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Sonic 1 - The Next Level

From Sonic Retro

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Sonic 1 - The Next Level
Last release: 2015-10-12
Status: Inactive
System: Sega Mega Drive
Original game: Sonic the Hedgehog (16-bit)
Credits: MarkeyJester (main programming) and GalliumGrant (act 3 layout).

Sonic 1 - The Next Level is a hack of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Mega Drive made by MarkeyJester. The hack is notable for winning 45% of the judge trophies and 66% of the community trophies, in the 2015 Sonic Hacking Contest, the most a single hack has gotten for a contest to date. Other notable aspects include vastly smoother sprite animations for Sonic, including more angle frames, advanced PCM audio quality, and slit scanning (strip photography) effects for the boss.

The hack was a brief side project for three months, and was to make up for not having a Chu-Chu Rocket! Mega Drive home-brew ROM ready on time for the home-brew contest. Clips of the hack have been found to show up in Netflix's original series titled HIGH SCORE, where it is theorised the hack was mistaken by the producers for a legitimate Sonic game.

Gameplay

Sonic's move set is identical to the original Sonic The Hedgehog title, though additional moves such as Sonic 2's "Super Dash Attack" (a.k.a. the Spin Dash), and Sonic CD's "Super Peelout" have been added. The game places Sonic on a planet called "Gust Planet Zone" though there is no explanation why or how he got there. As with your typical Sonic game, the Zone features hills, curves, loops, springs, various platforms, and enemy Badniks to defeat. Though, the obstacles and enemies in the game are unique and original, and sometimes on a per Act basis.

Enemies

This hack features three unique Badniks to destroy in the Zone.

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Ribbapult

A frog Badnik which springs itself into a leap by rotating its motorised legs around, this Badnik has been compared with the Gekogeko Badnik from Sonic Advance 3, however, their similarities are a mere coincidence.

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Satorb

An Orbinaut Badnik (based on the ones from the original title) though a ring instead of spiked spheres orbit this Badnik. Upon detecting Sonic, this enemy will charge its ring and either shoot it horizontally or vertically, the ring boomerangs back and becomes discharged for a brief moment, leaving Satorb easy to destroy.

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Climber Bug

This Badnik is composed of multiple body parts, similar to the Caterkiller from the original title, however, its body parts are open to attack, the Badnik will continue unless its head is destroyed. The Badnik crawls along horizontal floors, walls, and ceilings, except upon reaching a ledge where it will zoom across to an adjacent wall/ceiling, so you have to be quick!


Common gimmicks

An example of a double platform spinning

Familiar gimmicks include; Rings, checkpoint posts, spikes, monitors, and platforms, all akin to the Sonic series. For monitor contents in particular, the unused "Robotnik/Eggman" monitor is now present and functional in the hack.

Monitors (from left to right), 10 Rings, Shield, 1-Up, Robotnik/Eggman, Invincible, and Super Sneakers.

Platforms have additional and unique differences - some will dip, some won't, some will be twice the width, some will have a chain of orbs connecting to the platform, upon landing on the platform its orbs will rotate and pull the player in whilst increasing in speed, if Sonic does not exit the platform it will eventually explode and fly off the screen.


Acts

Each Act has a slightly different design, and is fitted with unique gimmicks to differentiate from one another.

Act 1

This Act starts in half-space, where you are on pieces of level fragments floating along the event horizon of a glowing black hole in the distance, gravity is unstable, though you can comfortably breath. There are "down only" floors indicated by a down arrow, you can fall through them, but you cannot jump up through them. One "down only" floor is nothing more than a hoax, as indicated by a sign prior saying "Go on! walk on it!! have I ever let you down?".

...or is it a hoax?

The Act starts immediately and is part of the title screen.

Gimmick features:

* Collapsing platforms whose fragments float off into space.
* A tube which captures Sonic if he's moving fast enough, rotates around an orb, and then releases him at twice the speed he went in (known in source as "Blaster").
* Anti-gravity button (often located next to a sign picturing an astronaut reading "Anti-grav"), upon pressing it lowers the gravity allowing Sonic to jump and float higher, this comes at the cost of speed however.
(left to right) Collapsing platform, Sonic being shot from a Blaster, The anti-gravity button with its sign.


Act 2

This Act is inside a building on the planet, it glows to the beat of the music, there are strict 90 - 360 degree curves and inverted loops, bends, hills, all around a very hectic level for roller coaster speeds! You can see outside the windows, there is a city outside, and the sky is a purple colour with a Saturn looking planet. Signs can be seen advertising "Jester Stream Technology" and "DAC Heard Crystal Clearly", comedic signs advertising in a satirical way, the signs are informing an actual software technology involving the PCM playback occurring within (though not limited to) this act.

Gimmick features:

* A device known as a "Hoverbike", upon entering the cockpit, Sonic can control the hoverbike moving up, down, or forwards, this can allow Sonic to reach higher places and obtain rings or pathways not possible naturally, the only set back is the device cannot move backwards. Various signs showing the hoverbike covered by a circle with crossbar indicate the hoverbike cannot pass the sign, therefore the bike may only be ridden in specific areas of the act.
* Power switching springs, like normal springs from the original title, though they switch between red and yellow after a short period of time.
(left to right) Sonic running through an inverted loop, Sonic on a Hoverbike, The "Jester Stream Technology" satirical advertisement.


Act 3

This is outside the building on the planet, though you can see the familiar windows of the building you were just in if you go down low enough. Here you get to see the Saturn looking planet in the sky in all its fine glory, along with the city and its advanced technological mass transit monorail train, which bullets passed from time to time. Similar to Act 1's loops and hills, this level has vastly more branching paths and complex connections. It is a huge Act, you might even get lost!

Gimmick features:

* "Spintube blasters", a long thin tube with circular buffers on each end, upon touching one of these, Sonic is narrowed to the middle, charged up, and blasted through the tube (similar to the pipe in Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic 2), though exiting the pipe results in a blast of moment.
* Power switching spring (same as Act 2).
(left to right) Sonic entering a Spintube blaster pipe, Sonic leaving a half-pipe where two auto-switching springs are located, The wonderful Saturn like planet in all its purple glory.


Boss

The gravitational distortions caused by the boss warp

At the end of Act 3, a gravitational orb behind the wall starts to distort the wall and environment around you, eventually disintegrating the level entirely and leaving you floating freely. The boss will appear, which turns out to be a giant version of the Climber bug Badniks you can find in the Acts. When defeated, the game will fake crash with a BUS error, messaging "You were late", followed by a satirical screen of "Ya just can't play it" written multiple times. A voice clip can be heard complaining about the game glitching out and how pressing the C button (found on Mega Drive controllers) changes the message, ending with "ya can't play it".

The voice sample

The voice was taken from a video created by YouTuber "Adrian Gauna", where he play-tested various hacks on real hardware using a flash cart device while performing live reaction commentary.

His commentary was mostly negative due to the hacks either; crashing on hardware, having various game-play bugs, or simply being incomplete, though due to the nature of the video's title and thumbnail it was seen as a compilation of hacks which fit the aforementioned negative categories intentionally. His commentary was seen as critically harsh by the hacking community and fans alike, and was not taken positively, majority of the hacks featured in the video were either incomplete, cancelled, old and predating commercially available flash carts, or created by individuals who lacked the finances to acquire the tools necessary for hardware testing at the time. Hacks are seen by the community as being supplied on an "as-is" basis to which no quality is necessarily owed, though Adrian appeared to be unfamiliar with this concept at the time.

Although his voice was used as a sample in the ROM for a satirical statement, the main motivation for using it as opposed to a proper ending was due to time restraints whereby the hacking contest was meeting its deadline, the use of the voice is nothing more than a formality to end the game.

Adrian has since reported his opinion with the use of his voice in the hack:

"At first I was a little worried because prior to discovering this, I got into an argument not long before with another Sonic hacker and he attempted to embarrass me by making a mockery of my name in the Sonic 1 title screen calling me a "faggot". Instead of seeing the usual "Sonic Team Presents" it read "Adrian Guana is a faggot" apparently they deliberately misspelled my name, it just goes to show how childish they can be.
But with this, I actually congratulated Markey Jester on putting this in his hack because it really is funny! He obviously watched my videos on Sonic hacks and heard me whinging about the games not playing properly and decided to add my line in his hack. I personally piss myself laughing everytime I hear my voice at the end. I know no one's personally laughing at me, it's the ending that's funny in general.
Hmmm, it would've been nice if he asked my permission first but then again, does anybody ask anyone's permission these days when they wanna sample something or use somebody else's content? I think not..." - Adrian Gauna responding to a comment on YouTube querying his opinion on the matter.


Towards the end of the voice sample, the tone/pitch becomes lower, this added humour to the samples' use, however, it was actually accidental and caused by a bug with the new PCM playback driver. The voice sample is the only PCM track which has an ending (that is to say it does not loop), the driver reaches the end and since there's nothing left, it loops back over and over continuously making a request, this slowed down the CPU for the remaining buffered part of the sample. The issue was known but could not be fixed due to the deadline of the contest, but it was kept in due to its comedic effect.


Music

The hack has been praised for its excellent choices of musical styles, and while the rest of the hack is considerably original, the music is not, and is either a cover, a remake, a remix, or a sample from other sources. The hack features a mixture of tracker FM/DAC/PSG music, and high quality PCM playback music. The tracker is based on Sonic 1's original sound driver with exception to a special DAC Z80 driver for improved drum quality. The PCM playback however is extremely advanced, as noted by YouTuber and community member redhotsonic, other hacks released in the same contest year which also played back PCM audio had poor choppy quality, whereas this hack did not. This was mostly achieved by carefully controlled buffering of PCM data into Z80 RAM, and avoiding window reading during DMA transfers, this is similar to the way videos online stream ahead of time, allowing them to continue the playback while waiting for the next download permission to be initiated, hence the satirical name "Jester Stream Technology" in a sign in Act 2.

Music List

Music has been sampled from 80's, 90's and 00's, with one or two exceptions, here is a list of origins:

* Title Screen Theme (PCM) - Space - 20 million miles from earth
* Gust Planet Act 1 (SMPS) - Wez Clarke & Maxine Hardcastle - It's Gonna Happen
* Gust Planet Act 2 (PCM) - Alex Lee - Take it (1992)
* Gust Planet Act 3 (SMPS) - I-Level - Treacle
* Invincible Theme (PCM) - Rapina Bros - Reach To The Top
* Super Sneakers Theme (SMPS) - Sonic Labyrinth - Bonus Stage
* Act 3 Boss Theme (PCM) - DJ Mayhem - M-Power
* Bonus, Unused Boss Theme (SMPS) - Remix of Gust Planet Act 3


Donation challenge

MarkeyJester setup a donation challenge, he deliberately neglected to list the origins and would offer to donate $10 of his own money to Sonic Retro for every track whose origin was discovered. 4 of track origins were discovered by the community, including an additional alternative origin previously unknown to Markey. He donated $50 to Sonic Retro and then revealed the remaining tracks.

Sonic CD R2 shenanigans

In January of 2016, a YouTuber by the name of Jalex777 made a video titled "Sonic CD (JP/EU) Music: Relic Ruins Present (R2)" where "Alex Lee - Take It" was used and claimed to be the intended track used for the infamously scrapped R2 stage from Sonic CD. This has misled many commenters on the platform (and continues to mislead to this day) as it is however without citation or merit. It is believed Jalex777 was inspired by the use of "Take It" in The Next Level.


Netflix HIGHSCORE

A photo taken by user "upg" of Netflix "HIGH SCORE" video stream, Act 1 can clearly be seen.

In August of 2020, a Netflix exclusive docuseries called "HIGH SCORE" released episode 4 titled "This is War", this covered SEGA's involvement with the Mega Drive/Genesis vs Nintendo's SNES in the well known "console wars" of the 16-bit era, including Sonic's development and story. Footage of The Next Level can be seen for brief moments in the episode, this includes; the title screen (which clearly displays the name of the hack), parts of Act 1 including the "Blaster" object, and parts of act 2 including the sign with the satirical "Jester Stream Technology".

The trailer for the series as part of its promotional campaign also featured a brief shot of the hack.

While the inclusion of The Next Level in the docuseries remains currently unknown, it is believed the production team may have included the footage unwittingly without knowledge of its unofficial nature, nor any idea of the hacking scene surrounding it.


Development

a beta shot shown in Retro's screenshot thread, shows a layout which cannot be found in the final game

The name of the hack was originally going to be called "The Extra Level", the idea was to have one extra level accessible in Sonic 1 which could be accessed by the level select, the idea of accessing the extra level via the level select was scrapped due to the ludicrousness, though the original 6 Zones do still remain in the ROM unchanged, as does parts of the title screen and level select. The name "extra level" was changed to "next level" as it had a good ring to it. Speculation arose privately between Markey and stealth regarding the name "Next Level" as stealth had previously suggested its use for another project, though its use for this hack is strictly coincidental.

During a live stream in September of 2019, Markey exposed some previously unknown development quirks and explanations. Much of the explanations boiled down to "time restraints" but one main notable interest is the fact that Acts 1 and 3 were effectively swapped.

"The idea was you would fight a boss after each act, and after defeating the boss in act 2, the planet would explode from the defeat, hence, you'd be in space and pieces of the level would be floating. It's the reason why act 3 ends with a blue bricked background, but doesn't start with one, it was originally meant to be act 1. I was mostly done with act 1's boss, but was running short on time, and it would just seem stupid to have to fight a boss in act 1 but not in act 2 or 3, so I swapped 1 and 3 around more or less last minute, just so the boss would be in the last playable act."


Beta design of act 3, this was pixelated for MainMemory initially.

Markey later revealed that Act 3's FG design was originally pixelated for MainMemory's hack Knuckles' Emerald Hunt. However, she turned it down before it had the chance to take form as she felt a new Zone in her hack wasn't essential at the time, and thus it got recycled. In June of 2020 MainMemory had later sent a relay apology to Markey for turning down the level.

"he was going to make a new level for it but then I got weird about it and he ended up not doing it; I think he'd even started a livestream" - MainMemory recalling the level.



In a beta version of the hack, the background music to Act 2 uses the unused boss theme, and the colour cycling of the level's FG flashes based on the kick and snare samples of the music, the palette effectively flashes to the beat of the music. In the final hacking contest release, because the background music is PCM stream based, the palette cycling has no percussion reference to flash on-time with the beat, so the flashing occurs at a steady reasonable pace which doesn't attempt to beat along to the music, but is casual enough that one would assume it does at a glance.

In July of 2015, Markey had released a video on YouTube titled "Rgrgrgrground!", where it demonstrates a quirk on how Sonic handles the collision/speed calculation with slopes specifically, it shows that Sonic moves faster one way than the other. Some early animated parallax art can be seen behind the bullet train's bridge pylons, these were removed in the final game and present simply the backdrop.

In the trailer video on YouTube created for the Sonic Hacking Contest site, Act 2 can be seen with a slightly different layout (see "Hacking Contest > Promotional Material" section below for video link).

* At 1:08 an invincible monitor is missing, one was added in the final.
* At 2:53 a series of rings exist above the hoverbike, leading the bike to a higher path, in the final these rings were removed, though a horizontal set of rings leading into the higher path are missing in the video but exist in the final.



Hacking Contest

The hack was submitted to the Sonic Hacking Contest of 2015, it had won a vast majority of both the judge and community trophies. 10 of the 22 judge trophies (45%) and 4 of the 6 community trophies (66%), making the hack the highest acquisition of trophies in a contest to date, though comparisons with other years may be unjust given differences in rules and technology.

Judge trophies won:

* Hidden Palace Trophy
* Green Hill Trophy
* Windy Valley Trophy
* D.A Garden Trophy
* 11000101 Trophy
* Fang Trophy
* Carnival Night Trophy
* Casinopolis Trophy
* Eggman Trophy
* Newtrogic High Trophy

Community trophies won:

* Hidden Palace Community Trophy
* Windy Valley Community Trophy
* D.A. Garden Community Trophy
* 11000101 Community Trophy


A small amount of controversy was brought up against the hack receiving so many trophies, though this may have been in conjunction with Varion's hack titled
Sonic Retro
Sonic 4: Cybernetic Outbreak
, which did not receive any trophies and was highly criticised by the judges.


Promotional material

A few screenshots and a trailer YouTube video were created for the hacking contest website, along with a satirical advertisement slogan similar to the blurbs of the original title back covers:

">>> Blast through powerful air-tubes, >>> around exploding platforms, >>> ride bicycles with anti gravity >>> then get sucked into an empty void and face your enemy!! >>> Have you ever played Sonic The Hedgehog on a different planet?! >>>‚Äč"



Credits

*MarkeyJester - Programming, art, music, Act 1 and 2's layout, with minor touches to act 3.
*GalliumGrant (a.k.a. Void) - Act 3's layout, the spring change mechanism idea, gave "Satorb" its name.

Bug Finders:

*D.A. Garden
*qiuu
*Selbi
*SonicVaan

Game-play Testers:

*iojnekns
*snkenjoi
*EditChris

Download

Download.svg Download Sonic 1 - The Next Level
File: S1NXL.zip (2.3 MB) (info)
Current version: SHC 2015

External links