As far as I’m concerned Sonic Jam is still the ultimate classic-style Sonic collection: All of the mainline Mega Drive titles are present and correct, and from those solid foundations we can go on to enjoy playing through delicately retouched layouts of each stage, time attack modes, or seamlessly add the later spin dash to Sonic The Hedgehog. Sonic Team even took the time to include not only the full Sonic 3 & Knuckles experience but also Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles as separate entities, as well as the ability to use Sonic & Knuckles unique lock-on capabilities on the first two games as well, unlocking not only Knuckles in Sonic 2 but also the infinitely generated Sonic 3 special stages hidden behind Sonic 1’s “NO WAY? NO WAY!” screen as well. Finished playing for the day? Then why not flip through high resolution (for the time) scans of the Japanese and English language manuals for every game for a bit instead? All of that by itself would have honestly been enough for me: What else does a good compilation need other than a great selection of games treated with love and respect?
But there is, as I’m sure you already know, another equally beautiful side to Sonic Jam – Sonic World. It’s the other, lower, option on the main menu, a whole precious nugget of Sonic Team Sonic in 3D, on the Saturn, a cornucopia of what were at the time otherwise unseen treasures… actually, what are still by and large unseen treasures, or at the very least not found in the sheer quantity or variety of media available here. Sonic CD‘s opening and ending FMV sequences are preserved on the Saturn in far better quality than they are the game they came from, and the same unassuming menu also houses a heap of Japanese TV ads and trailers that would have otherwise never reached the light of day. Other areas contain concept and promotional artwork far beyond anything we had available at the time, or screenshots of games that to someone living in a little English town in the Nineties were so rare they may as well have not existed – such as what was for a very long time the arcade-only Sonic The Fighters, what is still (officially) the arcade-only SegaSonic The Hedgehog, numerous Sega Pico releases, and many more. You can even pop the CD in a PC and pull some exclusive desktop wallpapers from the “Omake” folder if you feel like it, the release so jam-packed (hah!) with content it’s still dishing out goodies even when it’s not inside a Saturn. Not even gallery after gallery stuffed with rare straight-from-the-source material was enough for Sonic Jam: The custom-built 3D area housing this embarrassment of riches didn’t just contain an adorable polygonal Sonic to run between a few buildings but its very own collections of springs, waterfalls, and a colourful menagerie of Flickies flying around the place – even Tails is in there, waiting to give Sonic an aerial tour. These features aren’t there just to give the space a bit of visual interest either, as many of them are incorporated into a little list of eight increasingly difficult challenges accessed by leaping on the stripy red/white disc near Sonic World’s entrance – eight increasingly difficult challenges… I’ve never completed.
Considering my extreme fondness for the Mega Drive games, as well as my very occasional ability to become almost unhealthily competent at a select few other titles across various generations and genres, this gap in my Sonic-ing hangs like a heavy ball of shame on my heart. There are only eight trials to master for heaven’s sake, and this is a Sonic The Hedgehog game, a series I used to devour so readily I remember being coy about clearing them, worried my parents would think they’d wasted money buying a game they could’ve rented for a weekend instead. To make matters worse it was only the final task I could never do: collect a hundred rings and return to the start point within two and a half minutes. Between the heady mixture of youthful optimism and a lack of internet to tell me otherwise my younger self was half-convinced Sonic CD was the reward for completing the final challenge, the “logic” behind that thought mostly being that I desperately wanted to play Sonic CD without having to track down and purchase a prohibitively expensive add-on for my beloved Mega Drive (not to mention a copy of the game to go with it), but even with that ridiculous thought spurring me on I never drummed up enough skill to check that last thing off the list. So! I’ve decided it’s time to put this blot on my gaming history to bed, and to make sure I get there I’ve spent the past few days working my way up to collecting those one hundred rings within the allotted time.
The first few tasks go down easily: Grabbing twenty rings and then running back to the start point happens almost by accident, and the follow-up request to find and then touch three of the series’ iconic checkpoints in under a minute doesn’t take more than some frantic dashing and a vague idea of where I’ve already been. The next few take a little more effort: I’m often just a bit too slow finding fifty rings, and succeeding at the “Touch Tails and then make it back in under a minute and a half” challenge seems to have very little to do with me – he may fly on a fixed path but you often can’t see where he is or where he’s going due to the camera’s eagerness to hover overhead and look down at the ground surrounding Sonic, so clearing that one requires a mixture of blind luck and patience. Even so I manage to get it done, which means I’ve now cleared four of eight challenges – I’m feeling pretty good about myself… and also a little queasy thanks to the combination of The Most Famous Hedgehog In The World‘s quick pace, a small area, and a point of view that can’t quite decide exactly what it wants to show me from one second to the next.
Right, next challenge – touch five blue points. These are more out of the way than the familiar red posts, as they tend to be on or above or under other things. I do get it done – eventually – but that’s enough for one evening. The next day’s task is to find seven secret cards: These are small white rectangles that when prodded will reveal now-famous cheats for Sonic games contained within the collection, and when idly ambling around Sonic World they come across as an endearing mix of forbidden knowledge and cute trivia, something to stumble upon as you make your way between the Character House and the Hall of Fame or wherever. I like them. I like being reminded of debug codes from days of yore and Super Sonic. But trying to find them all in under two minutes is a controller-chucking masterclass in frustration. The one in the water under the bridge isn’t any real trouble once you know it’s there, but the card requiring Sonic the jump on top of a tree and then onto a nearby platform, swiftly followed by another demanding a well timed leap to a small floating island for one more? Well. Let’s just say it took some cathartic swearing and many, many, restarts before that one went down.
So many restarts that even though the penultimate trial – “Touch three balloons”- sits on the menu as I type this, taunting me, the motion sickness I’ve been pretending hasn’t been affecting me is now so bad I don’t just need a short break, I need to go rummaging through the medicine cupboard in the hope of finding something that’ll help dampen the nausea. I haven’t even unlocked the hundred ring challenge I was aiming to clear, and yet here I am with a Sonic-induced headache and looking pale enough to audition for a role in a next-gen Resident Evil. I hadn’t been able to gather these damned rings even with the infinite time and patience of my teenage years, and now I know for a fact Sonic CD’s not waiting for me at the end of it all – the wonders of YouTube have proven the only thing clearing that final test unlocks is the game’s credits – my desire to push through no matter what has disappeared faster than Robotnik in a pre-battle cutscene. I truly appreciate your work, Sonic Team, but I’m not going to make myself physically ill to see your names scroll by or scribble one little thing off my gaming list o’ shame.
And so I do the only thing I can do – I give up. I go bounce on a bright red spring, stand next to the beautiful 3D waterfall, and wonder how many Flickies there are flapping around. I watch a few FMV clips and after enjoyably wading through page after page of information I make a mental note to buy Tails Adventure on the 3DS eShop before Nintendo shut the whole thing down (current cartridge prices fall somewhere between “expensive” and “obscene”). I have zero headaches and a whole lot of Sonic to enjoy, just as I did in the Nineties.