Saturday, November 21, 2015

Help I'm a Sonic fan and I have no friends: Sonic the Hedgehog (Gen)

Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991)

For far too long SEGA has been peddling its (mostly) garbage Sonic games on the loyalty of a very disturbed and confused fanbase and the very powerful, inexplicable sense of nostalgia gamers have for Sonic's early adventures. There's a reason suckers like me go to the store and come home with something like Sonic Unleashed (PS3) - or worse, the '06 reboot: pure nostalgia. Let's get the obvious out of the way: favorite games from our childhood can invoke powerful memories, stronger than, say, a single piece of music or a single film: it's the combination of visual and audio and the experiential format of the medium that allows a single game to leave such a lasting impression. We can play (or see, or hear) an older game and be able to place it at such a specific moment in our lives.

OK, that much is obvious. I bring it up because the Sonic trilogy for Genesis acts as a sort of signpost for multiple points in my life; it evokes, in other words, layers of nostalgia. Clearly I'm a disturbed individual. To boot:
  • Playing the original trilogy on Genesis
  • Discovering emulation in the early 00's (not to mention the anime-porn-ridden emulation sites)
  • Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube - my first introduction to quality retro collections
  • Buying a PSP solely for the purpose of running old emulators
  • Sonic Mega Collection Plus (PS2) - I told you I'm a sucker
  • Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection (PS3)
  • Most recently, M2's fantastic 3DS port
The game is an old friend, and as such, it's hard to judge its quality in any meaningful way. I suspect I'm not alone in this; Sega keeps making lousy Sonic games, after all, and people keep buying them. 


I guess what's really surprising is that the first game (I'll cover the rest later) is a genuinely good game. Maybe it's not so surprising. After all, this was the mascot that nearly toppled Nintendo's near-monopoly on the industry - something that would not have been accomplished solely by means of Sega's clever, antagonistic marketing push and Sonic's "attitude" (which really just amounted to an annoying smirk most of the time). 

We now associate Sonic with a speedier brand of platforming: fueled by Sega PR ("blast processing"), bad memories, and the prominence of later games in the series. The first game doesn't emphasize it, though. It's important to remember that the first Sonic game was competing directly with Super Mario World (SNES), both being released in the summer of 1991. In that light, SMW is the clear winner, offering a deeper, more varied and more rewarding experience. But the SNES was new, and the Genesis was 2 years old; so it's not a stretch to compare Sonic with the NES Mario games, despite the difference in hardware power. 

Well, whatever you choose to compare it with, Sonic still stands out: immediately the SE-GA! chant, the catchy music, and vibrant colors herald something new and certainly something flashier. The checkerboard dirt (loosely corresponding to Sega's grid design on the cover of Master System and Genesis games) and slightly artificial-looking tropical world became standards for the series - as did the use of rings and power-up monitors. Immediately the game lays out the basics: rings give you health, monitors hide goodies, little animals escape from destroyed robots, and springs will send you flying.

Rings are such an essential part of the Sonic games that we probably take them for granted. They offer a single layer of protection from enemies; grabbing 100 will grant an extra life, while having at least 50 at the end of a level will give you a shot at the game's special stage; and the more you have, the more likely you'll be able to recover some when they've been scattered upon being hit. Which is to say the player has multiple good reasons to seek them out - an important design decision, given that the levels are filled with little corners where getting past an optional enemy might result in a couple of ring monitors. 

Risk/reward is an important part of the Sonic design: taking the high ground in a given level offers the chance for more rings and a shortcut, but you run the risk of jumping right off a cliff - usually onto a bed of spikes (bottomless pits don't feature as prominently in this game as they do in other platformers - or indeed, in other games of the series). Bosses are similar: Robotnik tends to favor slow, obvious patterns, and getting a hit is a very simple matter of patience. But the player is not bound by this pattern: if you know the boss well and your reflexes are quick enough, it's possible to get two hits in when you might otherwise only get one. 


The main emphasis of Sonic (in our minds, at least) is the use of momentum to overcome level obstacles. The first game features this less than others, but it's still there: you'll need the right momentum to get through the loop-de-loops, over steep hills, or taking a wall-busting shortcut. The first game, though, slows things down considerably, and becomes a more traditional platformer.

After getting through the all 3 acts of the breezy Green Hill Zone and its easy boss, players are dropped into Marble Zone, a combination of the 'ancient ruins' and 'lava' themes (a vaguely classical aesthetic that wouldn't look too out of place in Sega's other "hallowed" Genesis franchise, Altered Beast). Here the levels are more linear, and the platforming more traditional; after a few rolling hills, Sonic is funneled down into the ruins proper. You have to navigate lava pools, spiked chandeliers, and door switches - hardly the stuff of "Blast Processing" legend. But Sonic controls just fine - an important part of the game, especially in later levels, is not only about building momentum, but also being able to stop it, and Sonic's control hits a sweet spot of almost-but-not-quite-too slippery. 


At this point the player has no doubt encountered a huge ring at the end of a normal non-boss level (provided they hit the signpost with at least 50 rings): jumping into it before Sonic automatically runs off will send the player into the game's special stage. Reaching the point in the middle will score a chaos emerald. These levels are trippy, rotating mazes with lullaby music that plays at odds with how stressful they can be - hitting that wall of red GOALs will end the level, sending it spinning int oblivion and playing the level complete music - like waking up from a weird dream.

There's something vaguely stressful about these levels - because you don't have full control over Sonic, and because of the limited visibility, getting the wrong angle and hitting a bumper can send you spinning straight to the end. Naturally the feeling is enhanced by the knowledge that you won't be able to try again until you beat the next non-boss level - provided you have 50 rings, a feat which becomes progressively more difficult. In total there are 6 of these stages (Sonic fans will remember nearly every other game since has 7 emeralds). Collecting them all simply adds a little more animation to the ("good") ending, which we'll see later. 


Thus you could conceivably get all 6 (if you're lucky, or employ the use of our good friend The Save State) by the end of our next level: Spring Yard Zone. This zone is a prototype of sorts for what later Sonic games would use as the more traditional "casino/pinball" level. It doesn't have a true casino aesthetic (though its New Jack Swing-inspired theme sounds suspiciously like a certain Bobby Brown song), but it puts a heavy emphasis on bumpers and springs, with big pinball-type lanes. Sonic falls down these lanes faster than the "camera" can keep up - Blast Processing in practice, I suppose. The game here opens up far more than Marble Zone, with a bigger emphasis on verticality, alternate routes, and secret rooms full of rings. It's also the first time so far that a boss level features bottomless pits - in other words, an instance where rings can't save you. 


Fact: no one likes water levels. Which is unfortunate because the next level, Labyrinth Zone, is just that (also riffing on the "ancient ruins" theme). Water levels in this game are especially miserable because of how molasses-slow Sonic moves underwater - and without the aid of the spin dash in later entries, building the momentum sometimes necessary is a real chore. On top of that, breath is limited - Sonic must catch a big bubble coming out of the air pockets periodically, or it's instant death. Labyrinth Zone Act 1 makes this our 10th level - so, in addition to the natural annoyance of platforming underwater, the game's difficulty is also ramped up with the occasionally devious trap, or the dreaded looping waterfall in Act 3. To top it off, fighting Robotnik isn't necessary - rather, you must chase him up a difficult, trap-laden path that is slowly filling with water (reaching the top is the equivalent of beating him). 


After that grueling process, we proceed to Star Light Zone, where the game takes a change of pace somewhat. The music is lovely and relaxing, the background is pleasantly twilit, and there are very few enemies. It also has the biggest number of smooth downward ramps and (double) loop-de-loops. Which doesn't necessarily make it a cakewalk - the few enemies that exist can't normally be destroyed and are pretty deviously placed, and the game becomes cruelly stingy with its use of lamppost checkpoints. The boss - wherein you must launch yourself up using see-saws - is also a clever way of re-using a hazard seen earlier in the level. 

Scrap Brain Zone is when the difficulty truly ramps up, and also offers a few surprises. The first act, presumably outside of Robotnik's fortress, is full of death traps and the most annoying enemies - not to mention bottomless pits from the very start. The second differs from other zones because it's an entirely new aesthetic, taking place inside the fortress - even more devious (and downright frustrating) obstacles. At the end, though, when you'd normally expect to pass a signpost and continue on to Act 3, you encounter a Robotnik - seen standing, not in a flying egg robot, for the first time - standing behind a door. He trips the switch, forcing Sonic to fall down - into Act 3. It's a nice and surprising bit of trickery in what has otherwise been pretty standard fare. 

Except Act 3 is a color-swapped version of Labyrinth Zone, the dreaded underwater stages. Here is the most difficult part of the game - a gauntlet of memorization and reflexes, throwing everything at you. To make it worse, the air pockets - allowing you to breathe underwater - are not only more scarce, but also don't refresh as often. Again, there's no signpost at the end: hitting the spring will send you flying back up into Robotnik's lair (now called Final Zone), where Sonic has the chance to defeat him once and for all. Except it's pretty easy, even though you have no rings - an obvious pattern, with very little risk. A fun fight, nonetheless. Defeating him with all 6 chaos emeralds will add a bit to the ending (below), but otherwise we see Sonic running through Green Hill Zone with an impressive array of all the animals he's rescued. 

Sonic the Hedgehog is a fine game that does indeed hold up well enough, but like most first entries of famous franchises, I think it's better observed as a blueprint for later games. All the building blocks are there: the speed, the momentum-building, the varied levels, the (mostly) breezy stages, the distinct aesthetic and awesome music - not to mention the boss fights (something, it's not said often enough, that early Mario games never excelled at). I'm not sure that excuses me for being a dithering idiot who spent money on Sonic Adventure no less than three times, but still. 


All screenshots are my own, except for the box art, courtesy of GameFAQs
Recommended link: this awesome set of images showing Sonic's levels in their entirety.

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