Sega is a shadow of its former self. Its star developers are scattered to the four winds while treasured series hang cracked and dry from so much tireless, often unsympathetic milking. The company is perhaps the greatest casualty in the collapse of the arcade scene, once the fertile breeding ground for its most daring ideas and brightest designers.
Nevertheless, Sega still has one jewel to its name: its fans. Sega’s devotees are loyal and tenacious – and many are also talented and industrious. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in this remake of Sonic CD, a lavish, widescreen production that puts almost every other Japanese publisher who is remaking yesteryear’s classics, from Treasure to Nintendo, to shame with its generosity. It was, in large part, made by a fan.
In 2009, after a number of somewhat disappointing iOS ports of classic Sega titles, the publisher put out a call to fans asking which game the community might like to see re-released next. Australian coder Christian Whitehead responded not with a wish list but rather with a YouTube video showing a proof-of-concept port of the classic Mega CD title Sonic CD, created with his own Retro Engine Development Kit.
The demo differed from the usual type of emulation seen on the ‘jailbroken’ market, as the screen had been carefully scaled to fit an iPod Touch, while the game itself ran at 60 frames per second. At the time, few emulated versions of the game ran at much more than 20.
Whitehead, a huge fan of Sonic CD, had created an entire SDK specifically for porting the game, in the hope that his work might inspire Sega to revisit what is widely regarded as the strongest title in the Mega CD catalogue. However, after a few weeks, Whitehead’s website was taken offline, as was the YouTube video he released to show off his work. It seemed as though Sega’s lawyers had issued a cease-and-desist and ordered his work to be scrapped.
Two years later and an official Sonic CD release surfaces bearing Whitehead’s name. Sega had done what few multinational companies of its size, age and resulatant inflexibility could have: made a fan a creative asset.
Whitehead’s engine is notable for its performance, which renders the Mega CD original with effortless accuracy. The window onto the action has been expanded for widescreen televisions, rather than stretched, ensuring the game feels as though it was designed for Xbox Live Arcade rather than awkwardly pulled apart to fill it. Both the original Japanese and American soundtracks are included (the latter replaced the Japanese original on US launch, much to the consternation of many fans), and the range of options runs deep and wide. But Whitehead’s exemplary work extends further than mere aesthetics.
The RSDK also gives its designers the chance to tweak and refine levels as well as the underlying code. As such, the sometimes shoddy collision detection of the original has been fixed, while the control scheme of the Mega Drive’s Sonic 2 replaces the less precise Mega CD game (although, of course, you have the option to switch between both). The new menu screens use the same fonts and assets as the originals, and at every turn this feels like the most sympathetic and conscientious re-release of a 20-year-old title yet seen on the digital platforms: a new benchmark for others to aim for.
That the game is being sold at 400 Microsoft Points – a price point long abandoned in the XBLA marketplace – is further evidence of Sega leading the way with this release in terms of offering more for less.
You can read the rest of this review at Eurogamer.