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Sonic 3D Blast: A Technical Marvel?


Ryannumber1gamer
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So, you might remember this little oddball title from the Genesis days, an attempt to bring the Blue Blur into the 3D era in a isometric platformer that is...actually incredibly different from any of the titles before and after it. The game that comes the closest is probably Sonic Labyrinth and...yeah, that's not exactly a compliment. 

But anyways, 3D Blast. What is there to say about this game? Well, it's a game that from what I've seen, not many people actually enjoy. It's regularly mocked as that weird attempt to claim Sonic is in 3D but he's really not and also this plays like crap! But if you look deeper in the development of the game, in all honesty, it's probably one of the absolutely most impressive games for the time period, in terms of ideas, and scope. I'd even argue that it could be somewhat innovative for it's time and usher in a ton of various techniques that would be used in later games. So with that said, I thought I would discuss why 3D Blast, while not the best game in the series by any means is actually pretty damn impressive all things considered.

The FMV:

Since it's the way you start the game itself up, let's begin with this - the actual FMV that starts the game. While somewhat distorted and pixelated, the original FMV video that starts Sonic 3D Blast off, especially for a Genesis game of all things is actually pretty insanely done.

The intro itself was one of the aspects that was meant to be a surprise to SEGA themselves. A man by the name of Jon Burton (Keep that name in mind, he will be coming up a lot in the followed paragraphs) wanted to create this intro screen to begin the game off from the beginning, specifically saving cartridge space in order to do so. However, a problem occurred. Genesis Cartridges at the time were typically 4MB in size, while a full screen FMV would take 27MB. Even through compression and other techniques, it only cut down to 6MB. However, using some very smart moves, they cropped it down further to something that was incredibly small and stretched, and then further enlarged it through a dithering process. With all of that done, we got a final total of 0.66MB for the intro - a full FMV running at 15FPS.

Considering that it was CD-based consoles like the SEGA CD that was attempting full motion video and even then, it didn't look super amazing, this is actually really damn impressive on the parts of Traveller's Tales. Even the CGI for the time (1996) is decently clean and pretty nice, for what it's trying to portray, especially given it's about one year after Toy Story's groundbreaking CG. 

CD Intro (Comparsion): 

Spoiler

 

Research: 

Spoiler

 

Programming Bugs: 

This is something that I've only come to recently realize how this bit of code ended up being pretty genius on the developers' parts. Having taken a class on programming and the handling of error codes and bugs in pieces of code, usually programmers will encode a set of variables or coding that catches a bug and outputs something else to ensure that the program itself doesn't completely destroy itself and break completely. This is called Exception Handling and it's the thing I ended up closely relating this next piece of info to. 

So, basically in order to bypass various SEGA software tests and checks to see if your game crashes or not and the various execution errors that could occur in the game itself that could cause issues, Jon Burton developed a specific way to trick SEGA into thinking these potential game-breakers were actually legitimate parts of the code itself and therefore apart of the game itself. He originally developed a specific exception handler for Mickey Mania in which if an error occurred, he'd get specific code and sentences back to tell him what exactly went wrong (A solution to another frustrating issue SEGA's software tests had in which if your game failed and a bug occurred, the report would be incredibly vague). In order to make use of the bug checks afterwards, he coded it so Mickey would be sent to a previous level or the next level and called it a "Secret Time Warp". Next, he'd do the same for Toy Story, bringing you to a mini-game.

However, with 3D Blast, he created a general "catch-all" bug handler which meant that more or less any possible bugs would redirect to what he called a "Secret Level Select" which I'm sure many of us here have already heard of. If you've heard of it, you've also likely heard about how to access it without the cheat code. If you jiggle or even hit the cartridge and/or the Genesis, it would cause the secret level select to pop up.

Now, to bring this somewhat into context, let's use a game without this level select and compare it to something else like Corruptions. Goldeneye for example, if you jiggle the cartridge while the game itself is in and playing, you'll get glitches like this: 

This is basically because as you jiggle the cartridge, you're breaking the connection between it and the console itself. Since the connection is being tested but not fully broken, then these glitches begin to occur. Compare it to if you removed a GBA cartridge without turning the console off first. Instead of glitches, the game just begins to freeze and make screeching sounds. The connection is fully broken and you need to reset the console entirely.

The same general idea applies here. When you jiggle a Sonic 3D Blast cartridge, you cause the connection itself to start breaking. When it begins losing it and doesn't know what to do, it causes glitches to occur. Said glitches then end up being caught by the coding that's there to deal with it and therefore you get sent to the Secret Level Select. I've also read that if you do this on an emulator by loading in a save state from another game, it does the same thing, as does corruptions of the game itself (that said, the level select even ends up corrupted from the videos I've watched). 

Research:

Spoiler

 

 Animation Trickery:

Going back to the FMVs, but not the actual intro itself, the SEGA Logo and the Game Over screen itself runs pretty smoothly for what ends up being FMV on a SEGA Genesis cartridge, especially compared to the intro itself, which equals out to about 30 FPS vs 15 FPS retrospectively. However, if you also look at the fact there's only two colours present at any given time during an animation (take the Game Over animation for example): 

You'll notice that only two colours is mainly used at any given point. Well, as explained in another video, this should've been a simple task, two colours for the animation they needed. However, the SEGA Genesis itself required a sixteen colour table. This meant that the actual decompression and viewing of the video itself was going to cause tremendous lag. To the point that it was 7 FPS down from the 30 FPS we seen in the video above unaltered. However, using an incredibly clever trick, if you slightly alter the palette of the sixteen colour table by alternating the colours you're using, you could potentially stretch one frame of animation into four frames.

This one is relatively difficult to explain so I'll link the video itself to a more comprehensive explanation but with this trick in place, Jon Burton estimated that on a 4MB SEGA Genesis cartridge, you could potentially get a full 4 and a half minutes of full-screen animation FMV.

Research:

Spoiler

 

 Special Stages: 

I'm not going to touch too much on this part because I think the actual research itself speaks and explains it best, but as a brief overview, the special stages of the game uses a few different tricks to give off the actual illusion of "fully 3D special stages". The first part is the background itself. Using a technique from Mickey Mania where a constantly scrolling background is made on one side, then copied and mirrored, that gives the illusion of the constant "moving ground".

Then they used a special technique called Horizontal Interrupts in order to skip certain lines in the background. By doing this, it creates a smaller image of the main background and then by implementing it into the background, it gives the small bump effect that gives the illusion of getting closer to a destination. Similar tricks was used to make the other parts of the stage. The boards you need to jump up are actually animation frames, while the planks Sonic runs on are slightly altered using the Horizontal Interrupt process once again. Finally, the spikes and rings are animation frames while Sonic himself is his normal set of sprites from the main game. With all of this combined, it creates a very convincing "3D" stage for the game.

Research:

Spoiler

 

Sprites and Animations: 

Due to the isometric nature of the game itself, it meant the the regular set of animations that you would need for a set of sprites actually ended up getting potentially tripled due to having to factor in different directions. In this example, Sonic's running animation which would be 12 frames of animation needs to be animated for about 16 different angles. This means 12x16 animations, which then equals out to a total of 192 frames of animation for movement itself. This caused memory issues due to the cartridge size.

According to the research, each animation is about 48x48 pixels, and the Genesis stores graphics as 8-bit Square Tiles named Characters. This basically means that each animation is more or less 6 characters x 6 characters. Which means 36 characters per animation.

1 character = 32 Bytes, which meant one animation would be 32 x 36 which ends up equaling 1.152 bytes. Going further means it would equal 221, 184 bytes for all frames, and an overall 216K of memory needed for the animations.

Due to how taxing this was on memory, tricks were needed to reduce the memory needed for the animations. The first was mirroring animations, which cut out about seven of them, and reduced the memory tax down to 121K. A relatively simple trick to save the memory. By further shifting the sprite itself to reduce the number of characters needed, and then using further hexadecimal compression methods to reduce the sprite size (It gets really difficult to explain here so it's best to watch the video to get a better and more detailed explanation if you're interested) and by the end, the 216K of cartridge space needed for the animations ended up being a simple 53K of cartridge space on a 4MB cart. In general, that's a massive memory save by doing this and freeing up a ton of the cartridge itself. 

Research: 

Spoiler

 

Conclusion:

In conclusion, I honestly find 3D Blast one of the more interesting Classic games to discuss about. It's such a weird and strange oddball spinoff title from a far-gone era where publishers were still trying to figure out what constituted as "real 3D" or not. There was a point in time where I considered 3D Blast to just be another lazy spinoff title to ride the coattails of the original trilogy on the Genesis. A quick cash-grab to have a "Sonic" game that was new for their older console. But doing more and more research, it's clear to me that it probably the most opposite thing that the game actually ended up being. The jury is out about if 3D Blast is an actual good game. Personally, I find the game itself pretty blah and average. It's not my cup of tea and I find it pretty clunky.

But with that said, I have nothing but total respect for the game. The level of ambition and even technical breakthroughs for the era with all of the coding tricks just makes me all the more impressed and really helps me put things in retrospective. When I was younger and playing Mega Collection Plus (which along with Heroes was my first ever Sonic experience) and saw the opening FMV, I just remembered how bad it looked. I played the game and the gameplay was pretty meh and not as fun as the other games in the cartridge and now knowing more about the time era and such, it feels like I took for granted just how actually impressive this all was. How many cool little coding secrets and workarounds was implemented to get this all working, and better yet, actually see it working. It's nothing short of absolutely impressive. 

Honestly, it's a bit of a crying shame to see 3D Blast ridiculed for that "cheap cash grab that isn't even real 3D!" when it's clear that a lot of time and work went into trying to make it at least simulate some kind of 3D, even if it ultimately fell flat on it's face. It tried to do new things and even succeeded at them, and for that, I find that a pretty good reason to pay some respect to 3D Blast, shortcomings and all.

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Then again, wasn't 3D Blast meant to be a Saturn launch title, and the Genesis version was just an afterthought? I mean, yeah, the Genesis version is impressive and all, but technically it should be considered a port of the Saturn version, which was not really Impressive. At all. It was just a quick cash grab, that was made for a quick buck to someohow compensate for the cancellation of Sonic X-Treme.

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8 minutes ago, A person, that exists said:

Then again, wasn't 3D Blast meant to be a Saturn launch title, and the Genesis version was just an afterthought? I mean, yeah, the Genesis version is impressive and all, but technically it should be considered a port of the Saturn version, which was not really Impressive. At all. It was just a quick cash grab, that was made for a quick buck to someohow compensate for the cancellation of Sonic X-Treme.

I don't think a single thing you just said was true. The Saturn version is a port of the Genesis game, and the Saturn version was made in order to fill the release gap left by Sonic X-Treme's rough development & subsequent cancellation.

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This video from TT Director Jon Burton pretty much compares the Saturn version of 3D Blast to a more elaborate ROM hack. They just placed the Mega Drive coding into it and then put the Saturn version's extra features on top.

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It's what you get for having a demoscene coder working on the game. Usually those people know their way around, sometimes use undocumented tricks on the hardware to get what they wanted using their own discoveries, often very competitive and sometimes even related to the cracking scene too. Since the Mega Drive ran on the same processor as the Amiga and the Atari ST, many of them coders including Jon Burton came from this scene. One of the most famous composers Jesper Kyd was from this scene too. European developers much of the time were a different way of coding compared to the Japanese style of coding or the US style where they either did things by the book or used tools because of inexperience (why the Genesis got so many GEMS sound engine games because the musicians found the tool easier to use despite the results much of the time weren't great) and the demoscene wasn't a thing or much of a thing in those countries. Assembly language was encouraged as far back as the Spectrum era compared to BASIC. There were some developers that did do things by the book though because they weren't part of the demoscene usually doing it for the money and weren't as skilled (after all companies like Tiertex and ICE existed) but then again not all developers were from there, Richard Aplin a respected programmer at the time was not part of the scene but coded out of passion. So having something technically impressive but not exactly fun to play was sort of common back then. I mean people played raycasted games that ran on 1-3fps on the Spectrum because it was considered impressive.

Something to note about the animation and the artwork, the game uses Rob Northen compression that was often used in Amiga games and games such as Syndicate, it was also a late era compression method as well. As someone who has done sprite ripping for the Mega Drive, quite a majority of the games on the console use compression due to the smaller cartridge sizes that Sega used with many of them around the 2MB range expanding to 4MB close to its end of the cycle and more expensive to make. Some uses Sega's own (nicknamed the Nemesis compression) that actually has a flaw meaning that it can do better compression that what was used, some use LZSS compression like Comix Zone and some use all sorts. After all artwork and music take up the most space in a game in general.

As for the changing palettes that was also a common thing on the Mega Drive (also on the Master System as well). The Sega logo for instance is one of the most iconic examples of cycling palettes. Techniques such as H-BLANK and V-BLANK were in common use on the console. Mirrored sprites, again a common space saving thing was used in most games. Usually related to character sprites like I give an example due to the sprite ripping experience. Sonic in Sonic 2 is sorted in only one direction and the programming tells it to flip to the other direction when you face left. It's just that Jon also did that with the boxes in Mickey Mania and the environment tiles as well while most developers would have done say a full box so its using a common method in an uncommon way. It is more extreme on say the NES where sprites are done by tiles and poses reuse tiles.

There were other attempts at FMV such as Red Zone that uses the same trick as the Game Over animation (except the two colours are red and black) but Sonic 3D did do a better job for its opening and is impressive. The level select is just a bit of cheekiness that Jon used because most developers won't have done that and rather fixed the bugs properly or just left them in but ironically worked in his favour. It could have been related to the tight deadlines as well, as we know Sega were known for rushing games.

Besides Sonic 3D is a different type of 3D, isometric 3D that most UK developers were familiar with due to the Spectrum basically having plenty of games done in that style and Rare themselves who pretty much pioneered the style did Snake, Rattle and Roll on the console. It was understandable why Traveller's Tales went for this design even though probably outside of the UK might have been considered disappointing when 3D polygons was the in thing and the arcades were more advanced than consoles at the time. Similar thing for Mickey Mania tower stages because they were inspired by Nebulus, a popular game on the Commodore 64.

So is Sonic 3D a technical marvel? In some ways yes such as the FMV while in others, not really. Just an evolution from the old isometric games with a few programming tricks to keep it fresh. It is smoother than most of its genre though.

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Some incredible programming went into the Genesis version... but the Saturn version is still better (not just graphics and FMV, it has the best Special Stages Sonic has to offer).

Overall though 3D has showed me a new Sonic Cycle... I shall call it the Sonic Anniversary Cycle

Birth (1991) Sonic the Hedgehog - good game

5 yr anniversary (1996) Sonic 3D Blast - not so good game

10 yr anniversary (2001) Sonic Adventure 2 - decent game

15 yr anniversary (2006) Sonic the Hedgehog - terrible game

20 yr anniversary (2011) Sonic Generations - good game

25 yr anniversary (2017) Sonic Forces - not so good game

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On 5/15/2018 at 3:21 PM, Darth InVaders said:

Some incredible programming went into the Genesis version... but the Saturn version is still better (not just graphics and FMV, it has the best Special Stages Sonic has to offer).

Overall though 3D has showed me a new Sonic Cycle... I shall call it the Sonic Anniversary Cycle

Birth (1991) Sonic the Hedgehog - good game

5 yr anniversary (1996) Sonic 3D Blast - not so good game

10 yr anniversary (2001) Sonic Adventure 2 - decent game

15 yr anniversary (2006) Sonic the Hedgehog - terrible game

20 yr anniversary (2011) Sonic Generations - good game

25 yr anniversary (2017) Sonic Forces - not so good game

Huh, if that cycle is legit, then I hope the 30th anniversary game stays true to it and turns out to be a decent title.

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6 minutes ago, Stephen Rodriguez said:

Huh, if that cycle is legit, then I hope the 30th anniversary game stays true to it and turns out to be a decent title.

Sonic Cycle ? It is legit. Apart from anniversary games the main series ones from different decades have many similarities to be discussed (or at least said).

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  • 2 years later...

Burton released another video on his second channel (I highly recommend following it, as he doesn't only talk about games he made on it and discusses other games on the system that he finds interesting; and does so in a way that's not too complex for the layperson); and in the process goes a bit into detail for why 3D Blast was designed the way it was in terms of gameplay as a result of compromises that he decided to make to make it look as good as it does:

 

 

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

I do admit that Sega over time had defied the limitations of the Mega Drive/Genesis, but Sonic 3d goes above and beyond expectations, with several compromises such as cropping down the FMV to fit into a 32Mbit (4 Megabytes in case you want to know your mathematical size conversions) cartridge and mirroring the sprites to save memory, the biggest issue was that it was released at the tail end of the console's life span and couldn't sell well, even on the Saturn, which by the way, was the most complex console for Sega to program stuff on, as it was supposed to buy Sonic Xtreme more development time but failed to catch on (and other factors caused it to be cancelled but that's for another topic). Overall a technical marvel, even on 16 bit console standards back in the day.

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I’ve always liked 3D Blast. I never saw it as a cash-grab. Just one of those early attempts at 3D gameplay. Other games tried it too. I knew the Saturn version was technically superior but I never had a Saturn.

Never knew about the level select glitch but I’m not going to try it. I don’t want to risk damaging anything.

I think it’s a fun game. You explore a “3D” environment to collect said-item (Flickies) It’s what a lot of later, proper 3D games had you do. The gameplay is not very fast but I don’t think any of the classic games were as speed heavy as people remember.

 

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