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Does Sonic feature ‘incorrect’ game design?

The Guardian's games editor believes it does

Sonic’s had his ups and downs over the years, but could this be its biggest insult: ‘incorrect’ game design? Keith Stuart, The Guardian’s games editor (and formerly the editor of the unofficial UK Dreamcast magazine, DC-UK) believes this to be true, as he writes in his latest opinion piece on the newspaper’s website. Careful Keith, you don’t want to go upsetting Sonic fans, now!

His comments come off the back of a statement made by Swedish singer-song writer and record producer, Max Martin, who said that Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ track is “incorrect song-writing.” So what does that have to do with Sonic? Well Keith has taken Max’s philosophy and applied it to our favourite speedster.

After reading his column, I can’t say that I fully agree with him, but I can see where he is coming from, especially with modern Sonic games:

If you take a classic platform game design, such as Super Mario Bros – the player is always given the chance to read the level: to look ahead and assess every new piece of scenery or patrolling enemy. Then you get a series of neatly placed hazards that present discrete challenges.

In his excellent book on game design, A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster, says the essence of good game design is teaching – a well constructed level slowly introduces you to its themes, and shows you how to beat them. Learn, test, master.

Sonic doesn’t do this – all it establishes at the beginning is that speed is important. In a single playthrough, you only ever get a passing feel for the levels; you miss vast areas – all the rules are broken. As in Green Light, the melody and the maths are wrong; new players always find it hard to read the screen, because it’s not working like a good game.

…Even the influences behind Sonic are incorrect. Designer Naoto Ohshima, who sketched all the zones out by hand, was influenced by pinball table design, filling each stage with flippers and bumpers to project Sonic in new directions like a ball-bearing. But pinball doesn’t work like video games.

But don’t take this be a true insult, Keith does round off his piece clarifying that Sonic does indeed work as a game.

Sonic is incorrect game design and yet, like Green Light, it’s a masterpiece. As Lorde sings, you want to just let go, but you can’t – you’re not really free. Yet sometimes in Sonic, when you get better, or through sheer luck, things take off, every jump is right, every loop-the-loop is perfect, and you’re in the flow, sailing above the game’s strange structure. Like the bridge in a brilliant pop song, it’s an exhilarating rush. It’s incorrect, but holy crap, when it works, it works.

It’s quite an interesting read – because I don’t necessarily agree with the theory on classic Sonic titles, but I do agree somewhat with regards to modern Sonic. I find that classic Sonic is not all about speed and players can take their time to learn the levels, once they do, they can find the route through the level that favours their play style and you can deliver blistering gameplay speeds.

However, in modern Sonic, I feel too much emphasis is on speed – you barely have any chance to look at the level as you rocket through it these days and the levels are designed to only have one main route through them – there’s no exploration or tricky platforming segments anymore.

What do you think? I’ve obviously taken a few sample snippets here, so be sure to check out the full article before you fully agree or dismiss his view.

[Source: The Guardian] [Special Thanks: Al Marsh, via Twitter]

Graham Cookson

I'm the European Editor of SEGA Nerds and co-founder of the original SEGA Nerds website with Chris back in 2004 or 2005 (genuinely can't remember which year it was now!). I've been a SEGA fan pretty much all my gaming life - though I am also SEGA Nerds' resident Microsoft fanboy (well, every site needs one) and since SEGA went third party, I guess it's now ok to admit that I like Nintendo and Sony too :0) I'm also the Content Manager of the big data company, Digital Contact Ltd, in the UK: http://digitalcontact.co.uk/company/team/

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  • Ikagura

    Agreed: Sonic isn’t all about speed

    • Hikingguy

      Sega’s 90’s marketing department just wanted you to think it was all about speed. But just like almost any other similar game, after you have mastered the level, you can speed through it.

      • Ikagura

        Yes it was to promote the “BLAST PROCESSING” but technically every game can be done very quickly when mastered (Doom, Mario 64 and many speedrunned games). It’s just that people likes to complain when they don’t go fast but also complain when they go “too fast”…

  • captainbuck

    I’ve never played SONIC for speed. And for the record, the last 2 things ‘discovered’ after 20 + years, I discovered on my first play through. I have found everything in those games. I guess alot of people are highly suggestive and just tried to do speed trials.

  • Hellt

    The article complaints about having exploration and plattformng in the first place, not for the lack of them. Generations had very healthy platforming and routes to explore eithe way

  • Last Benevolence

    Just to clarify, in modern Sonic games there are multiple paths. Players are rewarded for their speed with the hardest to reach (but shorter) paths. A good example of this is in Sonic Generations’ Modern sonic iteration of Green Hill zone. If the player has a quick enough reaction time, they can access the “high” paths that can move them along the stage more quickly.

    • Luis

      You’re right, but anyway a game based on speed and fast reaction is not really fun (to me). Coming from the classics, Modern Sonic is a less fun experience.

      And also modern Sonic games have tracks with vocals, which are really cheesy in my opinion, and makes the game feel even more like a racing game 🙁

  • EvilDhalsim

    The common thing about the recent wave of classic games criticism is, none of these people played the game(s) back when they first came out. It’s easier to bash a game in retrospective.

  • Joe Douglas

    And no on thought that painting all viewable angles of an object atop one another in a single image or that simply dripping paint over a canvas would make great and venerated artwork until Picasso and Pollock did it either.

  • sonicfan1984

    “However, in modern Sonic, I feel too much emphasis is on speed – you barely have any chance to look at the level as you rocket through it these days and the levels are designed to only have one main route through them – there’s no exploration or tricky platforming segments anymore.”

    Sonic Lost World? Sonic is much slower and there is exploration and platforming? Or are we labeling all modern Sonic games in the “boost” category now? Even though games like Sonic Unleashed and even Sonic Generations is more boost heavy, those games still has multiple routes (and you use werehog mainly to explore) and Colors has plenty of platforming.

  • Jeff Epes

    I don’t think it works. I think it needs some parsing. Sonic needs to take notes from Kingdom Hearts when it comes to action.

    • sonicfan1984

      I don’t understand. Can you be more specific about Sonic taking action notes from Kingdom Hearts especially since the article is talking about the older titles? They’re both completely different genres of video games.

      • Jeff Epes

        As I said, parsing. Sonic would control better with prompts such as the reaction command button in response to oncoming hazards at high speed.

  • Luis

    I agree. Classic Sonic is still good game design. Super Mario World, objectively, would be the better game (specially in length, but also in diversity: every level was focused on a new challenge), but Sonic had its own magic.

    Also, Super Mario World was an evolution of what Nintendo learnt from Mario Bros 3. Sonic 1 was the first attempt on creating a new gameplay style. They fixed/improved a lot of things for Sonic 2:

    -Tails.
    -Coop (not very cool, though) and versus modes (VERY fun).
    -Zones had 2 acts, therefore we had more different levels while having more or less the same length.
    -New and much more fun special stage, that you could reach during the stage and not at the end.
    -Super Sonic.
    -Spin dash.

    Then came Sonic 3, which, if it had been launched as originally intended (Sonic 3 + Sonic & Knuckles) it had been perfection: Knuckles, new elemental shields with powerups, new bonus AND special stages (the great Blue Spheres), track remixes for second acts, first act bosses, second act starting where first act finished, environment changes, new and cooler sprites, Tails could fly, Sonic had insta-shield, Knuckles could glide and climb, cutscenes… Sonic 3 & Knuckles was to Sonic series what Super Mario World was to Super Mario Bros 1.

    Classic Sonic may not accomplish “good” game design, but it was an original and fun experience.

    Now, Modern Sonic is all about speed, and to me, you enjoy the game more by watching someone else playing it (so you can see the beautiful environments) than playing it yourself. It’s almost a racing game, and from time to time you press a button so you don’t loose speed. Not fun in my opinion.

    Fortunately, we’re getting Mania next Tuesday 🙂

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