Sonic Origins Review

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Sonic the Hedgehog is 31 years old, and to celebrate he’s gotten a retro collection that’s as stiff and hollow as I expect I’ll be on my 31st birthday. Sonic Origins presents itself as a celebration of Sonic’s history, and while I welcome the chance to revisit some classic games that I believe hold up a lot better than they get credit for, I can’t help but be disappointed in the package they come in. Between bare-bones features and a bizarre lack of basic settings, Sonic Origins is a rough way to play some great games.

Before I get into the package itself, I’ll give my thoughts on the actual games included. While Classic Sonic has a better reputation than his Modern 3D cousin, many people still complain that the 2D games are difficult to control. Sonic’s speed is unwieldy and doesn’t lend itself naturally to platforming, and even just building up that speed in the first place can be a challenge. Though many people see this as a weakness, it’s actually the exact reason why I love the classic games because they’re a rare example of a platformer where your momentum actually matters. You can’t make quick and easy adjustments to your trajectory, so you’ll need to carefully choose when to slow down and when to speed forward at full tilt. Once you start to get the hang of the controls, Classic Sonic games start to feel a bit like a score attack game where you replay the campaign again and again to get a little better every time.

The first game in the collection is the original Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991, and it’s the only game in the package that I don’t really like. Although the opening Green Hill Zone perfectly encapsulates what makes Sonic so good, things grind to a halt (literally in some ways) once you move on to the second level, Marble Zone. From there on, speed takes a backseat to tedious platforming that makes you sit and wait for the level geometry to move into particular patterns. Origins mitigates some of these issues by adding the spin dash and drop dash abilities from later games to help speed things up, but they can’t do anything about the extremely common obstacle of big blocks that try to crush you with wonky hitboxes. I appreciate Sonic 1 as a piece of history, but I struggle to say I enjoyed actually playing it to completion.

Next up is Sonic CD, which was the only game in the collection that I had never played before. CD goes in a slightly different direction from other Sonic sequels, having been developed in Japan separately from Sonic 2, which was made in America. Levels are significantly expanded compared to Sonic 1, with multiple paths that feel worthy of actually exploring. Boss fights are also a departure from the rest of the series, focusing on unique setpieces and challenges instead of just being something that you need to bounce off of a few times until they explode. The downside to Sonic CD is its odd time travel system that asks you to travel back in time and destroy Robotnik’s machinery to change the future into a happier one. Scouring levels for Robotnik’s devices can frankly be tedious if you don’t happen to randomly stumble across them, and missing even one locks you out of the true ending (unless you do the even more tedious special stages), which made it pointless for me to bother searching very early on. Sonic CD represents the franchise’s growing pains as Sega figured out a solid formula while swinging for—and occasionally missing—the fences with big, ambitious ideas.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was the first Sonic game I played when I was a kid, and it holds a very special place in my heart. Levels are once again linear like Sonic 1, but they retain CD’s wide branching paths to help keep the action moving. Instead of a missed jump leading to an instant death, you’ll instead be placed on a different—usually slower—route that you can still recover from. Sonic 2’s single great weakness is its punishingly difficult endgame. Levels get longer and the final boss stage has no rings at all, forcing you to complete the entire thing without taking a single hit. As a kid I never managed to reach the end of the game with limited lives, and even as an adult I struggle to imagine ever learning this boss’ patterns when a game over sends you back to the very start of the game. Thankfully the unlimited lives in Sonic Origins makes this much more feasible.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles is often considered Sonic’s magnum opus, and for good reason. All the improvements made in Sonic CD and Sonic 2 are retained with even more added on top. Sonic can now pick up multiple types of energy shields that give him new abilities like a double jump or a bounce attack, and levels are more dynamic than ever before with grand cinematics and plenty of secrets to find behind false walls. Some levels can get overly long and tedious—Sandopolis Zone is a particularly frustrating slog—but on the whole this is the best that Classic Sonic has to offer.

It’s tough for me to call any package with these games bad, but Sonic Origins certainly skates by on the bare minimum for a retro collection—and I’d argue that sometimes it doesn’t even accomplish that. Bonus features are pretty limited with stuff like a mirror mode that flips the games horizontally, and a Mission Mode where you complete bite-sized objectives in slightly altered levels to earn a ranking at the end. The challenges lack depth and feel a bit like Mario Party minigames, so I didn’t find them very engaging. There’s also a museum where you can unlock concept art and other behind the scenes illustrations, which is genuinely pretty cool, but I lost interest in unlocking them when it became clear that Mission Mode was the best way to earn coins to do so.

But the biggest disappointment in Origins is that it frankly isn’t a very good way to play these classic games. There are almost no options for how the sprite-based graphics are scaled up to HD, and the lack of integer scaling means that each game looks a bit blurry instead of the clear, crisp look that they should have on modern displays. You can’t even get a rough approximation of how the games looked on CRT TVs of old, since there are also no display filters available. The only actual option in the graphics settings menu is an anti-aliasing toggle that actually makes the game even blurrier. The lack of options is so egregious that the collection actually ties its biggest choice in graphics to difficulty settings. You may choose between the games’ original 4:3 aspect ratio and the upgraded widescreen look, but you may only play widescreen in the Anniversary Mode with infinite lives, and you may only play 4:3 in the Classic Mode with game overs that send you back to the start of the game.

The features get worse from there. There are no remappable controls, and save files for each game are strangely tied to your choice of playable character (with the exception of Sonic 3 & Knuckles which had save files included in the original Genesis version). There are no save states or rewind functions, which makes that final boss from Sonic 2 I mentioned earlier even tougher. Ironically this even means that this version of Sonic 2 has fewer features overall than the version included in the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack. Basically every feature that you could expect from a modern re-release is missing, even those that were already in previous versions of these very games.

This makes it all the more frustrating that Sega delisted many of those previous versions from digital storefronts just one month before Origins’ release. One of those delisted versions was the Genesis Classics release on Steam that literally downloaded a ROM to your computer that you could drop into your emulator of choice. I can’t reasonably hold a console release to that standard, but the fact that Sega has removed that option in favor of one that is so lacking in basic features just makes me wish that Sonic Origins never existed in the first place.

The upgrades to Sonic Origins, such as restored content and infinite lives, are few, and most have been covered by previous releases of these games or even fanmade options that could’ve been enjoyed with those ROMs from the Steam release. The only thing that I think this collection truly accomplishes is making some great games available on modern consoles, and that is the absolute bare minimum I can ask. These games—with the possible exception of Sonic 1—are great, and this is a perfectly playable version of them. Sadly, we’ve seen the potential of what a Classic Sonic collection could be, and Sonic Origins absolutely does not live up to that potential.

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