Sonic has been running for 31 years now, and yet of all of his adventures to date the original Mega Drive games still remain fan favourites. It’s no wonder that most of these timeless classics have been re-released in countless compilations over the years, but Sonic Origins stands out by daring to do something a little different this time around.
From the moment you first boot up the collection, it’s clear that the developers have great respect for the source material. An excellent intro animation runs you through the key events of the main games in this compilation – Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles – with stunning personality and eye-watering colour that instantly takes your mind back to the good old ‘Blue Sky SEGA’ days.
The presentation throughout the rest of Sonic Origins is equally impressive. Main menus are decorated with the island worlds in which each game is set (and if you have the Digital Deluxe edition, you can zoom in on those islands and watch Sonic, Tails and Eggman dance about), UI elements are directly inspired by the colourful shapes and designs of the Japanese Mega Drive box art, and the new animated cutscenes that bookend each title are bursting with character and personality.
The fact that even the main menu theme happens to be a remix of Sonic Jam’s ‘Sonic World’ speaks volumes to the standard that SEGA is looking to achieve with this compilation. It’s inclusion is no coincidence; Sonic Jam on SEGA Saturn is still seen as the gold standard in the eyes of many fans, with every compilation release since (such as Sonic Mega Collection) offering either poorly-emulated versions of the 16-bit classics, a pitiful amount of archive content or bonus features, dull uninteresting presentation, or a combination of all three.
No, poor emulations these games are not. With Sonic Origins, SEGA finally delivers fans what they’ve been wanting for around ten years now – the pixel-perfect releases of Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as remastered by Sonic Mania developers Christian Whitehead and Stealth (Headcannon), previously locked to iOS and Android hardware, on dedicated home consoles and PC.
As a result, these are not simple ports of the 16-bit originals, let alone emulated ROMs – the games in this collection (in particular Sonic CD, which is reportedly notoriously difficult to emulate) have effectively all been remade from the ground up using Whitehead and Stealth’s proprietary ‘Retro Engine’. The result is an insanely authentic Sonic gameplay experience, coupled with the ability to include enhancements such as widescreen resolutions, new animations and additional features like the Spin Dash in Sonic 1 (or the Drop Dash in all games) – all at an enhanced framerate.
On a PlayStation 4 these Mega Drive titles feel simply wonderful to play – being able to rush through Emerald Hill Zone and Spring Yard Zone on a big TV, with all the bells and whistles of the Retro Engine, is a complete joy – but you’ll feel the buttery-smooth gameplay the most when playing on a PS5 with a 4K screen. The framerate and animations feel so fluid, it can kind of screw with your Mega Drive-era muscle memory in the special stages.
While it is incredibly nice to be able to finally (officially) play the Retro Engine versions of Sonic 1, CD and 2 on a home console or PC, the jewel in Sonic Origin’s crown for many fans will be the inclusion of Sonic 3 & Knuckles – a couple of games that have not had a formal re-release on any platform for over a decade. Headcannon was commissioned to come back and help remaster these two games for Sonic Origins, and the studio’s hard work really shines here.
Not only does Sonic 3 & Knuckles finally get the Retro Engine treatment – widescreen, smooth gameplay, pixel-perfect physics – but there have also been a few quality of life tweaks to the game, such as brand new music for the Super/Hyper transformations and brand new character animations for certain stage gimmicks.
Press Up or Down on that cursed barrel in Carnival Night Zone, for example, and this time you get a unique animation to communicate the action to the player. Using the spinning tops in Marble Garden and reaching the tall corridors will show the character spinning on the spot whilst running, too. Extra touches during cutscenes and additional audio/sound effect cues (they even fixed the Chaos Emerald collection jingle at the end of a special stage) really hammer home the level of care and attention that has been spent on almost every element of this game.
About the only curiosity you might find is the lack of three Zone themes whilst playing through the back end of Sonic 3. Carnival Night, Ice Cap and Launch Base do not contain the BGMs you remember in the 1990s – unfortunately due to rights issues, SEGA has had to replace these tracks with ‘new’ ones. Well, not really new – it’s actually the Beta music for each level, finished and mastered by series sound director Jun Senoue.
While Senoue-san has done a fantastic job with these alternative tracks, your first run-through with these Sonic 3 stages will mess with your nostalgia just a little bit. The new music does take some getting used to, even if you have already familiarised yourself with the Sonic 3 ‘November 1993’ Beta leak from a few years ago.
These finished works have a softer sound than those work-in-progress tunes, and even feel a little out of place against the rest of the SEGA Sound Team soundtrack on first listen; less boisterous than HydroCity Zone, not quite as melodic as Angel Island. But on repeat plays, they have their own special charm and you’ll grow to really enjoy their place, against the backdrop and action of their respective stages. These tracks have the production quality and sound of a late-generation Mega Drive title, feeling akin to something out of Ristar in places.
Beyond these obvious differences, just being able to play Sonic 3 & Knuckles again on modern hardware, in widescreen and at full speed in the Retro Engine, is almost worth the asking price of Sonic Origins alone. This is the greatest game in the entire Sonic the Hedgehog series, and being able to play this masterpiece once again after a ten-year hiatus is just the best feeling.
Whether you’re playing Sonic 3&K or Sonic CD, each game is remastered regardless of whether you play in Anniversary Mode or Classic Mode. In Anniversary Mode – ultimately the mode you’ll play the most – you play your chosen game in widescreen and without a lives system. Collecting 100 rings or 1-ups will instead earn you ‘coins’ which you can spend in the Museum mode. You can also spend coins retrying special stages if you happen to fail them in this mode, which is a very welcome feature.
The Classic Mode for each game simply reduces the field of view to the original 4:3 aspect ratio and has you playing with lives (with no coins to earn). Otherwise, you experience the same enhancements and features as in Anniversary Mode. So you won’t be playing the untouched, original version of the game, but instead will play using the enhancements of the Retro Engine – including the new music for the three Sonic 3 zones.
Playing Anniversary Mode with Coins replacing Lives doesn’t feel like any kind of handicap at all – not when the seasoned Sonic player can beat any of these games using just one life. Instead what this does is make you go out of your way to collect rings and 1-Ups as you build up your Coin collection. In this modern gaming landscape, where lives aren’t really relevant anymore, having this system in place actually feels quite natural.
Outside of the games themselves, SEGA has included several other modes of play in Sonic Origins. A 1P Story Mode tasks the player with running through every single stage across all of the games – Sonic 1 first, then CD, then 2 and finally Sonic 3&K – without a break, with the aforementioned beautiful animated cutscenes tying everything seamlessly together. It might seem a bit pointless, but I had loads of fun doing a Sonic Marathon, myself.
A Mission mode is also included, and this is quite an inspired mode – if a little brief. With this, you have to accomplish a number of short challenges across the five games (Sonic 1, CD, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles), with ranks being handed out depending on how skilful (or fast) you were in accomplishing the mission. They all take place within remixed versions of classic stages, and will challenge you on not only Sonic’s skills but Tails and Knuckles’ too.
They’re extremely fun to tackle, and although they’re quite short some of them are really quite taxing and will take more than a few tries to get right. If you get the Digital Deluxe edition, you also unlock several Extreme challenges which go absolutely bananas, like trying to complete a stage in Sonic CD with everything sped up.
Playing through Missions and Story Mode can also earn you Coins, and these are spent in the special Museum section. Now, every Sonic compilation game since Jam has gotten this side of things terribly, terribly wrong. Not only by offering meagre and weak excuses for ‘archive’ content but also, at times, focusing entirely on the US audience with Archie comic scans (you totally want to read comics on your TV, right?).
Sonic Origins goes above and beyond in the bonus content department. Split into three categories – Sound, Illustrations and Movies – there is a metric tonne of material to view and unlock in this game. The entire soundtrack to all the games can be played here (with the ability to create and run playlists of your favourite tracks), with remixes of stage themes across titles like Sonic Generations and Sonic Forces available to unlock.
Not only can you unlock the classic Sonic Screensaver and other artworks found on Sonic Jam, but you can also view manual and box arts for every game – in any region. There are some really nice curios here too, such as a 1994 European Sonic Art Style Guide and graph paper scans of boss concepts from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and even storyboards and animatics for the animations in not only Sonic Origins, but Sonic Mania Adventures too. You can also unlock the entirety of the Sonic 30th Anniversary Symphony using your coins so you can enjoy it on the big telly whenever you like.
As far as bonus material goes that covers the entire 30 years of Sonic, it’s a real treat. And the bonus features don’t stop in the Museum. Even the games have a lot of extra content. Every game has its own setting (you can switch the Sonic CD soundtrack in the game’s settings via the main menu), the level select codes all work as expected (and you can use this to activate Sonic 3 elemental shields in Sonic 1 this way) and you can play as Tails and Knuckles in most of the games (although not as Knuckles in CD, for some reason). Heck, you can even change the regional box art that features alongside the games in the main menu (thank you, European box art!).
Every game also has a Mirror Mode that can be unlocked and attempted once completed, which adds significant challenge with such a small modification. There’s even a brand new selection of Blue Spheres stages to enjoy, under the New Blue Spheres section. Here, the levels are much harder and introduce two new sphere colours – green, which need to be run over to reveal blue spheres, and purple ones that warp you from place to place.
Overall, it’s hard to overstate just how great a job SEGA and Headcannon have done with this collection. Sure, you could argue that most of these games should have been made available on modern consoles by now, but on the face of it… for your money you’re effectively getting the best ever versions of the five best Sonic games ever made, along with a presentation that absolutely nails the look and feel of the franchise while offering a boatload of worthwhile extras. For around £35-40, there’s no better bang for your buck really.
Sonic Origins not only gives us a fantastic remastering of some treasured classic titles, but also offers a stark reminder of just how iconic Sonic the Hedgehog is – when presented in this very specific, ‘Classic Sonic’ format. Everything about how Sonic and friends are presented here feels absolutely perfect, and it’s really the direction that Sonic Team and SEGA should be taking the franchise from this point onward. Sonic Origins will re-fire your love for the 16-bit games, and make you want a new Sonic game made in this style at the same time. It’s an essential purchase for any Sonic fan. Buy it, with money.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game, although the PlayStation 4 version was also playtested in order to support the article. Review copy for this game was provided by SEGA. During our time with this game (10+ hours) we encountered no game-breaking bugs or significant glitches that hampered the play experience, and it is this experience that guides our overall score.