Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 8

Sonic iconWow. When I started this series last year, I didn’t expect it to go on for so long!

As I mentioned back then, it was originally inspired by Jeremy Parish’s Anatomy of Games series, in which he analyzes how level design subliminally teaches the player the basics of the game. I quickly veered from that kind of minute detail to looking more at the overall flow and presentation of the game. I’m not sure if it really turned out to be very insightful. Looking back on it, it’s almost a let’s play in text form.

Still, I see Sonic the Hedgehog as a classic platform game that deserves praise for taking the foundations set by Super Mario Bros in a whole new direction, and establishing its own unique identity. Sonic is extremely momentum based. He starts off walking slower than Mario, but can reach much higher speeds. The physics are extremely well done for a game of the era, and mastering them is the essential skill of the game. The level design complements it nicely, constantly throwing new obstacles and gimmicks into the mix, and the alternation between “faster” and “slower” zones creates a tempo that keeps the game from becoming monotonous.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised to still see the classic Sonic games get occasional flak for their control and level design. Back in the day, I chalked it up to the rivalry between Nintendo fanboys and Sega fanboys. After all this time, I would think that kind of mindset would have subsided. But I think a lot of people get hung up on Sonic‘s speed gimmick, and can’t see past it. Underneath it, however, is a traditional yet clever platform game. The speed is occasionally used to put some new twists on the running and jumping and give the player a quick rush of exhilaration, but it isn’t really the focus in and of itself (at least, not in the first game). It’s ironic that the hook that makes it unique is also what holds it back.

So, now that I’m finally done with Sonic the Hedgehog, what’s next? I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to analyze another game, although I have one in mind that I think would be interesting. If I do, I would try a different approach. But for now, I’ve got another project to work on!

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 7

Sonic iconHere we are, heading towards the final showdown with Dr. Robotnik. We’ve come a long way from the more organic grassy settings of the Green Hill and Marble Zones to the construction and development of the Starlight Zone, and here, the oddly named Scrap Brain Zone is an ugly, mechanical, polluted industrial area. It’s a little hard to tell through the dirty brown haze in the air, but the dim light seems to suggest early morning. From the bright blue skies of Green Hill, to the dusk of Spring Yard, and the night of Starlight, it’s taken almost a full day to reach Robotnik’s domain.

The trends leading up to the Scrap Brain Zone might lead us to believe that it will be linear and methodical, rather than open and speedy, but it’s actually a little bit of both. There are upper, middle, and lower paths through Act 1, so it feels open, but there are far too many traps for Sonic to rush through the stage too quickly. Many of the dangers come from either bottomless pits or things that can crush Sonic, both of which cause instant death. Sonic has faced Robotnik, and ultimately drove him out, at the end of every zone. Clearly he’s pulling out all the stops here, and making it his last line of defense.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Entering Act 2, we discover something interesting: the background is different! In all of the previous zones, the theme was consistent across all three Acts. While the foreground is still the same, the background suggest that we are now inside some giant factory. Perhaps this is where Robotnik is converting the animals into Badniks, but we never actually come across such a machine in this game.

The layout is similar to Act 1, in that there are multiple paths, but all of them are filled with traps. There are a few different gimmicks here, most notably the conveyor belts which play havoc with Sonic’s momentum. Of course, this makes them the perfect place to put some especially dangerous traps.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Once Sonic makes it to the end of Act 2, we’re presented with an unexpected meeting. Sonic finds Robotnik behind a force field, but the Doctor quickly jumps on a switch and laughs deviously as the ground falls out from beneath our heroic hedgehog. But rather than death, it merely leads to Act 3.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

It seems Robotnik has dropped Sonic into some chemical disposal sewer, although it’s actually just a recolor of the graphics from Labyrinth Zone. Still, it’s yet another change in theme, and yes, we have to deal with yet another submerged stage. (And we thought the worst was behind us.)

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

In another odd twist, Sonic actually has to start off by going to the left, completely reversing what we’ve gotten used to up to this point, and making it feel just a little disconcerting. But that’s just psychological warfare. Similarly to Labyrinth Zone, it seems confusing at first, but all paths lead to the same goal. Clever players may even find a short cut. Traversing through the disgusting pink liquid brings us to a series of springs that vault Sonic back up to the factory for the boss fight.

A title card announces that this is the Final Zone, making the last confrontation a zone unto itself. Coupled with a dramatic change in music, it really builds up a sense of climactic tension. There’s no doubt about it, this one is for all the chips.

The boss fight revolves around four large pistons, two of which clamp down (or up) at once. Robotnik is always hiding inside one of them (for some reason), and as always, Sonic must quickly hit him with his Spin Attack. The tricky part comes from trying not to get squashed by the pistons. Between piston attacks, four large sparks appear at the top of the screen and slowly descend towards Sonic, forcing him to weave between them.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

The alternating cycles draw out the battle, and since there are no rings, a single mistake will cost Sonic a life. Thankfully, it still only takes eight hits to destroy Robotnik’s final mechanism, but somehow, he still manages to escape in his Egg Mobile. If you’re quick, Sonic can still hit it one more time, causing it to explode.

And that brings us to the end of the adventure. We see Sonic running back through Green Hill zone, now flourishing with all of the animals he’s rescued. If you weren’t able to collect all of the Chaos Emeralds, Sonic will show his disapproval by giving you the stink eye while tapping his foot. If you did get all six Emeralds, then we see them rise out of Sonic’s hands only to vanish into thin air, leaving him just as confused as the rest of us. What was the deal with the Chaos Emeralds? What were they capable of? Why were they hidden in psychedelic mazes? We never find out. Either way, the scene ends with Sonic jumping towards to camera in triumphant victory.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Roll credits.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 6

Sonic iconFrom the Green Hill Zone up through the Labyrinth Zone, there’s been a steady increase in difficulty. You might even say Labyrinth Zone cheated a little by not only taking away Sonic’s speed, but even inhibiting his normal movement. Thankfully, the Starlight Zone gives us a little bit of a breather by easing way up on the challenge level. It also continues the trend of the zones alternating between “fast and open” and “slow and linear” by taking things back to the speedy, exploration-based style seen way back in Green Hill.

And boy, does it ever. Starlight Zone bring back the hills and loops we haven’t really seen since Green Hill, and it’s probably the most speed-oriented zone in the whole game. It’s also very large and open, allowing for multiple pathways through the zone. The upper path, as usual, takes a little more work, but clever players can find some stashes of ring monitors.

The theme of the zone seems to be some kind of construction site after hours. There are a lot of girders and unstable platforms, as well red street cones. The lower part of the background seems to be an unfinished building. As the name of the zone suggests, the night sky is filled with stars, continuing on from the Spring Yard Zone’s dusk sky (Labyrinth Zone was completely enclosed).

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

Enemies consist of the generically named Bombs, whose fuses light when you get too close, resulting in a small explosion and some flying debris . I assume their practical use would be demolition. There are also some Uni Unis that are left over from Labyrinth Zone.

Obstacles include seesaws with spiked balls that Sonic must use to launch himself to higher platforms. Wind from fans either prevent Sonic from moving forward or give him a boost of speed, depending on the direction. There’s also one unique obstacle: a large half-sphere with spikes that swings back and forth. Sonic can stand on the upper part like a platform, but it doesn’t help you reach anything except for a few rings. It’s interesting, because this object doesn’t appear anywhere else in the game (that I know of ), so it seems a little random.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

The battle with Robotnik isn’t quite as bad as chasing him up a shaft full of spikes and fire-spitters while being chased by rising water, but it’s still a little tricky. There are three seesaws on the ground, and Robotnik flies back and forth across the top of the screen dropping spiked balls on them. This actually gives Sonic two methods of attack: either leveraging the seesaws to launch himself up, as he has done previously in the zone, or just use the spiked balls, themselves. The tricky part is that there really is no safe spot. Where Robotnik drops the spiked balls is random, although he never drops more than one on a seesaw. But if you wait too long, the spiked balls explode in a similar fashion to the Bombs, so the debris can reach you just about anywhere. The key here is to be quick.

Screenshot - Sonic the Hedgehog

All in all, the Starlight Zone is like a reward for trudging through the Labyrinth Zone. Speeding through loops at high speed is likely why we’re playing Sonic the Hedgehog in the first place. The only problem is that because it emphasizes speed, it goes by just a bit too quickly. Still, it kind of brings the pace of the game full circle before throwing you into the final challenge.

Screenshots taken from a longplay video by RickyC.

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 5

Sonic iconThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Deeper Waters – Sonic the Hedgehog, Part 4

Sonic iconAs you can imagine from the name, the Spring Yard Zone is filled with springs, but it also contains another new gimmick: pinball bumpers. As with the Special Stages, it seems that Sonic Team was having fun with the idea of Sonic being able to roll around as a ball. But the whole idea of Sonic in a pinball machine is such a clever and natural fit, that it would be a recurring theme throughout the entire franchise, including two dedicated Sonic pinball games. (Was there ever an actual Sonic pinball machine? I’m not aware of one.)

Still, the pinball theme of the Spring Yard Zone is a little more rudimentary here than in later titles. There are no actual flippers, and no slot machines or other such gimmicks are present. However, the level design is certainly reminiscent of a pinball table, with springs launching Sonic up shafts into fields full of bumpers and more springs. There are also many tall vertical wells that Sonic will bounce up and down in, and all of the springs and bumpers offer plenty of opportunity for him to build up speed.

Sonic the Hedgehog screenshot

But as is the case with Sonic’s first game, there are also quite a lot of slower sections that force him to come to a complete halt. Most notorious are the staggered moving blocks that Sonic must slowly and carefully move between, lest he get crushed or hit by the attacks of some annoyingly placed Buzz Bombers. But even these slower parts demonstrate that the Spring Yard is the most vertically-oriented of all the zones in the game.

Sonic the Hedgehog screenshot

There are more secret areas here for clever players to find, but something I neglected to mention in the previous part is that starting with the Marble Zone, they’re implemented differently than they are in Green Hill. Sonic is no longer required to spin and crash through walls to find the secret areas, he simply has to walk through them. Perhaps this was a more practical game design decision, as until the Spin Dash was introduced in the sequel, it was challenging to build up enough momentum to crash through walls in this first game.

An interesting detail to make note of in Spring Yard is the background. It depicts foliage close to the foreground with a silhouetted cityscape behind it, and mountains in the distance with a purple sky. The time of day seems to be dusk, suggesting that time has passed from the first two zones.

Sonic the Hedgehog screenshot

The confrontation with Dr. Robotnik gets even more dicey here than in the previous fights. Robotnik flies back and fourth in his Egg Mobile, and occasionally drops down to destroy the strange looking blocks that make up the ground, leaving nothing but a death pit below. It’s a simple pattern, but it imposes an inherent time limit on the battle. Once all of the blocks are gone, Sonic will have nothing left to stand on and he’ll plummet to his demise. For the most part, Robotnik hovers just out of Sonic reach, so the main opportunity to attack comes when he drops to destroy a block. Still, aggressive players should be able to make short work of the Doctor in only a couple of cycles.

The Spring Yard Zone is a fun gimmick that shows off the style of Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s fast and goofy, and it returns to the wide open level design that highlighted Green Hill. The increase in enemies and traps, as well as the presence of bottomless pits, make this the most challenging zone yet, but things are about to get much more perilous.

Screenshots captured from a longplay video by RickyC.