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How community coders are remaking the best - and the worst - Sonic games

Can the future of the franchise be found in fan-made demos?

It's been a year to remember for fans of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic Mania blew the doors off, becoming one of the finest platform games ever made, while yesterday saw the conclusion of a fantastic online event - the Sonic Amateur Games Expo 2017. SAGE brings together creators and Sonic fans the world over to deliver brand new experiences based on Sega's blue hedgehog. It's this event that sparked the creation of Retro Sonic by Christian Whitehead which, after a long and winding path, ultimately led to the creation of Sonic Mania. SAGE is also the catalyst which resulted in excellent titles like Freedom Planet and Spark: The Electric Jester - two great action games well worth checking out.

Clearly, SAGE is an important birthing ground for new Sonic concepts and two fascinating demos were released this year: modernised remakes of the very best and the absolute worst titles in the Sonic canon. Sonic 2 is a game ripe for remastering for current hardware and with the Sonic 2 HD demo, we're getting a highly promising remake that looks beautiful in the high definition age without sacrificing the playability of the original. And then there's Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 PC - a brave attempt to rehabilitate the darkest chapter in Sonic history. The great thing is that both are available for anyone to download and play now on PC - the links are at the end of the article.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a fascinating title - and our favourite of the series. This second installment featured refined level design, incredible visuals and a great soundtrack. It's also the sequel that almost didn't happen - after the first game, series creator Yuji Naka famously walked out on Sega of Japan before a certain Mark Cerny managed to persuade Naka to instead join his San Francisco-based Sega Technical Institute, which lead to the creation of Sonic 2.

And now, thanks to the hard work of a group of dedicated fans, Sonic 2 returns with an interesting HD remake. It' a project that has been in limbo for years but was restarted in 2014 with new recruits joining the team. After a tremendous effort, the team has released a brand-new demo, including three full stages all recreated using high resolution assets. This includes Emerald Hill Zone, the Chemical Plant Zone and Hill Top Zone.

Here's a look at the Sonic 2 HD and Sonic 2006 PC projects and how they stack up against the source games. There's some remarkable work here from the developers.

Like Christian's Retro Engine, Sonic 2 HD uses its own custom engine known as SonicOrca designed to recreate the physics and mechanics of classic Sonic games while supporting high resolutions and new features. The engine is written entirely in C# and uses OpenGL to power its visuals. What this ultimately means is that Sonic 2 HD is fast and smooth, provided you have a decent graphics card.

Despite the leap in fidelity it manages to feel incredibly faithful to the original game. When you compare the two side-by-side, it's clear that the artists did a remarkable job capturing the essence of Sonic 2. The design of the foreground tiles is spot-on while the backgrounds feature new, smoother gradients. The same per-scanline scrolling that Sonic 2 relies on is also fully present in this iteration of the game - backgrounds look excellent in motion. But it's all the new subtle animations that really stick out. Trees blow in the wind, pipes sparkle in chemical plant and clouds smoothly glide across the sky in Emerald Hill. Characters and objects also benefit from a vast increase in animation frames, all completely redrawn from scratch.

Compared to the last attempt at bringing 2D Sonic to HD resolutions in the lacking Sonic the Hedgehog 4, this remake of Sonic 2 feels true to the spirit of the original games. Even for an early demo like this, character handling is already good. It's not as refined as Sonic 2 itself or Sonic Mania but it's surprisingly close and a far cry from Sonic 4 with its non-existent physics.

While not quite perfect, we have huge hopes for Sonic 2 HD. Bearing in mind the success of Sonic Mania and the quality seen in this demo, we'd hope to see Sega sitting up and taking notice - and possibly making the title official. While fan-made demos and remakes tend to result in legal shutdowns, the fact is that Christian Whitehead's SAGE work resulted in brilliant mobile ports of the Sonic titles plus Sonic Mania itself. There's the sense that Sega doesn't feel threatened by fan-made projects, instead viewing them as a potential resource for future Sonic titles.

The Sonic 2 HD team has done a remarkable job of modernising the visuals while at the same time remaining true to the spirit of the original game. Click on the shot to get a better idea of how the new artwork scales up.

Whether the same can be said for the Sonic 2006 remake showcased at SAGE 2017 remains to be seen. It's a game with a reputation so bad that it endangered the franchise. It attempted a return to the Sonic Adventure formula but a whole host of technical and design problems ruined it. The game is, for all intents and purposes, unfinished. It's a shame as the first demos were promising. The engine is robust for the time, with support for full time of day shifting and detailed visuals. It also runs at 60 frames per second, though there is plenty of slowdown. When it finally launched, however, it was broken in so many ways. Near constant loading times destroyed any semblance of pacing, often asking the player to wait more often than play. Level design is wildly inconsistent and often broken. It's an extremely easy game to break.

So the notion that somebody out there cares enough to craft a PC remake is remarkable. The developers have taken original assets, inserted them into the Unity engine are working on rebuilding and tweaking the game in an attempt to get it right. The results are fascinating. Recreating a 3D game like this using an entirely new engine is no small feat but to do that while simultaneously attempting to improve the game is highly ambitious.

With one level completed and available to download now, it's an interesting diversion - but whether a game this bad can be rehabilitated is still up for debate. The visuals are undoubtedly improved and mild tweaks to gameplay are in place, but the remake demo doesn't address any of the fundamental problems in the level design. There are still cheap hits everywhere that you can't see coming, along with bad camera angles and questionable layouts, but it least it plays better. Controls are far less twitchy this time making it easier to control Sonic. Various obstacles have been removed in certain points improving the flow, while enemy patterns and item placement can vary slightly.

If you play the demo without the context of the original it doesn't feel very good at all but going back to the 2006 release demonstrates that things have improved. Visuals too see a nice boost - anisotropic filtering helps tremendously, LODs are pushed out further and shadows are much cleaner. The bloom effects are missing this time and some of the physics seem toned down but, really, these are not critical pieces of the game.

Ultimately, this is a novel idea and between this strange remake and the efforts poured into bringing Sonic Unleashed stages to the PC, we might be looking at the 3D Sonic equivalent to the Sonic Mania team. Perhaps some-ay, years down the road, these guys will get a chance to build a new 3D Sonic game?

Christian Whitehead's Sonic Mania is one of the best platform games ever made - and his initial Retro Sonic work was showcased in SAGE back in the day.

The quest to produce a viable 3D Sonic game has been ongoing for years now, but maybe an entrant from last year's SAGE may hold the key to successfully transplanting the franchise into the third dimension. It's called Sonic Utopia and it's a brilliant demo.

2D Sonic was all about height - levels had high, middle and low routes that you could regularly cross between. However, the 3D games typically focus on a very narrow path. Utopia takes the multi-level concept and expands it out laterally to create incredibly wide stages. This allows for a huge amount of freedom in how you play the game, while tempting skilled players to take more visually interesting routes, and being able to see so much of the stage so far into the distance really lends the game a unique feeling. More impressively, the controls are fully up to the task and you'll find yourself nailing jumps and ramps without issue. It just feels incredible to play.

Clearly, this is little more than a proof of concept demo but the basic idea is solid and a full Sonic title evolved from this concept could be the way forward for the series. After all, Sonic's biggest issue is that he is fast - and doing anything fast in 3D is tough. You either go for a "track-like" experience like a racing game or you present a massive, ultra-wide stage instead. Utopia demonstrates that the latter option works brilliantly. Little has been seen since the demo last year, but work on Sonic Utopia continues in the background.

The length and breadth of ideas that emerges from the SAGE event is a credit to the community, and the fact that all demos are available to all users only amplifies the reach of the event. There's still more official Sonic to come this year - Sonic Forces releases on November 7th - but after the success of Sonic Mania, maybe Sega will more fully embrace some of the SAGE concepts and projects. The Sonic 2 HD demo in particular has caught our eye, but what about a full trilogy remake based on this work? We'd be there on day one.

This year's SAGE demos - including Sonic 2 HD and the 2006 remake - can be downloaded here, while Sonic Utopia is available here.

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About the Author
John Linneman avatar

John Linneman

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.