SAGE 2020 Review Slew #1: Traditional Sonic Fan Games

SAGE can bring us all kinds of creative, whacky, and far-out games. In this article, however, I will be focusing on Sonic fan games that take a more traditional route. Old-school and faithful these fast-paced platformers invoke the heart and spirit of official 2D games. As someone making a faithful 2D Sonic fan game, I feel I’ve learned a thing or two about how to achieve that. Since a big part of SAGE is getting feedback and learning to be a better designer, I’d like to help these fan devs out with constructive tips on making a better Sonic experience.

Sonic Solaris: New Beginnings

This game is channels early/mid 2000’s Sonic energy, and I dig it for that. Attitude and guitars. You can play as the odd combo of Sonic, Shadow, Knuckles, and Bean. The two hedgehogs play about how you’d expect them.

Knuckles, however, is oddly unable to glide or climb walls. I believe the creator did this for balancing purposes, but I caution that removing signature moves of a characters makes said character feel like something they are not.

Bean plays something like Plague Knight from Shovel Knight, using his bombs and a means of getting extra air. It’s neat, but hard to control. You have to be moving in order to get out in front of your bombs, so it’s not useful at a standstill. The level design often brings you to a stand still, which brings me to my next point of contention.

The levels design relies on bottomless pits. You’ll see a lot of hate for bottomless pits among Sonic fans, but I don’t think it’s ever properly explained why. Bottomless pits often hit you unexpectedly; you fall down a shaft and then are suddenly greeted with death. The issue is that it creates distrust between the player and the game. Every bit of level design that is off-screen below the player is now seen as a potential bottomless pit. This causes the player to hesitate to take blind leaps of faith. Sonic games often requires some degree of blind faith when the screen resolution is not large and the speed is so fast. Don’t break the player’s faith!

Sonic Skyline

A more zoomed-out take on Sonic with a wide field of view. The demo features Sonic running through a Streets-of-Rage-esque nightlife level. The levels feel very abstract, like floatings blocks just suspended in air for the purpose of jumping. I recommend the creator take a look at Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. One thing that Retro Studios does well is making sure the level geometry feels grounded in the world. Platforms almost nevel float; they are constructed with ropes, beams, and strings. Everything is connected in a way that feels lived in. Obviously, we are talking about games with walking, talking animals collects 1ups, but the little details can go a long way in making your levels feel more contextualized. This makes the game more fun! 

I like a gimmick where pipes start leaking out bursts of steam. Running into them launches you upward from the force of the air pressure. However, the pipes are often steep and sloped, making it hard to actually stay on them long enough for the timed steam to give you a lift.

Sonic Quartz

Remember earlier when we talked about trust between the player and the game? In Sonic Quartz, we see the springs used quite often as “troll” springs. I refer to springs that push the player in the wrong direction as troll springs. I recommend developers use these sparingly, as you want springs to be seen as a positive thing that can help propel you forward. If they are always used as an obstacle hindering progress, the player will be conditioned to put them in the same category as spikes. Speaking of spikes, one particular spring actually jets you straight into a set of wall spikes. It feels cheap, so I would advise against that type of design. 

Downward slopes and speed sections in this game often end with a badnik. Of course, you have no time to react. If you look at official Sonic games, you’ll notice that speed sections often end with upwards launching ramps or something that feels natural, not like punishment. I recommend removing punishment from speed sections, as speed in Sonic games should be fun! 

Sonic Quartz features a bounce attack that is straight out Sonic Adventure 2. It’s quite fun to use and the level design makes use of it. It’s not made clear though. I spent several minutes stuck in the first level, unsure how to advance forward. There is no tutorial, no hint box, and no mention of the bounce maneuver in the README file. I almost quit the game before giving it a chance!

Sonic Panic

This game was the highlight of this first batch. The designers have a lot of ideas and ambition! The levels remind me of Lake Feperd’s Sonic fan games, as they are covered with background tiles and decoration. The level design is layered, though it has some bits of thin, floating terrain that I mentioned in Sonic Skyline. 

We start off with a snow level, not your typical Green Hill! There is a nice level transition where Nack/Fang shows up to set the level on fire, sending lava everywhere. This is later referenced in a lava chase set-pieces. I think set-pieces are wonderful ways to add color and flavor to your levels. 

The main areas that need the most obvious improvements are technical in nature. Sonic’s sprite rotation is often floating back and forth between incremental decimal values, which makes it look shaky, and not smooth. The camera is not as sophisticated as the Classics; it’s jittery and janky. The camera is important in the feel of a game, so it’d do the game great to upgrade it. If you want it Genesis styled, I programmed such a camera for Flicky / HZ engine. Since this game uses Game Maker (version 8 surprisingly) it should be compatible. 

The other thing I’d suggest is more enemy variety. A good number of badniks are small and ball-shaped. Though, seeing them get sliced in two by the game’s buzzsaw attack for Sonic is quite satisfying. 

Sonic: Dark Abyss

The Sonic boss fight feels like it’s an introduction, and if so, it’s quite abrasive. Sonic starts slightly off camera. It’s not a warm or welcoming way to start off as it feels like you are just thrown in. 

The Tails feature enemy placement that breaks the promise of speed in the way that Sonic Quartz did as mentioned earlier. The level should not obstruct the speed and save the hazards for the slower platforming sections. 

Stay tuned for more SAGE 2020 reviews!

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