes goofy things would just happen, like getting stuck in the geometry or things that cause you to have to restart the stage. These types of glitches affected each game in some way, though, not just S3&K.

While these are undoubtedly blemishes on the final product, Thomley did state that some of the things they did want to fix weren’t exactly in their control. Presumably because the publisher didn’t want to delay the release date. Still, given the way Sonic’s been handled in the past, it doesn’t surprise me that this sort of thing would happen again. It’s just surprising that making the release date took precedent over putting out a quality release. I’m going to back up the Headcannon team here, because Thomley’s not been silent with how they’ve been having to handle this compilation. They knew what was going on, and they wanted to squash those bugs. Unfortunately, this is the state the game is currently in. It’s not unplayable, but you can tell that the team at Headcannon put in as much effort as they could given the circumstances.

“Game compilation has several glitches” may not be much of a story these days, but it’s pretty wild that a set of games that have been endlessly ported and rereleased was pushed out the door in a state that could have benefited from a delay or appropriate patches at the very least. The strength of these games still shine through, but in this instance it feels like the publisher wanted to strike while things were still sizzling when the developer wanted to make things right. With that kind of context, this feels like the best case scenario.

Despite the drama, it’s nice to see different ways to play each of these games. Most classic fans will find little trouble in playing through these games as originally released, so gravitating towards Classic Mode isn’t much of a stretch. No new moves, no extra characters, just the pure original experience in each game. However, Anniversary mode is more of a “throw it all in a bucket and just roll with it” kind of situation. Instead of collecting lives, you’re gaining coins in their place. They’re used for special stage retries and for unlocks in the Museum portion. The aforementioned characters that are playable in games that they didn’t originally appear in are a welcome addition, as they do let the abilities of other characters shine through.

I found myself a little puzzled with the overall execution of each mode, though. Falling back onto Mania again, you had the ability to tweak your playing experience via a dedicated menu before you started the game. Things like secondary abilities, visual filters, a goofy meme mode, and so on were easily accessible before you started. Not so in Origins. If you want to play the games in widescreen, playing in Anniversary Mode is your only option. Same goes for Classic Mode, where you’re locked into the 4:3 aspect ratio and have a fair amount of borders locked behind a DLC paywall with no way to alter the experience to your liking.

Story Mode lets you marathon all four games in succession, and that’s cool. But it really irks me that a player can’t customize the game in the way they want to play when Mania let you tweak at will so easily before, even with unlocking certain options as you went. Clearing each game unlocks a Mirror Mode, which is its own kind of chaos. But I find myself feeling like the opportunity to have as much fun as possible is kind of muted here. If you wanna throw down in Boss Rush, that’s there too.

Like prior Sonic-centric compilations, there is a set of archival content in the Museum Mode. If you’re looking at it as a quality over quantity thing, it’s decent enough. Some of the museum content is also locked behind a DLC paywall and just cheapens the experience. What you get from the base game is serviceable, but prior compilations have it beat in terms of content density. The fact that some of the extra content (like certain Mission Mode objectives) is locked behind a paywall is honestly a little scummy.

But if you don’t care about any of these window dressings and just want to play old Sonic games conveniently, you could do a lot worse than this compilation. While the issues are present, they ultimately amount to an annoyance/irking at worst and a funny Arin Hanson moment at best. Being the old fan that I am (and hopefully not as overly critical as the more toxic fans tend to be), I just want new players to enjoy these classics and feel the joy that I did when I first played them. If you look at it from that angle, it’s good enough. I just wish that it wasn’t wrapped up in a questionable price tag and confusing DLC setup for something that really should have been a total package from the get-go.

Open Your Artistic Outlet

Ask anyone who grew up with a Genesis/Mega Drive in the 90s, and fair chunk of them will easily recall how distinctive Sonic games were in comparison to the rest of the console’s library. Honestly, I find the art direction for these games to be pretty timeless. Environments have a distinctive style, color is used in interesting ways, and oftentimes flow well given the speed-centric nature of each game.

While Sonic 1 and 2 some shared artistic elements , the overlap between each game is unique enough visually to stand on their own. Sonic CD was definitely the more colorful in comparison, and at times was a little more flashy given the add on it launched with. S3&K was the biggest departure from the art style in comparison to the other 3, and ended up getting more visual tweaks as a result. Thankfully, the short story cutscenes that were added in the Whitehead versions were left untouched and help string together the story a little more than what I’m used to.

Visually speaking, the Whitehead ports of 1, CD, and 2 run about as smooth as you’d expect for something that originally released on smartphones. Framerates are usually pretty smooth, seeing these games on modern TV panels is nice, and the fact the care and flair from prior releases made it through here with little issue. Eagle-eyed fans are sure to be able to tell the differences in each game, and it’s nice to see that the performance of the first three hasn’t been diluted in some form or fashion. The fact that the opening of CD had been remastered is worth mentioning here, and it looks great.

With what was added to the other games feeling like a natural extension, S3&K stood to benefit from being the last game to be remade. This was ultimately a mixed bag, and some of it couldn’t honestly have been helped. Most of the visual tweaks came through in the spritework, and it’s nice to see that some of that works as a visual cue for certain parts of the game. I mostly bring this up for the infamous Barrel of Doom in Carnival Night Zone, as the solution involves repeatedly looking up and down. The original ROM didn’t have this cue to lead players into experimenting with heading in that direction, and it’s nice to see that this was thought of in the process of development.

I was kind of expecting some modification to the Michael Jackson related tracks, as this was part of the reason that S3&K often had issues getting ported to modern platforms. This is where the Windows 9x version of the Sonic and Knuckles Collection comes into play. From Carnival Night to Launch Base, they fell back on arrangements of the music originally planned for release and used that in the Windows version instead. The MIDI format was commonly used at the time, so they had to use that.

The tracks used there were “touched up” in Origins by longtime Sonic composer Jun Senoue, and ended up here. The composition definitely gives off a different vibe, and I don’t mind that. It’s the execution that really threw me off. They’re not too much different from the MIDI sound they originally released from, and it really runs up against the Genesis/MD sound profile in a really jarring way. Going from Marble Garden’s original music to suddenly getting hit with something two steps above MIDI is just so out of place. I would have really hoped that Senoue would have at least attempted to get as close as he could to the Genesis sound profile to help it stay in line with the rest of the game, but this is what we got instead. The invincibility music also clashes with the Super Sonic music, as they’re essentially the same track dealing with the same original track/touched up MIDI mishmash from the replaced zone music. It’s super weird.

Aside from that, the music in the other games didn’t have the same rights issues that S3&K has to tangle with. Because of that, each game’s legendary soundtrack sounds as good as the day people picked it off the shelves in the 90s. Thankfully, Sonic CD has the option to toggle between the US and Japanese sountracks. Plus the lyrics for “You Can Do Anything” were restored in this version, as it was absent in the first release of the Whitehead port. It has a certain charm, and that makes me happy.

Ultimately, the overall presentation feels like a combination of restoring what was once lost and making concessions where they had to for legal reasons in certain parts of the audio presentation. While I found myself primarily concerned with how well each game was presented here, menus and such are still unmistakably carrying that Sonic vibe. Certain menu animations chug on the Switch, but the featured games themselves run just fine from a framerate perspective. While there are some visual elements borrowed from games not included here, it’s still nice to see some consideration for cohesion. It’s just not as amazing as one might hope, mostly because of occasional sound glitches and unexpected design decisions that interrupt the audio presentation.

Dented Hot Rods Can Still Burn Rubber

If it feels like I might have been a little too harsh on a set of games that have largely stood the test of time, you’re mostly right. These four games were a gateway for many gamers to the sprawling world of platformers of all shapes and sizes. If SEGA wants to continually rerelease these classics, they should do so with the intent of releasing the best possible version to new players and returning players hoping to maybe re-engage those desiring little bit of a nostalgia trip.

Despite all the technical issues and glitches, this compilation is somehow still cohesive enough to pick up for those curious to try out what made Sonic so well loved in the first place. I ultimately desired to have an easy way to reach for the best versions of these games, and in that regard my desire is fulfilled. Not without a few glaring spots that could hopefully be patched later.

Messy as it is, Sonic Origins is still a collection of the best 2D entries the franchise has to offer. It may not be as dense in content in comparison to prior compilations like Sonic Mega Collection or Sonic Gems Collection, but it does just enough to not get in the way of what made these games system sellers in their heyday. While I was hoping for an easy touchdown, this ended up being a fumble recovery instead. Hefty price tag be damned, new players deserve to see why people like me keep going back to what many consider the reason people loved Sonic in the first place.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy purchased by reviewer for Switch. Screenshots and featured image taken by reviewer.