Days in Journal
October 21, 2022
In my exhaustive review of Sonic Origins, I talked about fans outshining Sega with their own projects. However, I should clarify that I was talking about the community's work to improve established games through mods, in particular the Genesis originals by bringing them into 16:9 with QoL features that "modernize" the experience, something Sega bafflingly refused to do beyond the scope of mobile platforms.
Fan games are a different beast, though they're still driven by the same passion and dedication as projects like Sonic 3 AIR. Many are held back by inexperience, others by trying something experimental that just doesn't land, with few gems standing out among them. For as hit-or-miss as they may be, fan games are nonetheless evidence of the fandom's drive, something Sonic Team seems woefully lacking in. Corporate interference and burnout have colored the last 11 years of Sonic games, leaving the series creatively rudderless, and so often it seems the "freshest" interpretations of Sonic both as a character and a game have been coming from small, independently led projects.
Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit is an impressive effort, to be sure. One that is imperfect in many ways, arguably marred by shortcomings common in fan games, yet exuding charm and character that the series hasn't seen since 2017. This is no simple repaint, but a full-on reimagining of Sonic's fourth Game Gear outing, featuring complex level layouts that were impossible for the handheld, new gimmicks, set pieces, and boss encounters. I won't beat the "Sega, hire this man drum," something that's become so tired it's more a point of mockery now than an endorsement of quality, but it's quite clear that Triple Trouble 16-Bit comes from a place of reverence both for Sonic's Genesis outings and the less-beloved Game Gear titles.
Most of all, it seems like it's made by someone with a very competent understanding of the original games. Noah N. Copeland knows his Sonic, and it's clear from the first level that he has a good sense of how these games flow. Levels are well designed, providing just as many speedways as they do opportunities to platform, and are full of inventive gimmicks. Granted, a few in the later half of the game start to repeat a bit too much. It's obvious Copeland has some affinity for see-sawing slides as they show up two zones in a row. Still, Copeland has found a good balance between nudging Sonic's mechanics forward and keeping them rooted in tradition, and it is surprising how close it feels to the originals given it's not a ROM hack.
That said, while the physics are a close approximation of the Genesis games, they're noticeably off in some places. auto-scrolling sequences highlight this best, as Sonic's air-momentum and acceleration both feel unnatural and sluggish. There's also a lot of collision detection issues, primarily in the last level of the game, which I swear to god feels untested. Breaking this level up into separate routes connected by a hub feels like a callback to Titanic Monarch, which I already found to be the weakest level in Sonic Mania, but constantly dropping through floors and getting stuck in walls in the middle of long hazard-riddled raceways with checkpoints few and far between isn't a good time. It's a shame that Triple Trouble almost completely falls apart in its very last act.
Aesthetically, it's a great looking game, although some level assets and badnik designs feel at odds with others. There's a certain lack of cohesion that is characteristic of fan games, usually resulting from sourcing sprites from other games and mixing them all together. The only place where this practice is undeniably apparent is the snowboarding sequence in Robotnik Winter, which is straight up lifted from Mickey Mania's moose chase, and while I can't prove it, I'm convinced the background in Meta Junglira is at least heavily inspired by the temple level in Quack Shot. The soundtrack is fantastic, but for someone with an ear carefully trained to the Yamaha YM2612, it too seems a bit off. I'm not a music man, I have no rhythm and I attract no worms, so I can't articulate exactly how it's off, but my brain knows it is. Really, this is a nitpick given how good the music is overall, and I can't hate a Sonic game for reincorporating the cut Knuckles theme from Sonic 3. I just can't.
Making games is hard, especially when you don't have a corporate backed budget, and yet Triple Trouble 16-bit comes out swinging as one of the better Sonic games - unofficial or otherwise - of the last few years. Yes there's blemishes, there are issues uniquely characteristic of fan projects that it's unable to shake, but it's also so good that I feel it deserves to be evaluated critically. I could probably drop another 20 paragraphs about all the little things I liked and disliked, but I really think you should just check it out yourself.