In Part 1, I did my best to describe what I think made classic Sonic gameplay so special. Here in Part 2 I want to examine why it hasn’t been satisfactorily recreated in the series since.
The Problem of 3D
As with so much else in the story of Sonic, it all starts with Mario. When Nintendo was developing what would become Super Mario 64 for their new “Project Reality”, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at EAD had to figure out how to translate the fun of Mario into the third dimension.
This was actually quite a tough problem. The basic action of the series so far was using fine control over Mario’s x-axis to line up vertically with objects. Mario’s y-axis was under far less player control, with motion being generated in bursts by events such as jumping, falling, or bouncing. Adding a z-axis so that Mario can run freely on an xz-plane means doubling the number of axes the player has fine control over, making the simple act of lining up a jump much harder. Add to this the fact that this new type of polygonal game was still intended for traditional televisions without stereoscopic 3D, and the lack of depth perception compounds the issue. What used to be second nature, and the basis for the fun of the game series, would become a difficult task. Breaking something so fundamental could ruin the whole experience, something which the likes of Bubsy 3D learned the hard way.
Considering that Project Reality was predicated on 3D, and Miyamoto had wanted to make a 3D Mario ever since their experience with the Super FX Chip enhanced Star Fox and Star Fox 2, there was no turning back. Mario had to not just work in 3D, but excel – and make the case for their upcoming console.
So what did they do? The made a hard decision, the kind of decision that only a developer of their calibre could make. They changed what Mario was all about.
Of course Mario could still jump, and there were levels with more traditional camera angles and gameplay, but they significantly expanded what Mario could do to take advantage of the new perspective. Mario could now kick and punch enemies from the side, making jumping less essential and allowing players to choose an attack based on their confidence in their own skill. Levels were also now less linear – mostly gone were the obstacle courses from before, replaced by playgrounds with opportunities to race, chase, swim, and even fly. All of these new motions had little to do with platform games from the past, but they were all so exhilarating and amazing in 3D that it didn’t really matter.
Instead of turning Mario into 3D, they turned 3D into Mario – making the series synonymous with a whole new generation of gameplay before anyone else made a major move. This ensured that, just like in the 2D era, Mario would lead and other platform games would follow.
Sonic wouldn’t get a proper 3D game until Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, three years after Super Mario 64 set the standard. (Other defining games in the genre like Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Rayman 2 were all released too late to have influenced its development.) Sonic, too, had to solve the “problem of 3D”, because jumping and landing were its bread and butter in the 2D era just like Mario. But Sonic Team didn’t simply crib from Mario, they attemped to solve it in a different way.
They introduced the Homing Attack. First seen as a temporary power-up when wearing the Golden Shield in the Sonic Team co-developed Sonic 3D Blast, it allowed Sonic to shoot toward nearby enemies like a bullet, destroying them with a minimum of aiming on the part of the player. Just press the button and watch Sonic go. What’s more, blasting forward really made Sonic feel fast. If there wasn’t an enemy nearby, Sonic could use the attack to dash through the air and gain speed.
Problem solved, right? Well, technically yes – now Sonic could aim effortlessly in 3D and development of levels could proceed. But I think that this one simple, seemingly helpful decision was the first step in a series of mistakes that prevented Sonic from becoming all he could be in the third dimension.
The Homing Attack acted like a band-aid, holding the platform gameplay together just well enough that they didn’t have to thoroughly reexamine it. And without Sonic Team’s brilliant veteran level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara on the staff anymore, this was all the more disastrous.
Sonic’s action stages in Sonic Adventure are overly linear and extremely limited, with most of them being simple paths suspended over a pit – the expected result of converting 2D gameplay to 3D too literally. When anything interesting has to happen, the levels rely too much on scripting to patch up an insufficient game engine, and once the sizzle wears off replaying them feels like going through the motions. Any game gets old if you play it ad nauseam, but in this author’s opinion Sonic Adventure‘s zones grow thin far more quickly than those of the classics. This isn’t helped by the way Sonic is pushed and pulled through the levels, flung ahead not just by boosters but by the controls themselves. Thanks to the Homing Attack and all these other issues, the game doesn’t have a flowing momentum to it, but a jerky zig-zag rhythm.
All this could have been avoided by making a bolder move, more like Super Mario 64. I’m not suggesting Sonic Adventure should have been a bite-sized emblem hunt that followed Mario to the letter, but that it should have employed the same kind of willingness to reinvent what the series was about. For example, instead of focusing on salvaging jumping with the Homing Attack, they could have built bigger, wider levels to roam around in, rolling into enemies or using Tails to fly and explore. Some of the game’s shining moments are the brief occasions when running on the Adventure Fields (especially the temples in the flashback sequences) and you can imagine Sonic in a whole world to explore before the reality of the game’s boundaries come washing back in like the tide. After all, the song says “rolling around at the speed of sound”, not “rolling forward”.
Merely making the point as I have done here is a far cry from making a better game than Sonic Adventure, of course. However, I do believe that the whole game design process, working with such an idea, would have resulted in a more well-rounded game that would hold up better today. I can point to the first three Spyro the Dragon games on the PlayStation as examples of platform games that, without the weight of the Sonic series on them, were able to be better successors than Sonic Team themselves could provide. Spyro is low to the ground; he jumps long instead of high; he can dash through enemies and turn corners smoothly; there are swimming, flying, and racing sequences; on the whole it controls and plays more solidly than any 3D Sonic game – and it was released in 1998. Perhaps if Sonic Team hadn’t turned their backs on the Sega Technical Institute (members of which went on to develop Spyro), we would have a stronger Sonic series today.
The Homing Attack was only the beginning, though. Once it set the stage, Sonic in 3D always continued to feel like it was about pushing forward at all costs. Stopping, turning, exploring – all these things feel like nuisances when your character is zipping about like a caffeinated squirrel. Grinding, auto-running, boosting and tricking became the series’ staples. Because these things all ultimately create thin gameplay that Sonic blasts through too fast, the games had to be loaded down with forced gimmicks to flesh them out. But since none of these auxiliary modes of play had any provenance in the series, they were introduced and dropped without proper development or care.
After a while, though, the new 3D Sonic games finally achieved a sort of polish. The day stages of Sonic Unleashed, and parts of Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, at least managed to be good linear boost-y levels. They are quite amazing when correctly memorised and expertly speedrun. But where does that leave the fan of classic Sonic gameplay? The fan who wants to play a platform game that feels great right when they pick it up? The fan for whom repeatedly pressing the A button to prerecorded cries of “Excellent! Amazing! Outstanding!” is a pale shadow of what it once meant to play Sonic?
One might think that that fan could turn to the recent 2D Sonic games. After all, that’s been Nintendo’s tactic for years – anyone not comfortable with Mario’s 3D excursions is encouraged to relive their preferred gameplay with New Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. (This hasn’t been a perfect success, of course, but I think that’s mostly due to the ho-hum art design. If they coupled the polished level design of the NSMB series with more creativity they’d have the ideal mix. There could easily be more to the Mario universe than retreading the Super Mario Bros. 3 aesthetic over and over – heck, they could turn to Super Mario Land or even bring back Wart if they didn’t want to make something truly new. But this article is supposed to be about Sonic…)
But the 2D Sonic games after the classic era have fared little better than the 3D outings. Let’s look at them, shall we?
The first, Sonic Pocket Adventure, actually plays very well, but sadly suffers from being too much of a retread to really feel like it delivers on being the sequel Sonic & Knuckles deserves. Besides, even if was perfect, it’s been a decade and a half since it was released on an obscure system.
Sonic Advance and its successors almost had something great going, but with each subsequent game they accumulated sins, culminating in Sonic Rush through Sonic Colors on the Nintendo DS. These are just as problematic as any of the 3D Sonic games. Managing to use the same number of dimensions as a Sega Genesis game isn’t sufficient to make a good Sonic game if the developer forgets the rest of the formula.
Here are some of the ways that these handheld games are contrary to the spirit of Sonic gameplay (though not every point applies to all of the games):
- Physics. Despite it being trivial (especially for a professional team) to recreate the most relevant aspects of Sonic physics, Dimps kept mucking about with them until they were nearly unrecognisable. Air acceleration is not tuned properly and jumps stop like you hit a ceiling, making it common to both under- and overshoot. Rolling is nerfed, forcing you to run or Boost (which is limited), meaning you can’t play it safe as easily, which leads to…
- Cheap enemy/trap placement. In Sonic, this is a cardinal sin. To defend Dimps, one could point to Metropolis Zone, but that just makes my point for me – it stands out so badly because it’s not right for Sonic. In Donkey Kong Country, it’s all about memorisation, but Sonic should be able to simply react – that’s what makes the game feel like it’s about speed without being too fast to play. Dimps often gets this exactly backward.
- If enemy and trap placement is bad, the next problem is even worse: Death pits. Relatively uncommon in classic Sonic, the newer 2D games spam them as if they are in a race with the 3D games to see who can feel more like a rail suspended over nothingness. Needless to say, hazards that kill Sonic outright need to be less frequent or the gameplay reverts to memorisation. The new trend of having the warning signs is just a band-aid solution again – it tells the player they need to jump, but platforming should be thinking about how to jump (not simply that it’ll be needed soon) and that requires the player to see and understand the situation more deeply than a red icon can provide.
- Lack of landmarks. Both an art problem and a level design problem; static backgrounds and samey layouts mean that the player doesn’t get a feel for where they are in the level, again requiring rote memorisation of the levels. When you don’t have a sense of your surroundings, it undermines the way Sonic’s multiple paths are supposed to each have their own feel to them. It’s also never good when you have no idea how close to the bottom or top of the level you are, because of those damn death pits being everywhere. And needless to say, repetitive and unsurprising levels aren’t good for any game.
- Item Boxes and Springs, now like the 3D games, are activated merely by touching them. This adds to the feel of being pushed and pulled through the levels without your say-so, but more than that it means that there are less reasons and opportunities to jump and roll of your volition to react to objects on the screen in interesting ways. Instead of controlling your speed and timing to find the optimum bouncing path, you just watch Sonic do his thing. The forced trajectories of the Springs in Sonic 4 are the worst offender.
- In addition, there are dozens of other objects that boost you around as well. The maligned Dash Panels are an obvious problem, but even things that should be fun, like zip-lines, are made worse. In a classic level, like Launch Base Zone, they are springy and move smoothly, accelerating toward their destination, and they allow you to decelerate and even reverse direction. Also, they leave the player in charge of jumping off of them – heck, the vine zip-lines in Angel Island Zone even have a specially programmed spin at the end to make the gameplay more fun. In new 2D Sonic games? They start off like a shot at one touch, move at a fixed speed, and can’t be controlled. This kind of thing is endemic with the gimmicks in the newer games.
- By Sonic Rush especially, there are too many sequences with non-standard gameplay, like hang gliders and floating balloons. These aren’t bad in a universal sense, but they are the exact antithesis of Yuji Naka’s original concept of Sonic, because the player can’t always try to run through faster and faster, skipping as much as they want. Picture even Marble Zone or Labyrinth Zone, often criticised for being slow and linear, but a player can hop and skip over the slowest parts of these levels if they are impatient. Not so if you are tied to a stately balloon in a fixed sequence.
- Similar to the problem immediately above, the boss fights often make you wait for an opportunity to hit them. This was always true to a certain extent, but quick players could get in extra hits or even roast a boss in one series of short bounces. The newer games actively try to avoid this with long scripted bosses that you have to wait around for, watching them roar and posture pointlessly. The classic games knew they’d be played over and over, and were unafraid to let veteran players have the enjoyment of blasting through a boss just like a zone.
- Sonic Advance 2 and Sonic Advance 3 have highly egregious methods of entering Special Stages, with the former being worse because it enforces playing the levels by taking a specific route. Instead of finding the entrances through natural exploration or by managing to keep enough rings – both of which leave control mostly in the hands of the player – in Sonic Advance 2 the player must always do the same thing in practically the same way to get the most out of the game.
The list above is hardly exhaustive, and it’s been written off the top of my head. I haven’t played many of these games in quite a while, either. It shouldn’t be so easy to compile a list of how every Sonic game Sega has made in the last decade makes design decisions that are not only bad, but wrong and even precisely backward.
Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is supposed to be a fresh start, and the demo indicated that that could actually be the case. Stay tuned for Part 3 where I will finally get to my thoughts about its new style of gameplay now that all the groundwork is out of the way.
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