Analysis: Exclusive Impact Sonic Game Design
[In this Gamasutra analysis, author Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at how the speed-driven design of Sonic the Hedgehog drives playback, and explores 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 take a modded PS2 and as many games as he could carry on only a fraction of what he would legally pay for it. He told me that because of this, he can’t play the game with a learning curve, because if the game doesn’t draw immediately he has heaps of alternatives. He didn’t think it was necessarily good to be so swamp in the game, legality aside, because he knew he lost the game because of the way he played it.
I have the opposite experience. So while I didn’t play most of the classics of 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 sequel) is one that has almost no learning curve and doesn’t take long to beat. In fact, since Sonic’s most defining feature is his speed, it practically encourages players to rush through it as fast as possible.
Compared to a wider selection of designs that tend to do the opposite, it’s a somewhat confusing choice. However, Sonic’s level design overcomes this contradiction with multi-tiered levels.
You Take the Low Way, I Will Take the High Way
This site has a good library of levels which will give a general impression of this kind of design. Most of the levels have at least two levels that run parallel and intersect at some point. Since backtracking was discouraged or prevented outright, it was only possible to experience the full level after a few playthroughs. Instead of encouraging players to explore, these segments exist to make each playthrough unique.
Sonic games don’t expect players to spend a lot of time looking at a level, because they have to run through it. In contrast, other platformers like Super Mario World are filled with enemies and obstacles so players have to experience and overcome each discrete challenge. Sonic created a much looser approach, as the hope was that players would experience what they missed in the next playthroughs.
Super Mario World is very focused on making sure players engage with nearly every challenge that is set in front of them, and that is a big part of the game’s enemy design. Take the simple piranha plant, one of its most common enemies. They were completely harmless as long as the player was paying attention to them, because they appeared from predictable locations and never varied their timing, but if a player was constantly rushing forward without prior knowledge of the timing they would most likely die. Super Mario World encourages a rhythm of watching, understanding and acting, with an emphasis on 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 rare, especially in Sonic 2 and 3, which dramatically reduced the number of enemies relative to those present in the first game. Obstacles are in loose clouds and are handled by moving away from them or cutting through them.
In either case, speed is more important because it allows the player to get past the danger. Most of the several levels can be passed by momentum alone, and in a rush the speed hurdles must react without time for careful observation.
This is also reflected in the way Mario games have traditionally handled the flop. Mario died instantly upon enemy contact. Power-ups let you take one hit, but the tremendous advantage they give is lost on that hit too. The game calls for this precision primarily and the game is more about carefully dodging threats.
Sonic, on the other hand, is very lenient by comparison, as enemy contact only causes the player to lose all collected rings. They give an extra life every hundred but don’t do much else. Since players can get them back once they are spread out, only one ring can make a player almost invincible.