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Which classic Sonic game had the best level design?


PKGaming

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So I was watching today's episode of Grumpcade and they were playing Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Arin (Egoraptor) has stated many times how much he dislikes Sonic, and in this episode he explains a bit why. Like how he doesn't like how in a game about speed, it halts the player for some slow platforming segments where you can't go fast. He also said that going fast itself isn't even a proper mechanic, it's just a thing you can do (which doesn't make sense to me honestly). Now, I generally disagree with Arin's opinions on game design and I kinda do here too. I don't mind platforming in Sonic at all. It switches things up and keeps the game from just being "hold right and go fast". A good balance of platforming is a good thing to me.

 

However, in the same episode, Ross did bring up something that DOES really annoy me in classic Sonics, particularly in Sonic 3 and Knuckles. There are a lot of times when you have moments of true speed and it feels great. But then, all of a sudden, you run into a hazard that's impossible for anyone to see coming unless they've memorized the level. How is that fair? It's even more irritating when you're collecting a crap ton of rings to become Super Sonic while you're in this speedy segment and it's all taken away from something you couldn't predict. Go to 2:43 for an example. The game punishes you for going fast. In Sonic 1 though, I felt it was much more manageable. It's been a while since I played it, but I remember whenever I felt something might be in my way, I'd roll into a ball. Sonic 1 really really taught me how important rolling into a ball was and how important building momentum was. If a random enemy would be in my way, just roll into a ball and you're protected. But I feel like it's far less important in Sonic 3 and K though. Because in the example I pointed out, being in a ball didn't help. Sonic still got hit. And the fact that there was a crusher right before that spike ball tells the player that they need to rush passed the crusher, but rushing will cause Sonic to fall into the spike ball trap. It's just...rude. And because you have the Spin Dash, it encourages these kinds of actions. Building up speed, rushing forward, and falling into a trap. 

 

Honestly, even though a lot of people say Sonic 1 is the weakest in the classic Genesis era, it might actually be my favorite for those reasons. It's more platform heavy than the others, but I fall into stupid traps far less often because of the way the levels are designed. It feels less chaotic and more focused, even if it is less speedy. But when there is speed, it's good speed. And the fact that you have no Spin Dash forces players to be careful, while having the Spin Dash encourages reckless behavior. I really think levels need to be designed with the Spin Dash in mind and not punish those that want a burst of speed. I know I haven't mentioned Sonic 2, but it's simply because it's been soooo long since I played that I don't remember much. I just remember raging at the special stages...

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^I never said he was, that's what Arin said. But even so, Sonic WAS advertised for his speed, so it's not unreasonable for people to expect that in his games. And to those people like Arin, if Sonic isn't about speed, what is he about? 

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I actually don't think any classic Sonic game has better level design. They all have big faults which make me think they aren't better than each other. Sonic 1 (And CD) are the most platform-escue of the classic Sonic games, but it was quite awkward since Sonic Team didn't know what would really work or not. This means that a lot of stages in 1 and CD you can't really speed up too much. A lot of levels in Sonic 1 had only one path to go through, and you spent most of your time in later levels waiting for something to happen and running though narrow blocky passages, which aren't suited for going fast. Don't get me wrong, I like the more platforming parts of Sonic 1, but it definitely needed a lot of tweaks. 

 

Sonic 2's level design is a lot more appealing than Sonic 1 and CD to most games. This is because the levels became much less blocky and the levels became more smooth and were made more for Sonic's speed now. The levels in the earlier part of the game were really good as they weren't too long, had a number of routes to travel though, and you really felt like you were going fast while keeping the platforming up too. The problem is the platform high doesn't last forever and levels in the later part of the game start to get more boring and repetitive, and it starts to drag on more. I think that Sonic Team just stopped putting effort into the later stages. 

 

Sonic 3 & K's level design is probably some of the best. The levels are expanded from Sonic 2, there a tons of routes to go through, you still go really fast while having good platforming, There's one fatal flaw though: Some levels are WAY too long. Some Zones like Carnival Night and Marble Garden really stay their over welcome and it just gets extremely boring. There's nothing new as the level goes on, it's just the same stuff happening over again. Another thing is too, while I like how the levels are expanded with more routes, I think it makes it more easy to get lost. Sometimes I end up going in a circle for a minute and I feel like I'm in a maze or something. 

 

While I complain about the level design, I still like each of these games level design. Each game has good level design with flaws that I think make it so there's no best level design. Each game has things that work and things that don't work. 

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I think it depends on what you want in a level. If you want slow paced, meticulous platforming with occasional areas to stretch your feet, Sonic 1 is your huckleberry. If you want straight up slow paced gameplay where you have to actively work to find speed, then Sonic CD is what you're looking for. If you want really shitty fast paced levels with more of a twitch focus, Sonic 2 is what you're after. If you want to go exploring and poking around for secrets, then Sonic 3 (and to a lesser extent Sonic and Knuckles) is the one you should focus on.

 

 

There are certainly elements in each game, as well as specific levels, that are notably weaker (Sonic 2 has a lot, but Sonic CD wracks up a lot in the original release just because of how poorly it controls); but I don't think it is necessarily fair to compared the games to each other that directly.
 

 

søηic isη'ŧ αbøuŧ sρєєd. ηєvєr wαs.

 

Saying Sonic was never about speed is just as fallacious as saying that he was only about speed.

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Saying Sonic was never about speed is just as fallacious as saying that he was only about speed.

 

Maybe, since speed is one thing Sonic's about (well, it's there). But it isn't fallacious to say speed isn't what you play Sonic for. It's what Egoraptor said himself - it isn't a proper mechanic, it's something you do.

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I tend not to take Arin too seriously when it comes to his observations regarding the Sonic the Hedgehog games. His arguments are often contradictory and unsubstantiated. I simply don't think he's played these games enough to understand how speed works as a mechanic. That said, I do feel his observation regarding obstacles or enemies you can't see has merit. The transition to 3D has seemingly fixed this, though. Anyway, Sonic 3 and Knuckles probably has the best level design. The amount of paths to the goal are quite substantial. 

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I feel like what set Sonic apart from other platformers wasn't necessarily his speed, but the pinball-esque physics along with the speed that came with it. That's one thing they just couldn't replicate in 3D Sonic games, the pinball physics. They instead focused on straight up speed and platforming. It worked sometimes...sometimes.

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Maybe, since speed is one thing Sonic's about (well, it's there). But it isn't fallacious to say speed isn't what you play Sonic for. It's what Egoraptor said himself - it isn't a proper mechanic, it's something you do.

And there are games in the series where that concept is essentially true. And Sonic 2, while not quite to that level throughout, is definitely that way in some levels, and planted the seeds that considerably less competent game designers have twisted into monstrosities like Sonic Advance 3, Sonic Rush and S4E1. It's hard to claim speed is an actual mechanic in, say, Chemical Plant, when there are speed boosters or horizontal springs at the start of nearly every long stretch of level. Or something you need to work at to get in Route 99 or any other Advance 3 level when there is a booster every 100 yards.

In those hack-ish games speed isn't only just a means to an end, but you are actively punished for attaining it. Something that, in the classics, is really only consistently present in Sonic 2.

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And there are games in the series where that concept is essentially true. And Sonic 2, while not quite to that level throughout, is definitely that way in some levels, and planted the seeds that considerably less competent game designers have twisted into monstrosities like Sonic Advance 3, Sonic Rush and S4E1. It's hard to claim speed is an actual mechanic in, say, Chemical Plant, when there are speed boosters or horizontal springs at the start of nearly every long stretch of level. Or something you need to work at to get in Route 99 or any other Advance 3 level when there is a booster every 100 yards.

In those hack-ish games speed isn't only just a means to an end, but you are actively punished for attaining it. Something that, in the classics, is really only consistently present in Sonic 2.

 

What I am claiming is that in basically any (classic) Sonic game speed isn't a mechanic - actually and curiously, speed is more of a mechanic in Sonic CD than in Sonic 2, since it's the only classic game that's aware of the speed you've gathered and actively demands it from you. But more about this in a minute.

 

Even if Sonic 2 gives you all the speed in the world, it still doesn't necessarily make you progress with it and it's still just something you're doing, even if with minimal effort. What the levels in Sonic 2 still do, however, and that the less competent games don't, is to demand effort from the player so that this speed turns into progress. Since you used Chemical Plant as an example, it's what I'll use too. Even if at the beginning of every speedy part you have boosters, at the end of them you may have an horizontal spring that throws you to the left; or a slope that gains you access to somewhere; or one of those tunnels. But that's only if you don't do anything about the speed the level gave you. There are multiple paths crossing in these parts and in order to get the easier part later on, it's you who has to turn this mindless running into platforming and jump or stop at the right times. If you don't, you're thrown into the most dangerous paths, the ones with water right beneath them, the ones with lots of those blue balls in a row, the ones with two explosive spiders side by side etc. You could still run, but that'd demand a lot more skill and awareness, which in turn would have granted you access to easier paths anyway. So even though the level pushes you forward, it's still building something out of it.

 

So running prevents further running, maybe at the cost of a player's life. On the other hand, using this speed as a resource in platforming (even it's if as simple as jumping over the first red spring or jumping once to change lanes) grants you more possibilities for speed later on and with less risk.

 

This is what I feel the Advance games and Sonic Rush mostly did wrong. First, you almost never need the level in order to get speed - and this has something to do with the physics, yeah; second, you never use that speed. It's an end in itself, which maybe the designers thought you'd enjoy because things are moving faster on the screen or something. The level design doesn't offer you anything in terms of using that speed as a resource in order to progress within the level with less risk or to avoid some danger. So it's still just something you do, but that doesn't return anything.

 

Now, Sonic Rush does have speed as a mechanic. There's a button that gives you instant speed and you need as much speed as you can get to access the special stages. The game counts your speed, it's a thing in the game. The only other game that does such thing is Sonic CD (and Sonic Blast arguably but just as a gimmick). So speed is something you have to play for, not only with.

 

But the main difference between Sonic CD and Sonic Rush, and the reason why Sonic CD is my favourite Sonic game and Sonic Rush is the one I hate the most, is that in Sonic CD you have to find that speed in the level, whereas in Sonic Rush the level has nothing to do with it. The levels in Sonic CD all have a quirk that help you build that kind of speed, but you have to learn how, as the same quirks might as well stop you. So it's all about not only exploring but understanding the level. It's funny, because it's the game that gives you the least free speed. Well, actually it makes a whole lot of sense, since it's the one classic game in which speed is a thing.

 

EDIT: Actually the fact that the Advance games in particular feel so empty even with all the speed is one of the reasons why I think Sonic isn't about speed. They even assign you incredibly stupid and long tasks if you want to reach the special stages, maybe because they noticed there wasn't any meat to it, and they are so counter-intuitive that they end up being almost another game within the same cartridge.

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Okay, so here's something I noticed about Sonic 3's level design that kind of irked me. I was playing Carnival Night Zone. That level is so filled with bumpers and springs in claustrophobic areas that I'm always getting bumped around and Sonic becomes difficult to control. So I try to go slow and steady so I don't get bumped around so much. Plus, a lot of times when I try to go fast, I just run into a trap or, even worse, a glitch that gets me crushed. But...by going slow, I end up running out of time and die. So if I go fast, I get pushed all over the place and risk running into a death trap, but if I go slow, I'll run out of time.

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Okay, so here's something I noticed about Sonic 3's level design that kind of irked me. I was playing Carnival Night Zone. That level is so filled with bumpers and springs in claustrophobic areas that I'm always getting bumped around and Sonic becomes difficult to control. So I try to go slow and steady so I don't get bumped around so much. Plus, a lot of times when I try to go fast, I just run into a trap or, even worse, a glitch that gets me crushed. But...by going slow, I end up running out of time and die. So if I go fast, I get pushed all over the place and risk running into a death trap, but if I go slow, I'll run out of time.

 

git gud

 

Seriously though, I see how that could be a problem. Your options, however, are to use the bumpers and springs or to go back and find another way altogether. It's possible to learn how to predict the angle at which you'll bounce and use them to keep or even to build your momentum. Even in claustrophobic areas.

 

I'm not trying to redeem Carnival Night here. I think it's the worst Sonic 3 stage (I dislike Marble Garden a lot more, but I don't see as many problems with it) and many of its gimmicks are awkward to use, like that platform that goes higher the more you jump on it. However, the principle is still there. You can go fast, but you have to use the stage for it instead of trying to do it all by yourself.

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Jeez, I know folks get stuck at Carnival Night, but only up till they get to the barrel room, Use the environment to your advantage dude.

 

As far as 3D Sonic goes, I like Sonic adventures level design the best, might be because their isn't an stupid overabundance of rail grinding and theirs actually good platforming sections I dig.

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I mean I did eventually beat Carnival Night Zone after just a couple tries, I just didn't enjoy it at all. The levels after that were much more fun though. They were more open, had more speedy segments as well as platforming elements that I enjoyed, and I was able to find different paths and areas much easier

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