Interviews 4

Sonic the Hedgehog 3 Remastered Interview with Christian 'The Taxman' Whitehead

With the industry seeing such an influx of remastered titles over the past couple of years, it may seem hard to believe that a large number of gamers are clamouring for the re-release of a popular video game of yesteryear.

But that is exactly what is happening with the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 Remastered fan campaign, whose petition to secure the re-release of the Mega Drive classic currently carries over 7,000 signatures.

While fellow 16-bit titles Sonic the Hedgehog 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic CD have all received the remastered, high-definition treatment in recent years, the final entry in the original Genesis trilogy has remained conspicuous by its absence.

Despite a proof-of-concept demo being created for the game last year, speculation and conjecture would suggest that potential legal issues over music rights stand in the way of the final part of the platforming series seeing the light of day again. Sega, however, has frustratingly not been forthcoming with any official statement or further information.

Last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Simon ‘Stealth’ Thomley, one half of the developmental team responsible for creating all of the Sonic remasters released to date, in the search for answers. What followed was a fascinating insight into the development process and history of the games, as well as some discussion on the aforementioned potential legal issues surrounding Sonic 3.

While Thomley has become an active member of the fan campaign in a personal capacity over the past few months, his fellow developer, and the man Sega first turned to to recreate Sonic CD, Christian ‘The Taxman’ Whitehead, has remained noticeably quieter. We reached out to the Australian freelance programmer to get his take on recent events and the series as a whole, and he kindly agreed to sit down with Power Up Gaming’s editor-in-chief Chris Mawson for an in-depth chat.

Chris Mawson: When exactly did your relationship with the Sonic franchise start? Do you have any early memories of playing the original games on the Genesis?

Christian Whitehead: I think the first time I ever saw Sonic was on a poster at the video rental store (remember those?) my family used to go to. I was super young at the time, but even then I was intrigued by the character design. A couple of years later we finally got a Mega Drive, and Sonic 2 was the first Sonic game I ever played. I didn’t get any further than Chemical Plant for quite a while, but I was still having loads of fun with going around the loops and watching the rings fly out of Sonic when he got hit!

CM: How did you become involved in the Sonic fangaming community? Did your knowledge of and interest in programming come first, or was it informed by a desire to create your own Sonic game?

CW: After Sonic 3 & Knuckles came out, there was basically (what seemed like) a drought of Sonic game for me as a kid. I used to draw pictures of levels I wanted to play, and hoped there would be a way to make them some day. That said, the first games I made weren’t Sonic. I first started making games with an old program called Klik & Play. My school friend and I used to make lots of silly short games in the space of an afternoon like Space Cows (Space Invaders in ‘udder’ space), Parachute Pig (a lander game) and Virtua Crap (don’t ask).

I didn’t become involved in the fan-gaming scene until around 2000 or so, when Dreamcast was in its prime, and I’d stumbled upon a website called “SSRG” talking about the unused levels in Sonic 2.

ICM: How did your Retro-Sonic fan game initially come about and subsequently evolve? I remember being intrigued at the time it released due to the majority of fan games at the time constituting mods or hacks of the existing trilogy, rather than being fully-fledged efforts as R-S was.

CW: Retro-Sonic was my first serious attempt at making a Sonic game. It basically grew alongside me as I learned how to program; first starting in Multimedia Fusion, then Visual Basic, then C++. I ended up redesigning the C++ engine from the ground up three times, until it eventually evolved into a fully fledged 2D game framework as the Retro Engine and RSDK.

CM: With regards to the Sonic CD remaster, the first of the games you produced, how did Sega come to bring you on board? Was it a case of pitching them, or did they approach you? Had you worked professionally as a developer prior to that?

CW: Prior to Sonic CD, I had been working professionally as a freelancer in media production. While this is obviously not exactly in the sphere of game development, it gave me valuable experience in dealing with clients and projects that I was able to put into practice when I decided to pitch Sonic CD to Sega. My big break with Sega came back in 2009, when Sega of America posted on their blog asking what games people would like to see on mobile. I responded with a tech demonstration of Sonic CD running on an iPod Touch, which made quite a wave in the iOS gaming scene on sites like Touch Arcade and Slide to Play. It took several years to get off the ground, but luckily there were some great people at Sega who were willing to bring an independent developer on board!

CM: Sonic CD probably wasn’t the most obvious choice to receive the remastered treatment. Was that why you decided you wanted to pitch and create that one first?

CW: I personally chose Sonic CD for several reasons. On a technical level, Sonic 1 had already been released on iOS via emulation, and while it wasn’t as nice as a remastered version, I felt that Sega would continue to use that technology to work with other ROMs. Sonic CD would have been much more difficult to pull off via emulation, so I already had an ‘ace up my sleeve’. In addition to that, I thought that Sonic CD was a game that fewer casual players had the chance to experience, so releasing it on mobile would feel like a new 2D Sonic to many users, complemented with great CD Audio and animated cutscenes.

CM: Why did you want to make the game primarily for mobile platforms, over say, a console or PC release?

CW: At the time, I felt mobile was the right scope for me to tackle as an independent developer, since back then console stuff really did seem to be in the domain of larger dev studios. XBLA and PSN were still in the process of taking off, and in a lot of cases a relationship with a publisher was necessary to get your game out there. Sonic CD did end up becoming a multi-platform release, however.

CM: Could you briefly explain some of the development process behind the game? We know that you decided to use your Retro Engine – which you had previously used for your fan game – and rebuild CD and the subsequent games, rather than porting over the originals. What was the main advantage of that?

CW: Unlike emulation or porting the original source code, remastering the Sonic games with the Retro Engine requires rewriting the game’s logic from the ground up. On the surface, this seems more work than necessary, but the advantages of having the games working in a more modern engine are numerous. The games are able to run natively at full speed on any platform the Retro Engine exists on, supporting any screen aspect ratio up to 16:9. The RSDK has a complete set of tools for creating and editing content, which makes adding support for new features like new characters, levels, game modes, etc. much easier to achieve than using an emulator with additional ‘hooks’ hacked in.

CM: When did you first begin collaborating with Simon ‘Stealth’ Thomley, and how did it come about? What was he able to provide in terms of an extra dimension or specialist skillset?

CW: When I put the original Sonic CD mobile demo together, I had quizzed Simon on a few technical aspects of the game, since he is very familiar with m68k assembly code that the Mega Drive and Mega CD make use of. While Simon didn’t work on Sonic CD directly, I felt his skills were very complementary to mine, and so when I had the opportunity to work on Sonic 1 and 2, I brought him on board proper to assist with development. As a result, I feel together we were able to achieve much more on a technical level in the short dev cycle those games had than if I had been working alone.

CM: What was the pitching process like for the Sonic 1 and 2 remasters?

CW: Following the success of Sonic CD, Sega were interested in getting Sonic 1 and 2 on the Android platforms as they were on iOS. However, since they were using the existing iGenesis emulator, they didn’t have the same bells and whistles that Sonic CD had. So there was interest in making the Android versions ‘remasters’ with the Retro Engine in the same manner as Sonic CD. Naturally, this also gave us the opportunity to update the iOS versions for free too, something that was very well received by fans!

CM: Turning to Sonic 2 specifically, I understand you were primarily responsible for the reinstatement of Hidden Palace Zone, and its layout and boss? What did you take inspiration from besides the original unfinished level; did you have access to any early conceptual work? Were Sega at all reluctant to have you recreate the level?

CW: The implementation of Hidden Palace Zone was something that I was primarily behind, yes, although naturally I ran many of the concepts by Simon to get his input, too. HPZ was something we really wanted to ensure would be part of the Sonic 2 release, since it has such a huge cult following behind it, and this was the first real opportunity to make it happen. However, to make it in the remaster, logistically HPZ needed some redesigning to get approval with how the final version of Sonic 2 ended up.

We’d received feedback from Sonic Team that the original team were not happy with how the level was panning out during development back in the day. Some of the first comments we had received were that Sonic could not move through the stage fluidly and fast, and as a result didn’t have the right ‘feel’ for Sonic. In addition to that, the concept of Hidden Palace was essentially recycled in Sonic & Knuckles; it was now the resting place for the Master Emerald on Angel Island, and allowed the players to get Hyper powers.

What was clear, was that we had to approach HPZ in a different way to make it its own experience, and not a Sonic 2 version of Sonic 3’s Hidden Palace. As a result, HPZ became a secret alternate act for Mystic Cave, with a smooth flowing level design, complete with enemies and stage gimmicks that would be a bit more forgiving for anyone who struggled with Mystic Cave. All it needed was a ‘secret’. Previously, HPZ was conceived of as the place where Sonic would gain access to Super Sonic. With that no longer the case, we decided that the HPZ in Sonic 2 would have a “Phantom of the Opera” vibe; someone or something lived down there maintaining a grand cathedral, but that has since been lost to time. And now Dr Eggman shows up in his typical child-like fashion with his own devious instrument, haha.

CM: Turning now to Sonic 3, I believe you and Stealth pitched the game to Sega on several occasions, but were ultimately unsuccessful. What did your pitches consist of? Any ideas as to why they didn’t approve them?

CW: We only developed a single proof of concept for Sonic 3, but unfortunately there were circumstances that meant it was not a project we could pursue further [Christian was not in a position to expand on these when questioned – CM].

CM: You showed off your proof-of-concept for a remastered Sonic 3 & Knuckles last October to mark the game’s 20th anniversary. How much more was there to the title besides what the YouTube video showcased?

CW: The video shows snippets of everything that what was properly playable: The Title Screen, Angel Island Zone, Special/Bonus stages, etc. We imported a few of the other Zone layouts, but they were basically empty as far as objects go.

CM: It seemed that in the weeks following the release of the gameplay footage, fans’ appetite for Sonic 3 Remastered just continued to go up and up. Was that your aim; in releasing it, did you intend to try to rally support to petition Sega, or was it merely meant as a nice treat for fans of the series in time for the game’s birthday?

CW: Unlike Sonic CD, the video it wasn’t a call to arms for me. Personally, I only made the footage of the demo available for my portfolio, since it was the game’s 20th anniversary and I was getting a crazy amount of emails asking if we’d thought of doing Sonic 3k.

CM: It must be extremely satisfying to see so many people get involved with the Sonic 3 Remastered letter-writing campaign and petition, both of which have launched in the last couple of months. What are your general thoughts on how the campaign has been conducted so far, and what do you think the chances of Sega actually listening to it are?

CW: I’m definitely flattered that there’s a lot of people that support our work that strongly. I can’t really comment on the campaign itself and and its chances, as the development process behind the scenes is always more complex than it appears. There can be many factors that determine whether or not something is feasible to release, so it’d be a conflict of interest for me to comment and incorrectly set expectations.

CM: Supposing Sega eventually does green light the project and brings you guys on board once again, what can we expect in terms of new features and additions that weren’t present in the original game?

CW: I wouldn’t want to give too much away – got to keep some mysteries, hey! One thing I would’ve liked to do is really beef up the competition mode. The original game had tiny little tracks and sprites for split-screen, so making them into full-sized graphics, with larger maps, more items, modes, etc. that you could play head to head (or solo Time Attack) like in Sonic 2 Remastered would be great.

CM: As we know, Sonic 3 was split into two games due to time constraints at the time of its original release. What plans do you have in terms of the level order; would you offer fans the chance to play through the zones as the developers originally envisioned?

CW: When we developed the previous Sonic remasters, we always put in some neat custom options in the level select menu, so I could imagine that trend continuing if we ever did Sonic 3.

CM: Moving beyond Sonic 3 now, what are your future plans for the Retro Engine? Could we perhaps expect to see more Genesis classics remade and remastered, or even an entirely original game – Sonic or otherwise?

CW: Right now I’m currently working on a new game that’s a brand new IP. It’s not actually using the Retro Engine, though. In the last year I’ve been working on a new set of tools and tech in order to develop it, as it’s a fully 3D game. It’s still early days, but I’m very much looking forward to being able to reveal what I’m working on later this year!

Back to the Retro Engine, I don’t have any specific plans to do more classic remasters in the future, but I would be open to doing stuff like Knuckles’ Chaotix, Ristar, Dynamite Headdy, etc. I’ve never wanted to become a developer that only does that stuff, but it’d be nice to give some other awesome retro games some love every now and again, I guess.

CM: Do you have any thoughts on the recent Sonic Boom spinoff games and Sonic Runners? Do you like the direction modern Sonic seems to be moving in?

CW: To be honest, Sonic Boom doesn’t appeal to my senses at all. I think it’s a shame that many of unique game mechanics and iconography (Art Deco fonts, geometric inspired patterns) that gave the original Sonic series a strong identity were tossed out in order to make the game more “Western”. I realise though, that the developers were trying a whole new audience, and classic Sonic isn’t necessarily what’s big in that demographic. It’s early days for Sonic Runners, but as a casual game I think it’s standing out pretty nicely compared to Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash.

CM: We recently learned that Sega quietly put Dimps’ Sonic 4 Episode 3 on hold a couple of years ago. Did this mark a change in direction for the company – away from reviving its classic IPs, and the beginning of its shift/refocus towards those casual games?

CW: When I started Sonic CD, mobile games were handled within Sega of America, but in the last couple of years mobile at Sega has become its own dedicated division. So I think there’s definitely been a shift to cater directly to the mobile F2P casual market.

CM: Finally, what games are you playing right now, and what are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?

CW: I’ve been on a bit of a PS1 nostalgia trip lately! Getting reacquainted with some of my favourites like the Crash, Jumping Flash & Wipeout series. Ahead, I’m really looking forward to Splatoon. I couldn’t get enough of it at Nintendo’s Booth at E3 last year, so I’ll be all over it when it comes out!

CM: Thanks for your time, Christian. We’ll look forward to seeing what projects you have in the pipeline!

You can check out more of Christian’s work via his official website, or on Twitter. Fnd out how to get involved in the Sonic 3 Remastered campaign over at its community-run website or via the petition page itself.

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  • Shamon’ Sega

    Two Words: Michael Jackson.

    • Russell

      What makes you say that? I’m not even sure there’s proof of his involvement in the soundtrack?

      • moovacha

        It’s funny I happen to be listening to Michael Jackson on Spotify while reading this article and coming across this content.

        I know it’s a theory but I actually do believe Michael had some involvement in some music for Sonic 2 or 3. I can almost here it in there.

  • ShaolinTurtle

    Knuckles Chaotix please!