Monday, December 8, 2014

Sonic Retrospective: Gotta Go Fast!

I was raised as a Nintendo kid, so I didn't really grow up on Sonic The Hedgehog. Sure I have a few fond memories of the Genesis games from when I was younger, but mainly I was in the Mario camp. (Actually I was in the Donkey Kong Country camp, but that's another topic.) It's widely accepted among most gamers that Sonic games were fantastic until he tried to go 3D and, to put it mildly, failed to make the transition with the seemingly-effortless aplomb of Mario (though he undoubtedly fared better than some mascots).

Long ago I played through and quite enjoyed Sonic Adventure 2, but the other 3D entries I've attempted to play over the years, specifically Sonic Heroes and Sonic and the Secret Rings, turned me off them faster than almost any other games I can remember. SatSR was brave enough to attempt adapting the formula to motion controls, which for me wasn't the issue, nor did I have a problem with jumping required first doing a ducking-slide-thing. The issue was that this pre-jump slide thing, which you needed to do constantly, slowed Sonic's speed to a crawl (thus making the jump feel pretty wimpy), and worse, it took him an extremely long time to accelerate to full speed when allowed to run interrupted, making the whole experience feel a bit like trying to run through molasses or perhaps navigate rush-hour traffic.

Sonic's mission statement of going really fast was originally a gimmick to sell kids on Sega's “blast processing” (which arguably was not a thing). Leaving aside the issue that Sonic's capabilities don't really measure up to the hype, this focus on speed has been a constant difficulty in terms of game design. A fundamental issue has always been the struggle to find reasons for the player to actually want to go fast. Like most platformers, the Genesis entries rewarded patience and precision (i.e. not barreling into enemies and spike traps), which made for enjoyable gameplay but sort of ran anathema to the alleged central concept. Over the years, Sonic Team clearly realized this issue and has attempted to resolve it in two ways: give players time restrictions (e.g. something chasing them or a reward/pat-on-the-back for finishing a level quickly), give Sonic abilities (like the spin attack and homing attack) that reduce his vulnerability while going fast (to try and counter the inherent loss of control and response time), and add on-rails section where players can "cut loose" and go really fast without worrying about randomly running into a hazard (popping up even in the early 2D entries as pipes and loops).

Which brings us to near-present day and the game that not-so-subtly prompted me to contemplate Sonic's history: Sonic Generations. Despite everything I'm going to say, the game's really not bad (certainly superior to Star Trek: Generations). There's obvious visible effort in terms of honoring the character's history (without overly bogging it down with drawn-out cutscenes), catchy remixes of old songs, pleasingly rendered environments that pay homages to earlier entries and effortlessly transition between 2D and 3D, and even plenty of clever level design. Trust me, if Sonic Team were as incompetent as some people believe, these games would be virtually unplayable. It's obvious that they understand the difficulties associated with the character and continually work hard to try and ameliorate them. (In fact to be honest I'm having more fun with the 3D levels than the traditionalist 2D levels, which sort of runs counter to the popular narrative that the designers have somehow "lost their way" since transitioning to 3D, as does the lukewarm response to Sonic the Hedgehog 4.)

Yet those inherent Sonic-specific difficulties are definitely on display as well. In order to give that sense of speed, the game makes use of extended on-rails sections. I have no inherent objection to on-rails gameplay, in fact it can be extremely enjoyable. The problem is that combining on-rails gameplay with regular gameplay poses a number of additional challenges. If a player's control is removed entirely (e.g. the Genesis pipe sections), the sections are basically nothing but cutscenes: flashy but meaningless, and devoid of actual tension. But to give the player even a modicum of control invites the possibility of disaster. In one section of Generations, Sonic was intended to bounce off a spring and land on a grind rail, but because I was trying to help and was pushing the control stick towards the rail, Sonic somehow managed to overshoot it and die. As expected, on my second attempt Sonic made it onto the rail when I made no inputs with the controller. In essence, the game was punishing me for trying to play it at all. Yet just as often, Sonic will fall to his doom or barrel into an obstacle because I failed to give an input in time. Thus, like an ornery housecat, the frenetic action in the game has so far repeatedly come down to a central challenge of trying to deduce when the game wants me to play and when it wants me to leave it alone.

The other continued frustration in Sonic games throughout their history has been that the punishment for screwing up, aside from losing rings or potentially falling to one's doom, has been stopping Sonic dead in his tracks, which is extremely frustrating in a game about going fast. An important tenet of game design is that failure should be fun. It should be glorious and spectacular and perhaps darkly satisfying. But the way Sonic games punish you after every minor screw-up by abruptly halting the action is far too understated. Despite the power rings colorfully flying from Sonic's sprawled form (which does help a bit. Try and picture how jarring it would feel without the ring effect), the loss of momentum, in the context of a Sonic game, is anything but fun. It would be like if every missed note in Guitar Hero caused the music to momentarily halt rather than triggering entertainingly-dissonant notes to play. Instantly halting the action is the reason Bit.Trip Runner failed to reach the heights inherent in its premise (though Rayman Legends eventually made good on the concept simply by relaxing the required precision). Put more straightforwardly, it breaks flow. And by this point, Sonic Team must recognize that Sonic is best when he's going fast (*cough*werehog*cough*aka hedgewolf*). At slow speeds, his controls feel slippery, like he can't wait to get back on the open road.

Most platforming games don't suffer from these particular issues because they're not about going fast, but there is another genre that generally is: racing games. In F-Zero GX, a particular favorite of mine (and ironically published by SEGA), a player's race car is rarely stopped dead in its tracks (and if this does happen, the amusing novelty of it helps make up for the irritation). Instead, when a player screws up (e.g. runs into the side rails or other racers), they maintain much of their velocity but lose shields. Because the shields double as the boost gauge, the game tempts you into tense push-your-luck moments where the more you boost the more likely you are to run into obstacles and the more able to destroy you those obstacles become, so the central challenge becomes "how much?" which is a lot more interesting than Sonic's central challenge of "am I supposed to?" I've brought up the brilliance of this system before, but the relevant feature here is that screwing up and running into hazards doesn't put a damper on the action, rather it heightens the tension. It makes you think "maybe I should slow down a bit" while the racers around you immediately push those doubts from your mind and tempt you to boost just one more time. (Interestingly F-Zero GX also features the sideways dash which is so crucial to Sonic Generations' controls.)

So to summarize, if I could offer any advice to Sonic Team, it would be:

A) continue to try and find compelling reasons for Sonic to want to go fast. (Getting a final grade for finishing within an allotted time is not a very compelling reason.) Chasing or being chased (ala F-Zero GX) are good reasons. Letting Sonic smash through certain enemies/obstacles when he is going sufficiently fast (with clear visual indicators) would be another good incentive, as would enemies that punish tardiness (e.g. guided missiles) like in Sunset Overdrive.

B) find ways to punish failure that don't mean stopping Sonic dead in his tracks (losing rings is fine, though running in circles collecting them is irritating in 3D). Even having him sent flying in an unintended direction would be preferable (though I realize this pose level design challenges). Having him lose some velocity would also be acceptable, and could be very punishing were it actually necessary to go fast (though it's best if he has ways to quickly get back up to speed e.g. a dedicated "go-really-fast" button). Triggering things (e.g. alarms) that increase the perils of stopping or slowing down (e.g. the quantity of enemies chasing you) might also be a fun dynamic, forcing you to choose between proceeding more cautiously and facing the tidal wave of things you've triggered or doubling down and shooting the moon.

The other realization I came to is that, in my opinion, Sonic is best when he's racing through recognizably Earth-like environments. That's not because I want realism in my Sonic games but because it's much easier to get a sense of how fast Sonic's really going, and be awed by it, when he's running through an environment that you intuitively know the general scale of. For all it's myriad failings (including even having a freaking name), Sonic 2006 recognized this I think, and the real-world environments impart a good sense of speed. (Though perhaps they just did it for the sake of "gritty realism"; this is the team that brought us Shadow the Hedgehog after all.) Proper use of camera also gives a sense of scale and speed, though I realize how challenging this probably has been in the series (it was one of primary downfalls of Sonic 2006 and for what it's worth the camera only killed me a couple times so far in Generations, which is not bad considering). Showing off what's ahead better might not only help show off how quickly Sonic traverses it but also focus the gameplay more on timing and frantic choices rather than sheer reflexes.

Admittedly I'm only a couple hours into Generations which is why I made this more of a retrospective than a review, and perhaps the pulled-back camera angles and real-world environments come in later, but my short time with the game (and the frequent transitions between old-school and new-school) helped clarify for me these fundamental issues that have always plagued the series through both good times and bad. So far I've enjoyed my time with Generations, but I suspect this will diminish as the difficulty rises since I've mostly been able to cheerfully breeze through everything, and the moment I've encountered any sort of adversity the above issues rear their ugly heads and tip things over into frustration.

Rather than restrictively categorizing Sonic as a platformer, thinking in terms of racing games might help point to (less-band-aid-y) solutions since he feeds similar aesthetics (and yes I realize that Sonic has been in actual racing games, but that's incalculably stupid on the face of it. Why does Sonic need a car! That's as dumb as the Flashmobile!!). And racing against no opponents, stopping the player on a dime, having their inputs screw everything up... all starts to sound suspiciously like Big Riggs: Over the Road Racing!

And that's no good!

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