Thursday, October 22, 2009

I like burning hedgehogs

Contrary to the opening title, I’m not advocating wanton cruelty on animals – rather, I intend to talk you through the hassles of trying to experience Sonic Gems on the PS2 as it should be. The quick answer is: you can’t, making it possibly the most redundant compilation ever released.

With high street stores no longer stocking new PS2 games in the UK, and the second-hand selection dwindling to almost nothing, I’ve been discussing what needs to be smash-and-grabbed before the last PS2 leaves Saigon. eBay (hate it as much as I do) is rife with excellent games costing from $1 up to $20, all with free postage. This being the valley of the graph, many will inevitably rise in price. Meaning now is the time to BUY!

One game on my list was Sonic Gems, a Sonic compilation containing mainly obscure and weird crap most people haven’t played (Sonic Fighters the arcade game and a slew of Game Gear games), plus Sonic CD which has never appeared on compilation before (EDIT: I'm informed it's actually a port of the PC Sonic CD, not the Sega CD version - but I'm going to leave the cover art pics as is). A games journalist friend criticised it for containing only obscure titles - but I disagreed. This to me, made it potentially the greatest compilation ever released. Forget compilations with games which sold well - the original cartridges for those cost $1 a piece. No, reprinting a collection of retro games should - I feel - focus on those which are good yet didn't get as widespread a release. This would lower the prices that collectors demand for the originals, and it would mean the unwashed masses get to experience great games easily and at a fraction of the price. So in this respect, I regarded Sonic Gems as some form of holy gaming light - a shining beacon by which other developers could follow... And oh lordy, how wrong I was.

First up eBay UK, which has it for around $6 delivered. But then I realised this won’t have Bare Knuckle 1, 2 or 3. Only the Japanese version has them.

So I buy the Japanese version. Except it turns out that Sega, much like they did with Panzer Dragoon Orta on the Xbox, coded the Japanese version to be multi-language and select things based on the language settings of your system. PAL PS2 systems don’t have Japanese, so everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – defaulted to English, including the soundtrack to Sonic CD. This pisses me off, because the UK actually received the Japanese soundtrack for Sonic CD, and yet the UK versions of Gems boots the US soundtrack, as does the Japanese version in a UK system. So right off the bat, one of my main reasons for playing is curtailed.

If I'm going to play Sonic CD I want it to have its original soundtrack as intended by the creators. Dave Halverson gave the Japanese version a perfect score of 100, and the US versions something like 70, purely they changed the music. I can agree with this. Compare the two soundtracks and it should be obvious the original is better. It's insulting that Sega felt the need to do this.

Some people say the change in soundtracks is licensing issues. Well, I call shenanigans on that excuse. That’s like paying $40 for a game at the store and getting home to find there’s no disc in it and the developer says: “Sorry, when we finished making the game we had issues with the fact that we couldn’t magically invent CDs out of thin air.” That’s the wrong answer. What you do is, you DEAL with it. Sorting out the licensing issues for the soundtrack, over a decade after its release, should be treated in exactly the same way as staff wages or hiring the factory to produce the discs is treated. IE: it’s part of the development process. Not bung both soundtracks on one disc and then deprive all non-Japanese of the chance to listen to it. If it can still be sold in Japan, by god it can be sold in the west – it was in fact sold in the UK! Bloody numpties.

Anyway, back to google.

Googling reveals that it’s possible to rip the game and hex edit it to only boot the Japanese soundtrack. So, off we go.

I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to rip it, so instead downloaded the ISO. Several hours and over 1 gigabyte later, I was faced with how to actually hex edit it. Back to Google to search for free Hex editors. As per usual, there’s a million different utilities. The one near the top, XVI32 looks reasonable, so I download it.

It loads fine, but trying to open the ISO results in a memory failure. Maybe it’s too big I think. Or maybe I need a binary files instead. Or maybe XVI32 is actually a bit pants.

So, it’s back to Google to search for how to convert an ISO to a BIN. Isobuster can apparently do it, but after fumbling through the menus for close to 20 minutes I’m no wiser as to how to do this. Perhaps another hex editor will fix it?

Back to Google, and I get Free Hex Editor Neo. And hoho, it works! Except that instead of roman text on the far right, opposite the numbers, I’ve got Japanese moonspeak. Perhaps it’s because I set my system’s character coding to Japanese for doujin games? I’m not going to change it just to hack an ISO, so I try to change the character setting in FHEN. Well, can’t do that because it’s a trial version. Bastards.
Anyway, I search for BGM_US.ASF and luckily it turns up just fine in the ISO. Except it’s not at the numerical location hinted at on the forum which gave instructions. Is this due to my downloaded ISO not being the correct length, or perhaps it’s due to character encoding? No matter, I hex edit it and move on. All need to read BGM_JP.ASF. The ISO saves quickly.

Finally burned, the game actually loads via Swap Magic 3 and I think I’m in the clear. Except no! The game still insists on loading the godawful US soundtrack. I double check the ISO, and it quite clearly shows only BGM_JP.ASF for each entry. Damn... What went wrong?

Anyway, deciding I’ll fiddle with that later, I consider loading Bare Knuckle, except it’s not there. There’s only 2 blank slots for unlockable games, presumably Vectorman 1 and 2. But isn’t this Japanese version meant to have 5 unlockables? I check the ISO again, and it defiantly contains an MDROM folder, with BK1.cpt and upwards. So Bare Knuckle is on the disc.

Back to Google and GameFaqs. Turns out I need to play the compilation for over 7 hours before these games are unlocked. At which point sanity prevailed and I said: bollocks to this.

In total I must have spent around 4-5 hours surfing, buying, ripping, downloading, unzipping, hacking, saving, reburning, and generally buggering around on the internet. And for what? To play Sonic CD with its original soundtrack as the creators intended, and a scrolling fighter series which hasn’t been butchered? I own the original PAL Sonic CD with Japanese soundtrack, which boots perfectly on a modded Xbox with Genesis emulator, and I can force it to run in 60Hz mode so no borders. With the same modded Xbox I can load Streets of Rage 1 and 2, and the fan-translated version of Bare Knuckle 3, which would be in English, but not censored or with unbalanced difficulty. To top it off, the Game Gear emulation is appalling on the compilation, with washed out and anti-aliased visuals which don’t even fill the screen. Amateur coders are able to do better on big consoles without official SDKs, so why Sega did such a terrible job I don’t know. Drunk on shoe polish, perhaps?

Sonic Gems is a butchered mess. If you buy the PAL version you’re cheating yourself. If you buy the imported Japanese version, it will only work correctly on a Japanese PS2. The amount of effort needed to get it anywhere near acceptable is so high as to make it pointless owning. Like I said, possibly the most redundant compilation in existence. Unless you’re desperate to play Sonic Fighters.

I had considered hex editing the game to unlock the extra titles, but as pointed out on RHDN, an easier method is to download the finished save file off GameFAQs, and according to Kitsune Sniper on their forums:
You download the save files to a USB stick, you put the codebreaker/ AR / whatever disc on the PS2 (it's self-booting), you stick the USB into the PS2, you load the file, voila. That said, some PS2s are incredibly picky with their USB sticks.

Many thanks for the tip.

In case anyone cares: images stolen from all over the internet, be it Mobygames, or somewhere else.


  1. Boy you really do hate the american soundtrack don't you? I'm actually quite fond of it myself.

  2. Sega CD emulation? I was under the impression that Gems Collection used the PC build?

  3. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think you can just leave the game on for 7 hours in the middle of some game to unlock the extras.

    I did this multiple times for unlocking hints and things on the Sonic Mega Collection on Xbox.

  4. Yeah, it's actually a port of the PC version. I think the only major differences is that it's missing some of the weirder cheat codes, but I could be wrong. Conversely, the PC version won't even remotely run on modern versions of Windows, so it's not all that raw a deal.

    I prefer the US soundtrack too, because it's the one I grew up with, but I'm not sure I buy the rights issue either. Was it outsourced or something? It's probably just lazy coding on Sega's part. I don't even understand why it would be on there, the PS2 version was never released in North America.

  5. I have the Japanese GC version of this game and it's definitely the one to buy if you have a Freeloader for your GC. It doesn't have the same issues as playing the Japanese PS2 version. Plus, it has four-player Sonic R! :D .... :(

  6. Sonic CD's Japanese soundtrack uses samples from copyrighted songs (one boss theme in particular makes liberal use of "Work That Sucker to Death")

    Sonic CD came out just after the first major lawsuits over unauthorized sampling hit, which apparently wasn't lost on Sega.

    Still, Sonic CD's situation sucks a whole lot less than EarthBound's (which also used sampling)

  7. Sonic CD being the US PC version isn't really that offensive to me, but it would have been nice to pick your soundtrack and such. The best part about this game is offering up the rarer Sonic games all in one place, although they are hardly Gems. Especially having those weirder Game Gear games all in one place along with Sonic the Fighters and Sonic R.

    Sega's laziness that seems to have overcome them the past 8 years or so is what really harms them from making an awesome release. So they scanned the manuals, but at the same time, the emulation, especially on the Game Gear games, leaves much to be desired.

    Speaking of laziness, the game's biggest crime, and what prevents it from becoming a must have, is the lack of Knuckles' Chaotix and Segasonic Arcade. It's not like those don't run fine with emulators and ROMs you can download from the internet. And there's really just no excuse for Knuckles' Chaotix missing. So they really could have made the effort to make their own working emulator for these games instead of cashing in and putting PC versions of anything past the 16 Bit era.

    It also would have been nice if they put the Saturn version of Sonic 3D Blast there as well. The Genesis version is interesting in it's differences, but the Saturn version is the must have version in terms of classic Sonic, if only for those bonus stages designed by Hirokazu Yasuhara.

    So since that leaves pretty much 3 games that older Sonic fans would love to see on a collection, they would make the crappiest stand alone pack, so Gems was probably the last chance for a rerelease of those rarer Sonic games and Sega can get back to releasing the same old emulated versions of the Genesis pack of games (or that awful GBA port).

  8. I think the whole problem stems from the difficulty to program emulators. The companies can't just download GENS and port it to consoles for legal reasons. (A Japanese company did this with MAME and some PS2 releases and got called out for it.) Furthermore, most modern programmers aren't really taught the skills to understand assembly code for 20 year old systems, unless it's something they've learned on their own. Sometimes you'll see bonus games cobbled together using substandard emulation, like the NES Contras on Contra 4, or Final Fight arcade in Final Fight Streetwise...even though Capcom released a much better rendition a few months earlier as part of a larger compilation.

    As a result, most emulation comes from a few specalized development houses - Backbone (formerly Digital Eclipse) is the biggest one, working for Sega and Capcom, while Terminal Reality also does stuff for SNK. The quality of both of these companies is severely lacking though. Even M2, a Japanese company which outclasses both of those guys, by far, still falls short in some areas where computer emulators have operated just fine for years.

    The overall fact is that companies essentially view these as shovelware, easy money for very little investment, and don't see much worth in putting the best into them. Their view is that they're for casual consumers, and hardcore gamers are just going to pirate them (or seek out the original releases) anyway, so who cares.

  9. I'd read that the Contro games in Contra 4 were emulated using a modifed version of a homebrew NES emulator the developers got permission to use. At the very least, I think said emulator's homebrew authors are listed in Contra 4's credits under Special Thanks. So the homebrew community appears to have had some vague input.

    Otherwise all good points, especially Sean Lane's comments about Sonic 3D - I've not had experience with this.

    Good examples of compilations are the Treasure Box one on PS2, which is excellent, and the Phantasy Star one, which includes the US ROMs.

    Both have some super high quality visual filters, plus progressive modes, and the overall package quality is so high that I'd rather play those than the originals (the PS2's controller notwithstanding). Backbone's current work is lazy beyond description. I gave their PSP/PS2 Sega compilation 96% back in the day (they did that, right?) because it had more games than any other compilation to date, and the visual fidelity was top notch. Plus it had interviews and rare arcade games. But the Sega compilation for the PS3 was a terrible fall from grace. Awful, just bloody awful.

  10. I love the visual options that M2 puts into the Sega Ages as well as the supplementary stuff, but their sound emulation is still pretty iffy. Backbone's are actually better (music-wise, anyway) because it's all prerecorded streamed. For some reason the YM2612 is very hard to emulate accurately. I'd love to talk to some programmers as to why.

    I forget which emulator that Contra 4 used, but I do remember the authors being given credit. The games themselves played alright but the sound was reprehensible.

    Backbone also did the recent Xbox/PS3 compilation, which is also pretty alright, despite it being largely recycled content from the previous one. Some of the emulation is still spotty, especially Space Harrier, where the sound pitch is totally off.

  11. Sonic Mega Collection, however, remains a shining jewel. Comparing Sonic 1 and 2 on the Gamecube version to Sonic 1 and 2 on Sega Genesis Collection on PS2, it's pretty obvious the Mega Collection renditions are superior (I have no idea how the PS2 Mega Collection compares.) Of course, they only emulated Genesis games for that one.

    Sonic Adventure DX on Gamecube also has the Sonic Game Gear games, but you have to unlock them by completing challenges, and some of them take a while. Emulation is kinda shit, there's an annoying sound bug I believe where things get scratchy or something after a while. As an odd bonus feature, though, you can run two instances of a game at the same time, with a second player playing in their own window side-by-side. Turn off the sound when doing this, natch.

    Also, if I recall correctly, the Game Gear games on Gems Collection complement the ones added to Sonic Mega Collection + so PS2 owners could enjoy all of them the way Gamecube owners could in SADX.


    I loathe the American soundtrack, and have been wondering how to get the Japanese soundtrack back in Sonic CD myself.

    However, as I am American, the only version I can find here is Gamecube, so I'm stuck.

    But it's still really cool knowing it can be done!

  13. It is insane that they would code the PS2 game to look for a region it was never released in. I own the US Gamecube version and enjoy it for the obscrue games. The music isn't great in Sonic CD, but it is nice to play Sonic the Fighters and the Gamegear titles. Moreso than the music I hated the fact no Streets of Rage was included. The rumor was the powers that be said those games would raise the rating from E for Everyone to Teen. I think the only true Sonic fans are teen and up anyway ( I am 26 myself) so who cares? Sega pulled a bitch move and included only the Vectorman games...which I am not a fan of.
    I truly wish Sega would make an arcade collection with some of it's older obscurities. It would be great to have Power Drift, Golden Axe: Death Adder's Revenge, and Spikeout. Honestly, I'd just settle for a Xbox Live port of Yu Suzuki's Gameworks from Dreamcast if that were at all possible.

  14. Actually, from what I know of the soundtrack, it was both legal reasons and Sega of America wanting to dick around.

    See, at this point, Sega just finished their 'American Sound Studio' and wanted to test it out immediately. Instead of waiting for another project, they thought 'Well, HEY! Let's make our own Sonic CD soundtrack. Get that Spencer Neilsen guy on the phone!' So it's really hard to believe it was was over just one song, which can be easily changed, more or less, it was just Sega of America 'taking a chance' and now starting a debate that's even more dangerous than 'religion' or 'politics'.

    Personally? I like both soundtracks, but the American one borderlines elevator music, whilst the original soundtrack is 'Sonic-styled'.

    Brotha Kyo

  15. I will say that even though I hate the US soundtrack, I have a deep love for Sonic Boom (though I find myself humming Toot Toot Sonic Warrior (lol seriously wtf SEGA) more often).

  16. Wow, good thing I have a JPS2. Though I'm also fond of the US soundtrack.

  17. Even if you play the Japanese version on an American or European PS2, you can STILL unlock the Streets of Rage games (and Bonanza Bros). In their original Japanese versions, a huge plus for the third game. Trust me, I have the Japanese version and I could unlock them. Here's proof (pic taken by me. I couldn't unlock SoR3 yet):