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Sonic Mania and Punishing Save Systems

Sonic Mania was pretty much everything I expected, until I had my first game-over, and I was reminded of how differently classic games handled failure. In this article we discuss the save system in the game and how it impacts every part of the experience.

This article is also available in video form:

I grew up on Sonic. 

My best friend growing up had a Sega Genesis and we played Sonic games to death on it, so when Sonic Mania was announced I was excited to relive this part of my childhood with a new game that stays true to the original formula.   

Sonic Mania was pretty much everything I expected, until I had my first game-over during a boss battle, and I was reminded of how differently those classic games handled failure.

When you run out of lives in Sonic mania, you're sent back to the beginning of the zone. Each zone consists of two levels, so a game-over during the boss battle of the second level means that you must play through two full levels before you can have another go at it.

The zone is essentially the smallest unit of progression in the game, since anything other than beating a zone doesn’t count as progress that the save system would track. 

Let’s analyze the difficulty curve for a typical zone. The levels in Sonic are usually quite forgiving thanks to the damage system. As long as you have at least one ring, you won’t die by taking damage. The bosses at the end of the first level are often on the easier side, so the difficulty spike there is rather small. Then we have the second act, which is usually not much harder than the first, and finally the boss in zone 2, which is kind of a wild card. It could be easy, or it could be quite difficult.

I would like to focus on the scenario where this boss is difficult. We have two things here that are potentially problematic when mixed together:

  1. The smallest unit of progression in the game, the zone, is quite big by modern standards.
  2. There’s a significant difficulty spike right at the end of the unit.

During the first 8 zones of the game I found this arrangement to be manageable. Even if I was occasionally frustrated after losing to a second act boss, the levels in Sonic Mania were fun to play through the second time, and I didn't get stuck for too long on any particular boss. 

The Oil Ocean zone is where I hit a wall. The boss at the end of this zone felt not only difficult, but also unfair and poorly designed. On top of that, this zone was my least favorite in the game, so having to play through it again and again wasn't my idea of a good time. 

Now, I know that as soon as someone starts complaining about dying in a game, someone will come and suggest that they "get good". The thing is, I want to get good - at the part that’s difficult. I like it when a game says – you’re going to have to master this challenge to progress. But the only way to master something is by practicing, learning from your mistakes and trying again.

My problem was that Sonic Mania let me practice a couple of times, and then sent me way back. I was trying to learn how to beat the boss, but had to spend 90% of my playtime beating levels I've already bested multiple times, and 10% practicing the challenging part. I’m guessing the percentages, but you get my point.

Other games have a different approach to challenge. One of the bosses that gave me the most trouble in recent memory was the plague knight in Shovel Knight. He absolutely crushed me and I consider him much harder than the Oil Ocean boss. However, since I had a checkpoint right before the fight, I could continuously practice fighting him and I didn't get frustrated at all. Saving the player's progress right before the boss actually allows designers to make the boss more difficult, because the player is allowed to practice the fight as often as he wants.

Image result for shovel knight plague knight boss

There's a difference between challenging and punishing. Both Sonic Mania and Shovel Knight choose to challenge you sometimes, but Sonic will punish you harder if you lose.

So, does that mean that Sonic Mania should have saved my progress before every boss? Well, I thought so initially. I was frustrated with the Oil Ocean situation, and that seemed like the obvious fix for it. After thinking about it more, though, I realized that like most topics in game design - it’s not that simple. I became convinced that this system does offer some benefits.

Let’s go back to the difficulty curve. Playing through the easier parts again can be made more rewarding and meaningful if your performance in them can help your chances of overcoming the difficulty spike. To Sonic Mania’s defense, it does have that mechanism in place, because you can earn more lives by collecting 100 rings or by locating hidden 1 ups, both of which require skill. If you’re just running through the levels carelessly, you might end up at the boss with 2 lives, but if you master the level and play well, you could end up with 7 lives, and your chances of succeeding become significantly better. You can also find a useful powerup, and if you manage to keep it until you reach the boss, it can make the battle a lot easier.

This dynamic encourages mastering the levels, and the levels in Sonic Mania are gigantic, offering lots of shortcuts and secrets to discover, as well as opportunities to earn more lives and increase your chances of beating the boss. It's very clear that they were designed with re-playability in mind.

The save system in Sonic Mania also gives meaning to lives. Think about Mario Galaxy, an amazing game but one that had a rather meaningless life system. You could earn 1 ups quite easily, and having a game over set you back so little, that lives lost meaning. In fact, Mario Odyssey just went ahead and tossed this mechanic out the window, which was a brave and wise decision. Why have a mechanic in the game if it’s not going to have any meaning?

Related image

When you make a mistake and die during a level in Sonic Mania, it matters, because it means you have one less attempt at the boss. And when you find a secret 1up, it also matters, because your odds of succeeding are now slightly higher. There's also a certain tension that builds when you're getting close to collecting 100 rings, and one mistake can take away that sweet reward. It's a special feeling that is part of the Sonic experience, and it's only possible because lives in this game matter.

My next point takes us back to punishment. 

No one enjoys being punished, but there are side effects to it that could amplify the experience. When I was a kid, we used to play a ball game where the worst performing player in each round would have to stand with his face to the wall, and each player will have their chance of kicking the ball at his behind from a few meters away.

We could have just played the game for the sake of it, but setting up some stakes turned the experience into more dramatic and memorable. 

having a harsher penalty to failure adds risk, which adds tension. That makes every encounter with the boss more impactful as an experience, and it forces you to pay attention and give it your best shot, as opposed to throwing yourself at it recklessly, knowing you’re protected by the checkpoint. It's a completely different experience and I understand why some people prefer it. it’s definitely more rewarding and exciting when you eventually overcome the boss.

We also need to keep in mind that the team behind Sonic Mania didn't start off with a blank sheet of paper. They set out to create a true-to-form classic Sonic game, and had to walk a fine line between bringing in new elements and improvements, to venturing too far from the feel of the original games. When we criticize a game, we need to be mindful of what the game set out to achieve. 

Image result for sonic 1

Sonic 1 and 2 didn’t have a save system at all, and while some purists see this as the optimal solution, the team realized that it was too extreme, even for a game trying to remain true to the classics. 

Back then, it was mostly kids who played video games. As kids we had all the time in the world to replay a level for the 100th time, and since we didn't get a new game every week, or even every month - we were a captive audience anyway. I probably played the original Sonic games for hundreds of hours. They were too difficult for me at the time but I enjoyed every minute of it, or at least that’s what I remember.

At the ripe age of 29, I no longer have all the time in the world. Sometimes I just have twenty minutes to play, and I want to make progress, or at least practice the part that’s giving me troubles. And with so many great games in my backlog, it's more tempting than ever to give up on a game when I'm feeling stuck. 

With that said, I feel that allowing players to save right before boss battles would be far too accommodating for a Sonic game. The balance is somewhere between no saves at all to saving at every checkpoint, and while I can’t say that they found the sweet spot for me, I do believe they considered this decision carefully.

The longer I thought about it, the more convinced I became that my real issue was that the boss I was facing felt unfair and confusing. When you fight a well-designed boss, every attempt makes you feel like you got closer to cracking the code for beating it, so even if a game-over sets you back a good amount, you still feel like you made progress. With the Oil Ocean boss, I didn't feel like I was getting any better, and that's what made me feel stuck. Heck, even after beating the boss, I felt like I just got lucky on one of my attempts. The Save System wasn't the root cause of my frustration, but it amplified it a great deal, turning a minor issue to a potentially game-breaking one. 

Image result for mania oil ocean boss

In conclusion, I think this sort of save system has its benefits, and can offer moments that are rare in modern gaming. On the other hand, it requires a lot of mastery from the game designers to pull off right. There's a lot of potential energy here, and a minor misstep in game design could blow up and damage the experience greatly.

Not everyone will hit a wall. I know some people managed to beat the Oil Ocean boss on their first try. Some got stuck in other parts of the game, and others didn't get stuck at all. I know some people are so good at Sonic that they beat the game on their first run without seeing the game-over screen once.

but for those who did get stuck, it would have been nice if the game offered a way out other than quitting. I wouldn't mind if the current save system was the default one, suggested by the devs as the optimal way to play, if there was also a more inclusive mode that allows players to enjoy the game on their own terms, with a more forgiving save system. Better yet, let us earn a pre-boss checkpoint by getting to it with a certain number of coins, and make it something that's hard to achieve. That could be an amazing addition to the game, adding an extra goal to achieve, an additional incentive to master the level, and an elegant solution to the problem I found myself facing.

I really enjoyed this game overall and I'm curious to see how 2D Sonic evolves in the future. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in comment section below!

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