Romhack Thursday: Sonic 2 Score Rush

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

The gaming world is abuzz about speedruns. Speedruns are what gaming since at least Sonic CD call “time attacks,” attempts to play a game while minimizing the completion time. The phrase is a somewhat awkward borrowing from Japanese, as are a number of other gaming terms, like “stage clear” or “level up,” that happened when their gaming culture began to seep out overseas with the popularity of Japanese consoles and games from the time of the NES and SNES. (I am not certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the earliest English use of “level up” was in a Final Fantasy game.)

But that’s a digression. Sorry, I tend to make them a lot. Let’s go back to time attacks. Another version of the idea is a score attack, a play of a game with the intent to get a high score. For a lot of the arcade era, score attacks were just how you played video games, and there didn’t need to be a special term for them.

The title screen of the subject of this post (keep reading, it takes me a few paragraphs to get there)

Score in games has become much less important over the years, but it still persists in places. Super Mario Bros. is a notable early game that still has score, but devalues it. If you find a repeatable extra life (like from using a turtle shell to defeat a lot of enemies), you can mint points, that is to say, earn scores that are arbitrarily high, by getting the life and all the points up to it on a level, dying on purpose, then repeating those actions on the next and successive lives.

It took a long time but that was the beginning of the death knell for the importance of score in games. It didn’t help that, while score is important in a way in Super Mario Bros., since it’s a frequent award and needed as a spacer before the game starts awarding extra lives, it’s used for nothing else. Super Mario games will grant extra lives at the drop of Mario’s ubiquitous hat, but they won’t give you any just for earning points.

One game that does earn you extra lives for scoring points, interestingly, is Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Not the first Sonic game, which takes more of a Super Mario approach, but both Sonic 2, and all the versions of Sonic 3, give you an extra life for every 50,000 points you earn. They also copy Mario’s gimmick of scoring more points if you can defeat enemies without landing from a jump, or destroying blocks. Although unlike Mario’s progression of something like 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, it’s more like 100, 200, 500, then 1,000 a few times, then suddenly 10,000.

Both series are keen to give you all these points, but other than Sonic’s extra lives, they aren’t good for much. Super Mario Bros. 3 gives you a card-matching minigame for every 80,000 points you collect, and sometimes other rewards if you match score digits with each other. Sonic was content to have extra lives be the main reward for high scores, even if the rest of the game gives you plenty of extra lives anyway. More recent games seem to be phasing out even the notion of a life counter, which has given them rather a dearth of things to reward players with.

Well, my plea to gamedevs of the current age is to reconsider score! It’s not a bad measure of player skill, if you design it carefully! It’s easy, if you’re careless, to allow the player to create score loops, which make a mockery of scoreboards, but it gives players something to shoot for other than just game completion.

Score can make for an interesting alternative to plain old time attacks, since it lets the designer create alternative rewards for skillful play. That is why I find score attack romhacks to be interesting, especially when they provide a purpose for score beyond just an increasing number.

That number at the top of the screen is your score. It quickly counts down; don’t let it hit zero!

The focus of this post is a score attack mod for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Even though it uses score to award extra lives, this hack rips that out, and instead makes the player’s score into a life meter of a sort. You start out with 5,000 points, but rapidly lose points. In addition to the normal kinds of in-level scoring, you get 50 points for every ring you collect, 1,000 for crossing a checkpoint (which otherwise don’t work) and 2,000 points for each extra life found in a level. When you get hit you lose some points, but can earn some of them back by collecting the rings that spill out. On the other hand, you don’t get the score awards you would normally get for finishing a level, so no 50,000-point time bonus if you can finish Emerald Hill Zone 1 in less than 30 seconds. The Special Stages have also been disabled, so those can’t be used to milk bonus points either. The score countdown stops when you don’t have control over Sonic, when you’re invincible, and when you each the end of a level (passing the goal sign or beating a boss).

The game has included instruction screens, which is a nice touch even if not strictly necessary with romhacks.

There are no lives really; if your character dies, you restart the level with the score you had when it began, mine 5,000 points. That takes care of score loops, since you don’t carry over any points you earned before dying. That makes the game a bit hard for casual play, a frequent issue with romhacks, but an interesting challenge for Sonic 2 experts.

You can customize the game to your liking with a variety of cool options!

The hack is playable under a number of rules, and with either Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, with each character’s signature moves and abilities. The drop dash from Sonic Mania is even enabled by default. And SRAM support has been hacked in, in order to save your best scores.

It’s an interesting modification to the game to support a different style of playing. If you enjoy the classic Sonic games, you might want to give it a shot!

Sundry Sunday: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, But It’s Sonic

Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.

A while back we posted Community, But Sonic, a fun little Youtoon from frequent Sundry Sunday appearator Pringus McDingus, of Sonic characters animated to audio from Community.

Along those same lines, here’s an animated storyboard of Sonic characters aniedited to fit Brooklyn Nine-Nine audio, from Doig & Swift. (Words in italics may not have actuality.)

Sundry Sunday: Chaotix Neighbors

Sundry Sunday is our weekly feature of fun gaming culture finds and videos, from across the years and even decades.

I’ll admit it, there’s this cable that goes into my brain directly from Youtube, and I use it to cut the number of game-related things I have to post daily on this site by a full seventh. I know you all suspected it, I’m just confirmin’ it. I’m like a vermin, for confirmin’. I’m a squirmin’ vermin for confirmin’! In German! No, no let’s not write Shecks my language skills cannot kassieren.

Record scratch you know who does fun cartoons sometimes? Doobus Goobus. Like that other person, Pringus McDingus. I’d understand if you mixed them up from their names. But DooGoo posts more often, and longer things! Just a little less polished. Pringus has a really appealing art style, while Doobus traffics in the internet’s default art style: purposefully ugly. Nothing against that as a style, just calling a misshappen spade that thing that it is.

The requisite preamble now complete, please enjoy five Sonic the Hedgehog characters using profanity at each other in an entertaining manner.

The Chaotix Neighbors (& Knuckles) (Youtube, 1 1/2 minutes)

Sonic 2 vs Sonic CD

It’s certainly not an eternal question, but for classic game-players (I try to avoid the word gamer, ugh) it’s still a very good question: which is better, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, or Sonic the Hedgehog CD?

It’s a good enough question that even though Youtuber kiro talks’s video about the differences between them has several common things about to that I ordinarily consider flaws, that would ordinarily cause me to think not to link to it (especially its editing, its length, being drawn out, and asking leading questions), the question, and its answers, are useful enough that I’m linking to it anyway.

Because it’s really instructive to view the differences in design between the American and Japanese Sonic sequels! Yuji Naka helmed the American sequel, Sonic 2, but headed a team made largely of Americans, and although a lot of Western-made games for console Japanese consoles are bad, Sonic 2 is legitimately great! Meanwhile, IMO of course, Sonic CD has some interesting ideas and great moments (the time travel mechanic could have been awesome) but its level design is a bit lacking.

Not to seem either jingoistic, or its opposite, but it isn’t often that a mostly-American team from that time could show up a Japanese team on largely equal footing, and this is one time that it happened. But both games are very playable, and the differences are instructive of some fundamental differences in approach.

Sega was going through some internal strife at the time, which became more and more prominent in the later days of the Mega Drive/Genesis and especially in the Saturn era, and it could be argued that it meant that, while I believe the strife was largely over in the Dreamcast era, the company wasn’t in the place it could have been by that point, and it may have contributed to the system’s failure by its output not being strong enough to challenge the Playstation 2.

When Japan & America Made Different Sonic Sequels (Youtube, 21 minutes)

The Nintendo Font

Youtuber T2norway educates us on a very commonly used font for Nintendo products from around the Gamecube era onward, especially remembered for its use in Wii Sports and other Wii software:

New Rodin

The video’s only four minutes long but the basic gist is that it’s actually two closely-related fonts, New Rodin and Shin Go, both based on a typeface created in 1975 called Gona. They have been called the Japanese version of Helvetica. They see frequent use in Japan in media, on signage, and of course in games too!

What’s the deal with this font? (Youtube, T2norway, 4 minutes)

Sundry Sunday: Christmas Nights Into Dreams

The Sega Saturn was one of the first consoles to feature a built-in real-time clock. Most systems now have one, so I’m kind of surprised that very few games make use of it. Animal Crossing does, sure, and some Pokemon titles have time-of-day features (which they had to include their own clocks in the cartridge hardware to support), but few other games bother reading the date.

One prominent example of a game that did was the Christmas demo version of Nights Into Dreams. Ordinarily just a single-level of the full game, the disk had a number of special modes that would crop up at different times. December was one of them, which triggered Christmas Nights mode, with special cutscenes and graphics. But it also had special events for playing during November or January (“Winter Nights”), New Year’s Day, and April Fools’ Day. Especially notable was an unlockable mode that allowed playing as Sonic the Hedgehog, in what is his first true 3D outing!

This video shows off all of Christmas Nights Into Dreams’ special modes, and you don’t have to fiddle with your computer’s clock to see them!

News 11/9/22: Lego Zelda, AI Art, EA Software Patent

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Lego is banning new Ideas projects based on The Legend of Zelda, according to Chris Wharfe at Brick Fanatics. The reasoning given is a bit vague. It could either be because Lego is working on their own Zelda sets (and they already have a working relationship with Nintendo, making the popular Super Mario sets), or it could be that the rights to Zelda models were sold to someone else. Either way, it may mean we get Zelda models through some company eventually.

A pretty good Link model from Lego Ideas! From its project page.

PC Gamer, Andy Chalk: Final Fantasy XVI’s using excuses to not have Black characters. Specifically, by claiming the game’s world is based on medieval Europe, despite Black people existing there. Grumble, grumble!

Old school blogger Mark Frauenfelder of good ol’ Boing Boing mentions illustrator Hollie Mengert discovered her work was used without her permission to make AI-generated work, and the model that utilized her work released as open source by MysteryInc152. It links to an original article by Andy Baio at Waxy. Someone explain to me how AI-generated work isn’t legally a derivative work based on every work it’s trained on? That seems like it’s just obvious.

From Andy Baio’s article-the left is Hollie Mengert’s work, the right, the output of the AI model trained from it.

Rich Stanton at PC Gamer writes that EA’s been granted a patent on game controls that change based on how well the player does. Software patents are bad on principle, that is a horse that I will always flog despite this awful situation having existed for literally decades now, but getting past that, for now. This seems at first like just another version of adaptive difficulty, which is also something that seems like it’s kind of a problem when it happens without notifying the player or giving them a say in it. I know I know, “Kent Drebnar, get with the 21st Century.” Maybe I’ve been hanging out with the Gripe Monster too much lately. The article goes back into the history of these kinds of effort, going all the way back to Compile’s Zanac, although I would argue that’s not so much adaptive difficulty as a system that the player can strategize to manipulate. Zanac is terrific, by the way.

Bryan at Nintendo Everything mentions that Sega is hiring a Sonic “loremaster,” presumably someone who knows the history of the many forms of the character. Said role will assist in creating new content and characters in the Sonic universe. Sounds like a tall order given the many varied and contradictory versions of the property there’s been, but I’m sure there are people out there who are up to it. Good luck, whoever they pick!

Sonic 2 Boss Hit Box Bug

While we’re on the topic of 16-bit Sonic, revealed last year by Lapper on Twitter, and recently boosted by Classic Sonic Deconstructed, it turns out that, because of a misplaced hitbox, you’re completely immune to the bomb attacks of the boss of Chemical Plant in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 if you’re crouching.

This is the boss’s only attack. If you’re standing on the middle platform and just duck when he’s attacking, you’re completely safe.

Original tweet.

Sonic Retro’s Physics Guide

tl;dr: The description of the physics and implementation details of the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games hosted at Sonic Retro is complete and amazing.

This is one going out to all you developers out there, either current or aspiring.

It’s amazing to me how fussed, nay, obsessed-over the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games are even to this day. There are a lot of good things about them, and arguably the best is their platforming engines, which are among the best in the field. They take advantage of the processing power of the Genesis/Mega Drive, fueled by a Motorola 68000 processor, the same processor as the classic Apple Macintosh, clocked only slightly slower. This was basis of Sega’s infamous “blast processing” slogan at the time, touting how much faster the Genesis was than the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. This was somewhat unfair, as SNES carts often came with supplemental chips in them that acted like co-processors, and was of a completely different architecture as well with different characteristics, but it did make the Sonic engine possible. A lot of the credit also goes to Sonic programmer Yuji Naka, who is legendary in game coding circles for a very good reason.

If this is the kind of discussion that makes your heart race, we’re glad to have you reading Set Side B! If it’s not, that’s okay. I’m a bit stymied myself, even though I love dives like this.
(All images in this post from Sonic Retro.)

The result of the Genesis’s power and Naka’s expertise was a game engine with, yes, raw speed, but also a lot of nuance. If you jump and land on an enemy or monitor, you can control the height of your rebound, no matter how fast you were going when you hit it. If you jump while on a slope, you don’t jump straight up but away from it, which takes some getting used to at first but can be taken advantage of. There’s lots of fun little cases like these, and figuring them out, and their implications, is the source of a lot of the joy of playing Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time.

Those two places where the slope only intrudes slightly into Sonic’s ground tile are what get me.

I’d even argue, without the solid engine, and great level design taking advantage of it, all of Sega of America’s marketing efforts, which formed the foundation of the media juggernaut that Sonic has become today, with several cartoon series and comic books, and two successful movies and a third one in the works, would have been for naught.

Judging by the later 2D adventures, the nuances of Sonic the Hedgehog’s engine are difficult to grasp without a good amount of effort. It is likely that Sega themselves don’t have the institutional memory to understand how they worked, which is why they went to Christian “The Taxman” Whitehead, and others from the fan game community, to make Sonic Mania, which has a faithful recreation of the original games’ physics.

Why has no one made a Sonic half-pipe trick skateboarding game?

Bringing it back around, the obsession of the Sonic fan community has produced a number of disassembles of the game’s code, which have served as the basis for a wide array of romhacks of rather shocking levels of quality. I wrote about many of those in the Someone Set Up Us The Rom ebooks (ahem).

They also served as the basis for the subject of this post, the physics descriptions at Sonic Retro. Here is basically all you need to make a Sonic-style platformer. Synthesizing this and putting it into practice is a formidable task on its own, but it’s a doable one, and you don’t have to read source code (other than your own) to do it. To those who attempt this task, we salute you! And let us know how it goes!

Sonic Retro: Physics Guide

News 7/4/2022: Gilbert’s Sonic Pac-Mom

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Jay Peters at The Verge reports that, sadly, personal attacks from griefers have caused Ron Gilbert to stop posting updates on the development of his upcoming Monkey Island game. Booo! Don’t be a Gripe Monster, friends!

On NintendoLife, Damien McFerran mentions an piece in the next issue of pay fanzine Lock-On by Undertale and Deltarune creator Toby Fox, about the impact of the Japanese series Mother, known in the US as Earthbound.

Destructoid’s Chris Moyse mentions the remake of Pac-Man World mentioned at Nintendo’s indie-focused Direct has Pac-Mom instead of Ms. Pac-Man, pushing her further down the memory hole. The issue seems to be a rights issue around the character, who was not created by Namco but instead by classic indie arcade designer GCC, who has licensed her exclusively to AtGames.

It was a few days ago, but at Kotaku Jeremy Winslow posted about Simon Thomley, a.k.a. “Stealth,” of Sonic Mania developer Headcannon, about how he has complained that their work on Sonic Origins was done under time crunch, and they were not allowed to debug their work before release, and even that integration with the final product introduced new bugs they were not responsible for.

News 6/26/22: Path of the N64 Controller Minecart

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

Graham Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun lets us know that the team who made AM2R, which infamously Nintendo sent a cease-and-desist, are working on a new game that’s a Metroidvania, but has nothing to do with Metroid, called Bō: Path of the Teal Lotus. It’s awful that Nintendo did that, and it’s great that they didn’t let the experience sour them!

Over at wccftech, Aernout van de Velde writes of an N64 emulator plug-in that supports many advanced graphics features, such as ray tracing and 60 fps output! Ocarina of Time ran natively at just 20 fps, seeing it at 60 is like opening your eyes opened for the first time. Here’s the announcement tweet, with embedded demonstration video:

At Ars Technica, Sam Machkovech reviews Sonic Origins, and notes a discomfiting thing about it: it costs $40 for many fewer games than a standard Genesis rom collection, yet on top of that also locks features and music behind DLC charges. Boo!

Matt Purslow of IGN tells us that Microsoft is confirming shortages of Xbox controllers. I’m sure some people are already trying to figure out ways to blame this on Joe Biden.

Ollie Reynolds writing on Nintendo Life relates an interesting discovery about Super Mario RPG back on the SNES: during its minecart section, if you don’t touch the controls at all, the game will play itself, and complete it for you. They found the news from the Twitter feed of splendid Mario arcana site Supper Mario Broth!