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Sonic and the Problem of Speed

by on August 5, 2014
 

I got to play Sonic Boom at Hyper Japan recently and it reinforced how far the Sonic franchise has come from being about speed. The blistering pace from which Sonic had got his name, now replaced with repetitive third person combat and dull platforming. But I thought about it more, delving back into the Sonic games I had played, and realised just how slow these games were. Even the very first title ground to a halt after the opening level, going from you storming through the loop-the-loops of Green Hill Zone, to pushing blocks and slowly jumping on platforms in lava in Marble Zone. The Sonic series as a whole just doesn’t know how to do speed and, by extension, platforming at speed, well at all.

Let me explain what I mean. Take Sonic Generations for example, arguably the best Sonic game in many years. There are only two states which players are in it that game; slow or ridiculously fast, and the game is really designed around these two sections. The slow portions are your 2D segments where your straight road is interrupted and you are made to do precise platforming, or 3D sections where you are also forced to stop and cross a gap using the homing attack or defeat a certain amount of enemies. These slow sections are the worst parts of Sonic games, as the engine is not really built for precise platforming, the homing attack is notoriously bad and most people just want to go fast when they buy a game with the word ‘Sonic’ in the title.

Then you have the ridiculously fast sections, where you run on what is basically a rail, with you occasionally moving left and right to dodge obstacles or jump over the odd roadblock. While these sections are the most fun as you get the base thrill of whipping through a stage at high speed, you aren’t really being challenged as a player as you are essentially on a rollercoaster. What also makes these sections dull is the addition of the boost button, which has been in many 3D Sonic games since Unleashed. For me, the boost button ruins Sonic on a fundamental level as it gets rid of momentum. You no longer build up speed by dodging obstacles and feeling like you are doing something, you just tap the boost button and bam, you are running at top speed and you demolish most enemies in your way, filling up the boost gauge even more and thus, keeping you going ridiculously fast. There’s no feeling of gaining anything by you being an expert platformer, you just hit a button and become an unstoppable bullet until you run of boost or collide with a wall, setting you back to the Slow setting and ruining the fun.

SAAAAANIC

Gotta go at an inconsistent pace!

This is where Sonic needs to fundamentally change. The game needs to be about momentum, and keeping it up rather than having pure, straight line speed for one section, to then grind you to a halt to make you speed up again. Sonic Lost World tried to do this by having two speeds for Sonic to move at, but this became jarring as you had to juggle between states while platforming while the notorious homing attack and jump mechanics made you lose flow in slower sections. What the Sonic series needs to do is to follow the design strategies of games like Super Meat Boy and Dustforce, of being about you building up speed and keeping it constant through levels which are designed to keep you moving fast, instead of being a mash up of slow and fast sections. Certain old design decisions, like Sonic’s awkward jump arc, need to be fixed in order to make precise platforming doable at speed.

City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 clearly demonstrates this. You start the level at speed, surfing down the city, when you are suddenly flung into a section of low speed platforming, breaking the flow of the level to then be catapulted back up to high speeds near the end for a section where you run in a straight line. There is no real flow to the level, you are either going fast in a straight line or slow over a series of fiddly jumps. Now, if the game made the simple adjustment of removing the low speed section and slowing down the high speed sections just a fraction to make you able to do some platforming whilst conserving speed, you’d have a challenging and satisfying level. Instead, you have a stop/start sequence which doesn’t really flow very well.

So, there is my core gripe with the Sonic series. Fix how the series does speed by making it about momentum and sensible but satisfying platforming, instead of just a weird mixture of all out speed with slow and irritating jumping segments, and maybe Sonic could stop being a chore to play to all but the diehard fan. Get that sorted, and then we can deal with the annoying characters and terrible writing.


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