Green Hill Zone: Act 2 – Sornic Boom!

Green Hill Paradise: Act 2

A lot of harsh words have been said about the three dimensional adventures of everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog. Allow me to add by own lovin’ spoonful to that mountain of smack talk.

Actually, no, I going to… hedge a little bit. I’m actually a qualified fan of the 3D Sonric the Hergehorg games. I am a big fan of the Dreamcast and I payed the heck out of Sonic Adventure and it’s sequel. And the deal with those is that the levels where you actually play as Sonic were super fun.* But they weren’t exactly fun in the way a lot of people wanted a 3D game to be. Rather than the world exploration of Mario 64 or Tomb Raider they were more like rail platformers. In many ways the Sonic levels shared more DNA with the awesome and underrated Panzer Dragoon games than they did with other 3D platformers of the time. They were fun twitch games where you needed to memorize a series of precise timed jumps and turns to get through the level as quickly as possible and make all the pinball styles lights and sounds go off in a pleasing manner. Gotta go fast, as they say.

Boom, Sanrac, Boom!

For the most part***** the levels where you actually played as Sonic remained fun in the 3D iterations of the series. Taken for what they were as basically straight forward arcade style platformers some were even quite good. Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations being standouts, and I had a lot of fun with Sonic Lost World last year. Still, they aren’t fun in what many people clearly want a 3D platformer to be. They aren’t exploration games like the Mario and Zelda, and fans really wanted to have the freedom to explore Sonic’s world.

Along comes “SuperSonic68” and some collaborators to make Green Hill Paradise: Act 2, a fan game designed to be a free roaming exploration of the original Green Hill Zone. One thing to keep in mind as I continue with this review is that it is still being developed. This is less a “game” and more of a “tech demo.” That being said it is super fun to play and gets a lot of things right that the officials games have not.

Oooh, a waterfall!

The graphics look really good in GHP:A2. I’d just like to say it awesome that we’ve come so far in games that fan cultures can put out games that look as pretty as some of the AAA titles out there. It’s a faithful recreation of the famous Green Hill Zone from the original Sonic (and many of the later games). All done up in classic checkerboard style with a remix of the original Mastato Nakamura theme music.

The real beauty is being able to look to the horizons. You can see a distant waterfall. I wonder what’s behind it? Let’s run there! Oh, look a path off to the side! Quick! Rush down it see where it goes! And what’s this? The camera actually follows Sonic? And you can control it however you want? MADNESS!******** GHP:A2 for the first time gives the sense that Sonic inhabits a world, and not simply a straight line. It is remarkably freeing, and the number one reason you should try out this game.

As  I mentioned before, GHP:A2 is unfinished, more of a demo than a game with set goals. This works in it’s favor here as the player really just has this huge playground to explore and set their own goals. Can I climb up that hill? What’s over there? What are these weird colored switches? Can I break through this wall? It’s good for a few hours of exploration at least, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more levels done up like this just to play around in.

It will be interesting to see if this project takes off in a more game-y direction. I could see GHP:A2 borrowing heavily from the Tony Hawk series by placing a bunch of collectibles and secrets around the level that require a precise series of jumps, grinds, and bounces to get to. I’d pay real money (not just rings) to play a full on game like that.

Here’s the rub, you can see “SuperSonic68” and crew run into the same difficulties that Sonic Team must have run into back in the Dreamcast days and it explains a bit why I think those games were what they were. The first problem is the bugbear that has haunted 3D platformers since the dawn of Tomb Raider: humans can’t see 3D so judging distances is really hard. GHP:A2 has some really irritating sections where it’s hard to make some jumps between platforms. Which is not fun in, y’know, a platforming game. I don’t know how you solve this as it really is a problem in all 3D platformers. Sonic Team dealt with this, I think, with the kludgy “lock-on spin dash” mechanic that they never seemed to get right.

Knuckles is the worst.

The bigger problem arises from Sonic controlling very loosely. This is not in and of itself a problem. Sonic should be a bit loose. He’s super fast and out of control, man. But part of Sonic games is going through elaborate loop-de-loops and corkscrews and tunnels and a breakneck pace. So, what happens in GHP:A2 if you are a pixel off and not exactly lined up with the obstacle? You shoot off in the wrong direction or worse you stop dead. Sad trombone sound. You can see me get frustrated with this at the end of the live stream.

It’s kind of hard to explain, but the problem is palpable in GHP:A2. The problem is: How can we let people simultaneously freely explore and do precise sick-nasty tricks off our obstacles? I feel like when faced with this problem back when, Sonic Team basically added the rails and bumpers that rub a lot of people the wrong way. They wanted the player to go through the loop-de-loop, grab the rope, and then hit the bumper in a very precise way, so they took away control and made the “right way” the only option.

I’ll be curious to see how the dev’s work through these issues. Sonic Team always had the constraints of budget and time which lead to some of the more unpopular game mechanics. If you gotta ship by the Christmas season you gotta cut some corners, dig? As a fan game GHP:A2 suffers from neither of these limitations. Their constraint is on the devs sanity and time. If the devs get burned out after putting in long hours on a project that they can’t sell, I wouldn’t blame them. I do hope that we’ll see a more polished and full fledged game in the next couple of years. Just remember devs, if you’re strong you can fly. You can reach the other side of the rainbow.

*Mind you, the not-sonic levels were hot garbage. All of Sonic’s friends are dumb.** Especially Big the Cat.*** I’m not going to belabor this point. Okay, maybe a little… I have no idea what Sega was thinking with the world building in these games. So many characters with irritating character traits, terrible controls, and embarrassing voice acting. Sega was trying so hard to be edgy and cool that they kind of missed the point that Sonic is probably actually dorkier than Mario. Anyhow, dissertations have been written on this topic, so I’ll stop.****

**Except for Tails. He’s cool. Knuckles can get straight up lost.

***On that note why was Sega so obsessed with fishing games on the Dreamcast? The first peripheral was a fishing controller. Was the CEO big into bass fishing or something? Sega was so weird.

****OK, one more. What is even with Sonic and his furry friends existing in the same reality as “real” people? With like cars and stuff? That makes no sense! Like Super Mario Bros. with Dennis Hopper as Koopa no sense.

*****Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) is an infamous hot mess. Mostly it’s peak WTF Sega from a story perspective****** but the levels would actually be fun to play if they weren’t almost unplayably bug ridden. So, I think it’s not the concept of 3D Sonic at fault here, more the half-assed execution.

******Why, oh why did Sega try to shoe horn these angsty Evangelion influenced plots into a game about a rad hedgehog who fights robots? The bit in Sonic and the Secret Rings where Tails jerks it onto an unconscious Amy Rose was probably the nadir of this nonsense. Who would even want to see that?*******

*******Let’s see what’s on The Internet. Oh, I see. Okay. So, I guess the answer is “lots of people would want to see that. Most of The Internet is that. Okay, fine. You win this round, Internet.”

********Seriously, why is the camera still junk in 3D Sonic Games? Even Sonic Generations is really dodgy when you have to mess with it. It’s 2017. Ain’t no one gots time for bad cameras these days.