Once again, Sega is plundering its back catalogue for another compilation of Mega Drive classics. This isn’t the first time it has rounded up the blue hedgehog’s adventures in one place, but let’s face it: you’ve been hoping for years that you’d be able to get your hands on Sonic’s best games in portable form, and without having to lug around Sega’s beastly Nomad handheld, to boot.
Unlike the Mega Collection that was released on last generation’s home consoles, Sonic Classic Collection only contains the first four games, but while it’s a less comprehensive nostalgia trip, that’s actually a good thing.
Gone is chaff such as Sonic 3D and Sonic Spinball, although no die-hard fan in their right mind would have objected to Sega cramming in Sonic CD. Best of all, they’re packed into a tiny DS cartridge so you can indulge in a massive retro trip just by whipping out your handheld.
That’s just what Sega is banking on here. These games have appeared on numerous platforms over the years, but the closest to this, until now, was the fine rendition of the first two Sonics on the PSP. How infuriating, then, that it didn’t follow up with a fuller collection. When I heard about this DS round-up, the usual flash of thirty-something cynicism was unusually subdued by the amazing prospect, but there was one question hanging over my head: how well the games designed for a higher screen resolution would translate to the DS’s screen.
Diving into the first game, it’s clear that some compromises were necessary. That’s fair enough, since reproducing the pixels one-for-one would mean cropping out the edges of platforms. Nintendo dealt with similar issues in its Mario Advance re-issues by making slight modifications to the platform arrangement. Sega’s solution is to scale the graphics down slightly, rather than tweak the series’ finely-honed level designs. I won’t argue with that decision. It’s the right one for Sonic, but it has some unfortunate side effects.
When starting Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone, everything looks much as you’d expect. The graphics have held up well considering they’re not far short of their 20th birthday, and the character designs are still charming and expressive, even when squashed onto the DS’s tiny top screen. But you’ll soon notice the downside of scaling the graphics because some of the graphical tricks no longer fit the pixel grid exactly.
Back in the day, designers would alternate the colours of pixels between solid and empty to fake transparency. Sonic’s adventures are littered with these and other fine detail that ends up garbled on the DS. The semi-transparent bushes in Sonic 2 exhibit a flickering effect, and the waterfalls in Sonic 1’s opening act are nothing short of an eyesore as you whizz past them.
Added to that there’s a niggling issue with the game’s speed – unfortunate given the nature of the game, but an issue that has come up several times in bringing these games to modern portables. Some critics considered the Game Boy Advance version of Sonic 1 to be unplayable because of slowdown, and the iPhone OS version fared little better when played on anything but the latest iPhone and iPod touch. The DS version doesn’t suffer from slowdown nearly as much as either of them, and it’s certainly not ruinous, but it’s also a far cry from the incredible versions that you can still play on your TV.
Sega may as well have kicked me in the teeth after raising expectations with the proud announcement that the games here are the US versions, easing nervousness that it would include the PAL version of Sonic 1. But rather than giving you Sonic at his most blisteringly fast, the game is compromised if you get hit and drop a lot of rings. It’s not quite enough to ruin the game, but there are hints of slowdown at other moments, where there seems to be far less going on.
Some of the sound effects are a bit off, too. When Sonic drops rings, a familiar chime pipes from the DS, but it’s not exactly as you’ll remember it. That’s more of a quirk and newcomers to the games won’t even notice. Like the slowdown, it’s not a disaster so much as irksome when the games have enjoyed more polished emulation on GameCube and PS2.
Just as insulting to your memories is the cheap presentation. For a series that’s all about speed and motion, there’s not a hint of it in the menu system, which is made up of static screens. The supplementary material consists of a dull gallery of still images. No sound test. No series history.
Granted, it’s the games that are the real focus, and not only do you get four well-designed games, you also get to play as Knuckles in the second and third games, just like you’d plugged them into the Sonic & Knuckles cart on your Mega Drive.
If you’re thinking of introducing your kids to Sonic, download the games from Wii’s Virtual Console or Xbox Live Arcade to avoid tarnishing their first impressions of his golden days.
Given the limitations of early 90s hardware, these games were a marvel of eye candy, and you still ought to get a rush from the insanely fast gameplay. It’s still worth picking this up if you must have these games in your pocket.
While Sega’s hands are tied as far as screen resolution goes, it really ought to have nailed down the emulation and eliminated the speed issues to make this the perfect portable Sonic. Sadly, it isn’t.
Sonic Classic Collection is out now for Nintendo DS and available from the Den Of Geek Store.