Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Revolutionizing Video Games at Sonic Speed

Looking back at the early 90's, it seems like households were divided into two groups: Sega or Nintendo. Now, time has rather decisively told the winner of that one-time battle, but stepping into that moment in video game history, things are hardly as clear cut. I knew a hell of a lot more Genesis owners than I did SNES owners and, with my critical nature coming to light early on, I was one of the many that thought Mario struck an impressive balance between bizarre and bland. For me, and millions of other kids, the fat Italian and his withholding girlfriend could never hold a candle to the visceral thrill and self-conscious attitude of Sonic the Hedgehog.

I recently picked up Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection as a very reasonably priced means for reliving those days. I noted a couple of things very quickly after putting in the game: 1) I did not play 90% of what the Genesis had to offer in its heyday, and 2) I did not not care; I wanted Sonic. He, as the title suggests, is the main feature, with essentially every Genesis Sonic game available to play in its untainted, 16-bit glory, but there are many other games to be discovered. Vectorman's brutal difficulty illustrates how classic games' longevity hinged on them being nigh unbeatable. Comix Zone's bold premise that literally puts players into a comic book proves that video games were bursting with artistic innovation long before anyone cared to notice. Ecco the Dolphin shows that video games have never been limited to violent, male-centric fare. Most importantly, Streets of Rage proves that there is nothing more fun than beating a dominatrix to death with a pipe while playing as a thirteen year old kid.

That last point is indicative of Sega's overall approach to marketing the Genesis, as well as the idea that fueled Sonic's birth: edginess. Nintendo has always insisted on being family friendly and, perhaps as a result, a bit boring. It created an opportunity for Sega – one that they occasionally seized on shamelessly, but often used to push boundaries creatively. When one holds Sonic up against Mario, it is clear which one had something to prove. Even in his mediocre debut, Sonic made it no secret that he wanted to leave Mario in the dust. Dynamic visuals, a protagonist who flaunted his attitude with every opportunity, music with clear hip hop and rock influences and, of course, speed set Sonic apart. Being able to play each of the four games in the classic series back to back provided a unique chance to see how the hedgehog grew into his role as Sega's answer to Mario.

His 1991 debut, entitled "Sonic the Hedgehog" has not aged well. While Sonic's defining attributes are established here, they are presented in an unrefined package that proves more frustrating than anything else. The art style, despite already showcasing the Genesis' increased ability to fill the screen with active backgrounds and foregrounds, was not consistently unique. (The Marble Zone feels like it is ripped straight from a Mario game.) Gameplay is occasionally fast but players of the later games will find that Sonic's spin dash, a key tool for gaining speed, is frustratingly absent. The cruel level of difficulty is most frustrating of all. There are countless instances of level design that punishes players unfairly, leading to a great deal of trial and error. The later stages of the game are particularly painful because they often take place underwater. Every Sonic game has its underwater stages (an apparent attempt to trump Mario's susceptibility to the substance), but they are only tolerable in small doses. They slow Sonic down considerably, after all, and force one to manage oxygen, lest the player be subjected to the incomparably stressful drowning song. Speaking of music, the melodies in this game are often far too giddy to fit Sonic's persona.

Sonic 2, released only a year later, found him coming into his own. Gameplay properly showcased the visceral thrill that only he could provide. Levels are full of loops and springs that keep Sonic moving at breakneck pace. Gone are the tedious traps and platforming challenges that plagued the first game. The introduction of Tails adds little to gameplay, but expanded the universe and would later lead to more diversity in the cast. Most importantly, the style of the levels blossomed into something unique. No one would mistake the Chemical Plant Zone, with its giant metallic structures and driving, jazzy soundtrack for anything in a Mario game. Levels like Hill Top Zone showed a self-conscious bizarreness that Mario would never gain. The closing levels built dramatically and in terms of difficulty with the massive Metropolis zone and Sonic's airborne pursuit of Robotnik over the course of the final three levels. It culminates in the final zone, where Sonic beats Mario into space by over a decade. The special stages also deserve mention, being an early use of 3D that was something more than giant polygons being thrown at the screen.

Sonic's golden age was capped off with a two-game epic that solidified him as one of the greatest characters in gaming history. Both released in 1994, Sonic 3 and Sonic & Kunckles combined to create one massive game that introduced countless innovations.

The moment players begin Sonic 3, the evolutionary strides are apparent. Sonic does not start the game standing in an arbitrary spot; he soars down from the sky, straight out of the climax of the previous game. It is a subtle touch that reoccurs consistently throughout the game. Never does Sonic simply materialize at the beginning of a level; there is always a clear transition between locations and, furthermore, acts flow straight into each other, only broken up by a moment for score tallying. At the beginning of the first level, Sonic runs into Knuckles, the rival that will lend a new degree of complexity to the series, both in terms of story and gameplay. The pantomime story these games tell is certainly simplistic, but is told with surprising effectiveness for a 16-bit platformer.

Nowhere is this dramatic punch made more apparent than in the mid-level boss that appears shortly thereafter. As a result of Sonic's battle with the robot, the beautiful, tropical forest setting bursts into flames. Twists such as this come throughout the game and set Sonic 3 apart from its predecessors, as well as its contemporaries. Significantly bolstering this leap is the relentlessly infectious music, which many believe is the work of Michael Jackson. It parallels the evolution of each level, as each zone's second act features a remix of the first's song. Mario's music may be more famous today, but that is quite baffling when playing Sonic 3.

Sonic & Knuckles continues with similar strengths, but brings the obvious addition of the second playable character. While there aren't two completely different sets of levels to complete, they do branch, based on which character is being played. Furthermore, Knuckles could be brought into Sonic 2 and Sonic 3, by way of the heavily-touted "Lock-On Technology" that allowed players to connect the game with others. Knuckles can glide and climb, giving the game a more vertical focus than it has with Sonic, a significant, but not revolutionary addition. Knuckles adds most to the game when he's driving the plot forward. Sonic's final confrontation with the character is striking, being the only hand-to-hand confrontation of the series. It leads to a silent reconciliation between the characters. This may not be Shakespeare, but it brings a degree of complexity to the simple "good versus bad" dynamic that defined most video games of the time (including Mario).

Level design remains strong in this game, with memorable moments abound. The Sandopolis Zone introduces interesting, new mechanics that force Sonic to fight off darkness and a constantly rising tide of sand. The Sky Sanctuary Zone builds the game to a dramatic climax as Sonic allies with Knuckles to catch up to Robotnick and fight off a mechanical version of himself. The large-scale space battle that concludes the game illustrates just how effective Sonic had become at carving out a unique image for himself. You will never see Mario leaping out of an exploding space fortress, after fighting a mech that is fifty times his size.

Perhaps this look back at Sonic's heyday proves, most of all, how brief it was. His reign lasted less than four years and it was filled with quality games that consistently improved on their predecessors and gave Mario a run for his money. Yet, it was a pace that could not continue. Ask any Sonic fan about Sonic 3D Blast, the game that followed and they will undoubtedly cringe. If nothing else, the fleeting amount of time Sonic needed to make his impact was a testament to the greatness of his games. Oddly fitting, is it not?

A Response from Matt Keeley: "Late Sega Decline"

Matt rightly points out the important differences between the kids who grew up on Mario and Nintendo games and those who grew up on Sonic and Sega. I've always been a Nintendo fan, though I was never averse to playing the Genesises of my friends and of my cousins.

And yet Sonic has never done much for me. I admit that the games had fantastic music and that they were very technically proficient, but I always felt that Sonic's speed masked a lack of compelling gameplay - The games sometimes felt more like playable tech demoes than full-fledged games. The Mario games, I always found, had fewer cheap deaths and controller-throwing moments. Of course, even Mario had his moments of poorly-conceived "innovation." The Ghost Houses in Super Mario World were remarkably tedious exercises in trial-and-error, while the 3D games have always focused a little too much on McGuffin collecting over simple and pleasing platforming goodness.

Perhaps some of my frustration with the Sonic franchise is oddly retroactive - My memories of those rare youthful days with a Genesis controller in my hands have been tarnished by Sega's descent in the years since the Genesis. Matt called Sonic a "self-conscious" mascot. Perhaps he once was, but in recent years the Sonic games have degenerated into parodies of what they once were. The fine people at Sega have proliferated irritating side characters, given hedgehogsguns, and generally done everything they could to make sure that the only dedicated Sonic fans are emo furry seventh-graders. Sega has tried to reboot the series, but the simply-titled PS3 and 360 game Sonic the Hedgehog received a 4.2 of 10 at IGN, while the recent Wii games were damned with faint praise. Yes, the reviewers said, the Wii games weren't that great. But at least they got rid of the damn side characters.

Sonic is hardly the only series suffering in this era of Late Sega Decline (LSD). Sega still makes good games - Valkyria Chronicles is apparently one of the best PS3 games available - but they no longer know what to do with their franchises. No one pays attention to Phantasy Star anymore, though the series once competed with Final Fantasy. Streets of Rage has vanished.No one cared about the PS2 Shinobi games; I doubt we'll ever see a PS3 sequel. There hasn't been a new Panzer Dragoon in ages, nor has Sega ever re-released Panzer Dragoon Saga, which generally goes for over a hundred dollars on eBay. Worse, other games never get the chance to turn into series. Skies of Arcadia was one of the best games of the previous console cycle, but it never got a sequel, though a few characters from the game showed up in Valkyria Chronicles. One hopes that Sega can turn things around, but it's going to be quite the challenge for them. LSD is a hard habit to kick, and Sega's had an awful trip of late.

Matt mentioned Michael Jackson's involvement in Sonic 3. Sad to say, I think Sonic followed MJ's career path: Brilliance followed by breakdown. I hope that Sonic can make the comeback that Jackson never did. As the early games prove, he deserves a second chance.

1 comment:

Josh said...

too bad you can never take sonic out of 2D environment. ever play sonic 3D? horrendous.