Gaming Literacy: Sonic fan hackers (and why Sonic Mania is so good)

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures.

The quality of Sonic the Hedgehog games has become something of a meme. The so called Sonic Cycle describes the process by which information about a new Sonic game is released causing fans to get hype, followed by the eventual release itself letting them down with poor gameplay and overused gimmicks. Maybe it was that time Sonic swung a sword around, maybe it was the time he turned into a werewolf, or maybe it was the time that he overloaded on neckerchiefs and friction tape – sometime, somewhere, the Sonic fanbase realized that Sonic games are more likely to fail than succeed.

So why does Sonic still have a fanbase?

The answer is: the fans.

The Sonic Fan Game Community

Fans have been creating quality Sonic content for some time – and no, I’m not talking about the wealth of sprite recolors and oddly explicit pieces of fanfiction you can find on DeviantArt. I’m talking about fully fleshed-out, fully playable, intelligently designed Sonic fan games.

You see, unlike Nintendo, Square, and Konami, who all have a habit of sending cease and desist letters to fan developers, Sega has always been more friendly towards fan development culture. This open policy and flat-out encouragement from Sega to screw around with their game engines has made the Sonic franchise home to some of the best fan games ever developed. It certainly has the most fan games, simply because Sega has not once asked fan developers to take their works down. In fact, Sonic fan development is so popular that multiple events are held every year to allow new developers to show off their Sonic projects. The Sonic Amateur Games Expo and Sonic Hacking Contest are just two such events.

Here’s a secret that we never talk about when we become absorbed with high profile legal troubles that shut down fan projects: allowing up and coming developers to make fan games is good game development practice. Think about how you might learn to play an instrument. You don’t start off playing your own self-composed music. You start by playing covers. Fan games are the covers of the video game world.

And plenty of them are bad. Heck, head over to GameJolt and you’ll have to wade through a sea of Sonic.EXE creepypasta games before you get to anything of quality. But the good Sonic fan games that do exist are really, really good. They are quality 2D and 3D experiences with more polish than anything that has come out of Sega in the past few years (prior to Sonic Mania, of course). These games epitomize what it means to be Sonic, from tight controls to fast speed-based platforming, and they do this because they are made by people who have a passion for that style of gameplay. Heck, most of the Sonic-alikes that you can find on Steam, like Freedom Planet and Spark the Electric Jester, got their starts as Sonic fan games!

Sonic Mania: By Fans for Fans

This brings us to Sonic Mania, the recently released 2D Sonic game that somehow broke the Sonic cycle. Frankly, its very existence is perplexing to fans and critics alike. What got into Sega to make them head back to Sonic’s roots and create a solid, fun, Genesis-style 2D platformer?

The answer, once again, is the fans!

You might notice that Sonic Mania’s list of developers is slightly different from the one that we are used to seeing. Sonic Team and Dimps are nowhere to be found. Instead, we have these relative unknowns, Christian Whitehead and Simon Thomely.

Except they aren’t unknowns – at least not in the fan game community. They were known for creating Sonic fan projects well before they became officially employed by Sega. This is exactly the experience that allowed them to make Sonic Mania such a love-letter to retro Sonic games.

The Taxman

Christian Whitehead was also known as The Taxman back in the days of his Sonic fan development. His claim to fame was Retro Sonic, a homemade Sonic engine built from the ground up in C++ to run on PCs (and also the Dreamcast if you are a serious Sega fan). This engine was, frankly, just an improvement over the original Genesis engine that powered Sonic 1, 2, and 3. It moved at a smooth 60FPS without any slowdown due to sprite overload. It allowed for a widescreen view of the stage, so players could see more in front of and behind Sonic, giving them more time to react at super-fast speeds. Everything controlled just a little bit tighter and looked a little bit better than the Sonic we know and love.

The greatest application of the Retro Sonic engine was in Taxman’s collaborations with other fan developers. Games such as Sonic Nexus and Retro Sonic Nexus showcased the Retro Sonic engine through the efforts of several different level builders put together. These are still considered some of the greatest fan games that the Sonic fan development community has to offer.

Stealth

Simon Thomely, a founder of Headcannon who is also listed in the Sonic Mania credits, was one of the original Sonic hackers in the scene. Perhaps his most well-known claim to fame was SonED, a series of hacking and level editing tools for making your own Sonic fan hacks out of existing Sonic ROMs. SonED is still widely used in the Sonic fan hacking community because of how ludicrously powerful it is. It basically allows you to create your own Sonic game by simply dragging and dropping level elements, like Mario Maker, but well before Nintendo ever capitalized on that idea.

Aside from Stealth’s many other accomplishments as website founder, moderator, operators, administrator, and general wise guru of the Sonic scene, Stealth’s most well-known fan game project is Sonic Megamix, another collaborative effort. This fan game put together five characters: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Mighty, and Shadow in totally new levels in yet another 2D platforming fight against Dr. Eggman. It is a fantastic showcase of how creative Sonic fan developers can be. Every character has different abilities and different super forms, the levels are unique and varied, each with their own gimmicks, and the game integrates a variety of power-ups, including all the power-ups from Sonic 2 and 3.

And, of course, Stealth also made his own standalone game engine, now called the Headcannon Game Engine. It, too, recreated traditional Sonic: The Hedgehog-style gameplay in a computer environment (and was able to run on Linux, Mac, and even the Wii!).

Getting a Job and Remaking the Classics

Back when I discussed AM2R, I said that fan developers shouldn’t be looked at as a threat, but as a resource. Why force fan developers to cease and desist through legal pressure when you could just hire them on your team and let them make incredible games for you? Nintendo never seemed to learn this lesson but, hilariously enough, Moon Studios did, as they hired on DoctorM64, AKA Milton Guasti, the developer of AM2R to work on the upcoming Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

Sega, on the other hand, was hiring fan developers before it was cool. In 2009, Christian Whitehead was hired by Sega to create an iPhone port of Sonic CD. Instead of re-using the ROM and playing it inside an emulator shell, the game was remade from the ground up using the Retro Sonic engine. The remake was released in 2011 for not only the iPhone, but PSN, Xbox Live, Steam, and Android.

Porting a game to a brand new engine provides a lot of flexibility in giving that game new features. If you ever wondered why there was so much content in games such as the Mega Man Legacy Collection, this is why. As for the Sonic CD remake, all the extras from the new menus, new soundtracks, new visual options, and even the ability to play as Tails, were made possible through the use of Whitehead’s Retro Sonic engine.

Simon Thomely, on the other hand, had been working on proof of concepts for other ports, most notably ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog to systems like the GBA and the DS. He would also assist Whitehead in his original pitch to Sega, helping him develop a proof of concept build of Sonic CD running in iOS.

Thomely (and his company, Headcannon) and Whitehead would team up again to create yet more Sonic ports for Sega. This was the duo that was behind the Sonic 1 and 2 ports to Android and iOS. Once again, these games were built from the ground up in brand new engines and had a variety of extra content when compared to their original Genesis versions. These two ports, along with the port of Sonic CD, are largely considered the definitive versions of their respective games, even though they are mobile titles!

The Hidden World of Good Sonic Games

So let’s talk about why Sonic Mania is so good. Sonic Mania is good because its developers have a long history of making good Sonic games, you’ve just never played them. Or, if you did, you didn’t know that it was Whitehead or Thomely at the helm. Cloaked in the shadow of games like Sonic Boom and Sonic Unleashed, these ports and fan games kept the Sonic fan base thirsty for more classic 2D content. All that Sega had to do was turn these developers lose on a project of their own.

And it’s easy to see that Sonic Mania has benefitted from fan development ideology. Most of the levels in Sonic Mania are “remixes” of a sort. They start out using patterns of obstacles that we are familiar with from classic Sonic stages, but these stages all eventually give way to new gimmicks and more complex paths. They all feel, for lack of a better word, “hacked” from original Sonic level design.

Isn’t that what fans have been asking for? Hasn’t the entire Sonic fanbase been screaming at Sega to take Sonic back to its roots?

Sonic Mania is exactly that, but not in the way that you might think. This isn’t Sega suddenly understanding that they need to make a new 2D Sonic game. This is Sega finally coming to terms with the immense force of momentum that has kept Sonic alive all these years.

The force that is the fans.

A New Age of Fans

You can see this new philosophy in Sega’s other projects. Sonic Forces embraces the Sonic fanbase’s tendency to make their own original characters. Sega is releasing free classic Sega games to mobile platforms via Sega Forever. Sega continues to reach out to fan developers for help on their upcoming projects.

This isn’t a panacea for all of Sega’s woes. They won’t suddenly become able to compete with Nintendo again simply because they tapped into the creative power of their fanbase. However, their willingness to work with and appeal to fans has made them one of the more forward-thinking video game developers with roots in the old 8- and 16-bit days.

Perhaps other game developers will eventually follow suit, and we will soon see classic gaming remakes coming out of studios that haven’t had a hit in over ten years. Until then, keep your eyes on fan communities, because you may never know when the next big name developer will post their first simple hack.

Oh, and do try out Sonic Mania. It’s exactly as good as everyone says it is.