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LONG BLOG

A few thoughts on homebrew games development

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I was at a party last weekend for Evo 2016, and I was scrolling through my Facebook feed while watching the Twitch stream. I came across an article reporting that an Argentinian programmer was putting together a from-scratch version of Sonic Jump, a game revamped in 2012 for iOS and Android, for the Sega Saturn; it was an interview with this guy, where he was asked how the idea came about, how he went about putting the game together and also why he was developing for the Saturn. I talked to this with another attendee or two and the response was complete bewilderment: why would anyone bother to develop that game for that console? While I can understand the reaction, I didn't really feel the same way. Now that I've looked at early footage of the game, I can say it looks very much like a Sonic version of the Icy Tower games we used to play on the computers at school, and I kinda dig it.

Homebrew is something I'm increasingly getting interested in, as I'm looking into buying Sega consoles and developing a Sega collection once I'm in a full-time job; the current consoles I have don't seem to be quite as suited to homebrew (granted the Net Yaroze opened up self-development of games for the PS1). My attitude is very much the opposite to that of the person I talked to about Sonic Jump - who, by the way, is an avid retro gamer with a fair amount of bootleg games in his collection. The questions are whether you think that troubled IPs deserve focus from the homebrew sector, and also whether all consoles deserve homebrew attention.

Developing games for the Saturn of all things, as was touched upon with the interviewer regarding development for Sonic Jump, is a thorny issue. The Saturn did not do well at all in the Western market, suffering from many of the same problems as its little brother, the Dreamcast: other consoles simply overshadowed it, with their performance being worse in a few areas but generally far superior. However, there were a few fascinating games that wound up on the Saturn, such as a version of Resident Evil that is arguably better than the RE:DC:DS for the PS1 in some aspects, and a Shin Megami Tensei game which was later ported to the 3DS with some acclaim. Also, Sega IPs such as NiGHTS saw apparently fantastic releases on the Saturn, which I personally can't wait to experience first-hand; unfortunately, my friend with a Raspberry Pi emulator reports that getting Saturn games to work on the system can be quite a fiddly process, so it may take a while until I can (legitimately or illegitimately) experience Into Dreams.

The thing is, I believe homebrewing is actually best placed for systems that failed, where failure is maybe for reasons other than the system being objectively terrible - this is a description that applies to a lot of the later Sega systems (Saturn and Dreamcast). They weren't structurally poor, like for example the Atari Jaguar CD or the Sega CD, but were simply released with poor timing and against very strong competition. In other words, they are good systems that probably have a lot of unlocked potential. The ability to burn games onto CD-Rs and play them on the Dreamcast with little piracy filter makes them a dream for homebrewers, and the Saturn was actually pretty technically sophisticated for its release date, with a widely praised sound board, according to Next Generation magazine, and two CPUs (albeit only being able to access the system's memory one at a time). The fact that one of the problems on release was the difficulty of developing for the system provides an excellent challenge for budding programmers nowadays.

Furthermore, some of the limitations that held Saturn development back - not all of them, but some - have recently seen some progress. Sega systems are old enough to see hardware failure simply due to being old and not being kept in mint condition. As a company that no longer produces consoles, Sega does not produce spare parts anymore. Fortunately, some clever clogs working under the pseudonym Dr. Abrasive has managed to get the Saturn to run off a flash drive. The methods are still in their infancy, but disc drives breaking may not be a big issue for Saturn owners in the future, and so owners will be more interested in extending their games collections for the console.

So, this brings me onto the second question: why would you touch Sonic with a ten-foot bargepole when it comes to homebrew, especially when you're looking at developing for the Saturn? Perhaps a third question leading on from that is: "why Sonic Jump instead of a retro platformer?" Sonic as an IP is not quite as poisoned, in my opinion, as some people like to regard it. Certainly some of the choices made my Sega over the last perhaps 10 years have been atrocious; Sonic and the Secret Rings and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric are particular low points that I've experienced for myself. However, Sonic Generations was (mostly) a highly enjoyable return to form, and the recent Humble Bundle deal/resurgent popularity on the PS Store for ports such as Sonic CD show that the franchise is not dead yet; furthermore, Sonic Mania is generating some good press after its announcement a couple of days ago.

You could perhaps extrapolate from Sonic's prior performance that Sonic only does well as a 2D, retro platformer; any forays into anything 3D or slightly wacky - including romance arcs with human ladies - are to be avoided. However, I don't think that's the conclusion you should necessarily jump to. Instead, Sonic with auto-targetting and Sonic games that don't take into account that Sonic goes fast are instead where the games fall down. A game like Sonic Jump could be a fun distraction if it involves Sonic hurtling through the air at high speeds and perhaps whizzing round loop-de-loops akin to the older games, something which appears to need a bit of work from the looks of the prototype. The problem isn't really Sonic trying new things, but that the new things which have been tried have been implemented poorly or forget that Sonic games are about speed. The MegaDrive managed to make Sonic go extremely fast - it was part of their marketing campaign for the console - while the WiiU had horrendous framerate issues that impeded this with Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. Thus, there is no reason to believe all the ingredients that make a good Sonic game from the perspective of a 2016 gamer cannot be present in a Sega Saturn game.

That summarises why I am very excited to hear about the development of Sonic Jump, and why I'm now going to be keeping an eye on the seemingly small Saturn homebrew community. Extending the possibilities for a defunct and "underloved" console can never be a bad thing, and given the complete hopelessness of a Dreamcast 2, it gives us old Sega fans something to hold on to.

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About Charlotte Cuttsone of us since 3:50 PM on 07.05.2016

Likes games, loves speedrunning. Ships herself with the PlayStation Vita.