The Sonic Second: Sonic Patents

This week on Sonic Second, it’s a really sexy and exciting subject: Exhaustively technical documents full of figures and impenetrable jargon! That’s right, for reasons that are largely opaque to me, Sega of America patented some of Sonic the Hedgehog‘s mechanics, and thanks to Google Patent Search we can slap our greedy eyes on all the juicy details.

Okay, so maybe it’s a pretty dry subject after all, but as the creator behind the totally-not-dead-I’m-still-working-on-it-honest AeStHete Sonic engine (yes, I’m that Mercury), the info in these patents is kind of fascinating. It’s really the closest thing we have to detailed explanations of these parts of the Sonic engine from the creators themselves.

Ultimately none of the info in these patents has been of any practical use in the creation of my Sonic engine, given that modern computational power has allowed me to base mine on fundamentally different principles, but it’s still interesting to look at for a historical perspective, and also to see where my solutions and those of the original programmers have converged somewhat.

Come to think of it, I guess the existence of these patents means that recreating a Sonic engine constitutes some kind of patent infringement, but hey, it’s fun to live dangerously. 😛

So without any further ado, let’s explore the inventions of Messrs. Yuji Naka, Masanobu Yamamoto, and Susumu Nishikita.

“Video game with spiral loop graphics”

US Patent No. 5,411,272

My luxurious moustache is precisely 64 dots in height

To quote from the abstract:

A method is provided for controlling the appearance of a video game character, as the character traverses a path displayed on a display screen; wherein the method is used in a video game system which includes a graphics controller, digital memory and a display screen, the method comprises the steps of: displaying a banked path segment in which the game character is displayed upright at at least one location on the banked path and is displayed upside down at at least one other location on this banked path; storing multiple sprite patterns representative of the appearance of the character at different locations on the banked path as the character traverses the banked path; tracking the character location on the banked path as the character traverses the banked path; retrieving the stored sprite patterns that portray the character at different locations on the banked path; and displaying a character using the retrieved patterns such that the character has different appearances at different locations on the banked path.

Uh… yeah. What they’re trying to describe, in their own adorable way, are those twisty corkscrew paths from Emerald Hill Zone (that would later be rehashed ad nauseam in the Dimps titles). I really don’t envy anybody who has to work in the field of patent law, having to deal with this kind of bloated legalese all the time. The abstract quoted above is actually a pretty straightforward and readable example, but much of the text is far worse. I know what they’re talking about and it’s still practically impossible to understand.

Original character, do not steal

One of the great things about this is that nowhere are the helical structures referred to erroneously as “Mobius strips” (a pet peeve of mine that I still encounter all too often), but as “corkscrews” and “spiral loops”, or even “sloops” as shorthand. Remember folks, there is only one side to the Mobius strip debate. 😛

“Multi-player video game with cooperative mode and competition mode”

US Patent No. 5,405,151

It’s the XKCD / Sonic crossover game I’ve always dreamed of!

This one covers Tails’ AI – his ability to mimic Sonic by reading stored input data, jump over obstacles when necessary, and catch up by flying back on screen when he gets left behind. Also, the drop-in, drop-out co-op feature that switches to player control when the second control pad receives input, and then reverts to AI control when there hasn’t been any input for 10 seconds.

Everything you need to write the machine code! …Right?

Split-screen video game with character playfield position exchange

US Patent No. 5,411,270

This one covers those stupid “Transport” monitors from the two player split screen of Sonic 2 that swap the two character’s locations. Yes, this is patented. Were they just especially proud of it? Did they go temporarily patent crazy? Who knows.

Multi-player video game apparatus with single screen mode and split screen mode

US Patent No. 5,470,080

This one covers the interlaced split-screen mode from Sonic 2.

Video game with switchable collision graphics

US Patent Nos. 5,513,307 and 5,963,218

This one covers Sonic 2‘s clever system of using two separate planes of collision data with plane-switcher objects to allow Sonic to traverse paths that cross one another, a huge technical leap over Sonic 1‘s system of specialised chunks.

Data processing system, method thereof and memory cassette

US Patent No. 5,941,775

That is the worst drawing of a Sega Genesis I have ever seen

This one’s pretty cool – it’s essentially the patent for Sonic & Knuckles“Lock-On Technology”. They never did anything else with it, sure, but it definitely heightened the coolness factor of that game by quite a bit. It wasn’t just a game, it was a phenomenon! A patented phenomenon, as it turns out.


h/t Gamespot

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