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Awoo.

In light of this site's Frontiers review, here are some new thoughts on momentum, what fans really mean when they say it, and why the series may have dropped it.


Scritch the Cat

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If you haven't read that review yet, the section I am referring to is this:

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At this point, it is probably worth bringing up the concept of ‘momentum’, as the online discourse surrounding this recently has become warped to the point of nonsense. So let’s talk about whether Sonic Frontiers ‘has momentum’ for a second.

The short answer is ‘yes, of course it has momentum’ – just like every other decent video game on the planet, Sonic has a standard momentum that applies whenever he moves at speed across certain terrains. And it’s really very fun to play around with! But what this game lacks – and what fans actually mean when they talk about ‘momentum’ – is the implementation of mathematical pinball-style rolling physics, and environments that allow for such momentum-based traversal, in the same way you would see in a Mega Drive Sonic game.

Instead, in Frontiers, Sonic – much like he does in Forces and, well, most of his games over the last 20 years – relies on speed boosters, scripted dash panels and boost rings in order to artificially give the player enough speed and lift to carry them to higher areas.

 

Now this got me to thinking: How exactly did online discourse about this subject get so warped?  Undoubtedly, there's a lot of baggage attached to that one word that many fans seem to expect each other to know, but that is rather obtuse to anyone outside of that loop.  How did the conversations and complaints about newer Sonic games evolve into these specific points?  Well, as it happens, I was actually there to observe some of that evolution, so I am at least somewhat qualified to weigh in.

It's no secret to most people here that discussion about momentum in Sonic games has long been tied quite closely to Sonic fangames, and as I recall, the first fangame made and touted with such philosophy was BlitzSonic; originally called Mark The Echidna's Engine and eventually to be used to make Sonic World.  Likely people on Sonic Retro were pontificating on it before then, but I did not become aware of that community until people in places like this mentioned that its alumni made Sonic Mania.  So my first encounter with momentum being brought up in praise of a Sonic fangame was in this video and its description:

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This is what 3D Sonic should be playing like, honestly. Entirely momentum-based gameplay, none of this "forced down a linear path, bottomless pits on all sides, speed pads galore" business. Loops are there to prevent you from moving forward if you lack speed, not just eye candy to be pasted every few blocks or so, where the camera pans out to show you being forced around the loop by way of speed pads. Anywhere in the world is yours to get at, provided you have the patience and the right kind of momentum to make it up there. Just like the old Sonic games for the Genesis.

You will notice some distinction (though sadly not enough) between that commentary and how this site's reviewers described discussion of momentum now.  Back then, the Adventure games were the newer, worse-regarded Sonic games that these fan projects were trying to show up as the true 3D evolution of Sonic, with Unleashed only to come out later that year, and most of the complaints about the newer Sonic games not having enough momentum were essentially complaints about them not requiring momentum.  With dash pads and splines strewn about, things that used to require players to exploit gravity and hills to build up enough momentum to pass, no longer did, with the textbook case being loops. 

However, while that was all true, even if loops in 3D were not scripted and did not have those dash pads at the start, essentially making them the same test of speed that they were in the Classic games, the fact that in 3D you can steer left and right means there's no real reason to use them as such.  You can just detour around a loop in 3D, or through it in a way that does not require going very high on it.  Still, there are other things that utilize momentum.  So why did those things gradually replace loops as the cornerstones of this discussion?  I think there's a few reasons.

First, back then the Classic Sonic fans tended to be the older and more jaded sorts, who inevitably picked up on the Adventure Era games' shortcomings in comparison.  But the more time passed, and the more aspects of the Adventure Era got dropped in favor of the "Meta Era", the more the Adventure Era's fans started turning into jaded old nostalgic sticklers themselves.  Becoming united in their bitterness likely inspired them to dig deeper into all of the games from both of those departed eras, now focusing more on what they had in common than what separated them, and it was likely partially thanks to this that they started to discover just about every possible place that could be exploited to fling characters high into the air and thereby take shortcuts or reach distant hidden areas.

However, another reason many people seemed to come a lot more lately to value this aspect of momentum in Sonic games, is that it's by nature a lot more subtle, meant to be there for experts to play around with but often completely overlooked by casuals, and now that I think of it, that was already fairly true in the Classic Sonic games.  Loops in 2D were a genuine test of momentum, and one that every single Sonic player saw and had to pass, but as a result they were also ones that most of those players did pass, and then they didn't necessarily give them much more thought.  The possibility of going fast up walls and off ramps to get airborn was often present, but it was rarely either tutorialized or required to actually beat the games, and this brings us to a third reason that such mechanics have gone relatively unnoticed until recently, when they've come to dominate momentum discourse, and in turn, to another dead horse people keep beating about Classic Sonic design vs subsequent eras.

These games, as originally conceived, expected casuals to become experts, and Yuji Naka built the means of such transformation on an idea that was almost Eggman-like in how brilliant-but-twisted it was: Utilize people's own frustration and impatience to build up their skills.  Sonic was conceived of at a time when many platformers did not have save features, had limited lives, and had limited continues if any at all.  That meant failing them or even turning them off demanded you play them again in their entirety, and due to the rage this would inspire, people would attempt to rush back to where they were last time, in the process drawing on their experience to rush more gracefully.  This was combined witth a character who also was impatient and agile, and it played on the yin-yang of how much fun it was to go fast vs how much it sucked to have that speed interrupted by an enemy, obstacle, etc.  So while players were tempted to go fast, they also had to stay on their toes, learning where to jump and roll while going fast...and here is where the games started tutorializing more of the ways momentum affects them.  Rolling on some surfaces is faster than on others, while where you are and how fast you are going will affect the force and trajectory of your jump.  It was quite an effective way to teach the game's most advanced mechanics, but again, it was still largely optional.  This series was designed with the philosophy of "low skill floor, high skill ceiling"; there's only one button needed, the rings were there to let players keep enduring hits, missing a jump tended to mean falling to a lower and slower route rather than in a deadly pit, and most enemies could be defeated simply by jumping into them from any angle, so even fairly poor players could pick up and play Sonic games, with them only discovering the deeper mechanics later, when they replayed the levels faster.  But then a leak sprang in that plan: There stopped being a "later".

Sonic was conceived of to compete with Mario, and at the time Yuji Naka designed for that, the archtypical Mario game he had in mind was Super Mario Bros., which had no save feature and permanent Game Overs.  But not long into Sonic's existence, Super Mario World came out and dispensed with those old buzzkills, and SEGA suddenly found themselves competing with a new game whose features made their game look old-fashioned and obnoxious on the surface--and that was probably the last thing they wanted when they had originally marketed the Genesis and Sonic as being on the cutting edge of gaming.  While that didn't destroy Sonic's credibility at first, it was a hurdle that they needed to clear, and come Sonic 3, save features would become a part of Sonic as well.  People aware of my history on this board will know I consider a save feature and limitless continues to be absolute necessities for any game I play; I simply don't have enough time to waste on any game that doesn't when I have such a large backlog of other games I want to play, and I essentially hated Sonic 2 until I had the luxury of playing the mobile port; even going as far as saying I'd rather play Shadow the Hedgehog.  Still, I understand why the addition of these now-essential parts of gaming probably disrupted the way Sonic games were designed--at least over time.  There was now no real demand to replay the game; even trying for all the emeralds no longer required restarting as someone could now just reload the game to keep trying.  Certainly, there were plenty of people who still loved replaying and speed-running the games for their own sake, but now that had become more optional than ever before, as had learning its associated momentum nuances.

In time, of course, most fans did learn them; even those fans whose first Sonic games had save features and unlimited continues, and now, those members of the Sonic fandom who are old enough to articulate their opinions well online seem unanimous about how much they like using momentum and pinball physics.  And again, as this site's reviewers observed, by now the fandon's general fixation with momentum has moved away from how hard it is or is not to simply attain, and more towards what sort of amazing vertical feats you can pull off once you have attained momentum.  This has caused the Adventure games and even some of the Boost games to be reappraised as "games that have momentum".  Speaking just for myself right now, back in the day, even while I was big into the Adventure games, I had no idea they had much physical nuance and would have bet against it based on just how laughably fudged the loops were, so it was actually a real treat to watch nostalgic videos about them that revealed just how awesomely fast Sonic can tear through Twinkle Park if you can get the hang of inclined jumping.  Also, since I joined this forum and infamously bitched about them, I have actually beaten all of the Classic Sonic games, and then recently I played through Sonic Heroes again, and was thrilled at what a new experience the game felt like now that I was more able to read these stages and figure out how to take shortcuts and soar over obstacles and speed traps; I actually gained a new respect for its level designers for how much they thought ahead to reward players who could do that.

So with all of that in mind, it seems like this series actually has a fair amount of games in every era with the momentum/pinball mechanics the Sonic fans love, so maybe we aren't all that finicky, divided, and hard to please after all.   But if it's so obvious what we want and how attainable it should be, why is Sonic Team putting less and less emphasis on such mechanics?  I happened on a possible answer when watching a video about another series notably designed around the ethos of "low skill floor, high skill ceiling": Pokemon.  This video makes lots of points about the series' growing pains in general, so it may not be worth your time to watch it all the way through, but here are the relevant parts:

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We take it as a given since the series has made it part of their brand, but Pokemon is pretty much the only franchise around that attempts to carry over progress from previous games to such an extensive degree, namely in a monster-collecting RPG, resulting in a sizable amount of coding and planning being done for something only a small percentage of players would actively be using.

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And look; I get it: It's completely understandable that people like shiny hunters or those that have living 'dexes going all the way back to Gen 3 would be frustrated about this, considering the time they've spent cultivating all their work.  But let's be realistic.  If the developers are spending a decent amount of time rigging, animating and coding over 400 Pokemon that only a small fraction of players will ever see or use, that's frankly a ton of resources that could be better directed elsewhere.

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Looking at the various splits in the fanbase, the developers are constantly threading the needle of indulging the aging, existing fanbase, while not alienating their target demographic of children and casual fans, which is admittedly not an easy balance to keep. 

Now, before any fans point out to me something like "If fans have been doing this for free for over a decade--", I know that putting momentum and pinball physics into Sonic games is not a comparable ordeal to putting an ever-expanding zoo of playable monsters into every new Pokemon game, but the bit about demographic numbers is important.  As hard as it is to notice sometimes, it's likely that the vast majority of people who play Sonic games are not the sort of people who obsess about Sonic online.  The hardcore fans who have played through these games so many times that they've been able to figure out how to milk not only one game's physics to maximum potential, but many games', are very vocal and many are also very well-spoken, but I have a haunting feeling there aren't enough of them for SEGA to see them as the most important demographic.  Instead, Sonic games are probably targeted mostly at people who aren't necessarily all that into Sonic.  They'll play through a game if it's easy enough, but not necessarily keep playing it afterward to master it, and this likely influences what features that Sonic Team do or don't see as important.

I mentioned above that loops were an obvious test of momentum in 2D, while in 3D, they don't really work as such, but they were such an iconic fixture of Sonic back in its heyday that games can't stop using them as a formality.  With the more subtle and nuanced aspects of momentum gameplay that tend to deal more with jumping far and high to take shortcuts, I feel the opposite is true; this mechanic works just as well in 3D and may even be more applicable when you can see where you're going, but because it has been more tucked away and unseen by many players, especially when replaying the game was no longer required, Sonic Team does not see it as important to bring back.

It's easy for fans to get mad when this company constantly seems more interested in slapping more bells and whistles onto Sonic than in getting his core gameplay just right, and often that has indeed resulted in embarrassing lows.  Still, bare in mind that Sonic's core gameplay feels rather simplistic to people first approaching it; it's a quite limited moveset that usually offers little in the way of projectiles, inventory or unlockables.  When you get the hang of his speed and physics, Sonic can do a lot of things far beyond the likes of Mario, Mega Man and Kirby, but before you get there, you're still left with a character that can only do a few things, usually less than the competition.  If your main demographic is people who are playing a Sonic game for the first time, on at least some level it makes sense to make a game that feels wide rather than deep.  Depth is something that can only really be appreciated by someone who has already played a game, and is thus able to decide whether or not it is worth playing more. 

So while it's obnoxious to see how questionable Sonic's own platforming mechanics have gotten in Sonic Frontiers, they weren't pitching this game mostly at people who care about those things.  Their aim was to cast a wide net, so they made Sonic able to do a whole lot of different things that many other game characters can do; exactly how well Sonic actually does any of them is kind of an afterthought.

There is likely a way out of this, a way to implement momentum and pinball physics that actually wins over that target demographic.  Namely, I think games would have be more overt in explaining how to do such movement.  But I think Sonic Team might be afraid of scaring them off with what they might regard as ripping off the training wheels, and to be honest, at a time when so many of their games were still about Sonic charging down a narrow platform over a pit, I can see how that would be far too scary for many new players to risk.  It's just a shame that they didn't choose Frontiers as the game to embrace more emergent and experimental gameplay driven by the players' own play with the physics, because an open world potentially removes the hazards of pits from that equation.

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I know you sort of addressed this in your post but the Pokemon comparison doesn't hold for me. A casual player can't use the back up Pokemon feature because they haven't been playing Pokemon long enough to begin with, but anyone picking up a Sonic game for the first time can take advantage of in-depth movement mechanics even if they don't understand the details yet. I was doing trick jumps in Sonic Adventure of my own accord as a kid, without reading about it online or even knowing what the word momentum meant. It's something based on how ball physics work in real life, so it's something easy to intuitively understand for most people. 

It also doesn't necessarily have to make the game more complicated. In 3D, a lot of the things that make Classic Sonic harder to get a grip on melt away. You can see what's coming ahead of you and bottomless pits are way less common. You can orient the camera to see what's below you, so it should expand at which the stunts you pull off. At least, that's what it did for me in Sonic Adventure's better moments, and why I consider it a good entry despite all the stuff trying to get in the way of that.

The real reason they're gone is because Sega got too used to building games without it and now, with every new Sonic game using the last one as a base, it'd be too much work to go back and implement it while rethinking their design philosophy to be about more than just jumping in time to hit the rail or zipline in front of you.  Even in Frontiers, every platforming section is built out in the same automated, shallow way as the other games when it should be a game that gives players more freedom in tackling challenges than that.

The fanbase isn't helping anything by downplaying it's importance and defining true Sonic Spirit as reusing story tropes from other games and flashy action sequences, not the unique movement mechanics that put the series on the map. The fans can only be blamed for so much though when IMO every fanbase is stupid and misunderstands the true value of their series. Sega should have realized this on their own.

Imo, it'd be worth the effort. Games with more emergent mechanic are more popular than ever now because you can share your feats on social media which feeds back into good press. It would only benefit the series but Sonic Team is too short sighted to think that way. Their usual approach of flash in the pan gimmicks and flashy automated sequences is enough to keep the lights on, so it stays.

 

 

 

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Signalling @azooas he's going to be better at articulating the importance of momentum/inertia/physics whatever you want to call it than I could, but I'd say that it's not just about it being a Sonic staple as much as it just makes everything feel and flow better. Momentum is literally in Frontiers' code, but was blocked out. Fans have re-activated it so to speak and the game looks much more fluid to control.

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1 hour ago, Indigo Rush said:

Signalling @azooas he's going to be better at articulating the importance of momentum/inertia/physics whatever you want to call it than I could, but I'd say that it's not just about it being a Sonic staple as much as it just makes everything feel and flow better. Momentum is literally in Frontiers' code, but was blocked out. Fans have re-activated it so to speak and the game looks much more fluid to control.

Do you mean the part about jump force being capped?

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(please excuse the weird resolution this uploaded at)

Frontiers has code that lets you give Sonic momentum physics, but was dummied out. Physics mods such as this one do their best to revive it, with excellent (though slightly OP) results. It's likely they removed the ability in an attempt to better QoL for casual players (never having to worry about losing/gaining speed when exploring steep terrain) and/or to help reign in the level design (as it'd be much easier to sequence break).

Unfortunately for them, I don't think they noticed how much more fun it makes the game, nor how many more layers it adds to the experience. There's so many more options for how to interact with the terrain, now that you can build speed from going down them or ramp into the air from jumping off them. Even though it doesn't fix the vapid emptiness of the maps, it improves the game feel a hundredfold.

Not to say it's perfect, though. This mod may make Sonic a bit too fast and unruly for his own good, and may make later areas of the game incompletable. But this also isn't the be-all-end-all mod. If someone can make a version that doesn't completely remove Sonic's running and air speed caps then it'd probably be the best version of itself, and the best way to play Frontiers in general.

If the reasons I guessed are why they didn't use it, they really should've built the environments around it rather than dummying them out. That is, if that was the reason. Maybe some rogue programmer at Sonic Team was frustrated with the higher-up calls and worked it into the game while no one was looking. Or maybe it's leftovers from past Sonic games that have somehow found themselves still in the files three or four games later. We're not executives, after all, so there's no way for us to know.

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2 hours ago, azoo said:
(please excuse the weird resolution this uploaded at)

Frontiers has code that lets you give Sonic momentum physics, but was dummied out. Physics mods such as this one do their best to revive it, with excellent (though slightly OP) results. It's likely they removed the ability in an attempt to better QoL for casual players (never having to worry about losing/gaining speed when exploring steep terrain) and/or to help reign in the level design (as it'd be much easier to sequence break).

Unfortunately for them, I don't think they noticed how much more fun it makes the game, nor how many more layers it adds to the experience. There's so many more options for how to interact with the terrain, now that you can build speed from going down them or ramp into the air from jumping off them. Even though it doesn't fix the vapid emptiness of the maps, it improves the game feel a hundredfold.

Not to say it's perfect, though. This mod may make Sonic a bit too fast and unruly for his own good, and may make later areas of the game incompletable. But this also isn't the be-all-end-all mod. If someone can make a version that doesn't completely remove Sonic's running and air speed caps then it'd probably be the best version of itself, and the best way to play Frontiers in general.

If the reasons I guessed are why they didn't use it, they really should've built the environments around it rather than dummying them out. That is, if that was the reason. Maybe some rogue programmer at Sonic Team was frustrated with the higher-up calls and worked it into the game while no one was looking. Or maybe it's leftovers from past Sonic games that have somehow found themselves still in the files three or four games later. We're not executives, after all, so there's no way for us to know.

While we’re here, could modders please fix the quickstep and make drift usable everywhere?

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