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The problem with translating super speed into fun 3D gameplay


Guy Strong
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Sonic was made to be fast, we all know this. Though the way they’ve translated that speed to gameplay has been pretty hit or miss. During the genesis era, this was through rolling, using the terrain to your advantage, and spin dashing. I feel that the concept of super speed is in general much easier to deal with in 2D than it is 3D. I’m saying this as a primarily 3D game fan. If you consider a game like Sonic Advance 2, or the Rush games, both are completely different to the classics, and yet both pull off high speeds very well. Some might not consider Advance 2 to be good necessarily, but it cannot be denied that the way the boost was handled was definitely innovative and might be worth trying again, and upon replaying stages to learn the layout more and more, can make completing the levels at high speeds very satisfying even if that style of game may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The game has merit and charm if you don’t treat it like a genesis style game.

Anyway, when you take a look at most of Sonic’s outings in 3D, they often use heavy scripting and boost pads to convey that sense of speed. Sonic Adventure had kind of bigger slightly more open areas, some of which were much more platform heavy but they also had moments within these larger levels to remind you that Sonic is really fast, purely for exhilarating spectacle. Like the whale in emerald coast, running down the building in speed highway, and running through those hallways is final egg. Also every loop. This was understandable given it’s the first time Sonic’s been in 3D and honestly this seems like a pretty intelligent workaround. Especially for the time. Otherwise movement can be pretty twitchy and platforming can be a bit rough around the edges because of it. Some platforms even have this magnetizing effect where you just kind of get lightly pulled towards the platform in midair. It’s kinda weird when you notice it.

Though going forward the levels have gotten narrower and more heavily focused of scripting events and boost pads. People love to bring up how Sonic Adventure 2 featured virtually no branching paths in most stages aside from a few minor detours in a few areas. That the levels were basically straight lines where you just kinda go go go forward. While this is true, I still commend SA2 for nailing Sonic’s movement. At least in my eyes. He feels so fun to run around with, rolling down hills trying to control yourself, and bouncing along the terrain with the bounce bracelet. Sonic does turn on a dime, but as I’m totally used to it I’m probably not fit to try and defend this too much. That aside, I can see slowing down for bigger wider open areas with the way he controls in this game to not be totally ideal.

Sonic Heroes had sort of flying obstacle courses, similar to Mario 3D World. I actually really liked this approach. The stages were really long, and for how fast your Speed type characters moved it was necessary. There’s tons of platforming in these games since there’s so much time to slow down having to switch to your slower Power and Fly type companions. Not to mention the greater emphasis on combat this game has. Most Sonic games don’t function like this so Heroes is a bit of an odd one out. I should mention Sonic Heroes is probably my favorite Sonic game, so I’ve played it a ton and I’m completely used to the way it feels. But I can understand many peoples complaints of slippery controls which can be rough considering how fast the Speed types can move. And most of the platformy bits are left to the Fly type characters which are super slow, and their flight providing an obvious safety net.

After this there’s Shadow the Hedgehog. Shadow has some decent sized levels, he moves super fast once he gets going, albeit at the expense of control. If you thought Heroes was slippery, Shadow takes it to another level. Running around at high speed it’s nearly impossible to properly control the guy. Even the games slower sections can still be a pain. Quite a few levels have the most basic block platforming you can have, and doing simple basic jumps on these blocks can be a handful despite this game having floaty ass physics to I assume try and make things a little easier though it still fails at that.

06 isn’t worth mentioning but Sonic and the Secret Rings and Black Knight both have potential to move at incredible speeds. Though the levels are literally straight narrow hallways so the only place you could possibly go is forward. 

The boost games have sort of evolved the concept Secret Rings and its sequel have laid out and made you blast through narrow corridors at high speed, though with more control and freer movement. Though levels again are mostly straight lines with the occasional scripted loop thrown in for good measure. Generations was better about alternate paths but controlling Sonic was kinda rough. Unleashed Sonic is super loose and moving him around open areas where you’re meant to platform can be wild enough to throw you into a panic. Basic movement shouldn’t be this way. Generations tried to remedy this by making Sonic unbelievably stiff and tight, so slower platforming is basically on the opposite end of the spectrum. You really gotta rely on your jump dash in this game to make it to platforms since your basic jump will more often than not be too stiff to platform with confidence. Colors is mostly 2D and is still oddly slippery and the few 3D segments don’t control well at all. Sonic gets flung through narrow corridors like he’s on a pinball machine no matter how hard you try and keep still.

Lost World tried to fix the problem with Sonic’s control by significantly slowing him down. If it wasn’t for the few levels where you’re always running forward, you wouldn’t know Sonic was supposed to be someone with supersonic speed if this was your introduction to the series. They gave Sonic a run button, which to me feels clunky and horribly unnatural. And still too slow. Sonic has the most pathetic peel out the series has ever seen, and his spin dash can be held permanently essentially making it a boost in a ball without any of the benefit of actually being a ball, ie no rolling physics. I will say Sonic’s basic movement and control when you’re not holding the run button is pretty good. He controls as he should. Not too tight, not too slippery, turns appropriately. Only problem is he’s painfully slow. Even by most game protagonist standards. 

To briefly mention Forces, it’s the boost control at its worst. But one thing I will say is that during bosses where you can freely move around, like Zavok, and the final boss as the OC, 3D movement is slowed down, but it feels quite good. Not as painfully slow as Lost World, and you’re still in control. At least on the ground. When you jump, modern Sonic has to rely on his double jump to manual correct your movement, and the OC is basically stuck moving in the direction you jump which sucks.

Basically with great speed comes poor control. SA1-Shadow/06 had Sonic turn on a dime at higher speeds which can be jarring. Secret Rings and Black Knight you couldn’t turn left or right at all. Boost games give you greater high speed control with quick stepping, veering left and right, and drifting for tight turns, but at low speed the games are very poor. Lost World had good low speed movement, but it was too slow to the point where it’s a pain to play. I’m not saying it’s impossible for 3D Sonic to totally nail control. Sonic Utopia was a great example of this. Sonic has weight to him, can roll down hills and build massive speed. Jumping I feel could have used some work, but it was a wonderful step in the right direction. But how feasible would it be to make an entire game like that with Sonic’s speed? Green Hill in Utopia is massive, but it’s just a big playground to test his moves. The creator has said he plans to scale back stages for the final game. 

Hypothetically speaking, how many levels could be in a final product that could warrant a full price tag or even feel like a full experience? What would be the best trade off? Slower paced levels with bits of scripted events to show off speed? A Utopia style game where the potential for great speed is always there?  How huge would the stages have to be to accommodate for the high speed? How many levels could feasibly be made like this? How can they come up with a good control scheme for high speed movement that also works well for slower jumpy bits? Should larger more open levels be made, what can be done to give you reason to do more than just reach the end as fast as possible? Boost doesn’t sit well with lots of people anymore. The Adventure games I felt did pretty good, but could use loads of improvement in control and level design.

In short, speed pads and scripted events are easy workarounds to show your characters are fast, so they do lots of it. This is just the way the series has evolved.  Platforming is tricky, yet necessary. Fusing 3D platforming with high speed seems like a really difficult task. They can slow the game down, yet that wouldn’t make Sonic stand out from the rest much. Not really sure what else to say. But super speed is a really rough concept to work with when it comes to video games. 

 

 

 

 

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My opinion on Sonic and 3D gameplay has pretty much been solidified over the past couple of years or so in that I'm honestly coming from the different direction: the worry/focus on preserving Sonic's speed into a 3D space has actually been one of the leading causes of harm to the design of the 3D games. Because Sonic's speed has been given so much priority in the game design it came at the cost of butchering design elements that are critical for not just Sonic game design, but standard platformer design in general. Some of the design decisions made with 3D Sonic gameplay have been argued as necessary for a 3D space; but I highly question how necessary they are due to not only the overall lackluster quality and reception to most of the 3D games, but also how those design choices have gradually overtaken the formula for the 2D games (and how their own quality and reception has declined as well).

The most egregious example of this I've seen in action --if you ask me-- is seeing people put Sonic gameplay on a special pedestal and use it to shoot down comparisons to other platforming series and dismiss people bringing general standards that are to be expected from the genre, solely made on the basis of Sonic having faster gameplay. To say nothing of the pervasive "Sonic is all about speed" meme train that's been tarring the entire Sonic series as little more than shallow speedrunning games; even including games like the original Sonic games and Mania (and to a lesser extent, I'll even say Adventure 1) where they are obviously the complete opposite (note how several reviewers recommended Mania as not only a great [classic] Sonic game, but also as a great platformer overall).

Just design a good 3D platformer in the first place. Super speed is a trademark, not the only thing that matters.

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@Strong Guy I actually read it all and I mostly agree with you.

The topic is so complex that discussing it in general is pretty much impossible, there are many factors involved, from level design, to physics, to character's movesets, camera system, button mapping etc.

My little suggestion I want to give is that in modern games badniks are a joke, you have the boost and run at supersonic speed, a single badnik is just too small and too meaningless to care about. I think that 3D Sonic needs to rework the badniks... give them some sort of AI, make them run along Sonic and fight at high speed, make them move freely (in a defined area), don't make them stand in place waiting to be used as a bridge for homing attack. Mario is a lot slower than Sonic, and Mario has moving enemies that chase him and go around the environment as if they are alive; Sonic on the other hand, who is focused on fast movement, has static badnik that shoot you a bullet at best.

If Sonic is going to be fast, static elements have to go. Some Modern games already feature moving enemies, but most of the times they are on rail quick time events, such as those badniks from Unleashed that you fight with quickstep: that's not what I mean, that's still scripted and limited; I think they should work a lot on level design and enemy design to blend fast paced platforming with fighting enemies, as the way it was handled in the actual 3D games is not suited for Sonic's gameplay (you must either slow down and break the flow to fight enemies, rely on automation, or just spam a broken move like the Boost and destroy everything without any care, which equals to having no enemies at all).

Having better badniks that move along with Sonic may give the player a better reason to run, not just for the sake of being fast, but because maybe it's needed in order to fight, and they reacts to the player's movements so that they feel more alive; other than that, it also gives a better reason to have more open spaces in levels.

As I said, this is only one of the many aspects that SEGA must face in order to translate Sonic into 3D.

 

After looking at some mobile Sonic games, I'm also considering that maybe rings should respawn (and Sonic should have a ring cap in order to avoid ring farming). In Sonic Runners Adventure, even if you take the rings, they still leave a permanent trail of sparkles on screen, so in levels where you must do more than 1 lap, the sparkles would still work as an hint to anticipate obstacles that normally you wouldn't be able to react to. In a 3D space something like that would be even more useful, as it's easy to get lost, and a way to always hint the correct direction to the player is even more needed; Sonic Forces Speed Battle has that mechanic that the more rings you have, the faster you go... something similar was introduced for the first time in Sonic Advance 2, and never used again as far as I know; being a competitive game, rings respawn so that other players can take them; I think that the ring->speed thing along with rings (and badniks) respawn would work well in single player games as well; to give a better purpose to rings, and to let a player to be always able to reach the top speed by collecting rings, even when he already collected all of them in a specific area (through respawn); badniks should respawn as well so that you can't just clear a level section to farm rings, enemies will always attack you and staying in the same place without making progresses is discouraged.

I know that I said it in a confusing way, though, in short, I think rings should respawn because they are useful to hint the level's direction in open spaces, also I think that badniks should respawn as well and Sonic should have a ring cap to discourage ring farming and motivate the player to move forward without caring of clearing all the enemies in a section (slow progression). That thing that rings influence your speed is kinda unrelated, but connects to my previous point about improved badniks: being faster makes it easier to dodge enemies' attacks, being slower puts you in a bigger risk, so speed is useful for gameplay, not just for spectacle, and if speed is influenced by rings, rings automatically become way more meaningful (especially since the lives and score systems are getting more and more obsolete in modern gaming).

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Yeah, I mean I get it why Adventure and Boost are unrelated to Classics. No one knew how to make Sonic the way he was in Classics in 3D. Still, despite being slippery, Heroes as a game has very good level design. Actually, the best of Adventure era. Both adventure games had strictly A to B with hardly any areas to explore. Heroes, despite being mostly vertical (top route = win) has at least Seaside Hill and Ocean Palace that have even horizontal variety. Correct me, if I am wrong, but those are the only stages with horizontal depth in Heroes, larger than Adventure games, but still shallow. But considering that the first 2 stages were done by Iizuka and he was helped by that one other guy, who withdrew himself in the halfway, yeah, that might be the reason.

Boost games have the enclosed-route problem. If there is 3D, it´s about choosing one path that is straight. Or the other, which is also straight. Coincidentally, the only really good 3D platforming was in the last stages of the era in Sonic Generations (Sky Sanctuary, Seaside Hill, Planet Wisp). The first 2 of those also have not that much 2D in it.

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I’m on phone but I will get to the Unleashed/Adventure part later.

Something that needs to be kept in mind; 3D Sonic’s like adventure were never fun to control at high speeds because of the sensitive movement stick and you never had good control of him.

The times you did have control, it was it tight linear segments that lasted very shortly with little control or nothing to do in them, which is why SA2 works better compared to SA1 in terms of speedy based characteristics. This isn’t even mentioning how the level design functions for Sonic himself.

 

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