It was a bumpy road getting here — things came up in my personal life that delayed this article a little longer than I would have liked. SAGE may be over now, but all of our review slew articles always contain links where you can (probably) continue to download all the games regardless of whether the event is open or not.
There was a game at SAGE last year named “Sonic Adventure Blast” that ported over a handful of levels from different games in to what might have been a version of Bumper Engine. None of them were represented accurately, but a lot of them were at least playable in some form. Between Worlds feels like it’s trying to channel that energy, but the two included levels (Sonic Adventure’s Emerald Coast and Banjo-Kazooie’s Spiral Mountain) are barely functional — I honestly wondered if it was even possible to finish the former. Sonic constantly gets hung up on pieces of geometry, or worse, disconnects from slopes entirely and gets flung uncontrollably into the sky. Having the camera locked to Sonic’s angle is also a really bad idea, adding to the control frustrations. I like games that let me take Sonic in to unexpected places from other games, but you’ll have to do a bit better than this.
We definitely don’t have enough Ape Escape in the world, and that seems to be what this game is trying to ape (heh). Instead of chasing down mischievous monkeys that don’t want to be captured, you’re trying to put away toys gone haywire. There are two fundamental differences between Tuff Stuff and Ape Escape — monkeys run away from the player, whereas the toys in Tuff Stuff are considerably more aggressive, and will openly seek to attack you. You’d think that would make them way easier to catch, because half of the fun in Ape Escape was that game of cat and mouse, but it’s not as simple as trapping Tuff Stuff’s toys in a net. Most toys have to be stunned before they can be caught, lending this game a very different pace and structure. Unfortunately, Tuff Stuff is a bit rough around the edges still. I ended up being trapped and unable to move after capturing a toy, for example, and dealing with some toys, like the cats, can be quite difficult when multiples of them gang up on you at the same time. Still, an interesting idea worth exploring.
Now here’s a faux pas — a Sonic fighting game in MUGEN after I made some backhanded comments about them during my review of Sonic Smackdown the other day. Ultima seems to use a newer version of MUGEN, so it does get a bit of a pass, it seems. Just like with Sonic Smackdown it’s kind of hard to write about, given the total lack of singleplayer. It was understandable with Smackdown, given it was built from the ground up in Unreal Engine 4, but I know for a fact MUGEN has support for CPU fights, but they haven’t been set up here. Ultima’s still early, I suppose; the options menu has a difficulty setting for CPU fighters, so it’s safe to assume they might make it in at some stage. It’s a bit hard to play otherwise, if only because it isn’t auto-configured for an Xbox controller and seems to forget my custom buttons every time I relaunch the game. But, again: obviously early.
I really love that SAGE showcases creators of all ages and skill levels, and I think it’s important to support them. This really comes across as somebody’s first Unity game, and honestly? Its heart is in the right place. Sonic has a history in ball physics, so this game just straight up turns him into a ball and lets you roll around one big map with several iconic Sonic zones represented. It’s rough, though. Sonic feels like he slips around a bit, and the gravity is set pretty low, so you tend to float around a lot after coming off of ramps. It’s also just… kind of slow in general, I guess. But this could be the start of something.
This is a perfect game for Halloween. Petrichor is a game about exploring an alien world, and I think it would be fair to say that the game feels truly alien. Last SAGE was such a blur for me, so I don’t remember if it was like this back then or not, but the controls really do sell the sense that this is something very different. This could very easily be a twin stick shooter, but it’s not; movement is on the left stick, but you shoot with the face buttons, locking you down to six very specific aiming angles. Combined with a spooky atmosphere and a VERY hostile alien planet, it makes for a very unique and interesting experience. I mean, even just getting the game to start up was kind of a puzzle, given it wasn’t responding to any of the usual buttons — that is, until I remembered something it had me do during the tutorial. That’s a weirdly important moment that set the tone for what this game is going for in terms of mood. Check it out.
The world is a better place with more games like Mirror’s Edge, which is exactly the vibe Project Lynx is going for. Being an indie game, that also means they can’t afford (or don’t know how to implement) the robust sense of “presence” Mirror’s Edge had, by which I mean all of the fun body animations where you see Faith’s hands as she grabs ledges, or when her legs swing over a railing, that sort of thing. Which is more fine than you’d expect. It looks less fancy, but is generally no less functional, it’s just now you float up drain pipes and get a double jump while touching yellow ledges. It works. It’s also… well, like a lot of things at SAGE tend to be, early. The level has a platform at the end informing you to “come back when you have all of the collectibles.” After returning with all 229 trinkets in toe, absolutely nothing different happened — right down to the exact same message telling me to come back later. Given that it also admitted that was the end of the demo anyway, there probably wasn’t anything beyond that. Shame, ‘cause I would’ve liked more.
This is one of those games that feels like coming back to an old friend, to me. It used to be that SAGE was full of games like this, but I don’t think it’s much of a controversial statement to say that SAGE has definitely changed over the years, and at least as far as the games I’ve played for review, these kinds of games are getting rarer and rarer. This is your normal, average, every day Sonic fan game, maybe slightly janky, not really entirely polished to the standards of a retail game, but good enough and still fun. The included level goes on a bit too long for my tastes and the boss fight DEFINITELY goes on WAY too long, but I like mixing Chaotix graphics with Sonic Mania stuff and everything feels detailed. Had fun, would recommend.
The irony here is that the very next game I played is also what I would define as a “normal, average, every day Sonic fan game.” But even within that category, it defines its own sense of identity, with a lush, deep color palette. Instead of mimicking the color depth of the Genesis, this feels much more like a SNES game, with rich earthy colors and high contrast. It looks absolutely beautiful, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen from a Sonic fan game. Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty standard stuff, though this seems to be using a particular branch of Sonic Worlds Delta with a nasty sound bug that causes sound effects to cut out and stop working. I’ve personally encountered it in a project I was working on a couple years ago, and as far as I’m aware, it’s something to do with Delta’s sound priority engine and a change in the way Clickteam Fusion outputs audio. It’s a bummer, but I don’t think you can necessarily fault Sonic Ascends for it.
Actually, you’re witnessing something that happened to me in real time browsing SAGE — this year, all the entries were alphabetized, instead of being listed in some kind of other arbitrary order, leading to a lot of the non-Sonic games front-loading the listing, thus burying stuff like Sonic Digitalized under a lot of original indie games. This is also a pretty bog-standard Sonic fan game, and marks the first one to completely fail at letting me use my controller. There’s always at least one! The game itself plays okay, and the “retro-future” digital aesthetic is cute, but levels feel a bit empty, all told. It’s a lot of the same tiles and trees repeated over and over, and while I like the theme of an “Autumn Hill Zone” it could use a little more visual variety — and some smarter enemy placement. If you pay attention to how the Genesis Sonics do it, they don’t usually drop enemies in the middle of long stretches of road, they usually put enemies in places where there’s lots of slower platforming or puzzle solving bits. A good lesson to be learned.
I appreciate Sonic J telling me up front that it supports controllers, and that a controller is the recommended way to play. What I don’t appreciate is immediately being dumped in to a menu where the only way to select modes is by clicking on buttons with the mouse. There’s nothing wrong with the mouse! But switching input methods is a little weird. Once you’re in the game, it also controls strangely. Sonic’s physics are way off — there’s a strange sort of “spring” to his momentum, where he suddenly lurches to top speed on a down slope in a way that might be hard to understand in just text. It makes Sonic feel a little weightless difficult to control, because suddenly, just, BOOM, you’re racing through the stage, going faster than you expect, and not really sure what’s ahead. I don’t know if it works.
This feels like an in-joke I’m not a part of. Here, you play as some Sonic OCs as you fight Pearl from Splatoon 2. There’s three characters to choose from — Carlos, Maria, and Blueberry. All of them play identically, and instead of playing like Sonic characters, they play like Mario from New Super Mario Bros. Pearl, for her part, is piloting Dr. Eggman’s boss machines, forcing the two styles of gameplay to mash together. The problem is, it’s all keyboard controls. You can’t just bop in to Pearl like you can in a Sonic game, you have to pick up a bomb and throw it at her, while dodging her wrecking ball, and it proves to be more tricky than you’d expect, considering you have a finite amount of health with no way to replenish things mid-fight. There’s also an unnecessarily long cutscene both to open this game, and directly preceding the boss fight, and every time you get a game over, you have to watch that cutscene again. Adding to the stress is a countdown timer that gives you just barely enough time to get your hits in. Maybe I could do it if I had my controller, but being stuck on the keyboard, I just can’t clear it, and looking this up on Youtube, I’m not alone. This is a rude little game.
There are parts of this game that makes me feel like I’m looking into a mirror, back to a version of myself from the year 2000. I get the feeling this must be how people felt when they opened the first playable version of my old (and once infamous, now forgotten) Sonic: The Fated Hour. This is a Sonic-styled Metroidvania of sorts, with big, flat, empty levels, dialog boxes, and a self-serious storyline. This time, there’s bits of Sonic.exe sprinkled around, as Sonic encounters a corrupted version of himself in a dark and spooky castle. Being harsh on this game would mean I was being harsh on myself, because there is a version of myself that could have made this game. Instead, let me just say this: work on your level design. There’s a lot of empty stretches of nothing that I don’t think need to be there, because they aren’t fun, and they aren’t spooky. There are better ways to set the tone. Good luck out there.
Last year, I believe we had Sonic Z-treme, which had a fully functional 3D Sonic game running on the Sega Saturn, using a combination of Sonic X-treme level data and Sonic Jam character models. This year it’s a first-person shooter tech demo, and it’s actually very, very impressive. Considering how most Sega Saturn games ran, this maintains a shockingly smooth framerate in spite of having colored lighting and dynamic light sources. Now there are limits, of course; the Saturn didn’t even ship with an analog stick, so control is… well, it’s as good as you could hope for on the Saturn, which for this kind of game, wasn’t good at all. But it’s functional! It runs really well! And it may even be a little bit of fun, with the right mindset and a bit of perspective. Well done.
There’s something so cool about a project like this — this ports over levels from classic fan games and puts them in to Sonic Mania. The demo here contains Sonic XG’s Final Fall Zone, Before the Sequel’s Titanic Tower Zone and Fortress Flow Zone. I’m not super psyched that there’s going to be multiple zones from one game, but playing these levels, and seeing them represented somewhat faithfully, is actually really great. It’s been so many years, but I still know enough about Final Fall that I’m pretty confident in saying how it plays in All-Mix is pretty accurate. Seeing these levels collected in Mania like this almost legitimizes them, in a way, because they’re free from janky fan engines and must prove themselves exclusively as levels, first and foremost. I’d love to see this taken a step further and have all of the custom enemies and such ported over.
See you next year!