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How do you feel about realistic locales in Sonic games?


ZinogreVolt

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To fill the space left between now and Sonic Frontiers, I recently started replaying the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. One thing that immediately struck me about the original Donkey Kong Country compared to its sequels is the overall adherence to the realism, or "place" of its environments. While there is a degree of reliance on suspension of disbelief present within it, there were very few, if any levels within the game that didn't look like they couldn't exist in real life at a glance (sans things like floating barrels). It's easy to see why the game made such a huge splash back in the 90s, as there wasn't, and still really isn't anything like the original Donkey Kong Country now in the platforming scene. 

This got me thinking about Sonic Frontiers and its overall use of realistic rendering and set dressing for its world. There are unbelievable bits and bobs like floating platforms, rails, and so on, but also realistic forests, fields of flowers, deserts, etc. It's not something Sonic is a stranger to, but I think the discussion surrounding it is worth having with the forthcoming release of Frontiers.

So how do you feel about realistic locations in Sonic games? Do you like them? Hate them? Think they have potential? Think they should never exist? Or is the answer more complicated than that for you?

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I think that what I like mostly in Sonic games is vivid colours and lots of detail. All of the following is relating only to the environment design, not the characters design or elements of level design (like the flying rails that pepper Frontiers). 

Ever since the transition to 3D, Sonic's artstyle has varied quite a lot, and that's pretty cool. SA1 (not SADX) did a really good job with realistic locations that were brimming with detail and very bold colours. The lighting really took that game to another level. SA2 generally had more realistic lightning and a more realistic level of detail on things (just compare any of SA2's City locations to Speed Highway and Station Square), but still had a saturated colour pallette and some more fantastical locations. Take a level like Pumpkin Hill/Sky Rail. It's very clearly not realistic when you put all of its visual elements together, but the individual elements have a fairly realistic level of detail. I like that a lot. 

Unleashed deserves a really special mention because of how it handles realism. All of its locations other than Eggmanland are essentially reproductions of real world cities and landmarks. Is it realistic though? I don't know. It feels more like high budget animation. Even though the locations are so similar to their real world counterparts and there's a ton of details in the textures and lighting, everything is insanely vivid. There's so much colour going on that Sonic doesn't feel out place against the basically-Italy streets of Rooftop Run. It's actually great. 

06 on the other hand falters pretty hard. Most of its locations aren't very colourful. There are a lot of muted colours, greys and browns. Its lighting is terribly flat too, but that's as much of a technical problem as an artistic one. 06 only tries to look realistic and doesn't embellish anything. It's distinctly lacking anything bold or creative. Frontiers kind of falls into the same pitfalls, unfortunately. It's lacking particularly striking elements in its environment design. 

Sonic works really well with environments that are close to realism. A less realistic approach can also be great. Even something as extremely cartoony as Lost World can work in the series' favour. I feel like Sonic has this great opportunity to be versatile with its artstyle without have to change up its character designs. 

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I feel like the word "realistic" isn't the right one to use when describing locales necessarily, the better question would be about how detailed they are. I like how most Sonic games look because they're quite detailed and, whether you like it or not, somewhat grounded to reality. Like, yeah, having loops, rings and random grind rails is not realistic, but as long as it looks believable enough to go "yeah, that looks like something that'd maybe exist in our world", I'm okay with it. 

That's why I think Lost World is the least Sonic thing in all of the series and that's also why I just can't agree with people saying Frontiers doesn't look like Sonic in the slightest. The former has the flattest, most "Mario at home" looking locales that are completely antithetical to what 3D Sonic (or Sonic in genera) has been so far. Meanwhile Frontiers is closer to what I want Sonic's world to be like, just less "vibrant", which I'm also okay with (I really like Crisis City and Kingdom Valley and those are pretty much just brown and grey respectively).

What I'm saying is just don't be Lost World and don't do this. Also don't be CD, that one's a bit too abstract for me as well.

Also don't be Sonic 4 Episode 1.

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Sonic games generally look best with a mix of fantasy-cartoonish elements and more grounded, "realistic" environments. The classic and Adventure games all followed this formula, with different games emphasizing the cartoony or realistic aspects to different degrees helping each game develop its own visual identity while still fitting the broader Sonic series identity. 

Frontiers messes this up IMO. The environments we've seen so far are very monochromatic, with few details popping off of the screen. Even traditional Sonic elements such as the red hoops have a very washed out look to them. To be frank, I think the Sonic series art direction has been in decline for a long time now, and Frontiers is the lowest point yet in that regard.

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I've given up sonic looking cohesive as a series and settled on the work being consistent with itself. Either tweak the world to match Sonic and friends or tweak Sonic and friends to match the world. The clash you see in games like Sonic frontiers and Shadow the Hedgehog is pretty hard to look at even as a fan.

The Dreamcast games go the first route with mixed results. Sonic looks alright in the adventure games, if a bit uncanny with the more realistic body and mocapped movement. 06 completely breaks the illusion here, though. As Sonic became more human he ironically lost a lot of his relatability. 

The latter is a much more difficult proposition than the former so to me the answer is obvious. Sonic's world should match his exaggerated design, as it did in the first few games in the series. Simpler colors, exaggerated shapes and toned down lighting. I'm torn on texture work since Sonic 3 has some pretty grounded looking patterns  but I think they should at least veer away from realism for variety's sake. We've had plenty of 'sonic in the real world's games already so I wouldn't mind them trying something different. 

I also think this would ease the workload on the artists which should give some of those resources back to the more important parts of the game. 

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I feel like it's been both to the series' detriment and its benefit and it really comes to many factors, preference being the main one here.

Sonic's never stuck with a consistent art style outside of the Modern character designs we've had since 1998. And its clear cohesion is something Sega are not interested in when it comes to Sonic, regardless of how that reflects in the games.

 

So its hard for me to decide on what's "correct". After 06, I think Sega realized that changing Sonic's iconic design is a big no-no, and ruins one of his primary appeals so I doubt they'll ever significantly change his model again. So that just leaves the environmental design.

 

The more detailed the environments look, ironically make Sonic's simplistic design stick out and not in a good way. This is where the "this doesn't look like a Sonic game" statements come from and its clear the world's aren't designed with Sonic's appearance in mind. But at the same time, those environments DO look good; we've talked about Adventure, Unleashed, etc etc. When Sonic games look good, they are among the best looking games around even more than the likes of Mario or Kirby. So it'd be a huge shame to lose that, even if would be more cost effective in the long term.

 

Sega may not always make the most...logical or even smart business decisions, but its clear they have some sort of ambition. So its matter of if compromising tha ambition is worth it or not.

 

Lost World doesn't look that bad to me, but its also a huge departure after how Generations looked and fans were naturally put off by it.

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It’s funny, as drab and dull as crisis city was in 06, I actually wasn’t at all offput by it in Generations and enjoyed it visually more than a lot of the other stages, despite iirc not much asset wise being altered from 06’s version. Maybe it’s contrast compared to the rest of the stages made it pop out to me as appealing, similar to New Donk City in Mario Odyssey contrasting with the rest of the game and being seen positively?

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Unleashed is still the best looking game, and takes the realism angle and makes it its own. Its an exceptional blend of high detail, fantasy construction and whimsical inhabitants that just comes together perfectly to create a seamless end result that doesn't feel out of place while retaining that impressive look to this day.

 

I think the more detailed styles also lean into more of Sonic's sense of speed. Seeing so much detail blow past makes Sonic look even faster than he already is, which is exhilarating.

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Personal answer since I didn't really give it: I like realism when it's sprinkled into things that are unrealistic and vice versa. Sonic CD's opening intro taking place in a relatively normal-looking valley serves as a memorable contrast to how weird and abstract Little Planet can get. A degree of realism and cause/effect for why places look the way they do is more what I'm after when it comes to environmental design, rather than places that are just realistically proportioned and detailed. 

It's a bit hard to put into words, but it's part of the reason I vastly prefer Sonic CD's opening to the one in Mania/Mania Plus. Mania's opening is nice, but it communicates very little about the world/story in contrast to Sonic CD. Which while somewhat esoteric itself, does give a clear enough outline of CD's plot. The contrast between the rocky areas Sonic at first runs through vs. the zany, strange environments of Little Planet gives the simple act of starting up the game the slightest pinch of extra magic that I really appreciate. I don't think that could have been achieved nearly as well if the environments in the opening of CD were as colorful and out-there as some of the environments in other Sonic games.

By that same token, I also really like the emphasis on realism put into some of the first Sonic Adventure game's areas. Mystic Ruins, especially the jungle area, is one of my favorite places in the series actually because of this. Not only did it just look nice for the time, but I also love the contrast between it and places like the second and third sections of Windy Valley. 

I'm also not personally a fan of when the games leans hard into one direction or another, at least when there isn't a way to suspend my disbelief (e.g when its not a sprite-based game). I hate how both Lost World and 06 look for opposite reasons, but there are stages that I would pick from both that serve as real visual highlights like the undersea tunnel levels in Lost World and Kingdom Valley in 06. Both of which are areas elevated by choice in artstyle, I feel.

Frontiers' open zone areas a bit more "normal" than I prefer, but I think I ultimately still like them because they work as a contrast to the Inception-like weirdness going on in Cyberspace, which helps to further facilitate the game's overall mood and mystery. So I guess my answer would be that I enjoy more realistic environments, but mostly when it feels like there's a bigger point behind them.

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They’re beautiful.

When effort is put into the visuals.

Like, really, what’s the problem with real world locales in Sonic? It seems every time this gets brought up it as if there was a issue to having them to begin with.

Unleashed was realistic and it was gorgeous; Sonic 06 was realistic and it was drab, dull (I liked the aesthetics tho). Both had deserts, snow fields, forests, and cities, but one feels more stylized than the other in a way that meshes with Sonic.

But overall, there is nothing wrong with having realistic locales in Sonic as long as they aren’t drab and boring, and Sonic isn’t the only cartoon franchise that’s done this. Anything can work with the right style to them.

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Sonic to me is all about juxposition, having elements clash in a fun way.
Like how Sonic himself is both an adorable cute cartoon character and an anime esque badass, Eggman both a theatrical clown and terrifying dictator, and the games mix hyper fast racing with platforming that's more about paying attention and learning patterns.
Same with the envirements. It ain't realism versus cartoon, it's mixing them in a peanutbutter chocolate sandwich way.
I love it when the elements are invading and aiding each other.
Like Twinklepark from Sonic Adventure, a relatively realistic themepark where slowly the abstract cartoon elements start distorting it to crazier levels, like the bumperkarts turning into a racetrack in space or Amy's spooky castle getting more and more goofy with the mirror illusoions.
I like to think of the Sonic envirements the way an creative child would look at the real world.
You look at a realistic Las Vegas, and then look at the weird signs and shapes and colors on the rooftops at display and start imagining a crazier world up there.
Start with reality, then take it for a ride.

Problems with me start when the two aren't mixed. Have reality without the abstract fantasy aspect, you get Sonic Next Gen's dry humorless world, or Frontiers boring ass field of grass.
Take the abstract fantasy stuff but without anchoring it to any logic or reality, you get Lost Worlds stupid "shapes flying in limbo" world, or Frontiers Cyberspace borefest.
So basically, just don't be like Sonic Frontiers.

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I'm fairly curious about the people who don't like Frontiers aesthetic but prefer something like Unleashed, because to me they don't feel that far off from each other.

This is art so its all subjective at the end of the day, but it got me thinking why is one accepted over the other...ya know besides "old good, new bad" and all.

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2 hours ago, Kuzu said:

I'm fairly curious about the people who don't like Frontiers aesthetic but prefer something like Unleashed, because to me they don't feel that far off from each other.

This is art so its all subjective at the end of the day, but it got me thinking why is one accepted over the other...ya know besides "old good, new bad" and all.

Unleashed is like a sample platter of a bunch of different cultures around the world. I think most would agree that running down the Great Wall of China or through the streets of Greece is a more appealing prospect on paper than going through the more nondescript forests and deserts of Frontiers.

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3 hours ago, Kuzu said:

I'm fairly curious about the people who don't like Frontiers aesthetic but prefer something like Unleashed, because to me they don't feel that far off from each other.

This is art so its all subjective at the end of the day, but it got me thinking why is one accepted over the other...ya know besides "old good, new bad" and all.

The backdrop in Frontiers is pretty homogeneous and doesn't really "pop" like many other Sonic games prior. Unleashed being based off of real world locations is really only telling half of it, the art direction is a different matter entirely. It's not just Mykonos, New York or Northern China, it's all of those places as seen through a Sonic-esque lens. Everything there is saturated and chunky, exaggerated as the roads and terrain bend and curve like a Sonic game usually does.

While the Starfall Islands are a couple of steps removed from generic biomes, it's lacking those aforementioned signature elements. The weird ancient tech ruins are a nice touch, but the entire game is defined by that aesthetic. If anything, it reminds me more of Sonic and the Black Knight, and that one at least had the decency of giving us the picture of Sonic surfing along a lava flow. 

It's not bad. It just feels off. 

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My take on this is that there's nothing inherently wrong with doing a 'realistic' stage but it's more about how you go about doing it. The problem with some games, I think 06 the most, is that they just look bland. People tend to overstate the realism of Unleashed's environments, they are very pretty but they are still stylized to some extent to fit Sonic's world. The buildings are laid out to be fun to run across, you have rails, you have streets! All of those are in 06 too but they feel plain there and that's because 06 leans too hard into a realistic look without changing too much. This will sound weird, but if Sonic looked like something akin to his movie version or perhaps even something closer to his CGI model, it'd be a fine look, but it's not. So the world looks very...bleh. Games like SA1 and 2 got away with it because the graphics couldn't emulate the real world completely yet, so, it doesn't feel odd to have Sonic in San Francisco. 

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