Thoughts on Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal – Part 2: What Went Wrong

In Part 1, I did my best to describe what I think made classic Sonic gameplay so special. Here in Part 2 I want to examine why it hasn’t been satisfactorily recreated in the series since.

The Problem of 3D

As with so much else in the story of Sonic, it all starts with Mario. When Nintendo was developing what would become Super Mario 64 for their new “Project Reality”, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at EAD had to figure out how to translate the fun of Mario into the third dimension.

This was actually quite a tough problem. The basic action of the series so far was using fine control over Mario’s x-axis to line up vertically with objects. Mario’s y-axis was under far less player control, with motion being generated in bursts by events such as jumping, falling, or bouncing. Adding a z-axis so that Mario can run freely on an xz-plane means doubling the number of axes the player has fine control over, making the simple act of lining up a jump much harder. Add to this the fact that this new type of polygonal game was still intended for traditional televisions without stereoscopic 3D, and the lack of depth perception compounds the issue. What used to be second nature, and the basis for the fun of the game series, would become a difficult task. Breaking something so fundamental could ruin the whole experience, something which the likes of Bubsy 3D learned the hard way.

Considering that Project Reality was predicated on 3D, and Miyamoto had wanted to make a 3D Mario ever since their experience with the Super FX Chip enhanced Star Fox and Star Fox 2, there was no turning back. Mario had to not just work in 3D, but excel – and make the case for their upcoming console.

So what did they do? The made a hard decision, the kind of decision that only a developer of their calibre could make. They changed what Mario was all about.

Of course Mario could still jump, and there were levels with more traditional camera angles and gameplay, but they significantly expanded what Mario could do to take advantage of the new perspective. Mario could now kick and punch enemies from the side, making jumping less essential and allowing players to choose an attack based on their confidence in their own skill. Levels were also now less linear – mostly gone were the obstacle courses from before, replaced by playgrounds with opportunities to race, chase, swim, and even fly. All of these new motions had little to do with platform games from the past, but they were all so exhilarating and amazing in 3D that it didn’t really matter.

Instead of turning Mario into 3D, they turned 3D into Mario – making the series synonymous with a whole new generation of gameplay before anyone else made a major move. This ensured that, just like in the 2D era, Mario would lead and other platform games would follow.

Sonic wouldn’t get a proper 3D game until Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, three years after Super Mario 64 set the standard. (Other defining games in the genre like Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Rayman 2 were all released too late to have influenced its development.) Sonic, too, had to solve the “problem of 3D”, because jumping and landing were its bread and butter in the 2D era just like Mario. But Sonic Team didn’t simply crib from Mario, they attemped to solve it in a different way.

They introduced the Homing Attack. First seen as a temporary power-up when wearing the Golden Shield in the Sonic Team co-developed Sonic 3D Blast, it allowed Sonic to shoot toward nearby enemies like a bullet, destroying them with a minimum of aiming on the part of the player. Just press the button and watch Sonic go. What’s more, blasting forward really made Sonic feel fast. If there wasn’t an enemy nearby, Sonic could use the attack to dash through the air and gain speed.

Problem solved, right? Well, technically yes – now Sonic could aim effortlessly in 3D and development of levels could proceed. But I think that this one simple, seemingly helpful decision was the first step in a series of mistakes that prevented Sonic from becoming all he could be in the third dimension.

The Homing Attack acted like a band-aid, holding the platform gameplay together just well enough that they didn’t have to thoroughly reexamine it. And without Sonic Team’s brilliant veteran level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara on the staff anymore, this was all the more disastrous.

Sonic’s action stages in Sonic Adventure are overly linear and extremely limited, with most of them being simple paths suspended over a pit – the expected result of converting 2D gameplay to 3D too literally. When anything interesting has to happen, the levels rely too much on scripting to patch up an insufficient game engine, and once the sizzle wears off replaying them feels like going through the motions. Any game gets old if you play it ad nauseam, but in this author’s opinion Sonic Adventure‘s zones grow thin far more quickly than those of the classics. This isn’t helped by the way Sonic is pushed and pulled through the levels, flung ahead not just by boosters but by the controls themselves. Thanks to the Homing Attack and all these other issues, the game doesn’t have a flowing momentum to it, but a jerky zig-zag rhythm.

All this could have been avoided by making a bolder move, more like Super Mario 64. I’m not suggesting Sonic Adventure should have been a bite-sized emblem hunt that followed Mario to the letter, but that it should have employed the same kind of willingness to reinvent what the series was about. For example, instead of focusing on salvaging jumping with the Homing Attack, they could have built bigger, wider levels to roam around in, rolling into enemies or using Tails to fly and explore. Some of the game’s shining moments are the brief occasions when running on the Adventure Fields (especially the temples in the flashback sequences) and you can imagine Sonic in a whole world to explore before the reality of the game’s boundaries come washing back in like the tide. After all, the song says “rolling around at the speed of sound”, not “rolling forward”.

Merely making the point as I have done here is a far cry from making a better game than Sonic Adventure, of course. However, I do believe that the whole game design process, working with such an idea, would have resulted in a more well-rounded game that would hold up better today. I can point to the first three Spyro the Dragon games on the PlayStation as examples of platform games that, without the weight of the Sonic series on them, were able to be better successors than Sonic Team themselves could provide. Spyro is low to the ground; he jumps long instead of high; he can dash through enemies and turn corners smoothly; there are swimming, flying, and racing sequences; on the whole it controls and plays more solidly than any 3D Sonic game – and it was released in 1998. Perhaps if Sonic Team hadn’t turned their backs on the Sega Technical Institute (members of which went on to develop Spyro), we would have a stronger Sonic series today.

The Homing Attack was only the beginning, though. Once it set the stage, Sonic in 3D always continued to feel like it was about pushing forward at all costs. Stopping, turning, exploring – all these things feel like nuisances when your character is zipping about like a caffeinated squirrel. Grinding, auto-running, boosting and tricking became the series’ staples. Because these things all ultimately create thin gameplay that Sonic blasts through too fast, the games had to be loaded down with forced gimmicks to flesh them out. But since none of these auxiliary modes of play had any provenance in the series, they were introduced and dropped without proper development or care.

After a while, though, the new 3D Sonic games finally achieved a sort of polish. The day stages of Sonic Unleashed, and parts of Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, at least managed to be good linear boost-y levels. They are quite amazing when correctly memorised and expertly speedrun. But where does that leave the fan of classic Sonic gameplay? The fan who wants to play a platform game that feels great right when they pick it up? The fan for whom repeatedly pressing the A button to prerecorded cries of “Excellent! Amazing! Outstanding!” is a pale shadow of what it once meant to play Sonic?

One might think that that fan could turn to the recent 2D Sonic games. After all, that’s been Nintendo’s tactic for years – anyone not comfortable with Mario’s 3D excursions is encouraged to relive their preferred gameplay with New Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. (This hasn’t been a perfect success, of course, but I think that’s mostly due to the ho-hum art design. If they coupled the polished level design of the NSMB series with more creativity they’d have the ideal mix. There could easily be more to the Mario universe than retreading the Super Mario Bros. 3 aesthetic over and over – heck, they could turn to Super Mario Land or even bring back Wart if they didn’t want to make something truly new. But this article is supposed to be about Sonic…)

But the 2D Sonic games after the classic era have fared little better than the 3D outings. Let’s look at them, shall we?

The first, Sonic Pocket Adventure, actually plays very well, but sadly suffers from being too much of a retread to really feel like it delivers on being the sequel Sonic & Knuckles deserves. Besides, even if was perfect, it’s been a decade and a half since it was released on an obscure system.

Sonic Advance and its successors almost had something great going, but with each subsequent game they accumulated sins, culminating in Sonic Rush through Sonic Colors on the Nintendo DS. These are just as problematic as any of the 3D Sonic games. Managing to use the same number of dimensions as a Sega Genesis game isn’t sufficient to make a good Sonic game if the developer forgets the rest of the formula.

Here are some of the ways that these handheld games are contrary to the spirit of Sonic gameplay (though not every point applies to all of the games):

  • Physics. Despite it being trivial (especially for a professional team) to recreate the most relevant aspects of Sonic physics, Dimps kept mucking about with them until they were nearly unrecognisable. Air acceleration is not tuned properly and jumps stop like you hit a ceiling, making it common to both under- and overshoot. Rolling is nerfed, forcing you to run or Boost (which is limited), meaning you can’t play it safe as easily, which leads to…
  • Cheap enemy/trap placement. In Sonic, this is a cardinal sin. To defend Dimps, one could point to Metropolis Zone, but that just makes my point for me – it stands out so badly because it’s not right for Sonic. In Donkey Kong Country, it’s all about memorisation, but Sonic should be able to simply react – that’s what makes the game feel like it’s about speed without being too fast to play. Dimps often gets this exactly backward.
  • If enemy and trap placement is bad, the next problem is even worse: Death pits. Relatively uncommon in classic Sonic, the newer 2D games spam them as if they are in a race with the 3D games to see who can feel more like a rail suspended over nothingness. Needless to say, hazards that kill Sonic outright need to be less frequent or the gameplay reverts to memorisation. The new trend of having the warning signs is just a band-aid solution again – it tells the player they need to jump, but platforming should be thinking about how to jump (not simply that it’ll be needed soon) and that requires the player to see and understand the situation more deeply than a red icon can provide.
  • Lack of landmarks. Both an art problem and a level design problem; static backgrounds and samey layouts mean that the player doesn’t get a feel for where they are in the level, again requiring rote memorisation of the levels. When you don’t have a sense of your surroundings, it undermines the way Sonic’s multiple paths are supposed to each have their own feel to them. It’s also never good when you have no idea how close to the bottom or top of the level you are, because of those damn death pits being everywhere. And needless to say, repetitive and unsurprising levels aren’t good for any game.
  • Item Boxes and Springs, now like the 3D games, are activated merely by touching them. This adds to the feel of being pushed and pulled through the levels without your say-so, but more than that it means that there are less reasons and opportunities to jump and roll of your volition to react to objects on the screen in interesting ways. Instead of controlling your speed and timing to find the optimum bouncing path, you just watch Sonic do his thing. The forced trajectories of the Springs in Sonic 4 are the worst offender.
  • In addition, there are dozens of other objects that boost you around as well. The maligned Dash Panels are an obvious problem, but even things that should be fun, like zip-lines, are made worse. In a classic level, like Launch Base Zone, they are springy and move smoothly, accelerating toward their destination, and they allow you to decelerate and even reverse direction. Also, they leave the player in charge of jumping off of them – heck, the vine zip-lines in Angel Island Zone even have a specially programmed spin at the end to make the gameplay more fun. In new 2D Sonic games? They start off like a shot at one touch, move at a fixed speed, and can’t be controlled. This kind of thing is endemic with the gimmicks in the newer games.
  • By Sonic Rush especially, there are too many sequences with non-standard gameplay, like hang gliders and floating balloons. These aren’t bad in a universal sense, but they are the exact antithesis of Yuji Naka’s original concept of Sonic, because the player can’t always try to run through faster and faster, skipping as much as they want. Picture even Marble Zone or Labyrinth Zone, often criticised for being slow and linear, but a player can hop and skip over the slowest parts of these levels if they are impatient. Not so if you are tied to a stately balloon in a fixed sequence.
  • Similar to the problem immediately above, the boss fights often make you wait for an opportunity to hit them. This was always true to a certain extent, but quick players could get in extra hits or even roast a boss in one series of short bounces. The newer games actively try to avoid this with long scripted bosses that you have to wait around for, watching them roar and posture pointlessly. The classic games knew they’d be played over and over, and were unafraid to let veteran players have the enjoyment of blasting through a boss just like a zone.
  • Sonic Advance 2 and Sonic Advance 3 have highly egregious methods of entering Special Stages, with the former being worse because it enforces playing the levels by taking a specific route. Instead of finding the entrances through natural exploration or by managing to keep enough rings – both of which leave control mostly in the hands of the player – in Sonic Advance 2 the player must always do the same thing in practically the same way to get the most out of the game.

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and it’s been written off the top of my head. I haven’t played many of these games in quite a while, either. It shouldn’t be so easy to compile a list of how every Sonic game Sega has made in the last decade makes design decisions that are not only bad, but wrong and even precisely backward.

Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is supposed to be a fresh start, and the demo indicated that that could actually be the case. Stay tuned for Part 3 where I will finally get to my thoughts about its new style of gameplay now that all the groundwork is out of the way.

(You can follow me on Twitter to get updated when I post articles.)

Thoughts on Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal – Part 1: What Makes a Sonic Game?

Immediately following Wednesday’s Nintendo Direct, the free demo for Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal became available for download on the 3DS eShop (the full version is scheduled for release in North America on the 11th). I’ve now played it through three times, and it’s unlike any sidescrolling Sonic that’s come before. It’s an interesting beast, and I’d like to share my thoughts on it.

I’ll start by saying upfront that I enjoyed what I played quite a bit. There are three levels provided in the demo: Seaside Beach, a standard zone designed around moderate exploration in pursuit of the goal (it lasts more than ten minutes if you don’t try to hurry); Seaside Race, an area visually similar to the first level but focused on speed as Sonic races Sticks to the goal; and Worm Tunnel, wherein Sonic automatically runs forward Special Stage style, contending with a giant robotic worm.

That’s it; there aren’t any cinemas in the demo or anything like that. Because of this, I can’t judge the storytelling, so my opinion of the game could sour when I play the full version and get subjected to the writing of Ken Pontac and Warren Graff, whose past efforts for Sonic filled me revulsion.

The graphics are not exceptional, but they do the job, and the maligned sports tape has little to no impact. The music didn’t stand out, either, but it was definitely nice – it’s by series veteran Richard Jaques, so I expect the remaining tunes will be consistently pleasant as well.

So about the gameplay… This is going to be kind of tricky. It’s such a clean break from what the series has been doing over the past decade that the community’s pet talking points – “boost to win”, “the homing attack”, “speed as a reward” – aren’t adequate, being barely relevant. It’s possible a lot of fans will be under-equipped to have meaningful discussion about it if they try to relate it to their current opinions and expectations without deeper analysis. As I put it on Twitter after I finished playing, Shattered Crystal doesn’t seem to even try to be a Sonic game at all, and it’s not as a Sonic fan that I enjoyed its gameplay – I found it fun as its own thing.

Now, it’s quite common that someone will say something like “Don’t think of this as an entry in a series, think of it like its own thing, and you’ll enjoy it more”. (Any fan of classic Phantasy Star talking to a PSO player has probably heard something like this.) This statement is often used in an attempt to make something disappointing not seem so bad, so it might seem when I argue here that Shattered Crystal should be looked at with fresh eyes that I’m trying to rationalise disappointment. I can assure you that’s not the case – I was already quite prepared to dislike the game, and would have felt no great loss if I had hated it. As a Sonic fan, I’m accustomed to not getting my hopes up. No, I have simply been surprised that a game whose potential I had dismissed turned out to be fun, and I’m delighted that it sidesteps so much of the Sonic formula that a new conversation can be had.

Furthermore, it’s not my aim to convince anyone to like the game just because I had fun with it. That’s not how I roll – if you hate it and think it’s another nail in the franchise’s already bristling coffin, then I have no argument with you. Everyone derives enjoyment from media in different and unpredictable ways, and I accept – indeed, I celebrate – that. My only aim is to provide maybe a little insight so that readers may be better equipped to articulate why they like or dislike the gameplay. Because, like it or not, it’s another phase of Sonic we’re all going to have to grapple with, at least for a while.

So with that said, let’s get the hedgehog rolling. This article, already longwinded, is only going to get worse. Because if I’m to explain why I think Shattered Crystal is in essence so different from other Sonic games, I’m going to have to delve into what I think actually makes a Sonic game. A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject, often without progress, but I’ve never laid out my own thoughts, so here goes.

What makes a Sonic game?

Sega’s failure, percieved or real, to bring Sonic gameplay to the third dimension, or satisfactorily recapture the feeling of the classics with their latest 2D or 2D/3D hybrid efforts, has driven more analysis of what makes Sonic tick than most other franchises. A lot of this has been unproductive, especially when segments of the fanbase with distinct playing styles fundamentally disagree, and some of it is downright toxic, with self-styled pundits making unhelpful proclamations that Sonic has “really” sucked all along.

There have been incremental successes on the topic, with consensus reached on points like the need for multiple paths (with the upper paths being more rewarding, and lower paths being more challenging). One much celebrated point, “speed as a reward”, is in my opinion too open for interpretation, and has been parroted so often that it’s been blanched of meaning, an empty shibboleth that has somehow even reached Sega themselves, with their PR invoking it like a ward against fan mistrust.

Honestly, there’s too much focus on the concept of speed when discussing Sonic gameplay, anyway. After all, cranking up the mph has never cured what ailed Sonic games, whether it’s required of the player to earn it or not, and the word “speed” hardly sums up the best moments in the classics, e.g. Lava Reef Zone. In response to this, the more nuanced term “flow” has been used a lot, which is certainly a lot more apt, but even Super Mario Bros. could be said to “flow”, so it doesn’t exactly get at the heart of defining what the hedgehog’s all about.

I don’t claim to have the perfect way to sum up Sonic gameplay, but I think a valuable perspective can be gained by looking at it in the context of the time of its creation, contrasting it with its closest conspecifics. There are two platformers of the era that we know had a direct influence on Sonic – the first being Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. The Sega Genesis version was programmed by none other than Yuji Naka, an experience he’s mentioned more than once was essential to the creation of Sonic.

I worked on [the Genesis version] of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, for instance, and I feel that prepared me to make Sonic the Hedgehog. – Yuji Naka (Nintendo Power, May 4 2009)

If I hadn’t worked on the port of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Sonic would have probably never existed. – Yuji Naka (Continue, Ohtabooks, November 2001)

But Super Mario Bros. (and to an extent, its sequels) had even more of an influence. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it Sonic‘s direct inspiration. Not only was it the competition Sonic Team were tasked to dethrone, but it was through playing its levels that the idea for Sonic‘s gameplay was born.

Back then, games didn’t allow you to save your progress. So when you wanted to play Super Mario Bros., you always had to start from World 1-1. You could use the Warp Zones to skip many of the other levels, but you always had to play through World 1-1. Doing so eventually became kind of tedious, so I always tried to get through the level as fast as I could. And that inspired the initial concept for Sonic The Hedgehog. – Yuji Naka (Nintendo Power, 2010)

It would be remiss to interpret this as “Sonic is just fast Mario”. You can’t just double Mario’s speed and have a winning formula for a brilliant and timeless game (ironically, Nintendo Direct just showed exactly this with Speed Mario Bros. on Ultimate NES Remix for 3DS). Wanting to move faster was just an idea, a seed that the game design process turned into an actual fun game.

It’s already possible to play Super Mario Bros. pretty darn quickly. Experts can blaze from the beginning to the end in just a handful of minutes, but that’s exactly it – experts. Being able to dash through levels like a bat out of hell is something that only comes with huge amounts of practice and memorisation. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, too, requires memorisation – surviving its brutal difficulty is not possible just by being reasonably good at games. No, you have to be so intimately familiar with the levels that you are prepared for the onslaught, moving preemptively. It’s the only way to have enough reaction time.

You can get a great rush out of either Ghouls or Mario – finding that “flow” – but you have to already know them. Sonic Team and Naka’s masterstroke was, like Prometheus, bringing that power to mere mortals. The many design decisions that hewed Sonic gameplay from the Mario template were, whether the team consciously thought about them in these terms or not, essentially about accessibility.

Let’s look at a few of those decisions, shall we?

  • At Naka’s insistence, Sonic is controlled with only one button – half those required for Mario. The player doesn’t need to manage a “run” button, instead moving freely with natural acceleration.
  • Sonic can always reach the full height of his jump just by holding the button long enough, unlike Mario who jumps short depending on circumstances before he jumps.
  • Sonic’s acceleration is doubled when jumping, allowing him to clear impressive distances from a standstill without preparation. In addition, as Sonic reaches the apex of his jump, “air drag” blunts his velocity, helping prevent overshooting when Sonic is farthest away from the ground and therefore furthest away from the player’s eye if they are focused on the target of the jump.
  • Sonic doesn’t have a simple 1 or 2 hit health system. Instead, gathering Rings can keep him alive indefinitely, meaning that mistakes are less costly. Being hit by an enemy during a level doesn’t necessarily mean you will be punished during the boss fight by being totally vulnerable. Yes, you can still stock Rings and keep a Shield to make things even easier, but you have to really screw up to be unprotected when it really counts.
  • Sonic and Mario both jump on enemies to destroy them, but Mario is vulnerable unless he lands precisely, meaning that a “jump” response to seeing an enemy actually carries a fair amount of risk. Sonic is safe from all sides unless he hits projectiles or spikes, making it easy to attack from any angle.

All of these aspects make Sonic a game less about memorisation and trial and error than any preceding platformer. The player doesn’t need to prepare; they can fly by the seat of their pants, enjoying the “flow state” of expert action gamers with far less investment. Sonic isn’t necessarily more fun or exciting than Mario, but it’s democratised – the fun faces outward, instead of buried deep. The only ability Sonic has that needs preparation is rolling, for which he must moving at or above a certain speed threshold, but this move is rarely essential because jumping is almost always a viable alternative for attack. Furthermore, rolling can always be done while running, so a player nervous about encountering an enemy can roll up – in essence turn practically invincible and enjoy the high-speed antics anxiety free.

None of this is to say that the Sonic games aren’t challenging, or that they don’t have hidden depths of greater enjoyment when practiced and memorised. Indeed, those peaks are even higher. Sonic is already fast, so speedrunning a zone can give a giddy satisfaction that can often surpass the most flawless Mario run. And of course collecting the Chaos Emeralds to see the “real ending” requires not just surviving but finding and keeping Rings – a reward for players familiar with the zones’ hazards.

All of these accessibility features made Sonic a game relatively free of frustration, an experience that let even beginners taste the joy of really ruling at a game. It was perfect for an impatient and hyperactive kid like myself, who grew bored of Mario and Megaman when they required me to give them more dedication than I felt clusters of pixels really deserved in a world filled with other shiny distractions. Sonic kept me coming back because just moving around in its environs was inviting and thrilling, making practising the game not just rewarding when you “completed” it but an enjoyable process in itself.

Even the makers of Mario must have seen the advantage, because the first game in that series to be developed after Sonic was Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which employs nearly every bullet point on the list above, and even goes further with the addition of the “flutter jump”. A jump that starts out poorly can still be salvaged, allowing less focused play. This is probably why Yoshi’s Island remains my favourite game in the Mario oeuvre and the only one I feel can seriously compare to Sonic.

Obviously this is just my perspective. Sonic is an entire video game, with so many elements conceived and implemented at disparate times that it’s really not possible to consider it as a whole, as it’s inevitably going to contain conflicts and counterexamples to its own ethos. Nothing is simple, and nothing is perfect. But I think that broadly, this is what makes a Sonic game. It’s pretty much consensus that Sega’s recent efforts to relive the glory have fallen flat, though, so where exactly did they go awry? After all, on paper they’ve recreated many of the same details – the Ring system, the loops, the same basic moveset. What went wrong? That’s for Part 2.

So this turned out to not say much about Shattered Crystal… yet. Stay tuned, and all will be revealed! I’ll probably have an opportunity to play the full version at release, having pre-ordered it, so a full review will be forthcoming as well.

(You can follow me on Twitter to get updated when I post articles.)

Sonic Second Chances: 3 Awesome Sonic Hacks

Normally here at Sonic Second, I post about official classic Sonic stuff that’s obscure or interesting, but this time I’m doing something a little different: Sonic Second Chances, a spin-off of the main Sonic Second column where I show fan-made content. Fan creations on average have more of a tendency than official works to be buried by the inexorable march of the internet, because they aren’t curated in the same way. Sure that fangame got a lot of attention at the SAGExpo years ago, but has anyone played it since? Sure that hack won the hacking contest, but is anybody still talking about it? Part of why I do the Sonic Second is to regularly showcase accomplishments of the community (e.g. discoveries of lost material or revelations found when hacking) and I think original work by fans fits right in with the spirit of the column.

So without any further ado, here are three of my favourite Sonic hacks, in no particular order.

Sonic VR

  • Base Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Mega Drive / Genesis), with ported objects from Sonic the Hedgehog 1 (Mega Drive / Genesis)
  • Author: ColinC10
  • Info/Download: Sonic Retro Wiki

Sonic VR is less of a hack of Sonic 2 and more of a celebration of its game engine. It contains none of the levels or music from the original game, instead comprising 40 brand new micro-zones. Each of these is a brilliantly crafted challenge based around some object or behaviour from the original game, with occasional appearances from Sonic 1 objects (the game is actually a hack of a hack, based on ColinC10’s previous Sonic 1 and 2). For example, in level 2, “Halfpipe”, reaching the goal requires the player to make use of Sonic’s ability to launch ever higher in the air by rolling back and forth in a halfpipe, something most of us learned from Casino Night Zone.

Not all of the challenges are as easy as rolling back and forth, though – not by a long shot. Some of the things you’re expected to do skirt the edge of hair-pullingly difficult, especially with the conspicuous lack of Rings anywhere in the hack. It really expects the player to have a thorough familiarity with the physics and a firm enough grasp on the controls to pull off tricks that look impossible at first, but it’s designed to facilitate this:

I decided pretty early on when making the hack that every object would be taken directly from Sonic 1 or 2 without any modification whatsoever, so the player doesn’t have to relearn how anything behaves and can concentrate on solving the level. – ColinC10

Masterful level design and the ability to quickly retry levels without a long wait or fear of running out of lives gives the game high playability despite the challenge. I’m able to beat all 40 levels without resorting to savestates or feeling frustrated, and I’ll admit I’m no gaming wizard. Moderate aptitude at the Sonic engine and a little perseverance should be all you need to complete it. I’ll also tell you upfront: there’s no reward for completing it, not even a congratulations message. I assure you, though, playing each of the levels is its own reward.

One other cool thing about this hack is the soundtrack: it features four tracks by Anamanaguchi, recreated with full-length audio samples instead of synthesis. I was a bit out of the loop in 2011 when I first played VR, so this was my introduction to the band. When I heard a couple of the same songs in Bit.Trip Runner, I was surprised – “Hey, those are the songs from Sonic VR!”

Unfortunately the fancy soundtrack means that the ROM is 6 megabytes, preventing some emulators from playing it correctly. You should be fine with most version of Gens (I’ve even successfully played this on the Wii port), but Kega Fusion is recommended for the smoothest experience and best audio quality.

Here is a longplay, but I highly suggest you don’t watch it all the way through and play the game itself without spoiling it, since some of the challenges are puzzle based.

Metal Sonic Hyperdrive

  • Base Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 1 (Mega Drive / Genesis)
  • Author: Darkon360/LoneDevil
  • Info/Download: Sonic Retro Wiki

When I played Metal Sonic Hyperdrive for the 2012 Sonic Hacking Contest, it was completely average, if slightly ambitious. Ever since the standard was set by Sonic Megamix, hacks of Sonic 1 with a handful of characters dashing through zones with modified art and layouts were a dime a dozen, and most ran out of steam about halfway through the adventure. Hyperdrive was hardly different, a functional but clumsy experience whose design and balance issues in its latter half prevented enough enjoyment to make it memorable or worth recommendation.

However, merely one year later, at the 2013 Sonic Hacking Contest, the game was so drastically improved it was like I was watching Extreme Makeover: Sonic Hack Edition. It snagged the Tails Trophy for “Most Improved Hack” by a comfortable margin, boasting overhauled graphics and level design that not only outshone the previous build, but could stand on their own as an exemplar for other hacks to aspire to.

Now considered complete, with the creator moving on to new Metal Sonic related hacking projects, Hyperdrive has joined the company of my favourite hacks almost entirely on the strength of its brilliant levels. The other aspects of the hack and its smattering of interesting bonus content (like a playable Kirby) are well done, to be sure, but the rollicking level design is easily the hack’s claim to fame. It’s not uncommon for hacks to have mediocre level design, a blight we can probably blame in part on a poor understanding of how to best design good Sonic levels and in part on the sheer difficulty of working with the complicated modular format they are constructed in. Another factor might be that gimmicks (such as new types of moving platforms) are critical to good levels, but creating them is an advanced task that is rarely undertaken, with most hack layouts leaning heavily on terrain instead. Now, I’m not saying that Hyperdrive creates exciting new gimmicks on the level of something like Sonic & Knuckles, but it has a good grasp on how to use the familiar ones and put nice twists on them, and a similarly good grasp on how to make terrain that maintains flow. Curves, jump trajectories, and platform timing all come together in a polished package that always feels good, with none of the awkward structures from other hacks that hamper acceleration and make the Sonic 1 engine feel its age.

Here’s a video walkthrough. It’s of the 2013 build, but it’s still indicative and I couldn’t find a video that I preferred of the 2014 build.

Sonic Classic Heroes

  • Base Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Mega Drive / Genesis)
  • Authors: Flamewing, ColinC10
  • Info/Download: Sonic Retro Wiki

Sonic Classic Heroes began life as Sonic 2 Heroes, a hack that gave Sonic 2 the ability to play as 3 simultaneous characters and switch between them on the fly à la Sonic Heroes. The scope of the project quickly grew when creator Flamewing collaborated with ColinC10, fusing Sonic 2 Heroes with the latter’s Sonic 1 and 2 hack, thereby adding all of the gameplay from Sonic 1 to create a multi-campaign epic. Later revisions have added Espio, Vector, and Charmy as a second available team (although they can’t be mixed and matched with Team Sonic), and the project is still being developed so more content is expected in the future.

Not only can you play as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all on the screen together – something I longed for back in the day when playing the original games – but you can mix and match any pair of characters or play as any of the three heroes solo. In effect, this hack supersedes any “Tails in Sonic 1” or “Knuckles in Sonic 1” hacks. Add to that all the other great new features, like being able to save your progress, elemental shields, Super/Hyper forms, and every character’s abilities, and Sonic Classic Heroes is damn near the definitive way to play Sonic 1 and Sonic 2.

Of course the addition of the extra characters understandably adds a few palette issues here and there, but there’s surprisingly little jank considering just how much is going here. It’s quite an accomplishment, and should be in any Sonic fan’s hack collection.

There you have it, three awesome Sonic hacks, each of them among my personal favourites. They are fairly widely known, but they deserve as many players as they can get, so I’d love it if this article gets you to try them if you haven’t yet! Expect Sonic Second Chances to return from time to time, but next week I’ll be back with another traditional Sonic Second. See you then!

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The Sonic Second: The First Sonic Hackers

19, 65, 09, 17

1, 9, 9, 2, 1, 1, 2, 4

4, 1, 2, 6

A lot of video games had cheat codes, but the codes in Sonic were the best, and the best of those were in Sonic 2. The codes were hardly secret, being circulated in most of the gaming magazines of the time, and the Level Select menu was clearly intended for players to access, with a polished user-friendly interface and unique graphical icons for each zone. You didn’t even need quick fingers to press an obtuse combination of buttons, but merely had to input a sequence of numbers into the Sound Test. The sequence of numbers was Yuji Naka’s date of birth, with the results being an easily memorable code and him having the most famous birthday of any game developer.

Entering another date (the game’s own international release day, 1992-11-24, a.k.a. “Sonic Twosday”) on this screen would give up another goodie – Debug Mode. In addition to being a great name for a 16-bit Depeche Mode cover band, it was the coolest cheat code ever; it allowed the player to turn Sonic into myriad other objects from the game and place them in the layout (where they would remain until the screen scrolled far enough way that they were cleaned up by the object manager). It wasn’t a fully-fledged level editor, but it was the next best thing.

Sega clearly wanted us to find and enjoy Debug Mode. It would have been trivial to disable it. It’s not really talked about much, but this feature really made the Sonic games stand out. They all had it, not just Sonic 2, but no other game I played at the time – or, for that matter, since – has had anything like it. Certainly not the Mario games that were the direct competition. This, plus Sega’s endorsement of the Game Genie for Genesis while Nintendo sued Galoob, made Sonic perfect for players who liked to get their hands slick with the guts of a game. With Debug Mode, we poked and prodded the running game for a response like gaming Galens.

While the leaked Sonic 2 beta would be the flame around which the hacker moths of the early online Sonic scene would circle, I believe that Debug Mode and the Game Genie were already sparking the hacking attitude in players back in the early ’90s. In some sense, you could say those who used these codes and features were the first Sonic hackers.

I honestly think that this is yet one more of the ways the Sonic series is so special. The games themselves fostered an ability to enjoy them from any angle, from front to back and inside out, and that’s part of the reason why there’s such a vibrant and talented hacking scene surrounding them today.

Next time on The Sonic Second, I’ll be counting down my favourite Sonic hacks, but for now I’ll leave you with a video of one of the silly and fun things I did with Debug Mode back in the day. (I’ve recreated it using emulation so I can record it and provide a savestate, but I used to do it on hardware.)

I love the classic physics! Here’s the savestate (for Gens). Can you jump up all the doors without falling down?

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The Sonic Second: Sonic History Video

Last time on The Sonic Second, I talked about the promotional videocassette for Sonic 2. Well, Sonic 3 got one as well, albeit one that’s less than two thirds the duration at only 6 minutes long. This time it’s not billed as a “CHIRA-video”, either, but as a “Sonic History Video”, and it focuses mostly on exactly that, with only the briefest of Sonic 3 teases at the end.

Again like last time, you can watch the whole video below, and I’ll be posting a breakdown with images of the packaging, screenshots, and my thoughts below that.

Unlike the Sonic 2 promo video, which had a paper insert in a plastic case making it look almost like a slim Genesis game, this one has a cheaper folded cardboard sleeve. It’s still cool, but for a picky collector like me it’s kind of annoying that they don’t match. (Sonic & Knuckles came in a cardboard box, though, so these are just the kind of irksome things one has to learn to move on from.) Again, the cover artwork is the same as the game’s.

The tape itself, however, does match the Sonic 2 one quite well.

And that’s it – as far as I know, no coupons or anything were included with it. So let’s get started with the video. It opens with the same “Sega!” animation as the Sonic 2 promo video.

Then oddly, there’s footage of the Sonic CD opening cartoon, complete with Sonic CD music.

This is a little confusing – if the viewer wasn’t lucky enough to know about the comparatively rare Sonic CD, they might get the impression that this cartoon and music had something to do with the game being promoted, because there’s no indication otherwise. In fact, Sonic CD music is used here and there all throughout the video.

The cartoon culminates in a deft piece of editing that has Sonic’s spinning jump smoothly transition to his jump that smashes the Sega logo in the Sonic 3 intro sequence. Then the “Sonic History Video” title is shown. Not quite as fancy as the gentle fun(?) being poked at Mario and Luigi in the previous video – just a grey background.

Like the previous video, there’s a character section that starts with Sonic, but this time they jump right into it. It’s called “All About Sonic!”, and technically, it’s more than one section, because it’ll keep coming back throughout the video for each character’s profile.

Sonic’s profile:

  • Nickname: Sonic
  • Type: Hedgehog
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 15~16 years old
  • Weakness: Swimming

For the sake of comparison, here’s Sonic’s profile from Sonic Jam (Japanese and English versions):

(I find it interesting that neither Japanese profile commits to an age here, and the American one used 16. Sega now uses 15 according to Sonic’s profile on the official Japanese site.)

Back to the video! In the case of Sonic only, the profile goes into more detail, focusing on three of his individual traits.

For “Hair”, the Sonic 2 special stage is shown, because it’s the best 3D demonstration of Sonic’s spines.

For “Hand”, Sonic 2‘s waiting animation is shown, with Sonic looking at his watch.

For “Shoes”, footage of Sonic running – actually from Sonic 3 this time! – is shown, and the narrator mentions Michael Jackson’s “dancing shoes” from Bad. Naoto Ohshima has mentioned these as the inspiration for Sonic’s shoes in later interviews (e.g. in Gamasutra).

The next section is called “Making of Sonic!”, and whereas Yuji Naka got to talk in the previous video, this one has Naoto Ohshima.

The black and white document being quickly flipped through at the beginning of the segment has some interesting stuff in it I’ve not seen elsewhere. It’s got an odd mix of Japanese and American art – I’d love to see the whole thing, I’m sure there’s great stuff in it, whatever it is. These are terribly blurry, but you can see what looks like Sonic and Tails yawning, running, and a picture of Sonic with a telescope.

After that, while Ohshima talks, a bunch of concept art for the character contest that resulted in Sonic’s creation is shown. This video is the source for many of these images you’ll see around the ‘net.

Finally it’s narrowed down to two rough sketches by Yasushi Yamaguchi (who would later create Miles “Tails” Prower) and Ohshima himself. The latter, at the bottom of the screen, is the famous “Mr. Needlemouse”, or more technically “Mr. Harinezumi” – a Japanese compound word meaning “hedgehog” made from “hari” (needle) and “nezumi” (rat/mouse).

Once Ohshima’s design was chosen, Sonic started to take shape, resulting in his final design.

The segment ends with a mention of Sonic’s public reveal, at Dreams Come True’s Wonder 3 concert tour in Japan.

(As an aside, there’s some music throughout this video that’s not from any Sonic games, and it’s particularly striking in this “Making of Sonic” section. It sounds suitable for Sonic though, and I wonder if it’s just stock music or if someone from Sega composed it.)

The next section is “History of Sonic!”

It opens with this weird drawing of Sonic flying some vehicle (possibly the Tornado, although it would have to be awfully off-model) in pursuit of Robotnik, whose hovercraft has insect wings like something out of Studio Ghibli’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Robotnik appears to have captured Tails, and there’s also a very disturbed bird. There’s no real explanation for its inclusion here.

Next Sonic 1 is shown, and its subsection concludes with some nice drawings of Dr. Eggman.

Next Sonic 2 is shown, and its subsection concludes with Tails’ profile to match Sonic’s at the beginning of the video.

Tails’ Profile:

  • Nickname: Tails
  • Type: Fox
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: 8 years old
  • Favourite Thing: Mechanical Tinkering

Again, Sonic Jam profile for comparison:

(You may note that Prower is transliterated into Japanese in two different ways here. The video, as well as the booklets for Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, use “PA-U-WAA”, while Sonic Jam matches Sonic 2 and Sega’s current official profile with “PA-U-AA”. The Terada/Norimoto manga uses yet a third way, “PAA-A-WAA”. None of these actually sound like “Prower” – I would have gone with “PU-RA-WAA” myself (compare “power” and “flower”) but what do I know? I also find it weird that “Miles” and “Tails” are both transliterated with a “SU” sound at the end instead of a “ZU”, despite the latter being how “Knuckles” is transliterated. But I’m probably digressing way too much here….)

Next, the video finally gets to the good stuff (from the point of view of a player at the time who’s excited for the next game). Sonic 3, and the new character, Knuckles!

Knuckles’ profile:

  • Nickname: Knuckle
  • Type: Echidna
  • Gender: Male
  • Age: Older than 15
  • Pastime: Digging Holes

Again, Sonic Jam profile for comparison:

It seems a little silly that his nickname is “Knuckle”, but even the narrator of the video calls him that. Also, his age in the video is listed as more than 15, while Sonic Jam just says 15. Seems weird for him to be possibly younger than Sonic, and I guess Sega realised this too, as he’s now listed as simply 16, a year older than Sonic.

With Knuckles introduced, the video goes on to show off the three new shields.

“Thunder Shield”, called “Thunder Barrier” in the Japanese manual for the game and “Lightning Shield” in the US manual. I think it’s interesting that the video uses “shield” despite being Japanese where “barrier” was always the preferred term, even well into the Sonic Adventure era.

“Aqua Shield”, called “Aqua Barrier” in the Japanese manual and “Water Shield” in the US manual.

“Flame Shield”, called “Flame Barrier” in the Japanese manual and “Flame Shield” in the US manual.

(Because there wasn’t any reason to match what the instruction booklet said exactly, I grew up calling them the “Lightning Shield”, “Bubble Shield”, and “Fire Shield”, just because those sounded the most natural to me at the time.)

I guess the new elemental shields were something they were really proud of, because they are the only new features of Sonic 3 that get specific attention. All the other cool stuff, like Ice Cap’s snowboarding and the new Special Stages are relegated to a tiny montage at the end, and then the video is over, signing off with a cute animation and the phrase “See you next Sonic!”

And I’ll see you next Sonic Second. 🙂

h/t Sonic Retro

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