The day I hooked the SNES into my shelf stereo was a revelation. From my meagre television, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was impressive. Out of the stereo, it was sublime. Hidden lows boomed into existence as the title blared. Highs gained tinny clarity. The form of everything was transformed before my ears.
For my cousin, this was old news. He invited his brother and I to his bachelor pad a few weeks before Christmas of last year. Mostly, he wanted to show off some Japanimation he had scored – the kind where people explode after being punched. But he also wanted to show off his Hi-Fi stereo, 32-inch television, and the systems connected to it. To me, it looked like he had won one of those raffles from EGM that promised every kind of AV gadget under the sun.
Before he dropped Devil Hunter Yoko into the VHS player, I spotted a Sega CD in his equipment pile. “Oh yeah, check out the new Sonic game,” he said.
As a card-carrying Club Nintendo member, I never quite got the appeal of Sonic. Most of the time when I played Sonic The Hedgehog, my speed-demon tendencies would land me at the bottom of a pit, jabbed into the side of a spike, or run smack-dab into a wall. And for a game about moving fast, there seemed to be an awful lot of platforms to jump on. I didn’t expect much more out of Sonic CD. Maybe some animated cut scenes. Maybe better artwork. That’s really what the Sega CD was good for, right?
Now, for anyone who hasn’t seen the loading screen of a Sega CD, do yourself a favor and track someone down who owns one. There’s a high-res image of the earth, with Sega and Sega CD logos zooming in and out, along with some futuristic sounding synthy music. Though this might have been good for a PC game, this was a console. I wasn’t impressed.
“I hooked up my SNES to the stereo a while ago. Sounds like the Sega can’t compete with that,” I smugly said as an image of Sonic dusted the Sega logo with blue sparkles. Everything was the FM Synth mess that made every Sega soundtrack sound like a kazoo symphony.
I barely had time to take a breath before I was eating my words.
A wall of sound rushed towards us, ushering in the title screen. Through the stereo, it was divine. Instruments were crystal clear. A rock guitar shredded a few chords. This was something that I would hear on the radio, not a game. Then, a chorus kicked in. Not the garbled sampled mess of words that would usually be expected, but words. Glorious words.
THROUGH THE DARK, THROUGH THE NIGHT
IT’S A SUPERSONIC FLIGHT (gotta keep it going!)
SONIC BOOM, SONIC BOOM, SONIC BOOM
(trouble keeps you running faster)
SONIC BOOM, SONIC BOOM, SONIC BOOM…
From there, the game switched into an attract mode that played a 2-minute animation (with the rocking theme song accompanying) that was stunning. My cousin loaded up the first level and plowed through it expertly, showcasing some of the time-travel mechanics. Every era (past, present, future) had its own variation on the level music, a kind of jazzy-pop-R&B that was catchy. Amazingly, each was in as good a quality as the title screen music! Even the boss music was high quality.
The Sega CD’s gotten a bad rap thanks to Night Trap and Sewer Shark. I still prefer the SNES for its visuals; though the Sega CD has some decent cutscenes, they’re usually short and don’t take up the whole screen. But sound-wise, you just can’t beat the quality of music on the Sega CD. Link to the Past is wonderfully composed, but players still end up hearing blips and bloops. Contrast that to Sonic CD, where I could pick out drums, electric pianos, and individual voices. It’s such a difference that it's hardly fair.
The video part of videogames is getting a lot of attention on the Sega CD, but Sonic CD has a lot to say about the quality of music and sound design that we often take for granted. Just imagine Final Fantasy II’s epic prelude set to actual piano notes and strings. Rumor has it that members of SWV or Salt 'N Peppa contributed vocals to the soundtrack. I don't know if that pans out, but the singers are smooth and silky, adding a lot of personality to the game. It also makes me wonder if there's a place for musicians out there to compose videogame music. Maybe we'll see celebrities with guest songs on future game soundtracks?
I’ll probably never actually get to play Sonic CD for very long, much less finish it, but I’ll always remember it for showing me what videogame music might one day sound like.
And for those of you wondering: Yes, Sonic goes fast!
Here’s a tip for you GWJers making the plunge into the Sega CD market: Sega CD games play in regular CD players! Dub a few songs into a cassette mix to take your jams with you!