Sonic Gems Collection basically dares its audience to ask one question: does merely being old qualify a game for 'classic' status, or did the game have to be good in the first place? Sonic Gems offers three previously unrereleased Sonic games, as well as eight other 'bonus' titles, bringing the grand total up to 11. This shotgun approach is actually the secret of the title's success, because while the three marquee titles are a bit of a letdown, a few of the lesser titles are interesting and fun enough to make the game worthy of a look.
The first major title is Sonic: The Fighters the 3D fighting game featuring most of the Sonic family and a whole lot of the Engrish typos that tell audiences it was never intended for North-American release. The game is a strange hybrid of Sega's late-90s fighting game design styles—the controls and graphics fall somewhere between Virtua Fighter 1 and 2, and each level is set in a claustrophobic, Fighting Vipers-styled ring. The game feels more like a novelty title than anything else—the fighting mechanics aren't deep enough to satisfy fans of the genre, and it's too difficult for novice fans of Sonic. There's some fun to be gleaned from watching the various Sonic characters beat each other up, but that's about it.
The second game on the disc is Sonic CD, which is basically a straight follow-up to the original Sonic the Hedgehog—the only thing suggesting it was on the Sega CD system are the cel-animated movies that bookend the game. While the level design and play mechanics are representative of the peak of Sonic quality, I was left strangely cold.
I hadn't played any of the original Sonic games since the days of Genesis, and I was more than a little surprised by what seem like central flaws in the game's premise—it's a game themed around speed, where the specific goal is to go as fast as possible, and yet the levels are designed to be so full of traps, creatures, and dead ends that it's nearly impossible to get a good clip going for more than a few seconds at a time. Most of this problem stems from the fact that the viewable play area is so tiny that, at top speed, players have only a brief fraction of a second to react to anything unexpected appearing on screen—the only way to get to the end of a level with any rings intact is by carefully memorizing the course layout. This process always leads to a whole lot of unfair deaths. The game had me wondering whether this kind of forced trial and error gameplay, which has mostly died out lately, was always a questionable design choice, or whether I've just been spoiled by games that, if played carefully and correctly, can be beaten fairly easily.
The final big-name title is the Saturn's Sonic R: Racing, Sega's attempt to horn in on Mario Kart's market share. Five characters at a time race each other on one of five courses collecting coins to unlock shorcuts as well as secret characters. The game's best feature is the way it encourages exploration during the races.
While the individual levels aren't very big, they're labyrinthine enough in construction that exploring the various side paths and shortcuts is fun, at least for a little while. Other nice features include the fact that there's very little character balancing—Sonic is very, very fast, and Amy has to use a car to keep up. There isn't even any cheap computer catch-up going on, and once players a little familiar with the tracks, they'll find themselves regularly lapping their opponents. It's a mildly fun game, but so small that it feels like a minigame from another Sonic title. Really, the most interesting thing about the game is that it was developed by Traveller's Tales, who would go on to produce Lego Star Wars, one of the year's best games.
Then there's the bonus games, which mostly come from the Game Gear. Some of these are just Game Gear versions of Genesis Sonic games, which means it's like playing them in previous compilations, but with worse graphics. Others, like Sonic Drift 2 and Sonic Spinball, just aren't very good (although being able to control Sonic the pinball in mid-flight does provide a nice alternative to 'tilting', which no pinball videogame has ever been able to crack).
The most interesting games are the two that star Miles "Tails" Prower, Sonic's fox sidekick. The first, Tails Adventures, is a straight platformer, and it's surprisingly good. While it doesn't have the depth or length of many Sonic games, its slower pace makes it much more playable and fun. The other game, Tails Skypatrol, is a strange side-scrolling action game that features Tails flying around various levels battling enemies with a throwable golden ring. Tails can also use the ring to interact with the environment, creating a bit of a puzzle game dynamic. It's a short, quirky game, but the central mechanic was something I hadn't seen before, and definitely worth checking out.
So the Game Gear titles were better than the more modern games, and the two big standouts in a Sonic games collection don't even star Sonic himself. Strange, right? Well, it gets even stranger, because the best reasons to play the Sonic Gems Collection are the two unlockable games: Vectorman 1 and 2. These all-but-forgotten games stand up remarkably well due to stellar level design, extremely varied play styles, and amazing character animation. Vectorman's most famous feature, the use of floating geometric shapes to create most of the characters, seems to be the secret of its continuing attractiveness. While the backgrounds and environments look a little sketchy, Vectorman and his opponents still look great, which should serve as an object lesson that giving a game's graphics a unique look is better in the long run than simply chasing after photorealism.
If there's one thing that the Sonic Gems Collection taught me, it's that Sega is out of Sonic games to repackage. None of the titles here are particularly famous, nor was there any particular fan outcry for their release. This is Sega scraping the bottom of the barrel. By some amazing stroke of luck, there were actually a few decent games down there, but it's not likely that Sega will be able to do something like this any time soon. Well, at least not until the new game systems are out.