Sonic Crackers (referred to as Sonic Studium in the ROM header and often identified incorrectly as Sonic the Hedgehog 4) is an early prototype build of the game Chaotix, incorporating many of the elements that would appear in the final game. Its name comes from a peculiar, and clearly quickly made, ASCII-art title screen. Sonic Crackers is thought to be an engine test, composed of various different game engines, which are swapped out using RAM coding.
The game features Sonic and Tails, who, in the main demonstration of its link to Chaotix, are held together by rings that they carry and that are joined by an elastic force. Also, Sonic can pick up Tails and throw him upwards, to make it easier to reach higher platforms. The stages and music are also similar to those in Chaotix. There are no sound effects at all during gameplay. There are no badniks to be found, however there are spikes, and you lose rings when hitting them (even though you have none).
Interestingly, the date on the lower right of the title screen reads "19940401". The 0401, meaning April 1st, lead to some debate on if the title screen, or the ROM was a April Fools joke. With the discovery of later Chaotix prototypes (particularly prototype 1207), it is now clearly known not the case.
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There are four playable levels in Sonic Crackers, which are accessible either by selecting the "1P START" option on the title screen, or by using the "SELECT" menu. Many levels appear to have been planned, split up into seven "worlds", two "premiums" and a special stage. Each world lists five "attractions" and one "field", and each premium is paired with one attraction and one field.
In total this would mean 37 attractions, 7 fields and 1 special stage are catered for, but the vast majority of level slots do not function as intended.
Sonic Crackers begins at what is listed as world 2, attraction 4, and loops through a never-ending pattern:
... -> world 2 attraction -> field 1 -> world 1 attraction -> field 2 -> ...
Much like Chaotix, Crackers calls its levels "attractions" (as opposed to prior Sonic outings which opt to call them "acts" and "zones"). At this stage of development there are only two meaningful attractions on offer, neither of which are explicitly named and are not seen in Chaotix.
Attractions are standard side-scrolling levels similar to those seen in previous Sonic games. Pressing allows the user to move Sonic and Tails's X and Y positions with the D-Pad, giving them access to any part of the level (much like the debug modes of Sonic 1, 2 and 3). Sonic and Tails' arms and Tails' tails are treated as separate objects by the engine so become detached from their bodies, remaining at at their original location until the game is resumed.
Once the in-game timer reaches a certain point (or, in the case of the first level, the player reaches the top of the screen), you enter a field stage. While the collision can fail for a number of reasons (particularly with Tails), Sonic and Tails cannot die. They are also not affected by the laws of gravity while running up quarter-pipes, but can be manipulated by springs.
For the most part, Sonic Crackers involves Sonic and Tails making their way up this industrial structure at differing times of day. This is the most complete level in the prototype and can almost be completed through normal play, though awkward tile positioning at the top of the map make it extremely difficult. Having a goal at the top of the stage, and a vaguely similar aesthetic suggest it may have a relationship with Chaotix's Techno Tower, though the layout and graphics are entirely different.
There are four music themes for this level, all of which are prototype versions of Chaotix songs (Walkin', Hyper-Hyper, Evening Star and New Moon, respectively). Upon "completing" the stage, caused by either getting to the top of the level or waiting three minutes, the game over jingle from the original Sonic the Hedgehog is played before being taken to field 1.
Every time the player revisits the level during "normal" play, its colour palette will change. This crude day/night cycle (and the music) was implemented in Newtrogic High Zone in Chaotix, but there, this area acts solely as a means of selecting players and levels.
While five level slots are filled in world 1, all point to the same stage - a brightly coloured and somewhat nonsensical circus/carnival-themed level which can't be beaten (unless the user waits one minute). Again this is thought to be a very early prototype form of Speed Slider, though is radically different to anything found in the final game.
This level loops indefinitely to the right, and has severe collision issues, initially mitigated by entering via the level select rather than through "normal" play. Unique to this level is the inclusion of "outside loops", causing Sonic and Tails to run in a figure of eight motion. Unfortunately, changes between collision planes are not treated equally for both characters, leaving to the likely situation where Sonic or Tails will fall through the ground, only to be dragged around for the rest of the session.
These attractions use a (surprisingly more complex) version of the theme "Electoria" from Chaotix, used in the final game for Techno Tower. The field levels share this theme, also.
While level slots exist for the rest of the game, selecting these stages (via the level select) will cause the title card to appear and world 2 music to play for a few seconds, before playing the game over theme and being sent to a field level. Nothing within the ROM suggests these levels exist in any form. Likewise the special stage will also fail to load.
Unique again to Crackers is the concept of top-down "field" levels - empty areas in which overhead versions of Sonic and Tails can walk around indefinitely, and lack anything to interact with. While the graphics seem to suggest pathways were planned, there is no collision, and indeed the only way to exit these levels is to press a button while paused, which will take the player to another attraction.
Holding a button will cause Tails to remain in place, as in the attraction levels; but this time there is no rubber band physics holding the two together, Sonic can move any distance away from Tails without consequence. There have been a suggestions that the two field levels correspond with the two attractions (world 1's field actually sharing background graphics with its paired attraction), but development on these areas is simply too early to know.
The prototype ROM will crash the system on a real Mega Drive console, but only if the player does not skip the SEGA screen quick enough or delays at the title screen for too long. The cause of this crash is due to the sound driver (which is held on and controlled by the Z80 sub-processor) - if it isn't given a music track ID to process quick enough after being set up, the game will fail. A detailed explanation of the crash and how to fix it, can be found here
When bypassing the crash stated above and obtaining access to the other selections in the menu, the game can crash in the level select option Named "SELECT". When selecting the "PREMIUM1 - ATTRACTION" selection, the game crashes with a plain blue screen, the same happens when selecting "PREMIUM1 - FIELD", which will lead to the world 2 field stage first, and will happen upon pausing and pressing A.
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