You know, I didn’t expect to be face to face with Silver Sonic once again after more than 20 years. But there I was, mean-mugging my former foe as the penultimate final boss fight of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 began. I figured I would play through the Sonic classics again one day; recalling my Saturday-morning-cartoon halcyon days in attempt to briefly forget the realties of bills and taxes.
Oddly, even as my bitter rival pummeled me into blue mulch, I couldn’t help but to feel that old joy again. I knew Sonic Origins — to be as successful as Sega wanted — needed to be something more than another dreary compilation of 16-bit hits. And it is. But Sonic Origins could have been really special, if only it didn’t trip before the starting gun.
None for the Ages
So, let’s talk DLC. Like a looming shadow over a sunny picnic of chili dogs, Sonic Origins has many of its elements siloed away behind a pay wall. Ahead of the game’s launch we got a tier-list of DLC for the game, which broadcast the intention of locking out features to all but those willing to pay extra. The base game is already set at $39.99 USD, which seems like a lot for four games from the Sega Genesis era. However, it can be forgiven when you consider that the price amounts to each game costing roughly $10 USD each.
The real sting here is that many extras in Sonic Origins have been shaved off. You need to pay $3.99 USD extra for the Premium Fun Pack to only gain most of the options found in the Digital Deluxe Edition (set at $44.99 USD). Among those are additional character animations in the menu. Pre-ordering the game unlocks Mirror Mode from the start and offers a different letterbox background. No, the ‘Start Dash Pack’ is only a pre-order bonus, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to unlock the Background in-game. I don’t think this is how fans wanted to ring in Sonic’s 30th; it’s frustrating.
And it’s also not like you’ll have many options left, either. With the release of Sonic Origins, Sega is delisting the classic games on digital storefronts. If you haven’t bought any of the ports before, Origins will soon become the only game in town.
… & Knuckles
It’s a shame, because the meat Sonic Origins brings to the table is mostly fantastic. The standout is the Anniversary Mode, which upgrades the four included games — Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3 & Knuckles — to a native 16:9 aspect ratio (Sonic CD had a widescreen port released a decade back.) Playing through these games in actual widescreen is akin to magic in this aging fan’s eyes. The screen is filled out cleanly; you no longer have to mar the graphics with a stretch option. More screen being used means you can take in the charming and colorful graphics that defined Sonic in his heyday, all the while prepping for that incoming enemy or loop. Granted, you’ll still get bopped by some badnik or slam into spikes. Sonic Team was infamous for its trolling. Still, I absolutely love it.
Sega even brought in members of the Sonic Mania team, Headcannon, to help port Sonic 3 & Knuckles for Origins. Christian Whitehead, who worked with Headcannon on Sonic Mania, also pitched in. And it should be noticeable for those who played the games before. Sonic 3 & Knuckles sports new animations that weren’t in the game previously.
Anniversary Mode also adds the Drop Dash for Sonic. What was once a prototype idea for Sonic 3 has made it into every game. And it’s a treat. Being able to bust through ice blocks or quickly zip up the stalks of giant mushrooms feels so natural it’s hard to believe it only recently made the cut.
It’s a celebration, of sorts
But while Anniversary Mode is something I feel older fans would enjoy, it may not impress purists. The mode does change the games in subtle to significant ways. After Sonic takes a hit, his lost rings now gently fade away instead of blink into nothingness. Much like the previous PC release of Sonic CD, the games in Sonic Origins appear to have been rebuilt using the same proprietary engine, which is demonstrated by changes to animations and movements that are beyond simple romhacks. The Special Stages in Sonic 2 also feel so smooth it’s eerie, as if they were rebuilt from scratch and running at abnormally high frames.
Unlike the originals, you don’t have lives. Instead, you collect Bonus Coins, which can be exchanged in the in-game Museum to unlock artwork or music. All the 1up item boxes now contain a single coin. Sonic Origins doles out coins liberally, sometimes awarding several at the end of a Zone. You can also spend one to retry a Special Stage, allowing you as many chances as you have coins to “earn” that precious Chaos Emerald.
The mode also lets you play through games using all three primary characters from the originals, save for Sonic CD, which only allows a choice between Sonic and Tails. Gliding over Green Hill as Knuckles in Sonic 1 is a bizarre experience, to say the least. And playing as Knuckles paired with Tails in Sonic 3 feels unnecessary, but I appreciate the option.
Old school feeling new
With no lives, Anniversary Mode is like Sonic without the stakes. Most of the original games were developed during the waning years of the arcades, and they still followed some of its archaic rules. Points were collected and earning enough rewarded you a life. Run out of lives and continues, and it’s back to the start. While Sonic games weren’t notorious for their difficulty, they were still tough at times. It was only different for Sonic 3, which had a save feature and level select. Regardless, it could take days or even weeks to complete the original games. However, I was able to play and finish Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in a sitting, with all the Chaos Emeralds in hand.
The games are more equivalent to modern indie releases with Anniversary Mode. Retrying a boss battle over and over again is completely free. You can stop playing any game and continue on the Zone you left off. It’s less challenging, but I honestly prefer that. I had the time when I was a kid. But as a working adult, I enjoyed being able to dash through each game, riding on that wave of nostalgia. Completing a game unlocks Mirror Mode, which is exactly what it sounds like. Playing through the games backward, however, is too unnerving for me. Mirror Mode comes unlocked for the games with the pre-order, though.
There is a Classic Mode as well. It reverts each game back to the 4:3 aspect ratio and includes lives instead of coins. These are still the same tweaked versions of the games, with fading rings and new animations (from what I can tell).
Mission Mode lets you play through all the games in one seamless experience, each one bookended by new animations. All four games come with intro and outro animations in the style of Sonic Mania Adventures. They’re excellent, and help set up and conclude the stories of every game.
Anniversary Mode shines in Sonic Origins, but that only makes the content around feel less illuminating. There’s a lot in this anniversary collection that’s lacking. Despite being called Sonic Origins, aka the origins of Sonic, it would have been nice if his Game Gear adventures were included. And I would have liked to see Sega finally acknowledge that, yes, Sonic 3D Blast was a thing, and so was Knuckles’ Chaotix. No, the box art found deep in Origins‘ Museum doesn’t count. I wouldn’t have minded if they didn’t get the Anniversary treatment.
Without other classic games to play, you can idle your time in the Challenge missions. Here, you have dozens of mini-missions, such as collecting 100 rings before the end or popping a number of balloons as Tails, which you must complete within a time frame for a certain rank. Each one gets tougher based on an out-of-five star count, and rank determines how many coins are earned on completion. Frankly, I found most challenge missions to be uninspired. They’re fine, and it’s cool to have different ways to enjoy the classic games. But they’re not all that exciting, mostly letting you earn some more coins. There are harder challenges but, yes, those are locked in the Premium Fun Pack DLC. Sorry.
Other missing features are small, but worth speaking of. There doesn’t seem to be a way to activate any of the games’ popular cheat codes. Each game has a new menu, so you can’t hop into Options found in Sonic 2 and unlock the debug mode by playing music in a specific order. Graphics and smoothing options are nil outside of a anti-aliasing toggle in the menu, but it makes the games look like you’re playing them on a CRT screen. I turned it off immediately.
There is music for Chaotix, which you can play in the Museum. However, you can only do so after purchasing the separate Classic Music Pack (only $3.99 USD!). What a joy. On the subject of music, Sonic Origins includes an adapted soundtrack for Sonic 3. It’s been long rumored that Michael Jackson had contributed some tunes for Sonic’s third run. Sega and Sonic Team have remained tight-lipped on this subject for decades — despite the teases.
Likely due to licensing issues, several Zones in Sonic 3 use old prototype music for the game, remixed by Sonic music maestro Jun Senoue. The new music is okay. Not bad, but also not as catchy as the originals. Of course, my opinion may have been different if the new tracks were there all along. Still, while Senoue did a respectable job, it’s hard to compete with nostalgia. My heart shatters with the loss of Ice Cap Zone’s track. Where are my modders at?
The Museum is where you spend all those coins you earn in the game. Inside is a plethora of Sonic-based extras, such as music from the games, concept art, box art, instruction manuals, remixed music, and more. I just wish it was easier to navigate. Origins will announce whenever you unlock something new, but it won’t tell you what. I went back multiple times to figure out what items I unlocked but gave up after a while. It doesn’t help that there’s no music in the menu, and the selection noise gets grating. The Museum does include all episodes of Sonic Mania Adventures and pared-down versions of the 30th Anniversary Symphony event. But you can also find better and higher-quality versions elsewhere.
There is a lot of modern content in the Museum, but not enough from Sonic’s heyday. I would have loved to see some older television commercials.
Sonic Origins runs well on PC, save for some minor concerns. It seems the game is locked to 60 fps, even with Vsync turned off. But it’s not like you need to run these 30-year-old games at 250 fps to get the best experience. You can change your resolution, but there aren’t many other options available.
Opening up the game causes it to mess up my desktop, suggesting it loads with a smaller resolution. So all my windows bounce around like Sonic in a giant pinball machine (happens more often than you realize). Setting it to borderless windowed seems to fix this, however. I also noticed the mouse pointer never disappears even when using a controller, no matter your window option. You can’t rebind “jump” to the spacebar, either. It’s defaulted to both the ‘K’ and ‘L’ keys, and you can’t press ‘ESC’ to open the menu; it’s defaulted to “cancel.” While I didn’t have any performance problems, the Denuvo DRM included may cause issues for those running older hardware. All in all, it’s not the cleanest of ports.
There are also some bugs. Once, I slammed right into an invisible ceiling on a loop, forcing a restart. There were also noticeable audio pops when coins were counted in Sonic CD. While playing Sonic 2, Tails would constantly get stuck if I ran too far ahead. If I recall correctly, doing so in the original games would have him respawn up above and rejoin Sonic. In Sonic Origins, however, he now hops incessantly where you left him, drowning out the excellent soundtrack with a parade of whoop noises.
Not putting a ring on it
As a fan, I can’t help but feel disappointed with Sonic Origins. While the Anniversary Mode and animations are incredible, features getting shunted into DLC are not. I can’t even define it as DLC, honestly. The packs are not content added in later to improve the collection; they’re features that should have been in the game, repackaged as “fun packs” and pre-order bonuses.
The quality of the Sonic series has suffered for years with peaks and valleys. Sonic Origins may not ultimately win back the affection of spurned fans, whose expectations have been six feet underground since the early 2000s. The lackluster Museum and Challenge missions don’t help in making this feel like a true homage to Sonic’s legacy.
It’s unfortunate. Sonic turns 31 years old today, and I have him to thank for my love of gaming as I know it. I still plan on playing the Anniversary versions of the games, but the rest of the game may go untouched. Happy birthday, blue boy.