It’s no secret that Sonic the Hedgehog directly lifted from the playbook of Super Mario Bros. in order to recapture the latter’s success. But it’s all part of a greater cycle of games emulating those that came before. Sonic itself has inspired countless other games, influencing the design of such timeless favourites as Yoshi’s Island, Donkey Kong Country, Spyro the Dragon, and Crash Bandicoot. Unfortunately, it inspired far more low quality rehashes, precipitating a cavalcade of attitudinous animal mascot wannabes from Aero the Acrobat to Gex.
Some of these games went beyond just having a happenin’ hotfoot hero and shamelessly ripped off Sonic physics and gameplay to an embarrassing degree. From the obscure to the infamous to the surprisingly great, this week The Sonic Second will look at ten of these games.
The “Caveman” trope had a stint of inexplicable popularity in the 8 and 16 bit era of gaming, with titles like Bonk, Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, and The Humans. Kid Chaos (Amiga, 1994) puts a twist on the trope with the titular hero “transported from the Stone Age by evil scientists from the future”.
The word “chaos” is not the only thing about this game that might remind you of Sonic. From the very first level – called “The Green Hilltops” – the similarities stick out like a sore thumb. A spinning jump that rebounds off enemies; log bridges that sag when you run across them; posts topped with lights that act as checkpoints; power-ups liberated from screens that display TV snow; springs that act exactly like those in Sonic; giant yellow flowers. There’s even a 10:00 minute time limit. There’s no doubt that this is every inch a deliberate and shameless rip-off.
Of course the most important part of any Sonic rip-off is the physics, and this game actually gets them almost spot-on. Kid Chaos runs across grass-topped hills and half-pipes, leaping from the apex of slopes to take advantage of his momentum. It’s all intimately familiar to any Sonic player.
Unfortunately the game also happens to be frustrating and brutally unfair, with enemies and hazards taking huge bites out of Kid Chaos’s health points. The game is not nearly as forgiving and fun as the material it cops from.
I will admit that most of the graphics are downright beautiful though, main character excepted. If the level art were appropriated for a Sonic hack, most of it would feel right at home.
Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster’s Hidden Treasure
Though it may not be as much of a direct copy as Kid Chaos, Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster’s Hidden Treasure (Genesis, 1993) has more Sonic elements than your average platformer.
There’s something distinctly familiar about those springs and spikes, and it doesn’t help that Buster is running at high speeds – with his feet becoming a circular blur – through the grassy hills of a lakeshore paradise. And the denouement has him braving the metallic confines of the evil scientist Gene Splicer’s laboratory.
The physics for curves and half-pipes here are not nearly as advanced as those from Sonic; Buster’s sprite doesn’t rotate to match the angle of the terrain and there isn’t the profusion of 360° loop-de-loops that a hedgehog might be used to. But the addition of many other gameplay elements, such as helper characters, swimming, and a wall jump help make it entertaining in its own right.
Radical Rex (SNES/Genesis/Sega CD, 1994) is a mediocre platformer with a dinosaur theme. Its colours are so muddy and its “attitude” so hackneyed that spending more than a few moments looking at it is enough to make anyone long for extinction.
Aside from Rex’s forced “cool” attitude, the Sonic rip-off part begins when he gets the skateboard power-up and starts slammin’ and jammin’ through sloped and curved terrain, shouting “Radical!” like it’s going out of style – which I guess it was, thanks in no small part to things like this.
With Jazz Jackrabbit (PC, 1994) we return to shameless rip-off territory. Graphically, the geometric patterns in the terrain from the rocks to the grass all scream Sonic, and some objects like the springs and power-up monitors are practically identical. Jazz motors through levels, collecting super speed and invincibility power-ups, and changes a sign from his enemy’s face to his own at the end of levels. As has been noted before, it’s little more than “Sonic with a gun”. There’s even a 3D special stage.
There are plenty of Sonic zone tropes that appear in the game. The “Tubelectric” world is full of tubes that recall Chemical Plant Zone, and I mean… just look at this one:
At least the developers seem to have a healthy sense of humour about the whole situation, with this little gem appearing in the instruction booklet:
No list of Sonic rip-offs could possibly be complete without Bubsy the Bobcat. Starting his downward spiral with Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind (SNES/Genesis, 1993) and ending it spectacularly with Bubsy 3D (PlayStation, 1996), Bubsy is famously maligned as the worst excrescence of the ’90s mascot fad.
An unstable camera, overlarge and flailing character sprite, and cloying cartoon atmosphere leave Bubsy’s first game with all the charm of a maze from the back of a breakfast cereal carton. How any of the developers managed to produce sequels instead of seeking the penance and solitude of life as a silent monk is beyond me.
Admittedly Bubsy is less like Sonic in particular than other platformers in general, but there are some minor aspects like sloped terrain that come close. The main thing is just that Bubsy himself is like a distorted version of Sonic, as though the very idea of having a character sprite that shows personality was intentionally pushed to its worst extreme with disastrous results. Just the way Bubsy smirks at the player every time he comes to a stop is so infuriating it’s little wonder that he’s becomes the punching bag he is. His stupid one-liners are terrible as well, and don’t even come close to the quality of those spouted by Dana Gould in Gex, which – though hit and miss – were sometimes genuinely worth a smile the first few times you heard them.
As a bit of bonus trivia, Bubsy was voiced by Rob Paulsen in the second and third games in the series, and Lani Minella in Bubsy 3D, both of whom have voiced characters in the Sonic franchise (Antoine and Rouge, respectively).
The eponymous hero of Zool (Amiga/many others, 1992) is described as an “intergalactic gremlin ninja of the Nth dimension” (credulity was already strained at “intergalactic”, but I digress). In addition to all that, he has a thing for Chupa Chups brand lollipops, in one of the weirdest video game marketing deals ever.
Zool, himself looking like an alien Sonic character, not only runs through whimsical vaguely Sonic-like zones with curved terrain, but he can also climb walls like Knuckles – two years before Knuckles’ own debut. This could be an example of a reverse rip-off – does Knuckles owe a space gremlin his powers, or is it just coincidence? Eh, I’m gonna go with the latter.
According to Wikipedia (in an unfortunately unsourced section), Zool nearly outsold Sonic 2. If that’s true… well, there’s no accounting for taste.
Socket (Genesis, 1993) is so much like Sonic that one could be forgiven for thinking it ran on the same engine. In it, Socket the time travelling duck fights robotic enemies in high-speed, 3-act zones that graphically and musically would pass muster in any Sonic game given only 10% more polish.
The developers must have spent an inordinate amount of time studying the Sonic engine, to degrees that might even be considered “reverse engineering”. I think the only reason they got away with it is because it’s also on the Sega Genesis.
It’s actually way cooler overall than you would expect for a “clone” like this. It’s inventive and fun enough that it’s worth playing, despite some bizarre gameplay decisions like combining the time limit and Socket’s health into one “energy” system. The music, I think, is the real star of the show, easily worth it for any fan of that Genesis sound.
Socket is pretty well known in the Sonic hacking and fan game community by now, deservedly recognised due to the combination of its similarities and its overall quality.
High Seas Havoc
High Seas Havoc (Genesis, 1993) stars a pirate seal named Havoc, for the one of the more interesting characters in the Sonic rip-off category. The game itself is very likable and has polished, colourful graphics. While it’s not as close to Sonic as Socket, it comes in at a close second.
The evil pirate bad guy that Havoc has to defeat is even in search of “Emeralda”, a green crystal of immense power. Hmm…
Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos
I suppose it’s hardly surprising that the turbo-charged rodent Speedy Gonzales would play similarly to Sonic. In Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos (SNES, 1995), right out of the gate we see Speedy running on grassy hills topped with palm trees and large yellow flowers, through tubular tunnels, and over sagging bridges that span waterfalls. Also, when Speedy runs along at his top speed down the sloped terrain, his whirling feet are drawn the most similar to Sonic’s out of any of the games in this bunch.
This game is also infamous for being the basis for the unofficial SNES Sonic the Hedgehog 4 hack. If you ask me, Socket would have been a much better candidate!
Ripple Dot Zero
Though one could probably find a bunch more rip-offs in the vein of the nine I just went over, I want to end on a positive note with an absolutely great game. Ripple Dot Zero (Browsers, 2013) isn’t from the ’90s, the heyday of mascot platformers. Instead, it’s a modern love letter to the form that is simultaneously believably an artefact of the times while still feeling like an indie game of today.
The best part is you can play the whole thing free in your browser. Have fun, and see if you can’t spot the homages to Sonic scattered throughout.