Home / Platform / PC / Why the founder of Traveller's Tales released a director's cut of an old Sonic game 25 years later
1517836097_jpg

Why the founder of Traveller's Tales released a director's cut of an old Sonic game 25 years later


By any conventional definition, Jon Burton has lived at least three careers: first, a multi-hyphenate founder-programmer-director at Traveller’s Tales, best known as the scrappy studio behind a wide variety of licensed movie-games; second, a producer and director of films, primarily in the inescapable Lego mondo-franchise; and, now, a burgeoning YouTuber with nearly a hundred-thousand subscribers to his channel, Gamehut. And while it might seem like a wild leap to some, to hear Burton tell it, it’s a natural outgrowth of his existing hobbies, which now includes remastering his old games.

“I was one of the first wave of people making video games, and I’m getting older, and I want to fiddle with stuff,” he says. “At first, I just wanted to document all my old games, since all this physical media is going to be lost to time. I wanted to look back on the programming choices I made, and maybe exhibit some prototypes. I didn’t do any promotion of the channel or anything. It was for my own entertainment, which is one of the best reasons to do things, if you ask me.”

During the early days of Traveller’s Tales – or “TT,” as he refers to it – Burton was the studio’s sole programmer, a role that he relished far more than his mundane managerial duties. After some early titles, TT worked with Sony on a string of licensed Disney games in the mid-to-late ’90s, starting with Toy Story, one of the first to launch alongside its parent film – usually, the game would come six to nine months later. When the side-scrolling platformer racked up millions of sales – despite its now-infamous difficulty curve – TT discovered that timing was indeed everything. “We had found our business model, and people started to emulate it,” recalls Burton. “For the next 10 years, we were on seven-month deadlines.”

1

Burton, 48, now resides in Malibu. It’s a long way from his hometown in Cheshire.

During that decade of flitting from half-year endeavor to half-year endeavor, Burton got a life-altering opportunity: Sega approached TT to make a Sonic game, which would eventually become the divisive Sonic 3D Blast. “That got our attention,” Burton says. “It might be hard to believe now, but Sonic was the biggest thing in the world back then.” Sega had already drawn up the design scheme for an isometric 3D game based around collecting colourful birds (eventually dubbed “Flickies” in an homage to earlier Sega games) to enter checkpoints, but since no-one had tried to make a platformer of that style on the aging Mega Drive, it lacked the manpower to construct the technology themselves. As Burton recalls, it was exactly the sort of technical challenge he thrives on. “I love making a machine do something you haven’t seen it do,” he says. “We made it the way they wanted from scratch, and I’m very proud of that.”

During those frantic months, Burton tried to impress a Sega producer named Kats Sato with the Lotus Turbo Espirit sports car he drove at the time, to disastrous results. “Just before his hotel I thought I’d slow down to show him how fast the car accelerated. So I slowed to a crawl and noticed another car coming up behind us, so I thought I’d better take my chance to show off. So I accelerated away as quickly as I could and then slowed back down and pulled into the hotel car park. However, the car that had been coming up behind me just happened to be a police car.

“They thought I’d stolen the car and, having spotted them, was trying to make my escape. So I was chased into the hotel car park by sirens and blue flashing lights. Soon afterwards two more police cars joined the scene. So you have three police cars surrounding a very sheepish me, a very startled Kats, and the rest of SEGA’s team staring out of the hotel windows at the commotion. Luckily for me, once I’d proved it was my car, they let me go with a warning. But still, pretty embarrassing in front of SEGA, even though a fairly fitting incident considering the selling point of Sonic games is speed.”

2

Burton says that that his biggest problem with 3D Blast is unfixable: ‘It’s an isometric game controlled with a D-Pad.’

As TT expanded its business, Burton was forced to pass the programming reins onto his employees, relegating himself to a more traditional “creative director” role. But now he’s taken a step back from the games industry, Burton has begun to re-evaluate his decades-old portfolio from a new perspective. And though he stands by every one of the games TT developed over the years – yes, even A Bug’s Life – he admits 3D Blast could use some tweaks. “I look at a lot of modern reviews, and there’s a lot of obvious critiques of certain elements, like how you take damage when you’re wearing the speed shoes, or the lack of incentive to get the medals. So I thought: why don’t I just fix some of these things?”

Thus he began yet another career of sorts – Jon Burton, part-time mod-maker. At first, Burton tried to use a Game Genie to implement some of his most basic changes to the code, with limited success. Eventually, he realised he could just make a de facto “ROM hack” for the game and call it a free director’s cut patch, for those who own the original cartridge. He unearthed old assets, created a wishlist of features he crowd-sourced from the community, and got to work. Unlike many ROM hacks, though, Burton deliberately boxed himself within the limits of the Mega Drive hardware itself, which made the process much more complicated than simply dropping new sprites into the existing code.