I’m not sure if it says more about my nostalgia or the barren slate of upcoming releases for the middle of 2022, but one of my most anticipated titles of the summer was Sonic Origins.
The latest compilation of classic 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games planted a flag in my brain when it was announced last May and has lived there rent-free since. Most of these games were already playable on Steam, but current-gen consoles haven’t seen the Blue Blur’s first outings yet, so having them available across the board feels like a feather in Sega’s cap.
Sonic Origins’ main draw is that it contains the original Genesis trilogy/quadrology and Sonic CD, in one package, rebuilt to run without emulation. Therefore, these gems are now built for modern displays in 16:9 thanks to Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomley’s Retro Engine, ironing out most of the bugbears that plagued previous versions in the process.
You can experience the benefits in Sonic Origins’ Anniversary Mode, a slightly modified version for each game. Expanding the screen’s boundaries to 16:9 fullscreen is a subtle change that allows the visuals to truly pop while also subtly improving the player’s perspective. Fewer rings will be spilled now that Sonic can see a little further ahead.
Anniversary Mode also does away with counting lives; instead of earning a 1UP from select item boxes or for collecting 100 rings, players will receive a Coin, a currency that can be used to unlock Museum items or to retry Special Stages in pursuit of Chaos Emeralds. No longer do you need to worry about restarting Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in the last level because some evil genius decided Metal Sonic and the Death Egg Robot should be fought back-to-back with zero rings. You’re free to die against their onslaught as many times as it takes to clear the stage.
Some fans will, and already have, taken issue with this change, but I welcome it. Sonic Colors Ultimate made a similar decision last year, removing Game Overs to help sustain Sonic’s momentum. It works well in Sonic Origins too, especially given some design choices made in the older titles. I love these games but I’ve been sent back to square one often enough over the last thirty years. And for the purists, this is still a more genuine experience than exploiting save states, like those available in recent Switch ports or in emulators.
If you’d like to maintain the pure, original experience, you’re still in luck. Classic Mode functions just like you remember, Game Overs and Continues and rage-quits included. It’s a shame that Sonic Origins forces players to go for all or nothing; I’d love to experiment with Classic rules and Anniversary presentation, for instance.
All four games in Sonic Origins have been expanded slightly with alternate modes. You can now play as every character combination in each of the four games, except for Knuckles, who isn’t invited to Sonic CD. Beating a game will unlock its Mirror Mode; as its name implies, it challenges you to play each stage mirrored, running right-to-left instead. Boss Rush modes are available for each title as well, though you’ll often have to face a stage with no rings and only 3 lives. Story Mode is an alternate route to playing through the whole collection chronologically in Anniversary format.
Mission Mode is an interesting addition, where Sega has created some neat little challenges for each title. They range from simple collection and time trial tasks to pacifist runs or tests of skill. Better yet, they yield bounties of Coins. I wish I’d experimented with these first to fund my campaign to get all the Chaos Emeralds, instead of waiting until the end of my review time to dip in.
Sonic Origins’ Museum keeps calling me back. Here you can view the original short animations created for the game, view illustrations, or listen to the soundtracks. Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s iconic score remains in disrepair thanks to ongoing legal complications, but both original versions of Sonic CD (Japan/Europe and North America) are present, including the iconic “Sonic Boom.” Powerhouse Animations’ new intros and outros for each game are absolutely charming; why can’t we get an entire series in this style?
The actual games themselves are the typical mixed bag you might expect from any compilation of iconic 90s games. Sonic the Hedgehog remains my least favourite entry, feeling dated compared to where its successors would lead. However the Retro Engine’s improvements and Sonic Origins’ quality-of-life updates will give me the will to replay it for the challenges.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is where the series, and Sonic Origins, starts to pick up. Maybe this was just my particular experience, but Tails’ AI felt especially inept, and the back half of the game was plagued with the sound of him trying to get unstuck from some god-forsaken obstacle. Otherwise, slugging it out with the Special Stages and the difficulty curve was much more hospitable in this form, even compared to the Sega Ages version.
If you’ve never played Sonic CD but love the other old games, give Sonic Origins a chance. Even having played the Windows 95 port to death once upon a time, I was blown away again by the ambition it showed for its era. While it still has you chasing seven special stones from Special Stages to get the “true ending,” its time travel mechanics are truly unique. The new aspect ratio really allows the four different phases of each stage to shine.
Sonic 3 and Knuckles is reconfirmed as the height of the franchise for me, though. Its level design is a cut above the rest, with mid-bosses and shifting aesthetics between acts. The only thing holding back is the soundtrack. It’s not Sega’s fault per se, but missing half of the Sonic 3 soundtrack is jarring for this longtime fan. The affected zones had such iconic themes that the new replacements really can’t compete. Is it even Carnival Night Zone if that music isn’t taunting me, or truly IceCap Zone without that frosty chord progression?
Cheap cash-ins are a dime a dozen when it comes to retro compilations and remasters, but Sonic Origins is not one of them. Love for the franchise and these individual titles shines through the whole collection, and the improvements truly do enrich the experience. It would’ve been nice to have these games on modern hardware as-is, but Sega went all-in to provide definitive new editions, and as a childhood fan with kids interested in Sonic, I’m glad to have such a solid touch-up available.