I was privileged to be a judge for the 2012 Sonic Hacking Contest. Now that the official results are in, here are my personal reviews of the submissions. You can read more about them, and download the public ones, here.
Note: This is the first year that I was able to play any 3D hacks, thanks to my new laptop, but I don't feel like reviewing them. I just don't have that much to say about 3D Sonic gameplay, as it barely interests me.
Four Fantastic Adventures
Amongst this year's crop of Hacking Contest submissions, these in particular stood out.
Hack of Sonic 1 by Selbi
I really warmed to Sonic ERaZor last year, and this year I like it more than ever.
Finally, all of the levels from Sonic 1 are represented in some way, each more twisted than the last, rounding out the experience so that it feels like a whole game and not a work in progress. The new tutorial shows you the ropes, neatly sidestepping any confusion the unique mechanics may have caused - and the quirkily written textboxes that impart the pearls of wisdom are an impressive programming feat in themselves.
The inclusion of a second special stage has me extremely happy, since the first was easily my favourite part of ERaZor last year. The challenge was satisfyingly brutal (yet fair enough I eschewed savestates) and the concept for the stage was novel - not just more of the same gameplay from the first. It couldn't be better.
In addition to how fun the game is, there are also a couple secrets to be sought, making the replay value not insignificant. In sum, it's one of my favourite hacks not just in the competition, but of all time. Verdict: Way Past Cool!
You can also read my review of last year's build.
Sonic 2 Recreation
Hack of Sonic 2 by redhotsonic
At first I found the title a little ambiguous, but once I saw the hack in action it made sense; Sonic 2 is being used as a base for a brand new adventure that bears very little resemblance to the original. In fact it's more stylistically similar to the handheld Dimps titles than the classics - though thankfully not in any bad way.
You'll start in Portal Zone, which contains entrances to zones and an options menu in a way reminiscent of Sonic Advance 3. You can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles in a variety of combinations, as well as Redhotsonic (a red version of Sonic who's significance is best known to the creator of this hack, but is not really that interesting).
There are four zones in this build, all of which are laid out really well and are fun to play. The bosses are a mix of interesting twists on Sonic 2 bosses and original ideas, both implemented impeccably. The final zone, Chaos Angel, is a paean to its namesake from Sonic Advance 3, complete with the harrowing automatic platform ride. It's far more fun here with the classic physics than the borked Advance 3 engine, I must say.
But it's more than just a solid core. There's also a tasty shell of cool features, like sound distortion when underwater, and the ability to cancel Tails' flight in a manner similar to Cream's aerial mechanics in Advance 2. Thematically, the hack is not as tight as I would like, but it shows huge potential. With the talent on show in this build I have confidence in its future. Verdict: Way Past Cool!
Sonic Classic Heroes
Hack of Sonic 1 / Sonic 2 by flamewing
Previously known as Sonic 2 Heroes, Sonic Classic Heroes wasn't renamed for a trivial reason - now all the zones from Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 are present in one mega-adventure with Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles racing through them together as "Team Sonic".
This hack is about far more than just having all three characters at the same time, however. Since you can switch between them, it's basically like having "Knuckles in Sonic 1" and "Tails in Sonic 1" hacks together, plus so much more. Everybody's signature moves are present, as are the three elemental shields from Sonic 3 - and even the Golden Shield, complete with homing attack when Sonic wears it.
What's more, both Sonic 1 and Sonic 2's special stages are present, each accessible from any zone using the methods of entry from their respective games. (The Sonic 1 stages award you Chaos Emeralds; the Sonic 2 stages, Sol Emeralds.) It adds an interesting new level of strategy to save up 50 rings for Lampposts in Sonic 1 zones, since I'm used to the comparatively easier task of saving them for the end of the entire level.
(On a side note, I always get a little thrill whenever I notice a hack has applied this fix I popularised, especially a hack I like and respect; not necessarily because my code was used, but because it means the creator and I are on a similar wavelength when it comes to Sonic gameplay.)
Collecting the numerous emeralds allows you to become Super Team Sonic, and Hyper Team Sonic, turning the screen into a psychedelic free-for-all of sparkling, flashing Mobians and Flickies. It's a sight to behold, and you almost feel sorry for Robotnik when the boss fights come around.
In addition to the cornucopia of features above, there's a cavalcade of tiny fixes, improvements, and other niceties. For example, Robotnik in Chemical Plant Zone now drops Mega Muck on himself when struck a blow, and the little animals in Sky Chase now sport parachutes. There's also a nice surprise tying Sonic 1 and 2 together after Scrap Brain Zone.
As is to be expected in a hack with the sheer volume of changes that Sonic Classic Heroes boasts, there are a few minor glitches but nothing that takes away from the enjoyment of this must-have experience. I think it will go down in the annals of hacking history as one of the greats. Verdict: Way Past Cool!
You can also read my review of last year's build.
Sonic 1 Megahack: Ultra Edition
Hack of Sonic 1 by vladikcomper
This hack is a mixed bag. At first you're presented with ghastly n00b palettes, and the same old Green Hill Act 1, albeit with a homing attack. But when you reach the end of the act, you meet a brilliant, challenging boss. And then the process repeats - barely modified acts punctuated by some of the best boss fights ever in a hack, filled with humour and wacky gimmicks.
The overall experience is very short, since the zones have been reduced to one act in length. Honestly, I felt even this was too long - I think it should have just been a boss rush.
Despite the unevenness and weird choices, though, I really took a liking to it. It had Sonic doing some of the weirdest things he's ever done in a hack outside Sonic ERaZor, and it was brilliant. It feels good to be surprised by fresh and interesting challenges in a hack. Verdict: Way Past Cool!
Five Godawful Heaps
This year there are fully five atrocious hacks, most of which appear to have been submitted with the express intention of nabbing the Big Trophy (for worst hack submitted). At least, I hope that was what motivated these entries. If any of them was in earnest, I would have to feel a deep shame for their creators.
Even in jest, however, these entries still manage to be embarrassing. At this point it just isn't funny anymore, especially considering the number submitted. Such a joke was barely funny the first time, and it is only diminished with repetition.
I'm starting to think that even having the Big Trophy in the contest is a mistake - it only seems to encourage this kind of behaviour, leading to competition amongst some hackers to see who can vandalise Sonic 1 the most severely. It's my assertion that this is only unhealthy, and aside from irritating judges it also possibly devalues the artform as a whole.
I think there should be a "no intentionally bad hacks" rule to go along with the "no simple palette hacks" rule; but since that has not (yet...?) been implemented I'm duty-bound to nominate one of these sorry articles for the Big Trophy.
Sonic's Grand Adventure
Hack of Sonic 1 by Ravenfreak
Ravenfreak is a talented hacker, having distinguished herself with some impressive modifications of and research into the 8-bit Sonic titles, and is also a fellow Tech Member at Sonic Retro - so, honestly, I'm a little disappointed in her submission.
Sonic's Grand Adventure is essentially a molestation of Sonic 1, offering borked controls, palettes, music, text, and well, everything, really. To be perfectly fair, there are a few changes that got a chuckle from me, despite my impatience with the joke: "Spring Tard", "Tard Light", and "Crapy Brain" Zones, as well as upsidedown text in the HUD.
It's not worth a playthrough unless one is heavily masochistic, and it's not even as incisive a parody of n00b hacks as it could be. I really expected better. Verdict: Pass!
Ashura in Sonic 1 (2002)
Hack of Sonic 1 by Sonic Kid (Sotic Team)
From experience, I've learned to be wary of anything associated with Ashura. This hack only reinforced that habit.
Technically, there are a few other modifications (to simple things such as the music/level pairings and the text) but this is ultimately little more than a palette hack, meaning it barely qualifies to be a contender in the contest at all.
It's not so-bad-it's-funny, or even technically clever, for instance by incorporating bits of the Ashura phenomenon in interesting ways. I'd say it's a waste of time for everybody involved. Verdict: Pass!
Hack of Sonic 1 by GreenSnake
Sonic BUGS appears to have - at least - some kind of theme. It's as if every possible bug the game could have is present simultaneously: the Sonic object fails to collide properly; the wrong amount of Rings awards an extra life; there is egregious lag when Sonic gets hit; Sonic won't even die when he falls off the screen.
This fails to be interesting, however, considering the end result is just another "purposefully bad hack". It took extremely little if any talent or creativity to create, and I would probably even take offense at its very existence but it's not worth the effort since hacking is all in good fun, anyway. Verdict: Pass!
Sonic the Sleeper in: The Nostalgia Dreams
Hack of Sonic 1 by Joseakadaman
Practically making my point for me, this hack is barely distinguishable from the one before it - judging from screenshots, anyway.
I had higher hopes for it due to the intriguing title, so I actually felt angry that it was yet another attempt to troll the judges. My capacity for charity is only so great - Verdict: Pass!
Gumball the Cat
Hack of Sonic 1 by cthboy
(I would show off images of levels other than Green Hill, but it's just so perfect for illustrating the truly bad palettes these people come up with, as it's usually the first level that's the most heavily modified.)
Judging by the earnest imperative to "have fun!" in the readme, and the fact that this is a character hack replacing Sonic with Gumball Watterson from the popular children's cartoon The Amazing World of Gumball, I guessed this might have actually been a kid's honest attempt to hack Sonic 1. A cursory Google of the creator's name basically confirms this.
Call me heartless, but it is partly for this reason that I think this is the worst of the worst submissions this year. It's also because it's truly awful, and so terribly incomplete that even using the word "incomplete" feels like employing a euphemism.
Seriously, you can play vanilla Sonic 1 while squinting and pretend any cat you fancy is running through the levels and it would still be a more polished experience than this. Verdict: Pass!
And The Rest...
Not necessarily the least, however. There are some really good (and really bad) hacks yet.
Flickies' Island Defense
Original Sega CD game by bgvanbur
Flickies' Island Defense isn't a hack of any game in particular, but a homebrew game for the Sega CD in its proof-of-concept stage. Posed as a rudimentary tower defense game, the gameplay isn't terribly exciting, but the dedication necessary to implement even such simple mechanics is impressive.
In the end, though, I wish that the same effort had manifested in a faster, more enjoyable style of play, even with the same level of simplicity. It's only a few extra bytes of RAM and lines of ASM that separate a static point-and-click interface and a field of more dynamic, action-oriented objects. So while I respect the technical achievement, there's nothing here to satisfy the gamer part of me. That's an important part of hacks, too. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 1 CD Special Stage Edition
Hack of Sonic 1 by MarkeyJester
This is a proof-of-concept hack, and the concept being proven is having Sonic CD style special stages in Sonic 1, running without the need for the Sega CD at all.
Collect 50 Rings, jump into the stars that appear over a Lamppost (the only other change in the hack) and you'll be transported to a slightly slower, lower res version of one of the Sonic CD special stages, replete with UFO's, time-sucking water, and those annoying bouncing bumper walls.
From what little I know of hacking Sonic CD from my brief excursion into manually disassembling it, porting the special stage would be no mean feat. But this isn't merely a copy and paste job - MarkeyJester has created the necessary 3D effect from the ground up in order to recreate the stages. You can get a window into his process from his explanation.
I am extremely impressed with this, both from a technical standpoint (it's pretty mindblowing!) and because of what it could mean for future hacks. I'm no fan of the original Sonic 1 special stages, so the idea that 3D stages with custom background and floor texture art with any kind of moving objects on top are possible is really thrilling.
Everything about it can be gleaned from a video, but you might still want to play it just to feel the magic. Verdict: Way Past Cool!
Flicky Turncoat DX
Hack of Sonic 1 by GT Koopa
The little animals that Sonic usually saves (erroneously all termed "Flickies" in some translations, reinforced as a convenient synecdoche in the title) have all gone psycho and are now harmful to Sonic - even when he frees them from Badniks. As he battles his way through the baseball themed Pocky Field Zone, he must be extremely careful how he destroys enemies, or he'll collide with the escaping animal and take damage.
I think it's more than my personal dislike of baseball that makes me find this hack unsettling and underwhelming. The core idea of the evil Flickies doesn't seem to add much of value, resulting in what amounts to a mediocre level with a frustrating additional feature.
The art and music are average, and there's nothing exciting on the technical front, either. But I give it a point or two for creativity. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 2: Flicky Turncoat Edition: Boss Rush Edition
Hack of Sonic 2 by GT Koopa
Another hack with the Flicky Turncoat brand, this is a brief Boss Rush through Sonic 2, with Flickies in control of the game's bosses, tweaked to kick the difficulty up a few notches.
I was allowed to select Marine the Racoon in the character select, and of course I had to try her out. I was disappointed to find that the character wasn't fully implemented, and was merely Tails with one or two sprites rather crudely edited to look like Marine. Of course the hacker can hardly be blamed for an unfinished feature, but I do wonder why the choice wasn't disabled in that case.
Ultimately the changes to the bosses weren't clever or exciting, with a couple exceptions. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 1: Sonic CD Edition
Hack of Sonic 1 by Animemaster
Sonic 1 (or at least the first little bit of Green Hill Zone), with Sonic CD inspired features added, including time travel. The second act even has what looks like the beginnings of a Metal Sonic race.
However, it is woefully unfinished. Not even a single zone/boss cycle is complete. Partial layouts, camera event issues, and dozens of egregious game-breaking bugs make it unplayable. Nothing else demonstrated, like art, music, or even the core concept, is very original or interesting either. Verdict: Pass!
Sonic 1 Lunacy
Hack of Sonic 1 by Masochistic Maniacs
My opinion of Sonic 1 Lunacy has barely changed from last year. It doesn't seem to have changed much at all. The new level is far more complete, yes, but aside from how cool the art for it looks (which we've already seen most of) as a whole it's boring.
I still don't think I get the point of the whole thing. Normal and Hard modes are just awkward layouts spammed with enemies, and Lunacy mode is a kind of Kaizo Mario insane. It's not for me. Verdict: Pass!
You can also read my review of last year's build.
Metal Sonic Hyperdrive
Hack of Sonic 1 by MKDarkon
Metal Sonic Hyperdrive was submitted last year and this year it has visibly improved. There's neat new title art, a bit of polish on the level art, and some general changes that kick up the professionalism a notch (like the removal of those damn kirbys).
But it's not enough. It still isn't really that fun to play, due to awkward layouts that don't fit well with the air dash and acceleration physics that Metal Sonic has. Some areas take good advantage of the wall jump, but the ability itself still hasn't been polished - its glitches and drifty feel make using it frustrating.
I personally dislike a lot of the palette and music choices, too. The ones that aren't tired hacking cliches are still offputting. But I give it a bit of credit for being a playable game with a coherent theme. It's a cut above average. Verdict: Okay.
You can also read my review of last year's build.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2: A New Adventure
Hack of Sonic 2 by Shade Vortex
Merely Sonic 2 with new layouts (for the early levels, anyway). The problem is, the layouts are terrible. Someone needs to play Flying Battery Zone a few hundred times and read a bunch of Hirokazu Yasuhara interviews. Verdict: Pass!
Sonic The Hedgehog AGX
Hack of Sonic 1 by Blazer
This feels like a hack in the vein of the old builds of Megamix - large new layouts, extensive art edits that still maintain the basic feel of the zones, and super highspeed gameplay with lots of dashing.
What's there is competent, besides the horrendous wall jump, but it fails to really differentiate itself. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 3 and Amy Rose
Hack of Sonic 3 & Knuckles by E-122-Psi
E-122-Psi, whose character hacks I've praised in the past (Sally in Sonic 1 in particular), has put classic Amy Rose in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Since the change of character is the whole point, the rest of the game remains the same.
While it's cool to see a bunch of Amy's hammer abilities from the Sonic Advance series remade, I'm not personally fond of them. Especially since she's also incapable of spinning or rolling, which is just anathema to me. So while it's cool to see it done, I wouldn't ever actually want to play the game like this.
It's great to see a character hack of Sonic 3 and Knuckles, as they are comparatively rare, and such a complete and competent one at that. The collision for the hammer sometimes feels off and leads to unfair hits, but it doesn't ruin the experience. It's a definitely worth a play for those who like Amy's controls. Verdict: Cool!
Sonic 2: Battle Race
Hack of Sonic 2 by ColinC10
From the title I had hoped against all reason that this was a hack which finally allowed all of Sonic 2 to be playable in split-screen 2-player mode. But such is not the case. Instead, it turns the standard Sonic and Tails game into what can only be called a "battle race".
Rather than focus the camera on Sonic and let player 2 taste dust, the camera now tries to keep both characters on screen - up to a point. If one or the other gets too far ahead, the other will "die" and be forced to wait to respawn, gaining the remaining player a point. At level end, the player with the most points wins the round. Wins and losses are kept track of on a scoreboard, so the humiliation of losing 100 games running can be screen captured for posterity.
While not as exciting as ColinC10's submissions in the last couple years, I would be lying if I said this wasn't hella fun. I played it with my brother, and we had a hooting, hollering good time, not unlike a session of Super Mario Kart. Verdict: Cool!
Untitled S3K Hack
Hack of Sonic 3 & Knuckles by D.A. Garden
This is merely Sonic 3 & Knuckles with new, authentic feeling layouts. Aside from being at a greater degree of completion, it hasn't really changed from last year.
The layout for Angel Island (the only one that's polished) is extremely good, but that's all there is to say, really. I'm sad to see the awful (and unnecessary) palette changes are still here, though. Verdict: Okay.
You can also read my review of last year's build.
Sonic the Hedgehog: Tribute
Hack of Sonic 1 by TheBarAdmin
This is two zones, one loosely based on Seaside Hill / Ocean Palace from Sonic Heroes, and the other on Route 99 from Sonic Advance 3.
The art is a mix of neat original graphics, nicely reworked borrowings, and a few really ugly - though fortunately rare - pieces that leave me scratching my head. As far as a couple of partially original levels go, they're pretty good. Verdict: Okay.
Hack of Sonic 1 by Team Evanesco
As far as I can tell, this is nothing more than an attempt to recreate a Sonic CD act (Stardust Speedway). Unfortunately a few amateurish-looking changes to the HUD art and palettes makes it feel cheap, and non-functional objects (no plane switchers, wrong behaviour on the enemies and boosters) make the act a shadow of its former self. Verdict: Pass!
Sonic 2 Adventure Control
Hack of Sonic 2 by MainMemory
A hack of Sonic 2 overhauling the controls to behave like Sonic Adventure. You can even charge up a Light Speed Attack, which is pretty neat. I don't really like the way Sonic Adventure controls, but the hack is well done. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 2 Secret Rings Edition
Hack of Sonic 2 by MainMemory
Sonic 2 with new mission objectives, such as collect no rings, destroy no enemies, escort Tails, and others. This would be interesting enough on its own, but there's a strange leveling system that increases your speed stats, as well as the obligatory homing attack. Pressing the A button also makes Sonic do some kind of crazy boost that can sometimes break the game. (I'm not sure if this is a debugging feature or not.) While the concept is sound and executed solidly, I can't really get excited about it. Verdict: Okay.
Sonic 2 Secret Rings Control
Hack of Sonic 2 by MainMemory
Not to be confused with the previous hack, this doesn't appear to have any missions. Instead, it's Sonic 2, but Sonic seems to have been infected by the brainworms from Limbo - he walks inexorably in one direction, and you're only able to make him jump. Okay, so you can try to force him backward, but he won't be able spin when he jumps back, so he's very vulnerable and also very slow. It's an interesting idea, but not one that held my attention long. Verdict: Okay.
See how my nominations differ from the real trophy recipients! Why do you care? Who knows!
Hidden Palace Trophy: Sonic ERaZor
Grand prize / 1st place. This is given to the overall best hack in the contest.
Wood Zone Trophy: Sonic Classic Heroes
Dust Hill Trophy: Sonic 2 Recreation
Big Trophy: Gumball the Cat
Worst hack submitted. Why was this even submitted?!
Simply an embarrassing "effort".
Green Hill Trophy: Untitled S3K Hack
Hack (or specific level of a hack if non-applicable) that plays most like a Sonic game.
Angel Island felt amazingly authentic.
Windy Valley Trophy: Sonic the Hedgehog: Tribute
Best art in a hack submitted.
Despite a few rough spots, really beautiful. The incredibly smooth slopes are nice, too.
D.A. Garden Trophy: Sonic ERaZor
Best music in a hack submitted.
The tunes don't feel thrown in, but really suit the mood and encourage playing.
Lava Reef Trophy: Untitled S3K Hack
Best level layout in a hack submitted. This was the Palmtree Panic trophy last year, but it has been reverted back to its previous name.
Angel Island wasn't just authentic, it was also a damn fine layout on its own.
Genocide City Trophy: Scar Night Place (Sonic ERaZor)
Hardest level in a hack submitted.
I know Sonic 1 Lunacy wants this trophy, but a challenging level has to also be fun to play, or there's no challenge at all - because the power switch gets hit and the player walks away.
11000101 Trophy: Sonic 1 CDSS Edition
Best technical hack submitted.
Holy frapping crapstack! That is all.
Knuckles Trophy: Sonic 3 and Amy Rose
Best new playable character in a hack submitted.
Amy's hardly new, unless we're speaking relatively. But the best implemented character hack deserves the win.
Fang Trophy: n/a
Best new enemy/badnik in a hack submitted.
Nothing stood out this year that I wouldn't classify as a boss.
Eggman Trophy: Evil Rings (Sonic 1 Megahack: Ultra Edition)
Best new boss or miniboss in a hack submitted.
Any of the bosses in this hack could have won, but I liked this one especially.
Spin Dash Trophy: Gravity Control (Sonic ERaZor)
Best new ability in a hack submitted.
The only thing that would make it better is if it was controlled by blowing into the DS microphone. =P
Carnival Night Trophy: Underwater Sound/Music (Sonic 2 Recreation)
Most innovative game play feature in a hack submitted.
It's cool to see this feature from Sonic Rush / Rush Adventure recreated on the Genesis.
Emerald Trophy: Sonic ERaZor
Best Special Stage in a hack submitted.
As if there was any doubt.
Crystal Meth Trophy: Sonic Classic Heroes
Most replayable hack submitted.
This is how I'll have to play Sonic 1 and 2 forever, now. =P
Robotnik's Revenge Trophy: Sonic 2: Battle Race
Best new concept based on existing concepts in a hack submitted.
It's a tough job to make Sonic an appealing 2-Player game, and while this was far from perfect it was fun as hell.
Casinopolis Trophy: Sonic ERaZor
Most entertaining / fun hack submitted.
The variety is what makes it really excellent.
Vector Trophy: Sonic 1 Megahack: Ultra Edition
Most humorous hack submitted.
Anyone who plays it to the end can see why.
WTF?! Trophy: Flickies' Island Defense
Most unique hack submitted.
It stands apart from the rest as a totally different kind of game. I wonder what will become of it?
Christmas Present Trophy: Sonic 2 Recreation
The best hack submitted that no one saw coming.
I can't really speak for what everybody else saw coming or not, but I was very surprised and pleased with this, a treat at 4 levels long.
Tails Trophy: Sonic Classic Heroes
Most improved hack from last year's contest.
I'm so happy that it's nearly doubled in size. =)
Generations Trophy: Sonic Melponterations
Best Sonic Generations mod in the contest.
I'm impressed by the obscure level choice (rather than something from Unleashed) and the lack of outstanding glitches, and also the classic remix of Sky Troops' music. It made me laugh out loud in a few places, too. =P