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Sega embraces rogue fan programmers with retro Sonic game sequel

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Sega is doing what Nintendon't.

[TOKYO] Sega is doing what Nintendon't.

Instead of shutting down programmers and artists making unlicensed Sonic the Hedgehog fan games, Sega Sammy Holdings Inc is giving them jobs. Ever since the speedy blue mammal debuted on the Sega Genesis in 1991, it's been the company's most popular character, spawning a cottage industry of modified games shared among enthusiasts.

Now, in a bid to revitalise the Sonic franchise, the Japanese game company enlisted its most devoted fans to create Sonic Mania, which will be released Aug 15. It's a risky move to put so much control into the hands of outsiders, but one that Sega is betting will pay off and set the company apart from Nintendo Co, which has taken legal action against fan games. If Sonic Mania succeeds, it could push Sega - as well as rivals - to attract new fans and breathe life into classic franchises.

"It is drastically different from Nintendo's strategy, and it's a strategy that I think is much better," said George Weidman, who analyses and reviews games on his YouTube channel Super Bunnyhop. "The fans end up being better at these sort of 'old school revival projects' than the original developers."

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Programmed by some of its biggest fans outside of Japan, the new Sonic game will send the blue blur back to its 16-bit blast processing roots ripped straight from the 1990s. So far, Sonic Mania has created enough buzz to garner nominations for several gaming-publication awards, and is receiving positive feedback from fans.

For Sega, it's a chance to reconnect with its community and breath new life into the franchise, which has suffered from numerous critical and commercial flops over the last few decades. While Sega once went toe-to-toe with Nintendo in the video game market, the company now gets most of its sales from pachinko machines. A key question is whether Sonic Mania will be the boost Sega has been searching for. The community is notorious for heralding every Sonic game as its triumphant return only to be let down (in fact, the phenomenon has spawned its own meme known as the Sonic Cycle).

"As the name implies, we developed this as a game for the maniacs by the biggest maniacs," said Takashi Iizuka, a long-time producer of Sonic games and current head of Sonic Team. "That special feeling you got when you first tried a classic Sonic game - we've recreated it this time."

Nintendo is known for seeking legal remedies to stop the development of any fan game that features its characters. Last year, Nintendo sent a cease-and-desist letter to Game Jolt, a website that hosts games made by independent developers, requesting that they disable access to hundreds of games that infringe on their copyright. Sega is much more relaxed when it comes to unlicensed fan games.

While it still holds a tight grip over intellectual property, Nintendo has taken steps to soften this stance and allow for more companies to legally use its characters, including a tie-up with Ubisoft Entertainment SA for the upcoming strategy game Mario + Rabbids. In 2015, it released Super Mario Maker, which lets fans create custom made levels for the world's famous plumber to run through, and then share them with others. Nintendo declined to comment on the possibility of tie-ups with fan developers.

Christian Whitehead, a co-developer for Sonic Mania who cut his teeth making fan games, has worked with Sega since 2011 porting Sonic's classic games to mobile. Iizuka was impressed with Whitehead's technical ability to add characters and extra features to the mobile ports, which led the company to greenlight the Sonic Mania project.

Sonic Mania is a 2D throwback to an era of video games when polygons weren't yet in vogue. The game is a spiritual successor to the Sonic games released in the first half of the 1990s, complete with loops, rolling physics, special stages and a score counter. Even the promotional material looks like it was designed before Y2K.

"Fans wanted a game that brought back the Classic Sonic we all know and love," said Matt Mannheimer, owner of Tails' Channel, a YouTube Channel that covers Sonic news. "I feel that Sonic is finally getting back to where he used to be back in the day, which is awesome."

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