So I’ve been working on Tosh the Haggis on and off for the last year or so and I’ve been attempting to solidify in my head the kind of gameplay I want in the game.
It is, at its heart, inspired by the original Megadrive Sonic the Hedgehog games but creating an out-and-out clone was never my intention. I always wanted to try something that evokes the series without just ripping it off wholesale. Unfortunately my efforts have not panned out in the way I had planned. The modifications to the Sonic formula I made haven’t come out as fun, and have not allowed me to design the kind of interesting levels I wanted.
So I went back and tried to figure out why. In doing so I ended up analysing exactly what made the original Sonic games great, and why modern Sonic games aren’t held in as high regard.
So what happened to Sonic? To my mind, Sega forgot, long ago, what Sonic was all about. They started believing their own marketing. They started believing that Sonic was about speed.
In the classic games going fast was not the norm. Speed was the reward for playing well. This manifested itself in a few ways. Most noticeable of which were:
- You passed a hard part of the level, it rewarded you with a fast section.
- You learned the layouts and could keep your momentum up even in tricky platforming areas
Controlling that speed then led to another set of rewards, like reaching a higher path, or finding a hidden area. You learned that, if you’re given a fairly simple high-speed area, there would be something hidden at the end of it.
Prime examples are in Green Hill Zone 1 (Sonic 1) after the double s-tube, controlling your speed lets you bounce off badniks to grab all the rings floating up there. Another is in Hydrocity Zone in S3, after an underwater speed section you’re sent flying into the air, through a rope bridge and up to the top of the level. Going fast enough and holding right rewarded you with a Special Zone Ring.
Using your speed to find secrets was another great piece of design, especially in S3&K where you had all those special stage rings to find.
This kind of design is found all over the original Sonic games. There were also bits of the level that rewarded slowing down and exploring. Like secret passages that led to more rings, or to another path, or to a power up or a special stage.
Speed was a reward, but failing to go fast was not punished. It still rewarded you with secrets.
We must, however, now talk about the Sonic games that came after the Megadrive.
The “Adventure” series, which for the purposes of this includes everything from Sonic Adventure up to “Sonic the Hedgehog” from 2006, were notoriously janky and – SA1 especially – felt like Sega didn’t quite know how Sonic should work in 3D, and tried throwing as many different gameplay styles against the wall to see what stuck. The refinements in SA2 came along with some major steps backwards with regards to the ‘other’ gameplay modes, and Heroes threw them all out the window and tried to throw something else against the wall and failed again. Sonic the Hedgehog, from 2006, tried to go back to Adventure’s way of doing it but somehow made every gameplay style suck worse than SA1’s did. The Adventure series did not bring anything resembling 2D Sonic into the 21st Century.
So what about the other, parallel, series. The Advance Series, on the Gameboy Advance? Well, They were similar enough to the Megadrive games, but lacked something. In the process of writing this I discovered what, to me, it was missing. The idea of Speed as a reward. Speed was a punishment in these games. You go fast, you run into badniks. You run into spikes. You fall down bottomless pits. Every level in every Sonic Advance game was filled with the bullshit placement from Metropolis zone, they were that pit from Mystic Cave Zone, or the open-air areas of Wing Fortress, yet were still filled with Boost pads, bumper chains and all sorts of ramps and loops designed to make you faster. The games were designed to make you fail, designed to make you play levels over and over again in order to prolong the life of it. The trend continued in Sonic Rush/Adventure and Colours DS, codifying DIMPS style level design as spikes, pits and bullshit enemy placement. I will say one thing for them though: I really liked the buddy system in Advance 3. Traversing the level with different character combos was a great idea, but without the incentive to do so it was a bit of a let-down.
Post 2006 – the “Modern” era – got a boost (ha, I’m so funny). While I’m not against the boost-centric mechanics of Unleashed/Colours/Generations (I had great fun with Generations especially). It was just a great roller coaster ride. Speed was, again, the default state for Sonic. You were rewarded with alternate paths either by slowing down, or by having split-second timing. And the reward wasn’t speed, it was just a shorter path. This was especially obvious in the Classic Sonic stages and, to be honest, I preferred Modern Sonic in Generations. It just felt more fun. They got Modern Sonic ‘right’ in those games, but they still hadn’t managed to bring back what was special for Classic Sonic.
Forget about exploring for secrets either. Red Rings were the closest things to secrets in those games and most weren’t that difficult to get. They were often placed in areas you could not backtrack to (relying on playing the level again) – unlike, say, Mushroom Hill Zone in Sonic and Knuckles which let you backtrack so much you could get all 7 Chaos Emeralds in Act 1 alone.
At this point, 3D sonic was about speed. Fair enough. It was a thrill ride. But it’s still not the Sonic I remember.
Then there’s Lost World. I know, I know, people seemed to be split down the middle on whether this was utter garbage or only slightly shit.
But this, in my opinion, is the closest Sonic has gotten to a true 3D adaptation of the 2D games. Sure, the controls were janky, some of the later levels were frustrating and full of idiotic ‘puzzles’, and while it slowed sonic down – and gave him a run button – it focused more on the platforming side of things that I’d thought they’d forgotten about. The red rings were also well hidden and hard to get to (sometimes to the point of utter frustration that it kind of felt like DIMPS designed it). But it was a start.
And the new game, Sonic Boom, which I’ve not played (but seen a few people playing it) looks to be a mediocre Character Action Platformer that would be considered the red-headed stepchild in any other franchise, but with Sonic is considered a gross misstep. Luckily, it’s got no chance of usurping the main series so we can safely forget about it.
Currently I feel that Sega is groping in the dark trying to figure out what magic it missed. Its attempts at reinventing and redesigning from a speed-first perspective have made it so that new fans of the game dislike how slow Sonic is in the original games.
Sonic needs to go fast, but just giving him it is like giving a kid their Christmas presents in August. It’s just no good.
So, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for the game I’m making? Well, I need to take this on board. I’m going to make a Sonic clone. Unashamed and wholesale. Then, from there, work out where I want to take it.