In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I detailed the core design of the 2D Sonic series between the classic Sonic games (Sonic 1, 2, 3, & Knuckles) and the DS Sonic games (Rush, Rush Adventure). Before I go into detail about the core design and features of my envisioned next-gen repaired Sonic game, I wanted to briefly go over a few topics: Level design, and boss design.
Level maps for Sonic 1 and 2 from www.soniczone0.com.
Sonic 1: Green Hill Zone Act 1
Sonic 2: Emerald Hill Zone Act 1
Sonic 3: Angel Island Zone Act 1
Sonic 3: Angel Island Act 2
Sonic & Knuckles: Mushroom Hill Zone Act 1
The levels look a lot different when you take it all in at a glance. When playing, the camera is zoomed in so close that it's difficult to see what's coming next not to mention getting a feel for the big picture. Judging from the first level of each game, it's obvious that there's a trend of diminishing organic unity. On the organic end of the spectrum Sonic 1's Green Hill zone reflects a mountainous area. Getting up to the highest point on this map requires some careful platforming (climbing). And on the least organic end of the spectrum, Angel Island Act 2 and Mushroom Hill Zone look like ant farms where the paths are composed of random squiggles.
Sonic games have always suffered from limited screen size. The root of this problem stems from the levels that scroll vertically as well as horizontally. In Super Mario Brothers, the top and bottom of the screen creating effective boundaries for the game and kept things simple. All the player had to think about was moving to the right. Even in games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, the majority of the content was designed designed to be played on the ground and thus to fit inside the limits of the screen view. Flying vertically to exceed these limits was rarely required. Instead, doing so usually offered secrets to the player.
With Sonic, the level design is too complex (especially for the later games). Without adhering to a governing simplicity/organic level design, the gameplay simply can't keep up. Because it's hard to see them coming up to the side, above, or below Sonic, enemies, spikes, and pits become more dangerous. When playing these games, I always feel like I'm running around with my eyes closed hoping an enemy won't be hanging about where Sonic lands. If I land safely on a platform, I always feel lucky more so than skilled. To compensate for the lack of visual cues, we've memorized parts of the levels to try and piece together the big picture in our minds. Of course, some memorization is essential to all kinds of learning. However, by keeping the level design and the screen scrolling issues the way they are, the Sonic games fail to utilize the video games medium's most effective communicative means: visuals.
Sonic 1 Bosses (video 1)
Sonic 2 Bosses (video 1)
Sonic Bosses are pretty simple, and that's what I like about them. On a side not, in the classic Sonic games, Sonic was so fast, that he could start hurting the boss before it even begun to fight. That's like if Mega Man started shooting all of his bosses as they powered up their life bars instead of standing there respectfully. Sonic simply doesn't have time for Robotnik's shenanigans.
Bosses were always interesting contrasts to the level gameplay. Instead of racing ever forward, players are confined to doing battle in a small space. The classic bosses can all be dispensed with fairly quickly as evident in the videos above. The weak points for these bosses are generally exposed the majority of the time. With a continually exposed weak point, the player always has the option of playing more aggressively with rapid attacks. This kind of freedom isn't possible in games with bosses that that only expose their weak point(s) for a brief window of time before going through a whole routine that the player must survive. These kind of bosses can easily become boring instead of engaging.
The worse part about the classic 2D sprite based Sonic bosses is that there is a degree of clutter in the way the 2D hitboxes are designed/interpreted. It's easy to indentify the rounded sides of Robotnik's flying machine as a target (see Sonic 1 bosses). And it's easy to figure out that sharp spikes or spinning drills are dangerous. However, there are example of ambiguity between how the boss looks and how it (inter)acts. Look at the first boss from the Sonic 2 boss run video (above) for a good example. As the vehicle rolls into view, Sonic is free to run right along side of it. But when the boss becomes active, Sonic can only bounce on top of the vehicle. These two states (interactive and non interactive) not only work against the relationship of the boss's form to its function, but it also exists in the area of interpretation that exists in all 2D side scrolling games. In other words, everything in the game world is flat and presented on a 2D TV screen. Though everything is flat, we interpret a degree of depth (Z axis) between the game elements according to their forms and their function. When we can't touch the Robotnik vehicle, we interpret that as it being in the background. When we can jump on it, we interpret the vehicle as being on the same plane as Sonic. Without a visual change to signal this functional change, we're left to once again, memorize more conditions and states in a Sonic game.
The bosses in Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure are designed using 3D graphics where players interact on a 2D plane. Instead of forcing the player to interpret when the boss can or can't be hurt/interacted with, the bosses are designed to create this distinction using 3D space and 3D hitboxes. In other words, when the boss's 3D body intersects with Sonic's 2D plane it can be interacted with. When the boss pulls into the background, it's easy to see that it can't be touched. In this way, the 3D graphics provides a cleaner design.
The Sonic Rush bosses specifically utilize this 3D graphics/2D gameplay design. The camera angle even changes to challenge the player to gauge the 3D space in interesting ways (see picture above/right). The problem with these bosses is that they're designed to expose their weak spots after long drawn out routines. Waiting around for the boss to give you another chance to hit it creates a lot of static space.
Fortunately, the Sonic Rush Adventure bosses took the best elements from all the Sonic bosses. The Sonic Rush Adventure bosses are...
- fairly simple.
- Their weak points are readily exposed giving the player the freedom to play very aggressively
- Players can maximize the damage dealt by bouncing repeatedly on the bosses weak point(s) like in the classic Sonic games
- The 3D space is used well like in Sonic Rush to clean up the core design
- The bosses are designed around both DS screens.
The bosses of the Machine Labyrinth and Sky Babylon are excellent examples of Sonic bosses with contrary motion with 3D interpreted timers and interplay respectively.
In the next and final part of the series, I'll be taking the core design of Sonic beyond anything that we've seen from Sonic before.