In the '90s, Sonic was everywhere – even in your pocket. Well, maybe just the very large front pocket of your overalls. Yes, the Game Gear was early to the not-so-portable portable trend, a torch that has since been carried by contemporary handhelds like the Steam Deck. Unlike that system though, the Game Gear wasn’t punching at the same technical weight of its contemporary home console complement, the Sega Mega Drive.
This is important because, despite the humble hardware of the Game Gear, developers continued to try and replicate 16-Bit Sonic on the handheld. So, the many Sonic adventures on the system suffered from issues endemic to the machine – the most notable among them being the limited screen size. Everything is just punched in too close; Sonic’s speed and design tenets simply weren’t conducive to the platform they were on.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that Sega seems largely uninterested in remembering this set of titles. We’ve gone quite a while without rereleases for most of these – 3DS Virtual Console being the most modern bastion for many of them, including Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble, developed by Aspect and released exclusively for Game Gear in 1994.
The game is as short as it is rough around the edges. But, it stands as maybe the best of the Game Gear titles, having the benefit of iterative lessons learned across handheld releases. In modernity though, it holds up only as a piece of Sonic history – the new characters it introduces and its unique Zones alongside their set pieces are buried under platform restraints. For that reason, Triple Trouble was ripe with remake potential.
Enter Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit. Created by Noah N. Copeland and released in August 2022, this passion project retooled Triple Trouble to match the look and feel of Sonic’s iconic 16-Bit Mega Drive trilogy. It’s a fan game with a production value that feels official, mechanics that feel authentic, and a spectacle which pays homage to the Sonic games that defined Copeland’s childhood.
It all started in front of an awe-inspiring Sonic Adventure 2: Battle demo kiosk in Walmart. "I just thought that was the coolest thing a ten-year-old boy could ask for," Copeland remembers. "Problem with that: when you're ten years old, you don't have much money. You don't have a GameCube. So, I would have to first get a GameCube, then get Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, and then play that game. And I did save up for it eventually. But immediately, I had to get something. The next aisle over was a Sonic 3 & Knuckles collection on PC… that was only like ten bucks. So it was like, 'I can do that!' So I like to think that I got a good balanced view of Sonic for the start." Yet, it was a start that notably didn’t include Triple Trouble.
The genesis of this remake wasn’t nostalgia, but a confluence of scrapped fan games and an after-work Sonic session. "It was in 2017 when I got the idea to remake Triple Trouble," says Copeland. "I was working on a film at the time. We were shooting on location at a house, and we had wrapped for the day. Somebody in the crew had a PS2 with Sonic Gems Collection on it and was like, 'hey, who wants to play Sonic games?' And we were just going through 'em. And we were playing Triple Trouble and we were playing Chaos," Copeland remembered.
Suddenly, Copeland’s time working on fan games that inevitably fell apart came back into focus. "I was like, 'wait a minute, what if I remake an existing game, instead of making an all-new game from scratch? Right? That's gonna be easier, right?' Spoiler alert – it took me five years to do it." Despite the deceptively long road ahead, Copeland had gotten the spinball rolling.
Now though, there was a game to make, and Copeland didn’t have all the skills to make it himself. Among those was a background in art. So Copeland found Dee Liteyears, a German artist who had been hard at work making 16-Bit Triple Trouble mock-ups already. As Copeland explains, the pair were natural collaborators. "She tried to get a Triple Trouble remake going for years. That's why she made that art, [hoping] that someone would pick it up and make it happen. So she likes to make the joke that sometimes you just got a will a game into existence, which is a good thing to note for people!" While Dee may have been joking, her point is salient.
This idea underscores the motivating ethos behind Triple Trouble 16-Bit. Its development is, at its core, a story about dedication transcending inexperience. As production began, Copeland’s technical expertise extended about as far as a few game jams and prototyped fan projects. "I [didn't] know how to program. Well, I kind of do now, because I taught myself how to program," Copeland says.
Study led Copeland through GameMaker (Triple Trouble 16-Bit’s engine) and other design challenges. "I'd never made music for a Sega Genesis sound chip before – learned how to do that! Boss design [too], just everything. I was just like, 'alright, let's just learn it. Let's figure out how to do it.' So what I didn't bring in experience, I brought forth an eagerness to learn and willpower." It was an eagerness characteristic of the Sonic community itself.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated fandom than Sonic’s, one that has an Ivo Robotnik-level scientific understanding of its franchise on a technical level. "There's a thing called the Sonic Physics Guide that tells you exactly how slopes work, acceleration works, it's exact down to the number value of friction that's applied every step to Sonic's speed and everything. So it's all there," Copeland explains. "And for the basic physics of Sonic, I was working with a framework that was made by a German programmer who's very talented, that got down the basic movement of Sonic and all that stuff. Which is great, because I don't think I would have been able to get it up and running, if that [had] been up to me alone."
Utilising this existing groundwork, Copeland began the critical process of adapting Triple Trouble for a system which doubled the Game Gear’s bit count. In doing so, the need to contextualise the game differently became unavoidable. "My idea was, 'I'll just take the original maps for the original Triple Trouble, give them better graphics, slap in Mega Drive Sonic and call it a day'. Doesn't work. That would have been a lot easier! [But] because Mega Drive Sonic has different physics than Game Gear Sonic [they aren’t] compatible," Copeland says.
From here, Triple Trouble 16-Bit truly began to take shape. The intent shifted away from being a straightforward remake. "It was more about spiritually recreating Triple Trouble," Copeland assessed.
The metric for success became the amplification of that spirit. "Everybody remembers this game as the game with Nack the Weasel," continues Copeland. "That's the first game where he showed up. But in the actual Triple Trouble he's not really there that much, he only appears in special stages. So [my game is] also not just invoking the spirit of Triple Trouble, but also the spirit of how you remember Triple Trouble as opposed to how it actually is. So we're taking the parts of it that are unique and emphasising that." Yet the game remains classically inspired by that Game Gear outing – balancing evolutionary ideas on top of faithful design with an even hand.
Navigating that challenge resulted in a game which appeals to both those who hold the original dear, and those who come to Triple Trouble 16-Bit without the context of the portable classic. The game is defined best as a reimagining. The intent was to conceptualise Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit as something larger than an insular remake. "In my mind, this is the hypothetical Sonic 4 on Sega Mega Drive that never happened. So, in a way, it's also not just a tribute to Sonic, but also tribute to the Sega Mega Drive and '90s gaming,” Copeland affirms.
This spirit is felt across the project as its ethos encapsulates time and place so clearly. And this isn’t just about Mega Drive authenticity, although Copeland intentionally limited colour palettes and counts to what the system could output. It’s about the iconically-'90s Jazz Cup in the game’s opening cutscene. Or, the design flourishes which pay homage to Mickey Mania and Ristar, and the authentic digital instruction manual included in the Zip file. The game celebrates Sega history and retro gaming culture.
But it also modernises that history in spectacle-fueled ways which build Triple Trouble into a game of true scale. There’s perhaps no better testament to this truth than the excellent Zone transitions which stitch the game together. "I played way too much God of War (2018) when I was making this game and thought, 'what if there were just no cuts or fades?' I always loved the zone transitions in Sonic 3," Copeland remarks. "And I'm like, 'let's do every single one with a zone transition.' And that led to having an idea for [a playable] zone transition. Like with Metal Sonic and the rocket ship. Instead of just taking a rocket ship up to his Atomic Destroyer, let's physically fly up there." Moments like these are the delicious mustard atop the Triple Trouble chilli dog.
They complete the experience, just one of many design choices made that coalesce in a package which feels like 2022’s Sonic Mania. Triple Trouble 16-Bit understands how to celebrate Sonic’s roots without being over-encumbered by reverence for the past. The new intersects with the old in every act of every Zone – each memorable beat from the original amplified. 16-Bit finds perfect harmony between platforming rhythm and momentum-fueled set pieces, navigating them all with this heightened sense of continuity and storytelling. It’s an unmissable experience.
Yet Copeland didn’t know that would be the prevailing sentiment as its final build was being compiled before launch. "I was literally lying on the floor of my living room and just squeezing my stomach because it physically hurt man, I was so nervous!" Copeland recounts. "I'm just like, 'oh gosh, it's gonna get released. It'll be on the internet. People are ruthless on the internet, they're gonna tear it to shreds. It's gonna be terrible.' I remember just uploading it and just going to sleep and just looking at my wife and being like, 'alright, it's done. Hoo-rah…'"
All of those nerves were allayed mere hours later. "And then I wake up the next morning. And my Twitter is [constantly refreshing with] notifications. They can't stop coming in. The first direct message I checked that morning was somebody that just had a screenshot of the 100% ending screen and just said 'great game.' I was just like, 'it's been out for a few hours. He's already 100% at it. Wow!' And all those notifications, I kid you not, pretty much every single one of them was just like, 'this is great. I love this. Thank you for making this game. A couple of people called it a masterpiece! I could not believe it. At all. I have been taken aback completely by how positive the reception has been. And I'm very thankful for that."
Copeland’s launch came at a perfect time. The Blue Blur is back on top, sticking his quills into cinema and continuing the transmedia march that has kept Sonic kicking even in down years. But it’s questionable whether all will remain good in Green Hill, as Sonic Origins failed to impress dedicated fans and Sonic Frontiers stands poised to gamble on the franchise’s future.
But fans are here for the highs and the lows, fleshing out Sonic’s canon with art that doesn’t wait for Sonic Team to set the tenor. After all, Sonic doesn’t merely belong to Sega. Sonic belongs to the community. To people like Noah Copeland who collaborate with others like Dee Liteyears. Their story is a glorious example of collaboration and education overcoming creative barriers. Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit stands as a perennial reminder about the power of grassroots development and a critical ode to Sonic himself.
Sonic Triple Trouble 16-Bit is available to download for free here (Windows only).