Sonic is a series with a lot of history, which we covered on this site a large number of times. But Sonic didn’t just work with his creators at Sonic Team and SEGA, but worked with western studios during the series run on the Genesis and SEGA Saturn.
Today, I want to cover the history surrounding Travelers Tales and their work with the Blue Blur from past to present, in celebration of the release of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack’ for LEGO Dimensions.
Origins and Founding of the Travelers Tales
The company started from humble origins, working on a number of liscenced games early in their development history.
Traveller’s Tales started developing games with Psygnosis, which were most notable for creating 3D effects, possibly in order to add minor realism. Their first game was Leander, also known as The Legend of Galahad. With Psygnosis they also did a video game adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as other original productions like Puggsy. And thanks to an agreement between Psygnosis, Sony Imagesoft and Disney Interactive Studios, Traveller’s Tales could produce several games based on Disney’s properties, such as the Mickey Mouse game Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse and other games based on Pixar movies like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue and Finding Nemo (the latter two thanks to agreements with Activision and THQ).
They had a hand in producing a number of games for Disney, with two notable examples being Mickey Mania and Toy Story 2.
Mickey Mania is a 2D Action platformer where you are controlling Mickey Mouse of course, but you are going on a time traveling adventure to protect the other incarnations of Mickey. This adventure was one filled with amazing animation, solid level design and some of the best sprite work of that time period. Something worth noting about this project is that David Jaffy, the main behind projects like Twisted Metal and God of War, had Mickey Mania be one of his earliest projects as a game developer.
With the success of Mickey Mania, Disney were impressed with Travelers Tales and this lead them to continue working on a number of Disney games for the Genesis, Super Nintendo, PlayStation One and Nintendo 64. One of these games was Toy Story 2, taking the events from the film and adapting it into game form.
While they worked on 3D platformers before (A Bugs Life comes to mind) Toy Story 2 shows how well they can produce them. The game offered enjoyable level designs and used Buzz’s different abilities (his wings, laser blaster) to great effect. I personally really have a soft spot for this game, as it was one of the very first PlayStation One games I ever played. It was a game that I never beat when I was a kid, but one I still enjoyed regardless of that fact.
Having a really enjoyable soundtrack, solid level designs and being respectful to the Toy Story IP, it was a critical and commercial success for both Disney and Travelers Tales. But while they worked on a number of Disney productions……they had a role in helping the Blue Blur find his footing in the third dimension.
One Heck of a 3D Blast
SEGA wanted to bring Sonic into 3D even back in the Genesis era and didn’t know who to turn to in accomplishing this. Sonic Team was busy after work on Sonic & Knuckles, so while they had different studios work on Game Gear and Genesis Spin-Offs to cash in on the popularity on the Sonic IP.
Travelers Tales released a game called Toy Story on the Genesis and Super Nintendo, using pre-rendered visuals and other impressive visual effects. SEGA took note of their work on the Genesis and asked if they would like to work on a Sonic IP project. With Sonic Team supplying assets and support to work off of, Travelers Tales began work on a game called ‘Sonic 3D Blast: Flickies Island’. This game would take the iconic 2D gameplay of Sonic but adapt it into the 3D dimension.
With the Genesis hardware, Travelers Tales accomplished Sonic’s 3D origins by placing in a top-down perspective. This would allow the player to have full 360 movement control but not strange the Genesis hardware. Sonic can still roll, jump and use his spin-dash ability but he has a specific goal; save all the little Flicky birds in each given act. You do this to unlock the next portion of an act and once save all the Flickies in a given act, you move on to the next one.
The gameplay here is known for having a few issues; the controls were not the most responsive and the level design was confusing at a few points. However, the game kept true to the Sonic visual style and music that the series is famous for and the finished game was an enjoyable adventure.
However, the game also had a home on the SEGA Saturn, but for somber reasons.
The Mega Drive version of Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island was originally conceived as the swan song for Sonic on the system. However, in the wake of Sonic X-treme‘s delay and subsequent cancellation, a Saturn version of the title was hastily commissioned to be ready in time for the holiday season. Completed in only seven weeks, the core gameplay and level layouts remained the same. The biggest differences were instead visual, the game taking advantage of the 2D powerhouse the Saturn was.
Redrawn graphics with increased detail and color were complimented with flourishes of new animation in the scenery. Weather effects were also implemented, such as fog and rain in Rusty Ruins. Replacing the bare-bones Special Stage of the original was a brand new, fully three-dimensional half-pipe reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, designed and programmed by Sonic Team. Rounding off the upgraded port was a brand new soundtrack by Richard Jacques, along with slick FMVs, a new menu, a map of Flickies’ Island appearing during Zone transitions, and a pause screen showing elements missing from the in-game HUB.
With Sonic X-Treme being no more, the Saturn needed a Sonic game for Holiday 1996. Travelers Tales and Sonic Team worked together in getting a version of 3D Blast ready for the Saturn and many consider it the best version for three different reasons. It’s visuals are more realistic, having more effects such as rain and fog in a few zones to add a layer of atmosphere. The entire soundtrack is different from the Genesis version and similar to the visuals, they add atmosphere to the different zones Sonic explores. Rusty Ruins is some of the most breathtaking music in the Sonic series and both acts are musical pieces that I remember to this day.
3D Blast established that Travelers Tales would be reliable partners for SEGA and Sonic Team in the future, with them having future work on Sonic.
Super Sonic Racing in Three Dimensions
With Sonic needing some titles on the SEGA Saturn and Sonic Team being busy with other projects like NiGHTS Into Dreams and Burning Rangers, Travelers Tales was requested to work on a new project using the Sonic IP. Sonic is a game you would think get the 3D Platformer treatment on the Saturn, and Travelers Tales is a studio that showed they can make a enjoyable Sonic title.
However, they decided that a racing game where Sonic and his friends ran on foot would make for a nice test-run for his full 3D debut.
After the completion of Sonic 3D Blast in 1996, Sega approached Traveller’s Tales about working on another Sonic game, this time being a racing game. Traveller’s Tales, who coincidentally had been working on a 3D graphics engine without a purpose at the time, found this to be a logical progression, and accepted the project. Development started in February 1997 as a joint project between Sega’s Sonic Team and Traveller’s Tales. Sonic Team designed the race tracks and the game’s general flow, and Traveller’s Tales were responsible for the implementation and programming. A major development goal was to maintain a consistent 30 frames per second-frame rate during gameplay. A custom game engine was developed to take full advantage of the Sega Saturn hardware and a graphical technique, described as “12 layer transparency”, was used to transparency distant textures to conceal the Sega Saturn’s limited draw distance. Game programmer Joe Burton claimed that Sonic R could not have been replicated on other consoles during the time-frame, such as the PlayStation console, due to the technique developed specifically for the Sega Saturn hardware.
This team effort would lead to one of the SEGA Saturn’s most iconic titles to be produced. Pushing the Saturn hardware with a special 3D engine and compensating for Saturn limitations showed how technicality impressive Travelers Tales titles were in the late 90’s.
The game released in 1997 on the SEGA Saturn and PC to critically mixed reviews. Many enjoyed the games great visuals and presentation but lamented the lack of content and controls that had a learning curve to learn. But it was a Sonic game that many people enjoyed on the Saturn…..with one key reason being one of the greatest soundtracks in Sonic history being included in the game.
SEGA Composer Richard Jacques worked on this soundtrack with TJ Davis providing the musical vocals for the game. Many great tracks were part of this soundtrack, like ‘Can You Feel the Sunshine’, ‘Work It Out’ and ‘Super Sonic Racing’. It is a soundtrack that screams 90’s and one I still enjoy listening too.
Building a Giant Mountain with LEGO’s
So, after success with Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R, SEGA and Travelers Tales mostly went there separate ways outside of assisting porting Sonic R to the PS2 & GameCube and having Travelers Tales Oxford produce Super Monkey Ball Adventure.
Travelers Tales was very busy during the early 2000’s getting more work from Disney and being the developer that continued the Crash Bandicoot series after Crash Bash’s release. With the core Travelers Tales team making Wrath of Cortex and TT Oxford producing the much enjoyed Twinsanity, they were on track for getting great work. But they tripped over some LEGO’s and got a great idea; ‘Lets adapt the Star Wars Prequels using the LEGO property’.
Publisher Giant Interactive Entertainment came up with the concept of a game using Lego figures in 2003 and approached Lucasfilm who saw the potential of such a title. Developer Traveller’s Tales, which had previously worked on Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog games was commissioned as game designer.
Heading the project were James Cunliffe (lead artist), Jeremy Pardon (lead animator), and John Hodskinson (lead programmer). Tools used to create the game were designed in-house. Lucasfilm provided assistance in various ways including the commissioning of new sound effects and music from their Skywalker Sound facility. The Lego company in Billund, Denmark also helped out.
So work begain on LEGO Star Wars for a number of systems (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PC) and the game was a critical success. It took the stories from the Prequel Movies of Star Wars and made them enjoyable for many fans of the Star Wars franchise that did not like the Prequel Movies. In addition, it created a template and gameplay style that would echo across decades of LEGO games.
Following LEGO Star Wars Release, we got games using this style of gameplay but using different IP. They include IP like Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Binoicle and many others. They were able to work on a new IP using the LEGO branding with LEGO City: Undercover for the Nintendo Wii U in 2013 with Nintendo publishing the title. It was a game that got great critical reception and is one of the major third party exclusives on the platform.
WB Games loved the work Travelers Tales was doing, so they purchased them back in 2007-2008 and we got games like LEGO Batman and even two Marvel LEGO games. Travelers Tales didn’t really do much outside of LEGO after LEGO Star Wars, but the studio found a franchise that they ‘owned’ to a degree, and they enjoyed much success.
Leaping into DIMENSIONS
There is a genre of gaming called ‘Toys-To-Life’, where you place NFC Figures on a special pad which acts as a portal. This would allow you to play as those characters inside the game and it started with Activision’s Skylanders series and later Disney entered the battlefield with the Disney Infinity games.
WB Games and Travelers Tales wanted to try this out, so they took the established LEGO formula that has worked for years and make a Toys-To-Life LEGO game. The question is, which franchise would it focus on? All of them is the answer TT Games had.
Logie: What inspired you to have dimensions as the main theme?Nick: When I play with LEGO bricks, I don’t have Batman™ on one side and THE LEGO MOVIE stuff on the other. You just mash it all up together, don’t you? So, LEGO DIMENSIONS is playing with who you want, how you want and when you want! So, different dimensions, pulled together by a villain, but the inspiration is LEGO bricks.
So this meant that any and all IP’s were on the table for TT Games to use for Dimensions. When the game was announced, to say people were surprised at the franchises coming to Dimensions was an understatement. The Simpsons, Scooby Doo, and Ghostbusters were just some interesting choices alongside other franchises which got LEGO treatment like DC Comics. The game launched in Fall 2015 to mostly positive reception and high sales. This year, they are not making a new game, but just adding on to Dimensions with special packs. So, how does Sonic fit into this? Well…..the Blue Blur got his own Level Pack! Sonic rolls around in LEGO form with iconic Sonic Zones joining him on the fun. The level pack as announced for Sonic’s 25th Anniversary party and as of this writing is out now, working for all systems Dimensions is out on (Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS4, ect).
The adventure world is filled landmarks of many iconic Genesis Era zones, the Level Pack is one of the longest and most creative of the ones released for Dimensions thus far, and it is very authentic to the source material. TT Games are filled with great writers, with that being easily shown through the fantastic dialog between Sonic and company throughout the Adventure World and Level Pack. Sonic’s spin into the LEGO Worlds is great and seeing the Blue Blur celebrate his anniversary this year through TT Games making a new Sonic game more or less, is fantastic to see.