The very earliest of my formative years were spent right smack in the middle of the great early ’90s Sega-Nintendo rivalry. It was clear from the off that I had to pick a side. The choice was obvious too; what eight year-old in their right mind would throw in their lot with a chubby Italian plumber from Brooklyn? Seriously.
I liked speed. Not in a real world sense, exactly, but as a concept. Whether my object of obsession was machine, animal, or human, the characteristic that drew me to them remained the same: they moved fast. What originated this infatuation I couldn’t say; perhaps it had something to do with being a chubby schoolboy from South West London and wanting very badly to escape myself. No matter. Sonic the Hedgehog seemed designed for me alone.
In reality, the Sega mascot’s birth was a carefully designed piece of corporate groupthink. The company simply needed a character to rival Mario. A dog, a rabbit, an armadillo, and (no lie) a Theodore Roosevelt lookalike in pyjamas were all suggested before the super-fast hedgehog was finally chosen. Sonic’s core identity was just a cynical conflation of pre-existing tropes: he was blue because Sega’s logo was blue, his shoes were designed after Michael Jackson’s boots, and his personality was inspired by Bill Clinton’s “Get it done” attitude (clearly someone in Sega’s offices had a thing for U.S. presidents).
To eight year-old me, none of this mattered. Or rather, none of this would have mattered had I known about it. The character was fully divorced from his creators and the circumstances of his birth. Sonic’s fictional origin story was the only one I cared about. He was a cool, rude hedgehog chilling on the planet Mobius who’d turned blue because he ran faster than the speed of sound. What I cared about more – fetishized even – were Sonic’s minor attributes: the way he could morph into a blue buzz saw, how his legs spun like wheels when he hit top speed, the fact that his standard, somersaulting jump-attack was clearly a feat of extraordinary athleticism. All of this Sonic and I accomplished together. I had it bad.
To be sure, there was more at work here than just a childish obsession with all things fast. It was my first exposure to gaming in general, and this was accompanied by a healthy dose of pre-adolescent social tensions. Ownership of a console (and, latterly, of particular games) was valuable playground currency; such things allowed you access to certain conversations, certain friends even. I was not the last in my year to be granted access to the world of Sonic et al., but neither was I the first. There was a sense that when I was (finally!) bought a Mega Drive (editor’s note: European for “Genesis”) it also signified the end of exclusion from an entire social stratum, one populated by more indulged, wealthier, dare I say “cooler” kids.
Enter Sonic CD. Released in 1993 for Sega’s Mega-CD console, it was a game I knew I would probably never own (or even play). This was mainly due to the catastrophic failure of the platform it was made for. The Mega-CD was Sega’s first experiment with a CD-Rom system. Like the Mega Drive, it was a 16-bit console, and one that found itself immediately eclipsed by a new generation of 32-bit consoles that hit the market shortly after its release. It was also impossibly expensive. At $299 in 1993, even my richest, most indulged friends could not afford one. Nonetheless it was the cursed womb from which Sonic CD first saw the light of day, and here a large number of reviewers agree: it may well be the greatest Sonic game of all time.
How I wanted it! Not to own even; but just to play for a weekend, a day, an hour even… and in this sentiment I was joined by my friends. We’d read about it in gaming magazines, see footage on TV shows. We’d hear rumours of it having over 80 levels (this turned out to be only partly true), that it included Metal Sonic, time travel even; we knew it would be the zenith of our gaming experience, if only we could play it, which of course we could not.
Here’s where it gets a little weird. For me, the desire to play Sonic CD could be reduced to one simple gameplay element and its accompanying graphical trickery: the “super peel out”. This move could be accomplished by holding “up” and “jump” at the same time, which made Sonic’s legs spin on the spot like wild red fly belts. Release the buttons and Sonic would dash forward through the air. It was a near pointless move – too similar to Sonic’s spin dash, and with the added drawback of leaving him vulnerable to attack – and one that got axed from all subsequent Sonic titles. Yet to me, it was the summation of everything I loved about the character and his eponymous games. The super peel out, simply put, was speed itself. I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve had dreams about those red bandy legs.
I never did play Sonic CD.
As I grew older, though, I retained a remarkable brand loyalty toward Sega, even as the company crashed from one console disaster to another. I can safely say that no other firm (gaming or otherwise) has ever come close to having its claws so firmly planted in me. ‘Get ’em young’ they say, and it certainly worked on me, to the point where it could almost be called an abusive relationship. The Saturn wasn’t just a commercial failure: it did not even boast a single proper Sonic game. My love for Sega turned me into a gaming pariah – there was no Final Fantasy VII, no Goldeneye, no Ocarina of Time in my self-made prison.
The commercial failure of the Dreamcast was the end of my relationship wit video games. The console had been the first thing of real value I’d ever bought with my own money; it was discontinued in little over a year. Despite this I remained so wedded to Sega that buying a system from another company was impossible, tantamount to infidelity.
I discovered other passions to bury myself into, but I was never able to fully let go of my Sonic days. By thinking about the character I could still connect with my inner eight year-old; remember the peculiar thrill of watching blue and red pixels streak across a screen. And still – still! – I longed to play Sonic CD, also known as The One That Got Away. But it was out of reach: too obscure to torrent, then released only on PC (today, my sole access to the world of games is my Macintosh). It was only last month, in one of my passing bouts of Sonic-tinged nostalgia, that I thought to google it in the hope that someone might have developed a flash-based version. And lo, someone had.
There are some things in life that we should be satisfied leaving undone, but it’s very hard to know what they are without first doing them. On a symbolic level, I had a feeling that I should probably leave Sonic CD alone. It could never measure up to my youthful expectations. And wasn’t it great, in a way, to remain the imaginary future owner of something so potentially perfect: “The greatest Sonic game of all time”? On the other hand, what if it really was exactly that?
I played it. Of course I played it.
The titles for the first zone having flashed away, my finger immediately reached for the “up” button. I held it down. I pressed “jump”. Sonic’s legs started churning on the spot like red bands. It was impossible to suppress a childish grin. I released and we shot forward; Sonic and I shot forward…
And it turns out that Sonic CD is little more than a very good platformer. What more did I expect? While not really longer than other Sonic titles, it is, for want of a better word, a deeper game. The only departure from your standard side-scrolling 2D fare is the inclusion of a time travel device (deliciously, unlocked by going fast), which allows every level to be played in four different dimensions: past, present, good future and bad future. Let’s be honest: my prevalent emotion while playing Sonic CD was frustration. Time blurs, and I’d clearly forgotten the poignant irritation of continually making it to a particular section of a level, only to die by way of a particularly challenging spike pit, fireball-shooting robot, or, at best, fearsome boss.
It was only during the Stardust Speedway race against Metal Sonic – a classic of the enemy-as-doppelgänger-of-hero genre – that I managed to summon a twinge of the old excitement. Hardly enough to justify an over-twenty-year wait.
Do I regret at last playing Sonic CD? No. I knew that reality could not possibly live up to the idea of Sonic CD, and that’s OK. It will never really fade. Sonic CD will live eternally outside my reach as a pristine abstraction, the ultimate gaming experience, indefinable but for it’s shape: a pair of red bandy legs.