Review Date: 9/4/05
Fans of Sega's "Sonic The Hedgehog" (including myself) were surpremely disappointed when "Sonic Mega Collection" (2002) came out, as it was missing one of the greatest games in the series, "Sonic CD" (1993). Sega poured salt in our wounds by originally saying that it would be included, and then they yanked it out at the last minute due to "technical difficulties." But now Sonic fans can rejoice, as "Sonic CD" finally makes its debut on the GameCube in "Sonic Gems," along with some other Sonic curiosities including the American debuts of "Sonic The Fighters" (1996) and "Sonic R" (1997). The collection also includes the Sega Game Gear games "Sonic Spinball," "Sonic The Hedgehog 2," "Sonic The Hedgehog Triple Trouble," "Sonic Drift 2," "Tails' Skypatrol," and "Tails Adventures."
"Sonic The Fighters" is a cute take on "Virtua Fighter" featuring the Sonic gang that is mainly interesting due to its novelty value. Playing as Amy Rose is a hoot, but the fun quickly wears off due to the lack of depth and control. "Sonic R" is a 3D Sonic racing game that is clearly the forerunner to "Sonic Adventure" (1999). Unfortunately, the controls are terrible and the game is nearly impossible to play. It also features all kinds of clipping problems, and I was annoyed that Amy was relegated to a car while the other characters all got to race on foot. With the sole exception of "Triple Trouble," all of the Game Gear games are terrible and should be avoided.
As you might expect, "Sonic CD" is the only real gem in the collection, and it's a near perfect port of the PC version of the game. The opening animation has been cleaned up considerably, and hardcore Sonic freaks will notice a different loading screen as well as a color glitch in the "Tidal Tempest" levels. Considered by many to be the best game in the series, "Sonic CD" introduced a time travelling feature that gave you past, present, and future versions of each level. The upside of this is that you effectively have three times as many levels to travel through, and the temporal variations offer some fantastic art direction and different music. The downside is that it adds more depth and complexity than most gamers care for, and the time travelling aspects are tricky and often derail the classic Sonic gameplay. For me, "Sonic The Hedgehog 2" was the best game in the series.
When it originally came out, the highlight of "Sonic CD" was its superb CD quality soundtrack, which ironically is the main point of contention that most fans have with the game. The Japanese and American versions of the game feature different music and many fans contend that the Japanese soundtrack is better. Unfortunately for them, the American soundtrack remains in the American release of "Sonic Gems" due to licensing issues. While I believe that Sega should have left the original Japanese soundtrack in the game to begin with, I find both soundtracks to be enjoyable and roughly equivalent. I like the guitar driven rhythms and choral arrangements of the American soundtrack, while the Japanese soundtrack offers some excellent techno compositions and jungle beats. Most notably, the American version of "Sonic Boom" is considerably better than the J-Rap inspired Japanese version, and the American boss music is also better. I'm sure many will disagree, though, as this flame war has been going on for ten years. If you really want to hear the Japanese soundtrack, it's easy to track down a Japanese version of the game.
Which brings us to the REAL reason I bought this game. For whatever bizarre reasons, Sega decided to throw in some bonus content in the form of unlockable Genesis games. Both the Japanese and American versions contain "Vectorman" (1995) and "Vectorman 2" (1996), which is a the first time these games have been available in Japan. As an added bonus, the Japanese version features four additional super secret hidden games including "Bonanza Bros." (1991) and the entire "Bare Knuckle" trilogy (known as "Streets Of Rage" in the US). Sadly, the "Streets Of Rage" games were taken out of the American version of "Sonic Gems" in order to maintain an "E" rating. (Grumble, grumble...) The "Bare Knuckle" games are reason enough to buy the Japanese game and suffer through the twelve hours or so to unlock them, and I hope that Sega gets wise and releases them on their own - or better yet, revives the franchise with a "Streets Of Rage 4."
But first things first. I feel I have to make a special note for the "Vectorman" games, as they are quite good and represent the best of what the Genesis hardware was capable of. They play a lot like the old "Turrican" games (which I love) and the art direction is superb. The animation is smooth, the controls are slick, and Vectorman's large and varied arsenal is very enjoyable. I feel sad that I never bothered with these games when they first came out, as they were trying to compete with the new Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. They also reminded me of a time when video games were actually fun to play. That hardly seems to be the case with today's assortment of video games. "Bonanza Bros." on the other hand, is awful, and reminds me of how bad some old video games used to be.
But let's get back to "Streets Of Rage," shall we? My biggest fear with the "Bare Knuckle" games was that they would suck. When Sega ported "Streets Of Rage 2" to the Dreamcast, it was unplayable. The music was terrible and the sound effects were off, making it a horrible experience to play. It was also an embarrassment for Sega, as they couldn't even emulate their own hardware on their own console. Thankfully, these new ports of the games are perfect, and they benefit from being the original uncensored Japanese versions. The differences are minor and very subtle in the first two games, but seeing "Bare Knuckle 3" makes you realize just how castrated the American version is. I wasn't a fan of "Streets Of Rage 3" when it came out, but I can appreciate it a lot more now. For starters, the Japanese version retains the classic character colors, which were inexplicably changed for the American version. The Japanese version also contains a much deeper plot surrounding experimental explosives, large scale destruction, and a more relevant back story for Dr. Zan. The American version of SOR3 ditches this entire storyline and replaces it with a nonsensical plot to replace key humans with cyborgs. The Japanese version serves continuity better, as Axel and Blaze are still on the police force, while in the American version they're retired. But the most controversial difference in the Japanese game is an effeminate mini-boss named Ash, who looks like a pigeon-toed S&M version of Freddie Mercury and screams like a girl. Homophobic American censors quickly removed him from the game and replaced him with a crowd of manly thugs instead. Curiously, the American version of the game is also considerably more difficult to play than the Japanese version.
Overall, the "Bare Knuckle" games are reason enough to track down the Japanese version of "Sonic Gems," until Sega decides to finally release the "Streets Of Rage" trilogy properly. It's also worth picking up both versions just to have both "Sonic CD" soundtracks. However, remember that you need an entire dedicated memory card for the Japanese version of the game, and navigating some of the Japanese menus can be extremely tricky.