TSS @ SHC 2021: Sonic Mania Mod Roundup

Sonic Mania… mania wasn’t as pronounced this year as it was previous years, but that hasn’t stopped many fans from bending this engine in cool, entertaining ways. The contest and expo have a handful of entries this year using the Mania base, and here’s how they stack up.

Mystic Cave Zone Mania-fied

Submitted by campbellsonic
Mod Download Page

Mania as a game wasn’t merely about bringing back Classic Sonic. It felt fresh, surprising, and hard to match without a good eye for detail and willingness to add to the experience. Mystic Cave Zone achieves feeling like an actual Mania stage ripped from some fictional director’s cut, and it does so as a reskin of Press Garden.

MCZ Mania-fied captures the claustrophobic, winding, and threatening feel of the Sonic 2 original while speeding it up with some remixed sections and more opportunities to play with ramps and curves. The stage uses the classic icons of the level such as the lever doors, the spinning boxes, narrow moving platforms, and plenty of spikes, but reinterprets a few Mania elements in novel ways.

The best example of this is in Act 2. Where Press Garden has sprayers that freeze Sonic & company, MCZ Mania-fied has minecart dispensers that take you for a ride until you hit a wall or forcibly break it. Splats, the bouncing rubber stamp that emerge from inkwells, are now burrowbot spawning locations complete with warning sign. Finally, the boss at the end pits you against a giant burrowbot (graphically remixed from Eggman’s octopus robot from Oil Ocean) but with falling stalactite hazard above in place of the sinking floor below.

As a thorough reskin, MCZ Mania-fied is a fantastic remix on the source material and captures the Mania spirit. If you’ve got nostalgia for those purple and green depths, be sure to check it out. Also, hey, it has an Encore version too!

Sonic the Hedgehog: Lost Island Demo

Submitted by CartoonsAnimate22
Mod Download Page

Lost Island builds an original game on top of the Mania framework, fully reskinning levels and characters. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles have modified spritework, while Ray and Mighty have been fully replaced with Sonic X-treme’s Tiara (outfitted with Sonic 2 GG’s hang glider) and an original character, Millie, who resembles a Minnie Mouse take on Tails (if I’m wrong and this is some sort of established character I’m not familiar with, I’m sure the comments will correct me). The demo spans 7 zones, with 10 acts total among them.

The visuals and level design spark inspiration from a number of other Sonic games, though the strongest point of comparison is probably Sonic 1 for Master System/Game Gear. It even directly pulls the 8-bit exclusive Sky Base into its roster. The level reskins have a basic but still attractive aesthetic. Simple patterns make it feel a bit more flat than you’d expect from a 16-bit game. Not bad, but also not especially iconic or embellished.

I found Lost Island to be a cute but light experience. It trades Mania’s branching, frenetic action for an experience that’s very straightforward. I have a specific nostalgia for the sort of B-tier platformers that dotted the early 90’s landscape, stuff like Bonk and Cool Spot. Lost Island seems to scratch that itch: platforming that is pleasant, even if it’s not fancy or exciting.

Sonic 2 Mania

Submitted by AChickMcNuggie
Mod Download Page

Sometimes a mod is just straightforward enough that you don’t have to explain much. Sonic 2 Mania is simply an attempt at recreating Sonic 2 within the Sonic Mania framework, and in that goal, it’s pretty faithful with a handful of additional visual flourishes, and only a couple places where you can see the seams of how X was reskinned to be Y.

The demo features both acts of Emerald Hill, Chemical Plant, Aquatic Ruin, Hill Top, and in interpretation of the beta Wood Zone, Secret Woods. However, this demo does not include any bosses (new or old). Certain elements could not be fully reproduced, such as the growing pillars in Aquatic Ruin, but in the very few places it falters, it makes up in added background animations and remixed music. And you can play as Mania-perfect Mighty and Ray!

Sonic Vintage

Submitted by ZachmanAwesomeness
Mod Download Page

Each year it gets harder and harder to stand out as a project whose aim is to reproduce classic Sonic’s preview and beta build elements. Sonic Vintage takes inspiration from other ROM hacks and attempts to bring some of these obscure beta elements to the Mania engine, offering a slightly different take on Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Flying Battery, and Stardust Speedway.

…Sort of. Of the four Mania mods I played this year, this is the only one that gave me technical trouble, and I was only able to play two of the four listed zones without issue. Flying Battery Act 1 would only load if I went to Act 2 (where my character died immediately after the stage loaded), and Stardust Speedway would cause Flying Battery Act 2 to load. I don’t know if this issue is unique to me, but I attempted a number of times in a number of ways, and was unable to access Stardust Speedway at all.

The mod has a couple of neat touches. Most notably, the level design of Chemical Plant was expanded. However, this isn’t a project about immediate noticeable changes. If you’re deep into research on Sonic pre-release builds, this might strike your fancy as a chimera of demos, prototypes, and Nick Arcade variants. But between the technical issues and generally subtle changes, it might be worth waiting another year to see how this develops.

TSS @ SHC 2021: Sonic the Hedgehog Blastless DX

I’m relatively new to the world of PC Sonic hacks. As I’ve never been much of a PC gamer, I never had much inclination to check out PC-only Sonic hacks until I decided to help cover last year’s Sonic Hacking Contest. Sonic ROM hacks are a different story, however. I’ve been exploring those for nearly a decade now, on my actual SEGA Genesis, through my Mega Everdrive or SEGA CD, as I’ve always loved the novelty of seeing these games running on my actual, ancient gaming hardware. I’ve played some true technical marvels over the years, but I don’t think any have impressed me quite as much as Vladikcomper’s Sonic the Hedgehog Blastless DX. An improved version of an April Fools hack released earlier this year, Blastless DX is a technological showcase with a fun premise: Sonic 1 has “lost” its blast processing, and the player needs to restore it.

Before getting into the game, I’ll explain exactly what “blast processing” is, in case you don’t know. It was a fancy marketing term SEGA of America used to highlight the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive’s CPU speed, which was faster than the Super Nintendo, making speedy games like Sonic easier to make on the machine (SNES devs did eventually figure out how to get around this limitation, but it did plague early games like Gradius 3). Faster CPU aside, however, blast processing was little more than a marketing buzzword, and a key part of this game’s joke.

So, what does Sonic 1 look like without “blast processing”? An 8-bit demake, apparently. The central goal of the hack is to restore “blast processing” by filling up a blast processing bar in the bottom right of the screen, and keep it from emptying until the end of the level. Doing this successfully will “restore” an act, and essentially replaces the chaos emeralds, which can’t be gathered here. The bar can be filled up by gathering rings, destroying enemies, and smashing breakable walls. The bar is emptied whenever damage is taken, downgrading the game’s visuals to less powerful hardware. It’s here where this hack truly shines.

In addition to the 8-bit Master System visuals, there are two lower rungs of visual fidelity, which are reached after taking damage. Getting hit in Master System mode will downgrade visuals to “Atari.” Not the Atari 2600/VCS you’re probably familiar with, but an Atari 8-bit computer (at least, I think, because I know VCS games never looked this good.) Get hit in Atari mode, and visuals are downgraded further, to the colorless, green scale Game Boy. If these visual changes weren’t enough, each graphics mode also has its own music track and sound effects.

These changes are instantaneous, which makes it all the more wild that this actually works on real hardware. I’m used to the more impressive hacks requiring PC emulators, and so the fact that this is all being done with a stock SEGA Genesis absolutely astounds me. And what’s even wilder? This is actually fun to play. It’s more than just a gimmick. It changes how I play the game, and it’s fun. 

Because chaos emeralds are no longer in play and I have incentive to seek out enemies and breakable objects, I actively seek that stuff out in the level. The blast processing bar is constantly draining, so I’m incentivized to both try to get through a level quickly, and also clear that level out as thoroughly as possible. Taking damage also carries different penalties, since it can result in multiple visual downgrades, which makes filling the blast processing bar before the end more difficult.

And the visual modes themselves look and sound really cool. The 8-bit mode looks like an 8-bit demake of Sonic 1 that’s graphically taxing the hardware, with accurate looking sprite art and loads of sprite flicker for moving background objects. The accompanying music tracks sound like genuine downgrades, but are also kind of catchy in their own ways. The Atari mode is probably the least impressive of the graphical modes to me, though that might be because I’m not very familiar with how those games looked and sounded, but it at least looks noticeably different and less advanced visually. Game Boy mode is thoroughly impressive, bringing Sonic 1 down to something that does kind of look like something from the platform, albeit without much in the way of music.

Perhaps my only real issue with all this is that these modes do include some graphical issues that may or may not be intentional. The sprite flicker might be a little much, and I do wonder if that’s just the Genesis buckling under everything it’s being asked to do. In Game Boy mode, there are brief moments where Sonic himself will disappear. And with every downgrade, in-game text becomes more and more indecipherable. I didn’t find these issues to affect playability much, but if things like sprite flicker bothers you, this hack might not be for you.

A screen from the hidden DOS graphics mode.

On my Tuesday SHC stream, someone in chat told me Vlad is a magician when it comes to coding for the Genesis. It’s kind of impossible for me to disagree on that front. I don’t know how he did it, whether he really managed to get it to switch between multiple kinds of graphics, or if he employed some sort of visual distorter or filter. But regardless of whatever tricks he used, I find them truly impressive, and Blastless DX is easily one of my favorite retro hacks to come out of Sonic Hacking Contest 2021. Check it out!

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It is that time of the year again. In 2 months, the 2021 Sonic Hacking Contest begins. And if you have been in the process of creating an entry for this year, then you will want to get ready. The SHC 2021 website is open, and you can now send in your submissions.

Continue reading Submissions Are Now Open For The 2021 Sonic Hacking Contest

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Continue reading Sonic Talk Podcast, Episode 76: The Year of Luigi of Sonic