Keep on rollin’

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Old Sonic Team titles (for the sake of clarity and to potentially reveal my advancing age I am referring exclusively to Dreamcast and earlier releases when I say “old”) are often astounding examples of the most imaginative games this hobby has to offer, well loved and rightly so for their bold and innovative ideas all wrapped up in some of the most eye-catching presentation ever committed to cart, CD, or GD-ROM. But as good as they can be when you’ve finally found your groove getting there can sometimes be a bit of an uphill struggle, with some releases suffering from poor communication about the intended goals which often leads to a misunderstanding of why and how to best enjoy your time with them.

Hang on a minute – aren’t you supposed to play games because you like them, or because you find them fun? Yes, of course you are! But there’s always an unbreakable background set of rules that must be followed if any game is to be experienced in the best possible light, and knowing what you’re aiming for is a key part of learning how to enjoy the game: Is my score something I should keep in mind and try to improve on, or just there to fill up a bit of empty space on the screen? If I rush through this in record time am I playing like an impressive speed demon or an idiot for missing out on finer details that enrich the whole game? Am I dying a lot because I’m playing badly or is it a deliberate part of the risk/reward loop? You may think there is no one right answer – that you should tackle games at your own pace and do whatever it is that makes you smile while you’re playing them – and to a large extent you’d be right. But nobody picks up Virtua Racing because they want to take a stroll through the polygonal scenery or equips their Animal Crossing villager with a catapult before making a serious attempt at playing the game like it’s Smash TV, and it would be misguided at best and dishonest at worst to judge a title on skewed terms.

To put it another way: You can’t play Dragon Quest in the same way you play EverQuest, Fester’s Quest, or Demon’s Crest. No matter what the title or the genre is there always has to be an honest attempt at approaching the game in the way it was designed to be played if you want to get the most out of it.

Which brings us back to Sonic Team’s problems. It’s not immediately obvious that NiGHTS is meant to be an arcade-like score attack game, or that Burning Rangers is designed around replaying stages over and over again, testing yourself under an endless array of unpredictable circumstances and searching for new survivors as you go. Project Rub/Feel the Magic: XY/XX is… what, exactly?

But those are all a bit off the beaten path anyway so it’s perhaps not so strange anyone would have difficulty grasping the appeal of those titles – odd games are always going to be odd, after all. What’s most surprising is when you realise you can also say the same thing about a certain multi-million unit selling Mega Drive trilogy, a series that made every publisher in the nineties want their own slice of the animal mascot platformer pie – that is of course, Sonic the Hedgehog.

No really, let’s think about it for a second – what are you supposed to be trying to do when you play classic Sonic games? It sure as heck isn’t a trilogy (& Knuckles) you play for the story, so that’s out. So high scores, maybe? There are a lot of ways to boost your points total in Sonic games but… so what? There’s no end-of-game tally to boast about or even a temporary high score table in sight, rendering your score something that mostly exists because games (as they were at the time) are supposed to have score counters. How about collecting all of those shiny chaos emeralds then? Now those do give tangible extras – from good endings to Super Sonic’s speedy invincibility to Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘ fantastic final space battle against Eggman – but those are presented very much as extras to seek out in addition to the main game, a supplemental task kept apart from everything else and only accessible under special conditions. So what’s left?

I’m sure you’re thinking (or perhaps shouting at your monitor)¬†speed. And it’s true: Most Sonic games are about the blue hedgehog’s relationship with speed – but that’s not the same as saying they’re about going fast.

The heart of these games are found in the flow and rhythm of their undulating stages, of which moving through them quickly is more a byproduct of understanding that fluidity of level design than anything else. There’s real joy to be had in perfectly timed jumps, in finding the confidence and skill to run, spin, and soar full-tilt over spikes, lava, or mechanical crabs (powered by rabbits) and then holding on to that momentum long enough to use it to propel yourself in a perfect arc towards a floating ledge you’ve always noticed but never thought you could reach. When you can feel the series’ beat through your fingers and find yourself caught up in the middle of this symphony of movement – that’s when you know you’re playing well, and that’s their ultimate reward for the time and effort you’ve invested in honing your technique.

The specifics of how to reach this hedgehog heaven evolved in subtle but significant ways over the course of the nineties and each of the 16-bit entries have their own slightly different expectations of their players. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is noticeably slower than the games that would follow (but still far from slow, especially for genre standards of the time) and more concerned with getting players to perform precise actions in specific moments – something that’s especially noticeable when the now-standard spin dash isn’t there to compensate for any momentum-related mistakes. Green Hill’s lengthy rotating spike bridge – forcing you to either inch along in time with the movement of this unique hazard or expertly jump between the spikes to avoid getting skewered – and Marble Zone’s caterkiller badnik – an enemy that can only be destroyed without injury to Sonic if you land an attack on the front section – are two very strong early examples of the game’s demand for fine control and timing over gaining speed for speed’s sake.

Sonic 2 went and increased the hedgehog’s need for speed and made sure each Zone’s spectacular set pieces and mechanisms matched the newfound zippy philosophy of this never-ending rollercoaster: Hill Top’s escape from rising lava, Wing Fortress’ blink-and-they’re-gone (and back) gun platforms, and Metropolis’ screw/nut lifts are all different expressions of this fresh focus on keeping Sonic on the go as often as possible and at high speed. My own favourite example would be Chemical Plant’s network of tubes – you crack open the lid then jump in as one smooth action, zoom through them so fast the game has trouble keeping up with you, then when you pop out of the other end they’re neatly capped off with a spring. This common level feature performs a double duty here, preventing an accidental journey back the way you came while also preserving some of the speed and motion you had just built up if you happen to land on it, meaning whether you immediately head off down the nearest ramp or not the environment refuses to let you stand still for a single second. Aquatic Ruin offers a great example of everyone’s most feared Sonic feature – going underwater. Drowning has always been something to avoid for obvious reasons but that’s not really what makes the underwater segments of these games feel so different from everything else: Water isn’t there just to send Sonic to Davy Jones’ locker, the slow pace forces you to pay attention to the curves and slopes around you, forcing you to maximise every last drop of momentum you can squeeze out of the landscape when your regular leg-powered running speed is severely limited.

Sonic 3 and Knuckles decided to blow the horizontal level structure of the previous games wide open, adding a mind-boggling amount of verticality to each Act and going in on the zone-specific gimmicks in a big way. Some of these manifest as thrilling little details that go as fast as they come: Hydrocity’s water-running, Ice Cap’s snowboarding intro, and Casino Night’s air bubble releasing balloons are all beautiful location-aware additions that, along with the game’s seamless Act transitions and Zone-change scenes, gently bring the idea of Sonic places as a game and Sonic games as a place just that little bit closer together. Other features change how you approach the standard platforming aspects of the game entirely, from Sandopolis’ light-fearing ghosts to Death Egg’s continual fiddling with the gravity and the awe-inspiring collapse of the final section of Marble Garden Zone, literally falling to pieces as you dash through before crumbling away entirely. The new shields also deserve a special mention: They aren’t there just to provide straightforward protection against their matching element – the water bubble’s bounce, the fire shield’s forward dash, the lightning ball’s double jump – they all bring new options to your boingy repertoire, altering the difficulty of particular areas and giving you the opportunity to look at familiar areas in unusual ways.

Even so – why should you bother taking the time and effort to notice or engage with any of that? The games tend to throw 1UPs at you like confetti and even the biggest and toughest stages the whole series has to offer are in no danger of outlasting that extremely generous ten minute time limit. So why fling yourself off ramps or spin dash through loops when there’s always an easier and safer alternative? Why not just hold right and jump a bit until the credits roll?

The thing is these older Sonic games (and select others further down the line) only really come to life when you try to match the exuberant enthusiasm of the fastest thing alive. It’s the same sort of pleasure as learning how to weave your way through a storm of bullets in a tricky shmup – you could have passed through the same section with less fuss simply by hammering the start button whenever you died, but it’s more exciting when you play it as intended. It’s being aware of the smile spreading across your face when you flawlessly drift around a sweeping bend under Outrun 2’s Sega-blue skies – even though you could have traversed the same distance with less difficulty by slowing down instead. The Mega Drive Sonic games are at their best when an attempt is made to play them with skill and finesse, and it’s when approaching the games with this in mind that they truly come into their own: When the dizzying loops flow into ramps that throw you high into the air, when a well timed series of bops takes out a whole string of enemies without touching the ground and you then use that slight lift to carry yourself higher and further.

As this sort of thinking relies on players being willing to take a chance on parts of the level they can’t possibly see before they’ve landed in it life-ending bottomless pits and other unseen cheap shots are a very rare occurrence in classic Sonic games – dropping down a level or bounding across a huge gap is meant to be a little risky but not life threatening, encouraging you to turn that downward motion into sweeping rolls high into the sky and top-speed leaps into the unknown – you can expect the game to catch you, you can expect this exciting race against yourself to continue without a pause for breath. This trust between the game and the player is absolutely crucial to Sonic’s success – as is the lenient punishment when things don’t quite work out as planned. That ring-spilling slap on the wrist is a large part of the reason why Sonic games have always been considered easy, and it’s fair to say outside of a sudden squishing it does take a lot of effort to properly kill your chosen character off. But again this train of thought stems from a misunderstanding of what’s supposed to be “hard” in these games, of what you’re trying to aim for. Surviving to the end of a Sonic game isn’t difficult because it’s not supposed to be, and that’s why coming into contact with each Zones various hazards poses very little threat. Everyone can finish a Sonic game – that’s part of their appeal. As such the real penalty isn’t seeing your collected rings scattered far and wide but losing all of that precious momentum: When you’ve been expertly zooming through a stage at speed, timing every jump to perfection and making it all look as smooth as silk that knock back and full reset to a standing position is more painful than any fade-to-checkpoint restart any game in the series could ever give you.

There’s no point in denying that the Mega Drive Sonic games are mascot platformers “with attitude” created in direct commercial competition and creative opposition to Nintendo’s industry-shaping Mario series: the Blue Blur’s adventures are designed to be flashy head-turners who’s main aim is to be as financially successful and as popular with as broad a range of consumers as possible. On this front it would be hard to argue they did anything but accomplish their task, and they remain well-known and well-played to this day. But their enduring popularity extends beyond simply flexing that Motorola 68000 and being accessible one-button platformers – they reward skill, practise, and long-term improvement through good level design. The games grow as your abilities do, even though you’re on exactly the same map as before. New routes, some so far off the beaten path they can feel wholly unfamiliar, will turn into your latest favourites. Impossible clusters of rings become regularly hoovered up with ease. You casually hop through a secret gap in the wall to pop a shield monitor then spin away without stopping. Lost down the mental cracks between the poor communication and “blast processing” and the memes and the re-re-re-releases of these games is the fact that these titles represent some of the greatest experiences in their genre, games that deserve – and can withstand – real critical scrutiny.

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