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The levels made the games


nUcLeArEnVoY
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WELCOME TO CAWFEE TAWWK, I'M YA HOWST LINDA RICHMUN... our topic tonight?

There, I posted it. This topic has been whistling a'la kettle in the cavernous depths of my mind for a damn long while now...

The levels, the zones, what have you... when it comes right down to it, they really did make the games, didn't they?

What do you think of when you envision Sonic? People don't often differentiate the classics from modern day games through the shape of Sonic's body or the color of his eyes, they usually make the distinction between the levels.

The levels in the classic games had personality - people could pick their favorites, they had their own gimmicks and obstacles catered specifically for them. What's to say about the levels in Unleashed? Sure, they were breathtakingly rendered and intricate, but what PERSONALITY did they have? The obstacles were yawningly consistent throughout all of them (the same damn spring placements, the same little cannon-PWEE thingy-things, I dunno WTF).

You KNOW Emerald Hill or Hydro City when you see it, you remember the becalming island background or the fun twisty waterslides and gear-hand-boost thingy. What can you say about... Kingdom Valley? The same thing goes for Sonic Heroes, the level APPEARANCES (and this only goes for SOME of the levels) might've been a hearken back to the classics, but they lacked the gimmick, they lacked the personality.

The levels back then even had their own sets of robots for you to bust up, while now the robots are consistent throughout the game. So my theory is this... if Sonic Team were to bring back some semblance of creativity with the levels such as gimmicks and spacious, surreal backgrounds and design, would that be the Willa Wonka Golden Ticket towards a decent game? This coincides heavily with the hopes and dreams involving Project: Needlemouse.

Post away, folks, I hope this is a good topic!

Edited by nUcLeArEnVoY
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I find it more convincing that Eggman's army would be consistant across the levels, but while I LOVED Unleashed's levels, I will never deny they could have been even better with a bit of variety in Eggman robots, gimmicks etc (though at the same time I like being tested by increasingly difficult obstacle courses of the same pieces, so it's all good with me).

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I kinda agree that the 2D era levels were more alive than the new levels. I guess flashy grphics will only get you so far sega. I would definently love more uniqe levels with more interesting gimicks. I also think they should stop throwing boost panels in front of us all the time and let us go fast on our own.

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Good way to put it for the most part, NuclearEnvoy, but you forgot probably the most important part.

Multiple routes.

That is the main thing missing from the games nowadays. Back when in the Genesis days, you could find up to 5 or 6 or so different routes to finish the level in. If you look at Unleashed, how many routes can you take (and stay on)? One. And don't mention the places where if you properly press the boost at the right time; they only take you off-course for about 5 seconds and reroute you back on track as nothing more of a "hey, you did something right, here's a quick shortcut". Levels used to have places that were harder to get to than others, but all led to great amounts of reward. Sure it was hard to get up to the higher route, but in return you get to dart across an area filled with tons of potential speed (repeat: potential speed, not forced-dash-panel-speed, mind you). If you took the wrong turn, you didn't fall off into a bottomless pit never to return, either. Instead you fell down to the route below, which would be an area probably more devoted to exploration and looking at the beautiful scenery. If you happened to fall farther down, you run into the lower areas where there's more potential danger (enemies, hazards, etc.) and focuses on major platforming. But if you went down lower than THAT (a hard feat to do), you may stumble into another speedy route. And of course, if you go any lower than that, then well... there's your bottomless pit.

Of course, in order for 3D to work properly with this technique and not feel too cramped, areas like this in a 3D game should be spread out and open on the Z-axis, allowing you to have enough space to move properly without feeling like you're being shoved down a corridor in one direction (like a good 2/3s of Unleashed's 3D segments, and Sonic/Shadow's levels in SA2).

Edited by Azukara
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Good way to put it for the most part, NuclearEnvoy, but you forgot probably the most important part.

Multiple routes.

That is the main thing missing from the games nowadays. Back when in the Genesis days, you could find up to 5 or 6 or so different routes to finish the level in. If you look at Unleashed, how many routes can you take (and stay on)? One.

If there's one thing the Wii/PS2 version did right, it's this. I'll agree Unleashed 360/PS3, while it had more intricate levels, was as linear as all the other 3D Sonics, the Wii/PS2 version DID have tons of multiple routes, and they all lasted a good 20-30 seconds, if not more, just like the old ones.

If you combine the two versions of Unleashed's levels together and add in gimmicks... well, I salivate at the thought.

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I'll agree with Azukara about the levels. I think multiple paths within a level is something that can offer a lot of replayability in future games. That was something that was interesting in many of the Classics: multiple branches. The 3D games can do that and have shown in in Adventure, some SA2 levels, many Heroes levels, and some Unleashed levels. I don't think multiple paths are a huge must if the gameplay itself is addicting enough, but it can help tremendously.

Two things people must consider about the multiple paths, though, are these:

1. How much room that the levels must provide for the branches.

2. The sense of direction for players. When playing 2D games, you pretty much know where you're going despite traveling down another road as it's a side-scroller. However, for 3D games, you're looking forward, so you have to consider where to place the patches of bonuses and branches. Imagine if S3&K's level structures were exactly the same but in 3D. The experience would be awkward. You'll have to restructure the WHOLE game in order for it to fit well in a 3D environment. Also, what about the sense of direction for the player? If you put in way too many paths in a 3D game, then the level will look and feel like a maze, and the player will feel lost and won't play that level again. There must be a LIMIT of branches to balance fun, challenge, experience, and replayability in the game. Sense of direction in levels like Sonic's is crucial in its 3D games today.

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That's the thing though. Although there will be alternate routes, They will all be moving in the same direction for the most part. It's not like the stages will be one big open field (as fun as that'd be to just go adventuring in), they'd all be streamlined and moving forward, but they'll all be quite a bit more free and relaxing than a tight corridor where you hold up all the time and dodge the bombs placed in your path. The thing about classic Sonic gameplay and it's level design was that you could play it a million times, and every time you'd find something new, or it would remain feeling fresh to the gamer. Games like SA2 and Unleashed were overly linear, and forced you to go through tons of trial-and-error in order to complete the stage properly without tripping up all over the place, rendering to something that isn't fun, and just plain frustrating if you don't have the patience to fix your errors you shouldn't have to correct.

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I agree with the OP. Except, many of the 3D Sonic levels ARE memorable in my opinion. To use his own example against him, Kingdom Valley had you surfing on air currents and getting rides from eagles. Twinkle park had you bowling and go-karting, and Crazy Gadget had you switching gravity around. The only games with lackluster level design were Sonic Unleashed (a HUGE offender), Sonic Heroes, and Shadow the Hedgehog.

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I think Rush Adventure did it pretty well, 2 or 3 alternate routes, but good pacing and flow and loads of level specific gimmicks. I think alternate routes and/or level specific gimmicks are key.

Also on a strange note, I've found in 3D Sonic some of the most fun levels are the most straightforward ie City Escape, Speed Highway, Circus Park, Seaside Hill, etc. I think it's because you're not bogged down in trying to figure out where you're going as much as in levels like The Doom or the hunting stages. Even something like Lost World has almost entirely one single route but has you doing many different things and shaking it up, as does Crazy Gadget to an extent. Final Rush and Crisis City (maybe Kingdom Valley but I haven't played that) did imo the best job of alternate routes, pacing and straightforwardness. That and epic concepts doesn't hurt much. White Acropolis had a fairly open plan layout, but by making it not too complex and annoying to navigate it was much easier to bear (and I thought the end of it was pretty awesome tbh).

In short, I'd rather have many different things going on and different styles (and gimmicks) than alternate routes. But both is best. Stages like Speed Highway, Lost World, Circus Park and more are pretty linear but have a few alternate paths and make you do different things. Variety is key :) In 2D, styles of levels like Pirates Island are a good one to learn from, you do many different things and it is fresh all the way through, and provides a fairly decent challenge. And stuff in the old games like Collision Chaos and Hydrocity, of course.

Edited by Semi-colon e
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The 3D games can do that and have shown in in Adventure, some SA2 levels, many Heroes levels, and some Unleashed levels.

Examples plz. For the most part, Heroes pretty much seemed to think that "alternate routes" meant "a slightly different path (usually a grind rail) that goes the exact same direction, but is about 20 feet to the left of the normal route, which is funneled directly into the same main route after about 5 seconds." Which was a recurring problem from Sonic Advance 2 up through Sonic Rush (finally being fixed in Rush Adventure), as well.

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Examples plz. For the most part, Heroes pretty much seemed to think that "alternate routes" meant "a slightly different path (usually a grind rail) that goes the exact same direction, but is about 20 feet to the left of the normal route, which is funneled directly into the same main route after about 5 seconds." Which was a recurring problem from Sonic Advance 2 up through Sonic Rush (finally being fixed in Rush Adventure), as well.

Yeah... hardly any multiple pathways in that game. Also, the only levels in Sonic Heroes that stood out for me were the second act of the sea-side zone (jumping on turtles' backs), the second act of the jungle zone (Lake Placid scene), both haunted levels (gravity switch in first act, and the second act is the only level in the game to take place completely indoors), and the final level (platforms falling everywhere).

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^ Seaside Hill, Ocean Palace, Grand Metropolis, Bingo Highway, the level with the alligator chasing you, Rail Canyon, and Final Fortress.

There are branches in many levels, just not as many per level, and they're usually very quick.

Also on a strange note, I've found in 3D Sonic some of the most fun levels are the most straightforward ie City Escape, Speed Highway, Circus Park, Seaside Hill, etc. I think it's because you're not bogged down in trying to figure out where you're going as much as in levels like The Doom or the hunting stages. Even something like Lost World has almost entirely one single route but has you doing many different things and shaking it up, as does Crazy Gadget to an extent. Final Rush and Crisis City (maybe Kingdom Valley but I haven't played that) did imo the best job of alternate routes, pacing and straightforwardness. That and epic concepts doesn't hurt much. White Acropolis had a fairly open plan layout, but by making it not too complex and annoying to navigate it was much easier to bear (and I thought the end of it was pretty awesome tbh).

In short, I'd rather have many different things going on and different styles (and gimmicks) than alternate routes. But both is best. Stages like Speed Highway, Lost World, Circus Park and more are pretty linear but have a few alternate paths and make you do different things. Variety is key :) In 2D, styles of levels like Pirates Island are a good one to learn from, you do many different things and it is fresh all the way through, and provides a fairly decent challenge. And stuff in the old games like Collision Chaos and Hydrocity, of course.

I agree :) It doesn't matter if there are multiple routes in a level if the level itself isn't fun to play. Make the experience fun. Alternate routes can help, but like everything else in life, there's too much of a good thing. Be careful when putting in TOO many branches. It will make your level too complex and overly convoluted, and you may leave people incredibly frustrated.

Level gimmicks can be fun, too, but when the puzzle isn't too obvious and can leave millions of people stuck, then you're going to get people really P.O.'d. The Carnival Night barrel and the stir it caused is an example of how NOT to incorporate a level-based gimmick. >__<

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^ Seaside Hill, Ocean Palace, Grand Metropolis, Bingo Highway, the level with the alligator chasing you, Rail Canyon, and Final Fortress.

There are branches in many levels, just not as many per level, and they're usually very quick.

Which is precisely the problem with them. They're about 2 seconds long, so close together that they're usually on the screen at the same time, and are basically the same thing as the main route.

And I'd like to mention that I have reason to believe that Iizuka (The director of SA 1 through ShtH) was most likely responsible for the CNZ barrel.

As for City escape and the like, you spend so much time sitting there holding up, and when you aren't, all you're doing is taking the preconceived actions that the designer decided were the best. I guess you could call it "Dial a stage", similar to Mortal Kombat's "dial a combo" foolishness. Speed Highway, though, it's first section had some interesting bits, and it really picks up after the dull middle section with At Dawn.

But simply saying "multiple routes". It's not really any better to have two linear hallways instead of just one.

Edited by Phos
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Addressing the problem of "knowing which way to go on a level with multiple routes", it's simply a case of making sure the player never HAS to turn around to finish the level. This is what Unleashed Wii/PS2 did despite the routes going in wildly different directions most of the time.

For example, the wrong way to connect paths together:

+

Let's say the west and south come from the start, and both the north and east lead to the goal. If a player coming from the south decides to turn to take a different route, and goes east, it's fine, but if they choose west, they're going backwards and will get lost/confused. Lay it out like this though:

X

With the two south routes coming from the start and the two north routes leading to the goal, only the strangest most explorative player will end up making such a sharp turn to accidentally backtrack.

This is obviously a very simplified example, but this is how Unleashed kept you going the right way. Well, this and speed zippers.

Edited by JezMM
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^ Seaside Hill, Ocean Palace, Grand Metropolis, Bingo Highway, the level with the alligator chasing you, Rail Canyon, and Final Fortress.

There are branches in many levels, just not as many per level, and they're usually very quick.

I'd have to replay the levels again to assess all of them, but Rail Canyon's "this rail turns left a little bit and this rail turns right a little bit" is not an alternate pathway. My memory is hazy, but I'm pretty sure Bingo Highway was the same way, but with pinball chutes instead of grind rails.

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Too true, too true!

For me Sonic was always cool because it was unique, something..strange and different. For starters, a hedgehog..not your generic animal mascot..then he was blue..ok keep talking..a usually slow animal with super speed..SOLD!

Then of course there was those awesome surrealist levels, bright, colourful, odd, whimsical and full of personality!

People can claim Sonic Unleashed was good all they want, but to me it just wasn't Sonic. No surrealism for starters as it was just pretty much meant to be our world, then there were no gimmicks it was all just the same dash panels and (I'm an xobox kid) those "X" or "A" launchers, plus all the robots were the same...I will refuse to call Eggman's robots these days "badniks" because badniks were cool.

Levels these days (besides missing the awesome sense of Sonic's world being his own unique world - hell, they even try to push Sonic's world being our own these days >:[) they are just lacking. The classic levels had their own cool little gimmicks - chemical plant: had you on your toes by flying exceptionaly fast through all the steep paths, but then would mix it up by having you avoid water and drwoning, Hilltop zone: had those seesaw things, Casino Night zone: let you mess around with pinball machines, Marble Garden: saw you travelling about on spinning tops...I mean, CUMMON! Those things were awesome!

Levels had personality, and part of that personality was also the badniks. Penguin badniks for ice levels, octopuses and seahorses in oil ocean zone, each badnik having a unique attack pattern, it just made levels fun.

And don't get me started on dash panels these days. Without them I don't think Sonic would move fast at all these days. It seems like Sonic can't move two foot without needing a dash panel, seriously?! WTF.

But I am hopeful for Project Needlemouse, if they can bring back the surrealism, and the unique level gimmicks and badniks, then they'll be quite a few steps in the right direction of a good 2D Sonic!

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With regards to surreal vs our world, I think there should be a mixture. Surreal levels are awesome, but I can't deny that I love blazing through a location that I normally only get to experience at walking pace or in a car.

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Addressing the problem of "knowing which way to go on a level with multiple routes", it's simply a case of making sure the player never HAS to turn around to finish the level. This is what Unleashed Wii/PS2 did despite the routes going in wildly different directions most of the time.

For example, the wrong way to connect paths together:

+

Let's say the west and south come from the start, and both the north and east lead to the goal. If a player coming from the south decides to turn to take a different route, and goes east, it's fine, but if they choose west, they're going backwards and will get lost/confused. Lay it out like this though:

X

With the two south routes coming from the start and the two north routes leading to the goal, only the strangest most explorative player will end up making such a sharp turn to accidentally backtrack.

This is obviously a very simplified example, but this is how Unleashed kept you going the right way. Well, this and speed zippers.

I'm gonna have to agree with what Phos said. Two linear corridors isn't going to automatically make "alternate routes". Although I mostly approve with your idea, I don't like to think of level design consisting of nothing but one big straight line with other straight lines hooked to it. There are always gonna be some curves in the road; of course, it's a Sonic game. Just because you might not be necessarily going in the same exact direction the Goal Ring is located doesn't mean you're gonna become flat-out disoriented with where you're going. It doesn't have to be that way. Sure, I'm not saying it should have a route that makes you do a full U-turn on the level map, I'm just saying that keeping the lines straight as they intertwine makes things a little dull if you ask me.

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As said, that was a really basic example. I was just talking about how connecting points can be structured to make sure you don't accidentally backtrack down what seems to be just another route.

In the actual game these meeting points could have anything from 2 to 10 exits, all accessed in different ways, and of course there would be some junctions within other routes that lead to even more possibilities. Of course a junction can be anything from a dividing road in my example, to a simple pit that drops you down to a different area. In an ideal level (and of course, in the old games) you pass by "junctions" pretty much every 5-10 seconds.

Edited by JezMM
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Okay, that sounds much better. Of course, though, there should be routes also stacked above and below rather than just placed side by side on a field. Although now I do understand what you're saying, it makes alot more sense to me now.

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With regards to surreal vs our world, I think there should be a mixture. Surreal levels are awesome, but I can't deny that I love blazing through a location that I normally only get to experience at walking pace or in a car.

I agree. Sonic has always had a few fairly realistic ideas in levels. To make him just go through surreal levels would destroy some of the charm. Balance is key. Nonetheless, I think level specific gimmicks are more important than alternate routes. While City Escape is very linear, you're not doing the same thing all level, you have the landboarding, ramps, grinding on stairrails, running down buildings, platforming, and running away from an impossibly big truck.

I think Final Rush did alternate routes well. Most of them are brief, but there are so many of them. While it's not the best example as it's mainly grind rails, you can jump off and take random shortcuts at any time, often for extra points. I discovered one a few weeks ago that takes off a whole minute of the level. And the homing attack on the vertical rails adds a physics bonus. Jump off at the top and go super high to take more shortcuts or get more bonuses.

Also the last section of Speed Highway has at least 5 different ways to get to the end even if they are slight diversions. I still prefer the first half though as it's more energetic and "badass."

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I agree. Sonic has always had a few fairly realistic ideas in levels. To make him just go through surreal levels would destroy some of the charm. Balance is key. Nonetheless, I think level specific gimmicks are more important than alternate routes. While City Escape is very linear, you're not doing the same thing all level, you have the landboarding, ramps, grinding on stairrails, running down buildings, platforming, and running away from an impossibly big truck.

I think Final Rush did alternate routes well. Most of them are brief, but there are so many of them. While it's not the best example as it's mainly grind rails, you can jump off and take random shortcuts at any time, often for extra points. I discovered one a few weeks ago that takes off a whole minute of the level. And the homing attack on the vertical rails adds a physics bonus. Jump off at the top and go super high to take more shortcuts or get more bonuses.

Also the last section of Speed Highway has at least 5 different ways to get to the end even if they are slight diversions. I still prefer the first half though as it's more energetic and "badass."

In both categories you listed, I would say that the stages should be blended.

I think that in order to make a proper-looking Sonic game, instead of having one surreal level and one realistic level, you have to blend surrealism and realism into one. Sort of like in this Sonic Chronicles advertisement: About 54 seconds in, you see a semi-realistic GHZ. It looks detailed, fresh and realistic, yet everything about the landscape is blocky and cubicle and checkered, like the old games. I think that it's just plain beautiful, and Sega should stick with that style in the games. Because really, I don't care for too much surrealism, but neither do I like the direction Unleashed took all that much; I'd rather see them take both and make a fusion.

As for level design, I say that there should be a fusion of the first and last part of Speed Highway for a solid-grounded level design. Imagine At Dawn as the base for the level: explorable, open, multiple paths and platforming. Then there could be strips of highways branching off the main roads and into the sky (over the stage) like from part I, and skyscrapers and buildings fuse together with the roads as they swerve around each other, making extra exploration and platforming sections in the high routes, but still containing several branching road bits. So, if you fall from the highway strips, you just fall back down to the open-fielded At-Dawn-type section of the level, and all routes would all eventually lead to the same end or form with another route that aids you to the end. Having levels like this sound like a blast, but sadly we've never seen a 3D Sonic game have as much depth as this.

Edited by Azukara
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