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Jon Burton – founder of prolific studio Traveller’s Tales and executive producer on the LEGO movie – has been working in the games industry for nearly three decades now. You pick up some interesting insights after that long, and now he’s sharing some of that knowledge with us.
Over the past 6 weeks, he’s been detailing coding secrets, unveiling abandoned concepts and demoing unreleased builds of older games on his YouTube channel, GameHut. Today he announced a project to polish up one of his most-maligned games through an unofficial ‘Director’s Cut’ mod.
He’s going to fix 1996’s Sonic 3D Blast.
With Mania being the best Sonic game in two decades, and with most of Sonic's back catalogue now on Steam, we thought we'd rank them for reasons we can't entirely remember. We decided to just include the ones you can buy digitally on PC, mostly for our own sanity. Apologies in advance.
Samuel Roberts: Why did I think this list was a good idea?
Phil Savage: I already disagree with this. Sonic 3 & Knuckles has Sky Sanctuary, which has the best music. It also has a bonus stage minigame that Tails can't screw up by being useless at dodging bombs. It is clearly the best Sonic game.
Samuel: The level design is so consistent in Sonic 2, though, and I would argue the music is the best in the series (sorry, MJ). The first four levels in particular are the most easily replayable and enjoyable in 2D platforming history (give or take a Mario): Emerald Hill Zone, Chemical Plant Zone, Aquatic Ruins Zone and Casino Night Zone, where you can spend ten minutes playing the slots to get those extra lives. That's just a perfect run. And the rest of the game's alright too. The last boss is shittingly hard, though, and makes me a sad, 29 year-old child.
Andy Kelly: Sonic 2 is peak Sonic. It’s hit after hit, with no weak levels. Casino Night Zone, Metropolis Zone, Oil Ocean Zone… all classics. And the music? Perfect. Every game since (except maybe Mania) has cowered in its shadow. The platforming is about as refined as it’s ever been, and there are multiple paths through the levels that reward you for replaying them and uncovering their hidden secrets.
Joe Donnelly: Hang on a spin dashing minute, Phil, Chemical Plant Zone has the best music.
Phil: Chemical Plant Zone doesn't even have the best music of Sonic 2. Bang on some Metropolis Zone and get down to that funk.
Andy: I replayed this recently and I was surprised by how difficult it is. The Labyrinth Zone in particular is a nightmare of lava, spikes, and metal crushers. But it’s still a really well-designed platformer, even if the levels aren’t quite as wildly rollercoaster-like as the sequel. It hasn’t aged as well as Sonic 2, but it’s still just a really good Sonic game. I don’t really have much else to say. It’s good. It’s, y’know, Sonic. It’s got jumping and running. Man, writing about games back then must’ve been really difficult.
Samuel: I don't know what Andy's talking about, because this is the only one I was able to finish as a kid without cheats. Sonic and Sonic 2 are the only two classics in my opinion. I could replay these levels over and over again. My one problem with Sonic 1 was the use of the colour purple in Marble Zone. They really overdid it. I mean, purple: we get it. Also, going from three levels per world to two in the second game was a smart decision. You spend a bit too long in the same places here.
Phil: OK, what the fuck. We're ranking this one above Sonic 3 & Knuckles? It doesn't even have a spin dash! If you want to curl into a ball you've got to run and then crouch, like a rube. Pathetic. I've never been so angry about PC Gamer's content.
Andy: You gotta respect your elders. Sonic 1 is the OG. Blind nostalgia always wins in the end. The lack of a spin dash only adds to its charm. Probably.
Tom Senior: This is the only Sonic game I have played. I went really fast down a hill and did a loop. Then I hit a giant hoop and chased a floating thing around a 3D racing track. Then I sort of completed the level by accident. I don’t understand. How do we have so many opinions about this?
Phil: What happened, Tom, is you played a Sonic game. That's what a Sonic game is. That's what you do. You just sort of run right and press jump every so often and sort of hope the game just completes itself.
Andy: I won’t stand by and watch Sonic be reduced to merely ‘running right’. It’s about keeping the pace, maintaining the rhythm. Every time you stop you’ve FAILED. Sonic is about momentum and sheer SPEED. The faster you go, the better it is. It’s about quick-fire reactions and choosing the fastest route through the level.
Phil: You sound like that wank in every Nike advert who won't shut up about how spiritual running is.
Andy: You just don’t get it, Phil. You don’t get Sonic. And that’s fine. But as a pure expression of what a Sonic game is, Mania nails it. It has the speed and mind-twisting level design of Sonic 2, but keeps things interesting with imaginative boss design and one-shot gimmicks that never outstay their welcome. The bouncy Portal jelly in the new Chemical Plant Zone is an example of this, pinging Sonic around the level like a mad pinball. Fans will disagree, but I reckon this is the only really great one since Sonic 2.
Samuel: My parents couldn't afford a second hand copy of this when I was a kid (I ended up with Bubsy instead, the fate of all '90s working class children), so I ended up playing it as an adult, and the levels are way too long. And the bonus stage is rubbish. Fight me, Phil.
Phil: This is an outrage. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a genuine masterpiece; a two-part odyssey so epic that it would make Homer break down in tears. Angel Island Zone, Mushroom Hill Zone, Sandopolis Zone, Sky Sanctuary – these are the true good zones, my friends. The classics. The hardcore bangers. Actually, not Sandopolis Zone. That had this weird thing where you had keep turning on lights or a ghost would eat you. I hated that zone. Shit, I'm starting to doubt myself now.
Samuel: The music in this one is great, but when I played it for the first time about five years ago I found it slightly too hard. I enjoyed it and it's far better than most of the Sonics that followed, though. A lot of people insist this is among the best ones, so we can stick it in this position out of polite deference to what people probably believe, which is the foundation of any great list feature.
Phil: I really wanted this, but my parents wouldn't buy me a Sega CD. It's this penchant for wanting dumb, useless things that probably explains why they own a house and I just own an Xbox One that I haven't turned on in nine months.
Samuel: I wouldn't put this above Mean Bean Machine in the pantheon of Sonic spin-offs, but the blue hedgehog plays a decent game of pinball. Like all of the Mega Drive/Genesis games, minus Sonic 3D, it looks real pretty, too.
Phil: There's a bit in the 2006 game Sonic The Hedgehog (which was never released on PC) in which Sonic literally kisses a human woman, and yet Sonic Spinball is somehow still the eeriest and most unsettling Sonic game.
Andy: That deaf, dumb, and blue kid sure plays a mean Spinball.
Samuel: Laboured reference, or most laboured reference?
Tom: Actually I have played this one as well and it’s pretty good, given the lack of Mario Kart on PC. It introduced me to Sonic’s extended cast, like Amy Rose. Why does she have a human name when everyone else is called things like ‘Ulala’ and Pudding?
Phil: DeviantArt probably knows the answer to this, but unlocking that knowledge comes at a price.
Samuel: It's great fun, plus you can buy Ryo from Shenmue in a moving Outrun arcade machine as DLC. That's strong fan service, and the driving in this is superb, as a result of Outrun 2006 developers Sumo Digital making it. Just one question, though. Why does Sonic need a car to go fast?
Andy: It’s no Mario Kart, but this is a decent arcade racer with some of the most colourful, dazzling visuals you’ll ever find on PC. I played it for a couple of hours and never played it again, but that’s okay. I bought it in a sale for a few quid and got my money’s worth. Although quite why ‘Football Manager’ has a place on the roster is beyond me. It’s just a bloke in a suit driving a football-shaped car. Who signed that off.
Samuel: I think that's hilarious, actually.
Andy: It’s Tetris, but with beans. Sort of. You have to connect 4 beans to make ‘em disappear, and they can be above or below each other. Why am I trying to explain how Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine works in the year 2017. I never thought I’d find myself in this position. It’s a good puzzle game, and certainly better than some of the shite Sonic spin-offs released over the years. IT’S TETRIS WITH BEANS. LEAVE ME ALONE.
Samuel: What are you on about, Andy? It's more like Columns, only good! I've probably played the challenge mode in this one more than any other game on this list. The Sonic connection is largely irrelevant, but fill me up with beans, baby.
Andy: Okay, then it’s COLUMNS WITH BEANS.
Phil: What's with the beans? Is there a lore reason for the beans?
Andy: From Wikipedia: “The game is set on the planet Mobius, which is inhabited by bean-like creatures. Dr. Robotnik conceives of a plan to bring terror to the world by kidnapping the citizens of Beanville and turning them into robot slaves, and eventually creating an army that will help him rid the planet of fun and joy.” Yes.
Phil: Wait, stop this list a second. Beanville? A sentient race of beans? How deep does this lore whole go? (And is this a vore thing? Because if so, I'm out.)
Andy: Apparently the next season of True Detective will be set in Beanville.
Phil: I quite liked Columns, but it was really pretentious for Shit Tetris.
Phil: Fuck, I've just realised. Tails' full name is Miles "Tails" Prower. Miles Prower. As in miles-per-hour. This changes everything.
Samuel: Oh my god, I never noticed that before. I always thought 'Prower' was an unusual surname for a fox.
Andy: Did you also know that Dr. Robotnik’s yellow collars and ‘tache are supposed to make him look like a walrus? Eggman. Walrus. I am the walrus. I am the eggman. The Beatles. Yeah? Man, Sonic lore is deep. So many layers.
Samuel: Holy crap. Mind ever so slightly blown, again! Why is he called Robotnik sometimes, then? Are they two different men, or did he rebrand for the purposes of career progression?
Phil: In the comics, he was originally a mild-mannered, thin scientist called Kintobor, but then there was an accident with the chaos emeralds and he transformed into an evil fat man, and also reversed his name for some reason? And his reversed name just happened to have the word 'robot' in it? It's possibly the most laboured case of nominative determinism in comics history.
Samuel: I resent the suggestion that you need an accident of some kind to become overweight and surly. I managed perfectly well without one, thanks.
Phil: You have to give it to Sega: this was genius. You've got some fairly good 2D throwback levels, and you structure them in such a way that to get to them, you have to endure all the 3D levels. It's like, no, you're not having your pudding. Not until you eat your weirdly paced, bullshit camera, getting stuck on bits of geometry you can't even see greens.
Samuel: There's a fairly big drop in quality between this game and the ones discussed on this list so far. The 3D levels were a case of, 'if we throw you along this pipe real fast, how long can you do it before you fall off?'. And the answer is, 'sometimes it's fine'. I liked that you could run through Sonic's timeline in that menu screen, though, Phil. And the 2D levels were some top nostalgia.
Phil: That was neat, but I did find that having two distinct timelines of Sonics raised some uncomfortable questions about determinism that I wasn't wholly prepared to deal with while playing an inoffensive platformer about a sassy hedgehog.
Samuel: I liked this at the time, but I've been informed that the jumping is all wrong and the lock-on attack is sacrilegious. That's probably true, but after years of terrible 3D Sonic, this ticked enough boxes to please me. It's those sorts of gradually eroding standards on the part of Sonic's fanbase that's kept the series alive for so long. Sonic 4 had nice music, too.
Phil: I think every Sonic fan went through a collective hallucination brought about by decades of bad 3D games and convinced themselves this was good. I thought it was mostly OK, up until the final boss, which was a remixed version of Sonic 2's boss, but somehow even worse. Now I retroactively hate it all.
Tom: How is there a second instalment of Sonic 4? How many hours of human endeavour have gone into making this much Sonic? Who is buying these? It’s just you lot, isn’t it.
Samuel: By the time this one came out, everyone decided they didn't like Sonic 4. And I didn't get around to playing this one, so maybe I wasn't as enamoured with Sonic 4 as I initially thought I was.
Andy: Ten thousand years ago when I had a Dreamcast, I played the hell out of this. But now I can’t remember a thing about it except for a bit where you’re being chased by a killer whale. The memories of Sonic 2, however, are still branded on my brain with a Sonic-shaped hot poker. So that probably says it all. Sorry, Sonic Adventure.
Sonic: It was good for the time, but would anyone play a 3D Sonic game in 2017? On purpose? The PC avoided some of Sonic's 3D disasters and, to be honest, I thought this was a deeply underrated entry in the series. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that we’re all being a bit too harsh on Sonic here, he was just a blue hedgehog with dreams who had to go fast.
Tom: Sonic, WTF are you doing in here? Get out of this article before this gets awkward.
Phil: Wait! Before you go, what was with you kissing that human woman in Sonic 2006?
Andy: Sonic, why do you wear trainers but no pants?
Phil: In the cartoons, you're depicted as loving chilli dogs, but you live in a world of anthropomorphic animals. Isn't this indicative of some fairly heinous war crimes?
Samuel: The same as above, only with '2' on the end.
Samuel: I reviewed the Wii U version of this for gamesTM, and boy it was the worst decision I made running that magazine. You run up a load of phallic levels in what amounts to a terrible Sonic cover version of Mario Galaxy. It's another 3D Sonic game where you fall off of things a lot because he's hard to control. Looks nice, though.
Samuel: Actual toilet, and the first sign that Sonic in 3D was just plain not going to work. The move from pixel art to isometric 3D wasn't kind, and it didn't feel like it was made by the original Sonic Team, which might be because Traveller's Tales co-developed it. At least the Lego games were great, lads. If Sonic Unleashed was released on PC, though, I'd probably put that lower than this. And that Shadow the Hedgehog game. And Sonic 2006. Why didn't they release Knuckles' Chaotix on PC, either? I always wanted that as a kid.
Phil: I once completed this in a single sitting and thought it was good, because I was a child and children are bad and wrong and should never be trusted.
Tom: Fuck me, 2752 words about Sonic. I’m going home.
Knuckles: & Knuckles.
In a world increasingly interested in reboots and remasters, games which take an original recipe, build upon it, and add their own, ahem, spin on the formula are my favourite. Due August 15, Sonic Mania looks to do exactly that and its latest trailer visits a classic locale: Chemical Plant Zone.
Starring a lone Miles "Tails" Prower, the reimagined level from 1992's Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (where the dual-tailed fox made his debut) boasts a modernised soundtrack and some nifty looking interactable gadgets that didn't appear the first time round.
At around the 41 second mark, you'll spot our Tails injecting a pool of water with an agent that appears to turn it into a green flubber-like substance. In typical Sonic form, this then acts as a springboard which sends the flying fox skyward.
If you made it along to the PC Gamer Weekender earlier this year, you may have already toured Sonic around Mania's reworked slant on the original's Green Hill Zone.
Having played that myself, and now seeing this, I'm very much looking forward to strapping on my red pointed sneakers once again come August 15.
Golden Axe was already an old game when I found it at the back of an arcade in the 1990s. The dusty cabinet only cost 20 cents per credit while shiny new games demanded a whole dollar. It was good value: only 20 cents to become a dwarf who could ride dragons or weird chicken-leg creatures, bash up tiny gnomes for their magic potions, and sometimes summon lightning from the sky.
Even at that price I could never finish it, and playing it years later on Steam as part of the Sega Mega Drive & Classics Collection it's obvious why. The boss fights are cheap, enemies burst out of doorways to hammer you on the head, the difficulty spikes are entirely random, and ledges are precarious. It has all the hallmarks of arcade games designed first and foremost to vacuum coins straight out of childrens' pockets with maximum efficiency. But thanks to a Steam Workshop modder, it no longer has to be that way.
Tucked away among the mods in the Steam Workshop, behind the ones that or , I found the . These personalised tweaksets alter arcade classics, some of them adding infinite lives or unlimited time, level selection, or protection from death when you fall off the edge of the screen.
Games from Altered Beast to Vectorman 2 had been given the Chill Edition treatment. They took the rage out of Streets of Rage 2, and made even frantic games like Gunstar Heroes into relaxing experiences you can zone out to while listening to a podcast. At first I thought that was all there was to it, and then I looked into the identity of the blessed saint of a Steam user called xONLYUSEmeFEET responsible for these mods.
Turns out he's AJ Ryan, who has a condition called Arthrogryposis that restricts the use of his hands. Ryan steers his wheelchair, types, and plays games using his feet hence the username. You can check him out on YouTube , and he s able to type at 50 words-per-minute and use a mouse with his feet as well. Though he can play with controllers the triggers can be hard to depress with his toes and he s switched to PC gaming for his favorite first-person shooters. I'm glad I did because I can hold my own against my friends now! he says. But Ryan's keenly aware that not everybody is capable of doing what he can.
"Many Sega games are difficult to beat even for the most seasoned gamer and more people should be able to see these games through," Ryan says, explaining the impetus behind his project. "I began work on a few games before Workshop support released so I could have my mods on the store as soon as possible. I started making one of my favorite games, Streets of Rage 2, more accessible by adding in Infinite Lives and enabling additional features in the options menu. Upon completion of the mod, I decided I needed a name for my work. I didn t want to call direct attention to the fact my audience was those with disabilities so I decided on the Chill Edition moniker as I believed these Chill Editions could be enjoyed by anyone."
He was right. There were 34,143 players subscribed to various Chill Editions, and most of them had no idea who is responsible for them or that their creator has an even nobler motivation than saving modern players from ragequitting. His most popular mod is for Comix Zone an innovative but bastard-hard beat-em-up about an artist trapped in a comic who can traverse levels by ripping a path through the panel dividers which had 2,677 subscribers. The Chill Edition of Comix Zone made enemies weaker, adds infinite energy, and when you use the ability to rip a chunk of paper off the page and make a plane out of it, you now get health back instead of losing some. Each Chill Edition's modifications were chosen to suit the difficulties of that particular game.
"The experience I wanted for each Chill Edition game was to allow the player to go through the game at their own pace without worrying about a game over," Ryan explains. "So infinite lives/health were always my top priority for each Chill Edition game as if I could do that, any player could eventually beat the game. I also tried to enable stage/level select for every game to allow players to start the game from any level of their choosing. From there, I added features specific to each game that had a minor impact on difficulty such as infinite shurikens in Shinobi III or infinite time in Sonic."
Ryan started modding seven years ago, creating Doom maps when he was in high school, but his first Chill Edition for Streets of Rage 2 presented a new kind of challenge. "I was not familiar with Hex Editing or the workflow I needed to create in order to make my mods," he says. "The biggest obstacle for me was figuring out I needed to modify Sega s code protection in order to get any of the games to boot."
Though the process got easier once Ryan cleared that obstacle, his later work on the Sonic trilogy turned out to be "a nightmare" as he puts it. "All three games are structurally very different from each other so I was unable to get the same exact features across all of them which was always my goal for series of games." Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the Chill Edition fans requested most frequently and is currently the most popular one, but getting it to work took a lot of trial and error. "Additionally, getting complete hazard and drowning immunity in Sonic 3 & Knuckles to work without having the game lock out took forever to figure out."
A new obstacle stands in front of the Chill Editions right now, however. This week, dozens if not hundreds of mods have been pulled from the Mega Drive & Genesis Classics Collection, removing those that sneakily uploaded entire games as well as perfectly legit mods like Ryan s. Because of how many mods I uploaded I'm currently banned from the Workshop for 28 days! he says. Since the mods were first taken down, four Chill Edition mods have been reinstated, but that still leaves many more unaccounted for.
Even mods created by Simon Thomley, aka Stealth, the modder hired by Sega to create , have been caught in the mass ban. Ryan s hoping to get his mods reinstated or hosted elsewhere, but at the moment they are frustratingly unavailable on Steam, and modders are struggling to get more than stock answers from Steam support.
Ryan plans to continue working on the Chill Editions in the future, bugfixing existing ones while deciding which game to Chill next. He's hesitant to double up on work being done by other modders a lot of players request the JRPG Phantasy Star II, but there's already an out there for it. He's also considering modding other mods, like the original Japanese edition of Streets of Rage 3 which fans can now find under the name , although he wants to make sure the previous modders receive appropriate credit for their work. "I m always looking for suggestions on Chill Edition mods so always feel free to let me know! I ll make Chill Editions for as long as players ask me to."
The Chill Editions have proved worthwhile for both to disabled players who can now experience games that previously relied too much on fussy precision and tight reaction times, and anyone who never saw the end of Alien Soldier because it was just too hard. There are even commenters on Steam popping up to say how happy they are to be able to play games games they remember from their youth like Golden Axe alongside their own children, no matter what age they are.
Sometimes players are critical of the Chill Editions for being too easy, but that's the point of them. Arcade classics in particular weren't designed with accessibility in mind, and that's a shame. Video games all of them, including these historical artifacts of the coin-operated days should be for everyone.
Update: Earlier this week, dozens of Steam Workshop mods vanished from the Sega Mega Drive & Genesis Classics Hub without explanation. Sega has now responded, suggesting neither it nor Valve have removed mods that do not fall foul of Steam's terms of service.
According to Sega, this process has occurred automatically and both it and Steam are actively working to resolve those affected. The statement in full reads as follows:"SEGA would like to reiterate how delighted it is with how the Mega Drive/Genesis Collection community has self-moderated content on Steam Workshop. We've seen some fantastic mods created and released on the platform and want to encourage the community's continued creativity by helping to curate a library of outstanding mods.
"However, due to some erratic user behaviour over the last few days, many mods which didn't breach Steam's terms of service were automatically removed from Steam Workshop. SEGA and Valve are working together with the affected modders to reinstate their work as soon as possible and have already reversed a number of removals.
"SEGA and Valve are not actively removing mods that do not violate the terms of service, only those that do. We appreciate the help of the community's self-moderation in removing illegal or offensive content to maintain the high standard of legal mods on the platform. If you feel your mod does not breach the Steam terms of service but was removed, please contact email@example.com and SEGA will investigate."
Modders asking why their creations were taken down have received a stock reply from Steam Support: Due to reporting of content that violates the Steam Terms of Service, the content in question has been removed from the Steam Community.
Among the mods removed are some that violate copyright by uploading entire games including NBA Jam and Mutant League Football, but also many that are entirely within the Terms of Service. These include 'Sonic 1 Megamix' and 'Knuckles in Sonic 1' by modder Stealth, who was hired by Sega to create on the strength of ROM hacks like these, as well as over 20 'Chill Edition' mods created by xONLYUSEmeFEET to make games more accessible for players with disabilities.
After lodging a support ticket, modder Tiddles managed to get reinstated, a collection of tweaks that include bugfixes and the option to hear the original PC version's music. Other modders are still waiting and have received nothing beyond Valve's standard response: It is our policy not to provide specific feedback on removed content.
As of press time, some of the mods have been restored, but not all.
Sega has not replied to a request for comment.
No matter how hard it tries, Sega can't seem to nail a modern Sonic game at least, nothing has managed to match the affection we still hold for the '90s platformers. I'd argue that Sonic Generations was pretty decent, but overall, Sonic games are pretty average nowadays. There's no point sugarcoating it.
Sonic Utopia is a fan made game which imagines Sonic in an open world setting. As the video below demonstrates, it's more high-speed parkour than platformer, coming across like a meeting between SSX and Yooka Laylee. According to its creator Mr Lange, Utopia is "an experiment that not only tries to expand on Sonic gameplay in an intuitive way in 3D, but also aims to capture the best of Sonic's style and tie it together in a cohesive experience."
I don't know what Sega will make of this, but optimistically, it'd be cool if this guy got a job making a halfway-decent official Sonic game. Imagine that?
In line with the blue hedgehog s 25th birthday celebrations this year, Sega announced two new Sonic games back in July: Project Sonic and Sonic Mania. The latter sounds the most interesting of the pair a reimagining of the classics with new moves, new animations and new zones and was on display at this weekend s PAX West.
Courtesy of the folks at IGN, the following footage first showcases Sonic bounding around a familiar Green Hill Zone gathering rings, destroying Crabmeat bots and whizzing round loop-de-loops before facing off against a new end-of-level boss which looks distinctly more difficult than Robotnik of old.
Once disposed of, Sonic is then dropped into Studiopolis a brand new zone that sort-of echoes Sonic 2 s Casino Night the original s Spring Yard level.
It s without a concrete release date for now, but Sonic Mania is due at some point in 2017.
If you were a Mega Driver back in the day (or Genesis-er if you live Stateside) then you’ll know Sonic 2 was the best Sonic. The original Sonic the Hedgehog introduced the concept and set the tone, whilst Sonic 3 tried too hard with its dodgy boss melodies and pain-in-the-arse bonus levels. Anything after that was mince. Sonic 2 was the sweet spot in the series.
Why is this relevant here at RPS’s House-O-PCs, I hear you ask? A ROM hacker has given Sonic something very cool from our home: an Aperture Science portal gun.