30 December 2010

First Attempt

I thought it would be funny to show off my very earliest attempt at making a Sonic engine in Game Maker, so here's the link.

Now you can laugh at all the glitches and mistakes I made 5 years ago! I know, it's a poor way to tide folks over until the new shiny version is released.

23 December 2010


As promised...

This, my friends, is why I should concentrate on programming. =P


I can't believe it's been a whole year since I made the first one of these!

In honour of its anniversary I'm going to post one today and tomorrow, so be sure to come back for the second helping. =)

18 December 2010

Afterthoughts on the SFR article

If you're subscribed to Game Informer or follow the Sonic news around the 'Net, you've probably already heard that Sonic Fan Remix has been covered in the magazine.

The article takes the form of a short interview with Pelikan and me. It's the first time I've ever really been interviewed (let alone in print, though that means increasingly little in today's digital age), so I'm understandably chuffed; but I'm also excited that SFR is getting the added publicity... just in case there's any stragglers in the Sonic community who haven't heard of it yet.

The interview was conducted by email, so I gave my answers as thoughtfully as I could and sent them along, hoping that the editors at GI could whip them into something manageable for their article. Of course, they did a great job. Understandably a few tweaks were made, and some content was cut that would have been repetitious or wouldn't have flowed with the rest of the article.

However, for anyone who's interested in the dirty underbelly, here's what was cut:

(isn't having a personal blog great?)

"One of the most striking elements of Sonic Fan Remix is the fact that it’s visually superior to the Sega-made Sonic 4. How was a team of two able to make a better looking game than a major game studio?"

First, I don't think it's fair to say it's visually superior. While I certainly prefer the look of SFR, I know quite a few folks who don't. Artistic beauty is very subjective. Second, it's not even two people, it's one - I had nothing to do with the visuals. And I'm as mystified as anyone else how Pelikan is able to make such gorgeous graphics. It's like some kind of crazy superpower!

Understandably, the part about how it's not really that fair to compare the graphical styles was dropped, because Pelikan already put it better. But I'm sort of sad that the bit showing my admiration for Pelikan's skills was omitted - I'm honestly in awe of his abilities. I know he works freelance in the game industry, which means he's a professional, but his work would be impressive even for a team of artists. It is like a superpower.

To actually answer the question, though - speaking for myself - I think that SFR succeeds where Sonic 4 fails because it's more surprising. There are so many details that you're just not expecting to see, and that's what makes it so exciting.

You'll notice here that the first part was removed. The loss of those three crucial words "speaking for myself" changes the tone of the whole quote. I'm actually trying to describe why SFR delights me more than Sonic 4 did, but the final GI article makes it look like I'm expansively claiming Sonic 4 to be objectively worse. (They embiggened my nuts. =P) But one can't really blame them for trying to stir up controversy, because controversy is interesting. Also, I am responsible for phrasing it in such a provoking way.

I stand by what I said about being surprising, though. Just like the single word of advice "consent" has extraordinary mileage when it comes to questions of sex, when it comes to game design, "surprise" is the word.

Take Sonic 3, for example. Sonic gets punched in the face, the island gets set on fire, and then you get carpet bombed. And that's just the first zone.

Well, here's looking forward to a cover feature when SFR is a complete, surprising whole. =)

09 December 2010

Baww Green Eyes!

When "Project Needlemouse" was revealed to be Sonic 4, and the first trailer was shown, it immediately became clear that Sega wasn't going to use Sonic's classic design. This was disappointing to many fans, and not just because the hype had promised a return to classic form. It also hurt because it had a ring of finality to it - if Sega didn't bring back classic Sonic for Sonic 4, they're probably never going to do it.

This perceived betrayal caused what's called a "shitstorm" by indelicate people. I did my bit with this post, angrily complaining about Sonic's modern design. Of course, to any backlash there is always another backlash, and people began to complain about the complainers: "It's just his design! It's not a very important detail! Just shut up!" And so, the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme was born. (I like to think that my post is at least partly responsible, but I'd probably be over-inflating its impact.)

When it comes to any argument - for example, "Black Eyes VS Green Eyes" - I can respect the two opposite views. Those arguing for one design over the other are both passionately defending something that matters. It's the third group, those who say "shut up!" that I can't stand. Telling someone that their argument doesn't matter and that they should desist is doubly toothless: first, it's antagonistic - it opposes their viewpoint and will be seen as just as disagreeable as their opponents; second, unlike their opponents, it contributes nothing to the argument.

This is why I dislike the "Baww Green Eyes!" meme so much. It seeks to delegitimise an entire conversation, a conversation that I feel is worth having. Suddenly any discussion of Sonic's design and its strengths and weaknesses can be hijacked by any fool who brays "Baww Green Eyes!" like it's the most brilliant possible rejoinder. "This subject doesn't matter! You're all whiny bitches!"

If it's such a minor detail that it truly doesn't matter, then why does this third group of "shut-uppers" seem to care so much? If they aren't interested in the details of Sonic's design, why don't they leave the discussion altogether? They aren't contributing anything, and by their own admission they wouldn't care whatever the outcome.

Argue for black eyes. Argue for green eyes. (Or peach/blue eyelids, or short/long spines, etc). But don't say it doesn't matter at all.

I've been accused of nerdrage and bitching enough to know that it stings. I'll probably be accused once more, because of this post. God knows I'm painfully aware of how pathetic it sounds to talk about Sonic's eye-colour as though the future of mankind depends on it. But I will not have it said that it doesn't matter, for a very good reason. That mentality dismisses the work of talented people to whom it very much does matter - the game designers themselves.

You may be a layperson who only plays the games, and to you the details are just that - details. Many of them you won't remember, or ever be consciously aware of. But the developers and designers sweat blood to get these details right, so there actually is a quarter of the world wherein Sonic's design does supremely matter - in the mind and the workplace of his designers.

Do you really think that Naoto Ohshima or Yuji Uekawa just slapped their Sonic designs together with an "anything goes" attitude? "It doesn't matter what our character looks like. He'll be appealing anyway, because he can jump!"

Because I'm interested in designing Sonic games myself, these details are of interest and importance to me. This doesn't make me a whiner - it just means I'm not a passive player in the Sonic experience. Being invested doesn't make me any weirder than the people who took care to create Sonic in the first place. No one would dare think to fault them for caring about their own designs, upon which their careers may even hinge. Obsession isn't automatically a bad thing.

Methinks I doth protest too much. Perhaps it's time I make a stab at outlining why I dislike the green eyes on Sonic. It's not a knee-jerk hatred of "Modern Sonic" (though rest assured I do hate the design), it's got a rational basis. As such, I could be argued out of my position if this basis were shown to be silly.

There are two major reasons why they don't work. First, it's a bad colour choice. Sonic's red, white, and blue design is iconic, partly inspired by the emblematic flags of the UK and US.

The reason why these colours work is because they are complementary. If you introduce another colour from a wildly different band of the spectrum, things go terribly wrong. That's why you'll often see American flags with gold tassels or edging, but never anything like this:

Simply, having all of the primary colours present in the same scheme looks totally wrong. This is why Sonic's peach muzzle and tummy, or golden shoe buckle, look alright. They share the "red" aspect of the scheme, and don't conflict. The minute green is introduced, though, it all goes wrong.

You may say, "yes, but it's such a small amount of green, nothing like the treasonous vandalism you visited upon those flags." You'd be right, of course (also, the eyes are very far away from the red of the shoes, mitigating the conflict somewhat) - but the eyes are the part of the design you're supposed to be drawn to. They're the most important part; they aren't described as "windows to the soul" for nothing. Everything else can change, but if the eyes don't look right, the whole picture is ruined. For example:

These are not faces.

A minor change, in the grand scheme of things, but an enormous change in the character of the "face".

So, would changing the colour of Sonic's eyes help matters? If I'm complaining about the green, would I be happy with blue or cyan? Well, let's find out:

A small improvement; less violence is done to the colour scheme, certainly. But I find I still don't like it. So what is my complaint with the "green eyes" if not the "green" part? Let's take a look at my favourite picture of classic Sonic:

Sonic doesn't just have black (or very dark brown) eyes, but there is an obvious "shine" to them. The little white circle does wonders. Without it, he looks like this:

There's a reason why, in anime and manga, characters are often depicted without a shine in their eyes to make them look dead or mind-controlled. There's an eerie lifelessness to it. So Sonic has shiny eyes in all his classic forms:

CD Sonic goes really far. Practically the top half of each pupil is white!

But it's not just the shine or lack thereof that makes the eyes, it's the position. If we move the shine to the dead centre of Sonic's pupils, he starts to look weird:


It makes him look less like he's looking at you, and connecting with you, and more like he's just a drawing. It's a subtle detail, but for designers, it's details like these that make or break a design.

The trouble is, the way they shade Sonic's eyes these days, with the green iris, the shine ends up being almost dead centre in his pupil. Examples:

If this looks familiar, it's because Mario has been doing it forever:

Sonic's has Mario's eyes! And overall shading style, to boot. (What was Sega thinking, if you can't beat 'em join 'em?)

So it's not so much that Sonic has green eyes as it is that he has green irises that force his pupil to be much smaller, putting the shine closer to centre. If the eye, both pupil and iris, were treated as a single unit with one large shine, I think it'd be improved a lot:

To be fair, many of the more recent renderings of Modern Sonic are gravitating toward looking like this, and I think that's helping him look better. But they need to do it consciously and consistently to bring back his "cute" look.

Klonoa has had irises for years and still looks cute and appealing because the artists did just that:

To close, I'll also give props to Sonic Battle's bold design, which looks great despite the green:

I think Sega should take a hint from Sonic Battle and use flagrantly different designs for their games more often. The plain vanilla "Modern Sonic" has been with us for over a decade and we could do with some artistic licence. Hey, if Disney can make a dark, intelligent platformer about Mickey Mouse (a Mickey Mouse that reverts to his classic design, no less) to critical acclaim, so can Sega do with Sonic.

07 December 2010

Wright is Wrong

Some folks get their jollies by watching competitive sports. Not me, though - I insist on being weird. When I want to watch a competition where one side gets soundly beaten, I watch debates. The latest of these was between Sam Harris and Robert Wright. (Watch it on YouTube.)

Now, both Harris and Wright are technically atheists, but they disagree on the details. Wright agrees with Harris that religion is wrong, but parts ways with him when it comes to religion being bad. It's Wright's contention that religion is always neutral in any situation, neither bad nor good. He claims that the bad that Harris would attribute to religion is actually caused by other factors: cultural, political, socioeconomic, etc. He even goes so far as to characterise the the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a "land dispute".

This isn't the first time Wright has argued for this position. I've seen him do it once before with Christopher Hitchens. It seems to be his "shtick". He even admits when challenged that the question of religion's neutrality is a hard one to answer; that he hasn't done enough research or gathered enough evidence to be firm in his conclusion; and that it's his "intuition" about it. This is starting to sound more and more like an a priori assumption to me. It's amazing the wriggling he'll do to defend it, as well. In the debate with Harris, Richard Dawkins happened to be in attendance. During the Q&A, he asked Wright (in so many words) whether the conflict in Northern Ireland would exist without the artificial religious labels that continue to fuel it. Wright's prevaricating answer suggested that the conflict grew out of an imbalance in the two groups' access to power. This didn't go a long way to answering Dawkins' question - the concept of being two distinct groups would never have existed in the first place if not for theological differences - but whatever.

Basically, any time someone gives an example of an evil in the world that is ostensibly caused by religion, Wright will dutifully trot out a rationalisation that conveniently absolves religion. As he's not religious himself, one wonders why he bothers - but one can uncharitably speculate. When Harris asked him why he's against criticising Islam, but not against criticising the comparable (and quasi-religious) situation in North Korea, he said "Well, what are they gonna do?" Perhaps Wright is being hypocritical. He's okay with stepping on an ant hill, but not knocking on a bee hive.

Anyway, it's not my intent to figure out why Wright argues for the neutrality of religion. It's my intent to refute it. You'd think Sam Harris could have done so amply in the debate, but he seemed a little off his game (though Sam Harris on a bad day is still a force to be reckoned with). Unfortunately, the conversation turned to Islam more often than not, and much time was wasted with Harris reiterating its dangers. "There's a reason why we're not all lying awake at night worrying about the Amish," he said, making a great point in his great quotable style. But he said nothing that began to cut through Wright's argument and kill it at its root.

Wright's clung-to position that "religion is always neutral" is twofold: when an example of an evil of religion is brought up that he can't quickly dismiss, he'll move the goalpost, shifting the meaning of neutral to mean that while religion actually can inspire bad after all, it also inspires enough good that it's on balance neutral again. Once more, of course, he says this is difficult to measure and that he doesn't have any concrete foundation for his claim. (One wonders, then, why he makes the debate circuit arguing such a shaky claim.)

Both claims of neutrality, however, are easily and quickly dismissed. It's a shame Harris didn't do so, because maybe we'd be spared further flogging of the idea by Wright in the future. Anyway, I'll tackle them.

First claim of religious neutrality: "Religion never inspires bad things, people do bad things anyway and use religion to defend them. Take religion away and they'll just justify the bad things with something else, such as bastardised science."

This seems like you could dismiss it easily by finding something bad that a holy book tells people to do, and find an example of people doing it. For example: Not treating gays equally. That's a foul thing to do, and it's caused by religion, right?

Well, it may or may not be (though I'd say that in most cases, yes, it is), but Wright's rejoinder would probably be something like, "Yes, but there are lots of religious people - even ones who follow the very same holy book - who don't do it. Therefore, the bigots are practising homophobia because of their culture or some other reason, and simply using "God's word" to justify their behaviour."

That's a pretty sneaky response, and it can send one reeling just long enough for the subject to be changed. And it works with pretty much any minority group.

Except one.

Atheists. Pray tell, without religion, how there could possibly be such a phenomenon as discrimination against atheists? This is at least evil that can't be explained away as due to "socioeconomic factors" and completely hamstrings the argument that religion itself generates no evil.

Second claim of religious neutrality: "Okay, you might have got me there. Maybe religion causes that. But it causes enough good to make up for it in the end!"

This second claim is so facile that one wonders who couldn't shred it, but here goes. Doing good after doing bad doesn't make one good, or even neutral. The guilt of having done bad remains. For example, if I murdered someone, and then donated one of my kidneys or lungs to save someone else, would I be "neutral"? No, I'd still be in gaol for having murdered someone! At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, Wright's claim is tantamount to saying that the Nazis were on balance neutral because, hey! they rebuilt Germany's economy while they were at it.

Unless I've grossly mischaracterised Wright's position, it's pretty clear that it's pathetically easy to take apart. Fortunately for him Harris was fixated on Islam for so much of the talk; because if the light of reason had fully shone on his silly notions, they would have been embarrassingly revealed as unclothed in logic or consideration.

07 November 2010

Should Atheism Be Provisional?

There's been a minor dustup here in atheist town. The subject of "what could possibly convince us of the existence of god(s)" has bubbled to the fore again. The last time this was brought up by Greta Christina, I commented, saying that technologically advanced aliens would be a more parsimonious explanation for the types of evidence she suggested. (I didn't mention it at the time, but so would human beings with a new and highly advanced technology. There's nothing to say there won't someday be made a discovery on the level of splitting the atom that will give humans "godlike" powers. In other words, a heretofore unknown technology indistinguishable from magic doesn't have to be extraterrestrial in origin.)

Currently, the conversation is bouncing back and forth between P. Z. Myers (here, here, and here) and Jerry Coyne (here). Greta Christina has also made a follow-up post, clarifying her position and acknowledging the "aliens" angle.

While Coyne and Christina are taking a firm "provisionalist" stance (i.e. that their atheism is provisional and could in principle be overturned by new evidence), Myers takes the opposite view. He's basically saying that the concept of god is so wooly and useless that there can never be convincing evidence for it. This stance has drawn accusations that he's making irrational a priori assumptions, and that his atheism is just as faith-based as any religion.

I think this unfair. Personally, I mildly disagree with Myers - I think I should be openminded to the possibility that there might be some kind of evidence that could convince me of god(s), even if I can't imagine what it is. However, calling his position irrational and faith-based is totally uncalled for and off target.

Even the most hardline sceptic has beliefs that cannot - even in principle - be overturned. For one example, there's no possible evidence that you could ever show me that would convince me that I don't exist (or that the universe doesn't exist, etc). As sceptical as I am, that's something that I will always believe, no matter what. Is it an irrational position taken on blind faith? No, it's just an extreme example of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." There are just some claims that verge on infinitely extraordinary, and no one can muster infinite evidence.

Perhaps the nonexistence of god(s) is in the same category as the existence of the universe. Totally unassailable at this point, considering the overwhelming and persistent evidence.

In principle, I'd side with the "provisionalists", but I don't think Myers' position is ridiculous on the face of it. He makes (characteristically) good points.

21 October 2010

Sonic Fan Remix Demo Out

Sonic Fan Remix, the absolutely gorgeous fangame I've mentioned several times before, finally has a playable demo. Rejoice! And a bunch of you unbelievers thought it wasn't ever gonna be playable.

To download the demo, go to either the official site, sonicfanremix.com, or the helpfully provided mirror.

Here's a video if you wanna know what you're getting in to:

(If you're still having trouble finding a working download, check the description box to the above video at YouTube. You can also nose around in the Sonic Fan Remix thread at Sonic Retro. The discussion there is pretty lively, too.)

Now, my modesty has prevented me from pointing out the fact that I'm the programmer for Sonic Fan Remix. In fact, whenever I mention the game I tend to neglect that fact altogether. It just seemed to be kind of unfair to toot my own horn when it's the beautiful graphics that are the real heart of the game. I didn't want people who read too quickly to get the idea that I was somehow responsible for more than I actually was, which is just the programming.

However, it's probably common knowledge by now, so I'll take the opportunity to mention a few things about the physics.

There are a few minor changes from classic Sonic physics, which were intentionally made because we thought they were improvements. That said, there is still a fair number of unintentional glitches and unwanted differences. Getting everything to work accurately in a 3D environment is tricky! Rest assured, though, most of these issues are known and will be addressed in later releases. It is just a demo, after all.

But it's a damn good one! So stop listening to me ramble on and go play it already!

...Unless you're still waiting for it to download, in which case I'll happily regale you with the story of the time I was stuck in Carnival Night Zone. It was dark, there were over 8 minutes on the clock, and Tails - as usual, when things go bad - was nowhere to be seen...

07 October 2010

Sonicky Trailer Goodness

A major Sonic news outlet may have already brought these to your attention, but if not, then you're in for a treat. Here are the latest trailers for Sonic Fan Remix and Sonic Megamix. I couldn't find a trailer for the upcoming Sonic Trail Mix, but trust me, it's nuts.

It's the physics that really sell it. *shot*

Elsewhere on the internet when this trailer was posted, there were inevitably a handful of comments saying how it looks better than Sonic 4. We appreciate the support, guys, but when you think about it that's really not much of a compliment.


Stop and take a second to think about the fact that that's a hack of Starlight Zone. Truly an amazing achievement. In fact, the only thing bad about it is that it makes the rest of us look kinda pathetic in comparison.

When this made the news at Sonic Retro, one comment said this: "I don't like that much the graphics design". Send your eyes back for a refund, man. Seriously.

14 September 2010

Let's Play Sonic the Hedgehog: The One Ring

I had a really great time watching this playthrough of my hack, so I want to share it here.

Playlist with all 19 parts

I want to give a big shout of thanks to 13th Nightmare (aka Horrormaniac13) for making this. I know I've scarred the poor man for life - he'll never be able to see an Orbinaut again without being gripped with dread. =P

13 September 2010

The Nitpicker's Guide to Sonic Genesis - Part II

Hello again, Code Ninjas! It has been quite a while since Part I, but never fear - slowly but surely I will give Sonic Genesis the drubbing it deserves. Welcome to The Nitpicker's Guide to Sonic Genesis - Part II.

Code Flaw #002: The Demos Are Totally Nerfed



The demo is completely different in the GBA version, and obviously much worse (Sonic is hurt twice, seems disoriented, and demonstrates less of the level). Why should this be? If we were uncharitable, we might chalk it up to the GBA team recording new demos which betray their underdeveloped skill level. However it is much more likely that the game is using the same demo data, but changes in the physics have thrown it off.

You see, the demo "movies" in the old Sonic games were not actual videos of the action - that would have taken up so much space it would have been prohibitive. Instead, the game itself is running, but with two changes: 1) the game resets when the player hits the start button or when 30 seconds have elapsed, whichever comes first; 2) the Sonic object isn't receiving input directly from the joypad, but from a chunk of data read sequentially from the ROM. This chunk of data was made by logging the button presses while someone played the level (for more information about recording joypad input "movies", see this post).

So, if the physics or level layout changes, the recording won't be appropriate anymore. It's as if your joypad were simultaneously plugged into two Sega Genesises (Geneses?), one of which contained a Sonic 1 cart, and the other, Sonic 2. You might be playing Sonic 1 beautifully, but anyone watching the Sonic 2 game will wonder why Sonic is suddenly acting like a drunkard. (They won't notice a difference in Tails' behaviour, though - wantonly flinging himself into harm's way is business as usual for him. =P )

The team who made Sonic Genesis should have recorded new demos after the physics were in place to avoid this issue. But, one can hardly blame them for not doing so; it would, after all, have involved playing the game, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody!

Fixing The Problem In Your Own Hack

This issue with screwy demos isn't confined to Sonic Genesis. ROM hacks will have the same problem if the physics, controls, or layout are changed, even slightly. I encountered it myself when making Sonic: The One Ring, and needed to find a way to record new demos that would be compatible with the ROM. I've turned what I learnt into a tutorial and utility - go here for the complete story. See, I'm not just complaining about Sonic Genesis just to be mean - I'm using it to frame programming tips to help you guys out! Aren't I nice?

Well, not that nice since I'm now going to throw in a few freebie Bonus Flaws out of spite!

Bonus Flaw #003: Wrong Credits Footage

In addition to having broken demos, the "demos" seen during the game's credits are broken, too. But none so badly as the Labyrinth Zone one: this time, not only does the control movie not sync up because of different physics, it's totally inapposite because the wrong area of the level has been loaded!

The famous underwater section where Sonic is pulled through the tunnel by the current, catching on to the breakable poles and avoiding spikes, has been inexplicably replaced by some other region of the zone.

Bonus Flaw #004: Marble Zone Button Keeps Turning Up Like A Bad Penny

This is pretty hilarious. It's supposed to load different graphics depending on the zone ID, but they can't even get that right.

Bonus Flaw #005: Underwater Palettes Incorrect

Sonic and the Badniks don't look right...



...but objects like doors and blocks fare even worse.

(And why does Scrap Brain Act 3 have such a horrible dark blue background? It's supposed to be a lovely, rich purple.)

Bonus Flaw #006: Missing/Incorrect Background Tiles

This flaw really does take the cake. This isn't a matter of not being able to properly port a complicated game's physics to a new platform, or something relatively forgivable. It's a simple matter of gratuitous incompetence and unconcern for the product.

Well, try to keep your lunch down, Code Ninjas - I know it's not easy after that rogue's gallery. Until next time!

12 September 2010

Failures of Imaginary Perspective

The human brain has evolved an extraordinary set of software for grappling with its environment. Working with data from multiple sensory inputs, it constructs a highly detailed virtual simulation of our universe.

And it has the ability - perhaps unique in the animal kingdom - to simulate that which is not but might be: imagination.

Using both the experience of past inputs and a toolset of built-in intuitions, the brain makes thousands of little imaginative predictions all the time; to judge distance, calculate consequences of actions, or even "converse" with itself as a second entity. (Most of us have had imagined conversations with persons absent.)

The brain's software for imagining the physical universe (how objects will interact, etc) has been called "folk physics". You can think of these folk physics as a sort of video game physics engine: a recreation of real-world physics, informed by real-world data and accurate to a degree, but still imperfect.

Folk physics aren't quite perfect because the brain has evolved to cope with everyday situations. Our ancestors (and for the most part, modern humans) would usually cope with moderate distances, speeds, sizes, and timespans. When it comes to extreme and unfamiliar situations, the brain's intuitions cease to be useful. For example, at the atomic or astronomic scales, common sense is useless; without tools like science and mathematics, we'd have little hope of ever having a meaningful understanding of realms beyond the mundane.

In other words, the brain can't just grasp this stuff on its own - it needs a lot of help. For instance, great spans of time can be rendered on a graph as visual information. Only then, with the data in a format that the brain understands, can patterns be recognised and useful work be done.

But it's not just the ultimate extremes of our universe that cause the brain to trip up. Oftentimes things much closer to home, only a step or two away from the deeply familiar, can fool our imaginations.

Which brings me to the actual point of this post. Creators of stories have long made their tales exciting by having them take place right on the edges of our experience. In the early days, that meant unexplored caves and mystic forests, peopled by ogres, fairies, gods, and mythical beasts. Today, it means a plethora of science fiction "what ifs". "What if you could read thoughts?" "What if we met aliens?" "What if you could travel back in time?" "What if you could shrink down to the size of an ant?"

These concepts are always fun to explore. They are the best of the human imagination, still hungry to explore that which is not but might be.

Exceedingly often, though, there are catastrophic failures of imaginary perspective. Folk physics fails the storyteller (moviemaker, etc) miserably when they try to picture an unfamiliar perspective.

We've all seen movies where spaceships make noise as they fly by; cartoons where characters can breathe and talk in space without spacesuits; or even movies where the most fundamental of all physical laws - the speed of light - is waived (either for the needs of the story or out of sheer ignorance, it's hard to be certain). This latter faux pas was commited by a Star Trek movie ("Generations"), of all things:

from chuggnutt.com

Point: In what is probably the worst production/science gaffe they could possibly make, Soran launches his missile from the planet towards the sun (to blow it up, remember) just as the Nexus is nearing. Immediately the sun darkens and explodes. Do you see what's wrong with this picture?

The sun should not have appeared to change for at least 8 full minutes. Not even counting the time it would take for the missile to reach the sun — let's suppose it has warp capabilities, to get around that issue — the light (and gravity) from the sun can only travel at the speed of light. And since they were on an Earth-looking planet, which is 8 light-minutes away from the sun, then that means there's no possible way the sun would appear to darken immediately—and the gravitational effect on the Nexus would be similarly delayed.

Huge, huge blunder. Somebody (preferably the writers) should have been fired for that one.

So much for Star Trek's reputation of scientific accuracy!

I've also noticed that there are glaring oversights just about any time a character is depicted as shrinking. In "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" (I find it embarrassing to admit I've ever seen this movie), the shrunken kids tame and befriend an ant, which behaves like a large dog. To the diminutive human characters, the ant is the size of a large animal, and so the screenwriters have it behave as one - growling, whimpering, munching food out of the children's hands. Later, it even shows loyalty, sacrificing itself to protect its newfound friends! The writers seem to forget that the ant is not actually a large animal, it just appears large to the newly shrunken humans.

Of course, "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" is a comedy, and can be excused. However, there's another big problem with just about every "shrunken" sequence I've ever seen - and it's a little harder to notice at first.

When you watch the wind blow through the trees, or stalks of a tall grain crop, they sway smoothly and slowly. But if you watch grass, even in a light breeze, it snaps back and forth super-quickly. This is because, of course, the distances involved are so much smaller.

If you were a shrunken, centimeter-high character on a lawn on a breezy day, you wouldn't see large majestic stalks of green grass waving lazily above your head. You'd see them bending double and flashing back and forth almost faster than your eyes can follow. It would be like the worst hurricane footage you've ever seen. It would probably be too overwhelming to cope with. It's understandable why this has never (to my knowledge) been depicted on film.

Also, you wouldn't see the breeze ripple its way through the blades, either. With every gust, all the grass would react in almost perfect unison. (A 10mph breeze can play through almost 15 feet of grass per second.)

So, next time you watch a movie with an unusual view-point, watch for failures of imaginary perspective. You might be surprised.

14 August 2010

SAGE Advice: Part 5

Here comes the final part of my series on SAGE 2010. I apologise now to the remaining games I didn't get a chance to review.

Sonic 1: SAGE 2010 Edition

ROM hack of Sonic 1 by Cinossu

Visit the Sonic 1: SAGE 2010 Edition Booth!

This hack of Sonic 1 is more than just that - it's actually a proof-of-concept demo for the new Retro Channel at Sonic Retro.

The idea is like a modern evolution of the Sega Channel. By playing in a special emulator, you can upload data such as achievements, scores, and time attack times to the Retro Channel database.

It's still in its infancy, though, and there are a lot of technical issues to sort out. But that doesn't stop it from being one of the geekiest, coolest ideas I've ever seen.

Seeing the Sonic Retro logo at the beginning (with randomly chosen little sprite vignettes) gives me a pang of excitement. Wouldn't it be cool if we were fast heading towards a world with a "Retro Team" that develops quality hacks like this one that will work in conjunction with Retro Channel? It's probably nothing more than my fanboyish dreaming, but I'd love for that to happen. Needless to say, they'd be my favourite developer - Sonic Team would be left in the dust (I say that as if they haven't been already. =P)

Now, I couldn't get the networking features to connect, so I just played the game to ogle at the technical changes. Each Zone and Act is accessible from a cool playable menu with pushbuttons and warp rings. All your stats are saved to SRAM, making time- and score- attacking possible.

There's also a nifty Boss Rush with music by Tweaker that can't be missed.

My Advice: Even if you can't connect to Retro Channel, this is worth playing. If you're a hacking nerd like me, it'll be quite a treat to check out all the classy changes that have been.

Sonic 2: Retro Remix

ROM hack of Sonic 2 by Thorn & DNXDelta

Visit the Sonic 2: Retro Remix Booth!

This is a pretty thorough hack of Sonic 2 that makes it into almost an entirely new game. There are two modes: Classic and Adventure. Adventure Mode involves all sorts of Emerald hunting, missions, and level unlocking, which I'm a sucker for, but I didn't have time to play it in depth. What I did do, though, was fun. Anyway, I'll be looking at Classic Mode only for this review.

Well, we've got our obligatory green level here. The new art is a little grainy, and also samey. The repeating blocks all look like they're at the same depth, causing it to look boring, but also making the gameplay confusing. It's hard to always tell what you can pass through, behind, or in front of or not.

We've got some new moves for Sonic, too. There's a wall jump, homing attack, and even an expertly recreated version of the trick system from Sonic Advance 2, which I have to say is mighty awesome. All of this works very well and it's fun to use the controls.

Unfortunately the level design is poor. It's like a bad mix of Sonic Advance 2 and Chaotix. You keep finding yourself zipping along, only to come to a stop, or fall through a passageway, or get bounced into a blocky area that impedes your flow. It's also fairly easy to get lost.

Some fangames, like Sonic Axiom, or Sonic: Time Twisted (see below), have level design that works very well. I'm not entirely sure what the secret to good level design is, but I think one aspect is that the designer needs to be aware of the screen. As they draw the Zone, they need to constantly be thinking about how the material they're adding is going to be presented to the player. How is it going to be revealed onto the screen? Will the player see where they need to go? Is there enough interest present in any given frame? How can we surprise the player? What kind of visual cues can we use to encourage certain player behaviour? The two games I just mentioned seem to have this kind of thing in mind.

Sonic 2: Retro Remix, however, much like the two games I compared it to (Sonic Advance 2 and Chaotix) seems more like you're playing a map than a Zone. As though it was all splodged onto a big canvas by someone who understood the overview, but had no concern for how it should feel to play through it as it scrolls onscreen incrementally.

So, for all the content here, the level design mars things pretty badly. Playing the Zone gives me a sort of empty feeling, like I'm not actually doing anything.

I've seen trailer videos, though, with amazing speedruns of the Zones. Perhaps the Zones are just too finetuned, and I have to play them "right" in order to properly enjoy them. Either way, I think they need work.

The later Zones actually fare slightly better in the level design department, or maybe I was just getting used to the style. I particularly appreciate the snow level - it's both pretty and fun.

My Advice: Don't get me wrong, Sonic 2: Retro Remix is in no way bad. In fact I quite like it. The ported musics are really good (I especially like the third Act of the first Zone), and the Zones are fast and exhilarating when things are going well. You should definitely play it.

Sonic: Time Twisted

Game made by Overbound in Game Maker

Visit the Sonic: Time Twisted Booth!

I've seen this game around since I first encountered the Sonic community several years ago. It's notable as a solid Game Maker Sonic fangame, and for having Sonic CD-esque time travel, albeit streamlined to only 2 different eras.

This demo's level, Perplex Puzzle, has extremely well conceived level design, and has quite a handful of different gimmicks and moving platforms types - some of which are even unique to the past or future. It's amazing the difference that this makes - suddenly you feel like you're playing a true Sonic game, with echoes of Sandopolis, Marble Garden, or Tidal Tempest, and not a mere tech demo made up of blocks.

There are branching paths, hidden rooms, and nothing feels like it's just been thrown together or unnecessarily repeated just to pad things out. The enemy placement is fair and reasonable, plus the enemies themselves are cool. One is a snail that leaves a slime trail (quite a cool graphical effect, to be honest), and another is based on this guy from Sonic Triple Trouble. Actually, a lot of the level design reminds me favourably of the latter two Game Gear Sonic titles, mixed with Sonic CD. Importantly, it's genuinely fun to play the Zone.

The music is really nice, too - it has the Sonic CD vibe, which fits really well, but it also reminds me of one of my favourite game soundtracks, that of Pushover for the SNES. This is fitting, considering that the Zone is a perplexing puzzle!

It's not perfect, though. The art style, while vibrant, consistent, and technically proficient, at least for this Zone uses too many conflicting primary colours. The future is all green and purple, while the past is all blue and orange.

I'm guessing this was done because Tidal Tempest has a similar look, but it confuses the eye and makes some of the gimmicks you're supposed to interact with (the pull-switches and doors, for instance) difficult to make out. Some of the object sprites, like the shield and the springs, look a little flat and unfinished. Also, the water doesn't change the colour of what's submerged, which reminds me of the lazy PC port of Sonic CD.

I like the Sonic sprite, though, apart from some issues with the eyes in a few of the frames, and the balance of borrowed to original art is also respectable. None of the repurposed elements look out of place.

The game has a fair amount of bugs and incompatibilities. The Zone Clear sequence is particularly unpolished - which is fair enough, this is just a demo. But at one point it triggered during the Zone when I was nowhere near the end, and then froze up the game! The music didn't play on my machine, either, so I had to manually run it in a media player as I played the Zone. The Time Travel transition also showed up as video garbage - and my system can handle Game Maker and surfaces just fine, usually.

Those glitches aside, though, the engine - a modified form of Sonic DASH - is a lot more playable than in most cases. There are a bunch of obvious problems that stand out to someone like me who's studied the originals so carefully, but to the average player there's nothing here that will frustrate you so much you won't be able to finish the demo.

My Advice: This is definitely worth checking out. It's much more polished than the previous demos of the game I've played, which promises that Sonic: Time Twisted will only continue to improve in the future, too. If you like well-thought-out Zones and platforming gameplay (like me), then this is one to watch.

Visit SAGE!

A Happy Announcement!

A few days ago, Overbound - the creator of Sonic: Time Twisted - asked me if I'd like to join the project as Lead Programmer, and make the game's physics and engine even better. I was flattered that he proposed this, and also excited to lend support to a promising Sonic fangame, so I jumped at the chance and said 'yes'.

Now, some of you may also know that I'm currently working on putting together a Unity engine for Sonic Fan Remix. How can I juggle both projects? Well, the truth is, I already am - as I code for SFR in Unity, I'm also working on my Game Maker Sonic engine. When things are going tough in one, I can switch to the other for a breather.

So, though nominally I am now the "Lead Programmer" of STT, more accurately I'm still just working on my Game Maker Sonic engine as I have been doing. However, now I'll be keeping Overbound posted on progress, and STT will be the first game to use my engine when it's done.

By the next SAGE, you're almost assured to see a demo of STT that we'll work to make better than ever. Be there!

13 August 2010

SAGE Advice: Part 4

This time we'll be looking at some 3D fangames at SAGE, as well as some that are more heavily influenced by "Modern Sonic".

Sonic Adventure 3

Game made by Acidhead Games in Game Maker

Visit the Sonic Adventure 3 Booth!

I wish I could give this game a proper review, but sadly it's buggy as hell and I can't control it. Sonic doesn't seem to be able to run forward properly.

What I can see of the presentation, though, is underwhelming at best. No Sonic game, not even a 3D one, should have to have mouselook. It screams 'I've re-textured a basic FPS tutorial' not 'worthy follow-up to Sonic's last hurrah on the Dreamcast.'

My Advice: Who knows - if the controls work on your system, you might get something more out of it than I did. But I don't really see the point. I can't even say 'Great effort, guys!' because I'm most emphatically not a fan of 3D Sonic fangames. Why, exactly, would you want to repeat Sega's mistakes? Sonic works in 3D about as well as it does as an interpretive dance.

Sonic 3D

Game made by Zykov Eddy in EDuke 32

Visit the Sonic 3D Booth!

Well, this fares slightly better. I can at least control it. But again we have mouselook, which just feels wrong. Worse, since it's the only way to turn (the WASD controls allow only strafing), you have to always have one hand on the mouse. But of course, jump is mapped to the spacebar! Oh joy, we have to run and jump with one hand, while looking around with the other! It's far from the optimal setup, and isn't conducive to Sonic gameplay at all. Jumping on enemies or items is supposed to be the central action of a Sonic game, but here it's a tedious chore - like in most 3D versions of Sonic.

My Advice: In the end it feels like the poor man's version of the much better Sonic Robo Blast 2. I find it a shame that - perhaps in some attempt to be "impressive" - people are compelled to make 3D games like this. When most major studios can't get it right, what hope do you have? I'm all for quixotic perseverance in the face of the odds, but this is just silly. Maybe I'm just being closed-minded here, but does anyone actually have fun playing projects like this, or are they just glorified tech demos?

Sonic NXT

Game made by Altheboss in Game Maker

Visit the Sonic NXT Booth!

You know what? This one is horrible, too. I don't know if I'm just in a bad mood, or if these 3D and "Modern" fangames just suck (but I have a vague idea which it might be).

Aside from the borrowed graphics that are copy-pasted in the least imaginative of ways, the physics are also terrible. I bounced around in here for a good half-minute.

These springs bounce you right into a big solid thing. Helpful.

And the red spring to the left of here isn't powerful enough to send you further up this slant without stopping (you have to use the Spindash). Of course, in any decent engine it would be. It's almost as though the level design doesn't want me to play it.

Well, I'm happy to oblige it.

I do sorta like the Zone intro, though. Meh.

My Advice: This is way too broken to be any fun, and everything in it is recycled. Skip it. It's telling that the fangames that seem the most heavily influenced by the more recent Sonic games are also the worst.

And, yes, that's Tails with four tails. Saints preserve us.

Sonic Phoenix

Game made by LH_The_Hedgehog in Multimedia Fusion

Visit the Sonic Phoenix Booth!

Well, we've got a single act demo here, it appears. There are all the usual "Modern Sonic" suspects: boost, homing attack, Egg Pawns, wall jump, QTE's - the works.

Unfortunately there are also all the bad things about "Modern Sonic", too: treacly acceleration (PROTIP: Sonic is supposed to be fast), run-run-run-trick-run level design, and awful butt-rock music (though the Zone theme isn't terrible).

It has more polish than some similar attempts I've seen, though, I'll give it that much. And I like that it detects your ToD ("Time of Day") and changes the Zone's ToD accordingly.

My Advice: It's not totally unplayable (which means it stands out in today's group), but there's nothing that makes it fun. Though, compared to Shadow the Hedgehog 2 from last year, there's just no contest.

Well, they get props for blowing up Washington, I guess.

Wait... what? Now it's NY? I'm confused.

Sonic and the World Rings

Game made by A.J. in Multimedia Fusion

Visit the Sonic and the World Rings Booth!

Well, now it looks like we might be getting somewhere. This game makes an effort in the presentation category, and it's quite interesting for it to use double-tall resolution like a faux DS game. The title also suggests more thought has gone into storyline than if it was called "Sonic, um... 3D!".

Unfortunately, the storyline - taking a page from Sonic Rush Adventure - is told in a very unappealing way. (I also feel compelled to complain about the lazily coded message boxes, with words that type out only to jump to the next line after spilling over the right edge. It's not that hard to fix.)

We've also got a bottom-screen Tails bitching at Sonic (complete with grating voice clips), and an entirely pointless (and compulsory!) tutorial. 'This is how to walk left and right!' Honestly, would anyone dare to include something so banal if Dimps hadn't led the way?

Truly, Dimps poisons everything (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens). Some more of the lovely Dimps-isms we're treated to here include pointless unskilled tricking to fill a boost meter (with the attending boost gameplay), death pits, bland Egg Pawns, and rooms full of bland Egg Pawns. C'mon, people, unless you're making a tongue-in-cheek parody hack, please aspire to a higher level than Dimps!

It gets worse. The level "plays itself", full of boosters and springs and rails. The homing attack (called the "Exact Attack") is awful - for some reason Sonic instantly transports to the enemies rather than zipping towards them. Ugh. There are also homing attack chains, which is a particularly brainless brand of gameplay. The few times Sonic is on solid ground it seems to be nothing but an exercise in running nose-first into crates. Has it really come to this?

I might be able to praise the original way that they handle the wall jump (continue to hold the jump button and alternate pressing left and right), but unfortunately, while it may be creative, it's terribly unintuitive and for that reason doesn't work as well as if they'd just left it alone.

Scattered throughout the Zone are bungie cords (you know the kind; first introduced in Green Forest from Sonic Adventure 2, and rehashed ever since), but they don't actually bungie (at least I couldn't get them to). They just stretch out until Sonic dies. Thrilling. I tried tricking, jumping, the "Exact Attack", spamming the directional keys... if this is some attempt to out-barrel the barrel, it's working.

My Advice: There's a more playable game here than the others we've just looked at, and the presentation is held to a slightly higher standard. If you can jump over the bungie parts (and if you fail, at least you seem to have infinite lives), there's a Sonic Rush-y bit of fun to be had. But when the Zone art and music is directly lifted from the Sonic Rush series itself, you're better off just playing those instead.

Visit SAGE!

Sorry this group was all duds, basically. I also apologise if my assessments are short and overly repetitive. I'm pretty swamped at the moment and I don't have time to be as brilliant as I'd like to be.

Next time, though, you can look forward to another gem! =)