Sonic the Hedgehog Full Series Analysis
Gameplay is more important than any other aspect of the finished product. If there’s no gameplay, you really can’t call it a game, and you should’ve just written a book for your story. However, I think gameplay can really only fairly be discussed in relation to its goals, so I’ve decided to break this down into more finely tuned segments.
There are a few qualities that all of the best StH games have in common with each other, regardless of what they’re about or how many dimensions they involve. The most important technical aspects of any given Sonic game, in my opinion, are speed and control.
When it comes to speed, it doesn’t purely mean how fast Sonic (or whichever character) is moving, but also the fluidity of the movements. There’s a certain “flow” expected when picking up a StH game. Take-offs should be quick, top speed should send the environments blurring by (but not so quickly that the player can’t handle obstacles), high-speed jumps should go higher and farther than those from a standstill, and gravity should not be too strong or too light. Now, common sense would dictate that this is a given for basically any game on the market, but with StH, it’s all the more important. If any one of these factors is thrown out of balance, the perception of the speed is detrimentally affected. Sonic is all about speed; it’s where his name even came from. The original Sonic the Hedgehog bragged it had had to invent “blast processing” to be able to account for how quickly the level would scroll. Fans of this series, especially long-time fans, have very exact expectations for the kinesthetics of the game.
Has this been maintained in recent years? On and off. As far as 2D games are concerned, one can point to Sonic 4 to say that Sega missed the mark, as Sonic’s physics were sluggish and did not match with our Genesis-era expectations. Then again, Sonic Rush was highly praised for its flow and fluidity, giving a real sense of motion despite being a side-scroller. On the other end of the spectrum, we can also examine the game StH2006, specifically for its “mach speed sequences”. These segments took Sonic’s speed so overboard that they seemed to forget about the player, making these sequences realistically fast but excruciating to navigate. However, Sega appears to have fixed this major flaw with the daytime levels of Sonic Unleashed, a game which properly showcases Sonic’s speed, but not at the expense of the player experience.
I don’t really have any instructions to give on how to manage Sonic’s speed, but rather, I’m more compelled to point out exactly why it’s so important. Sonic has come to mean a lot of things over the years, but one quality that he’s exuded since day one was freedom. It’s not just about the freedom of the oppressed that he’s fighting for, but also his own. Sonic’s speed is a visual representation of what true freedom means, and by watching him zip around exotic terrains and launch himself into the air, the audience experiences that freedom vicariously. As game engines have gotten more and more powerful, we’ve been able to step into his iconic red-and-white shoes a little more each time we advance. The illusion of speed can completely engross a player, immersing them so deeply that they may trick themselves into feeling sweaty and tired when the gaming session ends. If this connection with Sonic is disrupted, the player’s immersion is broken. Getting lost in the world of StH is important because it’s something we can’t do anywhere else. There’s no other game character like Sonic, and very few of us in the world actually have the means to go out and travel at the speed of sound whenever we want to. Only Sonic can give us that.
(Yes, I realize this is actually an interface critique instead of a mechanic one. It just seemed to fit in better here.)
Having tight and logical controls is an important task during the design of any game, but with regard to this series, it goes hand-in-hand with the issue of speed. Sonic’s blazing pace can quickly become a bad thing if the controls can’t keep up with him. His motions should be tight and exact, since a small step makes a big difference at high speed. Games that have not followed this rhetoric have suffered heavily. Loose controls are a plague no matter what game they turn up in, and it’s a quick way to get a player to give up on a game. No one wants to play a game that feels like work, let alone like punishment. Regardless of how polished the rest of the game is, bad controls can kill it in an instant.
Fortunately, most Sonic games don’t have very complex controls. This doesn’t mean that the series has been without problems, however; players expect certain degrees of precision in the feedback they get on-screen based on the input they’ve given the controller. A good example of what kind of a difference this can make is to examine the two versions of Sonic Unleashed side-by-side. Not everyone is aware that the Wii version of this game differs from the Xbox360 and PS3 versions, let alone that it was specifically designed TO be different. Among those differences was a detail in the way Sonic the Werehog’s movement is controlled. On the Xbox/PS3 version, pushing the control stick forward makes Werehog walk, and holding down one of the triggers while walking makes him run. However, on the Wii, Werehog’s run is executed based on how suddenly the control stick is moved. I had thought at first while playing that he was made to run with a double-jerk of the stick, but I soon discovered that Werehog was dashing just from my attempts to change direction.
At first this was an annoyance, but it was still tolerable. However, as the game progresses, the levels naturally get harder. Among the higher degree of challenge is a requirement for more and more precise movements. This is where the control scheme becomes fatal. I literally was unable to finish the game on the Wii, because Werehog’s controls were so loose that when I needed to change directions on a small and narrow platform, he would instead take off running and send himself careening into oblivion. However, the Xbox/PS3 version doesn’t have this problem at all, because Werehog’s run requires an additional command to activate. This means that, unless the player is button mashing, Werehog’s movements will always be precise unless a run is desired.
Before I move on to the next section, I’d like to take a moment to address the game Sonic Labyrinth while I’m talking about both speed and control. This game essentially breaks both of the golden rules, as it’s centered around Sonic having lost his speed, and the controls weren’t worked out as thoroughly as they probably should’ve been. I personally feel that part of the problem with this game was that it played at a 3/4 angle (which also plagued Sonic 3D Blast), but that’s besides the point. What I’d really like to emphasize is that, despite the fact that it’s pretty contrary to everything I just said, I don’t actually think this game was a bad concept. The idea of Sonic having to find other means to get around is a compelling one, but that having been said, I’m not positive that this game should’ve been published in the way that it was. I would’ve either put more time into smoothing out the movement controls, which would’ve improved the gameplay, or I’d have kept the scraps in a drawer to possibly incorporate into another game at some other point, in the same way that Sonic Crackers later became Knuckles’ Chaotix. Personally, I think the idea of Sonic without speed makes a better plot point than it does a full plot. It makes for an interesting challenge, but to focus on it for too long takes away from the core of Sonic’s essential gameplay. Just food for thought.
I already touched on this in the Characters section, but I do think it’s worth reiterating that the StH series is sorely missing co-op modes. Most of the games are single-player by default, and only a few of them have a multi-player mode. Of those games, they’re pretty much all competitive. Sonic and Tails are supposed to be a team, and back in the Genesis era, a second player really could plug in another controller and take control of Tails. Why not build an entire play mode around this concept? In fact, if they really wanted to, Sega could make the multi-player mode completely separate from the main story, as is the case with games like ‘Splosion Man. Alternatively, if the story wasn’t so dynamic that the presence of different characters would make too big of an impact, Sega could take a nod from Nintendo and allow several players to play together in the main story as is done in New Super Mario Brothers Wii. Co-op has become a huge staple of gaming these days, and being able to play as Sonic and Tails instead of purely Sonic versus Tails would go a long way to increase the replay value of any given title.
A common rhetoric in game design is that the best interface is the one you don’t see. Unfortunately, I don’t think Sonic can actually escape having a HUD (heads-up display); there are too many pieces of information that the player needs to be constantly aware of, such as ring count, life count, and elapsed time. Depending on the type of game, there are also different gauges that may need to be displayed, such as the boosting meters or various accumulation displays. Sonic will probably never have a completely clean HUD, but in the meantime, its pervasiveness can at least be kept as polished as possible. The basic rule of thumb is that if information isn’t needed at all times, it shouldn’t be on the screen. Most games (StH games included) have this well-established, as pause menus are now exactly that: Menus, whereby the player can find all of their secondary game data. Sega does a good job keeping only the essential information on the screen, in my opinion.
However, interface isn’t limited to the HUD. There are many other ways in which a game can impart information to the player in-game, such as through the character model or the environment. For example, Sonic CD featured a star trail following the player when Sonic had reached the optimal speed for time travel, and in Knuckles’ Chaotix, the companion character’s posture changed anytime he was anchored. This concept can also extend beyond the gameplay all together, as Sonic 3 & Knuckles conveyed all plot points through visual storytelling. It’s a much more engaging way to give players information because it makes the game world feel more “real” than it would if text were simply scrolling across the screen. I always especially liked the train schedule announcements in Sonic Adventure for that reason. Honestly, what I really wish is that the mandatory in-game tutorials would be more visually demonstrable and a bit less like Gaming-For-Dummies. It would help to make the game environments even richer, and therefor more immersive to the player.
The StH series has a strong history of great level design. If I had to use one word to describe any given level of any given Sonic game, it would be “long.” I don’t mean this in terms of the time it takes to get through a level; I mean the physical length that the level itself would actually be in real life. Considering how fast Sonic runs, and how quickly the scenery zips by, each level has to be really, REALLY long. … Well, okay, not every level, as there are some that take advantage of curves and are able to keep looping back around on themselves. The point is, StH levels require a lot more work than the average gamer probably thinks about. A game design rule of thumb is that the player should be able to get through any given level in 15 minutes or less (or to at least reach a checkpoint in that time). If your protagonist is buzzing through the scenery so fast that each tree or building is gone in the blink of an eye, just imagine how much work it takes to make the level long enough to take 5 minutes, let alone 15. (Why else did you think the S-rank time of most levels is under 2 minutes?)
But, I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is something I miss from the older games, particularly from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. In those games, all three playable characters — Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles — played through the same levels. There were no different versions of them, they were all exactly the same. These levels were just designed to have certain character-specific routes and areas that would make each level’s experience unique to that given character. This was something that I had expected to happen in Sonic Adventure, but didn’t work out quite the way I had thought it would. My wish wasn’t truly fulfilled until Sonic Riders came along, but it’s a bit less satisfying when you’re racing instead of exploring.
I have no illusions about the fact that Sonic is the most important character here; as I painstakingly pointed out in the Characters section, he’s the title character and one of only two primary characters. Levels should revolve around him. However, we do still get games from time to time in which he’s not the only playable character, and when we do, the other PCs usually have different levels. They may take place in the same overall area, but most of the time, the levels are built around that particular character’s needs. It’s not that that isn’t good level design, but it’s not necessarily always intriguing level design. I find it far more interesting to explore new aspects of a single area; I know I’m not the only gamer out there that will spend hours just screwing around in a level, trying to see where I can get to and what I can look at, whether the designers wanted me to or not.
As stated above, levels take a very long time to plot out, especially when the player is expected to travel at high speeds. Sega’s level designers have to go above and beyond just to give us a level for Sonic, but when a game has additional playable characters, this has usually meant the designers must stretch themselves across even more levels. I think it would be more economic, less time-consuming, and in the end just plain more satisfying (for the designers and the players alike) to have fewer, bigger levels in these instances. The players would be able to get a more thorough sense of the environment as they see it through different perspectives and discover new paths, and the designers wouldn’t have to keep starting over from scratch. It would make the environment feel like a real, living, breathing world. Allowing for more exploration would also be another opportunity to reward the especially curious players that want to take the time to appreciate the level design. This, too, is not a foreign concept; there were two achievements in the game Prince of Persia inserted by Ubisoft for gamers that took the time to simply admire the view.
Before I leave this topic, I would also like to quickly address puzzles and combat. I don’t think either one of these concepts can’t work within the StH series, but I do think they need to be used appropriately. One thing I’d like to be perfectly clear about is that, unless it’s a boss battle of some sort, combat sequences should never, ever be forced in a StH game. EVER. This was something that drove me absolutely mad about Sonic Unleashed, especially in the Wii version. I know Werehog’s forte was kicking ass more than it was hauling ass, but in the end, Sonic should be able to cut and run (yet again, no pun intended) when he’s had enough. Forcing a player to stop and clear an area before allowing them to progress is directly contrary to Sonic’s entire essence.
To some degree, this could be said about the puzzles as well, but in this case I wouldn’t take them out entirely. The puzzles in StH games have never been of a high degree of difficulty (if anything, I usually felt they were a bit too watered down), and in fact, puzzles really wouldn’t seem too out of place for certain characters. The important thing to keep in mind is that a puzzle needs to be appropriate to its environment, rather that slapped on simply for the sake of having a puzzle. They also don’t have to be part of the required, beaten path, and may be reserved for the players that want to do additional missions or explore new areas. StH is an action/adventure series at heart, which is built around excitement and speed. Even a good puzzle can bring the game to a screeching halt if placed at the wrong place and the wrong time.
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This analysis, however, is mine, and screw you if you try to steal it. No part of this article may be reproduced without my written permission.