10 Ways in Which Sonic the Hedgehog Wasn’t About Speed

When Sonic the Hedgehog was first released, the game was marketed as a speedy anti-Mario. Instead of slowly plodding through small, geometric levels, Sonic blazed up and down rolling hills in large, open areas.

Even the title screen stuck around for only a few seconds — perfectly timed to fade out as the music ended — as if telling the player to get on with it.

Speed wasn’t just a shallow thrill either as the game did a great job of encouraging players to move forward:

The horizontal spring provides an instant speed boost to rocket up the ramp and onto a floating platform with some rings and powerup monitors.

Building up velocity and pressing down allows Sonic to roll up into a destructive ball and bust through a wall with various rewards on the other side.

Jumping onto certain islands floating in lava causes them to dip and catch on fire on the left side, forcing the player to keep moving forward.

The upcoming Sonic Mania seems to be embracing this speed element, even adding a new move to Sonic’s repertoire: the drop-dash. It might prove fairly useful too — the old Sonic always had a bit of a slow acceleration curve — but I hope the back-to-roots approach also pays homage to the original’s precision traversal, improvisational maneuvering, and optional exploration.

In other words, the slower-paced elements of Sonic.

I’m not sure if pinball was a big influence on the inaugural title (beyond the bumper-themed Spring Yard Zone), but it’s an apt comparison. Sonic’s gameplay mimicked both the thrilling momentum of rocketing around a board’s playfield, and the precise, nail-biting navigation through its clustered obstacles.

In an interview with Game Developer magazine, Hirokazu Yasuhara, the chief level designer for Sonic the Hedgehog, elucidated on his design philosophy. What struck me in particular was his description of creating smaller-scale challenges:

…A more short-distance goal, meanwhile, would be if you’re in a baseball game; your goal is to get on base, and there are any number of simple, linear ways to achieve that goal. An example of a middle-distance goal would be if you run into a bridge in the forest that you can’t gain access to — something I do a lot in games. Maybe you have to do a sequence of jumps to reach it, but it’s visible, at least…

These sorts of short and medium distance goals are a constant source of interruptions to the player, but they also create gameplay variety and change up the overall pace. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is largely remembered for its speed and attitude, but it also contained numerous elements designed to slow down the player and create these mini-challenges.

1). Teases & Secrets

As the quote above alludes to, one of the best ways to make the player stop and consider their surroundings is to tease them with things just outside of their reach. Sonic’s levels are quite big and their intertwining paths linked by speed-ramps, automatically moving platforms, vertical springs, and all sorts of other gadgets that facilitate traversal. Changing “lanes” in Sonic is fairly common, whether on purpose or just by going with the flow, and this teaches players that there are extras to collect if they don’t just run directly to the end of the level.

Simply dashing through the maps showcases plenty of alternative routes and difficult-to-reach locations.

Some of these extras are also fairly tricky to reach, especially the ones that require exploratory platforming or moving through hidden paths.

When I originally discovered hidden paths in the game, I obsessively checked all the walls to see if they were collidable or if they’d lead me to secret goodies.

The incentive for extra collectibles is fairly consistent throughout the game. The more rings the player possesses, the easier it is to absorb a hit, and extra shields and temporary invincibility powerups provide further protection. Collecting enough rings also grants extra lives, and a chance to enter the special stage.

2). Special Stages

In these minigames, Sonic is always in his ball mode and the stage slowly rotates around him. It’s a constant fight against the tide as Sonic’s mobility is severely diminished, and getting to the Chaos Emerald involves patiently navigating to its cage.

A full map of the special stage courtesy of soniczone0.com.

Once discovered, Sonic must press against the individual diamonds that surround the Emerald in order to gradually change their colours. In Breakout fashion, once the all the colours are cycled down, the diamonds disappear and open a path to the prize inside. Obtaining all the Chaos Emeralds actually alters the game’s ending, so there’s a concrete incentive for collecting them throughout the game.

Special stages also allow the player to collect extra rings and points in order to gain additional lives and continues.

3). Unique Enemies

Most of the enemies in the game die after a single jump/spin attack, and the collision never slows Sonic down. However, a few of them contain unique properties seemingly designed to make the player pause, or even backtrack to a safer spot.

The Orbinaut, often found in tight corridors, is surrounded by four spiked balls that make it difficult to hit without also harming Sonic. However, the enemy’s main attack is to slowly lob its protective spheres straight ahead, gradually leaving it more and more exposed.

Bombs can’t be hit themselves, but they initiate a self-destruct sequence whenever Sonic gets close. If clustered together, Sonic’s safest bet is to trigger them and retreat until the bombs clear themselves out.

4). Timed Hazards

Unlike enemies, hazards can never be defeated and their timing isn’t always synced up with a straightforward run-through of a level.

While it’s possible to hastily maneuver past various hazards, some will inevitably require careful navigation in order to overcome them.

Much to the chagrin of speedrunners, parkouring through these obstacles is not always an option. Sonic has a limited moveset, lacking wall-jumps, dashes, gliding, etc., so often the only way to get through unscathed is to simply wait for the right opening.

5). Momentum Modifiers

In addition to obstacles that are dangerous to touch, the game also contains various elements that slow down, stop, or even invert Sonic’s momentum.

Bumpers send Sonic careening away, water slows down all movement, automated fans can completely cancel out Sonic’s velocity, and conveyors make navigation that much trickier.

6). Traversal Objects

The most common traversal objects are automatically moving platforms that allow Sonic to get to an area he otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. These are essentially “always on,” but their scripted nature means that when the player gets to them, the object might be somewhere else, or in an inactive state, requiring a short wait for it to become available. In addition, the actual process of using these objects is usually slower than Sonic’s regular running and jumping speed.

Certain doors and bridges also follow an automated schedule.

Player-activated objects exist as well, requiring various types of actions to manually initiate.

Rickety bridges lower when hit from underneath, while seesaws can catapult Sonic high up if he properly uses the weightof the spiked balls.

7). Switches

Not all traversal objects are automatic or activated directly, which is where switches come in. Located on the floors of various zones, these allow Sonic to lower bridges, open doorways, and generally create new traversal paths. Switches rarely affect anything off-screen so they don’t cause much confusion or backtracking, but they do require the player to slow down and execute an extra step before moving on.

Hitting this switch reverses the direction of the rotating cylinder, allowing Sonic to enter it and be deposited on the right path instead of being dropped down into the gauntlet below.

8). Movable Blocks

Exclusive to Marble Zone, blocks are unique in that they’re the only objects that can be slowly maneuvered around the map by Sonic. This results in a variety block-based gameplay that’s mandatory to completing the zone.

While individual blocks exist in other zones, only in this area is the player required to move them to keep switches pressed down, use them as platforms to ride lave drifts, or push them aside to open up a new path.

9). Destructibles

The majority of destructible elements in Sonic the Hedgehog come in the form of crumbling platforms that encourage forward movement rather than slowing it. However, there are a few specific exceptions to this.

Unlike the occasional destructible walls that hide secrets, these blocks must be destroyed one at a time in order to proceed.

Once again these objects are only found in Marble Zone, and while they slow Sonic down by providing extra individual barriers, busting through them is also a fun mechanic that’s a bit different from the rest of the game.

10). Boss Arenas

Perhaps the most blunt-force way of preventing Sonic from building up speed is limiting his available real estate. All boss encounters — aside from the one in Labyrinth Zone, which is just a race against the tide — do this by forcing the encounter to take place on a single, non-scrolling screen.

Each boss has a unique attack pattern that needs to be studied and exploited in order to defeat the vile Dr. Robotnik.


While it’s easy to assume that the series evolved past these speed-bumps, the original’s sequels — largely the most beloved Sonic titles — contained them as well. The games were streamlined, providing shorter pauses and more opportunities for building up speed, but they were still filled with crazy gadgets that facilitated movement and exploration, interesting enemies with unique abilities and properties, and lots of secrets that helped the player progress and unlock the ultimate ending(s).

Short and medium distance goals were clearly a guiding element in the design of Sonic the Hedgehog as exemplified by its early concept art.

An excessive focus on speed was probably a major reason for the decline of the Sonic-platformer (at least in terms of gameplay), but the issue was also a bit more nuanced. The problem wasn’t just how much of a backseat other gameplay took to speed, but also how the speed elements themselves were implemented.

Not a Sonic map, but rather a level from Uniracers courtesy of vgmaps.com. It’s what always pops into my head when I try to recall my experience playing Sonic Rush.

In recent Sonic games building velocity was no longer an organic part of a level, but rather its main feature. Maps turned into one-way obstacle courses, lacking in interesting challenges while forcibly rocketing Sonic ahead. The thrill of the speed became routine, and it turned the experience into a somewhat passive and boring rollercoaster ride. While that sort of design methodology can work in some genres — it certainly did with the the lane-runner Sonic Dash — it just doesn’t make for very good platformers, 2D or 3D.

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Trudy’s Website

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Here’s a little teaser we made to accompany the launch of our official Trudy’s Mechanicals website!

And here’s a couple new screenshots and concepts:

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If you think it looks interesting, please sign up for our mailing list!

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From Innsmouth, With Love

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Call of the Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth took a long time to develop. When it was finally released, its insanity mechanic and physics engine were no longer novelties, its visuals looked dated, and its feeble gunplay and frustrating stealth left FPS fans largely dissatisfied. The adventuring elements stood out among the genre, though, and the game did a fantastic job of implementing the Mythos’ bestiary.

The Call of the Cthulhu setting is very much about the unimaginable terrors of the cosmos. Humankind is fairly insignificant against this backdrop, and the notable races and entities range tremendously in motives and capabilities. Although Dark Corners of the Earth has its fair share of grunt enemies, trying to distill all of the Mythos into common FPS foes with movement speeds, line-of-sight ranges, HP values, weapon weaknesses, etc., wouldn’t have been true to the source material.

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The Lost City of Pnakotus is teased from the very beginning.

Thankfully Headfirst Productions didn’t go that route, instead focusing on how to best implement the iconic monstrosities as they appeared in the original stories and Chaosium’s Pen & Paper campaigns. Here are my three favourite examples:

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A Night With the Devil

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Introduction

Diablo is one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed videogame franchises of all time. It has spawned numerous “clones,” and its gameplay conventions have been adapted across multiple genres. The latest entry in the series, Diablo III, boasts the honour of being the fastest selling PC game of all time and the best selling PC game of all time.

So what makes the series so special? Almost to a fault, Diablo games are described as being incredibly addictive. That’s a fairly vague assertion, though, so I figured it’d be interesting to take a closer look at the original game and get a little closer to nailing down its je ne sais quois.

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The one that started it all.

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Trudy is Coming!

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Set in a rich Steampunk universe, Trudy’s Mechanicals is our upcoming turn-based tactics game in development for the PC.

Follow the plight of industrialized warriors as they fight for a spot aboard the floating airship nicknamed Trudy.

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Mistranslated Worlds

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Loose threads and general vagueness are often poor crutches in storytelling. These aspects tend to be weird for the sake of being weird, or serve as token springboards for potential sequels, or — worse yet — are indicative of the creator(s)’s lack of a narrative plan, e.g., Lost.

Mystery is inherently alluring, though, and it can also have a fulfilling payoff. The Souls games are a good example of that.

Each title begins with a seemingly disconnected CG intro, and proceeds to thrust the player into a crumbling world with barely an explanation. There are no lengthy expositions, conquests retold over animated world maps, extensive flashback sequences, etc. Instead, whatever pieces of narrative the player puts together are entirely optional and widely scattered about.

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Who is this Artorias? Probably just some throwaway text to go along with that big wolf boss…

A tib-bit mentioned in passing by an NPC foreshadows a gruesome battlefield encountered later in the game. Flavour text accompanying an item hints at a long-standing dynasty and its wealth. Parts of defaced statues allude to an outcast regal heir.

 

There’s not much of a plot to the player-controlled protagonist, but there’s an incredible sense of depth and history to the setting itself. It’s all very cohesive and consistent, and delivered with understated elegance.

 

That’s something incredibly rare for a brand new series, but the Souls games actually have something of a 20+ year development history.

From Software’s other games such as Eternal Ring, Shadow Tower, Evergrace, Otogi, and King’s Field contain bits of gameplay and ambiance present in the Souls titles: stamina-draining melee attacks, stat-boosting equipment, sporadically dispersed NPCs, non-linear exploration, item durability and crafting, fog-of-war/dynamic lighting, loading screen and item flavour text, highly destructible environments, “soul”-harvesting progression, etc.

All of these previous games experimented with and revised what’s so confidently delivered in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but the series itself also follows in the footsteps of another older title: Wizardry.

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Somewhat famously, the Souls games also seem to borrow a few aesthetics from the Berserk manga.

Wizardry’s arrival and subsequent popularity in Japan is fairly well documented, and King’s Field, From Software’s inaugural release, is said to have been closely inspired by the Western CRPG. The interesting part is that Wizardry’s success seems to have come in part due to a shoddy localization. The only clear example of this I can find is a Wikipedia entry that mentions Blade Cusinart — a silly nod to Cuisinart food processors — evoking an aura of alien mythology.

I assume the results were similar with subsequent Wizardry titles, which contained even more pop culture references, but it’s hard to find any concrete evidence of how these were interpreted in Japan. Perhaps someone else could shine a light on the subject?

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It’s feeding time for Ostrava!

Regardless, it’s still fascinating to think about how a simple misconception could be taken to an extreme. Many of From Software’s titles found a niche audience and followed their own paths instead of borrowing the homogeneous conventions of their peers; what else could we have seen if a misunderstood production memo or marketing bullet-point was left to evolve in a bubble?

In the end the significance of Wizardy’s Japanese localization might be a bit overstated, but its heritage is certainly evident in the Souls games. They’re positively brimming with relics steeped in a strange, foreign history, and greatly contribute to the series’ unique style.

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Feeding Time is Here!

The little puzzle game that could has finally hit the AppStore!

Also, check out the official #FeedingTime website.

Well, now that that’s done, maybe I can finally get back to posting stuff on here!

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