Everybody has that one game. The one that calls to them periodically, begging to be played. No matter how many times it has been completed, there is still room for one or two more goes for good measure. These are the kind of games you play every year as a tradition, sometimes more than once. It is not often we get to talk about these on a site like PlayStation Country as we review the current titles, which leaves little room for reflection unless it happens to be a retro release like this one. So, for me, today is a special occasion. I finally get to talk about ‘that’ game, which is none other than the sublime Sonic 3 (and Knuckles). Without even a hint of irony or exaggeration, this is my personal all-time favourite game from my favourite love-hate game series, and you should be aware of that as you read further into the review.
Ever since the Taxman and Stealth ports of Sonic 1, 2 and CD on mobile back in the early 2010’s. Fans like myself have been cloying for a chance to play Sonic 3 and Knuckles in that remastered, widescreen glory. However, the road to get here has been a tough one, which is thanks to various factors. Such as soundtrack licensing issues, the scale of the remastering effort and the fact that only the Sonic CD remaster effort making it to consoles previously. For a good while it looked like it would never happen. Thankfully, this is no longer true with the release of Sonic Origins, which compiles the brilliant remasters of the big four Sonic games from the Mega Drive era and collects them for modern consoles.
For the cynical amongst us, It would be easy at this stage to write off the collection immediately. These are all titles we have seen or played before and recently. Sonic 1 and 2 have been released more times than can be considered polite, with the recent Mega Drive classics collection for PS4, or the brilliant Sega Ages ports on Switch. Chances are, if you own any console between the PS2 and now, you have had access to at least one port of these per system. Crucially however, these are not the same as those rom collections that have come before. Instead, these are honest-to-goodness remasters that go aways to improve the experience. Making these versions worth a play, whether you are new to the franchise or have been playing since the start and want something that feels like the definitive version of the game.
The most pronounced improvements are the most immediately apparent. For example, the introduction of widescreen is an immediate gamechanger, reducing the size of Sonic slightly and increasing the viewing distance to allow for easier obstacle avoidance at high speeds. Prior console limitations have been rendered a thing of the past thanks to the utilisation of more powerful hardware and age-old design issues get spruced up to make them make more sense. Now, this is nothing new to those who played the mobile ports, but this is the first time the first two games have been made available on console with these, so that makes Sonic Origins worth a look to begin with in my humble opinion.
In addition to the performance enhancements, we have the additional content that comes included as part of the love, care, and attention to detail that the Taxman and Stealth ports provided before. The infamously dropped level from Sonic 2, Hidden Palace Zone returns in fully completed form once again, including the great boss fight at the end of the stage. There are also more ways to play, thanks to Knuckles and Tails being added to Sonic 1 or the ability to play as Knuckles and Tails together through Sonic 2, which was not previously possible. The drop dash makes a return from Sonic Mania, which is a welcome, if overpowered addition to these older games. On top of this, with Sonic Origins, the games have been given new hand drawn animations which bookend the four games beautifully, courtesy of Tyson Hesse who’s love for the franchise clearly shows.
Up until this point, Sonic Origins feels like a love letter to fans, capturing all the best moments of the franchise in a package that looks and feels great to play. However, cracks start to form in places that aren’t expected. For example, there are areas that feel meddled with, where spikes have been moved slightly or enemy patterns have been changed enough to introduce new frustrations. One such incident I saw was in Metropolis Zone in Sonic 2, where there is a spike trap above a steam spring that previously wasn’t there, or at least not in the same position in the original game. There are several weird elements like this throughout, another one showing up in Starlight Zone Act 2 of the first game, where there appears to be a second goal post where there was only one in the original game. It may not sound like much, but with the benefit of watching social media over the past couple of days before writing this review, you don’t have to look far to see the negative effect that this has had as players bemoan the level design which was previously fine.
This extends also to the so-called ‘Classic mode’ which is offered up alongside the remastered variants. This offers players the choice to play the games in their original 4:3 resolution and with the original lives system intact. However, despite the claim of being the games as originally presented, this is not truly the case. Instead, Classic mode are the remastered games, but instead with the square screen and original life system. This is particularly telling in the classic mode for Sonic 1, which still includes the spin-dash move from the remasters and the same dual goal post glitch I meant earlier, among all the other level element changes. Whereas the classic mode could have been a genuinely great addition, particularly for those that want the original challenge and want to appreciate the good changes made to the anniversary editions. It cannot be used for this and has thoroughly been disincentivised in favour of the more palatable widescreen modes.
Another nail in the classic mode coffin is the new coin system that has been introduced. Replacing lives, if you reach 100 rings in a level or earn enough points then you earn a coin which can be used either as currency to unlock items in the museum. Alternatively, you can use these to give yourself another shot at clearing one of the many special stages throughout the four games. It’s a neat idea and brings a quality-of-life improvement to those who would typically struggle to unlock emeralds in a single playthrough. Some may bemoan the reduced challenge as lives are no longer a thing, but for me. I appreciated this step as I have played these games to death over the years and lives aren’t really a reward anymore. Coins make holding onto my rings more important as there was an incentive to earn, and the lack of lives made me want to try out a few tricks that I wouldn’t have done on a limited supply. I do wish however, that there was a choice to allow me to earn these coins in classic mode and that people had the choice to switch to a traditional life system if they wanted to for anniversary as there is currently no way to have the lives while playing in widescreen.
Aside from these changes and weird omissions across Sonic 1,2 and CD, the main event truly is Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Presented for the first time (officially) in widescreen with the enhancements of the Taxman/Stealth remasters from before, this is truly a treat to play through again. The game has never looked better, thanks of course to more screen real estate and the inherent visual improvements that come with being on modern hardware. There are a lot of subtle improvements made overall to the game’s animation and sprite work, notably in the sprite scaling in the special stage and when characters stand on spinning platforms, with added frames of animation for their full rotation, including those for looking up or down. I can appreciate these based on them being completely unnecessary, yet how they add a feeling of newness to the game that is always welcome.
Of course, though, not everything new in this game is welcome and this leads on to an issue which is unfortunate and for me, something that really upsets. It has been known for some time within the fanbase that there were several tracks in the game’s soundtrack that featured work that was originally composed by Michael Jackson and his collaborator Brad Buxer. Unfortunately, based on several reasons surrounding licensing and/or insult, the tracks in their original form on the release version of Sonic 3 have not made it to Sonic Origins. In their place are rearrangements of music from the beta of the game, which were originally in place before Jacko was brought aboard for the project.
Now, I understand that quality of music is entirely subjective and that over twenty-five years of listening to the original music has made be biased. However, the replacements just aren’t up to the standard of the originals. To me, they don’t even sound like they belong in the game, and this is despite the music being created specifically for it. Unfortunately, instead of preparing the songs as they were discovered in the beta release, Jun Senoue, long-time Sonic Music director instead rearranged them using a Sonic sound font, which just sounds dreadful to my ears. It feels like such an odd thing to get wound up about, however one of the most fundamental aspects of the franchise is how good the music is, even in the less enjoyable games. So, it is such a shame to see the best that the series has to offer with such compromised compositions.
Audio issues aside, I can’t be too hard on the game. There isn’t anything broken about this experience and Sonic 3 and Knuckles remains a joy to play through fully. It’s just a shame we aren’t talking about a definitive version of the game right now as fans have been waiting long enough for one. Ultimately however, it was either this or the possibility that Sonic 3 and Knuckles would never get a rerelease. So this feels like somewhat of a lesser evil. This caps off the overall experience of the games in this collection. Each so close to being the final say in the classic series, but missing something or having been tampered with slightly to the point where the proximity of perfection slips away from our grasp.
What helps bolster things out is the extras provided in the menu. These contain several unlockables and modes which are worth a play, with some being stronger than others. The best of all of these is the mission mode, which is comprised of mini challenges which have been edited into the levels of each game. Completing these and earning ranks gives you more coins for the unlockables in the museum. After playing through each game, you gain access to boss rush and mirror modes, which are pretty self-explanatory and are fun enough as a diversion, but add little more meat to the bone.
The museum itself is packed to the rafters with prior content, such as concept art, level art and biographies, but feels lacking compared to the sublime extras section from old collections like Sonic Mega Collection, which showed us comics, old game cutscenes and more. For a character that has such a rich history of multi-media with the myriad of cartoons, comics, and merchandise, it would have been great to delve into this a bit more, but instead we are given content which is mostly available outside of the game on Youtube, google images and fan wiki pages.
The odd gripes aside, We are still talking about four of the best platformers ever made here. From the opening notes of Green Hill, all the way to the epic Doomsday showdown, the games remain as expansive and expertly tuned as ever. If for some reason you haven’t played them before, Sonic Origins is a good chance to see what the fuss is all about. For returning fans, the extras in the museum and mission modes are good additions that are worth exploring for a bit of newness. However, The search continues for the truly definitive version of these games and there is no telling how long we may have to wait.
+ These are still some of the best platformers ever devised
+ The coins system is a great addition, adding meaning to stockpiling extra lives
+ Mission mode is brilliant, offering plenty of replay opportunities for new and older players
+ Toot Toot Sonic Warrior is back in all its glory
- The song replacements in Sonic 3 and Knuckles are poor alternatives to the previous release and beta versions
- I experienced save data corruption during my time with the game which lost me a couple of hours worth of progress