My memories of the Mega Drive Sonic games are wrapped up in nostalgia and a hint of sadness. While Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t my first game, it was the first game I owned for my first console. And inheriting a copy of Sonic CD along with a Mega CD from my uncle gives that game untold sentimental value to me. Meanwhile, growing up poor, I didn’t have much money for expensive cartridge games, so the mileage I got out of Sonic 2, 3 & Knuckles is nearly endless.
In the years since I’ve fallen out with the series. The Adventure games were fun when I got my Dreamcast, but haven’t stood the test of time, while the third party-era Sonic games are, by and large, terrible. It seems every time Sonic Team takes a stab at making a Sonic game, they try to put an awful and pointless story in, and even worse they just don’t seem to have a clue about what good Sonic gameplay actually is.
While Sega has fumbled with the series in 3D, the classics became stuck on emulators, maintained mostly by community mods that added sketchy-at-best modern features to these games. And while these mods and fixes are always appreciated, these games have always deserved better.
When Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead showed off his Retro Engine, an official and much-needed mobile, PC and console port of Sonic CD arrived. The quality was immaculate – what we were given was a proper rebuilding of Sonic CD on a new engine, with accurate gameplay and physics. It was an authentic release of a largely-ignored entry in the series.
What came after were mobile ports of Sonic 1 & 2, with PC and console users left once again at the mercy of the fan modding community who, to their credit, did an amazing job.
Fast forward to 2017 and Sonic Mania changed everything. A new 2D Sonic game – a kind of “what if 2D Sonic came to the Sega Saturn?” release that gave us hope Sega would come back to the 2D Mega Drive classics and give them the justice they deserve.
That was five years ago. And in 2021 Sega finally announced Sonic Origins, a port of all the Mega Drive classics: Sonic the Hedgehog, 2, 3 & Knuckles, with all the modern conveniences of the Retro Engine port of Sonic CD released over a decade prior.
So an instant win, right?
Well. Let’s take a look.
On the offset, it’s pretty obvious that Halo: The Master Chief Collection served as inspiration for this release. Take the classics, smash them together to make them look seamless, add new features and call it a day.
Other than its inspiration, it also seems Sonic Origins is walking a similar path as MCC. Players have reported issues and bugs with all the games in the collection – to the point that one modder has said the game is “absolute shit” – bugs that Sega took over a month to fix (and as such weren’t fixed when I played the game for this review a couple of weeks back).
But is it as bad for someone who is nostalgia seeking, but not as hung up on the finer details? Have Sega got away with it?
The short answer is, yes it’s bad but no it isn’t. And they might have gotten away with it. But they haven’t.
I’ve not comprehensively played Sonic Origins – I played through the game’s “Story Mode” that links each of the aforementioned games together with fun FMVs, and this presentation in my view shows that Sega has shown a lot of love and reverence for their classics.
So I’m going to write a short bit about each game.
The quality of presentation started off well with Sonic the Hedgehog. No issues to report. It’s Sonic 1, and not much has changed other than adding the spin dash and widescreen. It’s still the weakest in the series, with uninteresting levels and bland art direction. But it’s still good to get things rolling and it’s over in an hour and change.
This is also the first time the Retro Engine version of this game has arrived on modern platforms that aren’t mobile.
Next up is Sonic CD. The first thing I noticed is the restored vocal track for the opening video (superior European and Japanese version) that was missing from the 2011 port. It also feels like at this point Sonic was still a series trying to nail down its identity.
As a result, Sonic CD, just like Sonic the Hedgehog, feels rather separate from Sonic 2 onwards. The art style is just not quite matching, the music feels quite distinct from the latter games and even the audio cues for some of Sonic’s actions (such as jumping) just feels… off.
Thinking on the game itself, the time travel mechanic is a neat idea, but feels rather undercooked. Sometimes the game gives you a time travel post and a nice run to get your momentum up and trigger the action. Other times, it just feels impossible, like the level designers were trolling the player.
The special stages in this game are also a fresh kind of hell, and lends itself to the impression that Sonic CD is a kind of concept of how Sonic could’ve been, but thankfully isn’t.
Just like Sonic the Hedgehog, this is the first time the Retro Engine port of this game has arrived on modern platforms. And with it comes some bugs that weren’t on mobile.
The most apparent one is Tails getting stuck off screen, continually jumping and/or dying. Sega say they’ve fixed this in the latest patch, but I’ve yet to test it.
Some of the benefits of the mobile release have come through, however.
For starters, Sonic 2 is regarded by many fans as the best in the series. That’s because it’s where 2D Sonic found its identity in all aspects: visual, audio and gameplay, and all this has faithfully transferred across in the port. The physics feel right, the sense of momentum and speed is not noticeably different to the original, the sound and visuals capture that Sonic Style that Sega has tried and largely failed to replicate since the Mega Drive days.
It’s Sonic platforming goodness and the first reminder of why I fell in love with the series.
As an added bonus, Hidden Palace Zone was added to the game. This is a “lost level” found by rom hackers that adds a nice new twist to the original set of levels. It’s nothing special, and the boss in that Zone is awful to fight, but I didn’t hate it and it’s no worse than the original game’s weakest levels.
In short, this is a great version of Sonic 2. Purists may cringe, but they were playing it on their old Mega Drives anyway. For everyone else, this is an excellent version of an excellent game.
Here’s where it gets dicey.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles – this specific configuration of the two games, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles combined – is my favourite of all the Mega Drive releases. And while it is functionally rather good, there are things that are just disappointing.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The music. Ice Cap Zone’s replacement sucks in particular. However, as with any PC release, the fans quickly fixed it with a mod which I used in my playthrough. Console players, however, are out of luck and I really feel this soundtrack issue is a legitimate dealbreaker that Sega needs to address.
I appreciate that there are licensing issues with some of the tracks, but I think it’s worth all the effort in the world to get this right because, quite frankly, the game sucks without it and it really hurts this compilation.
But music is not this port’s only sins. Sonic doesn’t always “feel” right when navigating some rounded corners. Tighter spaces seem to kill Sonic in ways that didn’t happen in the original and the whole package just has lots of minor issues that start to pile up over time.
They also missed a trick by not fixing or telegraphing the nefarious spinning wheel room in Sonic 3 that destroyed my love of this game as a kid. Admittedly this is less of an issue in the days of the Internet where people can search a solution, but Sega had an opportunity to right a gaming design sin as old as the Monkey Wrench puzzle in Monkey Island 2, and they neglected to do so.
Overall, I think Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the weakest and most disappointing part of this package. It feels not quite so bad that it’s half-baked, but like there just wasn’t the kind of finishing touches you’d want for a rerelease like this. The fact that the fan mod, Sonic 3 AIR, is a better version of Sonic 3 is pretty damning in my view.
There are some good things about this package, however. As mentioned before, I loved the FMVs (and I wish they’d taken the time to remake Sonic CD’s in the HD widescreen style), and the way you can configure the game to extend its life with “missions” and playing Knuckles in the older games (except for Sonic CD) is a great addition.
Controversially, I also liked being able to retry special stages. Back when I was a kid I loved the challenge of having to replay the whole game to get a perfect run on these special stages. As an adult, I simply don’t have that sort of time to invest in learning the special stages so being able to nail them with retries on my first playthrough was appreciated.
I also like the galleries of video, audio and artwork, though I’m a little miffed Sega want us to use (non-purchasable) coins to unlock some stuff. It crosses the line from a nice little touch to a bit of a collectathon, and I don’t think that’s what a good Sonic game is about.
I also think that the Classic mode is appreciated, but ultimately not needed. Anyone who wants those modes is going to go to the originals, or emulated versions, to get that experience. Sonic Origins is all about the quality of life improvements, the widescreen, and running good approximations of each game on modern hardware.
With all the above in mind, any sort of collection like this needs to be a sum of its parts. In any sum there are positives and negatives, and in Sonic Origins I’d say the former outweighs the latter, though not overwhelmingly so.
I really hope Sega goes in to fix these outstanding issues because there is a definitive rerelease waiting to be played here, and given its £33 price point and the time it’s taken to arrive, Sega owes it to their fans to do this release justice. If in five years fans are asked to buy these ports yet again, their reaction will be understandably less than charitable.
While I don’t want to make a habit of this, given the most glaring issue (Sonic 3’s soundtrack) can be fixed on PC already and not on console without Sega’s intervention, I’m inclined to score each version differently. On PC I’d say this collection is, right now, worth it. Especially if Sega follows through on their promise and continues to fix issues. And even if they don’t, the fans eventually will.
Meanwhile, the console versions are not a good buy because you’re stuck with a lousy soundtrack and little-to-no chance of the community fixing what Sega won’t. And that’s a big shame.
You’ve been warned.
As a console player
As a PC player (with mods)
Time played: Approximately 10 hours
Played on a 256GB Steam Deck (from an SD card) and a 4K capable gaming PC.
Gaming PC Specs
AMD Ryzen 5800X
Nvidia RTX 3080 FE
Corsair Vengeance 32GB DDR4 3200mhz RAM
Game was played from a SATA SSD
I took 602 screenshots across my PC and Steam Deck while playing this game. I have uploaded them to the Gallery - you are free to download them and use them for your own purposes. Select the button below to check them out.