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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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