The Labyrinth Zone is Sonic‘s version of the water level trope seen so often in classic platformers, and here, the gimmick is milked for all it’s worth. Sonic must traverse a confusing submerged maze, but unlike Mario, he can’t swim, and unlike Mega Man, the water doesn’t make him more buoyant. Rather, being underwater makes Sonic painfully slow and clumsy, which is completely at odds with the speedy theme of the game and the flowing control we’ve gotten used to up to this point. To make matters worse, Sonic can only hold his breath underwater for so long before he drowns (accompanied by one of the most panic-inducing audio cues in all of classic gaming), so you must always seek out air bubbles or get back to the surface in time. And aside from the water, the zone is filled with spikes, traps and enemies that don’t seem to be inhibited, so the overall difficulty is cranked way up here.
Yeah, the Labyrinth Zone is like a cruel joke from Sonic Team.
An interesting pattern does start to emerge, however. Green Hill was wide open and speed oriented. Marble was more linear and methodical. Spring Yard went back to fast and open. And again with the Labyrinth Zone, Sonic is slowed way down and guided through narrow passageways. The constant change in tempo does keep things interesting and adds variety to the platforming.
The background makes the zone look completely enclosed, and the narrow passages serve to make the Labyrinth feel very claustrophobic. There are several branching paths that take Sonic through different routes, but he’ll ultimately end up at the same point anyway, so it’s not quite as maze-like as it at first seems. Still, the feeling of not being sure of where you’re going with the added danger from drowning makes navigating the level quite stressful.
There are some areas where the water level changes, and in some cases, it needs to rise in order to float some platforms that Sonic needs to stand on. The floating platforms can also crush Sonic if ends up between them and the ceiling.
The most interesting gimmick, perhaps, are the water slides that send Sonic helplessly down steep slopes, usually into the water. However, the beginning of Act 3 starts with a series of waster slides that actually repeat in an infinite loops. Figuring out how to get past this area involves jumping at a specific point to find a switch that opens a wall behind a waterfall. It’s kind of a clever puzzle, and it’s this kind of imagination and variety that helps make the game a classic.
The fight with Robotnik is also a little different, and more challenge, than it has been so far. In fact, you don’t really need to fight him at all, but rather chase him up a long vertical shaft filled with traps while the water level rises beneath you. It’s quite difficult, particularly if the water catches up to you, which not only inhibits Sonic’s movement, but also imposes a time limit since there are no air bubbles. Once you reach the top, however, Robotnik simply flies off, and you finish the stage. It actually is possible to hit Robotnik eight times and defeat him before you reach the top, but it’s extremely difficult and not really worth the effort.
The Labyrinth Zone is a unique level in Sonic the Hedgehog, and in a way, doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the game because it’s so counter-intuitive to the theme. It does add variety, but it’s kind of a drag to play through. However, submerged levels would, for better or worse, become a mainstay of the classic Sonic games. Yet, despite the spike in difficulty, the game is about to cut you some much needed slack.
Screenshots taken from a longplay video by RickyC.