Monday, May 28, 2012

Super Sonic Sadism

            I’m quite a fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, some missteps in his games notwithstanding. So the other day when my friend and I were looking for things to do we decided to pop in a collection of old sonic games and play through Sonic 3. Eventually we were unable to continue and tried Sonic 2 in an attempt to end on a higher note. The game fared a bit better but we still had some problems near the end. But playing these brought to mind a lot of the reasons where I think the Sonic games had some problems, even back in their supposed golden age.

No one’s arguing that all the new games were fantastic, but they weren’t devoid of problems even before then…

            I suppose I do have a bit of ulterior motivation for this. I grew up with both the old sonic games on my friends Genesis…es (Genesii?) and the newer 3D games. However, I’d guess most people writing in the games industry right now grew up a bit earlier, and thus have the benefit of nostalgia for the old games only. Now, Sonic certainly hasn’t been helping by having some objectively bad games in recent years, but on a lot of major game sites you see people agreeing that everything after Sonic & Knuckles (the series last major Genesis outing) is utter shit and everything beforehand dispenses lollipops and rainbow magic to all the world.

            So enough beating around the bush, let’s talk about my problems with old Sonic. The original Sonic was missing some key features like the spin dash; the first two games had some frustrating moments and of course neither of them had the ability to save. These are all things I consider downsides, but I’m here to talk about a specific Sonic tradition that peaked in Sonic 3, and that’s the tradition of screwing with the player.

            There were occasional examples of this type of thing prior to Sonic 3. The enemies that burst from the wall in Sonic 2’s Aquatic Ruin zone spring to mind. But Sonic 3 is the crown king bastard of these type of cheap shots and unintuitive design. It isn’t really a problem with the game being difficult, but rather that portions are completely counterintuitive or impossible to be aware of playing the game through the first time.

            The second zone in Sonic 3 is called Hydrocity. It’s an underwater zone, which will already make some former Sonic players grimace. Underwater areas in Sonic games have you moving slower, and will drown the player if they go too long without finding an air bubble. But the zone still wasn’t too bad until you got to Act 2. You see, at the beginning of the second act of Hydrocity you’re followed by a moving wall. Lemme tell you about this wall…

In all likelihood, this wall is going to make you its bitch

            In the Sonic games if you’re caught between two solid objects you’ll instantly be crushed and die. This means that if you don’t move fast enough the wall will kill you instantly. The opening segment of the wall has several sloped steps like the one shown above. You have to spin dash up these as fast as possible, but spin dash only works on a flat plane. Therefore, if you move slightly too far forward and are standing on the sloped part of the curve then instead of spin dashing you’ll jump backwards, losing you time.

As the segment moves on there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and a lot of them end in springs that will rocket you backwards toward the wall. These springs often come at you so fast that if you don’t react in a fraction of a second you’ll fall behind. The wall moves fast enough that if you make even one mistake it’s likely to kill you. Remember that barring extra lives you only have 3 lives, and that if you lose all of them you have to start the whole zone over, even the previous act. Even if you were to argue that the wall segment is completely fair springs and all, the difficulty of this segment is completely disproportionate to the rest of the stage.

So you make it through Hydrocity and make it to the next zone, Marble Garden. This stage is generally much less frustrating than the previous one, but still has a couple irritations. It has some weird spinners that are hard to control but the these don’t bother me near as much as that most egregious of Sonic traditions, throwing enemies in your face when you’re moving so fast you’d have to have the reaction time of The One to dodge them.
Imagine you’re careening down this hill at breakneck speeds and this asshole literally jumps up right in front of you

Of course, worse than that is a type of enemy that looks exactly like spikes. They occasionally pop out and fire projectiles at you when you think you’re safe. When you see a large group of spikes you have to be careful in case one of them gets up and shoots you in the face. Oh, and jumping on top of these enemies, who I remind you are just giant spikes with feet, results in you bouncing upward. This sounds more like a cruel (and not particularly funny) joke a designer made rather than something that should be in the game.

“Haha! It’s funny because they have to do what we deliberately told them not to before!”

So that’s annoying, but still not as hard as that wall bit and at least it’ll get better from here on out, right? Oh you poor, sad, oblivious fool. The next zone is the Carnival Night zone. The next zone is what kept me and my friend from finishing the game. The next zone, not to put too fine a point on the matter, sucks.

One of the biggest problems is that it’s an absolutely enormous stage. It’s filled with portions that slow you down or push you back to an earlier spot, and it’s often pretty unclear where you should even be going, and thus easy to get lost. In Sonic games, if your time hits 10 minutes then you time out and the game automatically kills you, which I didn’t even know was a thing before Carnival Night. The second act takes so long I don’t know how anyone could possibly finish it without timing out (which sets your timer back to 0 at your latest checkpoint, assuming you still have lives), especially playing for the first time.

The zone is also very visually busy, often making it difficult to discern what’s going on

Ignoring the problem of time, this stage has just about every other type of signature Sonic annoyance in one place. There are rooms filled with enemies shooting projectiles everywhere. There are objects that crush you between walls and kill you instantly, which are sometimes in areas where you’re dropping down and therefore couldn’t know until it’s too late. They even threw in an underwater segment, and giving that this has no reason to be at a carnival I think they were just screwing with us at this point. And finally, there’s the barrel.

Near the end of the second act of Carnival Night, you enter a room with nothing but a barrel sitting in front of you, and the door closes behind you. Now, you’ve seen barrels before in the stage, but they’re usually just moving platforms. This one, on the other hand, bounces when you jump on it, despite having the same image as the other barrels. After a lot of trying to time jumps properly, the player will probably notice two things. The first is that the top of the room is a dead end, so they must have to get the barrel to bounce farther down. The second is that it seems, and is indeed literally impossible to jump with such timing that the barrel goes down far enough.

It turns out that you have to stand still and use the up and down keys to make the barrel move up and down properly. This doesn’t seem so bad at first. However, this down key has been previously only used for crouching, and I don’t think the up key has ever been used at all. This barrel looks like every other barrel. Apparently there are some other barrels with this mechanic earlier in the stage, but they can all be surpassed without figuring out the up/down business, and most can be ignored entirely. There is absolutely no visual cue that you should use those particular buttons, even when you’re pressing them the only way you can tell it’s working is because the barrel is moving.

I didn’t even make this image; it and others like it have already been made by others

            Now I knew other people had trouble with this, but I didn’t know the full extent until I looked it up recently. ‘Sonic 3 Night Carnival Barrel’ appears before ‘Sonic 3 Night Carnival’ in Google auto-complete. Even if you just type ‘Sonic 3’ into Google you’ll see the barrel as one of the most searched topics. Apparently Yuji Naka, the original lead programmer of the Sonic games, actually publicly apologized for this barrel at some Sonic event back in 2011. The point I’m getting at is, no one likes this barrel.

           Me and my friend actually managed to make it past the barrel when down to one life, but then died before the stage ended. Not wanting to go trudge through Carnival Night again, we stopped playing. I’ve never even seen the games next two zones, Ice Cap and Launch Base (though don’t worry, I’ve heard Ice Cap zone’s music). Even without the infamous barrel there isn’t much to recommend this stage, which is filled with sloppy level design. It doesn’t matter if the player gets through your stage eventually; if they aren’t having any fun then you’re doing something wrong.

            And this is all a shame, because the game isn’t bad otherwise. The gameplay of classic Sonic is quite fun when not running into these frustrations. The visuals are often fairly appealing and the music is, as always with Sonic games, fantastic. In fact, I think I’ll share these stages music with you right now:

This is the music to Hydrocity zone. However, this isn’t the act where the wall appears, that is instead…

…Hydrocity act 2. At least you’re being crushed to death to good music.

The Marble Garden zone’s music helps distract from those irritating spikes.

And although no music can quite make up for this zone, Carnival Night has decent music as well.

            The point is, I have no doubt that Sonic 3 is a decent game, but these frustrations may keep me from ever finishing it. It’s important to remember when designing a game that the player is not your enemy. You don’t want to outsmart them; you want to make it so that they’re challenged but still ultimately succeeding and having fun. I’ve yet to really play Sonic & Knuckles, which I count as a separate game from 3, but I’ve heard its better. I’ll have to give it a try some day to see how good it is, but I have no doubt of that, because you’d have to try pretty hard to get more frustrating than this.


  1. Hi. I agree with your comment about how designers should avoid the temptation to try and outsmart the player. I think that's a common cop out used by crappy designers trying to feel smart and the player's expense. It's much more impressive when a game leads the player into feeling that they are smart. That is the mark of a great game designer.

    With regards to your post, at times I felt like I was reading a walkthrough. I sometimes forgot why I should even care about these certain nuggets of gameplay and what you were trying to show with them.

    1. Glad you agree on the bit on design. As for the walkthrough feel of it, I was trying to show off all the specific examples of where the game shows cheap shots at you. I wanted to explain how the game can have the wrong type of difficulty in specifics, hopefully while being entertaining at the same time. If you felt it was a bit ramble-y, however, I'll keep that in mind.

    2. As a side note, based on how in depth your writing is, it was easy to imagine you playing these parts of the game over and over while trying to dissect them. For me at least, what made you stop and take a closer look is most interesting.