This topic has been on the backside of my mind for years, but I wasn't able to find the balls to kick down that door and just talk about it. Lengthy read incoming. tl;dr is basically me being sad about the exhaustion of ideas for Sonic hacks. I'm not trying to piss into anyone's shoes here, but I'd be glad if this starts a discussion. ------------------ It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I’m a huge fan of Sonic hacks. I’ve been involved in this community since 2008, so I think it’s fair to say I’ve had my fair share of seeing people come and go, discovering more and more about our beloved 90’s games and eventually turning them into products that could easily pass as official games SEGA created themselves. However, what tends to be forgotten is that we’re only talking about the tip of the iceberg here. For every masterpiece Sonic hack you come along, I can guarantee you, there will be dozens of projects that failed for a multitude of reasons. And this is something that gets overlooked a lot. We’ve reached a point where pretty much everything to be done in a standard Genesis-era Sonic game was conceived, implemented, and released at some point. We started with the bare minimum, but through community research and people in general becoming more proficient at understanding the underlying engine and the architecture of the console itself, we pushed the boundaries to the utmost limit. Which might seem like a good thing, and in a way it is. But it also comes with a problem. Suddenly concepts that seemed revolutionary a decade ago are so standard that the mere idea of including them in a new project is considered lame. Or worse, idea stealing. This picture is as relevant now as it was back then: Which is why I want to discuss this topic a bit today, since it’s something that doesn’t really get addressed very often. And to start, we need to go back in time, to see what made us arrive at this point. The year is 2005 when the now-legendary Hivebrain disassembly hit the scene. While not the first attempt to provide an accessible way to modify Sonic 1, its resonance can be felt to this day, with many people still calling it the best toolkit to make your own hacks. Debates about this continue to this day, but that’s a different topic. Also I’m talking about Sonic 1 to have a sample, but you could extend that argument to anything. What’s important to understand here is that without this breakthrough, we probably wouldn’t have arrived at this point we are right now. Suddenly, everyone who wanted to burn some time was able to create marvellous games. The only limitations were programming skills and, to an extent, artistic and musical skills as well. Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t impossible to create novel hacks before 2005 and there are plenty of examples out there to prove that. But with such a huge barrier being shattered, hacks were rising in quality faster than ever. The nature of having everything ready at hand in dedicated files also resulted in a surge of really powerful tools to appear. With these, editing level layouts, or designing your own sprites was made so intuitive that suddenly you barely needed anything beyond MS Paint and some talent to create truly amazing things. Why do I bring all of this up? Isn’t this great? Well, yeah. It is. But due to this rise in accessibility, and the subsequent boundary-pushing I mentioned earlier, I want you to fast-forward to today. More than 15 years have passed since the release of the disassembly. Some of you were probably not even alive back then. And in the meantime we saw hacks that made you go, yeah, this is it. We’ve peaked, pack your bags, everyone. With the death of most of the technical limitations, it was only a matter of time since we explored every idea possible. And, well, I think we’ve reached that point now. While we still see a lot of people joining the community and creating beautiful things, there are just SO MANY HACKS out there that it becomes nearly impossible to create anything that stands out anymore. Long gone are the days in which doing a complete overhaul was a huge feat, like Sonic Megamix was. Entire Sonic games that feel like a spiritual sequel to the original titles are still impressive and require a lot of work and dedication, but at the end of the day, they register as barely anything more than another DLC to the huge pile of Sonic-inspired games. And I mean, how could you even blame these people? There’s only so much you can do in a Sonic game. At its core, it’s a speed-based 2D platformer. You can add levels ad-nauseum or extend the moveset, but it won’t change the fact that you’re still playing a Sonic game. On the other hand, trying to innovate the formula too much will actually be a fast way to alienate the player, since now you have something with Sonic on the title, but replaced most of the core gameplay with something very much completely unrelated. It’s only steps away from creating an original game and copy-pasting the sprites. Because I don’t want to point any fingers, I’m actually gonna use my own hacks as examples of where I think we’ve exhausted all possibilities. When I started working on Sonic ERaZor I was still new to not only hacking itself, but obviously game design as well. Needless to say, I learned a lot over those years and by the end I created something I can still be proud of. But if I’m honest, from a gameplay perspective it wasn’t original then and it most certainly isn’t now. It was your typical run-of-the-mill complete overhaul that just needed a checklist of changes to be ticked off, like a lot of hacks did. Gotta have that spindash, gotta have that peel-out, gotta have that homing attack, gotta overhaul every level of the original game, gotta replace every music track, gotta do wacky stuff with objects. And even now, a decade later, it feels like that checklist hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s so rare to see a concept that couldn’t be compared to something that’s already been done before. And when it is, it’s usually a hack with a single gimmick that gets old in less than five minutes. I was guilty of this myself when I thought I was very clever with Hedgehog Abuse Simulator, a Sonic 2 hack released in 2015 as a concept demo. And let me tell you, if there was any more apparent case of scraping the bottom of the barrel, feel free to tell me what it is. To give you a short summary, it’s an unfinished hack in which the main gameplay aspect was to use a modified debug mode to place various spikes to navigate through obstacle courses you couldn’t traverse through with your normal movement options. You see, I thought I was really clever at the time and tried to make an avant-garde hack, so to speak. But let’s be real here, what are we left with? Even if we disregard how unfinished the hack is, what it would have become is apparent to anyone who spends a couple minutes playing it. It would’ve been a puzzle platformer within the Sonic engine... that removes everything that makes a Sonic game, well, a Sonic game. All the speed is brought to a halt, all the tension and sense of adrenaline is gone out the window. Suddenly you’re forced to stand still and think about placing some silly object to cross a gap you only couldn’t cross because it’s slightly too wide? What I thought to be a cool concept that could get some laughs is actually an incredibly terrible idea from a gameplay perspective. It’s less of a game to be played, and more of a game to be reacted to. And that hit me recently. And it got me to think. There are multiple reasons why people pursue this hobby. Some do it to learn, others do it because they’re genuinely just having fun. And some do it because they want to get a reaction from people. Whether that’s to make them have a good time or to mess with them, we’re talking about games here, a medium which, at its core, has always been about entertainment. You can have your Call of Duty and FIFA being delivered to you every year like bags of potato chips, or you try to innovate. But when nothing’s left to innovate, do we even have any options? I don’t think the problem will go away, but perhaps there are aspects I’m missing. Maybe I’ve just played so many hacks over these years that I’m one of the few people to have seen it all, and perhaps that doesn’t apply to you. But as it stands, it feels like we reached a dead end. To wrap this up, I want to explain why I even wrote this essay. I love this scene, it shaped who I am, and as it stands I don’t see why I would ever leave. But it’s depressing to know that no matter what people come up with anymore, nothing lands. Either it’s been-there-done-that, or the concept is so specific that it doesn’t work as a Sonic game. What I’m really trying to entice you to do here is you proving the opposite. Showing that I’ve merely hit a brick wall and we still got so much more to explore. Bringing back that sense of adventure, the giddiness of discovery, and the joy of creation for something that makes people have a good time. Show me why I’m a moron with his nostalgia goggles strapped on too tight.