Review: Sonic Origins is a tragic example of good classics ruined by greed

Enlarge / Sonic Origins comes with a few brand-new, nicely animated sequences. But do they tilt the scale to make this compilation worth $40? (Spoiler: nah.)

Sega

Here’s a gamer version of “guess how many gumballs are in the jar”: How many times has Sega re-released the first Sonic the Hedgehog game?

If we don’t ignore six-in-one carts from Sega Genesis and Mega Drive in the ’90s, the answer is somewhere near 30. That count includes a port of the home version for early ’90s arcades, the Sonic Jam compilation for the Sonic-starved Saturn, versions on various mobile platforms, multiple plug-and-play TV boxes, and a version exclusively playable in Tesla automobiles. Many of these releases came with other 16-bit Sonic games as well.

Each game gets its own entry in the <em>Sonic Origins</em> menu interface.
Enlarge / Each game gets its own entry in the Sonic Origins menu interface.

Sega

If you’ve missed any of the other 30-plus ways to play the series over the years—or have kids who want as much Sonic content as possible after seeing the series’ live-action films—Sonic Origins launches later this week on PC and all console families. Sadly, I’m reviewing this $40 (or, honestly, up to $48) compilation of 16-bit Sonic games not because it’s great but because it’s weird.

…and Knuckles

Let’s start with the price-to-content ratio because $40 suggests an amount of Sonic content that would make series fans swoon. I don’t think they will.

The biggest issue is that Sonic Origins includes just four games: Sonic 1, Sonic CD, Sonic 2, and the “complete” version of Sonic 3 (meaning “and Knuckles” as a locked-on combination of two cartridges). Other compilations have gone above and beyond by adding other Sonic-themed 16-bit games, along with 8-bit games from the Master System and Game Gear, but those are missing this time. Sega doesn’t make up for their absence with stuff like Sonic‘s 3D games from the Dreamcast or the series’ edutainment weirdness on the Sega Pico.

<em>Sonic 2</em> in anniversary mode. The biggest difference is an engine overhaul that makes the game properly render in a 16:9 ratio.
Enlarge / Sonic 2 in anniversary mode. The biggest difference is an engine overhaul that makes the game properly render in a 16:9 ratio.
The same <em>Sonic 2</em> moment in "classic" mode. Once you experience classic Sonic games with more viewing distance to the left and right, it's hard to go back to anything less.
Enlarge / The same Sonic 2 moment in “classic” mode. Once you experience classic Sonic games with more viewing distance to the left and right, it’s hard to go back to anything less.

Sega

Sonic Origins‘ four included games are reproduced quite well, at least. This is largely thanks to Headcannon, a development team that has expertise in touching up Sonic games’ code to preserve the original games’ look and feel while adding modern perks. (Unsurprisingly, they were assisted by Christian Whitehead, a developer who helped Sega officially port Sonic CD to iOS many years ago.) Every game’s “anniversary” mode in Sonic Origins natively supports a 16:9 screen ratio, which makes the series’ high-speed exploration a lot easier to track visually. This mode also includes perks that range from obvious (infinite lives) to subtle (adding the “drop dash” maneuver to older games or supporting a “Knuckles and Tails” mode).

If you’d like to play the games as they were originally designed, you can fall back to a “classic” mode with 4:3 ratios, the original “lives” system, and other Genesis-era stuff intact. (This mode has one caveat, which I’ll get to.)

Widescreen mode definitely changes the sensation of any 3D effects in various Sonic games' bonus rounds. Here's <em>Sonic CD</em> looking extra trippy.
Enlarge / Widescreen mode definitely changes the sensation of any 3D effects in various Sonic games’ bonus rounds. Here’s Sonic CD looking extra trippy.

The Genesis’ unique FM synthesizer sound system is faithfully recreated for the most part, though I’ve so far noticed two odd issues in the pre-release period: Sonic CD will sometimes skip some sound effects, and certain sound effects suffer from aggressive clipping in Sonic 2‘s bonus stages. All four games’ color calibration looks fantastic for a series that has always favored bright, cheerful palettes. Also, this compilation’s input lag is as low as I’ve measured on a PlayStation 5 game, which is good news, though I’ve yet to test the collection on any other platform.

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