Sonic the Hedgehog’s last set of major releases, Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces, garnered polarizing responses. The former, a retro-throwback game developed by a group of fans, presently holds a critic score in the high 80s on Metacritic. Its sister release, created by industry veterans at Sonic Team, is sitting at around a 55 on the same site. Sonic Mania’s existence alone is an anomaly, a project led by prominent Sonic fan-community member, Christian “Taxman” Whitehead, and almost entirely developed by members of that community — people with experience working on romhacks and fan games, and their project surpassed the efforts of Sega themselves in the eye of the public.
But Sonic Mania is far from the only popular Sonic game made by fans of the blue hedgehog. The Sonic Amateur Games Expo (or SAGE) is a yearly online event where members of the Sonic fan community create games, mods, and hacks inspired by the Sega game series. Since it’s birth in the year 2000, this online expo has produced a host of innovative games. While news on what Sega has planned in store for the hedgehog’s 30th anniversary has been scarce, fans of the character haven’t had to look hard for new games to sate their need for speed.
Gotta Go Fast
SAGE 2020 saw the release of Gabriel Gonzalez’s Sonic GT, a high speed, physics-based platformer that winds up playing like Sonic Adventure if it were made a decade later. Sonic accelerates and decelerates as one would expect him to, and the game’s four levels are each designed to build and maintain the speed that they gain while skillfully running through them.
Sonic Team-developed Sonic games, too, have come to focus on the hedgehog’s speed. Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Generations, Sonic Colors, and Sonic Forces are all what the community calls “boost games,” as their gameplay revolves around maintaining a meter that allows Sonic to dash through stages at the speed of sound. Sonic does accelerate well in most of these games, but the terrain matters less when he can reach top speed at the push of a button. The levels in these games are generally linear, with the fastest path often being a reward for reacting to an obstacle appropriately.
This is what makes Sonic GT feel like a breath of fresh air. There are no speed boosters or set pieces. Every moment of high-speed action is cultivated by rolling down a hill at the right time or smoothly navigating the level. It’s just unfortunately short; the entire game can be beaten in thirty minutes.
Back to His Roots
Sonic GT is just one of the recent stand-out works of the fan community — fans have been putting unique spins on the hedgehog for years. SAGE’s 2020 showcase brought remakes, demakes, and reimaginings to light. Sonic Relighted is an isometric adventure that harkens back to the likes of Sonic 3D Blast that’s playable on Windows, Linux, and Android devices. Sonic Revert is an online-multiplayer racing game that sees players competing for the best time with a low-poly cast of characters that all handle like cars, and Hedgephysics is a functioning, open source engine designed for building 3D Sonic games.
In the 20 years since development began in the late 90s, Sonic Robo Blast 2 is probably one of the most content-rich Sonic games in existence. Built from a modified version of the Doom Legacy port of Doom, Sonic Robo Blast 2 has grown into a platform for free, fan-made content that has grown far and wide beyond its original scope.
These projects are important. They harken back to the hedgehog’s original appeal as a rebellious anti-Mario type of game. Games like Sonic Robo Blast 2 and Sonic GT wouldn’t be made in today’s gaming industry because of an allegiance to a market that runs on profit-margins and deadlines. The Sonic games have infamously had short development cycles and poor quality control, both habits that Sega has admitted to and promised to break. These are both good things but, any future project they have planned for the hedgehog needs to be more inspired than their last few outings, and places like SAGE are another spring of ideas and creators to pull from.
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Into the Future
The last ten years of official Sonic games were spent celebrating the Hedgehog’s origins; Generations, Lost World, Mania, and Forces all have some version of Green Hill Zone as their first level. Three of those games have a fully playable Classic Sonic. At the time, it was thrilling to see these old games reimagined in the modern day — but its gotten old after a decade’s worth of games.
In six years, gamers have played through three versions of Green Hill and Chemical Plant Zone. We’re over it, and the boost formula is showing its age too — there are only so many ways you can make a hallway interesting. It’s a style that demands excessive linearity and sacrifices exploration in favor of visual spectacle. That isn’t to say that these levels aren’t good; it’s just that in the four games where the style is used, Sega has struggled to come up with fresh, new ideas for it.
If there’s anything to learn from fan games like the ones at SAGE, it’s that a Sonic game doesn’t need to be familiar. People just want to go fast and have fun, and that can take on a number of different forms. Sega has already acknowledged the existence of these fan games, so there’s clearly an understanding that these communities are invaluable to the industry that’s severely lacking on the part of companies like Nintendo. Hopefully Sonic Mania wasn’t just a blip, and fans will continue to be allowed to bring their passion and creativity to the mainstream.