14 August 2010

SAGE Advice: Part 5

Here comes the final part of my series on SAGE 2010. I apologise now to the remaining games I didn't get a chance to review.

Sonic 1: SAGE 2010 Edition

ROM hack of Sonic 1 by Cinossu

Visit the Sonic 1: SAGE 2010 Edition Booth!

This hack of Sonic 1 is more than just that - it's actually a proof-of-concept demo for the new Retro Channel at Sonic Retro.

The idea is like a modern evolution of the Sega Channel. By playing in a special emulator, you can upload data such as achievements, scores, and time attack times to the Retro Channel database.

It's still in its infancy, though, and there are a lot of technical issues to sort out. But that doesn't stop it from being one of the geekiest, coolest ideas I've ever seen.

Seeing the Sonic Retro logo at the beginning (with randomly chosen little sprite vignettes) gives me a pang of excitement. Wouldn't it be cool if we were fast heading towards a world with a "Retro Team" that develops quality hacks like this one that will work in conjunction with Retro Channel? It's probably nothing more than my fanboyish dreaming, but I'd love for that to happen. Needless to say, they'd be my favourite developer - Sonic Team would be left in the dust (I say that as if they haven't been already. =P)

Now, I couldn't get the networking features to connect, so I just played the game to ogle at the technical changes. Each Zone and Act is accessible from a cool playable menu with pushbuttons and warp rings. All your stats are saved to SRAM, making time- and score- attacking possible.

There's also a nifty Boss Rush with music by Tweaker that can't be missed.

My Advice: Even if you can't connect to Retro Channel, this is worth playing. If you're a hacking nerd like me, it'll be quite a treat to check out all the classy changes that have been.

Sonic 2: Retro Remix

ROM hack of Sonic 2 by Thorn & DNXDelta

Visit the Sonic 2: Retro Remix Booth!

This is a pretty thorough hack of Sonic 2 that makes it into almost an entirely new game. There are two modes: Classic and Adventure. Adventure Mode involves all sorts of Emerald hunting, missions, and level unlocking, which I'm a sucker for, but I didn't have time to play it in depth. What I did do, though, was fun. Anyway, I'll be looking at Classic Mode only for this review.

Well, we've got our obligatory green level here. The new art is a little grainy, and also samey. The repeating blocks all look like they're at the same depth, causing it to look boring, but also making the gameplay confusing. It's hard to always tell what you can pass through, behind, or in front of or not.

We've got some new moves for Sonic, too. There's a wall jump, homing attack, and even an expertly recreated version of the trick system from Sonic Advance 2, which I have to say is mighty awesome. All of this works very well and it's fun to use the controls.

Unfortunately the level design is poor. It's like a bad mix of Sonic Advance 2 and Chaotix. You keep finding yourself zipping along, only to come to a stop, or fall through a passageway, or get bounced into a blocky area that impedes your flow. It's also fairly easy to get lost.

Some fangames, like Sonic Axiom, or Sonic: Time Twisted (see below), have level design that works very well. I'm not entirely sure what the secret to good level design is, but I think one aspect is that the designer needs to be aware of the screen. As they draw the Zone, they need to constantly be thinking about how the material they're adding is going to be presented to the player. How is it going to be revealed onto the screen? Will the player see where they need to go? Is there enough interest present in any given frame? How can we surprise the player? What kind of visual cues can we use to encourage certain player behaviour? The two games I just mentioned seem to have this kind of thing in mind.

Sonic 2: Retro Remix, however, much like the two games I compared it to (Sonic Advance 2 and Chaotix) seems more like you're playing a map than a Zone. As though it was all splodged onto a big canvas by someone who understood the overview, but had no concern for how it should feel to play through it as it scrolls onscreen incrementally.

So, for all the content here, the level design mars things pretty badly. Playing the Zone gives me a sort of empty feeling, like I'm not actually doing anything.

I've seen trailer videos, though, with amazing speedruns of the Zones. Perhaps the Zones are just too finetuned, and I have to play them "right" in order to properly enjoy them. Either way, I think they need work.

The later Zones actually fare slightly better in the level design department, or maybe I was just getting used to the style. I particularly appreciate the snow level - it's both pretty and fun.

My Advice: Don't get me wrong, Sonic 2: Retro Remix is in no way bad. In fact I quite like it. The ported musics are really good (I especially like the third Act of the first Zone), and the Zones are fast and exhilarating when things are going well. You should definitely play it.

Sonic: Time Twisted

Game made by Overbound in Game Maker

Visit the Sonic: Time Twisted Booth!

I've seen this game around since I first encountered the Sonic community several years ago. It's notable as a solid Game Maker Sonic fangame, and for having Sonic CD-esque time travel, albeit streamlined to only 2 different eras.

This demo's level, Perplex Puzzle, has extremely well conceived level design, and has quite a handful of different gimmicks and moving platforms types - some of which are even unique to the past or future. It's amazing the difference that this makes - suddenly you feel like you're playing a true Sonic game, with echoes of Sandopolis, Marble Garden, or Tidal Tempest, and not a mere tech demo made up of blocks.

There are branching paths, hidden rooms, and nothing feels like it's just been thrown together or unnecessarily repeated just to pad things out. The enemy placement is fair and reasonable, plus the enemies themselves are cool. One is a snail that leaves a slime trail (quite a cool graphical effect, to be honest), and another is based on this guy from Sonic Triple Trouble. Actually, a lot of the level design reminds me favourably of the latter two Game Gear Sonic titles, mixed with Sonic CD. Importantly, it's genuinely fun to play the Zone.

The music is really nice, too - it has the Sonic CD vibe, which fits really well, but it also reminds me of one of my favourite game soundtracks, that of Pushover for the SNES. This is fitting, considering that the Zone is a perplexing puzzle!

It's not perfect, though. The art style, while vibrant, consistent, and technically proficient, at least for this Zone uses too many conflicting primary colours. The future is all green and purple, while the past is all blue and orange.

I'm guessing this was done because Tidal Tempest has a similar look, but it confuses the eye and makes some of the gimmicks you're supposed to interact with (the pull-switches and doors, for instance) difficult to make out. Some of the object sprites, like the shield and the springs, look a little flat and unfinished. Also, the water doesn't change the colour of what's submerged, which reminds me of the lazy PC port of Sonic CD.

I like the Sonic sprite, though, apart from some issues with the eyes in a few of the frames, and the balance of borrowed to original art is also respectable. None of the repurposed elements look out of place.

The game has a fair amount of bugs and incompatibilities. The Zone Clear sequence is particularly unpolished - which is fair enough, this is just a demo. But at one point it triggered during the Zone when I was nowhere near the end, and then froze up the game! The music didn't play on my machine, either, so I had to manually run it in a media player as I played the Zone. The Time Travel transition also showed up as video garbage - and my system can handle Game Maker and surfaces just fine, usually.

Those glitches aside, though, the engine - a modified form of Sonic DASH - is a lot more playable than in most cases. There are a bunch of obvious problems that stand out to someone like me who's studied the originals so carefully, but to the average player there's nothing here that will frustrate you so much you won't be able to finish the demo.

My Advice: This is definitely worth checking out. It's much more polished than the previous demos of the game I've played, which promises that Sonic: Time Twisted will only continue to improve in the future, too. If you like well-thought-out Zones and platforming gameplay (like me), then this is one to watch.

Visit SAGE!

A Happy Announcement!

A few days ago, Overbound - the creator of Sonic: Time Twisted - asked me if I'd like to join the project as Lead Programmer, and make the game's physics and engine even better. I was flattered that he proposed this, and also excited to lend support to a promising Sonic fangame, so I jumped at the chance and said 'yes'.

Now, some of you may also know that I'm currently working on putting together a Unity engine for Sonic Fan Remix. How can I juggle both projects? Well, the truth is, I already am - as I code for SFR in Unity, I'm also working on my Game Maker Sonic engine. When things are going tough in one, I can switch to the other for a breather.

So, though nominally I am now the "Lead Programmer" of STT, more accurately I'm still just working on my Game Maker Sonic engine as I have been doing. However, now I'll be keeping Overbound posted on progress, and STT will be the first game to use my engine when it's done.

By the next SAGE, you're almost assured to see a demo of STT that we'll work to make better than ever. Be there!


  1. I can usually at the very least see your angle, even if I don't agree. Your comments about the level design on Retro Remix however, has me at a loss. Whatever it's faults, I always thought the one thing Retro Remix had in its favour was level design, and that it's this level design which makes it so popular. For sure, I'd consider Thorn one of the best level designers on the scene.

  2. It's certainly high-quality design. The reason why it doesn't click with me is probably because it doesn't emphasise the aspects of Sonic gameplay that I personally enjoy. The later levels, though, weren't as bad as the first one.

    It's probably also better suited to Adventure Mode, which I haven't yet played extensively.