How Western Meddling Fumbled The Sonic CD Soundtrack

I’m usually a pretty chill person when it comes to other peoples’ opinions.  I may razz you a bit if our views differ, but at the end of the day, I typically don’t care.  There are a few things that will get my boxer-briefs in a bunch, though. One such thing is the people that dare fix their mouths to say that the North American soundtrack to the game Sonic CD is better than it’s Japanese counterpart.  This is one lie that I just can’t let go uncorrected. People need to know the truth, and this is a hill that I am adamant about dying on!

What makes the Japanese soundtrack so great is that it is a love letter to the state of music during the early 90s.  Sonic CD was released in 1993 and musically it definitely sounds like it. House, techno, new jack swing, hip-hop, funk, and jazz heavily influence basically all of the tracks that you will encounter while playing.  These elements meld wonderfully together and breath life into the gameplay experience by transforming the atmosphere into a character in its own right – no different than Sonic or Eggman. This new character then narrates to us the situation and what is at stake while we are exploring the game.

Due to the time-traveling game mechanic, levels take place within the present, past, or future.  The future is different in that it can have two outcomes – a “good” future (where Sonic was able to thwart Eggman’s plans) and a “bad” future (where Sonic was unsuccessful in stopping Eggman).  The “present” is the level’s standard tune and is remixed into a slightly different arrangement dependent on when you time travel to. Traveling to the past has the music sounding a bit primitive and rudimentary. In some cases, the timing of the music is slowed down a bit to invoke a feeling of being less complicated in an age before Eggman sullied the environment with his technology.

If one travels to the “good” future, the music becomes calmer and introduces instruments such as the harp, flute, and piano into the arrangement, giving a sense of tranquility.  We did it, we foiled Eggman’s plans for this area! The level design in this future area displays technology and nature harmoniously intertwined into one and the serenity of the music just drives this home.  However, if we make it to the “bad” future, the complete opposite happens. We failed. Eggman has succeeded in taking over the stage and technology has overrun the flora and fauna of the area now, turning everything dark and polluted.  The music now becomes more electronic and synthetic, symbolizing Eggman’s reign. The use of synthesizers, distorted vocals, sirens, record scratches, and the like really give the disturbing feeling that all is lost.

Sega of America wanted the Amerian version of the game to have its own distinctive vibe and would require a more “rich and complex” soundtrack.  To accomplish this, the game would have to move away from the electronic/dance-type music that was then popular. Due to this, the North American release was delayed by about two months.  The music composer that was in charge or rescoring the entire soundtrack only had about one month to get this accomplished – meaning it was going to be a bit of a rush job. Upon release, the soundtrack was almost immediately met with backlash from the gaming community for switching up the music.  This pretty much all came from people who were that the Japanese and European versions had different soundtracks then there US counterpart.

The end result of this one month labor was a soundtrack that was very ambient with a heavy rock emphasis and slight alternative and hip-hop influences.  Tracks feel very uninspired and dare I say, “generic”. Although uninspired, there are several tracks that manage to stand out amongst the crowd, but that isn’t really all that hard when the bar was already set so low.  Notable tracks include Sonic Boom, Palmtree Panic (Present), Collision Chaos (Present), and Stardust Speedway (Bad Future). Some stage songs even manage to miss the mark entirely when trying to convey a certain feel for a level, notably Stardust Speedway (Present) and Metallic Madness (Present).

In addition, despite the fact that the US attempted to keep (unsuccessfully) the same level of cohesiveness between the tracks for different time periods of the same stage, this was ultimately all for naught.  Due to the technology and methodology used to record and add the “Past” level songs to the game data, they could not be replaced, meaning the had to keep the original Japanese created music. Depending on how you play the game this can cause a severe dissonance in the storytelling flow of the music.

Now, I’m not trying to be a hater or anything like that.  I mean, I understand that a lot of kids grew up playing the US version by default, so that was the only thing they knew for so long.  Hell, I didn’t play Sonic CD until I was a whole adult, but I already knew about the soundtrack controversy. Moreover, the North American soundtrack was the first version that I actually heard.  One of my childhood homeboys had won the Sonic Boom CD, which included tracks from Sonic CD as well as Sonic Spinball. The only track from the Sonic CD portion that we would always play was Sonic Boom.  None of the other Sonic CD tracks stood out. So it’s not like I’m one of those people that only knew about the Japanese version and raged and opined that the American version was inferior because of that – I just know a shitty rush job when I hear one.

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