The Sonic the Hedgehog series of games have had varying degrees of success, with many at the worse end of the scale, but why is this so?
When you think about it, compared to Nintendo’s Mario, Sonic has seen a lot more evolution in gaming. On the one hand, Mario has appeared in many un-Mario games, from Super Smash Bros. to Mario Party, and even Mario Kart. The only Mario games have really been the original Super Mario series, which saw very little evolution over time, and the 3D Mario games, which similarly saw only incremental improvements. In fact, the only real “genius” moment in Mario was Mario 64, where the game made a successful transition to 3d.
Contrast this with Sonic, who has by and large only appeared in Sonic games. In addition, most of those Sonic games have been markedly different to the original Sonic series, but still close enough to be considered “canonical” Sonic. From the addition of unique playable characters (Tails, Knuckles, Blaze, etc.) to additional abilities and game systems. Despite this, Sonic’s legacy has people seeing him in a negative light.
I think it’s sad that in Mario — a game where the design is effectively the same as 20 years ago, with a single character on simple maps — is critically acclaimed, whereas with Sonic — a series where every new game has new mechanics for a multitude of characters which must all navigate the same gigantic sprawling levels — is critically panned. I think that as far as trying new things, Sonic is head and shoulders above the competition. The games should get credit for that. Having said that, there have been some missteps.
Which brings up the question: If there was to be a “leap” in the sonic games, like with Mario 64, where would it come from? How would I design a new Sonic game? In order to find out I decided to think about the core tenets of Sonic, and how to use those tenets most effectively.
Obvious ones first. Sonic is fast. The second-to-second purpose of the game is to gain momentum and keep it. Moving through a shorter path is not as valuable as moving through a longer path but gaining, or keeping, your momentum. Enemies will try and kill your speed, either defensively, stopping you from killing them until you slow down, or offensively, punishing you for not avoiding them or their attacks.
In this sense, Sonic is somewhat of a twitch game. You must react appropriately to avoid or retaliate against an enemy. However, there is also strategy in choosing a path which maintains your momentum. This feeds into the larger strategy of moving through the level.
The levels necessarily have many paths, some overlapping. Sometimes you need a certain amount of momentum to get onto a certain path, or you need to sacrifice momentum to switch paths. These paths intertwine in such a way that if you pull off tricky manoeuvres, you will get onto “better” paths, and if you fail, you will fall onto “worse” paths. Due to your speed, the levels are necessarily large, complete with obstacles and tools to help you along your way. Combining your use of these, you can get yourself where you need to be.
Almost universally, going on paths which lead you upwards is a good thing, and going on paths which lead you downwards is a bad thing. Going down will eventually result in falling into a hole and dying (or losing rings). Going up will give increasing challenges to staying there.
The game has different characters with different abilities. Each of these characters can access all areas of the game, albeit by using different tricks, or perhaps different paths. The levels will have different areas which could be looked at as “easy” or “hard” based on which character you are. However, overall the “higher” areas will be harder than the “lower” areas, which are more dangerous.
So here is my proposal on how to design a new Sonic game. Firstly, keep the first principle unaltered. However, this principle should be reinforced with tutorials or with much more immediate feedback. This might be through rings which only appear when you are going fast, or some other similar trick. There should perhaps be a “super” bar (similar to the one in Sonic Rush) which charges as you go fast.
Secondly, the levels should be a little colour coded. Generally, there is an easy way to identify enemies in a “twitch” sense. However, it is not so easy with the levels themselves. I’ve often wondered why an area like the Green Hill Zone is often littered with areas which make Sonic stop or slow down. There’s no “reason” for these distractions for a level which is in the good guys' area.
So, all parts of a level which stop or slow you down should appear mechanical, or “robotnickey” — it should make you feel like Robotnik or his goons set up these level items as sort of “traps” to slow you down. As you get on in the game the traps should become larger and more elaborate, and the game should take on a more “mechanical” tone. Levels like the casino zone should feel very “robotnickey”. On the other hand, things which speed you up should feel “natural”, like vines or grass areas and such. It should “feel” like your nature buddies set them up for you to travel around easily. In later levels these natural artifacts might look like guerrilla plantations in a mechanical universe, as if your furry friends are kind of “fighting along with you”, helping you get to your destination.
Along with the checkpoints, instead of freeing animals right at the end boss fight, you should be freeing them throughout the zones. Freeing animals from a zone should “unlock” a little natural patch so you can get to a previously inaccessible area, or rush through an area which would’ve slowed you down.
Instead of separate levels in a zone, these should be combined into mega levels — so, a single mega level and a boss fight, then the next mega level, and so on. There should be no timer, but several checkpoints, and the game should score you on how fast you get from one checkpoint to another. Inaccessible areas could become accessible by freeing animals at a point which would be a natural conclusion of a single level in the old “zones” model.
Importantly, there should be a lot of traversing the same paths to get from one location to another. This helps to build familiarity with the level, and encourages experimentation with choosing paths — the only other way is to repeatedly play a level in the older games. Losing lives is an old fashioned way of doing things, just let people traverse the same areas multiple times.
As you go around these mega levels freeing up creatures, the level should start feeling less oppressive and more open and free. Any obstacles should start to disappear and you should feel more confident in the level, once because you are traversing it over and over, and twice because the obstacles in your way are being removed. These natural forces should mean that “higher” areas which were harder to get to become easier, so the areas which you naturally traverse changes as you go through the level. It also means that you are not forced to go through the same challenges in a level over and over again; after the first couple of times the freed animals remove the obstacles and you can summarily display your mastery.
This should feel like a catharsis, a yielding of power before you go up against a boss and kick its arse.
I think that combining these aspects would make for an interesting Sonic game. I think that Sonic is a far deeper character than Mario, and the story of Sonic the Hedgehog has important parallels in environmentalism, with Robotnik being the pursuit of progress. I think that you could make an eminently entertaining game and actually say something meaningful in the process, both in a game design and a story perspective. People talk about Sonic as a washed up hero, but I hold out hope for a return to his blue skies.