The last episode of Sonic Boom before a mid-season break has recently aired. The show has done well with the attention from key demographics doubling and tripling. This is great news considering the poor reviews of the video games. The reviews of the TV show are twice as good as the reviews of the games. The next episode is set to air early-2015. We’ll just have to wait for the new episodes.
The nature of video games is such that drastic changes are possible in development up to the very last minute. Despite this, the press and public need to see the game in action in order to build awareness and anticipation, so it’s incredibly common for promotional materials to depict preview builds that vary significantly from the finished product. The Sonic series is no exception, and its history is rife with examples, from the celebrated Hidden Palace Zone appearing in countless magazines representing Sonic 2, to screenshots from prototypes being used for the games’ own packaging and instruction booklets. (If you have a North American box for Sonic 1 or Sonic 2, look at the back – the screenshots on Sonic 1 say “RING” instead of “RINGS”, and Sonic 2‘s show Sonic’s whirling feet from the beta.)
While Sonic 1 doesn’t have any axed content as high profile as entire zones, it has a large number of unused sprites and objects, from Splats the bouncing bunny Badnik to odd UFOs in the background of Marble Zone (original graphics for both of which have been recovered). One of the most interesting of these objects, and the subject of today’s Sonic Second, is the chequered ball:
The screenshot above comes from a sidebar in an unidentified issue of Official Sega Magazine from the UK. Seeing this screenshot on the internet was the first I’d heard of the ball, and the bit about it being reused as Robotnik’s weapon made enough sense that I just accepted that narrative.
This giant ball eventually found a home as Robotnik’s weapon at the end of the Green Hill Zone.
However, there’s evidence to suggest it wasn’t as simple as repurposing graphics from an unused hazard. In the Game Players Encyclopedia of Sega Genesis Games: Volume Three, both the ball and the Green Hill Zone boss are shown, presumably meaning that they coexisted in the same build. (Unfortunately the screenshot of the boss shows a completely brown wrecking ball; in the finished game the wrecking ball flashes between completely brown and chequered frames, so I’m going to assume that’s the case here.)
Again, the ball isn’t chequered, so it’s conceivable that the wrecking ball was plain brown until the chequered ball was cut, and then its graphics were repurposed to create a flashing ball for the Robotnik boss.
All that aside, the coolest thing is that we’ve now got moving footage of the ball object in action, thanks to a YouTube upload of the Nick Arcade TV pilot. Here’s just the relevant part for your viewing pleasure (the ball appears at 0:54):
It shows video of this section of Green Hill Zone Act 1, shown here in a partial map from Brazilian magazine Videogame:
Interestingly, Sonic doesn’t have to give the ball a push to make it go; much like the Robotnik signs at level end, it’s activated by Sonic jumping over it. It lurches to life and begins rolling forward, giving Sonic an object with physics very similar to his own to race or chase.
The caption from the Game Players Encyclopedia screenshot above makes the following claim:
Don’t underestimate that big ball. It can squash our hero like a bug. The slightest touch will start it rolling, so Sonic shoves it to the left and keeps moving.
This suggests that touching it also activates it, and that it’s capable of harming Sonic. In the video, Sonic seems to be pushed by the ball for a few frames without being hurt, so it’s possible the only danger is if the ball crushes Sonic against a wall or other solid surface.
An interesting thing to note is that the object, which so far everybody’s been calling a “ball”, has the exact same colour and pattern as the ground in Green Hill Zone. So perhaps it was intended to simply be a boulder, made out of the same rock from the region that mysteriously sports a regular chequerboard. Once I thought of it as a boulder, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a very similar object in a game that takes a few cues from Sonic: Chomp Rock from Yoshi’s Island, which also appears in its respective game’s first level.
(There’s even a level in Yoshi’s Island called “Chomp Rock Zone”!)
Boulder or ball, the Nick Arcade video shows that the object seemed to be working well, so why was it cut? Was it a test object that was never meant for the finished game? Did it cause obscure glitches? Or was it just considered too challenging and confusing for the pleasant rolling hills of the first zone? We may never know why Sonic Team – if you’ll pardon the pun – dropped the ball.
When the demo for Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal was released on the 5th, I was keen to write about it, having been pleasantly surprised by its quality. Things got a little out of hand, however, when I decided to split my thoughts into parts: Part 1, about what I think made the classic Sonic games so special; Part 2, about why I think none of Sega’s Sonic games have quite lived up to them since (2D or 3D); and now Part 3, in which I will finally review the game itself.
A lot has happened in the past two weeks, though – the full version of the 3DS game was released on the 11th, as was the Wii U game, Rise of Lyric. The Sonic Boom TV series has also since premiered on the Cartoon Network. I wound up playing Shattered Crystal through to the end, trying the first few episodes of the cartoon, and watching an LP of Rise of Lyric just so that I’d have the big picture when writing this article. Having now done all that, I have to say that in my own estimation, the grand cross-media experiment of Sonic Boom would have been a total failure if not for this little 3DS game. It’s the only silver lining for me in the whole deal, with the cartoon being profoundly dumb and the Wii U game being a complete embarrassment.
It’s frustrating, because I’ve been looking forward to Sonic Boom ever since it was announced, excited to see someone else’s take on the franchise after Sega’s recent efforts had felt increasingly stale and misguided. Unfortunately, just like with Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, what was ultimately delivered didn’t live up to the dream, or even, in many ways, what was promised. But something nice, however small, has come from it, so let’s focus on that.
Shattered Crystal is, at heart, a sidescrolling action platformer based around exploration. The player switches between the four characters on the fly with the D-pad, using their unique abilities to collect everything hidden in the levels. The level of complexity is not high, and retraversal is not emphasised – all of the characters are unlocked for play so early in the game that you’ll only need to revisit the first couple of areas.
Levels are accessed via a world map, and must be unlocked with a certain number of the badges that are awarded for playing previous levels thoroughly. This structure is a familiar one, being used in Super Mario 3D Land amongst countless others. I found it possible to earn enough badges while playing leisurely that I didn’t feel like I was forced to go back and grind through previous levels just to progress, which was something that marred Sonic Rush Adventure. Your mileage may vary, however, because I tend to be a “100% it as I go” kind of player; if you just rush through collecting nothing you’ll find your progress hampered.
In addition to the standard exploration levels, there are two other kinds of levels, both of them Sonic-only: Races and Worm Tunnels.
The Races are built on the same engine as the standard levels, but are much quicker and don’t contain any of the special hidden collectibles. They basically functions as the “bosses” of the game, with the final one pausing a couple times for Sonic to directly battle Lyric. Apart from that, though, there aren’t any traditional boss fights to be had.
The Worm Tunnels can be thought of like Special Stages from other Sonic games. Sonic runs forward, collecting rings and avoiding hazards, but can also boost through barriers and use the Enerbeam to connect to rails temporarily. They’re really fun – probably the best version of this concept in quite some time – and the Enerbeam rail sections are much better than the ones in the Wii U game because Sonic only moves between three positions to collect rings rather than swinging around wildly.
If you are expecting anything approaching classic Sonic gameplay, you will certainly find Shattered Crystal jarring. There’s no real momentum; Sonic and friends move at a languid pace by default, like Ristar or Kirby. Curves, slopes, and complicated moving platforms are all but absent, with the only loops and corkscrews being automatic speed sections like Sonic 3D Blast.
So, Shattered Crystal basically throws everything out from previous Sonic games. Instead it focuses on a few simple actions, one for each of the four face buttons on the 3DS.
- Pressing Y does the Sprint, allowing the player to dash quickly, useful for traversing disappearing platforms.
- Pressing B will jump, and also do a double-jump in the air. If an enemy or other target is nearby, B will perform a homing attack. Jumping and attacking are the same for each character now, so Sonic isn’t the only one who can home to enemies anymore. Unlike classic Sonic games, the player is not protected merely by jumping, and only a direct attack will destroy enemies.
- Pressing A activates the Enerbeam. Primarily useful for swinging on dedicated grapple points, but can also rip shields off of enemies.
- Pressing X does a character-specific ability. For Sonic, it allows him to Spin Dash (on the ground) or Air Dash (in the air); Knuckles can dig at certain context-sensitive points; Sticks throws her Boomerang to collect items or hit switches; Tails throws sticky bombs by default, but at specific points he can send his toy submarine, the SeaFox, into mini-mazes to collect blueprint fragments (I love that they reference Tails Adventure in this way).
The gameplay is rather slow-paced and deliberate, which seems antithetical to the Sonic series, but it’s actually quite enjoyable on its own due to how generous the controls are. For example, Sonic can jump, double jump, Air Dash in one direction, do another double jump, and Air Dash in another direction, all without touching the ground. Attacking an enemy, hitting a spring, or swinging with the Enerbeam all allow even more actions to be chained together, and it can be quite fun to keep a run of dozens of actions going without stopping. It’s not the traditional Sonic speed at all, but it’s its own kind of flow. I’d almost call it a rhythm-platformer.
Because of the leeway for using actions, it’s easy to catch the opportunities the levels provide without having to memorise them. Instead of flying off of a spring and missing a chance to Air Dash because everything’s happening too quickly, the player can still succeed even if they double-jump first to give themselves more time, or Air Dash in a different direction.
In some of Sonic’s recent 2D outings, it’s felt like he’s just impelled by springs and boosters and the player’s only input is to react correctly in time or Sonic falls to a lower path, gets hurt, or dies. Shattered Crystal improves on this greatly by expanding the number of reactions and giving the player more freedom of choice in how to use them. It’s slower, but it feels like you’re actually doing something because you’re more in charge of the bouncing and dashing around.
Unlike Rise of Lyric, Shattered Crystal lets you collect as many rings as you want without capping out at 100, and they work just like classic Sonic. You lose them all when you are hit (unless you activate a certain upgrade), and having only one protects you from death.
Gone are instant deaths – there are no crushing deaths, and pits only throw you back a ways and make you lose your rings. With so many Dimps games being marred by a preponderance of death pits, this is quite refreshing.
In fact, the game may be too easy. I didn’t die even once on my way through the normal levels or races, not even in the final boss. I ran into a few barriers in the Worm Tunnels, which immediately restarts the level, because I missed a ring and wanted to try again. There’s no lives system, so even that doesn’t feel like an actual death.
In order to progress, it’s necessary to collect badges to unlock the next levels. One badge is earned per level for simply reaching the goal, and two more are earned for finding all the crystal shards and blueprint fragments. Thus some amount of replay is required just to reach the end of the game.
But there are also tokens, separate from badges. While tokens can be farmed by working out with Knuckles every 24 hours in his Scrapyard home, they are also awarded for clearing level times and reaching goals with a certain number of rings. Tokens can then be spent to unlock cute 3D trophies of enemies, characters, and other objects in the game.
Personally I found the gameplay kind of soothing and addictive, so I went through levels more than I needed to as I went, obsessively getting both tokens in the Worm Tunnels before moving on.
The music, composed by Richard Jacques, is not a brilliant, instant-classic soundtrack like Sonic CD or Sonic Rush, but it’s very good. It’s got more of an adventure cartoon vibe than a traditional Sonic game vibe, but there are definitely a handful of stand out tracks.
One of the biggest problems with Rise of Lyric is the abhorrent use of voice clips all throughout the levels, with the characters commenting on everything from bounce pads to collecting rings, often a second or two late. Thankfully, this is wholly absent in Shattered Crystal, with absolutely no voice clips other than simple grunts during gameplay. Even the bulk of the cutscenes aren’t voice acted, opting for Zelda style vocalisations instead.
That said, the vocal grunts can get a little grating, especially when Sonic is Air Dashing and attacking. It’s not horrible, but it’s a small thing preventing the aural experience from being totally comfortable.
The graphics are not outstanding, and are easily out-competed by Donkey Kong Country Returns or Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, but they are not bad by any stretch. Some levels, like the ancient ruins and sky city are quite pretty, recalling classic environments like Marble Garden or Sky Sanctuary.
I was worried that the game’s writing would be really bad, preventing me from enjoying the experience, because I heard that Pontac and Graff were writing it. Fortunately the cutscenes are brief and mostly inoffensive. The writing is still mostly hokey jokes, but at least the mean-spirited sniping from Rise of Lyric isn’t present and some of it verges on cute.
Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal is not the second coming of Sonic, but nor is it an abject mess like its Wii U cousin. It would be a shame if it were overshadowed and ignored just because the other parts of Sonic Boom didn’t turn out so well. It’s polished, above-average, and full of content, so if you enjoy slower paced platformers and have a 3DS, give it a chance. After all, the demo’s free!
All around I think Sanzaru Games did well for their first Sonic effort, and I’d be glad to see them return for a sequel, or perhaps a Sonic game outside of the Boom universe.
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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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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