How two Sonic fans brought the franchise back to life on iOS

How two Sonic fans brought an aging franchise back to life on iOS

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Sonic the Hedgehog lives on in iOS, thanks to Stealth and Taxman. Photo: SEGA

In the summer of 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was, quite simply, the greatest thing Simon Thomley had ever seen.

At the age of 11, Thomley had graduated to the SEGA Genesis gaming console after years as a Nintendo Entertainment System player. Sonic had lured him to SEGA’s system, and he wasn’t alone: The spiny blue speedster captured the hearts of gamers everywhere. By the end of the year, SEGA had sped past Nintendo on console sales.

A series of sequels followed. While many people remember the Sonic games primarily as a relic of the ’90s, they become an unlikely career for Thomley and his developer friend Christian Whitehead. Better known as Stealth and Taxman, they brought remastered versions of classic Sonic games to iOS for a new generation of gamers to enjoy.

“This has always been my hobby, but I’m lucky enough that this has now become my full-time job,” Thomley tells Cult of Mac. The pair brought finely tuned official versions of Sonic games to iOS — although recent turmoil at SEGA has thrown the future of their highly regarded work into doubt.

Stealth and Taxman in the flesh.
Stealth and Taxman in the flesh. Simon Thomley, left, and Christian Whitehead.

Sonic limps onto iOS

While iPhones and iPads have turned casual gaming into an international obsession, the first version of Sonic to land on iOS was less than inspirational. Soon after the iPhone’s launch, many game companies tried to cash in on nostalgia by porting old games to mobile as an easy way to generate money. Unfortunately, while the original games were classics, the ports were often tragically subpar.

Sonic the Hedgehog did not escape this fate. A lightning-fast 16-bit classic on the Genesis, on the iPhone the game was disappointingly sluggish, with a windowed play area, awful virtual controls and annoying sound problems.

“As emulations go, they really weren’t that great,” says Thomley of the original Sonic ports for iOS. “At the time they were put in the App Store, iOS wasn’t the powerful gaming platform it is today. You still had some of the older, slower, less-memoried iPhones in wide circulation — and the result was games which just chugged along.”

If you’re wondering why an iPhone — even an older one — was unable to properly run what was then a 20-year-old game, the answer is emulation. An emulator is a program that makes one computer system believe it is another. In the case of Sonic, it meant tricking the iPhone into thinking it was a SEGA Genesis.

The trouble with emulation is that a significant amount of computing power is needed to process the emulator code, leaving significantly fewer resources to run the game itself.

Emulation is not the answer

Thomley and Whitehead, who met years earlier while making Sonic fan games, took a different approach. Rather than creating another flawed Sonic emulation for iOS, they took apart the original game piece by piece and reassembled it as a native iPhone app. As a result, the game ran faster — and they could tweak it (for instance by adding characters like Knuckles the Echidna into early games in which he didn’t appear).

At first, Thomley helped out Whitehead coding a demo of the 1993 game Sonic CD. The pair’s big break came when a video of it was uploaded to the Internet, and SEGA found itself inundated with requests for the remastered game to be sold in the App Store. After this, the pair was given permission to reverse-engineer remastered editions of 1991’s Sonic 1 ($2.99) and its 1992 sequel, Sonic 2 (also $2.99).

The games garnered rapturous praise online (check out Cult of Mac’s review) and from members of the official Sonic team. One great moment came when Thomley and Whitehead heard from Yuji Naka, the legendary Japanese game developer who created the original Genesis titles.

Sonic hits a new speed bump

Things didn’t stay quite so positive, however.

“Right after Sonic 2 was over, SEGA went through a restructuring process,” Thomley says, referencing the closure of SEGA’s San Francisco office. “The person we were working with at the company wound up leaving as a casualty of the cuts. After that, we were left without anyone to speak to. We’ve had to rebuild our relations from square one.”

Not exactly square one, as it turned out. The pair recently put together a proof of concept for an iOS version of Sonic 3, boasting all the gorgeous widescreen action and bonus features we’ve come to expect from the remastered games. As before, fans have taken it upon themselves to inundate SEGA with requests: They’ve set up a Change.org petition and a website that lets users print out a letter in Japanese to mail to SEGA’s headquarters in Japan.

But as fantastic as it would be to see Sonic 3 on iOS, that’s not where the hedgehog-supporting coders’ ambitions end. There are other 2-D Sonic games they’d like to bring to mobile — such as the Sonic Advance series, which arrived on the Game Boy Advance in the 2000s. “They really felt like a natural progression from the Genesis classics,” says Thomley. “I wouldn’t mind seeing them make a comeback.”

Beyond that is probably the most exciting dream of all: SEGA hiring Thomley and Whitehead to create all-new retro games in the Sonic series.

“Personally, I’d love to do that more than almost anything,” Thomley says. “It would be a dream come true to have the opportunity to expand on the classic series. Perhaps we could even start a new branch of the franchise dedicated to Genesis-style titles.”

Come on SEGA, make it happen!