Sonic CD’s Japanese Soundtrack Fuels Style and Substance
It also aids in an earnest attempt at storytelling in the classic series
Take a trip back in time with me. It’s 1996, and Sega Enterprises releases the Sonic the Hedgehog OVA. The movie opens with the camera panning over the tropical South Island, while a jazzy saxophone loop starts to play.
Before we get too far, if you like your reviews in video form, check out this article on YouTube.
Say what you will about the OVA, but that first song, composed by Mitsuhiro Tada, effectively captured the swagger that Sonic the Hedgehog boasts in his games. How many other children’s video game characters are introduced by a saxophone? The movie itself might take certain deviations from the mainline games, but the Sonic OVA deserves a pat on the back for (trying) to create a singular, cohesive narrative.
In hindsight, that narrative attempt is the reason I’ve likened the Sonic OVA to Sonic CD. Though Sonic CD doesn’t take the route of future games, like Sonic 3D Blast, which features a text intro that gives context to the game’s story, it does make an earnest attempt at creating a narrative.
And, when taken with the soundtrack, which for the first time features real instrumentation and a bevy of musical styles and track remixes, Sonic CD becomes one of the Hedgehog’s strongest outings, boasting gameplay that steadily flows with the pacing of the story and soundtrack.
New Console, New Cutscenes
Though Sonic CD’s soundtrack stole the show, its glossy new animated intro was quick to turn heads. The Sega CD was powered by a Motorola 68000 CPU, the same as the Genesis, but clocked at 12.5 megahertz compared to 7.6. It also boasted a Ricoh RF5C164 sound processor. The tech allowed for playback of higher quality files like the opening FMV, rivaled only by the Sonic The Hedgehog television series that debuted just five days before Sonic CD.
The FMV marked the most exposition for a Sonic story in the classic 2D series. Tumbling over crags and cliffs, Sonic sees Little Planet enchained. Not one to stray from a challenge, he races up the chains to thwart whatever plan Dr. Robotnik has in store.
All of this happens as “Sonic, You Can Do Anything” plays. The game’s intro theme song, alternatively known as “Toot Toot, Sonic Warrior,” establishes Sonic as more than a furry woodland creature that happens to encounter killer mechs and a deranged scientist. The track is boastful and plays up the blue mammal as the obvious savior for the ensuing conflict.
It’s important to acknowledge that this track is the intro for the Japanese OST, which is the focus of this review. Sonic CD featured two soundtracks. In America, the music was composed by Spencer Nielsen and David Young. Their tracks were governed by the type of genre diversity that I usually praise in gaming soundtracks. “Palmtree Panic,” for example, takes distinctly samba-like percussion and pairs it with Latin guitars to emphasize the tropical scenery.
At the same time, “Tidal Tempest” embraces contemporary R&B, with rumbling bass and harmonizing female vocals.
Each track is fine on its own, but the US soundtrack, despite delaying the game’s release by two months, is a more accomplished list of singles than a cohesive gaming soundtrack. It’s a marvel of genre exploration, but it doesn’t always play into the trope of Sonic being a cutting-edge character.
The Japanese soundtrack, however, embraces the sounds that came before Sonic CD. From level to level and timezone to timezone, composers Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata prioritized feel over authentic instrumentation. Synths and drum machines abound on the Japanese soundtrack, reflecting the pings, whirs, and wizzes of the levels themselves.
Hataya and Ogata were inspired by the driving beats of ‘90s house music. Frankie Knuckles, the late turntablist, is among their oft-cited influential figures. An outgrowth of 1970s disco, house music notably adopts disco’s patented, four-on-the-floor beat.
And while the two were responsible for separate sections of the soundtrack, Hataya and Ogata converge on their reliance on complex drum patterns and energetic melodies to govern the pace of gameplay.
Uninterrupted speed is quite possibly more important here than in any other Sonic game. To time travel and defeat Robotnik, Sonic has to pass a signpost and maintain his momentum until he is transported to either the past or future. Stop for a split second and Sonic loses the power, forcing him to find another signpost and try again.
The opening zone, Palmtree Panic, is frenetic and frivolous. The horns on the opening measure build into children’s cheers that welcome the hero Sonic. And while the horns quickly overtake the melody, the drumbeat amps players up, egging them on to run faster and make use of the time travel mechanic.
This is in contrast to the past version, which strips away the percussion for a simple woodwind melody. Past stages in Sonic CD are meant to be explored — in them, players can find a robot generator and a Metal Sonic projector to be destroyed. The limited percussion here — just a couple of taps throughout the track — helps redefine the game’s pace, which in these moments, encourages a more methodical approach.
If you fail to find the robot generators in the past, you’re greeted with a bad future. Bad futures are as dire as they sound — they trash the usually thriving landscapes with mechanical atrocities and biological hazards. Right from the beginning of the game, Palmtree Panic’s usually crystalline, flowing water is made out to be a greyish sludge in the future, which somehow looks even more disastrous than Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s MegaMack.
Fittingly, Hataya’s composition here ramps up in intensity, swapping out a horn-based instrumental for a subtle piano melody accentuated by a hearty synth. The drumline ticks up in anger, and distorted vocals warp through the track, haunting Sonic as he surveys the disaster around him.
These musical choices made between the bad futures and the rest of the level versions are carried throughout the game and hint at the relationship between Sonic and Robotnik. While both the hero and villain of the game are granted tracks with vocal components, Sonic’s remain distinctly choral compared to Robotnik’s looser, hip-hop style.
The boss music emphasizes this the best, with George Clinton vocals — yeah, I’m talking Parliament-Funkadelic George Clinton — taunting Sonic with chants of, “work that sucka to death!”
Meanwhile, the horns kick in throughout the song, as if to push back against Robotnik’s tyranny.
Sharing the Sound
Whether intentionally or not, I thoroughly appreciate the way Hataya and Ogata’s compositions are woven throughout the game. Save for stretches from Collision Chaos to Tidal Tempest and Stardust Speedway to Metallic Madness, the level sequencing sees the pair trading off.
Arriving in Collision Chaos, players are greeted to the first of Ogata’s level compositions — they’ve already heard his handiwork on the intro “You Can Do Anything, Sonic.” In the trademark casino-slash-pinball stage of the game, the Collision Chaos track plays up the soundtrack’s synth work — outside of the vocal samples, the entire track is comprised of digital-sounding instrumentation.
While this characteristic largely carries over to the good future mix, the inclusion of some reverb effects and light piano phrases helps to draw out the track’s levity.
I always get a kick out of how Ogata arranged the past mix for Collision Chaos. Still synth-heavy, he swapped out the higher-pitched vocal samples for a throaty wail, almost akin to a didgeridoo. The bellowing is primal, even as seemingly futuristic obstacles like bumpers and springs litter the zone.
Earlier I touched on Sonic CD’s emphasis on story. Throughout the game, there are very obvious set pieces, like the presence of Amy Rose at the end of Palmtree Panic or her getting kidnapped by Metal Sonic at the start of Collision Chaos. The timezones themselves provide some exposition of course, with the state of the level directly linking back to Sonic’s successes and failures.
One such musical nod to level progression is in Quartz Quadrant’s good future. In addition to a more upbeat mix, the song’s intro includes wildlife sound bites — birds chirp away as the track revs into gear.
Like the children cheering in “Palmtree Panic,” these sound effects brighten the track in a way that was simply not possible on the Genesis. This track is also good for some luscious accordion and a string section to compliment the brass and guitars. Ogata’s “Tidal Tempest” takes a similar approach. Listen to the start of the present track and you’ll hear the faintest sound of running water.
Whether you’ve played Sonic CD or not, you’re likely familiar with “Stardust Speedway Bad Future”. It‘s regularly remixed and included on lists of the best Sonic music. Hataya hits on the right blend of hip-hop and electronic music with this track, with distorted vocals, bumping bass, and little piano flourishes that heighten the tension of the zone’s race against metal sonic.
The good future, however, might be my preferred way to listen to this track. In addition to the cooler level stylings, which trade the present’s gaudy gold and the bad future’s bloody red for a cooler green and purple palette, the song strikes a great balance between spacious and exciting production. Subtle reverb effects draw out the massive starry sky above Sonic, while there’s still just enough bass to build the hype.
In a turn of tone, “Metallic Madness Bad Future”’s robotic voice that calls for Sonic’s capture dead or alive. It’s interesting to think that while the mid-2000s Sonic games embraced darker themes, some of that was started here, with Robotnik willing to go to any length to stop the hedgehog.
Though the gameplay of Sonic CD might not be on any larger scale compared to the previous games, its soundtrack helps it stand out from the crowd. In addition to exploring new musical territory, Sonic CD tries new things — Sonic has a new falling sprite that is frequent fodder in the ROM hack community. There’s also a save system, which wouldn’t be implemented on the Genesis until Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and then removed for Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic 3D Blast.
The game feels like an experiment, but it mostly works. You can entirely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want and play the game straight, hunting for Time Stones, and still get the good ending. But by including two, competing goals for players, Sonic CD increases its replayability, which is among the best of the classic series.
Like the gameplay, the soundtrack exceeded expectations for the time, taking a turn away from the bass-driven grooves employed by Masato Nakamura in favor of timely, dance-friendly hits that played up Sonic’s iconic sense of style. The Sega CD might have been short-lived, but Sonic CD and its soundtrack would ensure the console’s namesake would live on for years to come.