Sonic CD is a nostalgic glimpse into the past

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic awaits his just deserts.

Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis-era 2D Sonic games. I always preferred the speedier pace and flow of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, 3 and Knuckles, as well as the relatively muted, warmer color palettes of those games. The denser and chaotic design of Sonic CD‘s zones demands more precise platforming prowess that at times results in a ponderously paced game, at least when compared to the canon entries of the series.

Despite this, the recent re-release of Sonic CD (on PSNXBLASteamiOSAndroid, and Windows Phone) is the most fun I’ve had with the speedy spinster since the Dreamcast, though this isn’t the first time I’ve played Sonic CD legally and officially on a computer. It was originally ported to Windows in 1996, and was Sonic’s official debut on the home computer. (This was a big deal at a time before the poor blue bugger had been prostituted out to practically every device and platform with a microprocessor inside it.) I recall my brother and I buying the 1996 CD-ROM game with some hard-earned allowance money at an Office Depot during one of our mother’s regular business-related trips to the store. It was probably both the first and last time I was ever excited to go to that depressing place.

Oh, chibi Sonic, you're so cute!

Oh, chibi Sonic, you’re so cute!

I had never played the game before the first PC version, since we didn’t have a Sega CD. While I never did grow to like Sonic CD as much as the other Sonic games I’d played on the Genesis – which is not very unexpected considering the combined Sonic 3 & Knuckles is easily one of my favorite platformers ever – I never regretted buying Sonic CD for Windows, and the game’s box probably still lives in a bigger box full of other fellow game boxes somewhere in my parents’ garage. I loved the soundtrack – the American version, as I wasn’t even aware of the Japanese version until years later – but I did not like the static spin dash that couldn’t be “charged up” by mashing on the jump button. (My dad’s computer’s poor space bar took the abuse for this game and many others.) I also didn’t like the conceptually cool but mechanically cumbersome time-traveling mechanic, and I disliked the “three-dimensional” special stages, which paled next to those found in Sonic 2 and 3.

I don’t remember if I ever did obtain all the Time Stones or all the Robotnik machines in the past timeline, although I distinctly remember finding the animated FMVs for the intro and both endings on the disc and watching them repeatedly. In the years since, I haven’t given Sonic CD much thought after it was eventually uninstalled, or lost in an OS reinstall, or whatever its fate ended up being.

On your marks, gentlemen.

On your marks, gentlemen.

So kind of Sega, then, to re-re-release this game on almost every modern platform imaginable and to lurch it suddenly to the forefront of my adolescent gaming memories. Sega’s ports of other classic games have thus far been disappointing affairs mired in ugly menu presentation and shabby emulation. (Of the Genesis? Today? Really?) How fortunate it is that Sega allowed the multi-talented Australian bloke Christian Whitehead to craft this adoring love letter to this rough gem of a game.

As I said at the beginning of this post, Sonic CD is my least favorite of the Genesis 2D Sonic games, and easily at that. The level design is very busy and ofttimes downright contradictory to speedy gameplay. Indeed, bothering to hunt down Dr. Robotnik’s Marvelous MacGuffins is an exercise in annoyance that slows the game down even more. The time traveling mechanic, while interesting in concept, only serves to hinder you further, and there’s really no reason to visit the future aside from curiosity. Collecting the Time Stones, the other method for attaining the “good ending,” is comparatively frustrating as the special stages can become quite difficult both to enter and clear. Either way you decide to approach it, getting the good ending will likely require quite a bit of save scumming, since beating the game does not allow you to revisit old stages to rescue the future on your save file.

While the game itself might be somewhat rough around the edges, Mr. Whitehead’s love letter is anything but. The menus are super slick, multiple save files are supported, and the Steam version runs in almost any resolution you could desire, windowed or full-screen (though you do have to awkwardly launch an external tool to change these options). There are three different settings for filtering the graphics, two of which are provided in case you’re a philistine and happen to hate pixels. The “sharp” and “smooth” options both look like warm vomit expelled directly onto your monitor at such a velocity that its blurry splotches spatter across your face. “Nostalgia” proudly flaunts its serrated corners and is the selection of true scholars and gentlemen (and gentlewomen), and if you choose anything else you are literally worse than a serial murderer. This option is stupidly not set by default, so make sure and switch to “nostalgia” immediately. I’ve included full-size screenshots below so you can see the difference between the three modes for yourself.

"Sharp"

“Sharp”

"Smooth"

“Smooth”

"Nostalgia"

“Nostalgia”

 

On top of running and feeling like a modern PC game, Mr. Whitehead deemed it worthwhile to add Tails as a playable character, only available after beating the game once as Sonic. You can also change to the Sonic 2 style of spin-dashing and mash buttons to your heart’s content. Brilliant!

In spite of these excellent additions, possibly the best part is that Sega was amazingly able to work out whatever licensing issues were required to include both the Japanese and American soundtracks in this release, which you can switch between at any time on the main menu. (It should be noted that they weren’t able to work out every single licensing issue, which means that the Japanese vocal songs are remixed sans lyrics. No toot tooting for this Sonic warrior, sadly.) I played through the game with the Japanese soundtrack for the first time and definitely enjoyed the experience. The Japanese soundtrack feels more thematically cohesive, since the songs for the past timeline were composed specifically for the Japanese soundtrack and weren’t replaced in the American version. That said, I do like both versions of the soundtrack about equally.

That's gross, Tails. Stop that.

That’s gross, Tails. Stop that.

This release of Sonic CD is a revelation: the revelation that modern ports of classic games don’t have to merely settle for ROMs thrown slipshod into a subpar emulator, but can ascend – nay, soar – to loftier heights. The two versions I tried, Steam and iOS, both run fantastically and nothing is lost in the translation to either platform. I imagine the other versions glimmer similarly. At a paltry $5 on all platforms, Sega seems to be making all the right decisions with Sonic CD, and I hope they continue this trend with future games. This release is an essential experience not just for fans of the game or series, but also for anyone who’s played a 2D platformer and liked it.

5 out of 5

Review: Limbo

Just me and my fun boat, going to have some good times together. What could possibly go wrong?

Wait! Don’t leave just yet, hear me out! I know, it’s crazy to think that a Limbo review is coming out in the year 2011, and while that may be the case, you should be aware that everyone has a backlog of fantastic games that they haven’t played with the excuse of, “I’ll get around to that at some point, I swear.” This just so happened to be on my list, and the purpose of this review is to tell everyone else who has this on their respective backlogs to get off their lazy cans and hop to it, since Limbo is something that deserves the attention. If you’ve already played it, then you don’t need me to tell you that it’s something special; if you haven’t yet taken the dive, then be prepared for an exquisitely-crafted foray into gloomy adventure.

You’re dropped in Limbo without any clues or concepts of what you’re supposed to be doing. It initially appears to be a simple sidescrolling platformer, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s much deeper than that. As you progress further along, there is a steady progression of puzzle-solving mechanics to get from one area to the next. It is not uncommon to die several times just trying to move on (often in a gruesome fashion) due to the diabolical hurdles that lie in wait, but the checkpointing is spot-on and the continues are infinite, so you can retry as many times as it takes for your brain to squeeze out enough theories to crack the code of each riddle. The rate at which new mechanics are showcased is fantastic, though several times you’ll have to think long and hard to work on a new and sturdy enigma with a “think outside of the box” mentality.

I’m not going to cite any examples, since I don’t want to spoil any solutions, but I can easily recall a few obstacles that had me stepping extremely far out of my personal comfort zone in order to overcome them. On top of that, Limbo occasionally subverts expectations regarding the frequency of deaths with an incredibly unique twist, where you think you’ve just encountered a new and grotesque demise. But in reality the puzzle has NOT ended, and the realization that you still have control over your character sets in. It’s beautifully executed each and every time it happens, and it’s a great example of the overarching lack of lucidity that the game presents.

There is a great sense of foreboding simply in the way the game looks and sounds. Everything is presented in silhouette without any color. The backgrounds are foggy and muddled behind a depth of field filter, leaving you to rely on the impressive lighting to figure out what’s going on. You won’t lose track of your character even if the screen is pitch black, because of his cleverly-designed white blinking eyes. The environments you go through all seem incredibly foreign, even if you can distinctly tell what they resemble. Wandering through a forest is much more frightening than it may sound, since it may be littered with lifeless bodies suspended from wooden cages, and working your way through an abandoned factory may leave you wondering, “Who designed this machine-operated labyrinthine hell?” The ambient background music constantly fluctuates between tones of relaxation and confusion, and the sound effects are all disturbingly visceral. Everything works together seamlessly to create a world that fills you with apprehension, but also the intrigue to keep pushing forward.

Continuing the theme of hazy confusion, there seems to be a plot buried somewhere, but it’s never inherently clear what exactly is going on, nor the motivations of the character. Even after beating the game, I had more questions than answers about everything I had gone through. It seems to be a deliberate choice to leave it open to interpretation and letting the player fill in the blanks of the story, which fits perfectly. I wouldn’t say that the lack of narration is intensely compelling, but it’s also hard to completely write off what appears to be yet another jigsaw piece of the Limbo puzzle.

My main negative takeaway from the whole experience is just how short Limbo is. Within a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the entirety of the game came and went, and I had seen everything it had to offer – with the exception of collecting all of the hidden “eggs” which don’t seem to do anything other than gift achievement points. There isn’t much reason to replay it beyond achievement incentive, since you’ve already seen all of the tricks it has to play on you, and you’ve already labored out in your head how to do most of the puzzles. The extras are there for the completionists and perfectionists, but don’t do much to add to the high points of the experience.

Replayability aside, Limbo succeeds in just about every other way. The oppressive-yet-uncertain atmosphere, the creative puzzles (combined with the rush you get from solving said puzzles), and the palpable tension from the whole package delivers a very unique and fresh gameplay experience. It’s a bit short, but also in a league of its own, and its uncommon approach has something great that is easily worth the asking price from whichever platform you decide to pick it up on. It’s worth mentioning that at the time of this writing, it is only $9.99 on Steam, which is five buckazoids cheaper than on PSN or 360 at $14.99/1200 MS Points respectively.

4 out of 5

Review: Resident Evil 4 HD

Resident Evil 4 HD

You're looking the wrong way, Leon!

After outings on the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Wii, Resident Evil 4 finds life yet again on new platforms, this time in HD as a downloadable title on PSN and XBLA. While it’s mostly intact with all of the additional content of its subsequent re-releases, this modern update of the classic game still feels a bit lacking.

The biggest issue with RE4HD is the controls. Sure, you can play with the original control scheme for the PS2, and they even included a slightly more contemporary control scheme that emulates other console shooters’. However, the new control scheme doesn’t go far enough, and will still feel alien to gamers accustomed to the dual-stick trigger-button combo found in practically every recent shooter.

For example, the left stick is used for both movement and aiming the reticle, while the right stick can only shift the camera around when you’re not precision aiming. Even though you can’t move while aiming, a concession of eastern game design that I am willing to overlook due to the game’s age, forcing the player to line up headshots with the same input used to run away from the infected feels awkward and makes the controls feel imbalanced… Like your right hand doesn’t have enough to keep it busy while your left hand works overtime.

I’ll admit it: I first played Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo Wii, which had its own unique control scheme to capitalize on the motion controller craze of the time, and I felt that it was a strong example of the great potential for engaging motion controls – a potential that was sadly not lived up to by the Wii’s library or its competitive successors’. Either way, using the Wii remote to pick off Las Plagas was fun and felt fairly natural. Why then, does RE4HD not support PlayStation 3’s Move controller, which is essentially a more powerful Wii remote?

Issues such as the controls, ugly textures, framerate slowdown and standard-definition pre-rendered videos are all evidence that this is a lazy port. If this was being handled by any company other than Capcom, I might have held out hope that it would be updated in the future to address these problems. Sadly, that is not the case, and it’s hard to recommend Resident Evil 4 HD at its $20 asking price, unless you’re already dead set on buying it anyway. If that’s the case, then you will definitely find the game itself and all its extra content a satisfying package. It’s just a shame that a game as great as RE4 didn’t receive the loving attention it deserves for a high-definition update.

3 out of 5