Sonic CD’s Soundtrack Remains Gaming’s Strangest Controversy

The brilliant music of Sonic CD has led to a strange debate about localization.

For many, 1993’s Sonic CD represents the best and worst of Sega’s glory days. It’s a game that utilized the best technology available to deliver a fast, colorful, and ambitious experience that showcased Sega’s desire to do what “Nintendon’t.” Sadly, it was also a game that had the great misfortune of being available exclusively for the Sega CD, an “ambitious” CD add-on for the Genesis that promised to deliver more than the console ever could and is considered one of gaming’s more notable hardware failures.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about Sonic CD isn’t the way it so perfectly summarizes why Sega is arguably the most beloved console manufacturer that is no longer making video game consoles. No, the most fascinating thing about Sonic CD is that its soundtracks are the source of an utterly bizarre controversy that has yet to be settled over 25 years after the game’s release.

To understand the controversy surrounding Sonic CD’s soundtracks, you need to know a few things about the game itself. Originally designed as an enhanced port of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 meant to show off the power of their Sega CD peripheral, Sonic CD eventually became a separate game led by Sonic character designer Naoto Ohshima while Sonic lead programmer Yuji Naka worked on Sonic 2 with a team based out of the U.S. 

This change in direction matched Ohshima’s vision for the game. Ohshima wanted Sonic CD to feel like something that wouldn’t have been possible on older systems. His ambition is most evident when looking at the game’s time travel mechanics. Inspired by the Back to the Future films, Ohshima designed Sonic CD in such a way as to allow players to experience four different versions of the game’s levels. A version of the level as it exists in the past, a version based on the present, a version based on a positive vision of the future, and a version based on a negative vision of the future.

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Ohshima’s unheard of approach to time travel in a platformer was complemented by a soundtrack is a must-listen for all gamers. Sonic CD’s Japanese soundtrack doesn’t feature just one track for each of the game’s levels — it features four memorable tracks for each of the game’s levels, one for each time period. As if that weren’t enough, players are treated to a variety of additional songs and sounds that includes a weird and wonderful lyrical track known as “You Can Do Anything (Toot Toot Sonic Warrior).”

Composed by Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata, Sonic CD’s original soundtrack is – much like Sonic CD – an evolution of the concepts established by previous soundtracks in the Sonic series. It’s an upbeat and highly atmospheric collection of songs designed to capture the mood and spirit of every version of the game’s colorful levels. It’s also one of the few video game soundtracks of its era which was clearly inspired by house and techno music of the time. When citing some of his influences at that time, Hataya reportedly dropped somewhat obscure names such as DJ Frankie Knuckles and British electric band The KLF.

The soundtrack that Hataya and Ogata composed remains appropriately timeless. Their musical style and influences are even more relevant now than they’ve ever been in the past (certainly than they were in 1993). It’s a stunningly ambitious electric symphony that is at its best when you experience it within the context of Ohshima’s brilliant take on the Sonic series.

Naturally, then, Sega decided to completely scrap the vast majority of Hataya and Ogata’s soundtrack ahead of Sonic CD’s American release.

Sega’s reasons for not using Sonic CD’s Japanese soundtrack in the American version of the game have never been officially confirmed. However, the popular (and nearly official) theory is that Sega simply felt that American audiences would not respond to the house sounds of the game’s original soundtrack. Even though this soundtrack was based on Sonic sounds of the past, Sega worried that it was just too “weird” to work in the United States. Another theory suggests that Sega wanted a more “complex” soundtrack for the U.S. release, which seems like a comment on Sega’s desire for the soundtrack to feature a greater variety of instruments. 

At the time, the idea that a gaming company would completely change such a massive soundtrack just to appease the assumed desires of an international audience was largely unheard of. Not only did the process require Sega to delay the game’s U.S. release by two months, but all of that time, money, and effort went towards something that most people would never even hear prior to actually purchasing the game. It’s hard to believe the reimagined soundtrack would move many more copies of the game even after people heard it.

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The daunting prospect of creating a new Sonic CD soundtrack fell to Spencer Nilsen, David Young, and Mark Crew. The trio had only just begun composing video game soundtracks, but they were expected to somehow find a way to equal or surpass the brilliant work of Hataya and Ogata. Their approach to that challenge was certainly novel. With the exception of the games “Past” tracks, which could not be easily altered due to the way they were originally programmed, Nilsen and crew composed new level themes and other music selections that felt much more orchestral and “rocking” than their Japanese counterparts.

Just listen to the difference between the Japanese version of “Wacky Workbench Bad Future” and the US version of the same song. The Japanese version conjures the image of stepping into some techno nightmare steel plant. Its sirens, buzzers, and electric sounds inspire a sense of urgency. Comparatively, the US version relies on a guitar riff, drum beats, and a persistent keyboard melody to create a song that feels a bit more “epic” and almost mournful. A similar contrast of styles can be heard in the Japanese and US versions of “Stardust Speedway Bad Future.”

With some exceptions, the US version of the Sonic CD soundtrack contains songs that almost feel like they were meant to work just as well as standalone tracks. There is a sense of dread to many of the tracks that is in stark contrast to the more bouncy and joyful tunes of the Japanese release. The trade-off is that the Japanese songs often feel like they’re trying to invoke and enhance the theme of each game’s levels.

Yet, there’s something very special about the game’s US soundtrack that isn’t present in the Japanese version. Whereas the Japanese version of Sonic CD feels like it’s trying to get you to move your head to the beat, the US version will likely inspire more people to tap their feet. It seems to be playing more off the dread of losing speed in the game whereas the Japanese version is encouraging you to retain the joy of moving fast. Philosophical implications aside, the approach results in entirely different ways to interpret the action of the game. 

The full brilliance of the US soundtrack is often best appreciated when you’ve reached a tense moment in the game where its extended melodies and gospel influences push you to appreciate your character’s mortality. Even its loops occur in an almost eerie way. Rather than spit in the face of previous Sonic soundtracks, this fresh approach feels like it’s trying to see how far the spirit of Sonic soundtracks can be stretched without breaking. The result is something absolutely different, sometimes jarring, but simply lovely. The US version of Sonic CD’s soundtrack is about as far removed from the Japanese version as you can get, but it exhibits creative genius that highlights the composers’ desire to create something that stands tall on its own.

Sadly, not everyone believes Sonic CD truly benefits from featuring two unique soundtracks.

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Upon its release, the US version of Sonic CD’s soundtrack attracted quite a bit of hostility. In an infamous review from GameFan editor Dave Halverson, he reportedly referred to the change in soundtracks as “an atrocity.” GamesRadar reviewer Justin Towell noted that he actually turned off the GameCube version of Sonic CD found on the Sonic Gems collection when he found out that it featured the US version of the game’s soundtrack.

When speaking about the negative reception to the game’s US soundtrack, Sonic CD composer Spencer Nilsen said that the controversy over the game’s soundtrack was “blown out of proportion” and that he believes some critics were using it as an excuse to “bash the game.” He compared their hostile analysis of the game’s new soundtrack to what would happen if you “replaced the music to Star Wars after the movie had been out for a while.”

To the outside listener with no emotional investment in either soundtrack, this all probably sounds absurd. You may prefer one soundtrack over the other, but the thought of outright despising one of the soundtracks must come across as being utterly ridiculous. They’re clearly both well-composed music selections that, at the very least, exemplify the preferences of their clearly talented composers.

But the most heated discussions regarding the different Sonic CD soundtracks remain a place where logic goes to die. While they are too narrowminded and insulting to share here, you should know that there are many who go out of their way to share viewpoints that insult the American version of the game’s soundtrack largely on the basis that it exists. Others who favor the American version of the soundtrack will say whatever is necessary to belittle the original songs. 

The long-standing Sonic CD controversy has little to do with the individual soundtracks and much more to do with the controversy of the very idea of localization. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was very common for video games to be changed in significant ways during the localization process. Some of these changes were the simple result of differences that arise during the language translation process, but others were far more intentional and – in the minds of some – insulting. For instance, the sexual content in games like Maniac Mansion, Golgo 13, and Castlevania was removed ahead of their U.S. release. The religious crosses in the Dragon Quest series were changed to nondescript stars in the U.S. Trans characters and women in the Final Fight series were changed to male thugs in order to avoid the potential controversy that may result when violence is inflicted upon said groups of people.

In the minds of some who are aware of such changes, these alterations constitute a form of unacceptable censorship. They see it as an affront to the creative decisions of the developers that also insults the culture of other nations (which, at that time, was usually Japan). Others see it as a sometimes necessary process designed to reflect the cultural needs and sensitivities of whatever country is receiving the game in question.

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It’s a debate that hasn’t cooled much in the decades since Sonic CD‘s release. The process of localization has cost people their jobs, their reputations, and has led to the harassment of those who take part, defend it, decry it, or even just talk about it. 

However, in the long history of localization controversy, there’s never been a game quite like Sonic CD. Here we have a game that endured significant localization changes, not because of controversy, and not because of cultural sensitivity, but rather because Sega seemingly questioned American audiences’ ability to handle something that was different.

It is, in some ways, an example of localization at its worst. Hataya and Ogata favored a different kind of music. Not a controversial kind of music or music that American audiences were particularly opposed to, but a kind of music that simply wasn’t mainstream. The release of the Japanese soundtrack in the US could have been an opportunity to expand the musical horizons of a young audience. At the very least, it could have been made easily available to American gamers at the time of Sonic CD’s release. Some have even compared the change to the decision to dub an international release in America rather than release it in its original language with subtitles. 

At the same time, there’s a nobility to what Nilsen and his team did with the Sonic CD soundtrack that is all too often attacked by those who can’t quite wrap their heads around the idea that Sega would ever approve such a change in the first place. They were given the opportunity to create the soundtrack for the Sega CD’s best-selling game, and they were given the freedom to create a soundtrack that was different than anything that had been featured in a Sonic game before. They took that opportunity and created something that is certainly worth talking about but even better to simply listen to.

In a perfect world, the Sonic CD soundtrack controversy wouldn’t be a controversy at all. It would be a chance to appreciate the respective works of two groups of musical geniuses who were so inspired by Ohshima’s own creative vision that they were able to extract a series of rich and distinct sounds from it as an effort to convey complex human emotions.

Instead, the Sonic CD soundtracks serve as a reminder that what is different can trigger a level of hostility that often transcends the merit, characteristics, and rights of the thing itself.

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Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014