Thoughts on Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal – Part 1: What Makes a Sonic Game?

Immediately following Wednesday’s Nintendo Direct, the free demo for Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal became available for download on the 3DS eShop (the full version is scheduled for release in North America on the 11th). I’ve now played it through three times, and it’s unlike any sidescrolling Sonic that’s come before. It’s an interesting beast, and I’d like to share my thoughts on it.

I’ll start by saying upfront that I enjoyed what I played quite a bit. There are three levels provided in the demo: Seaside Beach, a standard zone designed around moderate exploration in pursuit of the goal (it lasts more than ten minutes if you don’t try to hurry); Seaside Race, an area visually similar to the first level but focused on speed as Sonic races Sticks to the goal; and Worm Tunnel, wherein Sonic automatically runs forward Special Stage style, contending with a giant robotic worm.

That’s it; there aren’t any cinemas in the demo or anything like that. Because of this, I can’t judge the storytelling, so my opinion of the game could sour when I play the full version and get subjected to the writing of Ken Pontac and Warren Graff, whose past efforts for Sonic filled me revulsion.

The graphics are not exceptional, but they do the job, and the maligned sports tape has little to no impact. The music didn’t stand out, either, but it was definitely nice – it’s by series veteran Richard Jaques, so I expect the remaining tunes will be consistently pleasant as well.

So about the gameplay… This is going to be kind of tricky. It’s such a clean break from what the series has been doing over the past decade that the community’s pet talking points – “boost to win”, “the homing attack”, “speed as a reward” – aren’t adequate, being barely relevant. It’s possible a lot of fans will be under-equipped to have meaningful discussion about it if they try to relate it to their current opinions and expectations without deeper analysis. As I put it on Twitter after I finished playing, Shattered Crystal doesn’t seem to even try to be a Sonic game at all, and it’s not as a Sonic fan that I enjoyed its gameplay – I found it fun as its own thing.

Now, it’s quite common that someone will say something like “Don’t think of this as an entry in a series, think of it like its own thing, and you’ll enjoy it more”. (Any fan of classic Phantasy Star talking to a PSO player has probably heard something like this.) This statement is often used in an attempt to make something disappointing not seem so bad, so it might seem when I argue here that Shattered Crystal should be looked at with fresh eyes that I’m trying to rationalise disappointment. I can assure you that’s not the case – I was already quite prepared to dislike the game, and would have felt no great loss if I had hated it. As a Sonic fan, I’m accustomed to not getting my hopes up. No, I have simply been surprised that a game whose potential I had dismissed turned out to be fun, and I’m delighted that it sidesteps so much of the Sonic formula that a new conversation can be had.

Furthermore, it’s not my aim to convince anyone to like the game just because I had fun with it. That’s not how I roll – if you hate it and think it’s another nail in the franchise’s already bristling coffin, then I have no argument with you. Everyone derives enjoyment from media in different and unpredictable ways, and I accept – indeed, I celebrate – that. My only aim is to provide maybe a little insight so that readers may be better equipped to articulate why they like or dislike the gameplay. Because, like it or not, it’s another phase of Sonic we’re all going to have to grapple with, at least for a while.

So with that said, let’s get the hedgehog rolling. This article, already longwinded, is only going to get worse. Because if I’m to explain why I think Shattered Crystal is in essence so different from other Sonic games, I’m going to have to delve into what I think actually makes a Sonic game. A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject, often without progress, but I’ve never laid out my own thoughts, so here goes.

What makes a Sonic game?

Sega’s failure, percieved or real, to bring Sonic gameplay to the third dimension, or satisfactorily recapture the feeling of the classics with their latest 2D or 2D/3D hybrid efforts, has driven more analysis of what makes Sonic tick than most other franchises. A lot of this has been unproductive, especially when segments of the fanbase with distinct playing styles fundamentally disagree, and some of it is downright toxic, with self-styled pundits making unhelpful proclamations that Sonic has “really” sucked all along.

There have been incremental successes on the topic, with consensus reached on points like the need for multiple paths (with the upper paths being more rewarding, and lower paths being more challenging). One much celebrated point, “speed as a reward”, is in my opinion too open for interpretation, and has been parroted so often that it’s been blanched of meaning, an empty shibboleth that has somehow even reached Sega themselves, with their PR invoking it like a ward against fan mistrust.

Honestly, there’s too much focus on the concept of speed when discussing Sonic gameplay, anyway. After all, cranking up the mph has never cured what ailed Sonic games, whether it’s required of the player to earn it or not, and the word “speed” hardly sums up the best moments in the classics, e.g. Lava Reef Zone. In response to this, the more nuanced term “flow” has been used a lot, which is certainly a lot more apt, but even Super Mario Bros. could be said to “flow”, so it doesn’t exactly get at the heart of defining what the hedgehog’s all about.

I don’t claim to have the perfect way to sum up Sonic gameplay, but I think a valuable perspective can be gained by looking at it in the context of the time of its creation, contrasting it with its closest conspecifics. There are two platformers of the era that we know had a direct influence on Sonic – the first being Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. The Sega Genesis version was programmed by none other than Yuji Naka, an experience he’s mentioned more than once was essential to the creation of Sonic.

I worked on [the Genesis version] of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, for instance, and I feel that prepared me to make Sonic the Hedgehog. – Yuji Naka (Nintendo Power, May 4 2009)

If I hadn’t worked on the port of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Sonic would have probably never existed. – Yuji Naka (Continue, Ohtabooks, November 2001)

But Super Mario Bros. (and to an extent, its sequels) had even more of an influence. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it Sonic‘s direct inspiration. Not only was it the competition Sonic Team were tasked to dethrone, but it was through playing its levels that the idea for Sonic‘s gameplay was born.

Back then, games didn’t allow you to save your progress. So when you wanted to play Super Mario Bros., you always had to start from World 1-1. You could use the Warp Zones to skip many of the other levels, but you always had to play through World 1-1. Doing so eventually became kind of tedious, so I always tried to get through the level as fast as I could. And that inspired the initial concept for Sonic The Hedgehog. – Yuji Naka (Nintendo Power, 2010)

It would be remiss to interpret this as “Sonic is just fast Mario”. You can’t just double Mario’s speed and have a winning formula for a brilliant and timeless game (ironically, Nintendo Direct just showed exactly this with Speed Mario Bros. on Ultimate NES Remix for 3DS). Wanting to move faster was just an idea, a seed that the game design process turned into an actual fun game.

It’s already possible to play Super Mario Bros. pretty darn quickly. Experts can blaze from the beginning to the end in just a handful of minutes, but that’s exactly it – experts. Being able to dash through levels like a bat out of hell is something that only comes with huge amounts of practice and memorisation. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, too, requires memorisation – surviving its brutal difficulty is not possible just by being reasonably good at games. No, you have to be so intimately familiar with the levels that you are prepared for the onslaught, moving preemptively. It’s the only way to have enough reaction time.

You can get a great rush out of either Ghouls or Mario – finding that “flow” – but you have to already know them. Sonic Team and Naka’s masterstroke was, like Prometheus, bringing that power to mere mortals. The many design decisions that hewed Sonic gameplay from the Mario template were, whether the team consciously thought about them in these terms or not, essentially about accessibility.

Let’s look at a few of those decisions, shall we?

  • At Naka’s insistence, Sonic is controlled with only one button – half those required for Mario. The player doesn’t need to manage a “run” button, instead moving freely with natural acceleration.
  • Sonic can always reach the full height of his jump just by holding the button long enough, unlike Mario who jumps short depending on circumstances before he jumps.
  • Sonic’s acceleration is doubled when jumping, allowing him to clear impressive distances from a standstill without preparation. In addition, as Sonic reaches the apex of his jump, “air drag” blunts his velocity, helping prevent overshooting when Sonic is farthest away from the ground and therefore furthest away from the player’s eye if they are focused on the target of the jump.
  • Sonic doesn’t have a simple 1 or 2 hit health system. Instead, gathering Rings can keep him alive indefinitely, meaning that mistakes are less costly. Being hit by an enemy during a level doesn’t necessarily mean you will be punished during the boss fight by being totally vulnerable. Yes, you can still stock Rings and keep a Shield to make things even easier, but you have to really screw up to be unprotected when it really counts.
  • Sonic and Mario both jump on enemies to destroy them, but Mario is vulnerable unless he lands precisely, meaning that a “jump” response to seeing an enemy actually carries a fair amount of risk. Sonic is safe from all sides unless he hits projectiles or spikes, making it easy to attack from any angle.

All of these aspects make Sonic a game less about memorisation and trial and error than any preceding platformer. The player doesn’t need to prepare; they can fly by the seat of their pants, enjoying the “flow state” of expert action gamers with far less investment. Sonic isn’t necessarily more fun or exciting than Mario, but it’s democratised – the fun faces outward, instead of buried deep. The only ability Sonic has that needs preparation is rolling, for which he must moving at or above a certain speed threshold, but this move is rarely essential because jumping is almost always a viable alternative for attack. Furthermore, rolling can always be done while running, so a player nervous about encountering an enemy can roll up – in essence turn practically invincible and enjoy the high-speed antics anxiety free.

None of this is to say that the Sonic games aren’t challenging, or that they don’t have hidden depths of greater enjoyment when practiced and memorised. Indeed, those peaks are even higher. Sonic is already fast, so speedrunning a zone can give a giddy satisfaction that can often surpass the most flawless Mario run. And of course collecting the Chaos Emeralds to see the “real ending” requires not just surviving but finding and keeping Rings – a reward for players familiar with the zones’ hazards.

All of these accessibility features made Sonic a game relatively free of frustration, an experience that let even beginners taste the joy of really ruling at a game. It was perfect for an impatient and hyperactive kid like myself, who grew bored of Mario and Megaman when they required me to give them more dedication than I felt clusters of pixels really deserved in a world filled with other shiny distractions. Sonic kept me coming back because just moving around in its environs was inviting and thrilling, making practising the game not just rewarding when you “completed” it but an enjoyable process in itself.

Even the makers of Mario must have seen the advantage, because the first game in that series to be developed after Sonic was Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which employs nearly every bullet point on the list above, and even goes further with the addition of the “flutter jump”. A jump that starts out poorly can still be salvaged, allowing less focused play. This is probably why Yoshi’s Island remains my favourite game in the Mario oeuvre and the only one I feel can seriously compare to Sonic.

Obviously this is just my perspective. Sonic is an entire video game, with so many elements conceived and implemented at disparate times that it’s really not possible to consider it as a whole, as it’s inevitably going to contain conflicts and counterexamples to its own ethos. Nothing is simple, and nothing is perfect. But I think that broadly, this is what makes a Sonic game. It’s pretty much consensus that Sega’s recent efforts to relive the glory have fallen flat, though, so where exactly did they go awry? After all, on paper they’ve recreated many of the same details – the Ring system, the loops, the same basic moveset. What went wrong? That’s for Part 2.

So this turned out to not say much about Shattered Crystal… yet. Stay tuned, and all will be revealed! I’ll probably have an opportunity to play the full version at release, having pre-ordered it, so a full review will be forthcoming as well.

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