We’ve come a long way since 2000! Sonic fan games in the third-dimension are more present then ever at this year’s SAGExpo. Some of these games have a lot of bells and whistles and hidden secrets. For these overviews, I’ll be focusing on the core design as Sonic in 3D is no easy feat from that perspective.
I love that fans are trying alternate takes on 3D Sonic. I really think it’s a great, low-pressure way to try out new methods for translating that little blue boy from the Sega Genesis into the modern era. As with any experiment, not every variable always holds up during testing. Sometimes, those weak spots help me understand why Sonic Team made the decisions they’ve made with 3D Sonic. I’ve got in trouble for this before, because people interpret this as either blind-endorsement or blind-condemnation, but neither is true. It’s all a jumbled-up trail mix of talking hedgehogs running about a z-axis, the good and the not-so good.
BUT! Because I love this topic, I can’t wait to talk about it. Here we go.
This game is big! The levels are large and there is a large amount of content here. Several characters are unlocked through obtaining secrets during play. It’s quite an impressive effort.
This is a no-boost, all-momentum take on 3D Sonic, which is a theme you’ll see in these games. Any time a 3D Sonic fan attempts momentum, it is a game after my own heart. I love it. The draw backs I see with the current design are something that’s going to come up a lot in this article. For a character designed for running quickly on the ground, Sonic ends up spending a lot of flying through the air. The jumps are super floaty, but you also maintain all velocity, which means you go zooming past any platform you want to jump on if you don’t slow down. You can curb with the bounce bracelet, but it starts to change the dynamic from running at the speed of sound, to being the world’s fastest rubber ball.
With level design this big, it’s often unclear which direction I should be going. 2D Sonic had an elegance that no matter what path you were on, “forward” was always clear (regardless of which “forward” happens to manifest itself as at the time). With such level design, I wish the camera would help and encourage me where to go next. Sometimes, after coming back from a death, the camera would spawn facing the wrong direction. I would start traversing the level backwards for a moment before I started recognizing landmarks!
With Sonic moving so quickly, the devs came up with a very cool solution to the problem of “what threat are enemies if you can just speed past them?” In Sonic GT, crabmeats will fire before you’re even close, and motobugs will chase you down aggressively! The sound design on the motobugs is also something of a highlight, as audio is often neglected by both fan games and professional devs alike.
Speaking of audio, this game has original voice acting, because the Sonic fan community is a talented bunch. There are some legit good performances here. Though, I’d recommend normalizing/limiting Eggman’s audio as they were not the same volume as the other actors. Another essential aspect of game development that can oddly be neglected by old devs with outdated mindsets is story. Wonderfully, Sonic GT cares about its story, and has put effort into the context of the levels and their role in the scenario – as it should be! There is good dialogue for a fan game, with witty banter and some good laughs. There is a fouth-wall breaker, that I’m never a fan of, but I’ll set that personal-bias aside. Overall, well done on the story integration, Sonic GT!
Sonic Worlds DX
Sonic Worlds DX definitely feels more streamlined than past iterations of the game, but it still has a lot of the same problems that GT has. I end up flying through the air, and finding it near impossible to land on platforms.
Tails flight helps get around this, but its honestly overpowered as it lets you fly over everything. It lasts a long time and makes Sonic unfavorable by comparison.
There a couple of levels to try, but Green Hill is by far the best, and the design is more funneled, so you actually know where you are going. That is, until you get lost, as it is easy to speed past tiny, tiny ramps sitting on a ledge. The ramps were necessary for progression and the ledges lead to a downward fall. In other words, you’re aiming for the eye of a needle while going 300 miles per hour. If you fall off the beaten path, you’ll find yourself walking on platforms that feel more like background decoration than part of the level design.
Sonic Encore is really promising. The art direction is very pleasing. It’s a good balance between realism and that other-worldy cartoony sense that Sonic has (checker patterns in vegetation and what-not). The demo recreates Sonic 3’s Angel Island, which is the GOAT if we are being honest. However, I found myself running into a lot of the same problems with the above games. It’s really easy to get lost and go backwards. The camera is indifferent and does not help. You can gain so much speed that just can’t control Sonic. There is a section at the opening of Act 2 in which the level really opens up to two distinct paths in a way that I actually think is an organic translation of 2D Sonic’s multi-path design. Nice! A lot of promise in this one, despite the issues.
You can play as various characters with various abilities. It looks like Knuckles has had his climbing ability taken away. Unless I’m doing it wrong (there were some gamepad issues I had to work through. It’s never easy as a dev to ensure your game always works with controllers), I could attach to walls but not climb them. This is probably necessary to avoid breaking levels, but also makes me wonder if a game like Sonic 3 & Knuckles but in 3D would ever have all three characters balanced inside the same levels. I have my doubts.
One thing I don’t think I’ve seen 3D Sonic fan games implement is Air Drag. It was a concept that was present in classics and was still apart of Sonic Adventure 2 as well. AirDrag pulls your speed back at the height of a jump, which stops that “flying through the air feeling” all these games are giving me.
I feel like these fan games are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want the high-velocity levels of the boost games and the nuance of momentum at the same time, and I don’t think we’ve seen those two ideas reconcile themselves yet. I think we can see now why the Boost games are straight and streamlined, as that became necessary when Sonic Team decided to increase Sonic’s maximum in-game speed by a such a large amount. I think if we are gonna achieve momentum with Sonic in 3D, we ought to explore slowing him down to his Adventure pace. Even then, he’ll still be the fastest platformer on the market!
Overall, I commend these developers of their hard work! Good job, and I wish you the best!