For twenty year Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 have been two of the most popular Sega Genesis original soundtracks to never receive an album release. As of October 2011 they can no longer claim that title, as Sega and original composer Masato Nakamura have taken the opportunity of the series' twentieth anniversary to finally release the soundtracks to both titles together on disc. To make up for lost time they've also included a second disc of "demo versions", the same compositions for each track as created on Nakamura's personal sound setup before they were converted into Genesis synth. Rounding out the collection is a third disc featuring vocal arrangements of Sonic 2's "All Clear" theme, performed by Nakamura's J-pop unit Dreams Come True.
As a bit of reviewer context, though I owned and played both Sonic 1 and 2 quite a bit during the Genesis's heyday, since that time I've had almost no exposure to either soundtrack aside from the occasional YouTube clip. That being the case only a handful of Sonic 1 themes were still familiar upon first hearing this album set, while none of the Sonic 2 melodies rang a bell (more due to the first game receiving more play time than anything to do with the music). So while nostalgia plays a small role in my own opinion of the soundtrack it's not a significant one.
What bit of nostalgia does remain for the Sonic 1 soundtrack certainly works in its favor. The happy melody and bright, crisp synth of the opening stage theme "Green Hill Zone" is hard to forget, as is the merry-go-round music of the revolving bonus level "Special Stage". But for me it's the chilled Earth, Wind & Fire'esque "Star Light Zone" that has remained the most familiar after all these years. Of course the main Sonic theme itself is the soundtrack's signature tune, but as it never exceeds 20 seconds minus repetition in its three or so renditions there's little time to enjoy it.
Other early stage themes like "Marble Zone", "Spring Zone" and "Labyrinth Zone" are basically Nakamura's Dreams Come True style of J-pop'ified '80s funk and R&B, tilted slightly in directions to suit the stages they accompany. Though in the main verses the style sounds a bit dated and peculiar for an action game soundtrack, the happy, extremely catchy choruses remain enjoyable to this day. The closing stage and boss themes come closer to portraying the in-game action but aren't as much fun, with the exception of "Scrap Brain Zone", which like a quirky '80s New Wave song the sort of which it's modeled after, manages to snake its way back into your head after hearing it for the first time in many years.
Though Sonic 2 for me doesn't have the same nostalgia as the first episode, it became clear almost on first listen that it's the better soundtrack. With a bumped up tempo and some serious jazz funk, it has more that sense of speed and attitude that you would expect of a Sonic soundtrack. "Emerald Green Hill" is essentially Sonic 1's "Green Hill Zone" with that extra attitude, featuring a feisty bassline, rhythmic backing synth tones and that same great lead synth with a livelier melody. It took all of thirty seconds for this track to hook me and it hasn't let loose since. "Chemical Plant Zone" ups the funk and the attitude even further while "Metropolis Zone" struts a Huey Lewis and the News-like assortment of guitar and horns in synth form, without that group's pop scene pandering to hold it back.
In general the Sonic 2 stage themes portray their respective environments more clearly than the first game's and show a wider set of influences. "Oil Ocean Zone" is takes a clear ethnic tilt with its Middle Eastern sound, "Casino Night Zone" had me thinking New Orleans jazz even before its chorus - very obviously inspired by "When the Saints Come Marching In" - came in, and "Hill Top Zone" just screams "Sanford and Son". Some listeners might consider the influences a little too obvious, but in any case you can't call the soundtrack one-dimensional.
It's in this first half of Sonic 2 where nostalgia aside the collection just feels like a flat-out good soundtrack. The second half, spanning from the two-player stage themes to the final stage themes, isn't is instantly catchy but still has several interesting moments to be found, such as the "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"-inspired "Mystic Cave Zone (2p)", the catchy funk "Casino Night Zone (2p)", the ending theme-like "Sky Chase Zone", and the hypnotic "Unused Song".
The second disc of the set contains the "demo versions" created by Nakamura on his own studio synth setup before being changed into Genesis synth. There's not really much of a difference between the two. My guess is that Nakamura was told the number of sound channels they'd have to work with ahead of time and composed with that in mind, as I don't notice any additional instrumental parts in the demo versions. In fact aside from an ever-so-slightly extended "Green Hill Zone", the compositions sound exactly the same. Where the difference lies is in the synth design. In that regard the demo versions for Sonic 1 have some instrumental differences that are interesting to hear, though not to the point of sounding clearly "better". Interestingly, for the Sonic 2 tracks I almost entirely prefer the Genesis synth. The instruments have more kick to them and the slightly higher tempo gives the pieces more energy; in comparison the keyboard synth in the demo versions sounds mushy and generic. Compare the two versions of "Metropolis Zone" and the demo version is downright anemic.
The third disc contains four different mixes of "Sweet Sweet Sweet". These vocal versions of the Sonic 2 "All Clear" theme are performed by Dreams Come True, a J-pop unit with Nakamura as producer/bassist and collaborator Miwa Yoshida on vocals. Though pretty in a sense, it's a very J-pop ballad and certainly shows its age. The English language versions don't have as strong a vocal performance as the original Japanese one (to say nothing of the badly written lyrics), while the remixes featuring Akon (yes, that Akon) have modern American hip-hop conventions juxtaposed very awkwardly over the sweet and unassuming J-pop of yesteryear. Unless you're a huge DCT fan it's best to just disregard the third disc.
When I first listened to the Sonic 1 soundtrack on this years-in-coming album release, my feelings were mixed. I could sense the charm that endeared it to so many fans, but not enough as to share in that long gestating enthusiasm. Sonic 2, however, is a different story - here are the energetic, feisty melodies that not only delight from the start and show Genesis synth at just about its very best, but also flaunt the mood of the series as it's best known. As the second and third discs are little more than a temporary novelty I would have preferred to see a budget single-disc edition like other recent Sonic twentieth anniversary releases, and I still hesitate to say the number of really impressive compositions is enough to compensate for the gamey synth for listeners not well familiar with the genre. But anyone who harbors some nostalgia for the early Sonic titles or who generally has a liking for 16-bit game music should find the release of Sonic the Hedgehog 1&2 Soundtrack one of the best things to come from the anniversary of the series.