Even Sega’s most die-hard fans will admit that Sonic hasn’t been doing so well of late. After years of lacklustre 3D outings and the occasional 2D outing to make amends, the blue hedgehog’s suffered the indignity of a reboot: the next Sonic game, Sonic Boom, will see the iconic mascot donning a scarf. Scarfs are a Thing now, you see.
Thank goodness then for the fans: the classic, sprinting Sonic of his 90s glory days lives on online. If you’ve not checked out LakeFeperd’s unofficial trilogy of Sonic 2D platformers, Sonic: Before The Sequel, Sonic: After The Sequel and Sonic Chrono Adventure for PC, why are you still here? If it’s a reason to play them, know this: the three games have now been downloaded more than 120,000 times in total. To put that in perspective, Sonic’s most recent official outing on Wii U, Sonic World, only achieved 640,000 sales. In other words, the fan game is being enjoyed by players in the same order of magnitude as today’s official titles. How’s that for an endorsement?
The (unofficial) series’ concept is simple. Forget all the 3D levels, Chao collectibles and redundant sidekicks that have ruined Sonic’s reputation in recent years (Cream the Rabbit, anyone?): this is Sonic blitzing through futuristic 2D levels stuffed full of rings, spikes and springs once more.
Tracking the man himself down, however, is more difficult. Six long months after first reaching out to the creator, we finally got in touch with him, albeit through an intermediary, one of the game’s composers.
Felipe Ribeiro Daneluz, better known online as LakeFeperd, is a student from São Paulo, Brazil. He’s also the creator of one of the most impressive fan creations in gaming. Though he believes that Sega has never surpassed the very first Sonic game in 1991, surprisingly Daneluz doesn’t have the same love-hate relationship with the series that many fans do.
“When the so called ‘Dark age of Sonic’ started, I decided to go to games like Sonic Riders and the portable [versions] like the Rush series [On Nintendo DS]. In the end, I never ended up being really disappointed with the Sonic franchise,” he tells Red Bull.
It was his love for Sonic, not his frustration with the direction Sega has taken the mascot, that led Daneluz to start work on Sonic: Before The Sequel, which as the name suggests, fills in the story between Sonic 1 and Sonic 2, and introduces flying companion Tails. Well, that and his coursework requirements: as a game design student conjuring up Sonic levels – with their myriad branches, twists, turns, pitfalls and loop the loops – was good practice for the day job.
Daneluz is the first to admit he’s not a programmer: instead, he used a freely available open-source engine called Sonic Worlds, which lets you construct Sonic levels without the need to be fluent in computing languages. “I didn't really know how to modify it, but I still wanted to make an interesting fan game with it,” Daneluz says. “Pleasing people with a Sonic game is hard. Mess up a little thing on the level design and the smile on their faces after booting the game up is gone. It was challenging.”
Daneluz soon found a hook to make his homebrew Sonic game stand out. “All [the engine] had was Sonic 1 and Tails sprites so with that limitation, I thought ‘What can be done with this?’ Later, I decided it would make sense for the game to take place somewhere in the classic timeline, Sonic 1 to 3. So to make use of what I had, I decided it should be a bridge between Sonic 1 and 2 to get people's attention.”
So what made his Sonic games more authentic than any other fan efforts powered by Sonic Worlds? That would be the original soundtrack, which the first two games sport; an astonishing acoustic feat that channels the thumping chiptune vibes of the original games and updates them for the 2010s. They’re a lot less pixelated on the edges, so to speak.
A lot of Sonic music is practically just as iconic as Sonic himself.
The scores include work from high profile artists including Falk, Funk Fiction and Andy Tunstall, but came about almost by chance. Daneluz says it was only when Falk reached out to him to work on the project that the prospect of infusing Sonic with an original score became a possibility.
Once it did, the fans latched onto the project in a big way. “A lot of Sonic music is practically just as iconic as Sonic himself,” Pejman Roozbeh, otherwise known as Funk Fiction, tells Red Bull.
“Like most 20-somethings of today, I grew up playing a lot of Sonic and Mario in the 16-bit era and among many other influences, it informed a lot of my taste in music.” Hardly surprising when you consider that Michael Jackson himself helped score Sonic 3 (yes, really).
“Some of those tracks were very hard to live up to,” Roozbeh quips. “At the same time, we wanted to deliver something new and original, while retaining elements of classic Sonic music, both classic and modern. There are arguably 20 or so different genres that span across the Sonic BTS and ATS soundtracks and therefore lots of influences. It's a mixture of our own original ideas as composers combined with music from not just Sonic, but Donkey Kong, Kirby and Final Fantasy to rock, jazz, disco, trip hop and so on.”
Perhaps it’s because of the original soundtrack, or simply because Sega wisely doesn’t wish to upset its most passionate fans, but Daneluz’s Sonic games have not received legal attention from the publisher. Plenty of fan ‘remakes’ of games have been squashed under the weight of cease and desist orders in the past and Nintendo particularly is notoriously litigious – late last year it shut down a version of the 1985 Super Mario Bros you could play in a web browser. But Daneluz has never had any contact with Sega – though Sonic 3’s composer did send an email to one of the musicians on the project.
“The company has total right to simply shoot down any fan game because they may look at it as a business loss from people experiencing and playing their IPs, their assets, without the company having anything tangible to gain from,” Daneluz says. “However, shooting down fan games is a huge risk that can have a great negative impact on their own franchises, in the case that their fan base gets angry at the company. That's probably the reason why Sega deals with fan games the way it does now.”
Besides, Daneluz is done with Sonic games for now – instead he’s working on his own original platformer, Spark The Electric Jester, a retro infused platformer with much more of an emphasis on jumping. So far, he’s six stages through. Would he ever go back to reviving old franchises unofficially, we wonder, and it not Sonic, then what?
“If I had the money, power, copyright, skills and wide interest, I would resurrect the game Stunt Race FX.”
That might be a bit trickier – Nintendo owns the rights to what was one of the first 3D racers on the SNES – but hey, perhaps another Japanese gaming giant will take a more benevolent stance in the future. In the meantime, we’ve still got plenty of new Sonic levels to race through thanks to LakeFeperd.