Analysis: Sonic's Game Design Influence

In this analysis, Gamasutra looks at how Sonic the Hedgehog's speed-driven design encouraged replay, and explore how the 16-bit classic has influenced contemporary design.
[In this Gamasutra analysis, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at how Sonic the Hedgehog's speed-driven design encouraged replay, and explore its influence on contemporary design.] In college I had a friend who grew up in the Philippines. Where he lived, piracy was so rampant he could pick up a modded PS2 and as many games as he could carry for a mere fraction of what he would pay for it legally. He told me that because of this, he couldn’t play games with a learning curve, since if the game wasn’t immediately appealing he had a pile of alternatives. He didn't think it was necessarily good to be so swamped in games, legality aside, because he knew he was missing out on games because of the way he was playing them. I had the opposite experience. So while I didn't play most of the classics of the Genesis and Super Nintendo generation until well after the fact, I definitely spent a lot of time playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, this game (and its Genesis sequels) are games that have virtually no learning curve and do not take a long time to beat. In fact, since Sonic’s most defining feature was its speed, it practically encouraged players to rush through it as quickly as possible. Compared to more widespread design choices which tend to do the opposite, it's a somewhat baffling choice. However, Sonic's level design addressed this contradiction with multi-tiered levels. You Take The Low Road, I'll Take the High Road This site has a good library of those levels that will give a general impression of this kind of design. Most levels have at least two tiers that run parallel and intersect at multiple points. Because backtracking is discouraged or outright prevented, it's only possible to experience the full extent of the level after multiple playthroughs. Rather than encourage the player to explore, these segments exist to make each playthrough unique. Sonic games don’t expect the player to spend much time looking at the level, because they should be running through it. In contrast, other platformers like Super Mario World are filled with enemies and obstacles so that players will have to experience and overcome each discrete challenge. Sonic creates a much looser approach, because the expectation is that the player will experience what they missed on subsequent playthroughs. Time Trap Super Mario World is very focused on making sure the player is engaged with nearly every challenge set in front of them, and it's a large part of the game's enemy design. Take the humble piranha plant, one of the most common enemies. They are completely harmless as long as the player is paying attention to them, since they emerge from predictable locations and never vary their timing, but if a player constantly rushes forward with no previous knowledge of the timing they’ll most likely die. Super Mario World encourages a rhythm of watch, understand, and act, with an emphasis on the watching. Mario expects players to observe the environment carefully and make decisions accordingly. Sonic uses the same general framework, but that emphasis is placed on the acting portion. Enemies and obstacles are relatively infrequent, especially in Sonic 2 and 3, which dramatically reduced the number of enemies relative to those present in the first game. Obstacles exist in a loose cloud and are dealt with by either getting far away from them or mowing through them. In either case, speed is more important because it lets players skip the dangers. Huge portions of some levels can be skipped with momentum alone, and in that rush of speed obstacles must be reacted to without the time for careful observation. This is also reflected in the way that Mario games have traditionally handled failure. Mario dies instantly on enemy contact. Power-ups let you take one hit, but the tremendous advantage they provide is also lost on that hit. The game asks for this precision foremost and the game is more about carefully avoiding threats. Sonic, on the other hand, is extremely lenient by comparison, since enemy contact simply causes the player to lose all collected rings. They award extra lives every hundred but don’t do much else. Because players can get them back after they scatter, just one ring can make a player nearly invincible. Stopped In His Tracks However, being hit carries a stiffer penalty, which is interruption. Sonic is about going fast, and a hit completely ends the player’s accumulated momentum. Speed, as has been discussed, actually makes levels easier to get through. The multi-tiered design these levels are based on is also built around access via speed. Upper areas require just the right accumulations of jumps and speed to reach. Sonic is based more on twitch timing (or in less well designed segments, memorization). Players have to react quickly to the presence of an obstacle to avoid this interruption. Mario asks the player to poke around for the secrets, but in Sonic, the location is as implicit as gravity: It's harder to go up than down. The upper tiers are often low enough so that players can see that interesting things lie just out of reac. If a player fails to accumulate the speed necessary to ascend, the levels discourage or outright prevent second tries, essentially forcing the player to replay in order to make them. The rewards in these upper levels are not especially large, at least compared to the unlockable levels hidden in Mario. Just as the high tiers are not overly rewarding, the lower ones are not overly punishing. This is important because when the difference is stark enough, players will see portions of the level as a penalty rather than a valid choice. The Modern Take Sonic actually has a great deal in common with parkour, the main element in games like Mirror’s Edge and the sub element in games like Prototype, where the object of the game creating a fast and efficient path through the levels than it has with platformers like Mario, which are slow paced and more structured for puzzle-like play. If anything, Prototype is the closest a game has come a long time to playing like Sonic, at least in the way movement through the city is handled. Prototype's level design is obviously extremely different for a number of reasons, but the act of movement itself and the way in which players can optimize their speed and stay on the high road is very similar to Sonic, although it’s stripped of obstacles and has minimal rewards. The controls of Prototype are horribly imprecise for small movements, but the same exaggerated speed and power of those movements are well tailored for the experience of traversing the city. There is a great deal of depth to optimizing player speed through the city. The main character, Alex, even has a whole sections of powers just for movement, and they can actually be strung together for a very rhythmic motion to optimize altitude and the speed that comes from keeping to the rooftops. Like Sonic, the ground is a perfectly fine path as well, just a bit slower and easier to maintain. Also like Sonic, there's no penalty for falling. In fact, the nice thing about Prototype is that you can move to an objective through in a more organic way than through a selection of a few predetermined paths. There isn’t a lot of variety or challenge in these different paths, since Prototype is not heavily focused on movement alone. It does present an interesting idea of where this sort of game design could go. Sonic's design isn't more immersive or inherently fun than design that encourages players to experience everything the first time. All it does is provide new experiences even after the credits roll, without the aid of artificial unlockables. The approach is subtle, but there's something to be said for the smooth re-experience of a game focused so heavily on movement. Sega seems to have forgotten about this theme, and even the first Sonic games didn't advertise, or fully explore, what could be accomplished with this repetition that doesn't feel like repetition. [Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames for the most part, and can be reached at [email protected]]

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