Illustration by: Angelica Alzona

For decades, Sonic the Hedgehog has inspired an obsessive fandom that’s been difficult to separate from the uneven quality of the games. Fans have created impressive art, music, and even games that pay tribute to the series and its characters. Some of these creations are so impressive, that SEGA brought on fans to create the much-hyped Sonic Mania.

Sonic Mania captured the internet’s attention not only for being a 2D throwback, but for its fan partnership. The fan collaboration started with remasters of of Sonic CD, Sonic 1, and Sonic 2, which rebuilt the games from the ground up, and became the foundation for the next big game. In a way, the story of how these official games were made stretches a lot further. The development of some modern hedgehog games is the culmination of work done for over a decade by the Sonic community at large.

Building the foundation

Let’s start with Christian Whitehead, who pitched a Sonic CD remake after seeing a call from SEGA asking players what games they wanted to see on mobile. Whitehead showed SEGA a demo of Sonic CD running on an iPod Touch, using what he called the Retro Engine. The Retro Engine itself had evolved from several of Whitehead’s own efforts to create Sonic fan games, the original being Retro Sonic. The Retro Engine went through several revisions, eventually arriving at the version used for Sonic CD, which allowed a higher frame rate, a Sonic 2 style spin dash, widescreen aspect ratio and the ability to play as alternate characters.

This was possible thanks to Simon Thomley, aka Stealth, a respected member of the Sonic hacking community who was brought on to consult on the Retro Engine. Thomley’s job was to make sure the the remasters performed as closely to the original games as possible. Accurate physics are often held in high regard, and projects like the recent Crash Bandicoot remasters show how small changes can have big effects on playability. Thomley’s expertise allowed them to replicate the physics, art and levels exactly, without being limited to emulating the original.

Thomley was brought on again for the other remasters, where his knowledge not only sped up the development process, but allowed several extras to be added to the original games, like spin dashing and the ability to play as Knuckles. For SEGA, such features were were out of the question due to RAM and color limitations—but Thomley made it happen when he released what was considered “the Holy Grail of ROM hacking”, Knuckles in Sonic 1. The new engine thankfully had none of the limits SEGA did, and could be built from scratch to support these features.

A history of fan remixes

While Knuckles in Sonic 1 was impressive, the knowledge gained from such hacks culminated when Thomley joined with other talented hackers to produce Sonic Megamix. Megamix is one of the most extensive Sonic ROM hacks ever made, and it uses Sonic 1 as a base. The difference is, Megamix has different color palettes, new stage layouts, custom sounds, custom graphics, and new characters with their own unique abilities and movesets. The game was so impressive that it even showed up in a few places as a physical cartridge, playable on real hardware (sold by pirates without the team’s permission, of course.)

In Sonic Megamix , you’ll notice some elements that actually pop up in a number of other Sonic hacks and fan games. Most prominent is the reuse and integration of artwork and elements from Sonic CD. The Super Peel Out and its distinctive figure-8 running animation return, and so do tweaked sprites from Sonic CD’s time traveling and time over animations. The hack also repurposes art cut content from other Sonic games.

Lost content has a certain mystique to it, so it’s not surprise that fans frequently attempt to restore it. Hacks like Sonic 2 Delta, and Sonic 3 Complete offer interpretations of what content might’ve looked like in action, while the more popular lost zones, Hidden Palace and Dust Hill, were resurrected officially in the iOS remasters and Sonic Mania.

Hidden Palace appeared as a secret zone in Sonic 2, while Dust Hill was initially planned to be added as a new zone for the Sonic CD remaster as Desert Dazzle Zone, but was again cut for the full release. All this work finally culminated with Sonic Mania, whose Mirage Saloon distinctly resembles elements of both Dust Hill and Desert Dazzle.

That’s not the only return to Sonic development history either. Pre-release footage of Sonic Mania has already shown off Green Hill Zone Act 2, which looks similar to the prototypes of Sonic 1. Sonic’s new run animation in Mania features a swirl similar to the Sonic 2 beta animation seen in fan projects, finishing a stage makes Sonic do a small hop, similar to a cut animation from Sonic CD, and even the time-traveling spin returns. The official Sonic games have all sorts of throwbacks to elements canonized in older fan games.

An alternative approach

While some Sonic fan game creators went on to work on the official games, others have taken ideas from the series and put their own twist on them. Freedom Planet, a game made by developers Galaxy Trail, combines elements of classic Sonic and other Genesis-era platformers to create an original game. Galaxy Trail was founded by Stephen DiDuro. Felipe Ribeiro Daneluz, better known as LakeFeperd, also developed several well-regarded fan games, including Sonic Before the Sequel and After the Sequel. Daneluz put together what he’s learned from those projects into this new original game, Spark the Electric Jester.

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Stephen DiDuro told me over email fan games let people work with something familiar, which can then be iterated and experimented with before moving on to original work. He pointed towards sites like Sonic Retro as valuable resources, as they are places where members have spent their lives cataloging the technical details of Sonic games. This dedication and attention to detail, in turn, gave fans like him everything they needed to build a Sonic-style physics engine.

Daneluz echoed these sentiments. “At first, I just wanted to try to make a Sonic game,” Daneluz told me, “But when I was stuck and needed some help, I went to Sonic Fan Games HQ to ask for advice and that’s how it all started.” For him, the fan community was a place he went for advice and to share projects.

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For both Daneluz and DiDuro, the community helped give them the resources to pursue their own games. DiDuro in particular noted that it helped him find other like minded people to work with. “The most valuable thing I learned from the fangaming community is the value of collaborating with others and asking for help,” he explained, “While it’s perfectly possible to build a game on your own, there are a lot of benefits to forming a team with people who share enthusiasm for your idea and who can fill in roles that you don’t have a lot of experience with.”

DiDuro also had a message for the Sonic Mania team—“I’m guessing they’re in that final crunching period, so I wish them the best of luck and I have confidence that their work is going to be fantastic!”

All rights reserved

In talking to these creators and researching these fan projects, I got a sense of how all of this work reflects of over a decade of history, research, and projects created by the Sonic fan community. Places like Sonic Retro and the Sonic Stuff Research Group compile the history, while events like the Sonic Hacking Contest and Sonic Amateur Games Expo continue to bring in new takes on the series.

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This phenomenon is encouraging in an industry where intellectual property laws and copyright often leave fan work on fragile ground. Companies like Nintendo have become notorious for sending takedowns of high profile projects such as Another Metroid 2 Remake, as well as several Pokemon and Mario fan games. Even SEGA, despite working with fans for Sonic Mania, has taken down fan games such as Streets of Rage Remake.

Hopefully the lenient policy toward Sonic fan games and Sonic Mania’s fan collaboration can give us a model for considering fan works not as a threat, but as a force that can drive the passion for a series.

Shoutout to Sonic Retro for their extensive work compiling the history of Sonic fan development, and Youtube users Razor & Zenon, and Amy Rose, whose extensive playthroughs of Sonic ROM hacks saved me a lot of time. I reached out to Thomley and Whitehead for comment, but their work understandably kept them from reaching us in time for this story.

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Amr Al-Aaser is an Egyptian-Filipino American writer and artist operating out of Chicago. You can find their Sonic R aesthetic appreciation blog (and other work) on Twitter.