Editor’s introduction: Every once in a while, the gaming industry has its own Cinderella moments. Be it Team Meat and the success of MeatBoy, or Thor Aackerlund returning to Tetris glory after many put him and his success well in the past, gaming history is sprinkled with these joyous moments in which people, if only for a moment, get what they always wanted, and what they worked so hard to get. In the following piece, Staff Writer James Christensen delves into the story of Simon Thomley, also known as “Stealth”, the programmer who went from developing Sonic fan games in his spare time, to working on the most highly acclaimed Sonic game in 25 years. This is the story of “Stealth”: From Sonic Project Mettrix, to Sonic Mania.
Whirring floods the air as a bright, blue screen awakens. Within minutes, the blue has been partially filled with blocks, squares and rectangles of various sizes and colours, a crude attempt at video game graphics. Despite being on the Apple II computer, it has simplicity almost reminiscent of the likes of Pong. The game file reveals both the name, “Hunt”, along with the last update to the game files: August 11, 1991.
The goal of Hunt is simple: control red rectangles and traverse the blocky world.
You can only move left or right, with the ability to enter and exit new areas of the game by going through pipes, which are represented by plump, short “T” shapes. The only method of vertical movement is by using elevators, represented by white and blue vertical lines. Hunt is over within minutes and seems like something a child would make, which makes sense. This game was created by one Simon Thomley at the age of twelve.
Thomley is best known for his work on the critically acclaimed Sonic Mania, which upon release was heralded by many as the best Sonic the Hedgehog game in over twenty years. Unlike most Sonic games, which are handled by Sega’s own “Sonic Team”, Mania was handled by a team of outsiders, several of who cut their teeth programming Sonic fan games. The two biggest names from the Sonic community present: Christian Whitehead, famous for works such as Retro Sonic and the officially sanctioned, also critically acclaimed Sonic CD (2011), and Thomley, who worked on fan projects in his spare time for several decades. Perhaps most impressive of these: Sonic Project Mettrix.
From a young age, Thomley was fascinated by game development. He grew up learning to program and playing games on computers such as Ti 99/4a and later the Apple II, often pouring over manuals for programming languages such as AppleSoft Basic. However, his gaming world changed forever with the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Like many children of the era, Thomley was enamoured with Mario 3. A huge world with tight gameplay, creative levels, and a marketing campaign that involved an entire feature length movie caused it to be a favourite among 80s kids. However, this was a short lived love. One day, while sitting down and playing his favourite Mario game, Thomley’s sister came over and began excitedly waving something in her younger brother’s face. All this did was annoy him. This eventually lead to him swearing at his sister, which his father overhead. In response to this incident, Thomley’s father got rid of the family NES. To quote Thomley, “it was a bit awkward.”
Later that same year, however, Thomley would discover the game that would define much of his future work: Sonic the Hedgehog. The game was a side scrolling platformer, much in the same vein as other popular games of the era such as Super Mario Bros. However, what made Sonic special was how the titular blue hedgehog was controlled throughout each stage.
On paper, Sonic could be controlled with a one button Atari joystick. You ran around using the d-pad and jumped. By pressing down on the d-pad while running, you would curl into a ball. This is where Sonic’s inner complexity began to shine through. Upon curling into a ball the game’s physics engine would take over. If you curled up on a slope, for example, you would gain momentum and volley down the hill side at an increasing speed before either abruptly colliding with an obstacle at the other end or being flung up into the air to staggering heights. Not to say that rolling was the only way to gain momentum – momentum could be gained also by running, though this wasn’t as effective as the rolling maneuver.
While Sega’s marketing would make it seem that Sonic was a game of speed, the reality was that it was a game about maintaining flow while platforming and quickly exploring stages in order to create the illusion of speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was not a perfect game, but for a young Thomley, as it was for many gamers who would come across this classic title, it was awe inspiring.
Shortly after, Thomley set off again on his parents’ Apple II to try to make a game similar to Sonic. The objective was to capture the essence of that gripping momentum based platforming. However, the Apple II C, based off hardware originally released in 1977, was not up for the task. At the very least, Thomley could not figure out how to create such a game on it. Soon, though, he would make the jump to a proper PC, which would revolutionize his work as a programmer.