Sonic 1 was groundbreaking, critically acclaimed, and a bestseller. Crafting a direct sequel to follow such a title is a pretty tall order, but Sega actually did it twice, simultaneously – Sonic 2 and Sonic CD‘s development overlapped, with each game handled by a separate team, working on opposite sides of the ocean. Sonic 2 was headed up by two of Sonic’s three co-creators, programmer Yuji Naka and game planner Hirokazu Yasuhara, working with the Sega Technical Institute in America. Sonic’s designer, Naoto Ohshima, remained in Japan and oversaw the creation of Sonic CD.
According to Ohshima, although the teams did communicate with each other, discussing game design and the aims of their projects, the games were intentionally two very different beasts.
Sonic CD was made in Japan, while Sonic 2 was made by (Yuji) Naka’s team over in the U.S. We exchanged information, of course, talking about the sort of game design each of us was aiming for. But Sonic CD wasn’t Sonic 2; it was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic. I can’t help but wonder, therefore, if we had more fun making CD than they did making Sonic 2 [because we didn’t have the pressure of making a “numbered sequel”].
– Naoto Ohshima (Gamasutra, 2009)
Because of this, we can see two distinct takes on the task of succeeding Sonic 1. While Sonic 2 took Sonic to a new island and expanded the capabilities of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic CD sent Sonic to another planet, and replaced the Chaos Emeralds with another set of powerful gems, the Time Stones. Where Sonic 2 was brighter and more cartoony, Sonic CD went for an edgier, anime style. Sonic 2 gave Sonic a young admirer who became his sidekick – his “Luigi” – but Sonic CD gave Sonic a young admirer in need of rescue – his “Princess Peach”. Sonic 2 introduced 2-player gameplay, allowing Sonic and Tails to cooperate or go head-to-head, but Sonic CD introduced Time Attack, allowing players to compete by taking turns, trying to shave a few centiseconds off the timer and immortalise their name – or at least three letters of it – in the Sega CD BRAM.
Probably the most obvious and overriding stylistic difference between the two games is how they approach the level tropes. Sonic 2 has a new take on the classic Green Hill Zone, and a couple of spiritual successors – for example, Metropolis Zone’s nods to Scrap Brain Zone – but largely covers new territory, inspiration for the environments fueled by Sonic Team’s travels in America. Sonic CD‘s zones, however, despite taking place on a literal alien world, are noticeably rooted in the tropes of the original Sonic, opting to refine and polish familiar ground.
Astute players of Sonic CD can notice similarities between its zones and Sonic 1‘s that run far deeper than just the visuals. With Ohshima’s words above, “[Sonic CD] was really meant to be more of a CD version of the original Sonic“, it’s tempting to speculate that this is evidence that the game began as a literal “Special Edition” of Sonic’s debut outing. Whether that’s the case or not, Sonic CD‘s conservatism in level tropes winds up being appropriate – with Sonic’s ability to time travel and see multiple variations on each level’s theme, the use of familiar themes helps anchor the “Present” versions of the levels. The game can go as wild as it wants with atavistic pasts and dystopic futures, but each one remains recognisable, as though the traditional zones of the original Sonic itself are being reinterpreted.
I’ll now, with a liberal smattering of screenshots, list the similarities. I’ll hardly be exhaustive, because there’s so many I’ve probably missed some, but this will be an illustrative sample.
Green Hill Zone / Palmtree Panic
Emerald Hill Zone from Sonic 2 is also clearly harking back to Green Hill Zone, but Palmtree Panic revisits quite a few more elements. The rocks, the crumbling walls and ledges, the swinging platforms, the twisting chutes, and the mountainous background with waterfalls.
Spring Yard Zone / Collision Chaos
Collision Chaos is quite a bit brighter than Spring Yard Zone, but its “Present” version shares the latter’s purple, brown, and green colour scheme (complete with cyan metal lattices), as well as the star bumpers, floating neon signs, and lower interior paths with rotating sets of spiked balls. Most interesting is the presence of two signs and exits in the second zone, a distinction it shares only with Spring Yard Act 2. It’s hard to chalk this up to coincidence.
Note also that Collision Chaos was originally going to be the third round before the infamous “Round 2” was cut, which would put it at the same position as Spring Yard Zone in the level order.
Labyrinth Zone / Tidal Tempest
Tidal Tempest’s pink corals strongly recall the crystal clusters from Labyrinth Zone, and the type of blocks in both the background and foreground are incredibly similar in style. They also share many of the same gimmicks and hazards, and their bosses both involve chasing Robotnik through vertical watery shafts (although only one of them culminates in a fight). Furthermore, they both wrap vertically, allowing Sonic to fall down endless waterfalls.
Of course, these are also the water levels in their respective games.
The original idea for Labyrinth Zone’s background, with rocks and crystals, could have been recycled for this cool introductory background for Tidal Tempest’s first zone.
Wacky Workbench and Quartz Quadrant have no direct analogs in Sonic 1, but the final two levels match up quite well.
Star Light Zone / Stardust Speedway
In addition to sharing starry skies (and names), these levels are both made of twisting, looping metal roads suspended over a beautiful city at night. They both make use of the cool effect of having tall structures pass intermittently in front of the scene, although in Stardust Speedway’s case the effect is limited to the third zone instead of all throughout the level.
Scrap Brain Zone / Metallic Madness
Unique amongst the levels of their respective games, these both have unique backgrounds for each of their three stages. There are also many gimmicks and hazards in common.
Finally, Sonic CD originally had a bonus stage (perhaps an early form of its special stage), that looked very similar to Sonic 1‘s. Note the “R” block, and the “U” block, which might have been the same as the “Up” blocks from the original.
Yes, most Sonic games have similarities, but I think that in this case of Sonic CD and Sonic 1, the sheer number of them, their odd specificity, and especially the order in which they appear, are definitely compelling. I don’t think they make a conclusive case for anything in particular, but they are interesting to consider from the perspective of Sonic CD as glimpse of where the franchise might have gone if Sonic 2 had never existed.