On Going Fast

The recent release of Sonic Mania and the way it’s managed to both recreate and reimagine the classic games’ look and feel – with an authenticity that finally satisfies the die-hard fans, no less – has roused players’ curiousity in a way that not even 2011’s Sonic Generations managed to achieve.

Whether they’re eager to rekindle faded memories of a mate’s Megadrive or taking their first interest in a series that’s been supported and scorned with equal passion over the years, something about Sonic Mania‘s heritage – and the confidence with which it celebrates those 26 years – is inciting players to take the rapid little rodent out for a spin. The result, it’s fair to say, has been a fair amount of bafflement from those who, despite a healthy knowledge of gaming genres and retrogaming in general, can’t quite work out what all the fuss is about.

More specifically, these players point out what they perceive to be a paradox at the heart of Sonic‘s gameplay: the game encourages you to go quickly, often wresting control of your character away to accelerate you up to a breakneck pace, only to apparently punish you for enjoying the cheek-juddering velocity by slamming Sonic straight into an obstacle you couldn’t see coming. Moreover, speeding about the place tends to whisk you helplessly past extra lives, power-up shields and even bonus stages – things that would be a definite advantage to a new player in particular.

The question, and it’s certainly a valid one, has been asked repeatedly: “How am I meant to play Sonic games?” As an infernal busybody, it was only a matter of time before I attempted to have a stab at examining why Sonic isn’t like other platformers, why its fans like it, and ultimately trying to provide an answer.

A word of warning: I am now going to invoke Mario. While it should certainly be possible to dissect a game’s design without reference to other works, the plumber and the hedgehog are entangled at a quantum level thanks to a prolonged marketing campaign that hinged on a single tenet: Sonic was better than Mario because Sonic moved faster.

We’ll examine the truth of that statement in a moment, but it’s important to remember that when Sonic debuted in 1991, the notion of “going fast” in video games was something of a novelty. Older consoles often didn’t have the horsepower to provide a convincing sensation of speed – which shouldn’t be confused with actually playing more swiftly, of course. Home console versions of Arkanoid require lightning reactions, but not in a way that makes you go “Wheeeeeee!”

Portraying a convincing sense of speed, however, was a laudable goal because it made your hardware look inherently powerful – Nintendo’s own F-Zero was designed to feel blisteringly fast – and it’s little wonder that Sega chose to capitalise on the difference, mocking Super Mario World‘s supposedly pedestrian pacing by putting it side-by-side with Sonic 1. When you’re sitting down to play, though, how true is it that Sonic is about “going fast”?

If you’re examining the original Sonic the Hedgehog, breaking it down zone by zone, you could answer “hardly ever” and make a serious case. Sonic 1 is a formative beast, and its zones are littered with mechanics designed to halt the hurtling hedgehog in his tracks. Marble Zone, for example, introduces a box that must be laboriously pushed onto a switch, pistons that move at an agonisingly sedate speed and slow rides across sprawling magma lakes. Not only is Labyrinth Zone (unsurprisingly) littered with dead-ends but the majority of it is underwater, making your controls sluggish and forcing you to wait for periodic air bubbles. Generally you’re not battling Sonic’s breakneck speed in this game, you’re learning to manage his momentum.

Even so, Sonic was now the self-appointed “Fastest Thing Alive” and so future installments dutifully played up to that conceit. Sonic was speedier, set-pieces that pinged him helplessly around the world were larger and more elaborate and players found themselves spending more time simply holding a D-pad direction and enjoying the ride. The flow-smashing obstacles, however, remained.

Why? If going fast and pinballing around Sonic’s pretty worlds is fun, why repeatedly dash the player’s good time – and Sonic himself – against a wall of spikes? I think anyone reading this can imagine how quickly they’d tire of a Sonic who could move endlessly without obstacle or opposition as a sort of 2D “running simulator”, but do the obstacles need to be quite THAT cruel? Must hazards be so maliciously placed that it’s almost impossible to react the first time you encounter them?

Here’s where I think Mario has had his belated revenge on Sonic. In Mario titles, and in the vast majority of platformers that learned their craft from Super Mario Bros., taking a hit is a severe penance. For one thing, getting hurt deprives Mario – and thus the player – of abilities that make him feel powerful, allow him to reach hidden bonuses, and in some cases even complete an objective. (Bye-bye, Cape Feather! You’re doing the level over if you want to reach that secret exit.) A Mario game that sucker-punched you as often as Sonic would be an exercise in abject frustration, as evidenced by the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 and its outright sadistic level designs.

When you take a hit in Sonic… you drop your rings. (“Oh no,” as Knuckles might say.) They bounce all over the screen but it’s easy to pick a few of them up again. Even if you don’t, you’ll never be more than a ledge or two away from some more rings. If you die, the game is remarkably kind-hearted with mid-level checkpoints, including one placed unfailingly before each zone’s boss. Only in the final act of each game, when there’s nothing left to play towards, will 16-Bit Sonic maroon you in a one-hit-kill scenario. Bottomless pits are still a concern, but mostly in the later stages. By 1990s standards, this is all positively magnanimous.

Sonic is a series that expects you to go too quickly for too long. The rings system is designed to provide you with a nigh-unlimited safety net. There’s nothing to stop you braking after you come out of a tunnel or a booster but the level designers know that you won’t. The joy of speed is too much; like Icarus, you’ll fly too close to the sun and… You get a smack on the wrist. A momentary time-out. Then you grab your rings, drop into a spin dash and hurtle off again.

Stick with this dizzying and unfamiliar pattern of reprimanding, and you’ll find that over time, the game’s not smacking you so much. You’re getting a feel for when the stage might be about to chuck an obstacle in your path – the build-up before the potential pratfall is pretty consistent in the more popular entries – and avoiding that obstacle will often net you power-ups, a bonus stage or a quicker route.

And it’s routes that bring us onto another key difference. It’s extremely unlikely that a new player, one attempting to succeed purely by reflexes, will take the same path through a zone twice in a row. The levels are intricately designed so that a missed platform or errant badnik will send you off the beaten path and to somewhere entirely new. That’s important too, because while Sonic games are comparatively short, they began in an era with no game saves.

The Mario series rewards inquisitive or knowledgeable players with Warp Zones; tools to circumvent the path most trodden and get back to exploring the unknown. Cheats notwithstanding, Sonic knows that you’ll be tearing through Green Hill Zone every time you boot the console. It doesn’t demand that you commit every pit and peril to memory in order to succeed, it’s just confident that the more you play, the more that’ll happen anyway.

Before long, and through no conscious effort or grind, you will be going fast. Dodging the spikes. Hitting the springs. Snagging the extra lives out of palm trees and waggling your finger as another Egg-O-Matic explodes. You’ll feel incredibly skillful, like you’ve started to master the game. In a world where cartridges were precious treats for kids to covet, rent and trade, replayability was absolutely essential. In Mario‘s case, that replayability came from uncovering layer upon layer of secrets. In Sonic‘s case, it came from rolling with the punches, keeping your eyes open and never, NEVER letting Tails steal your zipline, the two-tailed git. As you played, you’d improve, but it never felt like a chore.

Sonic Mania has arrived in an age of disposability. We have more games than ever before and so much vying for our attention. In many ways, the notion of mastery is a faded conceit, the domain of those who squabble over leaderboard placements and tell others to “git gud”. Sonic Mania demands very little to complete, and it’s sadly likely that its generous save system, as with Sonic 3‘s, will mean that something gets lost in translation.

Many of the people who have bought Sonic Mania will play each level once. They won’t dip into Time Attack, seek out the special stages nor play as Knuckles (& Knuckles). They’ll experience something that can feel stubbornly obtuse and out of time, a game that won’t provide an unbroken flow and is often unfair. A game that expects you to come back but wants you to understand that next time, things will be different.

It’s a real shame, but it’s part of Sonic Mania‘s commitment to authenticity; despite perceptions of what Sonic “is”, this love-letter has avoided becoming the shallow roller-coaster that so many of the series’ least-satisfying 3D outings ultimately provided. A shame, then, that its audience may already have stumbled one too many times, shrugged and moved on to the next game — because how else do you deal with the modern-day gaming backlog?

Gotta go fast.

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