Sonic needs to slow down.
It is not a wholly, original thought that perhaps Sonic The Hedgehog's very name is a bit of a misnomer. At their heart, Sonic games were never really about just running. However, without resorting to internet memes or other cynical reflexes, separating exactly what makes a Sonic game fun from what makes it bad can actually be a somewhat tricky task. This is likely because many of the finer points of the Sonic series are lost to longstanding perceptions of the games.
Most prominently, Sonic's legacy will forever be that of a game associated with speed, and understandably so.
But even after two decades and generations of new players, Sonic has always been at his best when he wasn't simply just running as fast as he could.
Let me explain why.
"So I come up with some ideas about events that are happening; how the player acts, you know, at each stage. What kind of results happen once you perform this or that gimmick in each level..."
"So this is the idea for a section, and I make a picture or a scan of what kind of image I have going, add some simple comments, and make a document that I bring to the artists and programmers. These are all concepts."
These are answers to questions posed in a fascinating 2008 Gamasutra interview with game designer Hirokazu Yasuhara. He is explaining in detail many of the design considerations for what, from the vantage point of the architect for the original Sonic The Hedgehog games, makes a compelling gameplay experience.
"There was the corkscrew in Sonic 2, for example, right? I had to think all that out in 3D. Also in Sonic 2, you had these pipe passages where you would be thrown around all over the place until you came out somewhere else; I had to work out all the layers involved in that layout."
Hirokazu Yasuhara is best known as one third of the original Sonic Team trio, alongside Naoto Oshima and Yuji Naka. The fly-on-the-wall story that has persisted across time is this: Sega tasked these three designers to come up with a game that featured a marketable lead, in order that Sega may have a flagship mascot. Several failed attempts followed. Naka persistently wanted to create a game that would incorporate the element of speed, so Oshima integrated Naka's general idea into a character design. This would eventually become a blue, running hedgehog.
And Yasuhara? Yasuhara designed their new mascot's labyrinths.
The politics between Sega of Japan and Sega of America, as well as the stories of Sonic the Hedgehog's contention with Nintendo are oft told tales, most recently in the curiously narrated novel Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. Without retreading the lengthy legwork there, and other places that retell this famous history, let's boil this down to what many people already know:
Sonic the Hedgehog needed to be an answer to Mario the Plumber, and the Sega Genesis had quite a sexy engine under that sleek, black exterior.
Because of this important generational point in gaming history, Sonic has become inexorably linked to Nintendo and the 16-bit era. And why not? Both Mario and Sonic are cartoon characters, they are both platformers, and they both are mascots. What more, for every Mario pillowcase and cartoon series, Sega was right behind with products from their very own marketing machine.
But while Sega was busy meeting and repeating Nintendo at every cultural corner, they spent their PR resources reminding the world not of the blatant similarities that seem so obvious now, but the aforementioned things that made them different: Sonic was fast, Mario was not. The Genesis was fast, the Super Nintendo was not. This memory very much lives on to this day.
If, however, someone were looking to study what made those first, several games so great, they would be wise to remember not just the pop culture theatrics that Sonic and Sega had left in their wake, but instead study what made Sonic most similar to the golden era of 2D platforming.
In that very same 2008 interview, the answer to a question regarding the types of feedback the player should receive in order to feel accomplished:
"The important thing here is that the player always feels like he's in control of his own fate...That has to be a constant process."
Here are the various ways in which you can beat a single level in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. (Feel free to expand.)
When zoomed out, the stage intricacies become that much more apparent, each level fitted with hidden panels and secret rooms, plenty of alternate paths, and revolving types of terrain for which to show off Sonic's spinning move set.
Now let's take a similar look at the potential paths of a level in Super Mario World:
A much calmer stroll, no?
Now, there may be some dissent over these images. Namely, using a latter-level stage in Sonic 2 juxtaposed against an early level of Super Mario World would make sense to be fairly dissimilar in challenge. Plus, we have to consider the fact that the Genesis simply could output more than the SNES. And Super Mario World has 72 different levels compared to the only 23 of Sonic 2. Not to mention that Sonic 2 has a two year leg-up on the classic Mario title.
Okay, so these particular images are shown only for greatest effect. But the truth is that even the first two worlds in the original Sonic the Hedgehog feature levels considerably more outstretched and elaborate than even the later levels of Super Mario World.
So what is this even getting at?
Well, beyond the basic considerations of just their artistic merits, it simply means that Sonic's mechanics required a much more sprawled out world in order to function at their full capacity. It also means that the Genesis, with its extra CPU power and storage, was able to more easily showcase these types of levels as compared to the short, staccato levels in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Again, it's very easy to notice the differences between Sonic and other games.
Recently, a popular duo from the "Previously Recorded" studios commented on the very issue of Sonic's core game mechanics in a video with an intentionally controversial conclusion: Sonic the Hedgehog is an extremely overrated series due to the idea that its basic mechanic of speed is so often hindered by the levels that are supposed to house it. Some choice quotes:
"Sonic can move so fast, you literally have zero time to react..."
"...The design is flawed."
"The game can move so fast that you can't possibly react to what's going on, so they stick in these fancy corkscrews and loop-de-loops and cannons and springs, where you have like literally no control over where you're going...when really the game is basically playing itself for those ten second stretches."
"It's almost as if the game wants you to slow down and like, take your time and explore."
"You can go back and remake an original Mega Man, and it would still be great...Sonic will never be great because he never was great. Therefore, he earns no place in gaming's history, yet, he's still (expletive) here!"
But here again, Sonic's current reputation is being conflated with his previous, misunderstood self. They (inadvertently) say it themselves in the video: Sonic is not just about going fast.
One need only to have played Sonic in the year 1991 to truly understand that the fast gameplay segments were more of a cultural showpiece for how far technology had come, combining the gameplay with in-your-face exhilaration that, up to that point, had never before been experienced from just a living room. Sonic's steep drops and accelerated detours were the spicy hooks to an otherwise basic, if remarkable platformer.
There are in fact many different ways in which the original games excelled without accelerating. In an extraordinary project, Satchbag goes in depth to analyze the reasons why Sonic the Hedgehog is, in truth, a significant landmark in gaming due to its muted storytelling, level construction, and especially, artistic design.
To these ends, I can only defer to this video:
But this video, too, is not without some controversy.
In reference to the exact quandary of whether Sonic is or is not simply a game about speed, Satchbag and I land on seemingly opposite sides. Of significance:
"The question was never if Sonic is actually fast, or how quantifiably fast he was. The question is if the zones he's in ever require him to have speed. Some might argue that Mario was faster than Sonic. Either through calculating estimated distance traveled, or because Mario games traditionally have timers that count down, when Sonic's timers counted up seemingly infinitely.
But what made speed the crutch of a Sonic game wasn't its quantifiable value in speed or time. Every stage of this game required the idea of speed as a prerequisite in order to be completed."
The famous loop-de-loops, hillside cliffs, untimely avalanches, and other assorted speed mechanisms were all excellent inducers of Sonic's attitude and the Genesis' power, as is argued in the video. They were design choices that asserted, yes, everything to do with Sonic, and by extension SEGA, is going to be a thrill.
But again, Sonic did not remain a classic game just because of its speed.
Sonic has remained a classic game largely in part due to its exploration.
If the original Sonic the Hedgehog series is in fact comprised of time tested classics, and if the biggest reason for their successes were primarily the games' pure speed, then modern-day efforts might be considered instant classics by virtue of their intensities alone. This is obviously not the reputation of most modern Sonic games.
So why does everyone keep talking about Sonic like its just some big speed run?
A huge part of how we still think about Sonic comes from all of those comparisons we keep talking about.
By comparing the conflicting conventions of Sonic the Hedgehog against similar games, we are committing a pratfall that remains seemingly apt; Sonic has obvious cohorts, and many have defined Sonic's context in history in this way. But in taking this route, one continues to isolate the idea that Sonic games are especially (or only) about moving as fast as possible, which is the bedrock of what Sonic Team continues to sell to this day.
And here's the biggest problem: I would not be stating anything controversial by saying the best Mario sidescrollers, specifically the first four major Super Mario titles, should be considered masterclasses in virtually every category of game making. Their influence hardly needs further emphasis.
Thus, the dichotomous comparisons between Mario and Sonic have clouded the achievements of the original Sonic Team by relegating them to an unnecessary "2nd place", and ironically continues to distort what makes Sonic 1, 2, 3, and Knuckles such fantastic games, which has far more to do with why Mario and Sonic are similar.
So here again, in plain English, is why the original Sonic games were significant:
These games are fun because you are inside of an animated world that screams at you through its colors, sounds, and pathways to interact with it. Your ability to create inertia, glide down slopes, and burst through walls are simply clever vehicles for rewarding the player's curiosity, as well as amusing ways for advancing past each new obstacle. Yes, the early culture at Sega mandated certain design elements. And yes, it is fun to go really, really fast through a series of Rube Goldberg contraptions. But the games are still fun to this day because you can see what happens when you jump on platforms to the left, because you can try and get enough speed to clear a wall instead of just going through it, and because you are always trying to figure out just where the heck all these secret chaos emeralds are hidden. And so very often, discovering everything in these elaborate maps require you to skillfully comb every little cranny, rewarding those who take the time to leave no rock unturned.
Just like in the very best Mario games.
To remove that sense of organic discovery and meaningful reward system, and instead primarily focus on Sonic's speed, is to remove a major component of Sonic's greatest success by taking away that crucial design element that Yasuhara proved essential so long ago.
If Sonic's speed was a counterpoint to Nintendo's moderate image, this is important to denote. And if Sonic's levels were designed as a way to show off the new hardware, similar in task to games such as Super Mario 64 and Ridge Racer, this too will always be a part of Sonic's DNA.
But if you want to tease out the real reason Sonic was not solely a marketing flash-in-the-pan and instead has maintained a real staying power between the games and their players, it cannot be overlooked that in large part it is because the environment that the player interacted with used to be a playground for Sonic's abilities. And now so often they are simply a showcase for them.
Sonic games are a lot of things to a lot of people, but it is always important to remember that things are not created in a vacuum. The goals of a Nintendo or a Sega have especially always been contextual.
The reason a major game becomes funded, what it is set to become, when it needs to be released, and what it is being released onto are all considerations that vary wildly from title to title - let alone from developer to developer.
In the Sonic games of today, and most of which followed "Sonic CD" on the Sega CD, what a Sonic game needs to become is much more financially dictated than for most major titles. A major commercial flop for Nintendo still likely leaves the company with several other heavy hitters in their lineup coming up to bat. Not to mention the benefit of having hardware profits.
Because of this reality of Sonic being so important to Sega, Sonic games, for better or worse, are a largely reactionary institution.
Does Sonic need to be 3D? Of course he does. Does he need to be cool? Yes. Does he need to appeal to children? Apparently. Will he maintain his American caricature in Japan? Bring in the electric guitars.
Multiplayer? Voice actor? Extended universe? Handheld titles? RPG elements? Racing games?
Check, check, check.
Today, Yuji Naka has moved on to form the studio "Prope", where he and his team have created such games as Ivy the Kiwi, and Monster Manor as part of the 3DS streetpass game series. Naoto Oshima's company "Arzest" has also developed for the 3DS streetpass games, as well as headed the title Yoshi's New Island. And Hirokazu Yasuhara? He went on to be a game designer for Jak 2, Jak 3, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and even Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move.
You have to admit, these aren't exactly a batch of games that could only be described as speed obsessed.
It is important to appreciate what Sega Team accomplished in the early to mid nineties as a product of its time, articulated expertly and with such finesse, that observers still most often point to the paint job to describe what's under the hood. Even an early era title like "Sonic Spinball" - a spinoff game (ha.) where Sonic becomes a literal pinball inside of giant pinball-like stages - was a game about using momentum to further explore the board!
What is so evident when you take a critical look at the basic design beyond the very memorable speed elements, soundtrack, and art direction, is that the original team understood fundamental constructs that make games universally fun.
The very best of Sonic's newer output succeeds in spite of this truth.
The very worst of it, when even attempting to mimic the gameplay of the earliest games, misses out on key components: Sonic is not about maintaining aerial combos through an obstacle course any more than new Mario games are about going through pipes.
Sonic needs to put on the brakes, start wondering what's behind the wall, and slow down.
Alan is a grad student studying the psychology of creativity in southern California. He had the first official Sonic and Tails plushies before they eventually needed stitching. He gave them to his aunt to fix, but she never gave them back.