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Miragnarok

"What?" Zones: Surreal Levels in Sonic Games.

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Here's my topic on all the more... surreal levels in Sonic games. Those stages that are... out there. Let's start with the obvious choice of the:

 

Special & Bonus Stages

 

The Special and Bonus Stages are re-occurring staples in the franchise, but we should take a moment to explore their evolution in Classic main games. In Sonic 1, there were motifs going on; Sea vs. Sky, as shown by the fish and bird backdrops of the area that would shift around together with the re-occurring checkerboard pattern. Sonic represents land in this equation, and this Warp of Confusion truly is beyond the realms of Land, Sea, and Sky. This sort of level was reprised in Sonic 4, but without these motifs, instead having a plainer background. The "ground" is made of crystals, all surrounding a prize; the Chaos Emerald. Pinball motifs of a sort, little bonus targets, were included as well. These resembled pinball bumpers, as Sonic was stuck in a ball form. Sonic 2's Special Stage was themed to a half-pipe, with the background no longer having the sea and sky motifs, instead being on a starry backdrop with chevrons. Sonic CD's Special Stages are probably the most fascinating of them, with the backgrounds depicting a living, breathing world behind the special stage. These glimpses of a new world would carry over into Sonic Mania. One of those stages also features an appearance by the birds and fish from Sonic 1. Sonic 3's Special Stage is on a starry blue backdrop again, on a checkerboard sphere, while the Bonus Stages felt somewhat more physical and material. The pinball Bonus Stage featured many 3D surreal shapes in the distance. Speaking of 3D, 3D Blast presented new environments in its Special Stages, such as magma or rivers, with players on a metallic bridge above these natural settings. The Fleetway comics would notably also use a world within the Special Zone, featuring plenty of new content and insinuating the games' Special Stages were in "The Weird Bit". Much of this content, however, was very different than what was shown in CD. Future special stages were never quite as rich as the ones in CD, design-wise. Sonic Advance’s Special Stages have the more technological appearance of the Bonus stages from Sonic 3, while the next two would rely on colorful grids. 

Sonic CD- Collision Chaos

Admittedly, this zone fits under the casino trope, but the unique features make the stage really feel dreamy, especially due to the US soundtrack. Mysterious giant bubbles, strange patterns, and a harsh yet groovy color scheme fit the mystical music perfectly. Even the grass looks rather odd.

Knuckles Chaotix 

 

Chaotix's wild designs of a "techno dreamworld" are exemplified in some particularly odd-looking zones, such as Amazing Arena and Speed Slider. While they do seem to have amusement purposes, their wild artstyle makes them a unique experience. The music also helps here.

 

Sonic Advance 2 - Music Plant

While the previous musically themed level, Stardust Speedway, was a lot more subtle, this stage constructs a cityscape and factory with musical instruments. Think pink as you step onto the electric keytar, as the sky is pink and misty, likely from what the plant produces. Keyboards and other instruments form structures for players to use, with musical note motifs also present. A well-crafted level of an abstract theme. Great to look at, listen to, and play through.

Sonic Advance 3 - Toy Kingdom

Toy Kingdom does a slightly lesser job of conveying a setting than Music Plant.  The background is just a rolling, checkered, technicolor plain. This rainbow-color pattern is a theme in the architecture of the level, which appears to be assembled of colorful building blocks of a sort, along with what appear to be massive pencils, with a palace in the distance. The star found on the Bumpers is also present as a motif, and players ride in teacup vehicles resembling panda heads.

Sonic and the Secret Rings - Lost Prologue

This tutorial area is composed of pages of the Arabian Nights, serving as a gateway between the world of the book and his own. The mystical atmosphere is enhanced by the music and the swirling pages that make up the background. Arabic script is a prominent theme in the game, as enemies explode into it. This area emphasizes that the Arabic script is part of the game's world. It's like a mystical road into a new realm.

Sonic Colors - Sweet Mountain

One of Eggman's colonized planets is now home to a theme park region where foodstuff forms a military base. The mountain-like structures formed in the shape of an elaborate Big Mac-alike, missiles loaded with jelly beans as the payload, roads resembling cake... Eggman would dream this stuff up to showcase what he can do. The culinary theming also plays into intercom gags and even game mechanics. The Drill Wisp allows players to burrow through layers of the cake road, while gingerbread men (too bad they aren’t shaped like Eggman or something) can be shattered.

Sonic Lost World - Dessert Ruins & Hidden World

 

Now here's where the meat of this topic comes in; Dessert Ruins. Unlike past odd levels, this stage lacks even a sense of structure. It is just floating objects arranged for no real reason. Licorice twists form roads suspended in mid air, within a pink atmosphere with donuts flying by and dancing, with stacks of pancakes close by. Half-eaten Hydrox serve as platforms and cannons fire off spherical truffles that serve to get you higher up the misshapen road. These discrete objects do not form a structure, while the levels of such a sort as late as Colors did so. There is no narrative reason for the stage to be so odd. There's no justification for why the stage appears. Any prior disjointed stage would have been entered through special means, but this is a normal level that appears out of nowhere. Desert Ruins also contains a sudden beehive level for some reason, though it does have more structure than Dessert Ruins (I admit that stage would have fit better in Silent Forest). The post-game features the Hidden World, a set of equally disjointed levels. However, these areas come too little, too late to justify the existence of Dessert Ruins. These stages contain a clay-like background and a wild array of objectives.

 

What are your favorite surreal levels? What are your least favorites? Any new ideas for surreal levels? 

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2 hours ago, Miragnarok said:

What are your favorite surreal levels?

My favorite surreal levels any of the Storybook World levels.

There's a lot of interesting ideas:

  • Lost Prologue being a bridge of pages Sonic has to cross from his world to the Arabian Night world
  • Leviating Ruin having giant fossil stingrays that fly and have gargoyles as enemies
  • Pirate Storm having Sonic travel across an island and ships controlled by monster pirates where it constantly rains
  • Misty Lake having Sonic practice with Clarent before finding Caliburn
  • Titanic Plain having giant ogres/trolls pulling wagons
  •  Dodging and making your way down a cave and taking on a massive dragon in Dragon's Lair

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Sonic CD in general is chalk full of surreal imagery/zones. To pick one... how about Collision Chaos. Something about it's choice of color palette: the ground is such a harsh shade of pink against violet storm clouds and the setting sun. It's as if the very dirt of Green Hill caught a cold. The particularly surreal thing being how alien the bubbles you pop through out the stage look. What's even up with those? They're straight out of Gemini Man's Stage and that place was surreal in and of itself. 

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My favorites are Music Plant and Sweet Mountain.

I think the two zones are concceptually very similar, the only difference being the theme (music and sweets) and the main color (pink and orange).

Gameplay-wise, I also like Music Plant a lot: it feels like a casino level but with more flow. Anyway, I like Sonic Advance 2's gameplay in general so that's a reason too.

On a side note, I don't like Toy Kingdom, because it feels like a watered down version of Music Plant with very repetitive level design (filled with crushing blocks). Music plant IMO also has better... music, indeed.

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I'm absolutely a sucker for casino levels. The best thing about them beyond the aesthetic is the opportunity to have a game within a game, what with slot machines, giant pinball courses, roulette tables, bingo, card matching, lottery balls, billiards and the like taking precedence. It works hand in hand with Sonic's inherent "spinball" mechanics so I always look forward to playing them.

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I give Heroes a lot of shit for a lot of well deserved reasons, but I have to admit I appreciate them going above and beyond on selling Mystic Mansion as a "spooky" level. There's a lot of nice little touches that probably didn't need to be done but really help give the level a unique identity. Skeletons that pop out from behind corners just to stare at you, then hide and vanish when you get close, the mystery orbs changing the level around you and bringing statues and paintings to life (even though they're really just teleporters, it's an effective enough trick given the time the game was made), the pattern on the floors that changes between bats and skulls depending on how far you are from it and which parts you read as negative and positive space...plus there's just a fuckton of giant skeletons and skeleton imagery which may not exactly be clever but it is fun and appreciated. The ending's pretty cool too; you drop into some weird swirling void underneath the mansion, and then you hit the final orb and the whole place just vanishes; suddenly you're outside in the middle of the day and it's not clear how much of all that was even real.

With a lot of Sonic levels, even a lot of the good ones, the theme can feel a bit tacked on, but someone on Heroes' development team clearly had an appreciation for weird spooky ghost shit and they managed to put together a level that actually feels like a haunted mansion, and isn't just dressed like one.

It's, uh. Not one I have much interest in actually ever playing again, since it's still Heroes, which is bad. But I appreciate that it exists.

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in my mind, spring yard zone is some kind of amusement park. it reminds me of the bonus stages in the 8 bit versions of the original title. both were first to introduce the pinball style physics. love the purple-ness of both! :) 

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 The strangest Sonic Zone by far is the Hidden World you unlock after beating the main story of Sonic Lost World.

Most of it is just odd or cut content, but that pac man style monster at the end is by far the fucking weirdest thing this series has ever done. No context, no reasoning, no affect on the story, it's just there for some inexplicable reason.

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One moment always sticks with me when I play Sonic CD. It happens at the very beginning of Tidal Tempest where the real background of the level is visible before you go underwater. The sky is black and the mountains are black, only outlined with red. The JP music comes in like water chimes, then the mountains explode with fire and the whole sky goes red, then back to darkness. It explodes again. The bass comes into the song at the right time making the effect complete. The first time I saw it it was a surreal moment for me, and I stayed looking at it for a minute before I even played. I don’t know if other players ever felt this way at the start of Tidal Tempest. Strong surreal opening, but mostly average level.

 

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2 hours ago, Plasme said:

 The strangest Sonic Zone by far is the Hidden World you unlock after beating the main story of Sonic Lost World.

Most of it is just odd or cut content, but that pac man style monster at the end is by far the fucking weirdest thing this series has ever done. No context, no reasoning, no affect on the story, it's just there for some inexplicable reason.

Agreed. Yet, at least it wasn’t in the main story, unlike Dessert Ruins.

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I think Lost Prologue from SatSR is hands down the best one of these levels, if only because it tackles a narrative purpose on top of being out of left field. Outside of Special Zones, and games like Colors and Lost World (where you play on alien locales so the rules are... "different") - its hard to justify a surreal level. Most stages follow some combination of conventional themes. Even if they are taken to the extreme - like say Oil Ocean, there is still enough reality in there to where you don't have to question it. When stages like Music Plant and Toy Kingdom pop up, alongside those more conventional stages, it can be a refreshing change, but at the same time conflicts with the global structure of the world.

In Shth, Shadow goes inside the digital world for a few levels. The game made an honest, and a decent attempt at explaining why those levels played by different "rules". When you just randomly splash in a zany idea just for the heck of it, without that context it just clashes.

That is basically my roundabout way of explaining why Lost Prologue is so good to me. Without the need of uttering a word, its surreal nature is immediately understood as the extra-dimensional boundary between Sonic's world and the Arabian nights. Its just there to fill in the void and supplement the story. Its random and follows its own rules, but its established space in the narrative leaves room for that. In a game all about taking advantage of the wondrous tales and locales of a legendary set of stories, one of the best ones was the space found in-between the pages. That's awesome and a creative usage to build up something that literally isn't even there.

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8 hours ago, Sega DogTagz said:

I think Lost Prologue from SatSR is hands down the best one of these levels, if only because it tackles a narrative purpose on top of being out of left field. Outside of Special Zones, and games like Colors and Lost World (where you play on alien locales so the rules are... "different") - its hard to justify a surreal level. Most stages follow some combination of conventional themes. Even if they are taken to the extreme - like say Oil Ocean, there is still enough reality in there to where you don't have to question it. When stages like Music Plant and Toy Kingdom pop up, alongside those more conventional stages, it can be a refreshing change, but at the same time conflicts with the global structure of the world.

In Shth, Shadow goes inside the digital world for a few levels. The game made an honest, and a decent attempt at explaining why those levels played by different "rules". When you just randomly splash in a zany idea just for the heck of it, without that context it just clashes.

That is basically my roundabout way of explaining why Lost Prologue is so good to me. Without the need of uttering a word, its surreal nature is immediately understood as the extra-dimensional boundary between Sonic's world and the Arabian nights. Its just there to fill in the void and supplement the story. Its random and follows its own rules, but its established space in the narrative leaves room for that. In a game all about taking advantage of the wondrous tales and locales of a legendary set of stories, one of the best ones was the space found in-between the pages. That's awesome and a creative usage to build up something that literally isn't even there.

I can see your point, though I think that it applies to some of the classic or recurring zones such as the several carnival and casino levels, and to an extent to Studiopols as well.

Stuff such as Music Plant and Toy Kingdom are probably supposed to be amusement parks or something... they're probably all inspired by Twinkle Park from Sonic Adventure, that's not much different as a concept... the difference is that Sonic Adventure has a story to explain that, while the Advance games didn''t have much of it, so you have to assume things in base of what you see in-game.

I agree with you, but only for cases such as Dessert Ruins in Lost World... that's totally unexplained and unfitting, it's there only because for a word joke. I would be fine with it if it was a special stage though, because those have always been placed in a different dimension, detached from reality.

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