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June 28, 2022

Sonic Origins tech review: glitches and a steep price make for a tough sell

Sonic the Hedgehog's original 16-bit adventures are considered some of the best games in Sonic history and - for my money - some of the best games ever made. Since their original appearance, they've been re-released many times over, most often as little more than emulators paired with original ROMs. Sonic Origins is different though: a fully rebuilt suite of the original 16-bit games using the Retro Engine, the same tech that powered the brilliant Sonic Mania. This release even includes Sonic 3 and Knuckles, a rarity whose inclusion makes this one of the most exciting Sonic releases in a long time. Sonic Origins has a lot to offer then but there's always the potential for issues too - and sadly Origins does have a few.

Sonic Origins reminds me of Sonic Jam for the Sega Saturn - the first complete collection porting each of the original Mega Drive games to a new platform, with a huge selection of bonus material including videos, music and illustrations. So this is effectively Sonic Jam 2 - all the 16-bit games, plus Sonic CD, surrounded by a wide range of bonus material and alternative gameplay modes designed to expand upon the formula.

To explore that material, you traverse six islands: four represent key games in the package while the others offer bonus features including a movie gallery, illustrations and a comprehensive jukebox. The entire front-end was created using Sonic Team's proprietary Hedgehog Engine, the very same engine powering many of its games including Sonic Forces and Sonic Generations. When you launch one of the games, the Retro Engine powered games are displayed as a surface within the game's user interface. It's an approach we've seen in numerous other retro collections but, in this case, there are drawbacks.


Our Sonic Origins tech review is presented here in video form.

The first and biggest concern is that games are rendered to the screen using a bilinear filter, resulting in softened pixel edges. Sonic Mania offers four display options to solve this, including a pair of CRT filters and a sharp scale option, but these options aren't available in Origins - and the reduction in clarity is significant. There is an option labeled 'anti-aliasing', but this further degrades image quality resulting in an unacceptably blurry presentation.

The other major rear end of the front end is exhibited on the Switch version. Here, you get only a 30fps presentation and blurry image quality - a far cry from the 4K 60fps on PS5 or Series X. This reduces the overall fluidity of menu navigation on Switch; everything feels sluggish and blurry. Some of the beautiful animated videos included here also incorrectly scaled on Switch, which is a shame.


sonic origins vs sonic mania (filtering)
Sonic Origins lacks a sharp scale option, unlike Sonic Mania.

sonic origins vs sonic mania (antialiasing)
The anti-aliasing setting doesn't seem appropriate for this game.

There are other issues too. Typos appear on the music list, track names are incorrect, and overall volume levels are far too low - yet Sonic CD video clips are significantly louder than anything else in the game. Sonic CD also buries options, such as soundtrack selection, within its own menu that appears to have been hacked in from the original 2011 release of the game and feels inconsistent as a result. So while the UI is attractive, there are glaring errors that ought to have been resolved for release. The only good news is that if you're playing on PC, the modding community has already fixed the biggest issue, restoring the Sonic Mania display options. We can only hope that Sonic Team is listening to this feedback and will fix the issues in a future patch for the console versions.

Thankfully, the games themselves are the main draw, and are generally produced to a high standard using the Retro Engine. Native 16:9 aspect ratios are supported, with a higher FOV and modified boss encounters to match, and slowdown is eliminated - a recurring issue on the original hardware. Instead, Sonic is presented at a stable 60fps. Bonus and special stages look smoother too, scattered rings fade out using alpha blending and the soundtrack of the first two games has been remastered with cleaner audio. There's new content too: the Hidden Palace Zone in Sonic 2's Mystic Cave Zone is now a proper bonus stage which replicates the look of the previously unfinished level.

While the earlier games are great, Sonic 3 and Knuckles is the big addition for this package, having not previously received a Retro Engine conversion. On the surface, it's a robust port with a lot of new features, and the closer you look, the more you notice small updates that make the game look better than ever before - from the updated water effects on the screen to additional frames of animation for bonus rings. Objects which rely on rotation, such as vines and zip lines, have been updated with true per-pixel rotation, enabling smoother motion, while The blue sphere special stages have been updated to match Sonic Mania with dramatically smoother animation. There are plenty of other minor tweaks and changes throughout, making it feel carefully curated despite some issues we'll touch on shortly.


sonic origins classic mode
Classic mode gives you a 4:3 aspect ratio and the old lives system.

sonic origins mirror mode
Mirror mode is a fun way to rediscover familiar stages.

One of the most significant changes is to the music. A good chunk of the original Sonic 3 soundtrack was seemingly created through collaboration between Michael Jackson and Brad Buxer, but this created issues that kept Sonic 3 from being re-released for years. The solution to this problem for the new version is to replace these tracks with music found first in a prototype version of Sonic 3. These tracks were later used in the PC port of Sonic 3 and Knuckles, where they were re-arranged as MIDI tracks , and now they've been recreated for Sonic Origins. I feel the new arrangements are a step down from those featured in the prototype version of Sonic 3 but they're still serviceable. However, the music featured in Sonic 3 and Knuckles is muffled compared to the remastered tracks included in the Retro Engine conversions of Sonic 1 and 2, which is disappointing.

Beyond the audio, however, all these ports have received extra gameplay features - the drop dash move from Sonic Mania makes the cut, though its implementation isn't quite on par, and there are also mission, combination and mirror modes available. There are other minor gameplay tweaks too, but nothing as significant as the easy and normal modes implemented in Sonic Jam on Sega Saturn, where things like spikes and enemies were modified. There's also a classic mode, where you get a fixed 4:3 aspect ratio and the old lives system - but you can't have one without the other.

So, at this point, aside from the bilinear filtering, things seem pretty good - but unfortunately Origins exhibits a fair few bugs. Most aren't game breaking, but the sheer number of them impact the overall experience. For example, in Sonic 2, Tails gets stuck as you traverse the level, and you hear his jumping sound effect repeating ad infinitum - becoming a massive source of annoyance. In Sonic 3, the arrival of the stage three mid-boss causes debris to fall from the screen, which continues until you die or enter a special stage rather than stopping when the boss is defeated. Later in Marble Garden Zone, it's possible to outrun the camera and die. I could go on, but the point is that this game lacks the fit and finish we've seen in other Retro Engine powered projects.


sonic origins screenshot - death
In Sonic 3's Marble Garden Zone, it's possible to outrun the level and die - a strange bug indeed.

So where does this leave us? On one hand, the glitches and presentation issues are frustrating - it feels unpolished in a way that is difficult to entirely ignore. Yet, these are still full Retro Engine ports of the classic Sonic games making it one of the most interesting re-releases yet. I personally have no use for emulation in this case, as I will always pick the original cartridge versions, but the wider aspect ratio, improved special stages and bonus content make for a good time - to say nothing of the very low input lag.

If Sonic Team can solve these technical issues, Origins would be easy to recommend, but with its glitches and steep price tag, it's a tough sell. Really, it feels like Sega needs to slow down a little - the last three retro re-releases have all shipped with technical issues that should have been fixed before launch. They risk burning their customers with products like this and I hope they begin to realize it before it's too late. Sonic Origins could have been the best compilation to date but, as it stands, there's more work to be done.

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