One of our favourite gaming events - the Sonic Amateur Games Expo - returned once again this year with a wide selection of impressive games from talented developers. From resurrecting a cancelled Sega Saturn Sonic title to remaking Game Gear classic Sonic Chaos, the range of ideas and concepts on display this year is highly impressive - and best of all, every demo from the event is available to download.
There's a lot to work through here, but it's the release of a Sonic Z-Treme demo that may prove most interesting to many fans. It's an attempt to reconstruct the cancelled Sonic X-Treme for Saturn and to do so running on original hardware. It's something of an epic task since so little source material is out there: two failed prototypes are known to have existed on the 16-bit Mega Drive/Genesis while a third known as Sonic Mars was created for the 32X before eventually evolving into Sonic X-Treme. This was the infamous Sonic game that was supposed to help save the Sega Saturn, a system seller first shown to the public in a slick E3 1996 demo. However, the game never saw the light of day.
So, what happened? It's a long story involving sky-high ambitions, multiple teams and failures on the part of Sega management, but the traces of its existence have become the stuff of legend. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Sonic community, several prototypes have been recovered, showcasing the game in various states of completion. The main programmer, Ofer Alon, was working primarily on PC hardware and struggled to deliver the required fluidity on the Saturn itself. Much to his chagrin - and that of lead designer Chris Senn - Sega management brought another team on board to handle Saturn programming duties, a developer known as Point of View, but this studio ultimately fared even worse.
Then, after a disastrous meeting with Sega of Japan, a decision was made to change the direction of the project following the direction of an entirely separate portion of the game - the boss sequences. This prompted members of the team to request access to Sonic Team's Nights Into Dreams engine to speed up development. Unfortunately, when Yuji Naka caught wind of this, he demanded a cessation of work on the project and this ultimately ended the Sonic X-Treme project.
Development was apparently something of a mess then, but the game has some significance in Sonic lore - and now, thanks to the hard work of Sonic Retro user XL2, the spirit of the game lives. In development since March of 2017, Sonic Z-Treme is a proof of concept demo created using a new engine designed specifically for the Saturn. According to the game's author, all the rendering, loading, animation, controls and collision detection code was written from scratch with original hardware in mind. At its core, Z-Treme incorporates X-Treme-inspired level design and concepts, combined with a new spin from the developer. While it's very early, it's an impressive showing and suggests that this could conceivably become something more interesting in the future.
The demo includes multiple frame-rate and camera options as well. By default, it runs at 30 frames per second and manages to deliver this nearly 100% of the time save for a couple dips here and there. It's possible to bump this up to 60 frames per second, if you choose, but performance is less consistent in this mode with the game bouncing between 30 and 60 depending on scene complexity. Either way, the results are impressive. While Z-Treme still has a long way to go it's great to see fans working to deliver on the unfinished potential of Sonic X-Treme all these years later. In retrospect, it's clear why the game was canned but it's still a key part of Sega history.
As intriguing as Sonic Z-Treme is, the SAGE 2018 demo that impressed me the most is surely Sonic Chaos - a brand-new game inspired by the Game Gear title of the same name. The original was first released in 1993 for the Game Gear and Master System (in Europe, at least). It's the third attempt at bringing Sonic gameplay to Sega's 8-bit system though it's not without its flaws. The main issues involve the lack of proper Sonic physics due to platform limitations, while the near constant slowdown is frustrating. This new take on the game is built using new tech known as the Crimson Engine. It's written in C and designed to be completely portable, replicating the look and feel of classic Sonic in a similar vein to Christian Whitehead's Retro Engine, which powers Sonic Mania. The physics, momentum and controls all feel just right - but even beyond that, it's clear that this is a significant evolution over the original Game Gear version in many different ways.
In the original game, levels tend to be on the short side with very simplistic layouts. Sonic Chaos 2018 strives to offer something more in line with the 16-bit games. The two levels in the SAGE demo are complex beasts with multiple paths that feels like a mix between Sonic 3 and Sonic CD. That doesn't mean there aren't shared elements with the original Game Gear title: the artwork, while entirely new, is heavily inspired by the original design and colour palette. The first boss from the Game Gear version makes an appearance as well, with a new, reworked design. But what I really love about this new release is the background artwork. The new tile set is gorgeous and the game supports mid-level palette-shifting, allowing the game to fade to dusk seamlessly.
All in all, Sonic Chaos 2018 holds a lot of promise and more than any other, this is the one I'd love to eventually see become a complete game. In the video posted on this page, you'll see many more SAGE demos that really caught my eye and that I recommend you check out. Sonic Advance Revamped is something a little more straightforward but well worth downloading - it's essentially a modern remake of the best Sonic title that appeared for Game Boy Advance, liberated from the constricted screen of the original host platform.
Moving away from Sonic for a while, I'd also recommend taking a look at Super Mario Flashback - it's been around for a few years now but this latest demo shows significant progress. At its core, Flashback combines classic 2D Mario with elements from the 3D games. This includes the move-set, the life system and more. What differentiates this from the likes of New Super Mario Bros, however, is its style: Mario Flashback boasts gorgeous animated pixel art for Mario and his foes. On top of that, its fluid animation is remarkably eyecatching but doesn't detract from the controls, which are spot on. This is coupled with a fantastic new soundtrack which remixes classic tunes in a very catchy way.
Returning to Sonic, I'd also recommend checking out Sonic Adventure Blast and Sonic Next. The former attempts to remake the Dreamcast classic, with a number of evolutionary twists and upgrades. We looked at Sonic Next last year - it's a remarkable effort that sees its developers attempt to remake the original, risible Sonic 2006 into the game it always should have been. This year, the developers have opted to tackle one of the worst stages in the game - Crisis City. There are clear improvements here but fundamentally the source material is so poor, the enhancements can only go so far, while performance needs a lot of work. Despite all of this, I still find this to be an impressive effort. This small team is basically replicating the entire game in a new engine and I'm impressed with how close they've come.
There are many more SAGE highlights worth checking out, with Kyle and Lucy: Wonderworld in particular catching my eye. This is an entirely original creation that combines elements of Sonic-style gameplay with fresh new ideas. The character artwork is simply remarkable - Kyle and Lucy are cute and beautifully animated - while the gameplay style is more easy-going than your standard high-speed Sonic game, focusing more on exploration, with a move set to match. It looks and runs like a dream too; there's smooth scrolling with no hiccups or issues to speak of. This is precisely the type of project I love to see coming out of SAGE, a wholly original creation that has the potential to become a full game - and that seems to be exactly where its creator is heading. Seriously, give this demo a look - I think you'll be impressed.