As game development tasks go, it doesn’t feel unreasonable to say that one of the simplest tasks a major publisher could undertake is to remaster and re-release classic 2D games from the 16-bit era. And yet, somehow, with Sonic Origins, Sega swung and… well, it’s not quite a miss. But it ain’t the home run it should be, either.
You'd be right to point out that no game development task is easy, of course. It's all difficult. But in the case of Sonic Origins, Sega had been dealt a pretty strong hand to begin with; a perfect starting point for this collection. Great, high quality, modern engine versions of Sonic 1, 2, and CD already existed on mobile - and the versions in Origins have their roots there. They also had Headcannon, part of the crew behind the barnstorming Sonic Mania and familiar with the engine that powered those mobile ports, to ply for help. The die felt cast: this collection was set to be brilliant. It's part-way there, I guess - but also quite far from it. Close, but no cigar.
In golf, I’d generally rather miss the ball entirely, lose a stroke, and move on from my current position than glance the ball and send it careering off into the woods and undergrowth. But Sonic Origins is the latter; Sega swings, connects with an anniversary celebration that’s brilliant on paper… but the shot has careered off in an ugly, unsavory direction. It’s not down to luck, either - it’s down to execution.
Should I be surprised? I don’t know. It’s weird. Sega’s attempts with Sonic over the last decade or so have oscillated between brilliant and dire with an almost pendulum-like predictability – but this is just a re-release. It’s repackaging a bunch of old games. Furthermore, these are ancient games - ones you could probably emulate on your car’s infotainment screen, if you wanted (indeed, a pretty iffy version of Sonic 1 is available on the screens of Tesla vehicles). An incredible modern engine exists where they can be rebuilt, and for three of them, that's already happened on mobile. As a starting point for a new product, this is about as clean-cut a task as it comes. Time and resources could almost certainly guarantee success, as all the required pieces are already in play.
Sega has a feather in its cap, too: fans turned pros who have dedicated a disproportionate amount of their lives to reverse engineering and understanding what it is that makes their favorite games great. These are some of the same names that ultimately delivered Sonic Mania, arguably the best game in the series – and some of those same faces were the ones drafted to make Sonic 3 & Knuckles work for this collection.
As mentioned, the versions of Sonic 1, 2 and CD in Origins are also based on the mobile versions developed by some of these same people - and when the package was announced, that meant elderly Sonic fans like me were salivating at the mouth for these versions - they were coming from guys who really knew what they were doing. The mobile ports were excellent, so the concept of having them on regular gaming platforms alongside the one game missing on mobile was thrilling.
Somewhere along the line something has broken down, though. I’ve tested the game a little on both PC and Xbox, and though the console version feels a little more homely, neither is setting my heart ablaze with nostalgia.
This isn’t about music removed from Sonic 3 or nonsense like that, either – it’s just about the games running as you’d expect and having the features you’d want. Some of it just feels like silly oversights; keyboard controls that can’t be rebound, or areas of levels where the physics aren’t quite performing as expected, causing strange quirks in the level design. For some reason Sega deigned to not remaster the music of Sonic & Knuckles, meaning it sounds muddier and worse than its two Mega Drive predecessors in the same collection. The sound mastering is bad across the board, in fact – the games are too quiet, but Sonic CD’s anime cutscenes are too loud, and so on.
Some choices are just strange. The anniversary versions of the games change the life system, and though the traditional setup is in the game and recreated in its engine, you can only play it in 4:3 – no widescreen. Similarly, there’s no way to play Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles separately, a tiny little erasure of history. I don’t understand why, especially with Sega owning up and replacing the rights-disputed music – it just feels mean, and makes the collection feel incomplete.
Other things feel more egregious, though. There’s a blurry presentation of the pixel art that somehow looks worse than the 2013 mobile versions upon which these versions are based and certainly significantly worse than Sonic Mania’s multiple graphics options. There’s also a laundry list of bugs where you can sometimes feel the systems of these classics, particularly Sonic 3 & Knuckles, disintegrating as you play. The worst and most annoying of these is Tails' ability to get lost but not despawn as he did on the Mega Drive - meaning you must play the rest of the level as his frantic, panicked jumps ring out over the top of the music.
Most astonishing, on PC, is the way the games are presented and the performance. These remasters of games from the mid-90s immediately rack up massive CPU and GPU usage even on the opening splash screen. The reason, seemingly, is a combination of Denuvo anti piracy bs (a ridiculous conceit for games with a combined age of over 100 that are available on every rom site under the sun) and the menus running in Sega’s Hedgehog Engine, the same tech that powers the modern 3D Sonic games.
Can confirm, Sonic Origins hogged over 90% of CPU power at first. Then it switched to using GPU processing instead, and near instantly reached almost 50% usage.— MotorRoach (@MotorRoach) June 23, 2022
And this is just for the static screen telling you that the game auto saves. pic.twitter.com/4UwjGb2NCv
The menus are rather lavish and good looking, but because they continue to run in the background even as you play the 2D games, it means your GPU is constantly flayed by this game that should be simple enough for even an ancient PC to rock. The games run fine on the rigs I’ve tested it on – but a game of this kind shouldn’t be hammering a PC in this way regardless.
This weird PC performance oversight seems to generally encapsulate the Sonic Origins experience outside of the games: pretty and great on paper, but half-baked in execution. The mission mode feels fairly uninspired, and the unlockable bonus art and the like is fine, but fairly standard for this sort of collection.
The experience inside the games is what matters, though. And, for all the complaints, these are still playable versions of four absolute classics, including a ‘modern’ version of the best of the bunch, Sonic 3 & Knuckles. But the bugs, the oversights and some of the presentational issues mean that this is a compromised experience. Even the things I understand, like the necessity to replace music, hasn’t been done to the standard I’d hope – there’s better Mega Drive sound chip remixes of the new replacement Sonic 3 music out there on YouTube. In fact, the compositonally fine replacements don't sound quite like MD music anyway, which means they don't quite mesh with the rest of the game.
A lot of people will say, inevitably, that these are small things. The games do work, and they’re as good as they ever were. Small bugs and compromises don’t make that big a difference, do they? But, no. I argue that they really do. The little things add up. In this case, they add up to disappointment, and wanting a damn refund. This should’ve been the definitive version of these games. It isn’t. Sometimes you can understand why this happens. Sometimes the difficult circumstances are clear. All I see here is a rushed cash-in of a package that simply isn’t good enough. Sega should be ashamed for turning this in.
Worse for Sega, there are better options out there. One Steam guide titled “How to improve Sonic 3 in Origins” consists of four steps: heading to the website of the fan-made Sonic 3 AIR, installing it, and booting it instead of Sonic Origins. When fans are pointing to free fan-made projects that are years old instead of your official anniversary celebration, something has gone wrong. It's all made so much worse by the fact that there's so many flashes of brilliance in this package - the much-needed Retro engine port of S3K, the beautiful animated cutscenes that bridge the games... but it's undermined by all the problems and mistakes.
Most damning of all is the disappointment of the biggest fans of all - members of the team who worked on the game, the aforementioned fans-turned-pro who turned reverse engineering the originals into a job remastering them for Sega. On twitter, one of the most prominent of the development team, Headcannon, spoke out.
“This is frustrating. I won't lie and say that there weren't issues in what we gave to Sega, but what is in Origins is also not what we turned in,” he said. “Integration introduced some wild bugs that conventional logic would have one believe were our responsibility- a lot of them aren't.”
“We were outsiders creating a separate project that was then wrangled into something entirely different. We knew going in that there would be a major time crunch and we worked ourselves into the ground to meet it just so this would even be made and released.”
When even a developer straight-up says they're unhappy with the finished product, you know things are grim. And it’s sad, really. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is, for my money, the best 2D platformer ever made. Yeah, better than Mario 3. And World. What of it? It’s been crying out for that definitive release… but Origins is tainted. And, like that sliced golf shot, it’s going to take some fixing. It’s hard to shoot out of the rough. Poor Sonic - he lives in the rough. As Hedgehogs do, I suppose.
If you pause Sonic 1 at the right time, post-stage but before the act number appears, you’ll see the text ‘SONIC HAS PASSED’. Sonic Origins is another Sega release where, for a moment at least, it feels like he actually has. Damn. At least the film series is going from strength-to-strength.