28 September 2011

Hack Attack (Part I)

As promised, here are my thoughts on the contenders for the 2011 Sonic the Hedgehog Hacking Contest now that the results have been announced. As with my SAGE "reviews", these will be curt because I'm very lazy busy.

Sonic Chaotic

Hack of Sonic Chaos by Ravenfreak

I'll let Ravenfreak describe this hack in her own words. A quote from the readme file:

It was made because, I believe Sonic Chaos is piss poor easy, and seems to be the easiest 8-bit sonic game, at least in my opinion. ... In this hack, jumping does no good Sonic/Tails doesn't roll into a ball! Instead they are easily vulnerable to enemies and obstacles. To make matters worse, Dr. Robotnik has taken an extra step to make those enemies and obstacles stronger, the second Sonic/Tails collides with them they lose a life!

While it's cool to see a hack of the seldom-modded Sonic Chaos, this doesn't seem like Hacking Contest material. Gimping the jump and removing the check for rings upon enemy collision are great proofs of concept, showing that progress is being made in figuring out the Sonic Chaos code. But they're hardly features that make playing through the game interesting. For that reason I guess I have nothing else to say about it.

Chip McCallahan in Sonic the Hedgehog

Hack of Sonic 1 by MainMemory

This is clearly some kind of joke hack, and unless you know what's being referenced, it's totally meaningless. Since I didn't get the joke (I had to look it up), I can't say anything for or against it other than that it seems unplayable.

Latios in Sonic 3 & Knuckles

Hack of Sonic 3&K by Scott4

Unless this was being made as a parody of all that can go horribly wrong when a n00b makes a hack, it fails at everything it tries to do. Sonic is replaced with some sort of new character, but it's so poorly drawn and incompletely implemented I can't really tell what it's supposed to be. The palettes and layouts are changed for the worse, and copious Giant Rings lead to Special Stages that seem to consist entirely of blue spheres. A very poor effort.

Blue Sphere Plus

Hack of Blue Sphere by MainMemory

In addition to all the features of the normal Blue Sphere, this hack includes all 16 of the Special Stages from Sonic 3 and Knuckles, a save feature, and the ability to play as Tails, Sonic and Tails, or Knuckles and Tails. In other words, there's basically no need to ever play the original version again.

Blue Sphere may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but I like this.

Sonic Loco 2

Hack of Sonic 2 by Tamkis

Ugh. Where to start?

First, the music. When so many hacks merely replace the music with Azure Lake and Isolated Island ad nauseum, it's kind of nice to see all the music replaced with interesting compositions. The problem is they are so poorly converted to the Genesis's sound system that they sound like a buggy mess and one can hardly distinguish between songs. They also seem to bork the sound effects (unless there is some other cause for this).

Second, the level layouts. There are certainly some interesting constructions, but there are far too many cheap deaths. Also, the implementation is hamfisted - too often springs and platforms are employed to spackle tricky areas, and there are too many broken tiles to count. Overall I'd say it's some of the worst I've seen, almost making me wonder if it's serious.

For some reason the Super Peel Out is included, but as badly as I've seen it done. I'm also confused by the mix of Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 sprites which looks odd at best.

Ultimately I'd describe this as a "mess". I had to stop at Chemical Plant in order to preserve my good humour.

Red the Hedgehog

Hack of Sonic 1 by Dandaman

Described as "a hack with hours of effort poured into it," I can only hope this is some kind of joke (and judging by the creator's reputation, I'm going on record assuming that it is). There's not a single aspect, from title screen to play control to sound effects to palettes to graphics, that isn't totally ruined. Randomly changing values in a hex editor could make a better hack than this.

Simple Sonic Hack

Hack of Sonic 1 by Glaber

As advertised, this is quite simple. It's just three acts - GHZ1, GHZ2, and LZ1 - plus Final Zone with different layouts. Not anything to write home about, but worth a playthrough.

I also have to give it some respect for adding Sonic's missing shoe stripe. =P

Megaman 2: The Robotnik Wars

Hack of Sonic 2 by Tamkis

Tamkis's second effort is, I'm sorry to say, no better than his first. Very shoddily and incompletely implemented Megaman sprites and music are all that's on offer here. Since the sprites are the wrong size for the gameplay, and the music has the same problem as Sonic Loco 2, this has a long way to go before it's even mildly interesting. It shouldn't have been shown to anyone at this stage of completion, let alone entered in a contest.

Sonic 1 Misadventure

Hack of Sonic 1 by Arctic Leopard

This is a rather ambitious hack as it attempts to give Sonic 1 whole new zones. Unfortunately it's also a very uneven hack - while some design choices seem inspired, others are like "what?". Despite that, though, it has the most potential of any I've talked about so far, with some nice original graphics and even some new gimmick objects.

Overall, I have to say I like it.


Hack of Sonic 1 by Banoon

This might as well be a completely different game than Sonic. Despite how weird it looks, it's actually pretty fun and charming on its own. I especially liked the tongue-in-cheek PDF manual and the clever new challenges in the levels. It's worth trying out for the noir Spring Yard Zone alone.

Sonic the Hedgehog 1 Reinvented

Hack of Sonic 1 by Watsonman

This is a rather cruddy hack of Sonic 1 with butchered sprites and palettes, a jumpdash, and "harder" bosses (they take more hits). I've seen a million of these, and there's nothing that makes this one stand out.

Untitled Sonic 2 Hack

Hack of Sonic 2 by D.A. Garden

Judging by the title, one might guess there's not much of a theme or purpose to this hack. Basically, the only thing you'll notice is that Sonic is darker (why do people do that?) and that some levels have changed layouts. The ones that are changed (CPZ, MCZ, WFZ) are actually pretty cool, though. Be warned that the new bosses are real hardasses.

Sonic the Ghosthog

Hack of Sonic 1 by Hanoch

An interesting gameplay/layout hack where Sonic turns into a ghost instead of dying outright. While a ghost, he can't interact with items or beat the level, but he's sort of invincible and can fly. I'm afraid, though, that this new method of play doesn't have the right balance to be very fun. Essentially the goal becomes playing without getting hit like some kind of "kaizo" hack, but instead of immediately retrying when you fail you have to tediously backtrack.

Metal Sonic Overdrive

Hack of Sonic 1 by MKDarkon

While parts of the level layouts in this are interesting enough to keep my attention for one playthrough, there's nothing real special going on here. Several design choices (such as having 8-bit Kirbys erupt from the ground instead of little animals escape from a capsule) leave me mystified and a little put off. There are also a lot of things that seem to be changed just for the sake of being changed, which is a mark of a low-quality hack.

The hack makes use of my Wall Jump code, which is nice to see, although it's not implemented perfectly: it only works on tiles, not objects, and it's possible to trigger it even while facing away from the wall. Yer makin' me look bad, people! =P

Sonic Mega Fusion

Hack of Sonic 2 (Nick Arcade prototype) by GenesisFan64

A buggy hack of Emerald Hill with My Little Ponies as enemies? There are some interesting code changes, such as only showing the score counter when Sonic gets score, but the ring counter is missing which makes it feel broken instead of improved.

I guess I just don't see the point. I prefer hacks with a good solid idea behind them.

Sonic VR

Hack of Sonic 2 by ColinC10

Sonic VR doesn't even feel like a hack of a specific Sonic game, but like a whole new kind of game. It consists of short mini-zones that are self-contained challenges, all of which take place in a snazzy virtual reality world. The player can select any of these challenges from four main "file systems" (which appear to get increasingly difficult) using a cool interface that harks back to personal computers from the early 80's (you know, the kind that Johnny Mnemonic thought we'd still be using in the future).

The challenges strongly remind me of the bonus stages from Wario World for the Nintendo Gamecube, which I've always liked. This was easily one of my favourite hacks this year, further cementing ColinC10's sparkling reputation.

Stay tuned for Part II, and also Part III where I will compare my trophy nominations with the actual winners in the interest of science.

22 September 2011

SAGE 2011 Reviews (Part IV)

Sonic Worlds Level Collab

A long while back, I recall LiQuidShade of Zone: 0 and me discussing how cool it would be if there was some kind of project that was like the Little Big Planet of Sonic - you'd be able to play user created zones without all the other rigmarole. Well, the SWLC team has finally brought us something much like that.

This first release contains 2 full zones and 5 short 1-act challenges. Apparently there will be new packages released twice a year, once for SAGE and once for Christmas. Of course the amount of cool zones we'll get depends on how many folks get involved.

The content on offer right now is quite good, though. The standout of all the zones is definitely Amazing Ocean, with its clever boss, intelligent layout, and character-dependent paths. I played it through many times in order to find all the red rings, and I'm not tired of it yet.

Collecting said red rings gets you unlockables, such as Super Mode for all the characters and the aforementioned challenge levels.

The challenge levels are for the most part charming and fun (although the Labyrinth one is a bit spare). The only thing is I wish they were much harder to make up for their brevity. They are called "challenges" after all; I was expecting to be hit with extreme difficulty.

But it's all worth it for Cheese Hill Zone: =P

So far I love the concept and the content, and I can't wait for Christmas to see what other goodies the team will have for us.

Sonic 2 Retro Remix

Sonic 2 Retro Remix is an ambitious and pedigreed Sonic 2 hack. It's also a bit controversial, because the gameplay is intentionally more akin to Super Mario 64's search for stars than the standard run-for-the-goal Sonic fare, although a "classic mode" has traditionally been included. When I last reviewed it, I played only the classic mode, and majorly missed the point. This time, classic mode has been removed to encourage playing the game the way it was meant to be enjoyed, so we'll see what that does to change my mind about it.

Not actually a whole lot, to be honest. I still can't seem to enjoy this game, no matter how hard I try. There's just something about the cramped, overly-technical layouts that puts me off. Even the short overworlds, where you enter acts by way of Warp Rings, are frustrating and difficult to navigate, an aspect of Sonic Advance 3 which I loathed and I can't imagine why anyone would want to emulate it. The zones themselves are huge, confusing, sloppy, and devoid of any sense of flow - to me at least; I've heard others swear that, when played right, they're feats of genius. But as far as I'm concerned they are the epitome of everyone's complaints about Sonic CD's level design, cranked up to 11.

I'm also not fond of the unnecessarily complicated controls, the busy art, or the music culled from disparate sources. It all feels bloated and aimless, and I can't find any fun in it at all.

I know this is an acclaimed hack. For all I know it's a quality one. But it doesn't appeal to me.

To sum up

And that's it for my brief thoughts on SAGE. I won't be going over things like Sonic RealmZ or Super Sonic Knockout, because I'm not interested in, nor qualified to evaluate, such extreme deviations from the standard Sonic formula. I'm also skipping a few embarrassingly incomplete offerings which really should have been kept under wraps for another year or so - you know who you are.

But this won't be the last of my reviews for a while - I'll be giving my thoughts on the Hacking Contest entries once the winners are announced.

I'll leave you with a recap of my favourites, which I think should be in any Sonic fan's game collection.

  • Sonic: Before the Sequel
  • Sonic Fusion
  • Sonic Axiom
  • Sonic Worlds Level Collab

See you at next SAGE! Maybe by then that lazy, opinionated wanker Murky, or Merkin, or whatever he calls himself, will have released his engine.

21 September 2011

SAGE 2011 Reviews (Part III)

It's hardly a secret that I'm not too fond of modern Sonic. I haven't loved anything of the Sonic brand released after 1996, and haven't even liked anything since Sonic Adventure 2 (short segments of Sonic Rush Adventure excepted). Yeah, I'm a grinch. But I'm gonna try to be fair at least to my fellow Sonic fangamers who do like modern Sonic and use those kinds of elements in their projects.

Sonic Inferno

Sonic Inferno is a demo of a single (rather short) act, but there are several characters to choose from: Sonic, Knuckles, and Shadow. (Tails and Chaos are present in the select screen, but inaccessible. One assumes they'll be ready in the next demo quite soon.)

The single act is called "Engine Base", which sets one's expectations up for an original (if a little generic) zone, but those are let down when the title card sweeps away to reveal this:

...It's Route 99, from Sonic Advance 3. Yes, it has a different layout, but c'mon, guys. When we made the Scrap Brain demo for Sonic Time Twisted, at least we had the decency to advertise it as such!

But I digress. Sonic Inferno's engine is robust and quite a few features are implemented - magnet shield, homing attack, Knuckles' climbing/gliding, Advance-style attacks on a secondary button, etc. It's really quite nice overall.

But considering how there's hardly anything new (and I use that "hardly" out of charity) and it's shorter than Sonic after touching the shrink laser from Metallic Madness Zone, there's not a whole lot of reason to play this one unless you're already following the project and are interested to see how the it's progressing. For pure entertainment value, look elsewhere.

Sonic Fusion

I reviewed Sonic Fusion at last year's SAGE, and was impressed, but was plagued by some control incompatibilities that prevented me from accessing all the features. For some reason it thought the Down button was continually pressed or something, making it impossible to select Knuckles on the character select screen or even perform the Spin Dash.

All of that's in the past now, I'm relieved to say, and I was able to fully enjoy this year's demo. And there's a lot to enjoy - 8 zones, 3 fully implemented characters, a mission mode, and even online multiplayer.

The story mode is really cool, and feels like playing a 2D entry in the Sonic Adventure series. The zones themselves are expertly crafted and a joy to play, and as I said last year they equal or top the Sonic Advance series.

Unfortunately the similarity with the Dimps developed titles extends to the physics as well, with a floaty jump and rolling that slows you down instead of speeding you up. Fortunately, while I would prefer classic physics, there's never a moment in Sonic Fusion where these things become a problem. The levels always play smoothly and there's nothing that feels cheap or unfair.

This game just has so much polish, so much heart, and so many cool elements all brought together with one of the best overall presentations I've seen in a Sonic fangame. You can tell it's a labour of love, and I urge you to try it out. If this is just the demo, we can all expect the finished game to be one of the coolest ever.

Sonic NXT

Last year, Sonic NXT was hardly more fun to play with than a rabid wolverine juggling poison chainsaws. Since then it has an impressive amount of progress, becoming a respectable engine with a lot of the modern trappings: homing attack targets, combo scoring, boost attack, etc.

However, it runs with a system-mangling amount of slowdown on my machine so I can't evaluate it all that well. My impression, though, is that there's nothing really that exciting or new, and that it is bogged down with a heapin' helpin' of unnecessaries. I always raise a critical eyebrow when I unzip the archive to find several megabytes of physics DLLs spilling out like so many packing peanuts. If you can't make a 2D Sonic game without relying on PhysXCore, maybe you're in the wrong line of business.

I guess for this one I'll just go with "no comment".

Next time I'll go on about Sonic Worlds Level Collab, Sonic 2 Retro Remix, and whatever odds and ends I can scrape together.

20 September 2011

SAGE 2011 Reviews (Part II)

Sonic and Friends 2

Sonic and Friends 2 is nearly complete with 11 levels, and the first thing I noticed was that those levels are huge. They aren't laid out like a traditional Sonic game, though - they feel a lot more boxy and remind me of the kinds of things I used to see in the earlier days of Sonic fangaming. They are by no means bad, though, and I quite like the first few acts. The readme file indicates that the later levels are less complete, and they are decidedly less fun, with cheaper enemy placement and less to do.

I'm quite impressed with the engine, too, especially since it doesn't appear to be any of the usual suspects but an entirely original one. It's not 100% accurate (what ever is?) but it's solid and smooth and I encountered no collision bugs. My personal acid test for a Sonic engine is how the ledge balancing and pushing up against walls works, and neither of those features are implemented here, much like in Sonic Advance 2. That kind of bothers me, but the jumping feels right and I guess that's the main thing. I never found any slowdown, either.

My biggest beef is with the music, which is mostly borrowed, but where there actually are original compositions they are repetitive and pretty grating. There is the feature for custom soundtracks, though, which is nice - so I'm not gonna dock too many points for the cruddy music.

I'd say give this one a go. It progresses nicely in a sort of Sonic 3 & Knuckles way, and feels like playing through a proper game. The later, imcomplete levels can be a little frustrating, so you might want to stop immediately when you begin to weary of it rather than pushing on. That way you can leave it with a good feeling, and play the final portion when the finished build is out.

Sonic Axiom

I love the new title screen; a definite improvement over last year.

A team of highly trained tapdancing butlers are still cleaning up the jizz from when I played Sonic Axiom last year. The prospect of a completed version at this year's SAGE eclipsed my excitement for Sonic Generations and Taxman's Sonic CD, and was even able to temporarily postpone my pathetic pining for the Sonic 1 & 2 Soundtrack, which is no mean feat.

Strangely, though, this year I think I've soured on it a little. Probably because I had a whole year for expectations to build and my memories to go rosy, this time around I found quite a bit of it to be, well... lame.

Firstly I'm really disappointed by the change from Calcified Caverns to Mineral Mine.

Left: Calcified Cavern; Right: Mineral Mine

It was my favourite level from the 2010 demo, with its beautiful music, fun switch puzzles, and overall atmosphere. Now it feels like a whole different level, and it's not as good. Waah.

In addition to that little letdown, I continually noticed other issues with the game that kept the experience from being pure unadulterated fun: everything has huge hitboxes making parts of the game totally unfair; the physics feel really weird causing too much overcompensation; a lot of the objects and animations seem really poorly programmed, jittering and locking up; and (in the nitpick category) the rings don't make sparkles when collected!

A particularly apt example of a choppy object is the Bonus Stage glowing orb - it's brutally basic and barely does a passable job. It makes me cringe, because I'd made those work in even my crappiest earliest engine, and trying to make SAGE in time is no excuse because I added them in an hour or two. I refuse to believe I'm superhuman, so Sonic Axiom has no excuse!

It's not all bad. The levels are still beautiful - easily the best use of repurposed graphics I've ever seen. The layouts are brilliant, giving nods to Sonic CD while still feeling original. The music is pretty good, too, though personally I would have preferred something funkier rather than so mellow.

If I had the free time, I'd jump at the chance to port this to AeStHete. The content here is too good; it deserves better than a choppy framerate and physics that fight you. Like Sonic Genesis, it's a brilliant game struggling to overcome a less-than-stellar implementation.

I doubt that this is the last revision we'll ever see, so there's still hope for the future. Regardless of what happens, though, Sonic Axiom is good enough to deserve a permanent home in my game collection, and I'd still recommend it for anyone else's.

Sonic: Before the Sequel

Sonic BTS is advertised to take place between the events of Sonic 1 and 2, and chronicle the first launch of the Death Egg. Because of this, I was expecting a game that cleaved to a Sonic 1 or 2 style at the expense of any kind of originality.

Boy, was that illusion ever shattered.

Instead, Sonic BTS is far and away the most creative and entertaining Sonic fan game I've played since Eggman Hates Furries. The bosses, enemies, level tropes, gimmicks - all of them kept me guessing and put a huge smile on my face. It even has mildly humorous Flash cinemas, for pete's sake! Who couldn't love that?

The game borrows sound effects and music from Kirby, Yoshi's Island, and Ristar, which also makes me smile. The creator (LakeFeperd) must be my kind of guy!

This is definitely my favourite of SAGE this year, a treat I wasn't expecting at all that really picked my spirits up after the mild disappointment of Sonic Axiom.

I don't want to say anything else about it, because that would spoil it. Go play it yourself and remember to thank me for pointing you to it. =P


Next time I'll be looking at some of the modern styled offerings. Stay tuned! (said the barman to the guitar.)

19 September 2011

SAGE 2011 Reviews (Part 1)

And now, INPO, here is the first batch of my reviews of the games on offer at this year's SAGE. There will be more over the next couple of days, but don't expect a review of all the showings; I'm only interested in the Sonic ones and even then there are a few that don't catch my fancy.

Sonic Small World

I'm impressed that this is actually a complete functioning level with a handful of objects such as a trampoline and moving platforms. But there's nothing here to really blow me away - or anyone else, for that matter.

I don't have much affinity for 3D Sonic engine tests. The effort necessary to make a 3D game even playable, let alone good, usually means that all other departments get neglected. As a result, they are usually very bland and not entertaining, and Sonic Small World is no exception. I'm not going to say it's bad - it's not - but it was probably far more fun for the creator to make, exercising their skills, than it will ever be for an audience to play.

As basically all of the artworks and other elements are ripped from other sources, there's nothing really new or creative on offer, either. I'd give it a pass if I were you, unless you're a 3D Sonic engine test enthusiast.

Sonic Zero

I reviewed this one last year and it hasn't changed much - but it sure has been expanded! There are now 3 working acts and a boss (albeit an embarrassingly easy one).

Though I was lukewarm last year, calling it generic, I've warmed to it this year. I really like the mix of elements, from Sonic's new sprite set, to the appearance of the Golden Shield from Sonic 3D Blast, to the Battle Kukkus from Tails Adventure. I was really enjoying myself, and even though I harbour a certain amount of hate for the Sonic Worlds engine (the way it handles corners and edges is just ass) it doesn't seem to mar this game too badly. The level design works around a lot of the issues quite cleverly.

I am disappointed by some minor changes from last year. The music has been traded out with another remix of Chaotix's Isolated Island (and not a very expert one, at that), which is so overused it makes me groan every time I hear it. And there's a rumble feature that - on my system, at least - makes the identical annoying jolt with every spring and enemy you hit.

I do really appreciate the highly detailed and user-friendly control customisation screen, though. I am sick of games that leave joypad users high and dry, so the Sonic Zero team deserves commendation for rectifying that.

And one last thing - why is the intermittent drowning warning (which is traditionally a chime) the Sonic CD drowning countdown sound effect? It's a ridiculous change that makes anyone who's familiar with Sonic CD feel like they're drowning any time they happen to be underwater for a moment.

The good far outweighs any complaints I may have with this one, though, so I definitely recommend you check it out. If this ever progresses beyond the "single green zone demo" stage, it'll be a keeper.

Sonic Run 3

This is either a joke, part of a conspiracy to make Game Maker look bad, or made by a developer that needs 5 or 10 more years of practise before they should ever set foot at another SAGE.

I won't complain about the visuals - they're actually sort of cute - but the gameplay is totally borked. Which I could excuse if there were complicated loops or something - but the whole game is made of simple boxes. Even then, there's a terrible bug upon all horizontal collisions, making each jump a chore that requires you to stop and start.

This would be better suited to RAGE, I'm afraid. Don't waste precious minutes downloading it.

Madcap Grotto

Made by two members of the community I've long respected, Dimension Warped and my bud Overbound, and with music by the inimitable Karl "Sonicesque" Brueggemann, this single level demo delivers a veritable Sonic playground. It has more gimmicks than a sitcom with failing ratings, and when it comes to Sonic zones, that's a very good thing. Along with those gimmicks, a posse of clever new enemy types and an impressively animated boss make for a greatly satisfying experience.

What makes a Sonic zone live and breathe for me is when it has a tonne of original stuff for Sonic and his friends to actually do, rather than the all-too-common "look guys I made Tropical Trope Zone Act 345656frghgjkjkf and the Ring Monitor sound is different!" Be warned though, at least one bit of gadgetry in Madcap Grotto will inspire rage unless you remember the worthy lesson the Barrel of Doom taught us all. =P

It's not all roses, though. Some of the usual Sonic Worlds issues rear their ugly heads, and there was plenty of slowdown on my machine (which, to be fair, isn't that high-end). Some of the gimmicks had a bug or two, one of which actually forced me to restart, and the boss - as cool as I think it is - is in a large arena making it difficult to keep track of. Wandering around stupidly while a boss shoots you from offscreen happens to be one of my pet peeves - there's a reason Sonic game don't normally do this, you know!

That aside, I'd definitely recommend this audio-visual and gameplay feast.

Project Spikepig

The plaintext manual that accompanied the Project Spikepig executable I found to be incredibly witty, but I'm afraid that's the extent of anything good I have to say about it. The level trope is generic, the level layout is - as the manual admits - "slow, nebulous, confusing, complicated and made by a drunk man", the music is frankly terrible, and the engine is plain vanilla Sonic Worlds at its worst. Give this one a pass.

...I suppose the graphics do have a certain charm to them, as well. But it's not enough to save it.

Sonic Gear

Look at that shot and tell me honestly whether it's an improvement over the original:

I didn't even bother playing this for more than a few minutes. It was pretty dire.

Sonic GML

This is such a clumsy mess I have no idea where to begin. It's weird because there's so much content and so much "completed", it must have been worked on for a long time. But there's absolutely no polish or charm whatsoever.

A pass, then.

Sonic Mobius

Sonic Mobius, judging from the material at its homepage, has a lot of potential. This demo, however, is yet another "single green zone demo". As such it would be unfair of me to evaluate it. I'll only say this - I don't think it was ready to be shown off.

Sorry it's got to be so abrupt. Next time I'll be giving my thoughts on some of the heavier hitters: Sonic Axiom, Sonic and Friends 2, and Sonic: Before the Sequel. Those will be in greater depth.