Most Sonic fans agree that Sega’s hedgehog mascot had his early peak during the Genesis days in the mid 1990s. But 1996’s Sonic 3D Blast does not receive the same love as its 2D predecessors.
Many of Sonic 3D Blast’s problems had nothing to do with the actual game. It was one of the last major Sega releases for the aging Genesis. Its successor, the struggling Saturn, was already out. Many fans were looking forward to Sonic Xtreme, which was going to be publisher’s marquee game for the new system. But Sega cancelled the project, moving 3D Blast to the Saturn with some small graphical improvements.
Sonic 3D Blast’s isometric take on 3D gaming seemed quaint in 1996. Super Mario 64, which came out a month earlier, looked leaps more impressive with its full 3D worlds and dynamic camera. But Sonic 3D Blast also has some of its own problems. The controls are slippery, and levels have players finding Flickies — colorful, little birds — in nonlinear scavenger hunts that can become frustrating.
Sonic 3D Blast is not a bad game (it also has one of the best soundtracks of any Genesis game). But its problems and poor timing doomed it to mediocre reviews and a cool reception from fans. Now lead programmer Jon Burton is going back to the game he helped create 21 years ago to try to make it a more polished experience.
No Sega, no problems
Burton’s Sonic 3D Blast Director’s Cut is not an official Sega product. Instead, it is available as a patch that you can install into a ROM of the Sega Genesis version, which you can then play on any device that can run a Genesis emulator. It’s available in a beta form. Normally, you’d expect that a major gaming company wouldn’t be happy about someone, even if they worked on the original game, making a free, unofficial update to one of their products.
But Sega has a long history of being lenient and even supportive of the Sonic fan game community. This year’s excellent Sonic Mania has its roots in the work of former Sonic modders and fan game creators. So far, Sega has not told Burton he can’t make his Director’s Cut.
“I enjoyed working with Sega,” Burton told GamesBeat. “They really knew their stuff. They’re a great bunch of people. I really enjoyed going over to Japan and meeting with them there. They treated me extremely well the whole time with the project. But on this, this is just me in my spare time thinking, well, I’d like to fix some of this stuff. If I can patch that in such a way that everybody’s happy — if you own the game and you can patch this over the top, great. If Sega steps in and says hey, you can’t do this, I won’t do this. Either way I’m enjoying the process.”
While most Sonic games come from Sonic Team, Sega enlisted Traveler’s Tales to develop 3D Blast. Burton founded Traveler’s Tales in 1989, and he still works there today. You probably know the studio for all of its Lego games. Before 3D Blast, Traveler’s Tales had created popular Disney games for the 16-bit era: Mickey Mania and Toy Story. Then Sega got in touch about Sonic.
“We’d just finished Toy Story, we were keen to get on with the new consoles, the Saturn and the PlayStation,” Burton told GamesBeat. “Sega came to us and wanted a meeting. Well, of course, we’ll take a meeting with Sega. They said, we want you to make a Genesis game. We really wanted to do the next-gen stuff. But then they said, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Oh, that 16-bit game? Yeah, we can do that 16-bit game. They came with it kind of fully formed. They wanted to do this isometric 3D. They’d seen what we’d done on Mickey Mania and Toy Story and wanted to see if we could pull off this isometric view.
“I guess at the time they were maybe struggling with Sonic Xtreme. Maybe it was in very early development. There wasn’t a Sonic game around and they obviously wanted to embrace 3D and the next generation. Mario was about to come out or had just come out. They wanted to be in the world of 3D. They didn’t just want another 2D side-scroller. But they also wanted to support the Genesis, which couldn’t do true 3D. I guess this was the compromise they came up with. But they were clear on it being isometric 3D. I had some pretty clear ideas on how we’d be able to do that.”
The original project took eight months to complete.
Exposing the programming
Sonic 3D Blast does a lot of impressive things considering it had first been made for the Genesis. It has a computer-generated movie for an intro. And although it depended on a fixed isometric view, it did translate the feel of Sonic game — including running, jumping, and spin-dashing — to a 3D game. But many were hard on the game.
Burton would see complaints — about the controls or the annoyance of tracking down Flickies — in modern reviews from gamers on YouTube. He found that he still had the original code for the game.
“I could put some Game Genie codes out with a few little tweaks to rebalance it,” Burton told GamesBeat. “Then I looked and saw that you could patch things in. I thought, well, then I can change more than just a few numbers. That got me quite interested. I put up a video to see if people were interested in this, and they had a whole bunch of suggestions about what they wanted to change.”
Burton has a whole channel, GameHut, where he goes into detail about how he and his team were able to program many of his games, including Mickey Mania, Toy Story, and Sonic 3D Blast. Some of the videos for Sonic 3D Blast would show content cut from the game, like a discarded crab enemy.
These videos became popular. One, which explains why punching the Genesis cartridge opens up a Level Select Mode, has more 350,000 views.
“People were just fascinated by how these games were made back then,” Burton told GamesBeat. “It was a different time. I think the art of programming and optimization kind of died as graphics cards and processors became more and more powerful. You could achieve the same things by using slightly lower-res textures or slightly fewer polygons rather than really pushing the most optimized code.”
A new day for Sonic 3D Blast
The interest in his videos and seeing modern critiques encouraged him to make his Director’s Cut. He would add in cut content like the crab enemy. He would also adjust the controls to make it easier to control Sonic. The Director’s Cut also includes surprises like a Level Editor and Super Sonic.
The HUD is improved and shows more details. You only lose one Flicky at a time when you’re hit instead of all of them, so you’re less likely to waste time hunting down a bird you already collected but lost. The Director’s Cut even adds a new menu for selecting stages, Time Challenges that task you with beating levels quickly, and a new password save system.
It’s a lot of changes and improvements. But for Burton, improving 3D Blast isn’t just about his legacy. It’s not even just about the one game.
“Because Sonic 3D is part of the Sonic legacy, and Sonic has had a mixed legacy, I’d like to address, where I can, my part in that,” Burton said. “If I can make Sonic 3D a bit more acceptable to the Sonic fanbase with a few days of my time, then great, why not try it?”
Sonic 3D Blast was never a bad game. But with this Director’s Cut, it could go beyond redemption.
The RetroBeat is a weekly column that looks at gaming’s past, diving into classics, new retro titles, or looking at how old favorites — and their design techniques — inspire today’s market and experiences. If you have any retro-themed projects or scoops you’d like to send my way, please contact me.