Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sonic 3 would have been the best in the series, if not for this one mistake

Don't worry, this is not a fanboy post. Yes, Sonic is my favourite video game character. Yes, I am of the opinion that Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is better than 2, Adventure and Generations. But, I am perfectly aware that Sonic 3 had a certain problem and that is what this post will be about.


From the start

Let's take a look at the beginning of the series. Nintendo had a lot of success with Mario for almost 6 years when Sonic came around. If you remember the loyalty wars between Sonic and Mario fans, you can imagine that Sega did a great job designing Sonic to make people doubt the leading video game protagonist for 6 years running.

The first game for the Megadrive (Genesis for those across the pond) was pretty sweet. Sonic ran really fast, but you could see in some levels that the level designers did not know how to implement speed. They improved on this in Sonic 2, there were longer stretches to run in and jumping did not feel slow. The best idea they had was adding the sidekick, Tails the flying fox, as an immortal playable character next to Sonic as player 1. This was the best implementation of couch multiplayer I've ever seen, because anyone could just pick up a controller and play along without player 1 being too annoyed

And then came Sonic 3. They took everything and improved even more. Tails could now lift Sonic to places he could not reach before. There levels were even faster and the theming was better thought through. To top it all off, Sega release Sonic and Knuckles, with which you could play Sonic 3 AND Sonic and Knuckles back to back with Sonic, Tails or Knuckles. As a little kid, my mind was blown.

Bring on the classics!

This place has its own expletives.
And yet, if you ask, most Sonic fans will almost never cite Sonic 3 as the best in the series. Almost no youtuber (at least not my favourite ones) has made a Sonic 3 video and someone makes one, they are just walkthroughs. Why?

I will now give you 5 words that strike fear in the heart of any Sonic 3 player: Carnival Night Zone's Spinning Drums. For all the things Sonic 3 did well, there is 1 great mistake that undid all of them. Somewhere in the second half of the Carnival Night Zone level Sonic is locked in a small room with nothing but a spinning drum in a hole where you supposedly need to get through. You can not evade going into the room. You will enter and you will spend there more than 10 minutes. After those ten minutes, Sonic dies of a so called 'Time Over.' The torture is slow and the carnival music makes it all the worse.

These spinning drums are not a menace on their own, they are scattered across the level and sometimes Sonic will land on them and they will bounce. When you get locked in that room, that is what you are going to try: jump on the drum and try to get it through the hole. This will not work, you can get it halfway through and you will be able to make a huge jump, but you will not be able to get through.

No reason for this screenshot,
this game is just beautiful
If you want to enjoy Sonic 3, I've got 1 tip for you: use the up and down arrows on the gamepad. That is what you are supposed to do. The stupid thing is, the game does not give you ANY visual cues on it. Sonic does not bend his knees and at first the drum only barely moves up and down, but surely and steadily it will move 3 screens up and crush Sonic on the ceiling, if you are not careful. Why did Sonic Team put this in the game and why implement it like this? Everything else is intuitive and sleek, except for this part.

What happened?

Of-course, I haven't got the answers, but here is my speculation: it's a mix of things. First of all: the drums follow a complicated rule using a kind of acceleration we associate with standard physics nowadays. By locking Sonic in the room, the creators made sure you could not see past this complicated piece of game engineering.But that does not explain the lack of visual cues.

Pics or it didn't happen, am I right?
Let me sidetrack a little. I've got a portable Sega Game Gear in the attic that I got for my 7th birthday. The screen is burned and I keep it for parts for when my second Game Gear will finally break. On this Game Gear is a sticker I put under the screen when I was 10. On that sticker you can still see the number of the Sega Mega Phone. It's a telephone number you could call if you got stuck in a game for 1 Gulden per minute, about 0.45 Euro/Dollar cents.

And that is what went wrong. Those days, the internet was not yet widespread and what was on it, usually did not involve walkthroughs. Several 'information hotlines' sprung up during that time to help you with your games if you were stuck. With that information being hot business, it helped that new games would bring in money for them too. I will not say that the spinning drum room was deliberate, but with a game bound for release and thinking the info will be readily available, Sonic Team will probably not have wanted to fix that mistake either.

Except, nobody called those numbers as our parents would not let us. Most people just gave up on Sonic 3. Buying Sonic and Knuckles and combining it with Sonic 3 did not help much, because Sonic would still get stuck in the spinning drum room before you could get to the Sonic and Knuckles level set. The Knuckles level set did not contain the spinning drum room, as if the developers knew.

One tip to the perfect game

The spinning drum mistake should not have been made, it's a stain on an otherwise perfect game, but it does not have to spoil your enjoyment. If, despite my rambling, you still want to try out Sonic 3 with the Knuckles expansion, remember this: use the up and down arrows when you are stuck and you are in for one of the most awesome games in history.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Playstation 3 that never really was, was so awesome

BTW: this is not the 60GB. Can't you tell?
Imagine a Dutch boy going to a game store in a neighboring city, anticipating his new console and finally meeting the grandiose that is the Sony Playstation 3 60GB. "I had go through a lot of trouble to get this thing," he says. "I know," the shopkeeper replies, "we even get people from Groningen (far side of the country), just to get this model." Now imagine that boy nearing his 30's and this event happening last year, because that is me.

Although I hate the stereotype of us Dutch being cheap, I did not want to shell out the 800 Euro's required to purchase the system on launch. I was happy with my PS2, but I had mostly be playing PC games before that and I did not mind going back. Unfortunately I missed out on the awesomeness that would be the PS3.

It has been almost 10 years ago, but do you remember all the features that would be in the original PS3? Backwards compatibility spanning back to the PSX era, communication with the PSP, Linux installation and it's possibility to play Blu-ray make it an absolute behemoth of a console.

Unfortunately these features did not only come with a price tag. Sony had to do them right in order for them to stick around and they let that one slip. They had to cut down on features to save on costs, not only because of the material used in the product, but also to save on labor. Since I finally got my hands on the original PS3, let me break down some of those features on why they are awesome and what went wrong.

The backwards compatibility

All playable on the 60GB version
Let me start by telling you that the backwards compatibility on the PS3 was awesome! Remember that the PS1 released in 1994, so on release of the PS3 you already had a library of games 12 years big. With the PS3 not yet at its end of life, that accumulates to 21 years today! Also, these games are possible to view over HDMI and the PS3 takes care of the image scaling for you. With the wireless PS3 controller you add extra play comfort. I would play all of my old games on it, if not for one of several major drawbacks.

You can't load your saves from the previous playstations. Yes, the PS3 60GB has a memory card slot, but somewhere along the design line something was misinterpreted and that slot was changed from a PS2 type to one of those multi-card readers you find on those (now) old PC's. You also cannot connect any old PS2/PSX controller. I can perfectly imagine why this happened, cutting costs among others, but it does not end there.

The PS3 is region free (perfect slogan), but the PSX and PS2 are not. Probably for commercial reasons, they kept the region locking. It makes perfect sense to make a console region free: you make 1 type for all regions, but if you design your backwards compatibility to keep the region lock, you are still building different consoles for different regions.

It is obvious why the backwards compatibility was scratched first, it was the most expensive, but it is such a shame. If they had taken a better look at the design, they might have kept it. Then again, if you know a bit about computer architecture, you'd know how hard backwards compatibility can be, but I'll save that for another post.

Linux compatibility

I am out of puns, insert punguin here...
You might not care to remember, but the PS3 had the possibility to install the Linux operating system. I have not tried this myself, since I did not want to jeopardize my collectible PS3, but I have played enough with Linux to be really excited to try it on another PS3 someday.

Although it was cool, this feature really gave me the idea Sony wasn't really thinking in the design phase. Mainly for these 2 reasons:
  1. Practically no gamer uses Linux
  2. Any OS, but especially Linux, gives the user full access to your hardware.
It wasn't a surprise the Linux feature was the leak that eventually made the PS3 crackable and Sony even removed it with a system update. It's a shame, because the PS3 processor had some new stuff not common in PC's. There's a lot to say about that, but I'll save that too for another post.

Communication with your PSP

We take the PSX hardware and make it portable.
What shall we call it?
Has anyone tried this? Did you know you can play games on your Playstation Portable from your Playstation 3? No? Well neither did I. You can also swap out savegames from your PSP to your PS3, so you can continue a game at home on the big screen after you've played it on the road.

I got my PSP last year too and I had that thing soft-modded before you could say "hey, isn't that be piracy?" The irony of it all is that I only play legally purchased PSP and PSX games on it, the PSX games being the original disc softwarematically mangled on a PC to be stored on the PSP memory stick. This last feature was never fully developed by Sony, because a hacker group found out before the release of the PS3. Again, it's a shame, because it works so well.

Then there is remote play. Long before Valve's Steam had a streaming function, you could stream your PS3 contents to your PSP. Yes, you heard that right, you can go to the little men's (or women's) room and play Playstation games on your PS3! You can insert a PSX disc in a PS3 60GB and have it streamed over Wifi!

Unfortunately, Sony thinks the PSP does not have enough sticks and buttons, so the PS3 downright refuses to play most content, including PS2 and PS3, but also Netflix and any other app you might have installed, which leaves remote play to be nothing more than a remote PS3 savegames-manager. Then, there is the problem of the PSP not being able to connect to WPA2 wifi (most modern routers) and its chip is barely fast enough to stream. You can play an RPG, but do not try a racing game, the delay is just a bit too much. Add to that that Sony never really pushed remote play for developers and you will therefore probably never use it.

Enjoying the PS3 nonetheless

Even though Sony did not polish a lot of its features, the original 60GB is a hackers dream come true. The amount of features is a rabbit-hole I'd love to dive in some more and I definitely will. To end on a high note: although most of these features did not come out as much as we'd hoped, at least Sony has learned from it. They now know better what works and at least they continued the remote play feature to PSvita and PS4. I haven't had my hands on a vita yet, but it seems it can connect to a PS3 as well. Just to keep a combo going, I'll save that topic for another post.