Features Hacks & Homebrews

Hacks & Homebrews: Sonic Hacks

Its heyday may be long gone, but the Sega Genesis is still holding on. Amongst certain retro fans, the interest in the old 16-bit console is still strong. 2008 alone has seen the second commercial release of a Genesis game in our millennium (Super Fighter Team’s Legend of Wukong) and the first European Mega Drive Championship, while the first exclusive Genesis release in a decade, Pier Solar, is expected to be shipped in the near future.

Nowadays, these new releases have become possible because of fans, enthusiasts, and tinkerers who have devoted their passion to the Geneses as the console of their choice. They’ve decided to not only play the games on the machine, but to also look into it to see what makes them tick. Up to today though, mostly working with emulators and communicating over the Internet, the Sega Genesis still has a very active homebrew scene.

One particular field of interest for these hackers, of course, is the forerunner of its success: Sonic The Hedgehog! It was he who gave the Genesis the edge in the console wars of the early nineties. The Sonic games on the Genesis are among the most lauded and acclaimed video games of that decade, so it comes to little surprise then, that the Blue Blur has found a particular interest amongst hackers.

A little search on that matter results in dozens of Sonic hacks. Some are simple palette or sprite-swaps, so it’s possible to play Sonic 1 as Mighty the Armadillo or Shadow, which doesn’t really change the gameplay. At its core, it’s still Sonic 1. Putting Knuckles the Echidna or Tails in the game is a different affair. Simply swapping the sprites isn’t enough, since Sonic 1 doesn’t contain game elements like the spin dash, flying or wall climb. The hacker then has to either tweak the game engine of the first game, or he has to recreate all the levels in Sonic 2 and use that engine instead. And once a hacker has gone into the game, he might not only want to change the looks, but also the feel. He might tinker with the level layouts, changing them to explore new areas or add entirely new levels to the mix.

Simple cosmetic changes can be found dime-a-dozen floating around the web, to strongly varying levels of quality. Some of these homebrews, however, have decided to go a step further and show that while deep down in its core the game is still the same Sonic we all know and love, you can still create an entirely new feeling and level of enjoyment to the old gameplay. I’ve picked out a few examples that stood out in my eye and want to present what they have to offer.

The Games

Sonic 2 Hybridization Project: Many of the hacks out there only deal with slight graphical changes – a little tweak of the color palette, a little swap of single sprites. Hacker Dr. Eggfan dealt with those graphical changes, but opted for a look that was decidedly… different.

Maybe stemming from the argument which Sonic 2 was the better game (Sonic 2 Master System or Sonic 2 Genesis), Dr. Eggfan went for a “best-of-two-worlds” approach and recreated the entire look of Sonic 2 to make it look like a Master System game! The color palette and the sprites have been reduced to an 8-bit look, which gives the entire game an even more nostalgic and definitely different feel. Apparently, in order to intensify that feeling, the level sequence has been switched around a bit. It’s definitely an effort well done, although sometimes one can’t quite help but feel that the hacker decided to cut a few corners to get his work finished (the 3D bonus game has been left entirely untouched, and you can’t change into Super Sonic, removing the necessity for such a sprite. Moreover, while Sonic has his Master System sprites, Tails has only been reduced in his color palette and has otherwise been left unchanged).

One might presume that this project was only an exercise for more ambitious projects. Currently Dr. Eggfan’s working on porting Sonic 2 (Genesis) to make a true Master System version of it. Personally, I liked it, but to me it felt like there was some missed potential in that effort. A true combination of the two Sonic 2 games instead of the 8-bit mock up of a single one would have been a nice idea. Maybe someone else might pick up on that idea…

Robotnik’s Revenge: Instead of delving into the game itself and changing the level layouts or graphics while leaving the preexistent level slots intact, hacker ColinC10 decided to take a different approach: Just take one single setting, leave the basic jump & run levels behind and just concentrate on the boss battles! The result is Robotnik’s Revenge.

Basically, this hack is a simple time trial: You fight every single boss from Sonic and Sonic 2 in a row, while a time counter keeps track of your effort. After the last boss is defeated, a results screen displays the time it took for you to complete the game as well as a ranking showing off how well you did. The game allows you to play as either Sonic or Tails, which doesn’t change the gameplay, and the game uses the same mechanics used in Sonic 2, meaning that while spin dash is implemented, flying is not. Also, the game comes in two play modes. In time attack mode, the player has unlimited lives and gets the opportunity to collect three rings before each boss. If this doesn’t prove to be a challenge for you, in survival mode you only get three lives and no rings!

While this is basically just a mini-game, a boss run mode of Sonic 1 and 2 combined, this is actually quite a lot of fun! The time trial and rating system constantly challenges the player to try and improve his game. The hack is properly programmed, and, as far as I could see, free of graphical glitches. It even works when flashed to a cartridge (what can’t be said about every hack floating around out there), although then it may freeze before reaching the Casino Night Zone boss (it did with my Tototek cartridge every two out of three plays). On emulators, however, it works perfectly. The only real gripe I might have with this game is that you may lose a lot of time when battling the “Final Zone” boss from Sonic 1 because of his random attack pattern, but that’s not the hacker’s fault (and I think it’s pretty impressive that he managed to implement that boss as well). I say give it a spin! It doesn’t take much time to play and is pretty fun!

Sonic 2 Delta: Taking a break from the hacks that just try to give a new look to old content, we now come to a hack that tries to introduces new content to an old game – or rather, re-introduce, to be more precise.

Based on various beta prototypes and, in one case, old preview screen shots of Sonic 2, portuguese hacker Esrael Neto restored five levels that in one form or another were present or announced to be in the unfinished Sonic 2 game. These five levels (Winter Hill Zone, Wood Zone, Genocide City Zone, Dust Hill Zone and Hidden Palace Zone) use graphics and tile sets which were extracted from beta cartridges of the game that have found their way to the Internet in previous years. They introduce a few new enemies as well. And it’s nice to see what additional content was intended to be in Sonic 2, and what eventually became of it (Winter Hill Zone eventually became Ice Cap Zone in Sonic 3, for example, while Hidden Palace found it’s way into Sonic & Knuckles).

This hack is a beta still in progress; the re-introduced “new” levels are barely finished (as much as they can be completed) and could need a lot of balancing (since Knuckles can’t jump as high as Sonic, it’s impossible to complete “Winter Hill Zone” using him as of yet). Also, the hack suffers from the occasional graphical glitch. Some other ideas Esrael added to the mix are pretty sweet, however. The ring counter, for example, shows how many rings remain to be collected in each act, and the level bosses got a little life meter – not necessary, but definitely a nice touch.

As I’ve said, this hack is still in progress, but it’s worth keeping an eye on it. You can keep track of the newest results, as well as see an archive of previous versions of the hack here. It’s constantly being updated, so maybe one day we might see Sonic 2 in its entire glory, just as it was intended to be in the first place.

Sonic The Hedgehog Extended Edition and Sonic & the Secret EE: These two are examples of “enhancing” the original game by adding several features to Sonic The Hedgehog that didn’t exist in the original game but were introduced later on in the series.

Sonic The Hedgehog Extended Edition is at its core a mash up of Sonic CD and Sonic 1. Gameplay mechanisms such as the spin dash (as found in Sonic CD) or the super peel-out have been added to the game. Also intended to be implemented sometime in the future are “upgradable moves” to be activated throughout the game similar to the MegaMan series.

Only a demo has been released so far, but it shows quite a bit of promise. ROM save and a minimalist options menu can be found there. Also, each zone starts of in some sort of “world map view” were you can choose which act you want to tackle first. In sequence, every act is played out in different daylight – the graphical effects done for that look very nice indeed! After finishing all three acts, you gain access to a fourth act where the boss battle will take place.

As I’ve mentioned, there currently only exists a two-year-old demo version of that project. Although there had been promises and teasers hinting on seeing the final version soon, the project remains unfinished, and talk about it on the forums has also gone silent…

Hacker Hayate, not willing to wait for this promising-but-neverending project to be finalized had started his own take of a Sonic The Hedgehog Enhancement, calling it Sonic 1: The Other Extended Edition (later Sonic and the Secret Extended Edition). It also starts of in sort of a world map view, and it also implements a new, fourth boss battle act. While using the same premise, Hayate decided to use the game mechanics of Sonic 2 and 3 rather then CD when upgrading his hack. The graphics don’t look quite as polished, but the game is in more of a complete state. Monitors from later Sonic games have been added as well (like the special flame/water/lightening shields from Sonic 3 or the grow/shrink monitors from Knuckles Chaotix). Taking a cue from Sonic 3, the acts also feature a smooth transition rather than just using title cards. What also came as a pleasant surprise was an update on boss tactics. When battling the Green Hill Zone boss, for instance, he detaches his ball and chain after a few hits, making a change of tactics necessary. The game itself, however, is rather glitchy, and graphical errors and erroneous collision detection are rather common. The game was also prone to freezing. Unfortunately, we’ll probably never see the result of this project, since Hayate officially abandoned it in August 2008.

Sonic MegaMix (3.0 & CD): Level hack, boss tweak, soundtrack change, character insertion – this hack’s got it all! Sonic MegaMix was not a single hacker’s project, but a team effort (sensibly called “Team Megamix”). Their concentrated efforts on enhancing the original Sonic The Hedgehog are nothing short of amazing.

The hack saw several revisions, the last completed effort being version 3.0. It retains all the original levels from Sonic The Hedgehog, but bears some slight changes in the level layouts as well as in the graphics department. Furthermore, every single act in every single level has its own soundtrack (which range from remixes of the original soundtrack to tracks taken from other Genesis games). Additionally, you can choose from three different characters: Sonic now has a enemy-seeking jump attack, for example. For fans of “Sonic Classic,” there’s Mighty the Armadillo, who has Sonic’s entire move set from Sonic The Hedgehog 3, including his special attacks when wearing a shield (yes, the different shields from Sonic 3 have been included as well). And for a new and slightly different game experience, there’s Shadow the Hedgehog included as well. The hackers did make a true effort to make every character play and feel differently. Game saves and an option screen are also available. Topping the entire experience off are the revamped boss battles. Yes, the overall boss strategy basically remains the same, but slight changes have been made making the boss battles slightly harder. Overall, I have to say this game is great, and probably the best hack I’ve ever played! (Version 3.0 can be found here).

Intending to take the experience one step further, Team MegaMix started working on a CD version of Sonic MegaMix. It truly intended to be more: More characters (Knuckles and Tails were included as well), more sound effects (including a “boss time” voice sample for boss battles), more level changes (leading to truly different paths depending on the abilities of each character) and entirely new boss battles, not just revamps of the old pre-existing bosses! Even the old Sonic 1 bonus stage has received an overhaul both in graphics and in level layout!

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, it isn’t as peachy as one would hope. The hack still suffers from a number of glitches, ranging from minor (the invulnerability music getting stuck in infinite loop) over major (collision detection failing or falling to death through solid ground) to catastrophic (game freezing or crashing). Also, some levels have been left incomplete. Sadly, these issues probably won’t be getting fixed, since Team Megamix has disbanded and the project has been abandoned. If you can live with the glitches, this is still a great and most impressive hack to behold! Dash right into it and see what I mean! (Sonic 1 MegaMix info page. MegaMix CD Images can be found there in US, EU, and JP versions).

ChimpQ: Well, seeing the possibilities a Sonic hack can offer, there is only one variety missing: Creating an entirely new game out of the existing Sonic engine. And yes, efforts have been made. One of the most impressive and most complete examples for this type of hack is ChimpoQ! Utilizing the Sonic 2 engine, this game has completely overhauled graphics, levels and sound, effectively changing the entire game. It still contains typical Sonic elements like spin dash, ring collecting or monitors, so the main focus lies on the graphical change – and they look pretty good! This hacker did not simple fiddle around with some palette changes, but creates an entirely new look for the game. It shows that given the time and effort, an entirely new game can be created out of Sonic The Hedgehog as well. I’d say give it a whirl.

2D Sonic: Alive & Well!

As I’ve said, those are the hacks that one way or another impressed me the most. There are tons of others out there, but only a few who feel as polished or have been worked upon as much as those. They show that there is still a lot of live in classic Sonic 2D platforming, and there still are new and fresh experiences to be won out of the old games, even though they are not official, but rather homebrew efforts.

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