Levels of shame: Sonic CD

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I previously wrote about how Sonic CD is not only overrated, but almost laughably bad, a puzzling fact given how much it's loved. So in response to this month's Bitmob Writing Challenge, I'm discussing a level showcasing Sonic CD's shoddy design at its finest. As in literally finest, because it's all downhill from here.

Palmtree Panic is Sonic CD's first zone, a perfect introduction to the haphazard platforming and almost impossibly thoughtless level design awaiting you. Here, one learns several things: Sonic can run fast, Sonic can jump high, and the entire game is designed to circumvent your ability to run fast and jump high without strict memorization of hazards and — if after the game's secondary goal — time travel signs. Said secondary goal deserves special mention here, as Palmtree Panic is the player's first opportunity to use Sonic CD's time travel mechanic. Simply tag a sign, get up to speed in a level not intuitively designed for that purpose, and stay at said speed for a few seconds. If you're lucky, find a spot with springs: get sparkly, bounce off one, and you'll probably keep your momentum long enough to warp.

Depending on what sign you tagged, you warp to the past or future. Either one presents a slightly different version of the level you're in: invisible platforms turn visible or are missing altogether, closed routes open, etc.

Did you warp to the past? Lucky you: find the device causing the bad future, destroy it, and you'll have cleared the secondary objective and taken a step closer to the wholly worthless "good ending."

Did you warp to the future? Sucks to be you. Sadly, warping to the future is completely pointless. Visit the future before destroying said device in the past, and the future will be grungy and filled with enemies. Good luck finding not one, but two signs to take you back and fix that little blunder, champ!

Warping to the future is only slightly less useless once you've fixed the past: the future will be devoid of enemies, much brighter and more cheerful, and all in all a happier place. Sadly, with the enemy presence removed, nothing stands between Sonic and the end of the level except the sloppy stage design, which sadly the good future doesn't fix.

Oh, and fixing the past is all you need: visiting the future, EITHER future, is completely pointless. Which is probably why the boss stages force the "future palette," lest the savvy player never see it.

"Screw that nonsense," you exclaim, not really caring about what tiny narrative payoff making a good future has, "I'll just speed through the stages!" Palmtree Panic quickly cuts off that train of thought, placing hazards in any place you might have otherwise built the momentum you need to make any sort of time without copious amountsof trial and error to find just the right little stretches of pristine straightaway and just the perfect frame to input a jump — the game is already becoming a grind, and it happened faster than most modern MMOs. Instead hop from arbitrarily placed platform to platform, grabbing the occasional ring, and hope that eventually the level just lets you hold right long enough to end this misery. I mean, it can't get much worse, can it?

A mere three hits to the zone's laughably vulnerable boss ends the fight. But hey, at least you got to fight the boss: later ones don't even have that, making you navigate obstacle courses or, I kid you not, run in place for a while.

Almost any other 2D Sonic game's first zone — hell, almost any other zone period — is designed to flow intuitively. Load up Sonic 2 or Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Notice how the parts where the game wants you to go fast are structured such that moving fast works, and notice how said parts are actually outnumbered by the solid platforming segments, where you're presented with hazards requiring at least some tiny speck of rational thought to conquer and your characters are equipped for. Orbinauts in Launch Base? Tails and Knuckles learn to steer clear, the game providing enough open area around the enemies to swerve, whereas un-shielded Sonic has a tool he's been learning for five zones prior can help him: the insta-shield. But the game starts mixing it up, giving you a situation where a fast section ends with you needing to jump to a higher platform with an Orbinaut waiting. Fortunately, you have options: Knuckles can glide to the opposite wall and climb, Tails can fly above and around the enemy, un-shielded Sonic can just kill it, and shielded Sonic's shield powers give him mobility to go around.

What boggles the mind is any of those zones would have supported the time travel mechanic much better than Sonic CD! Even in, say, Sonic 2's slowest zone (probably Mystic Cave or Oil Ocean, and for obvious reasons let's exclude Sky Chase), there's ample opportunity to get up to speed and maintain it, provided the signs are thoughtfully placed. In Sonic CD, the signs' placement is seemingly arbitrary: rarely near a place where Sonic can get up to speed. And Palmtree Panic succeeds in teaching this harsh signpost lesson very well.

Why choose Palmtree Panic when in my prior Sonic CD writeup I lambasted Wacky Workbench as one of the worst levels ever made? Two reasons: Palmtree Panic is probably the game's best level, a smidgen more thoughtful than the wasted potential that is Stardust Speedway; and Palmtree Panic is the first flippin' stage. The first!

The initial level in most games tends to bring players up to speed, and later levels challenge the player based on both what previous levels taught and what tools the player has at his disposal. Sonic CD eschews this formula by dumping what appears to be a bad Sonic 1 hack's preliminary stage as the game's starter, and getting worse from there. The zone right after is like an amateur's rendition of Sonic 1's Spring Yard, and the final zone deserves special mention for what is undoubtedly Dr. Ivo "Eggman" Robotnik's most ambitious plan to defeat the blue blur yet: trap him in a purposely obtuse maze and hope Sonic gets bored or goes mad.

Palmtree Panic serves as a warning: this is what you're in for, player. Turn away now. Don't play this, be completely blind to its faults, and declare it one of the greatest Sonic games and/or platformers of all time. Fortunately, here it succeeds, and Sonic CD is rightfully seen for the trash it is… by an alarmingly tiny number of people. Then again, Final Fantasy 11 lasted longer than the two months it truly deserved, so maybe gamers are a hopeless bunch after all.

Carlos Alexandre is a self-described handsome fat man. He ponders his entertainment, and you can find said ponderings on both his website and the podcast he co-hosts.

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