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Some Sleep-Deprived Musings on 3D Level Design and Alternate Characters


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This is going to be a pretty weird, somewhat focused, somewhat sloppy collection of musings I've had while messing around with character mods in Sonic Adventure 1 and 2. For those of you who own the PC versions of these games, you can follow along by installing MainMemory's character mods. I do this mainly because I'm just unhealthily obsessed with these two games in particular, but also because I can sometimes extrapolate interesting theories regarding the ways in which characters can be implemented into the 3D games, as well as level design questions that people would normally never think of. If any of you have come up with similar thoughts, feel free to share and discuss them. I'll go through this first post into the three sections I've experienced that have fascinated me the most.

Tails in Big's Emerald Coast

I'm really not sure what in my drunken mind thought this would be a good idea, but in retrospect, I'm actually kinda glad I was this crazy. Messing around the level gave me some insight I never thought I'd have regarding Big's Emerald Coast stage in general.

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First of all, did you know that this variant of the stage is actually just the Lighthouse Climb immediately after the orca section, with modified geometry and remixed object placement? I sure as hell didn't know that. But something that I realized upon closer inspection is that the camera behavior makes this stage seem like a completely different level, which makes exploration a rather interesting affair. The most notable modification is the removal of the springs that help Sonic climb up to the lighthouse normally in his run. This keeps Big from reaching the cave leading to the second half of the stage.

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Fortunately for us, we're Tails, so we can just fly up.

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...Right?

And then I found something interesting. Tails can fly up to the first ledge without the spring, but he actually doesn't go high enough to reach the second. He sinks back down JUST as we're about to reach the ledge. Interestingly, we can still control how quickly or slowly he descends from here on out, but the apex actually has a hard cap on it. And I think that might be key to designing more linear levels for Tails specifically: vertically-oriented level design. Take this scenario of trying to scale this hill by flying up to the ledges, and realizing that there's a ledge JUST out of our reach. As we safely hover down to a safe spot, we notice a set of platforms off in the distance that we CAN reach from our current height. As we avoid mid-air obstacles trying to drag us all the way back down, we climb the distant set of platforms, and reach a new apex where we can take flight and finally reach that ledge we'd been trying to reach before. You could even still include springs, but have to strategically use them in conjunction with your flight to reach far off platforms. This is just one scenario, but I think it could provide a great basis for Tails' gameplay in 3D.

Amy in Sonic's Emerald Coast

This is the sort of thing I dreamed of doing as child, and lo and behold, here it is in its full, modded glory.

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And then I all too quickly realized why people dislike playing as Amy. She's got a terrible top speed, laughable acceleration, and to add insult to injury, she loses speed fast. Like, absurdly fast. Turn a corner just a little too hard, and you're back to a crawl. Painful. I think it goes without saying that Amy's basic movement stats need to be messed with to be considered fun (I think they hit a nice balance in SA2's multiplayer mode), but I personally think her core moveset in SA1 works just fine. It leads to very different scenarios needed to solve platforming puzzles, such as hitting springs or speed boosters with your hammer to get an extra boost out of them, or carefully using the pole vault to cross chasms most other characters would have zero issue crossing. The biggest thing that clued me into this? The orca chase section.

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The orca chase is one of the most defining moments of SA1. Everybody remembers that scene where Sonic runs across a boardwalk with a giant killer whale quickly tearing up the bridge behind him, narrowly escaping in time. It's also usually pointed at as an example of the Sonic series favoring spectacle over gameplay at times, since even though escaping the orca looks cool and dangerous, there's really nothing to it gameplay-wise, since you just need to hold down on the control stick the entire time. However, playing at Amy's lower speed made me notice the fact that there's a checkpoint right before the orca chase begins, and it makes me wonder whether this section was originally meant to be significantly more perilous. Lo and behold, doing the orca chase with Amy shows that she's actually too slow to outrun the orca, and ends up getting rammed into and sinking into the ocean below.

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To cross this section without dying, you need to physically stop yourself before you reach the first ramp, and then pole vault onto it diagonally to avoid waking up the orca a second time, which is where he gets you.

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Now granted, I'm not saying we should punish the player with death for not figuring this out their first time through, as it's something that's not obvious at all unless you know that stepping on a specific piece of the boardwalk reawakens the orca. However, what I am saying is that Amy has the potential to recontextualize portions of a level previously completed by other characters, having to find alternate solutions to cross a level section that Sonic or Tails would normally just blast through. I think there's potential in combining platforming with puzzle solving that's not just "put the purple block in the purple tile," and rewarding the player for approaching situations in clever manners.

Sonic in Sand Ocean

Let's switch things up for this post's last entry with an example from SA2. 

In my personal opinion, one of the most interesting things you can do with character mods in SA2 is trying to complete mech levels with the speed characters. Sand Ocean is particularly noteworthy, because it forces you to use all of SA2's advanced tech just to complete the level. Only with carefully timed spin dash jumps and superbounces can you hope to make it to the end of the level. Now, let me clarify that I don't think there should be a Sonic level that actually acts like this (outside of maybe an optional challenge level), as there really isn't a whole lot of speed going on here, and it punishes even the slightest mistake with instant death. It does however, show off how momentum works in the Sonic Adventure games, and planning more levels that let you take advantage of this could potentially be really cool. The superbounce in general, I think, has the potential to be a great addition to Sonic's moveset. Just make the window for activating it slightly more lenient, add in an animation showing that you can perform it, and suddenly you've got an alternate way to transfer your speed in 3D, converting your horizontal speed into vertical height to reach crazy high platforms. Then you add stuff like jump dash cancels, which sacrifices the homing attack's ability to attack in exchange for extra speed and distance, and you have the trappings for a really mechanically deep Sonic. Sand Ocean is just a way of showing off exactly what those advanced techniques are capable of, as completing it without having fully mastered the moves makes for a brutally punishing experience.

And that concludes my insane ramblings based off of me messing around with the Adventure games way too much. As a bonus Easter egg for making it this far, you should also try completing SA2's mech levels with Tails' 2P alternate costume. People complain about the mechs being too slow, but trying to control one of these abominations shows there's a flip side to that argument.

 

Yep, that looks fun.

But real talk, what are your thoughts?

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