I think this requires a little bit of explanation.
Gallery Mode is a feature in which I will attempt to look at video games and various aspects of video games from a more intellectual perspective. The purpose here is to try to understand the “language” of games, and see if they carry deeper meanings.
One popular exercise in film studies is to dissect a single frame and analyze it as if it were a painting or photograph. I’m going to apply this to a screenshot from a video game, in this case, Sonic Team’s Sonic the Hedgehog (1991). The same rules don’t quite apply to video games, of course, since there is no real cinematography, per se. In other words, camera positioning and movement are meant to be more functional and follow the action of the game rather than directly create a dramatic effect (with the exception of cutscenes). However, even within those confines, the orientation can still tell us something about what we are seeing.
What we have here is a scene from Green Hill Zone, Act 2, from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. It is, in my opinion, an iconic scene from the game: that of Sonic running through a loop. Here, the loop is in full view with Sonic having run through about one quarter of it. The loop itself is made up of the classic checkerboard pattern associated with the original game. To the right, we see a couple of flowers and a palm tree. In the background is a large mass of water, with cliffs and vegetation springing from it. Beyond that are tall craggy mountains, and a deep blue sky with scattered clouds. In the foreground is the heads-up display (HUD) showing the score, time, rings, and number of extra lives.
Despite being a static screen, there’s a sense of movement conveyed through Sonic’s position. He is in a running posture, and there had to have been momentum for him to scale the wall of the loop. Also, there is a short trail of sparkles behind him indicating the rings he collected in the previous split-second.
Nearly everything in the foreground has an artificial look to it. Sonic, himself, bares only vague resemblance to the animal he is supposed to represent. The famous checkerboard ground and loop seem curiously hand-made, and even the vegetation looks more like papercraft than actual plants. The whole thing has something of an art deco feel to it. However, they convey a strong sense of dimension, as the well-defined angles easily display shadows and light. Even Sonic is seen here in a horizontal position; such a simple manipulation made him a very dynamic video game character at the time of the game’s release. As opposed to Mario and other characters, Sonic was seen from all angles and orientations.
The background has a more natural look to it, although based on the shadows, there still seem to be many defined angles in the rocky cliffs. The vegetation, however, seems to be more organic and rounded, but it’s difficult to discern details as it will forever be only observable from an implied distance.
One of the more overlooked elements of video games is the HUD. Sonic the Hedgehog makes curious use of it, as its oriented and aligned to the left side of the screen. This provides an asymmetrical design, as opposed to balancing the data either along the top or bottom as most games would. The purpose of this, perhaps, is to subliminally encourage the player to move to the right. Although there are many areas in the game in which Sonic must move up, down, or even briefly to the left; in every case, the end of the level is to the right of the beginning. Thus, by crowding the left side of the screen with the HUD, it “pushes” the player to the right, towards the end of the level.
So, based on this screenshot, we get a sense of both movement and dimension, each of which are prominent elements in Sonic the Hedgehog. Naturally, that made it the ideal game to show off the technical capabilities of the Sega Genesis console. However, the art design still holds up well today, demonstrating that it wasn’t merely a technical showcase, but a product of thoughtful imagination, and certainly one worth appreciating.