Posts Tagged game

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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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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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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Minimap Rotation

Not too long ago I praised The Witcher for a plethora of things it did really well. The sequel’s not bad either, but its minimap is absolutely horrible. The main problem is that it rotates with the camera, and the lack of compass directions also exasperates the issue.

Rotating minimaps are great for following a linear path, which is why GPS devices use this design. The user hardly ever needs to worry about whether they’re driving South or South-East, but they need to accurately follow the generated route. Consequently, it’s a lot easier if the path is always facing the same direction as the car, i.e., if the arrow on the screen is pointing right, they need to make a right hand turn.

However, if the map doesn’t rotate, then driving South with an arrow pointing right actually means making a left-hand turn. To avoid this confusion and unnecessary work with mentally rotating the map, the view of GPS devices is synched to match that of the car.

FPS titles also tend to benefit from rotating minimaps. Their levels are often small or just linear, and it’s very helpful for the player to be synced with the minimap view. The reason for this is that split-second decisions often need to be made based on the immediate surroundings.

For example, if the player is following a team-mate turning right but there’s an enemy hiding just around the left corner, it’s beneficial to instantly know which direction to face in order to counter the ambush. Since FPS games also inherently don’t possess a floating camera, it’s that much more advantageous to be aware of what’s lurking beyond the player’s view as there’s no other way to peek around the scenery.

Static minimaps, on the other hand, are much more suitable for games with large areas that need to be traversed multiple times.

In these titles, it’s important to familiarize oneself with the layout of the land in order to travel through it efficiently. Goals are often described with compass directions in mind, and landmarks are used to aid in the building of a mental map for the overall area.

If the minimap constantly swings around, not only does it keep changing the direction north is pointing, but it also forces the player to digest a radically different topography each time they glance at the minimap. A static view is superior to this as it facilitates the parsing and memorization of an area’s layout. This in turn allows the player plot their own paths and comfortably maneauver through the game’s environments.

Of course some players are only used to one approach or the other, in which case why not simply include both options?

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The Irresistible

Whenever an airship boss is defeated in Super Mario Bros. 3, a wand drops from the top of the screen. Picking it up is required to move on to the next world, but doing so in mid-air is not.

Despite this, jumping for the wand is a common behaviour. It’s fun to sync up Mario’s ascent with the wand’s descend, fascilitating a dramatic grab that culminates with Mario falling back down to earth and saving the day.

It’s a very satisfying moment, but there are no gameplay ramifications to simply letting the wand settle on the floor before picking it up. Jumping for it is simply hard to resist.

irresistible, adj.

  1. A representation of an optional action that does not result in any significant gameplay reward, yet is commonly carried out by a large percentage of players.

Let’s take a look at a couple more examples.

Mega Man

In the original Mega Man games, end-level bosses are always prefaced by an empty, single-screen room with two doors. These are a clear indicator that the end is just beyond the next turn, at which point many players choose to jump straight into the boss’ lair.

When Mega Man connects with the door, the action freezes as the entrance opens up and the screen scrolls to reveal the final segment of the map. There’s no reason to jump at the door, but it results in some areal acrobatics that firmly deposit Mega Man in the next area with punctuating, “It’s on!” flair.

Street Fighter III

Many fighting games used to disable collisions or simply cut-off player input whenever a round of combat ended. Street Fighter III was one of the first to buck the trend, enabling the victor to execute a few extra moves following his opponent’s loss. This proved quite satisfying as it allowed the winner to finish off a combo — a naturally stylish string of attacks. Furthermore, it represented a contrast to the rest of the game by providing a short window of time during which some free hits could be scored.

I don’t believe these “bonus shots” increased the super bar meter or affected the end-battle grade, but if they did, the rewards were minimal.

Metroid Prime

Doorways in Metroid Prime are triggered by the player shooting them, at which point they open up after a variable amount of time (usually between 0-6 seconds). The reason for this is to hide data being streamed in the background, which leaves the player largely idle. At this point, concern over whether the shot was registered — and plain frustration — tend to set in, resulting in more blasts bombarding the door.

Unlike the other two examples, this is more of a “get on with it” behaviour that helps to vent frustration rather than being satisfying in itself.


These irresistible actions seem to be largely accidental; as far as the games are concerned, there’s no reason for players to engage in them. They can be quite important to the overall experience, though, and once identified, they often become a defining part of a series or genre.

Are there any “irresistibles” you engage in on a frequent basis?

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Segues

Videogames are filled with transitions: loading new levels, initiating scripted sequences, obtaining special powerups, etc. These are often accompanied by the familiar wipes, fades and cuts of the film industry.

The effects themselves mask pit-stops necessary for resource (re)allocation. The segmentation also creates a natural variety and lets developers work on separate parts of the game that are only later stitched together.

In short, these transitions are functional. However, they are not smooth.

segue, n.

  1. A quick and uninterrupted change to the player’s avatar or surroundings that often facilitates new gameplay.

The above definition is rather nebulous, but it’s based on a simple concept: a smooth flow keeps the player immersed. Segues do this by removing the awkward parts of transitions that break immersion, namely disorientation and helplessness.

Some of GTA IV's more hyperbolic praises were attributed to its seamless world and the ability to carjack any vehicle...

Disorientation can take place quite easily as the camera cuts to a different point of view, or a different scene entirely. All of a sudden the player is expected to parse the change — to keep up with the fast-forwarding presentation — while filling in the gaps. Humans are quite good at this, but it’s a somewhat taxing effort that’s easy to get wrong.

Helplessness is strictly rooted in ignoring player input. Videogames are inherently interactive, and taking away control to show a transition strips the player of engagement. Plus, it’s never fun to wait on a loading screen.

Of course many videogames are quite abstract, but for the most part the medium tries to simulate various facets of the real world. There are no “bumpy” transitions in everyday life — aside from maybe losing consciousness — so it makes sense to limit them in videogames as well. That’s not always possible, but if the choice is there, it should be an easy one to make.

...while Fable 3's most common criticism seems to be its anything-but-smooth hand-shaking minigame.

As hardware, technical design, and production methodologies have advanced, so has our ability to implement segues. Vehicle sections now take place in the same maps as on-foot action, level geometry gets dynamically streamed in, scripted sequences play out as the player explores the environment, etc. These are almost universally praised as they make for some very memorable moments, but smooth transitions have been around for a long while.

Here are just a few of my favourite examples:

1). Spy Hunter’s Boat Segments

Spy Hunter was famous for giving players the ability to drive into the back of a moving truck. This was done at full speed without any camera wipes, but it wasn’t even the game’s greatest segue. No, that honour goes to the car-to-boat segments.

These had the player race through a dockside garage only to emerge in a different vehicle without slowing down for a second. It wasn’t the most realistic transition, but like many moments in Spy Hunter, it perfectly emulated the craziness of action-movie sequences.

2). Metroid’s Morph Ball

The Morph Ball has been a staple of the Metroid series since the inaugural title, and has always been an excellent example a segue.

Turning Samus into a diminutive sphere is effortless and presents the player with an all new moveset. The morph ball’s abilities also grant the player new options for combat and exploration, and switching between the two modes is quick and easy (even in the somewhat underrated 3D sequels).

3). Lost Odyssey’s Intro

Lost Odyssey’s FMV opening depicts a dark and epic battle. As the presumed hero fights his way through the ranks of bizarrely armed soldiers, there’s a brief pause in the action. The camera pans around, and a menu pops up! All of a sudden the player is in the game, and it’s waiting for his input!

There’s a slight hitch here, but it’s barely noticeable and makes for a fantastic intro. Sadly, the rest of Lost Odyssey is a veritable catalogue of awkward segues.


What are some of your favourite examples of smooth (or bumpy) transitions?

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Fun With YouTube

Recently I’ve been browsing YouTube for some examples of JRPG combat mechanics. This little search led me to a low-level, initial equipment playthrough of Final Fantasy IV (Advance). It was a pretty interesting watch, and it reminded me of just how much varied content exists on the site. Sure, you have your usual gameplay footage, corporate trailers and fan reviews, but there’s a lot more beyond that.

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Broadcast Yourself. And videogame clips.

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