View Full Version : He's Blue (da ba dee): Sonic 1, Act-by-Act

07-23-2014, 12:41 AM
Welcome! This is the first post for the Sonic 1 anatomy. It's an important game, and in this post I explain a lot of why I think looking at its design is important, but if you want to just read about each level, here's a handy table of contents for you:

Introduction (this post)
Green Hill Zone Act 1 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1813766&postcount=8)
Secret Zone 1 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1814960&postcount=20)
Green Hill Zone Act 2 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1817873&postcount=24)
Green Hill Zone Act 3 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1823286&postcount=31)
Secret Zone 2 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1830888&postcount=32)
Marble Zone Act 1 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1831884&postcount=35)
Marble Zone Act 2 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1855211&postcount=45)
Marble Zone Act 3 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1910444&postcount=50)
Secret Zone 3 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1910473&postcount=52)
Spring Yard Act 1 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1935386&postcount=61)
Spring Yard Act 2 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1976357&postcount=62)
Spring Yard Act 3 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1976357&postcount=71)
Secret Zone 4 (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1976357&postcount=75)
Labyrinth Zone Act 1, (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1976357&postcount=78) split in two parts (http://www.talking-time.net/showpost.php?p=1976357&postcount=79)

Introduction: So Why Sonic Anyway?

If you look at a lot of the games that have gotten anatomy coverage, they've tended to be games that are pretty linear. Megaman, Mario, Kid Icarus, the Castlevanias, the Donkey Kongs? All of them have levels that pretty much only have one main route through them, with alternate routes usually being level skips or hidden bonus areas. That's fair -- they lend themselves well to a screen-by-screen analysis since you usually can't divert from the path that the level designers intended. Not by much, at least.

Certainly that's less true for Zelda and Metroid, but especially in Metroid's case not only does there appear to be an intended sequence, but a lot of the alternate routes you can take are dead ends or traps that sometimes lead to extra power-ups. Specific power-ups and abilities are needed to progress through the game though, so there's still a mostly-canonical sequence to them even if it's more obscure.

What makes Sonic interesting to me as a franchise is that it usually doesn't have a single canonical route through a level, except maybe for the idea of speedrunning. Most levels branch out in multiple routes, usually converging on a single point at the end of each level, and with only a few kinda-obscure counterexamples you are almost always moving to the right to get to the end of a level. It's possible to get stuck in some places but you're almost never able to get lost -- heading up and right will usually get you closer to where you want to be if there's more than one apparent route.

Generally when I see PC platforming games contemporary to Sonic (and before it came out as well), they treat their levels a little more like dungeons. There's an exit somewhere, but often there are lots of trinkets/keys to collect or several dead-ends within the layout. Jill of the Jungle is such a game, and while it has larger, more elaborate levels than what you might see in Mario at the time, it also is much, much more labyrinthine. That's not to mean bad, but certainly a different idea from what Sonic goes for.

Having said that, I think one of the reasons Sonic is pretty popular in a lot of the world (and not just in the US where it was sold as the thing that defined the 1990s to its children) is because it seems to derive some of its ideas from these labyrinthine levels. It packages them up in a way that makes them more digestible to someone accustomed to platformers on console games, because of this inability to get lost. Instead, it gives players a way to return to levels they've played and try to explore them in different ways. It's a nice strategy to making the game a little more immediately replayable without getting overly dull. Since Sonic has only a little over half as many levels as the first Mario (which, admittedly, also repeated layouts in a few places) it's one of the ways the game maintains its freshness.

At the very least, Sonic was pretty influential for game developers on platforms like the Amiga. Many games pushed for Sonic-like fast movement but still mixed the sort of nonlinear design common in computer games at the time with it. It tends not to work as well, and usually those games aren't as well regarded. Zool is an excellent example of this: in order to reach the end of a level, you have to collect something like 100 candy-items and then reach a goal.

Now despite the fact that the first Sonic game was very clearly trying to branch away from the design of platformers like Mario, you can still see a large amount of influence from the design of games like it as it goes on, and especially compared to the later Sonic games. If any of the Sonics will work well as an Anatomy-style series, it's going to be the first one. (Trust me, you'll see.) I figure this sort of mish-mash of styles comes from the developers trying to gradually introduce the mechanics that would go on to make Sonic what it is, being a little conservative with techniques here and there to make at least some of the levels appealing even if not all of their ideas work at once. In that sense it's a very exploratory game.

On the other hand it's that sort of conservatism that gives us Marble Zone, and I'm one of like 3 people I know who actually like that stage, so eh.

Ultimately Sonic 1 represents a significant turning point in game design, really marking the shift away from game styles common in the NES era and pushing toward something that was maybe a little less well-tuned but also a little friendlier and more forgiving. It was, and arguably still is, a very culturally important game.

Next time: GHZ1

07-23-2014, 12:46 AM
This promises to be an interesting read.

(Though, you can't edit your thread title, so you kinda screwed yourself there by putting "[Newest Post: Intro]" in it. Oh well.)

07-23-2014, 01:05 AM
I've said so before plenty I'm sure, but I'm always surprised nobody else ever seems to get behind me on citing Psycho Fox as massive influence on the Sonic games. Animal mascot character, crazy amounts of inertia in the movement physics, the whole high road/low road take on branching paths through any given level (http://www.smspower.org/maxim/Maps/PsychoFox)... but nobody's ever willing to give it the time of day.

07-23-2014, 01:15 AM
I've said so before plenty I'm sure, but I'm always surprised nobody else ever seems to get behind me on citing Psycho Fox as massive influence on the Sonic games. Animal mascot character, crazy amounts of inertia in the movement physics, the whole high road/low road take on branching paths through any given level (http://www.smspower.org/maxim/Maps/PsychoFox)... but nobody's ever willing to give it the time of day.

I guess I can see it, maybe? But we're talking cave paintings against the Sistine Chapel ceiling here.

Edit: Blinkpen (http://www.talking-time.net/showthread.php?t=12681) did a proto version of this a while back. Looking forward to reading this! I'd suggest PMing a mod and asking them to change your thread title to remove the "Latest Post" thing, since you can't change it. Like someone already pointed out, making this (and me) completely redundant.

07-23-2014, 01:29 AM
Having said that, I think one of the reasons Sonic is pretty popular in a lot of the world (and not just in the US where it was sold as the thing that defined the 1990s to its children) is because it seems to derive some of its ideas from these labyrinthine levels. It packages them up in a way that makes them more digestible to someone accustomed to platformers on console games, because of this inability to get lost. Instead, it gives players a way to return to levels they've played and try to explore them in different ways. It's a nice strategy to making the game a little more immediately replayable without getting overly dull. Since Sonic has only a little over half as many levels as the first Mario (which, admittedly, also repeated layouts in a few places) it's one of the ways the game maintains its freshness.

I think you make some very interesting points, including about the PC platformers in the earlier paragraph I didn't quote. I could quote it. I could go back and do it right now. But I won't. Stubborn, bloody-minded me. Oh well.

I had never thought of the Apogee/Epic games in relation to Sonic before, with the exception of the original Jazz Jackrabbit which is a psychotic mishmash of Sonic, Mario and Megaman; though his pounding feet and ludicrous speed call the blue hedgehog to mind instantly.

I also think Sonic succeeded and got his way into the public consciousness as not just an alternative to Mario aesthetically, but it's almost the opposite of Mario to play, too. The whole "drop your rings" system is a stroke of genius; it makes the game extremely easy to play, extremely forgiving of mistakes. Sonic isn't necessarily a joke difficulty-wise, but compared with Mario it's breezy and pacey. Which is good!

At the very least, Sonic was pretty influential for game developers on platforms like the Amiga. Many games pushed for Sonic-like fast movement but still mixed the sort of nonlinear design common in computer games at the time with it. It tends not to work as well, and usually those games aren't as well regarded. Zool is an excellent example of this: in order to reach the end of a level, you have to collect something like 100 candy-items and then reach a goal.

Superfrog too! You need to collect 45 coins to exit. The issue with games like Zool and Superfrog is that there's no accumulation of speed; you press right and you're immediately going like the clappers. There's also Superfrog's flying cape, Zool's throwing gumballs, wall climbing etc. All of these muddy the water; another reason Sonic is so successful is that literally anyone can play it. It's no surprise Sonic was the first game I ever played (Master System, but same principle). You move and jump, that's it. Every button does the same thing! When you're in a ball, you're effectively invincible. It's so, so easy to learn to play. Mastering it comes from rolling, understanding the game's physics and momentum. It's enduring. Very, very enduring.

On the other hand it's that sort of conservatism that gives us Marble Zone, and I'm one of like 3 people I know who actually like that stage, so eh.

Who doesn't like the Marble Zone!? Bare-knuckle fight, multi-storey car park, burning bin, circle of blokes. Now.

I could drone the fuck on about the Sonic games endlessly. So I probably will. Cheers.

07-23-2014, 08:53 AM
Generally when I see PC platforming games contemporary to Sonic (and before it came out as well), they treat their levels a little more like dungeons. There's an exit somewhere, but often there are lots of trinkets/keys to collect or several dead-ends within the layout. Jill of the Jungle is such a game, and while it has larger, more elaborate levels than what you might see in Mario at the time, it also is much, much more labyrinthine. That's not to mean bad, but certainly a different idea from what Sonic goes for.

Never thought of it before, but this seems exactly right. Open level platformers have mostly remained obscure over here while they made up a good bulk of UK microcomputer games. Reconfiguring the open level into a series of linear obstacle courses gives it the polish* of a early console game but maintains the appeal the open level games had overseas. Even crazier is that I bet it was an entirely unintentional decision that's helped maintain Sonic's popularity globally. Good stuff. Really looking forward to this series.

*Yes I am bias toward console/US games, at least ones from the 80s and 90s. And no, it's not nostalgia - I didn't play the European games on the original hardware, but I certainly played a bunch of PC/console ports of them growing up.

07-23-2014, 03:31 PM
Excellent intro post, really looking forward to this.

08-04-2014, 12:17 AM
OK then, it's been long enough. Let's start getting to some actual level discussion.

Part 1: Green Hill Zone Act 1, or, Bill O'Reilly's Nightmare


Our first view of GHZ is in the background of the Title Screen. While the background scrolls, Sonic pops out, acting in a way that mixes "smug" with "vaguely cute".

Which is hardly unique to Sonic. Despite supposedly launching an entire era's worth of overly cool characters, his roots are more in Felix the Cat and the Pink Panther aesthetically. Somewhere between smug and goofy, between elegant and absurd, lies Sonic. You will not see a skateboard in this game. You will not see sunglasses. You will not see any backwards baseball caps.

I've seen a few places calling Sonic -- as a character -- a relic of 90s, which is partly true, since Sega really did try to phase him out during the Saturn years the same way they phased out Alex Kidd after the Master System. Where I take exception is when people trot out comparisons to The Simpsons' obnoxiously cool joke character Poochie (http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/Poochie). Poochie's point as a character was that he was designed by committee. Sonic wasn't so much, mostly being designed by one guy at Sega, the underappreciated Naoto Ohshima, who would go on to be the lead designer for Sonic CD and later worked on such forgotten games as Blinx: The Time Sweeper. Really, the "cool mascot cartoon character" had been in vogue for at LEAST as long as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, which started in 1987 and thus predates Sonic by several years. Cowabunga, dudes!

If anything, Sonic cleverly draws a line between late 80s / early 90s American cartoons and the styles of the 50s and 60s with Felix and Pink Panther. If I told you about a "smug anthropomorphic animal who uses quick wits to defeat his evil scientist nemesis", well, I'd be as likely describing the old 50s Felix cartoon show, with his Magical Bag of Tricks.


Color him blue, then add some spikes, and presto! It's Kirby Sonic! ORIGINAL FAN CHARACTER DO NOT STEAL.

Of course, Felix actually predates the 50s by a few decades, having been in several silent-era black and white cartoons before this. Level art in Sonic tends to base itself on styles common to posters from the 1920s, so it's a 1920s character in a 1920s poster world. It works really well, visually.

Keep in mind that all of this is talking from the perspective of this game and the rest of the series in the 90s. Discussing the comics and cartoons is something different entirely, and way out of the scope of an anatomy post, since those seem to be much more responsible for how Sonic is remembered than the actual games, which lacked much direct characterization.

You may also notice that you don't see "PRESS START BUTTON" in your copy of the game. That text is actually hiding in your cartridge, but never showed up due to an error in the way ram is freed up before the title screen start. Changing a few lines of code in the game to make sure some RAM filled in from the two screens before it -- the classic SEGA screen and the SONIC TEAM PRESENTS one following it -- gets properly deleted causes it to show up. The screen doesn't quite look right without it (too much empty space), so I went ahead and changed that. Otherwise the game is indistinguishable from the Japanese version of the game, which came out a little later and has a few extra graphical effects in the backgrounds of most levels.

Anyway, now to the level itself.

The best map of GHZ 1 is probably found at Zone 0, so you should go there (http://www.soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-ghz-act1map.png) if you want to get a better idea of how the stage all fits together.


It starts out with an open screen, where the only direction to move is right. As I mentioned a bit in the introduction it's nearly impossible to get lost in this game since you're almost always supposed to be heading to the right to get where you need to go.

You also have enough space here to understand how Sonic builds up his momentum. Sonic doesn't have a run button, so giving him about a screen's distance before anything happens lets the player discover this fairly safely, and by the time Sonic goes past the part of the level shown in that first screen, he's right about at his standard top speed.


After a bit you come to the first three rings in the stage. You'd have to jump to get them. The rings rotate in a way similar to how coins do in Mario games, a decent shorthand for the fact that they too are a helpful collectible item. They are otherwise stationary, though, so it's not hard to tell they don't represent a threat to Sonic.


However, right past those rings is the first Motobug, here the Sonic equivalent of the first SMB 1-1 goomba. He is positioned in such a way that a player that has not yet learned to jump will have to in order to not die; touching him while running without having any rings causes Sonic to die. In the event that Sonic jumped through those rings, however, he only gets knocked back and scatters the rings around instead.

(It's good philosophy to kill off an inexperienced player as quickly as possible in a game with limited lives like this. The player doesn't lose too much progress to that mistake, and can easily reset and have a full life count to try again. Sonic doesn't perfectly hold to this philosophy, as we'll see later -- the first crushing death opportunities won't be for several stages -- but does a decent job here.)

The latter case of damage while holding rings is particularly interesting. As long as Sonic has at least one ring, he can't die from most damage. There are exceptions -- squashing, falling off the level, and drowning are immediate death situations for Sonic, even in newer games. But in the case of being knocked back like this, Sonic also will probably scatter a few rings in the direction he was hit, making them easy to recover. As long as Sonic has a few rings, it's easy to regain at least 2-3 in the event of getting hit. This is the first significant change from Mario, since Mario tended to teach the player new mechanics by having invincibility stars in stages where a new mechanic was introduced; since almost nothing is immediately fatal in Sonic it's a game that's much more friendly to new players, and makes it a little easier to make progress in unfamiliar levels. But it maintains a high skill ceiling by encouraging the player not to take too much damage -- I'll continue to go into detail on this in other posts, especially since the biggest example of this is in accessing the Special Zone, which deserves its own such post.


If you ignored the rings and jumped over the motobug, you'll find yourself approaching a bridge with a chomping fish, aptly named Chopper. He's timed so that if you want to keep moving forward you'll have to grab those rings by jumping over him. If you haven't yet grabbed any rings, the game makes it really hard for you to not do this, and then throws a few more rings at you on a downhill slope that curves upward. These are all nearly unmissable.


After that are two crab robots, Crabmeats, perched on narrow ledges. If you're still keeping a brisk pace as Sonic you might wind up hitting one from the side instead of from the top. This again differentiates Sonic from Mario -- Sonic is not forced to hit enemies from above in order to damage them successfully.

After the crabs, Sonic has to hop over a couple awkwardly-placed rocks and avoid another chopper bridge. Two bee-like buzzbombers pass overhead and fire a projectile but are easily avoided (they are generally a very passive hazard in this stage and mostly only exist as decoration or specifically to be destroyed). It is at this point the level finally begins to open up.


This is the first spring in Sonic. Springs allow Sonic to go much higher than he can by jumping, but leave him vulnerable to damage in the process as he isn't in his rolling state when hit by a spring.

This spring hints at the canonical route through the stage, moving up and to the right. You don't need to take the spring to reach it, as there is a collapsing platform that Sonic can reach easily if he is still moving right while jumping over that spring. In the event that he misses, though, he goes to an interesting lower section of the level, that introduces spikes.


The closer set of spikes is a bit to the left of that spring, past what is an uphill descent from that side of the level. These spikes surround another spring that takes Sonic back to where he was before he fell, and represent the first major technical challenge Sonic poses to players. Hitting the spring takes you back before you missed your previous jump, but this one is not so forgiving.


Overshooting the jump will lead Sonic into the spikes, and the knockback is just enough to hit the spikes on the other side of the spring. This is instant death as there is no mercy invincibility from spikes. In fact, spikes are so serious that there is a specific sound effect just for spike death. The lesson is clear: don't mess with spikes. Implicit -- spikes are far more common in lower levels.


Indeed, past that spike trap is another similar trap that's slightly less ornery due to the fact that you can jump over the whole thing and continue right. The spring isn't super important here and only gives Sonic access to a few more rings and may as well be avoided.


And then more spikes. These spikes are again placed so perniciously that hitting one will knock you fatally into one of the other sets. If it wasn't clear already, jumping over these lower-level pits is usually a better idea than falling into them if you can help it.


...Or is it? These lower routes tend to lead Sonic to a few extra rewards. In this case these monitors provide together 30 rings and temporary invincibility. Invincibility is a big deal in Sonic, since, again, it isn't generally used in the process of teaching the player new hazards; it's a sign that you can rock out at top speed for a little while and ignore hazards. Spikes, lava, and enemies all pose no threat while encircled by those stars.


This makes it rather odd that rejoining the canonical path here is nearly forced by yet another set of spikes; the temptation would be to run across the spikes, now harmless due to the invincibility, to see what else might be on the lower route. It turns out that nothing but death awaits Sonic past these spikes, as touching the bottom of the level is always fatal. As you can see here, though, the first set of spikes is slightly lower than the others to make running across all of them impossible. In fact, it's hard to land onto these spikes at all, and because of the lowering of the first spikes the game is trying very hard to get you to jump up to the top path. It's possible to land on or past the other spikes in this set, but very hard, requiring a very light tap of the jump button to do so. Basically. the game is doing about as much as it can to discourage trying to run past those spikes given your newfound sparkle powers.


Now, going back to where that first spring was, taking the upper path sends you across a few collapsing walkways, easy to identify due to looking vaguely like fingers, and not being a major hazard here as they drop Sonic to the lower level. Then you reach the point in the picture above, showing off the first lamppost, which serves as a checkpoint. A bad place for it, in my opinion, rather than before the spike pit, since the fact that it serves as a checkpoint isn't obvious until you die. Putting it on a route reachable only accessible from bypassing the most dangerous trap so far makes that lesson harder to learn. Nothing to the right of this checkpoint is as fatal as those spikes, so it seems more like a cruel joke than a useful object.

The checkpoint also is right by platforms leading away from what I consider to still be the canonical route through the level. The platforms move, and Sonic can take them up to a super ring.


From here are 3 platforms, stationary, that fall under Sonic's weight. They aren't distinguishable from the other platforms other than the fact that they don't move at all. There are some stationary platforms that support Sonic's weight, but in general don't expect most of them to be that way. No moving platforms collapse.


They lead to this shield, on top of the first loop of the game. You'll run through it on the canonical path, but here you simply go on top. Most loops in this level have power-ups like these. Shields work almost exactly like rings, in that Sonic loses a shield when he gets hit by something that would cause him to lose rings, but when the shield is gone it cannot be recovered. However, no rings are lost. It's not interesting based on anything we've seen so far in the stage, though it might have been handy for some of those spikes in the spike pit.

From here there are more platforms moving upward, leading to two branching paths.


The lower path has a series of rings and also has Sonic be tormented by a bunch of chameleon homing missiles, called Newtrons. At the end of this path is a tube that leads Sonic to the bottom of the stage. He runs past a few stationary projectile-firing newtrons, can grab a few more rings while running past a waterfall, has to hop some spikes, and then after hopping past another crabmeat reaches the level end.


Riding a few more platforms up and across takes Sonic to another series of rings, and then to a series of falling platforms.


Ultimately it leads you to this moving platform which hovers over a pile of rings. The canonical route through the level leads through a tube that shoots you up into those rings, below this platform. Since you can't grab most of the rings even from this higher vantage point, the extra time taken to get to this point (not to mention the technical skill expected of the player to do so, relative to it being the first stage of the game) makes it feel rather pointless.

I don't think the game expected you to take this route on your first play of the game at all, and if you're trying to push right you'll miss the first platforms that eventually lead you up here completely (the ones near that first checkpoint). Now, if you've played the Sonic 1 for Master System or Game Gear you realize that it had chaos emeralds out in the playing field rather than hidden away in special stages as became the established norm for Sonic (including this stage).

Sonic 1 here has 6 chaos emeralds, which so happens to be the same number of zones in the game. Sonic 1 for master system must have been based on early concepts and sketches for Sonic (and in particular, the later level Labyrinth on the Master System looks a lot like early screenshots of its Genesis brethren). It stands to reason that parts of levels were planned out to hold these emeralds.

This extended side-trip makes much more sense if you assume that this detour was supposed to lead to a chaos emerald. Otherwise it's a lot of work for basically no reward. I wouldn't spend so much time even bothering to talk about this except for the fact that I cannot find any justification for this detour.

It also would explain why the path with all the newtrons exists -- it looks like the "correct" 'path through the level but is designed to deter players from taking it -- it's just as hazardous without much reward otherwise. Neither of these routes establishes itself as valuable to the level design from an instruction standpoint, and neither offers a reward quite on the order of the 30 rings and invincibility from the spike pit detour.

Without the emerald they feel pointless, and given how much more satisfying the canonical route through the level is, are hard to defend. I'm surprised they were even kept if that was their original purpose, rather than removed in order to make the level more compact.



Back to this part of the level with the checkpoint again, we just keep moving to the right. Finally -- the route through the level that everyone actually takes!


After a small slope downward, we go around the loop instead. Loops are the first really momentum-based challenge we've seen so far: Sonic has to be going at a certain speed in order to get around them, as otherwise he will stall out and have to backtrack to regain that speed. Getting around them is easy if you give yourself enough space, since all you need to do is hold right.


Now it gets interesting. Though the newtron path above led to a tunnel, this route leads to a tunnel section that's effectively twice as long. Going through it forces Sonic into his rolling state, which alters his physics and controls but gives him (as you see when travelling through it) really high speed on some sloped surfaces.

You can also roll by pressing the down button. Later on, especially in the last few levels, rolling manually will be a really important part of gaining speed to reach certain routes and also to avoid some traps. While rolling, though, Sonic loses a lot of maneuverability in his jump, and is almost completely fixed at his current momentum. Sonic can't be stopped from rolling by going into a jump, even if you're holding the left button. However, he does uncurl from the roll when he lands, returning him to his normal control state.

You'll notice between the two tunnel sections that there is another checkpoint. This one is bullshit used to cover up a bug in the programming of the level -- if you roll through the pipes TOO quickly, the level can't keep up with you and you hit the bottom. If you look at the Zone 0 map, the stage gets taller and deeper as it goes on, and that changes dynamically. But reaching the bottom of the screen at any point where it changes counts to the game as death. Oops!

http://youtu.be/2kYHkMLyCp0 This is a video of me pulling off that exact bug. It's obnoxious. Dying here will restart you at the checkpoint you just passed. Probably the biggest weak point in this level is the use of these checkpoints.

From here you get launched across a ramp that leads you to the big collection of rings seen from the platform on the upper route. Odds are that in the process Sonic will plow through one of a few buzzbombers placed between the ramp and the rings. What's interesting is that he will do it from beneath, the first time the game forces a Mario player to understand that, yes, actually, you can hit enemies from any direction, as long as you're spinning/jumping.

After this is a recapitulation of what you saw before -- more buzzbombers, another chopper bridge, and another super ring power up on a platform just like near the start of the stage (in fact the level chunk is completely identical), with one last moving platform to the bottom of the stage.


So now we are at the end of the level, and there is the signpost, the universal indicator that the Sonic level is over, and in almost all cases a sign of having reached the rightmost part of the stage (the only notable exceptions coming to mind are the irritating Sonic 2 Master System / Game Gear and the labyrinthine Knuckles Chaotix, neither of which held too strongly to standard Sonic design ethos in general anyway). If you've preserved your momentum carefully on reaching this point, you can jump in certain places and hit point bonus markers that give you extra points.


In addition, collecting more than 50 rings provides access to the Special Stage, the place to pick up chaos emeralds and continues.

One of the reasons I call the route that goes through the loop 'canonical' is because of the way the point totals work in this game. Completing a level within 30 seconds gives 50,000 points, within 45 seconds gives 10,000, and within a minute gives 5,000. Lower times give other bonuses, but the important point is that unlike in many other games where time is a direct function of how many seconds are left in the level timer, here it's a gated function. Getting the full time bonus, a 'perfect score' in a sense, requires beating the level in under 30 seconds, which is feasible only from the route that goes through that loop -- waiting for the platforms simply takes too long. Points may only be for show, but the pride of a sub-30 second completion is still hard to pass on.

Thus experienced players will find that the upper routes are even less rewarding simply because of the fact that they get in the way of a speedy finish and offer no other rewards. The ring bonus gives 100 points per ring held at the end of the stage, but no level has anywhere near the 500 rings necessary to make hardcore ring collecting a worthwhile alternative to speedy finishes. (Sonic 2 changed this -- collecting all the rings in stage and holding onto them nets a special 'perfect' bonus worth that same 50,000 points. Not only is that good enough for an extra life, but finishing a level with more than 10,000 points in Sonic 2 nets you a continue. It's just borderline impossible to do, though.)

Anyway, that's Act 1 of Green Hill Zone. It's got a lot to show off in a relatively short amount of time and space, and certainly sets the tone for a lot of what to expect in the future. And for a first level, there are some places where it really doesn't fuck around. Mostly a really good one, minus that stupid bug in the pipes, and the rather useless alternate paths.

Red Silvers
08-04-2014, 12:28 AM
That was awesome. Keep it up!

08-04-2014, 12:55 AM
Hotcha. The wait was worth it.

08-04-2014, 01:02 AM
I should note that if you have the recent 3DS or android/ios ports of the game then the issue with dying at the end of the tunnel is fixed; the screen scrolling is no longer fatal to sonic and you can thus go a little faster through that part of the stage. As a result, I always have spin dash turned on in the 3DS version, though actually using the spin dash in Sonic 1 feels like reading the sparknotes version of a Shakespeare play

08-04-2014, 01:26 AM
Death by getting bounced from spikes onto other spikes only happens in the earliest versions of the game. It was considered a bug and fixed in cartridge revisions.

08-04-2014, 08:12 AM
Death by getting bounced from spikes onto other spikes only happens in the earliest versions of the game. It was considered a bug and fixed in cartridge revisions.

I did not know this! Huh!

08-04-2014, 09:05 AM
I might have imagined this, but in Mega Collection, I think there's some kind of button combination you can push to play the various revisions of Sonic 1.

08-04-2014, 10:33 AM
I did not know this! Huh!

The only versions of the game where they changed this were actually in Sonic Mega Collection (where the Sonic 1 rom was effectively hacked to do this) and I think Sonic Jam (which was built as a port since the Saturn had no hope of efficient Genesis emulation). The behavior was also only changed in Sonic 2 partway through development. No cartridge release of Sonic 1 acts like that; they all have fatal spikes. Considering that in a lot of contemporary games to Sonic, spikes are instant death, it seems like its intended behavior. Especially since, again, spike death is its own special sound effect.


EDIT: Another thing I should probably point out (and have now edited into the article itself), is that most spikes in the pit are positioned in such a way that your knockback will land Sonic on one of the other sets of spikes almost every time. If they wanted there to be mercy invincibility between spikes, they probably would have spaced them out a little farther; the placement of the spikes makes it clear that this was intended behavior or a bug that the developers wanted to keep in. An example of a similar bug/oversight that became a feature was Sonic 3's final boss, which damages even the otherwise invulnerable Super Sonic; from the way it's coded, it looks a bit like a bug that was left in because, hey, why not make the final boss a little harder than everything else?

Red Silvers
08-04-2014, 05:27 PM
I hope this series expands to Sonic 2 and 3&K as well.

08-04-2014, 07:13 PM
I might! But both those games tend to have a lot more elaborate layouts. By the time I get to Star Light and Scrap Brain I'll see how much work I end up putting in (both of those levels have pretty elaborate layouts) and if it's not too bad I might keep going. I think that if I do more, I'd actually go with Sonic CD first. It may have gigantic levels, but out of all the games probably plays closest to this game so it makes a natural jumping-off point. Either that or maybe the Master System version of the game.


Oh, and y'all know how in that post I mentioned a bit about discussing the details of Sonic as a character was out of scope for this anatomy series? Well, almost as if on cue, earlier today Zolani Stewart (@fengxii on twitter, cool guy, worth following) posted an article on Sonic as a character that's pretty in-depth. Absolutely recommended, and probably the first time that a games tabloid has written about Sonic where the focus isn't about his penis.


08-05-2014, 09:14 AM
Actually, I wouldn't mind seeing Sonic CD next, since I've never been able to get into that game despite liking all the other Sonic games of that era. Maybe seeing the levels broken down would show me why people seem to love that game so much.

Anyway, this is really good so far. Keep it up!

08-05-2014, 07:43 PM
Great start! I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.

08-06-2014, 12:31 AM
Part 2: Secret Zone 1, Or, The Post In Which I Explain Why Sonic Was So Popular

Turn around
Turn around
There's a thing there that can be found
-- John Linnell, from Turn Around (Apollo 18)

As always, a high-level view is available at the wonderful Zone0. [png]


The secret zone sees Sonic in something along the lines of Cameltry. Sonic's jumping has been significantly nerfed, and now all jumps he makes have great height; there is no tapping here. Most of the control for Sonic needs to be done with using only left and right to control him, because jumps can fling Sonic directly into hazards' way for the careless player. Even I can sometimes have trouble with these stages because of the way the jump works. There's an element of fortune to these stages not seen in the rest of the game, almost like a roulette wheel or The Price Is Right's Plinko board: physics that you have some rough control over but are still mostly at the mercy of.

Most of the stage's layout is of blocks and wheels that work no different from platforms, though due to the rotation can only provide a perch for Sonic for a short time before he rolls off. Along with these, there are a few other blocks that mostly serve as annoyances and obstacles: bumper blocks, denoted with a star in their center, which bounce Sonic away when he hits them and can sometimes be used to knock Sonic away from more perilous parts of the stage; speed control blocks, marked with "up" and "down" which change the rotation of the stage with each touch (and eventually changing an up"block to down and vice-versa), where hitting a few up blocks can make the stage incredibly difficult to navigate; and reverse blocks which reverse the rotation of the special stage and can lead to Sonic winding up going in exactly the opposite direction of where he should go.

There are also the terribly-mislabeled GOAL spheres, which kick Sonic from the secret zone on contact. They represent the only true hazard in the secret zone, and as there are no damaging obstacles or time limits in it, without them Sonic would be able to spend virtually unlimited time in the special stage in order to collect rings and lives. A far more accurate 4-letter word for their function would be EXIT -- there is no advantage to seeking them out, and even if they represented the only way to leave the special stage it would behoove Sonic to grab all the rings before touching one, as 50 rings gains a continue (more on that later) and 100 rings an extra life, just like in the regular game. It's frustrating they weren't labeled EXIT spheres since there's more than enough room on them to fit that instead of GOAL.

Compounding the frustration from these goal spheres, they also represent the bad exit from the secret zone; Sonic's true goal is to collect the chaos emerald somewhere in each stage, generally near the "end" of it. There are 6 stages in total, each with a different emerald, and collecting them all is necessary for the game's good ending. Given that the special stage only shows up in act 1 or act 2 through the first 5 zones, that makes 10 chances to collect all the emeralds -- only allowing for the possibility of 4 failures over the course of the entire game. Combined with how different the controls are from the rest of the game (or at least how the game wants you to approach controlling Sonic through the stage), getting all six emeralds is no small feat.

That's assuming that you even get access to it in the first place. Access to the secret zone requires you to have collected 50 rings and held on to them at the end of the level. This is what I meant by the special stages addding another layer to the skill ceiling in this game: not only should you be trying to get through levels quickly, it's just as important to get through them without getting hit if you want the good ending. Like a few games from the time, I don't think they expected you to get the good ending on your first runthrough, but instead only get it after beating it once or twice at least.

Now, as I said in the previous update, I think for a lot of the game's development that the chaos emeralds were not found in the special stages at all, and were instead hiding out in certain normal stages in the game to be picked up through taking less obvious and secret routes. It's not a bad idea, but not hard to see why they changed it: the game certainly encourages speedrunning, and there isn't a separate time attack mode for people who want to just speed through the levels rather than go for completion. Placing them in the special stages makes speedrunning, 100% completion, and no-hit playthroughs all compatible with each other; a game that anyone can beat, but that requires a lot of dedication to truly master due to having so many ways in which to express that mastery. If you were to ask me what the essence of Sonic is as a game, why I continue to play Sonic games, I'd say that it's this. When a game lines up all these things together, it's something that I can spend time starting into without being frustrated and then willing to return to in order to improve my performance.

I should also note that even without the emeralds in the secret zone, there's still a purpose to it: as mentioned previously, collecting 50 rings inside of it is the only way to earn continues for Sonic. Continues aren't quite as nice as extra lives but can be crucial in a pinch: if Sonic uses up all his lives, he dips into his continue reserve instead. Continues start off as though Sonic had begun the game again, though saving his current stage progress and his emerald count; his score is wiped and his lives count is reset back to 3 like at the game start. He also restarts at the beginning of whatever stage he is on, rather than the last checkpoint he touched. While each continue implies 3 lives, they're not quite interchangeable on account of that fact, though there are several stages in which being able to regroup back at the start of the stage after a few tries is definitely handy.

The manual also shows that the special stage was supposed to have 1-up spheres in them, which I could never find when I played this game as a kid. Thanks to the power of the internet it's clear that these do not actually exist in any of the stages, but do exist in the game's code. To me that's just more evidence that these stages were messed around with pretty late into development, and they might well have been in place of the emeralds in some of the stages for a while. The stages are all designed around a being a chamber holding something, and unless previous special stage layouts were completely different from what we see here in the final (which seems unlikely given that the other levels have suspicious emerald hideout locations still intact), there must have been something where the emeralds are now. That 1-up sphere would have been a perfect choice to hold the place of the emeralds.

Feel free to take this speculation with a few grains of salt, since all I'm going on is how chaos emeralds and the special stages worked in Sonic 1 Master System. I could very well be talking out my own ass on this!


The secret zone is visually based a bit on tesselation patterns, with birds and fish alternately forming a the structure of the backdrop, fading into those green and blue squares in transition. It's hypnotic when combined with the rotating effect on the foreground of the stage, which was certainly designed to mimic the sorts of "Mode 7" effects that early SNES games tended to use. (One room in Castlevania IV -- which postdates Sonic 1 by a couple months, actually -- actually uses an effect that's almost the same as this one, but less integrated into the gameplay than the effect is here.) Certainly the developers were trying to bite off as much as they could chew, an attitude that continued in later special stage design, given that all special stages after this tried for at least a quasi-3D approach. Ambitious and flashy is the order of the day here.

Again, thanks to these backgrounds, we see Sonic's aesthetic coming straight from the 1920s, as it was in the early 20s that Escher did most of his tesselations, though he moved to his more well-known impossible structures as early as 1924. (Interestingly emerald-cut jewels were in high fashion around the same time; given that the gems of interest in these stages are neither emerald-cut nor green makes the "emerald" moniker particularly incongruous.)

It's actually a fairly straightforward effect. AS you can see, all of the square tiles in the stage rotate at the same angle each frame, so only a couple tiles in video ram need to be updated. As a result the rotation effect is smooth and actually pretty fast, almost a little dizzying. It's hard to get to grips with what's going on in the level initially, to the point where it's hard to get a sense for the shape of the stage. The developers seem to be quite aware of this and were kind enough to include footage of the stage in the demo footage at the start of the game.


Another kindness offered by the game that isn't immediately obvious is that the rotation is designed in such a way that Sonic will safely collect in the main chamber if the controls are left untouched. At the start, the stage rotates clockwise, and Sonic will fall from the starting position until he hits an R-block. The counter-clockwise rotation will funnel Sonic into the main chamber, blocked off by the semitransparent spheres seen above. Passing them causes them to become solid, effectively trapping Sonic.

In addition you'll notice from the map that the rings are leading Sonic into this direction; larger groups of rings point out the correct paths through the special stage, with the large contiguous bunch near the true center of the layout directing Sonic toward those one-way spheres. Later levels absolutely will test your perception of rings, since a stage or two has diverting paths with smaller ring trails leading toward false endings. Mean, certainly, but at least consistent with the rules of the game.


This chamber is the centerpiece of the stage, and is the aforementioned room with the chaos emerald. Every time you reach the chaos emerald in one of these stages, it's blocked by a series of crystalline cubes. Here there are only a few cubes between Sonic and the emerald, where Sonic's path to it is pretty clear. Now that the goal is so straightforward, simply letting the controls idle will no longer be a workable solution. Eventually Sonic will fall into one of the chutes on the side of this section and trigger a goal sphere.

So the game expects you to take initiative here, though it still gives you time and space to get to grips with the weirdness of the stage, and tries to keep it free of as many distractions as possible. The emerald is in plain sight in a very small chamber, and is blocked off by only a few blocks. As Sonic touches them, they change color (blue->green->yellow->red) and then are destroyed, opening a way to the emerald. Since there isn't much else to do in this chamber and the task is simple and quick enough, pretty much anyone who's gotten to this point already shouldn't have much trouble collecting that emerald. A necessary freebie given how strange these levels can feel.

Later stages will not be so kind.

If you didn't get the chaos emerald, you see this screen:

Combined with the fact that the exit spheres are printed with the word GOAL, someone who's never touched the manual wouldn't notice anything wrong. Which is probably...OK. I don't think anyone expected players to get all (or even necessarily any) of the emeralds their first go, but by the ending of the game the existence of the emeralds is made clear, hinting at a second playthrough of the game for a better ending. You'd have to see the demo to know for sure this is where the emeralds are hiding, but then the game does its damnedest to get you to see that the emerald is here in this stage. So as much as the goal spheres annoy me, they aren't a game-ruining mistake at all.

As long as you have at least one chaos emerald, the screen's a bit different:

The text has changed and all the emeralds you've collected (including the one from the just-completed stage, like in this picture) are shown. Even failing the stage won't give you the "special stage" text. This was changed in most later Sonic games.

Also, dang but do I ever enjoy looking at the goofy continue sprites.


Next time I'll go back to Green Hill Zone with Act 2. I'm planning to space out the rest of the special stage posts in between each zone, since there will be one space for each remaining special stage between each zone up to Scrap Brain, where the special stages no longer appear. It shouldn't take too long to show up since Act 2 is a bit more straightforward as a level, but it still has some interesting features worth pointing out. See you then!

08-06-2014, 05:59 AM
Hey, good-lookin' (http://www.snowy-day.net/grokyou/special.html).

08-06-2014, 09:44 AM

As a SNES kid, I always thought Sonic was Just Okay, so I appreciate the insight into why it's got such enduring appeal among fans. Great writeups.

Glass Knuckle
08-07-2014, 09:41 AM
You're doing a great job here. The Sonic games never clicked with me that well, but I agree that their best trait is the combination of branching paths within the same stage, with the fact that no single path is "correct" aside from points, rings, and minor powerups. There's a freedom to just say "I haven't gone that way in a while" or "what's up on that ledge?" without having to miss a permanent upgrade or something. Designing a game that way takes some restraint, as we may have seen a strong example of if you're correct about the original emerald placement.

08-10-2014, 11:36 PM
Part 3: Green Hill Zone Act 2, Or, SONIC 201: Advanced Classical Mechanics

Now, you're at the wheel
Tell me how, how does it feel?
- Brown and Squire, from Waterfall (The Stone Roses)

Obligatory Zone0 "Big Picture" link.


Green Hill Zone Act 2, despite being still an introductory level, is more geared towards advanced play. Though it doesn't look significantly less linear than Act 1, it does a little more to test the limits of Sonic's abilities and give advanced players some freedom to experiment a little more.

The stage starts out with a tricky jump; no handy rings are available at the start like in Act 1, and a boulder is positioned awkwardly in Sonic's way. Jumping straight over it means Sonic is likely to hit the ground right by the first chopper, which is a fatal collision. A surprisingly technical jump for the very start of the second stage. GHZ2 does not fuck around.


Right past this is a rock with a mounted spring leading to some rings, and this oddly temping little patch of spikes. Unlike the row of spikes that subtly pointed upward in Act 1, these are very clearly sloping downward, suggesting a well-placed jump could clear them safely. This simple jump is effectively these two acts' AP exam; making the jump reduces most of the obstacles remaining in the level to a trivial status.


Ignoring this jump leads you past a crabmeat and some more choppers. This leads to a platform swinging on a pendulum that you can ride across the gap, which puts Sonic in the point in the picture; the pendulum can be ignored, dropping Sonic down (or he can roll down along the side, where the rings are). Dropping down leads to a path pointing leftwards that eventually brings Sonic to the same place the spike trap goes.

Rolling along the side may be the first place that Sonic's speed cap becomes obvious. Rolling in the air when holding right or left in the same direction Sonic is moving causes Sonic's speed in that direction to be capped. Since there is a drop about two screen-lengths away from the start of this rolling segment, Sonic will have a noticeable speed loss if left is held at that point.


Going back a bit, the AP spike jump leads Sonic to these three power ups: 20 rings and a shield. While it is possible to reach this from the other side, it's less advisable due to there being a more important power up on the other side, one that runs out with time. I'll get to it later, as it deserves a larger explanation than what I can offer in context here.


Anyway, this is roughly the same area from the other side. The mismatched wall pattern that starts at the height of the grass hints at there being something behind it. If you're on the waterfall side (where the 3 power ups are), there's no other way you can go. You're blocked by spikes (and the end of the level) on the left side. However, there's enough room to gain momentum to go into a roll to knock down the wall. It's the first of a few breakable walls, but the only one that's required of Sonic to break down in order to progress (if he came from the spike jump). Note that there simply isn't room on this side to smash into it from a roll without already destroying the power up, which is why taking it from this direction is less advisable. It's subtle, and something beginning players probably wouldn't think to do, but it's an important part of getting the most out of act 2.


Now, if you wanted, you could bypass the power up and continue going down; this leads to a path to the right over another spike pit -- unlike in act 1, this is much more deadly due a lack of safe places to fall. This is an extreme precision platforming challenge, but a completely optional (and I'd also say pointless) one.


However, this route introduces the red spring. Compared to yellow springs, red springs are much more powerful, flinging Sonic violently in the direction they point. This is also the first spring to point Sonic along the ground rather than into the air. A careless player would likely not have survived the pit trap leading up to this point, but hitting the spring will rocket Sonic right back to the end, with a rock placed to keep Sonic from getting knocked all the way into the spikes serving as the level's only salvation from skewered hedgehog.

I point this route out because this spring relates to a very important mechanic: Sonic, under foot power, has a speed cap as well. Holding the same direction Sonic is running will cause Sonic to lose a lot of speed immediately, just like in the rolling case. After having been sprung back about a screen's distance, Sonic returns to his normal running speed (which is much slower) almost instantaneously; at this speed, Sonic decelerates and switches direction very quickly. There's a sort of irony here in the way the speed cap was designed: holding right after touching the spring in order to get Sonic to slow down is actually less effective than holding in the same direction as the spring. If there's any reason to believe the ground speed cap is the result of a glitch, it's this counterintuitive mechanic here. (Also note that jumping and holding left after hitting the spring will nullify speed even faster, and allow Sonic to land stationary rather than still propelled by his own momentum.)

The speed cap is serious business.


These speed caps are why the power up that I haven't been discussing is so important. The super sneakers (or speed shoes; manuals and guides of varying levels of official capacity have never been completely uniform on what to call them) completely remove Sonic's normal speed caps. Sonic is able to get moving even as fast as those red springs would push him, and his acceleration has been augmented as well. Speed shoes turn the level layouts less into rules and more into guidelines, as Sonic can blow past many obstacles that might stop him in his tracks simply by jumping right across them, clearing large gaps in a single bound. Speed shoes are easily the most powerful upgrade that Sonic can receive, and fittingly they are also the rarest. Marble and Labryinth Zones have no speed shoes anywhere. Most of the sequels are very stingy with them as well, despite an even greater focus on speed than this game.

These speed shoes are why that lower route doesn't serve much actual purpose -- there is a spring at the end that launches Sonic to the top of the loop, where 20 rings and a 1-up await.


But you can also get there by running on the upper path and jumping before the slope back down -- Sonic goes so fast with speed shoes that he can cross the length of a whole screen before landing. A well-placed jump will get Sonic right on top of that loop. Extra life!

If you've been holding right the whole time since getting the power up, you'll probably get launched up into the air from the first curve, stay in the air for a while, and if you run back to collect the rings you missed inside the loop, will probably find your newfound speed powers running out right before the next setpiece.


After going across the loop, Sonic hits another small hill, and will almost certainly hit the invincibility hidden in the tree here. It's not the first hidden power up in a tree; there were a few in act 1 that I glossed over. This is the first one the game outright hands to you, though, and it's a fairly critical one. After this is the first enforced precision platforming sequence of the game: four up-and-down moving pillars surrounded by spikes. That invincibility is a bit of extra security against those spikes, as once again the spikes are effectively fatal on contact: knockback from them will either hit Sonic into other spikes or into the pits under the pillars.

Well, unless you still have super shoes. That rock shown in the above picture is in the perfect spot to make it past the first pit. Jumping after that will knock Sonic into the two buzzbombers over the pits, making the entire hazard trivial. This is the joy of Sonic -- breaking the levels in interesting ways that change the entire nature of the challenge. There's nothing that makes it obvious that you can make that jump, just your own bravado and some incredibly vague hinting with the placement of the rock.


Whether or not you've still got the speed shoes, the rest of the stage is pretty trivial if you've gotten this far successfully. There's a checkpoint that once again feels wrongly placed: it's after the third pillar of the four, and after that last pillar there isn't much of note to worry about. Beyond here is an easily avoidable spike pit that doesn't really have anything of note beyond it but another 10 ring monitor. Not worth the hassle.


The upper route has a few more badniks but none are arranged in any particularly threatening pattern, just more of what you've seen before. The tunnel at the end is interesting. Keeping in mind the speed caps, if you jump at the right point on the way out of the tunnel you'll rocket through a 10,000 point bonus and hit the giant ring if you're carrying 50.


Act 2 is a much more straightforward level than Act 1, giving me a little time to discuss the more aesthetic construction of Green Hill Zone before I get into the more mechanical meat of it. Given how much of a staple the level's visual style is, it's worth taking a few minutes to get into it. The style's been adapted in nearly every single Sonic game since, to varying degrees of looseness. Sonic 3 (& Knuckles), Sonic Blast (a.k.a. G Sonic for Game Gear), Sonic Triple Trouble, Sonic Adventure, Sonic 06, Sonic Rush, Sonic Rush Adventure, Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Colors are the main exceptions. Note that most of these games are 3D Sonics, which pushed for a more 'realistic' style in general, which hasn't been anywhere near as popular, especially for people who grew up with these games.

Interestingly, both Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Generations 3DS have near-exact copies of the first act of Green Hill Zone, both of which divorce the stage a bit from its context in this game; while the stage is iconic, act 1 and 2 still serve mostly as tutorial stages, and picking either one as being representative of this entire game does do it a bit of a disservice. Plus, Green Hill is only available to play if you have mastered everything in Advance 2, and it's a game that, unlike this one, requires you to play it in very specific ways to get that "mastery" status.

Plus it really doesn't work well in 3D, and everything looks way out of scale to Sonic.

The 3DS version fares much better, though it doesn't quite match the controls of the original, which is a bit of a shame. The modern Sonic ranking system is here, and I don't think an S-rank is possible without taking the route that I described as the canonical one. Yeah, those other paths are there, as you see in the video, but are still as pointless as ever.

In any case, over 20 years later, Green Hill Zone still maintains classic status almost as much for its appearance as for anything that actually went on in the level. Even just looking at its barest components, its color management, Green Hill goes above and beyond what most games were doing at the time. Genesis titles, even those from Sega, tended toward the dark and grim, like Golden Axe, Altered Beast, and Revenge of Shinobi. Meanwhile, Green Hill pushes vibrant colors even harder than any of the Mario games had done by this point, not even Super Mario World, which had been out in Japan for a while (1990) by the time Sonic came out. The bright green grass and orange-brown checkered dirt have great contrast with each other without being outright gaudy, and exude a happy atmosphere that blends well with Sonic's blue and red. Actually, it's Sonic that's muted a bit, slightly greyer than the bright blue sky behind him. That's fair enough, since we wouldn't want him blending into the background too easily; it certainly helps that unlike Mario, Sonic doesn't change form or appearance at all in this game. He is always a blue hedgehog (not true of his later games, of course).

Now, speaking of the sky, prerelease photos set the level with a much darker sky initially. It makes Sonic stand out a bit more sharply. I'm curious how long they kept it like this; these shots date back to about a year before the game release, June 1990, and screenshots from January of 1991 already show the level in a state near its finished version with the lighter sky.

Might explain why GHZ's chord progression seems almost ripped off of the Manfred Mann's Earth Band cover of "Blinded by the Light". Another runner in the night, indeed. (Yeah, even back in 1991, Sonic music was desperately trying to dodge Content ID triggers. It's a small joke among the subculture to see what tunes each Sonic song has ripped off. All the level music in this game seems to be based off other songs, some more blatant than others.)

Of course it's different enough from Blinded that 5 years later the composer, Masato Nakamura, would turn the song into a romantic jazzy tune, which is called "Marry Me?", performed by his group Dreams Come True.


This sounds utterly surreal, but in fact, the music of Sonic was a big focus of prerelease hype. The 1990 Dreams Come True tour was one of the first locations that Sonic's image was made public, through this poster. Though Dreams Come True were still a pretty new group at this point, having formed only a couple years ago back in 1988, these sorts of musical tie-ins were almost unheard of at the time, especially given how limited sound reproduction in video games tended to be; licensed music tended to be tied into whole game licenses (of course NES Duck Tales would have the Duck Tales theme song playing over its title screen). When copyrighted tunes were used in games it was usually cheekily done and unlicensed -- such as the use of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in Rainbow Islands, or the fascinating use of Rydeen in Sega's incredibly obscure Super Locomotive arcade game.

The music was important enough to Sega that they had designed the conceit of a band fronted by Sonic himself to perform the music in-game through the sound test. Notice the existence of an early Vector the Crocodile in some concept art. Sadly, that sound test feature was scrapped late in development, but in its place is the now-classic Sega voice, used in most of the commercials at the time. Sure, that vocie is distinctive, but I would suggest that it is nowhere near as potentially interesting a feature as Sonic jamming out to the game music with some of his other anthropomorphic animal buddies.

Mostly this is just a whole lot of words to say that the distinctive, now-classic style of Sonic 1 isn't something that "just happened". It took a lot of care and, well, more than a little bit of marketing, but dang if it didn't produce something that really worked well.

Anyway, next time is Green Hill Zone 3, which is much bigger and the first opportunity the game allows us to go completely nuts. It'll be fun.

08-10-2014, 11:54 PM

*sigh* I'm curious if anyone has ever used these tags correctly the first time.

[YT]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kioHVkNg28M[ /YT]

[YT]kioHVkNg28M[ /YT]

08-11-2014, 12:47 AM
Well, no wonder youtube links weren't working here. Thanks for the heads-up!

08-11-2014, 12:59 AM
I love the surreal pop art style of early Sonic, of which Green Hill is probably the best example. The bent palm fronds, the recessed sections in the walls, and of course the checkerboard pattern—it's all very unique and gives the game a distinct identity just as much as Sonic himself does. Spring Yard is probably the next prime example to come, with the ominous neon letters hanging in the air and all. Some other high marks are Casino Night in 2, Icecap in 3, and most of Sonic CD.

08-11-2014, 08:12 AM
Sonic CD's great. It's probably the game that feels most like a direct successor to Sonic 1, and it has the same large, elaborate backgrounds this game tends toward.

08-12-2014, 10:51 AM
I'd like to go back in time and slap the me who used to say that Sonic CD was a romhacky mess. SLAP! LEARN2PLAY

08-20-2014, 05:49 PM
Sorry for the huge delay on GHZ3 so far. School just started up again and I'll be visiting my girlfriend over the next several days. I'm hoping to get GHZ3 done by tonight basically but it will be a while before I get to Marble.

08-20-2014, 10:58 PM
Part 4: Green Hill Zone Act 3, Or, He Floats Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease

I came in like a wrecking ball
-- Miley Cyrus, from Wrecking Ball

Zone0 link. This one's pretty important, and you might find this post hard to read if you don't look at it a little bit.

A while back before I had finished up the post on GHZ 2 I had figured that this post would be incredibly fun to write. Now that all the main gameplay mechanics have been described, I've changed my mind on that a bit, since it's a little harder to find an angle to get GHZ 3 into. What I'd been doing in the previous posts was taking the pictures and then describing what's going on in that part of the level, like a less inane take on the average Powerpoint presentation. But compared to the last two levels, there isn't quite as much to talk about. GHZ3 doesn't introduce much in the way of new mechanics, instead bringing back the ideas shown in the first two acts and making them harder and longer. If you look at the previous maps, GHZ3's is a decent amount bigger than either of them, and has more path options.

Really, that's what GHZ3 is about. If GHZ1 was the participatory lecture and GHZ2 was the homework, GHZ3 was the midterm exam, requiring synthesis of the lessons and just a little bit of creative thinking to get by, serving a comprehensive review of all the material laid out so far. Hard to argue against this sort of design; it wouldn't make sense to have the final level in a stage be outright easier than ones it preceded. Coming out of this stage, you as the player should have knowledge of everything that makes Sonic, well, Sonic. I'll get a little more into what I mean by that when I get into talking about Marble Zone, but compared to GHZ as a proof of concept, most of the other levels borrow more directly from mechanics already familiar to people playing the platform games that predate Sonic. Which, again, is fair. Like I'd said in the introduction, Sonic was breaking a lot of new ground, and I have trouble blaming the developers from wanting to play a little more conservatively with an idea that hadn't been tested much before that. The sequels, at least those on the Genesis, would all play a lot more like what you see in this level than the rest of this game often does.

So GHZ3 is harder, and longer. Along with that, there's a risk of taking damage that's higher than it was for the previous levels. Correspondingly, there's also no way to get into the special stage in any zone's third act. In its place, however, is an encounter with Dr. Robotnik, a.k.a. Eggman, at varying degrees of difficulty. Here, Eggman is pretty easy to predict and has a fairly passive attack, and the level does a lot to make your first encounter with him fairly painless. Plus, a certain not-obvious route makes the encounter with him fairly trivial.

That route is the one that the fastest TAS for this level uses, and it's almost entirely done in the air. The relevant clip starts at around 1:33 in the embedded video below, which I'll link to instead of making several screenshots:

Already we have a review of both acts here at the start. Spikes are bad, stuff is hidden in the treetops, sometimes Sonic accelerates faster in the air, and the level design cues are sometimes more like guidelines. Maybe I'm just reading a bit into that invincibility monitor hidden in that tree, positioned right at the peak of Sonic's jump so that he will hit it if he jumps right when he gets control of Sonic if he's been holding right. Maybe not. In any case, it allows Sonic safe passage immediately over the spike pit to the right of the start of the level. I have to confess that as a kid this was one hidden power-up I never knew about, but damn if it isn't helpful.

So right after that, passing the spikes leads to a downward slope. As always, a cue to start rolling, allowing Sonic to pick up more speed. A spring up is placed near the end of the slope, before a destructable wall. Hitting the spring is a little more challenging since Sonic's jumps are fixed trajectory after a jump, but, hey, this is a TAS. That spring is tempting, and sometimes the upper routes offer a more direct route through the level. Taking it leads to another block of land, where a speed shoes monitor hides behind a tree near some horizontally-moving platforms. That speed shoes is key to the rest of the TAS. The rest of the level almost plays itself, just by holding right across a series of enemies and power-ups, but there's still one last cue to make, jumping at top speed right where the checkpoint in this level is.

After that jump, Sonic maintains top speed for the rest of the level and stays up in the air, ricocheting across a line of enemies, to land on top of Eggman to finish him off before he can even attack. After this, the end of a level hits the robotizing machine that Eggman was probably guarding, releasing a ton of Sonic's animal friends. The level is now over, bringing an end to the zone.

Now, looking at it, this route may or may not have been planned by the developers. It's a very narrow window and hard to pull off. Someone who's been testing this game for months, though? Might be able to do this. There's video proof of a guy pulling this off (at least in a run of just that act) at a recent AGDQ, so it's certainly feasible for humans to do it, and the enemies do all seem to be perfectly placed for this to happen. On the other hand, Sonic gets to Robotnik so quickly that the game can't load all the artwork in time, suggesting that maybe testers didn't catch on to this secret route. It's not a clear cut case one way or the other.

Anyway, here's the AGDQ playthrough, by Naegleria, from 2013. The relevant bit is at around 25 minutes:

Pretty cool, huh?


Now, let's go back to near the start of the level and smash through the wall near the bottom of the stage rather than take the spring back up toward the super sneakers. Sonic goes through a tunnel and ends up even lower into the stage, at the very bottom. Enemies are set to ambush Sonic all through this path, including several more missile-newtrons and some buzzbombers, with deadly spikes showing up in several places to harass careless players. Why, there's even a trollish pit below a collapsing platform! Just like always, the bottom route is packed with hazards.


So this spring here is particularly disppointing, with spikes near it, blocking the side of the platform it's on. This path has few obstacles that have to be taken slowly, but it would also be the first time a bottom path didn't lead to a clear reward. Unlike the spikes at the end of the pit in GHZ1, however, these spikes look like they might be clearable in one leap, more like the spikes in GHZ2, despite the upward curve. Are they?


As it turns out, yes, actually, they are. This is an incredible haul of 50 rings and a 1-up. Past here is another spring, and a longer row of spikes that can't be cleared by jumping (and, naturally, nothing past them). With no invincibility in sight, it's clear that Sonic must take the spring up. That ends this branch of the level, placing Sonic on what is effectively the main path at that point.

Now, if, at the choice between spring or wall, Sonic takes the spring, he can just continue right, past those speed shoes. There's another tunnel. It leads to a loop and one of the more interesting momentum-conservation bits in the whole game.


Going around the loop you'll see that there's a 1-up on top of the loop. After the loop there's this sideways-facing red spring. As always, red springs are one-way trips to wicked fast speed. This bit foiled me as a kid because, again, I didn't know about the speed shoes, and I didn't fully understand the speed cap (which, let's be honest, is definitely buggy), so the trick to getting on top of the loop didn't make total sense. The spring knocks Sonic up a small hill; jumping at the peak will give Sonic enough of a boost to reach the top of that loop to get the 1-up.


The easiest way to do this without triggering the speed cap is to roll into the spring (hey, it's a downward slope, so why not?) and then jump at that peak. Done correctly, Sonic will jump into the 1-up as he lands. This works because jumping after rolling has that fixed trajectory, so the speed cap isn't triggered even if you hold left or right at that point. Probably the most reliable option and the one most supported by hints in the layout. The speed shoes also don't trigger the speed cap, though, so having them here makes this challenge fairly trivial.


A bit past that spring is the one unique gimmick in this level, a spiky log that rotates, forming a tricky trap that Sonic should walk across carefully if he doesn't want to take a hit. It's an easy trap to fall too, and it's good that they didn't place this in one of the first two acts, as it would keep a lot of players out of the special stage. It's hard to avoid and feels a bit out of place in a level that's supposed to be speedy. But that's assuming that you don't have the speed shoes. With them, this is yet another tricky obstacle that can be lept over in basically a single bound.

There's another one in an upper route that's reached if you take the upper route but don't do the aerial trick, but that one has an invincibility monitor on a ledge above the start, making it seem even more trivial and absurd. But getting up to that point is fairly slow anyway (precision floating platform jumping again), so it's not really the recommended route through the stage.


There is one last major timing/momentum-based setpiece before the boss, an invincibility monitor hidden in a tree that's too tall to be hit by Sonic from underneath. To grab it Sonic must jump off the hill at its left with good speed in order to hit it. It may take a few tries for an inexperienced player to hit, but is useful for dealing with the boss efficiently. A decent player can probably beat Robotnik before the invincibility wears off, since it's so close to the boss encounter.

The boss encounter is marked by a checkpoint that's on the only path at this point and has no other obstacles around it. It's definitely a signal that something important is on the horizon, and it's naturally the boss itself. Notably there aren't any easy rings around this checkpoint. In fact, no pre-boss checkpoint -- and every Act 3 boss has a checkpoint like this one -- actually has loose rings around it, so getting past the boss first try is always recommended. For a game that prides itself on being forgiving, it's an odd choice to make. Between the invincibility and easy backtracking it's not a big issue in this level (thankfully!) but will come to be nearly ruinous in later stages.


As you may have noticed in the video I linked above, Robotnik's introductory encounter is quite player-friendly: he doesn't even launch any attacks for several seconds before he shows up, allowing Sonic to get some easy hits on him. Robotnik is the first (and only) enemy in the game to take multiple hits before defeat, and the game is happy to make that a point easily learned by giving those first hits away. Robotnik does launch an actual weapon, though it's mostly a passive threat, a swinging wrecking ball that damages Sonic on contact. It's easily avoided by hiding on the side of the screen below one of the floating platforms, but from that position it's impossible to reach the craft. The timing of the wrecking ball makes it so that if Sonic jumps up to hit Robotnik as the wrecking ball is about to reach the platform, he'll hit Robotnik and land back on the platform as the ball starts to swing the other way. Landing eight hits on the craft causes it to blow up, angering Eggman and causing him to flee the scene. Past this is the animal prison and the end of the level, bringing Green Hill Zone to a close.


Green Hill Zone's place in Sonic canon as a classic is, I think, fairly well-deserved. Going back to it after some 20-odd years worth of Sonic games shows it to hold up well as an introduction to the playstyle of this new blue mascot, and provides an interesting challenge even as it tries to welcome players who may not have even played a game before in their lives. If there's one big problem with the level, it's that it's the fastest stage we'll be seeing for a while but spends so much of its time in introduction that the challenges of Act 3 just don't quite feel like enough. There's not a ton of room to really break loose, and it won't be for a bunch of levels that we'll get to again, and just after we got adjusted to it, no less!

While most Sonic sequels don't have first stages that are quite as friendly to new players, or at least not such easy subjects for textbook analysis, they do give the player more easy opportunities to speed through them, a trend that continued over time to the point that in Sonic Advance 2, Sonic was going so quickly through some stages that the screen could almost never keep up. It's because of this that I think Sonic 1 really is the best place to start the game: Green Hill Zone can be a little dull if you already understand how to play the game, and several traps that require good control of Sonic's rolling momentum can be frustrating to players used to relying on some of Sonic's newer techniques like the spin dash. On the other hand, almost everything that Green Hill Zone has to teach about how to play Sonic is relevant to later Sonic games, especially those on the Genesis.

09-04-2014, 08:10 PM
Part 5: Secret Zone 2, Or, Cameldo: There is no Cameltry.

You spin me right round, baby, right round
- Pete Burns, from You Spin Me Right Round

As always, zone 0 link.

OK. So I said I'd do a little interlude about each of the special stages in between zones. This is special zone 2, which ratchets up the difficulty a lot over the previous one: the exit spheres are placed a little more prominently, and outside of the first oen which is mostly just for appearance's sake, the others are are placed near the exit spheres. Trying to avoid them is much harder, and due to the lack of control that Sonic has over his jump height in this stage, it's easy to jump into a bumper and be knocked back into the exits. On the other hand, following the rings leads to the emerald pretty easily with no other major tricks. This is still only the second stage, after all.

One thing that you'll notice here that wasn't really true of the first special zone is that the stage is a bit more color-coded, with the blue walls becoming yellow and then red on the path to the emerald chamber. Not a bad way to judge relative distance to the goal, though it's disappointing that they didn't use it in the first stage, short though it was. Note that despite what the images might suggest, the walls aren't a single color, and each block flases a different color. Blue blocks flash green, yellow blocks flash blue, red blocks flash yellow, and green blocks flash red. Basically each block flashes the color of the blocks in the previous segment of the stage. A minor effect that's not so important to the level design other than to make the transition between sections a little less abrupt, but it certainly looks cool in motion.


In lieu of screenshots of this update, here's a video of a madman collecting all the rings in the stage that shows off the color-flashing really well. Note that the flashing is timed such that it gives a pathing effect, leading along the outside of the stage. I'd like to say that it's designed as a subtle way to direct the player away from the exit spheres and toward the emerald, but that's not really true, at least no more than the stage design to the emerald is direct -- on the other side of the starting point, the path effect leads directly to easily avoided exit spheres.

Ultimately it's not too different from the first special stage. Rings, bumpers, exit spheres, and breakable blocks encasing the emerald. Next time, Marble!

09-04-2014, 10:31 PM
I somehow missed the Act 3 post (the Zone 0 link is missing, by the by), so I've just caught up. These continue to be great. Thanks for writing.

09-05-2014, 10:25 AM
I don't know how anyone ever got all the chaos emeralds in these games before the invention of save states.

09-06-2014, 10:19 PM
Part 6: Marble Zone Act 1, Or, How Do You Say "Déjà Vu" in Greek?

'Cause he wants to play another way,
Play another kind of music
- D'Abo, Hugg, and Mann, from Another Kind of Music (As Is)

At last, we get to Marble Zone.


In early development, Marble Zone was probably not going to be the second level of this game, instead showing up later on; in the American release of the game, the level select puts it at third after Labyrinth Zone. Changing this to place it as the second level was a very good idea, since Marble introduces new traps and challenges, and is definitely more difficult than Green Hill, but is of the remaining stages probably the easiest one of the bunch. Plus, the hilly grass serves as a nice continuation to the previous level. There definitely is a sense of continuity behind Sonic's level progression here, and once again the aesthetic is particularly well thought-out.

I would argue that undestanding Marble's aesthetic is key to understanding its identity. Certainly the purple blocks that make up most of the level structure proper provide a good transition between the green grass, light-olive pillars, and the reds and oranges that make up this level's main obstacle -- it's still a bold and vibrant level. But compared to Green Hill's omnipresent slopes, Marble doesn't stay grassy and hilly. It's much more blocky, something that you might expect out of an NES game rather than something new on a newer console. (It also looks a fair bit like the first level of Altered Beast, the common link to those two games probably being the greatly underappreciated Rieko Kodama.)

Not only does it look like an NES game, at that point Marble Zone also plays like an NES game, and it is one of the reasons that I'm doing an anatomy series on Sonic 1 at all. Gimmicks in this level would feel just about as much at home in a Mega Man, Castlevania, or Metroid game -- the level doesn't hide its inspiration at all. Plus, the level looks like Greek ruins; I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the games this level has its basis in are being portrayed as, much as we think of Greek civilization and philosophy today, the cradle of modern game design reasoning. Even if Sonic team couldn't pick the brains of folks like Miyamoto or Yokoi so directly, they certainly imply understanding of their predecessors' design philosophies.

Of course, the level is also ruins. They're putting as much a point on this that they're trying to move game design away from dated NES ideas, however slowly. Again, Sonic 1's playing it fairly conservatively and it won't be until the sequels that we see Sonic really breaking out from NES ideas, but we've already seen a bunch of traces of them in Green Hill, and will see some more as the game goes on. It's a bit unfair, I think, to call Marble outright padding, since its design is still very thought-out, though it's definitely the most conservative of all the Sonic 1 levels, offering very little in the way of novelty.

When it comes to the music, I can't say for certain that Masato Nakamura was told to make something that was a cross between Greek folk music styling and an NES game. But I have no other way to describe this song than a cross between Never On a Sunday and something out of Mega Man. Well, I think I hear some traces of Bloody Tears in there too. Again, about as close to a perfect fit as we could get for a level that compares 8-bit level design to one of the major Classical-era societies.

As further evidence that Marble Zone is at once both an homage and ribbing of NES game ideas, the temple structure right at the stage start has one of my favorite variations on the "vase or two faces" optical illusion, in what might look at first like an image of two lions resting their front paws on a central pillar:


'Sup, Mario?


That's enough talking about Marble Zone as a concept, then. Let's take a closer look at Act 1. As always, Zone0 has the map.


Once again, the level starts off free of hazards with 3 easy rings in sight. Past this is a few more rings and a platform moving up and down. While the rings are in an arc that Sonic can jump along, they also form the same shape as the chunk of rising platform, being just barely a little more than Sonic's height off the ground. A very subtle signal to even a speedier player that, yes, the platform is actually going to go up as high as it is, and also a way of indicating the upcoming lava. The platform also sinks below the surrounding terrain a little bit, so if you pass right over it you might still be able to tell that there's more where that came from. And, indeed, right past it is another moving platform like it, but with open lava pits on either side. If you could clear the jump over the rings for the previous platform you can clear it here safely, most likely, though there is a new enemy to be dealt with on the other side that requires some care.



Caterkiller is one of the nastiest enemies in the entire game. It can only be destroyed at its head, and landing hits on other parts of its body will not only hurt Sonic but also cause its segments to all detach and go bouncing on through the level, possibly causing additional damage to Sonic while trying to gather any lost rings. Rolling into it from the front is a much safer way of dealing with it, at least if you're not going too quickly. Unfortunately Sonic can go fast enough to trigger a race condition with the caterkiller defeat routine, such that the game thinks Sonic has come into contact with the other parts of its body even if they shouldn't really be there any more. Ouch!

After a couple more moving platforms and another caterkiller, there's another platform surrounded by exposed lava. It's continuing to get harder -- this time there are fireballs in each of the lava pits. The first one can be jumped over easily even at its height, but the second one can't be so easily. Sonic's only hope for getting past it are to be moving fast enough to beat it on its way up, or wait for it to go down so as to not get hit. So far, all the jumping in Marble, just like that set of rings over the first moving platform, is actually really easy with good control over Sonic's momentum, but gets even harder on slowing down. Taking Marble Zone slowly is probably the only way for a new player to get through the stage without taking damage, but a more skilled player would have little trouble getting past any of these traps.


The hill you see above Sonic is deceptive, in that it's one hill that it's unsafe for Sonic to roll down, as it practically funnels him right into the next lava pit. However, if you've been keeping up your momentum up to this hill, you'd have jumped over most of it in clearing the last couple obstacles. By not rolling down the hill, you get to the first secret of Marble Zone, which really isn't much of one; super ring power ups worth a combined 30 rings to the left of another moving platform. Caved areas in this level hide several secrets, most of them incredibly lucrative.


So far, what I've been saying about Marble as an NES game with Sonic in it doesn't seem like it holds all that much water, huh? What we've seen so far isn't much harder (and in some ways is actually more forgiving) than that one segment in Green Hill 2 and has been a similar test of maintaining Sonic's speed and momentum. It's longer, and a little less exploitable, but still very much in the vein of what the game's been feeding us so far. Certainly it's slower -- Marble has no speed shoes power-ups in any of its acts -- but it's still something keeping Sonic at his top running speed.

These sinking platforms don't change that at all. It's easiest to clear them by running across them quickly, since if they sink more than a few pixels the grass catches on fire (as shown), which can damage Sonic, but jumping quickly while running makes short work of them, and can even keep the platforms from becoming engulfed in flames. Past that is a hill that it is safe to roll down, and a transition into the first of the several caved sections of Marble Zone.

Now, up until this point, everything you've seen here you'll have seen already if you let the demo sequences play out. So after this point, where Marble's character changes, you won't have seen much of if this is your first time playing. Keep that in mind.


So NOW we get to the point where Marble Zone really starts looking like an NES game: the underground areas. (That makes some intuitive sense; the majority of ruins tend to have been buried underground, especially if their decline was the result of war and conquest.) There's no grass under this point, and so the level structure tends to be much flatter, which sometimes makes gaining momentum a little easier since Sonic never has to start moving uphill. The level design uses this to its advantage, and the nature of efficient play changes a bit. In the open-air sections, success tends more to be a matter of maintaining momentum between each set of obstacles. Here, the challenges are a bit more disjoint, and Sonic can stop between each setpiece and still regain enough momentum to cruise past most of the harder challenges.

You'll also notice that there's no way to go but left, another sign that we're breaking with the rules that Sonic has established so far in favor of something a little different. You can tell this is the correct route as there is no path either right or upward. The path to the left is actually pretty narrow, which the game uses in a few places to signal that the left path is the correct way to the exit -- you'll see this again in later levels.


So we start out with a segment that feels a little bit like it could have come out of a few Megaman games -- a series of staggered pillars that move up and down, ready to crush Sonic into the floor below, killing him instantaneously. It's a bit easier than Megaman since Sonic's more maneuverable and there aren't any enemies to get in his way here, but already something that feels a bit out of character from Sonic's previously forgiving nature. Certainly pits and spikes have proved fatal in GHZ, but those are stationary obstacles and fairly obviously fatal overall. By the standards of pointy thing you wouldn't want to be impaled on, the instakill of these pillars is a bit subtle.

They look pretty cool though, since the dithering effect gives it a glassy texture -- the easiest ways to see this are by playing the game in Fusion with the CVBS TV mode setting on, or in the 3DS release with TV mode on. I don't think there's a similar blur filter in the Android/iOS version (there wasn't one in Sonic CD) which is a shame. And, of course, you can see by playing it on an original Genesis. It's actually a really clever effect, since you can see how they actually made it in that picture above. Who needs hardware transparencies when all the analog video decoder components out there are blurry and inaccurate anyway?


This obstacle introduces two different gimmicks at once that will show up multiple times in Marble Zone. The pushable block and the crushing spike platform. This instructional setpiece gives a much tamer version of both -- the pushable block stays on solid ground here, and the spike platform only moves when something pushes on the switch to the right. Neither of these will be true later in the game. One of the things you learn in jumping on the switch as Sonic is that these spiky platforms ratchet upward slowly but drop almost immediately -- though the path onward is below that platform, trying to jump from the switch to slide underneath it is impossible, even if you push the block out of the way, since the platform falls too quickly for that.

Since the block is exactly the same size as that gap, though, that's a pretty big hint for what to do here. Indeed, the correct solution is to place the block in that gap so it triggers the switch, keeping the above platform held up. It's a really clever idea, but sadly there won't be any other block-switch puzzles like this until Sonic 3 (or to be more precise, Sonic & Knuckles, but I dislike treating the games as distinct entities). Seriously, we have to go past multiple games before we see something like this again. But then, even in other games' ruins stages, they don't resemble Marble much in how they play (but that's a whole other story), perhaps because they'd just be rehashes of rehashes.


After a short drop and a checkpoint, we get to the next setpiece, which feels like it could have come out of a Metroid game -- falling blocks that fall into the lava and float there that Sonic must hop across. These can also crush Sonic if he manages to get between one and the lava, but that's fairly hard to do. Since the blocks fall one-by-one from left-to-right (which makes it a little easier than a comparable Metroid screen) as long as Sonic doesn't move too quickly, he has nothing to be hurt by. It's the first obstacle in the level that is harder if Sonic tries to go past it too quickly, in which case he'd be more likely to knock into a platform as it falls and not get over it -- landing in the lava instead.


Now for the first spike platform, which moves on its own. It will move all the way up to the top of the wall, so if Sonic isn't careful he can be crushed by either end. While this seems scary, if Sonic is about to be trapped by it as it moves up, heading to the right will push Sonic into the first truly hidden passage of Marble. In general any time there's a spike platform like this, there's a safe exit from it on either side -- aside from one wall-adjacent platform in act 2, any platform you get onto from one side you can get off of from the other. So since you have to jump onto this one from the right side, the hidden passage is to the left, near the top of the platform's height. Not only do you avoid being crushed, but you also get to enter a chamber with power ups worth 40 rings and an extra life (which, if you haven't gotten hit at this point will probably put you over 100 rings -- meaning this diversion gets you two extra lives).


Riding the platform up leads to another ledge that has protruding blocks moving in and out from it -- as one moves into the wall, the other moves out, and Sonic should probably jump to the other when the one he is standing on starts to retract. After that is another ledge next to another spiked platform, and a smaller object that behaves just like it but lacks the pointy underside -- jumping into it may be safe, but it is deadly when it lands on top of you. This time Sonic needs to jump from the left side of the spiked platform across to the right, though there's not a lot of time to do so. Jumping onto the smaller platform can make it easier to jump onto the larger spiked one, but Sonic can jump onto the larger platform when it crashes down, and still have plenty of time to clear it to the other side.

This leads back outside. There are a few more moving and sinking platforms, and a few more caterkillers, but that's all there is before the end of the stage. Definitely longer than any of the acts in GHZ, but mostly because there weren't any opportunities to gain speed beyond Sonic's running cap. That's what to expect from the rest of Marble, too. Here, rolling is mostly a way to get rid of caterkillers, and not a way to gain ludicrous speed.


So ends Marble Act 1. Next time: more block pushing!

09-07-2014, 08:29 AM
I just wanted to say that I really enjoy this.

09-08-2014, 09:08 AM
Indeed. Very detailed analysis, muteKi!

09-08-2014, 09:21 AM
I had no idea about the Marios. I always thought they were lions too! Holy craaaaaap

09-08-2014, 01:53 PM
They are lions.

09-09-2014, 09:28 AM
I can't unsee Mario now, though.

Red Silvers
09-09-2014, 08:09 PM
But is it a nose or a mouth?

09-09-2014, 08:43 PM
I'm assuming nose and moustache, personally.

09-09-2014, 08:44 PM
Yeah, I don't see it. I mean, at first, I thought you might be saying it kinda looked like the M on his cap? But yeah, I don't think it's what you think it is.

09-09-2014, 09:05 PM
It's subtle enough that I could be reading into it, but I still get a kick out of it.

10-26-2014, 09:45 PM
Part 7: Marble Zone Act 2, Or, No Really This Game Is Fast I Swear

Ah, push it - push it good
Ah, push it - push it real good
- Salt n Pepa, Push It

Marble Zone Act 2 is probably one of the easiest levels for me to write about so far. Compared to the other levels, there really is something of a coherent idea posed by the level. It's about momentum management again, yes, but it does it through a specific mechanic that shows up multiple times in this level and which is the main focus -- pushing blocks across lava to form a ride.

Compared to Act 1's NES Greatest Hits layout, Act 2 seems to have its sights set on one game in particular: Super Mario Bros. 3, the one particular must-have game for the console. Act 2 mirrors SMB3's design ethos by being focused on this single gimmick that Sonic has to engage with somewhat passively. Mario 3 loved its riding and autoscrolling levels, as well as plenty of insta-kill lava, but as with Act 1, Sonic has a much easier time of it than Mario ever did.

To be a little more precise, I'm thinking about levels from SMB3 such as 1-4, 5-9, or 6-2, which are autoscrollers where Mario must ride on blocks or clouds or other such moving platforms and hop from ride to ride in order to avoid blocks and walls. Some similar levels also show up here and there in Super Mario World, where the platforms actually follow the flow of scrolling and Mario must avoid hazards while riding them. It's definitely an idea that feels very specifically Mario, especially given that SMB3 certainly came out early enough in Japan to influence the design of Sonic, and Super Mario World may have been the new big thing for Nintendo during most of Sonic's development, having come out in Japan late in 1990.

So here's the Zone0 map link (http://www.soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-mz-act2map.png).


We start out outside, just like in Act 1, but this time it's only a short hop across a few moving platforms and past a few fireballs to get to the caved portion of the level. (If you keep a good pace, though, you won't even see the fireballs.) Unlike Act 1, most of the above-ground potion of the stage occurs near the middle of the level, rather than at the ends. There's a switch to push down one of the glass pistons, allowing access through the rest of the stage.


Past another irritating batbot, there's a block. Given there's no other way to continue, the next thing to do is push it off the ledge. After it falls off the ledge, it floats along the lava, and Sonic can ride it.


The block slides under the platform, but there's no clearance for Sonic, who must jump on top of it. And here's the twist -- after having jumped off the block, there's no need for Sonic to go back onto the block. The level isn't actually autoscrolling, and if Sonic can keep up his momentum, the next stable platform is easily reachable from here. There is, however, a staggered lavafall that Sonic must watch out for above here, which is likely to hit him.


The lavafall is fortunately no more deadly than most other obstacles in the game, and just another obstacle that causes damage and knockback. It's irritating, certainly, but there's not a lot of rings to have lost by hitting it, only about 9. As a result it's not much of a cheap shot, even if it isn't really announced, though riding the block will probably give you a chance to see it do its thing safely, and you'll be able to stop on the edge of the platform where you're safe, as shown above. It's harder to stick the landing if you're running from the one fixed platform to the other.


If it does hit you as you move forward, though, you'll probably get knocked to this platform with a super ring and shield. When I was playtesting and getting screenshots for this run, that actually happened to me, even though I expected the lavafall. There are a couple batbots, but more irritating is the caterkiller probably hiding behind the monitors. It's hard to see, and if it's in the middle of changing direction is even harder to hit. The best option is probably to wait a second and roll into the monitors, killing the caterkiller along the way.


There are a couple more platforms that Sonic can jump across to get past the first lava pit. If you moved quickly enough, you'll see the block you pushed sinking into the lava, but staying here isn't a good idea, as there are fireball jets ready to fling flames at Sonic. No rest for the weary, huh?


Actually, there is some rest! This point here is a notable safe spot in the level, and Sonic must push this block chain into the wall in order to continue. On the other side, or rather, down the newly opened pit, there is less respite.


The lava oozing out of the gap begins to chase Sonic! This is a much more exciting idea on paper than it is actually in playing the game. It's not very fast; Sonic can outrun it without much effort at all. The most exciting bit of this setpiece is the retractable spikes that can pop out and stab Sonic if he tries to get through too quickly, and which serve as a temporary gate past the obstacle. This is actually fairly common for Sonic chase obstacles -- they'll enforce moving forward but won't actually serve much harm unless you're almost completely stopped. Sonic 3, Sonic Adventure, and Sonic Heroes in particular have examples of obstacles like these, but the details are probably best saved for another time.


The lava fills up the passageway, preventing backtracking, though if you go far enough it will actually despawn. Right past here are a few rings on a platform with spikes coming out of the sides. They retract at about the same speed as the spikes we just passed, meaning that they're not hard to avoid if you make sure of the timing; the spikes alternate so that only one side of the platform has a pointy protrusion. A couple batbots are on the ceiling, but they are easy to deal with.


After this is a setpiece that I've seen in some commercials for the game: Sonic has to navigate across a series of swinging pendulums like the one in GHZ2 without falling in the lava. It's one of the few pure tests of patience in the game, as there isn't any particular trick, shortcut, or helpful item to get you across; the only exception is that if you still have your shield, you can time a jump across and risk falling in, and use the temporary invulnerability time to high-tail it across. Sneaky, but effective.


After that is a narrow passageway with caterkillers. Reminiscent of World 4-2 of the first Super Mario Bros., a few caterkillers come toward Sonic in a narrow corridor. Sonic thankfully has little trouble dealing with them, since unlike Mario he can roll; I would advise against trying to jump onto these caterkillers' heads, since you're more likely to miss the jump due to the low ceiling and their harmful segmented bodies. Don't roll too quickly, as there's another red spring ready to launch you back into the lava (although as we've seen the speed cap bug makes it easy to correct from this). Jump over it and there's another switch that lowers another pillar. Above here on the left side is another shield to replace the one you might have lost (suggesting that for the experienced player, yes, go ahead and lose it where the pendulums are).


And so it's time to ride another block! Once again, actually riding the block's mostly for chumps, since if you can keep up momentum you can land on the two large stationary platforms it moves under without having to wait long. Jumping from each at the right time will secure a landing that leads Sonic to a ledge that leads back upward and out of the caved section.


If you stay on the block, though, it will actually be pushed up by a few geysers of lava. They will make it a little easier for Sonic to reach each platform, but only the last one leading to the ledge up is all that important; the first two are mostly instructive. Since the block is much lower than the platforms, it's not possible to reach the ledge from standing on the block as it approaches, and you need to time it so you reach the ledge while the geyser carries the block.


If you stay on the block across the lava pit, you'll see that there's another block right in front of the wall, hinting that, yes, actually, there's another hidden area here. If you jump early from that second platform using the speedster method, you'll easily reach this hidden area (the opening is actually pretty large and hard to miss).

One of the reasons I'm pointing this out is that since the entrance is marked by the extra block, it's the only secret in this level that has any indication of its existence. Remember how in GHZ1 I suggested that the highest path in that level existed to lead players to the first chaos emerald, as those were originally placed in the levels? This is my guess as to where the second emerald would be, a likely spot that isn't too hard to find but is one of the few places in the entire stage that's out of the way (as the maps make clear and as I suggested previously, neither of the first two acts of Marble Zone have any branching pathways).

Plus, I think it's a good idea to make at least one of the emeralds a near-freebie, or at least something someone already experienced in games would think to try and that an inexperienced player could also probably find without too much trouble. Since the freebie's in the second level, it means that such a player probably wouldn't get the good ending on a first playthrough, if they don't know to look for the emeralds already. More so than the later Sonic games, the good ending is actually really hard to reach -- the first 5 zones have special stage rings in their first two acts, meaning at most 10 chances to collect 6 emeralds. It stands to reason that the hidden-emeralds-to-collect mechanic was also designed to require a hint guide or multiple playthroughs to get the good ending. Either way, anything beyond basic beating the game isn't trivial to do.

But now, it's a 1-up and some extra rings. Still nice, and completely optional.


There's one more damn caterkiller before the end of the cave; the exit is shown above. These rows of blocks move in and out on their own, and if Sonic gets on the one coming out of the wall on the right side, he can make it up the ledge on the left leading to a checkpoint and a super ring. A nice place to put it, and it takes a little thinking to get to, but it's in a really good position in the level; should Sonic get hurt or die the nearby super ring plus the power ups in the pit will let him regain his life and get him already 30 rings toward a special stage entry.

The right side is more moving platforms and annoying fireballs. They're harder to dodge now, making this actually one of the tricker spots in the level where Sonic must go a little slower and more carefully. After that are some buzzbombers and more caterkillers, but at least you have plenty of room to avoid them here. Past another slope is another small cave section with 2 super rings. Backtracking from the checkpoint to the power-up pit would already put you at 50 rings if you didn't get hit up until this point. Ultimately there's nothing here you didn't already see in Act 1, but the timing's different.


After that, though, there's another cave section! This time the entrance is blocked by, well, a bunch of blocks. Unlike every other block so far, these can't be pushed and don't move on their own. That hill is, yet again, a cue to roll. When in a ball (you can jump to destroy these too, which is actually the better option compared to rolling here, since it gives more control), each of these blocks smashes apart, and actually gives Sonic points like badniks do.

Hitting multiple things without landing increases a points multiplier that you get to see very clearly here. The first block is worth 100 points, the second is worth 200, the third is worth 500, and the fourth is worth 1,000. You'll keep getting 1,000 points for each remaining block in the first set of twelve you smash. If you can hit the next set of five without landing on the floor, you can keep the chain up. The first three blocks in the next row are still worth 1,000, but the final two are worth more than that.


If it is possible to chain 16 or more enemy attacks together from jumping or rolling (and if you've rolled into consecutive caterkillers, you've seen that the second one gets you 200 points rather than just 100), you start getting 10,000 point bonuses. This really doesn't actually count for anything in Sonic 1, but the multiplier is there in all the later games, where 50,000 points is worth an extra life. Getting 16 enemy hits in a row is worth over a fifth of an extra life, and additional hits are worth another fifth of a life -- but the details of extra lives in other games are best saved for another time (though it's quite clear they never put as many smashable blocks together in any of those games).

But if you chained that entire sequence together, those last two blocks netted 20,000 points, plus the 12,800 from all the blocks before that. That's 32,800 points total, which is a lot of points!

After that there's a shield, a batbot, a very hard to hit caterkiller (this time, since it's moving away from the wall where you are, you'll have to hit it on its head and probably won't want to wait long enough to roll into it), and the next major setpiece. Again, it's block related.


Those are, in fact, two lava falls back-to-back. The timing between them isn't shared, though, so even after the first one is done you may need to wait a second before jumping past the other one. Clearing the jump across both of the lava falls leads to an important power up in the corner on the left side.


It's invincibility! Time to cheese this last block ride. Why ride when you can run? There are 3 small platforms that are easy to jump over, with rings in between. If you're feeling dangerous, you can try rolling under each platform, but beware that if you run out of speed or jump while under the platform, there isn't enough room for Sonic to stand up. That's a fatal crushing, believe it or not. I usually just jump over them since it's safer, and there's plenty of invincibility time to make it across the lava.


Actually, you even have enough invincibility time to get past the series of the chained spike platforms, and can use it to slide under some of them, along with dispatching a few more caterkillers that you'll encounter on the way up.


But that's it for Marble Act 2! Next time, there will be more bosses.


As an addendum, I should note that while Super Mario levels do definitely seem to have had a hand in Marble's design, some of the last few Mario games (3D Land and World in particular) strike me as being as much like Marble here as the 80s-90s Mario that inspired it.

For example, here's one of the end-game levels (not counting bonus worlds) in Super Mario 3D World:


Unlike all the autoscrolling platforming examples I could find in SMB3, this is one where the block you ride directs the autoscrolling -- one of the sources of challenge in SMB3's autoscrolling is that you can almost never stay on a single block as it goes through the level. While this block certainly doesn't allow idleness because of its flipping, it also moves in a predictable manner, and it's also the one thing you ride in each segment. There are ways to skip around it (and you have to get off it for some of the collectibles), but mostly you're tied to the block, which is a good distinguisher for how these sorts of setpieces work for Mario vs. how they tend to work for Sonic.


Super Mario 3D Land has a few similar ideas in it, but the blocks aren't always self-propelled. Here, Mario has to ride a platform along a track which he directs by standing on one of two sides marked by an arrow; the platform moves in the direction of the arrow that he is standing on. There are a few levels using this mechanic; this one is the first.

Of note is the fact that at a few points in the level, there are hidden objects (star coins) that are accessed by having waterspouts push the platform. It's a little more involved than the blocks in Marble Zone because the waterspouts aren't always guaranteed to be on, so timing and momentum management are necessary; again, though, Mario's approach to this is much more strongly tied to the block itself rather than his own abilities.

And that's really the point that I'm trying to get at here with how MZ2 works -- Sonic's ability to get through this level is barely dependent on most of the gimmicks in the level, and after that first push he can basically ignore the blocks that make up most of the level. It's not totally trivial to do, especially if you don't realize that these acrobatics are even possible, but it definitely continues along with this theme of "Sonic the Hedgehog is so cool that he laughs in the face of deadly hazards NES-era characters would run away from screaming" that MZ1 seemed to be establishing.

10-27-2014, 04:13 AM
It's a nice touch that the game requires the player to push those blocks out of the way while in view of the flowing lava below, giving you a moment to prepare for what's about to happen. And putting a back-facing red spring after a series of enemies best handled by rolling is cleverly mean; as you say, there's plenty of room to catch yourself, so it's more the game winking at you than an actual cheap hit.

10-27-2014, 05:14 PM
Looking back over the map, I realized that one thing I didn't point out about this level that I should have is that the lavafalls and the fireball emitters are all placed near sources of lava. While it's not immediately obvious, for example, that there's going to be lava coming out of the tubelike protrusion in the ceiling, it IS placed directly underneath the small pit of lava you cross over, and the fireball spurter picture shows a pocket of lava in the wall next to it, presumably the source of the flames it spurts out.

While Sonic tends not be quite as plausibly architected in the way Castlevania was, it's actually a pretty thoughtful touch to have that sort of environmental awareness. Since it's easy to be caught unawares by some of these obstacles, it's nice (and probably the reason why) they had some environmental cues about the stage hazards.

11-06-2014, 06:14 AM

I might be misremembering, but if you jump up and left in this room, you can pass through the wall again into a seemingly pointless little alcove. Very bizarre.

Also, that lava chase terrified me as a kid.

11-06-2014, 09:43 AM
Yeah, all these little hidden coves are like that, though only one of them actually uses it for anything...

03-01-2015, 04:10 PM
Part 8: Marble Zone Act 3, Or, Can You Feel the Lava Tonight?

No need to remember when
' Cause everything old is new again
- Allen and Sager, Everything Old Is New Again (from the musical Chicago)

It's been a while since the last time I did one of these -- an almost embarrassingly long time, in fact. But I have a good reason for it. Well, a vaguely acceptable reason, anyway. OK, it's a shoddy excuse, but here we go anyway:

Marble Zone 3 is really boring.

Well, to be more precise, MZ3 is really boring to write about. I've been on-and-off racking my brain trying to find a way to explain why that is. So I think it's time we get a little bit down into the technical specifications of the Genesis and the engine of this game.

But first, the Zone0 link. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-mz-act3map.png)

Now that that's out of the way, let's get more specific about what makes this act a dull topic of discussion. We'll start out with the Genesis resolution, as odd as that sounds. In general, at least for games running in the US or Japan, the standard resolution is almost always 320x224 pixels. Some games run at a shrunken horizontal resolution of 256x224, and some games switch between them. (A few games also supported an interlaced mode that doubled the vertical resolution to 448. PAL regions' lower framerate means the time between each frame is longer, and so some games were 320- or 256x240 instead, which could be doubled to a full 480i with the interlacing.)

Now, Sonic 1 is built out of a bunch of large tiles which fit together into a level design vaguely like a jigsaw puzzle (these are themselves built out of smaller tiles, about the size of a single brick in Castlevania -- and these are split further into 4 subsections which are 8x8 pixels). These large tiles in Sonic 1 are 256x256, larger than the vertical resolution of the system, and very close to the size of horizontal resolution; in the lower-res mode, they would be exactly the width of a screen. These are pretty big chunks!

One of the nice things about a game as famous as Sonic 1 is that its internals have been thoroughly publicly documented. I can actually get a rip of every single one of the chunks in each stage. I compiled them into a single picture, which you can see below -- I've labeled a couple of the tiles I want to use to explain some things:


All of the chunks you see here are compressed together into a small part of the game ROM; they are decompressed into memory when the level begins and copied into the Genesis display chip's RAM. The cross-hatched pattern you see here denotes parts of the ROM that are used to indicate lava; because they must update every time and display RAM space is limited, they are stored in the ROM uncompressed and copied into memory every frame. It is stored uncompressed because decompressing would be too expensive an operation in computer cycles to do it that frequently, and since it is uncompressed, you would be able to find the lava art patterns if you opened up the ROM in a program like Tile Layer Pro (http://www.romhacking.net/utilities/108/).

In the above image there are 6 rows of 10 chunks, making 60 distinct foreground chunks. Of these chunks, about 19 of them are used in the above-ground areas, most of which are easily identifiable by the fact that the topmost bricks are covered in grass. Only one of those chunks is possibly re-usable in the underground areas, meaning 42 chunks are available there. Above-ground chunks are further limited by the desire to keep curves as continuous as possible, making it so that hilly terrain should only be like 1 or 2 pixels different on its edges than its adjacent chunks. If you look at the two chunks with grass near the lower left of the picture labelled A and B, they may look like they fit together well enough, but the disjointness over a smoother slope removes from Sonic the thing that makes it that much different from the games it's been cribbing from here -- rolling downhill.

Of course, the underground chunks are where this level's action is, and there's a lot more freedom here, though several tiles require additional object placement to function. Aside from the lava, which has a stationary, invisible object designed to hurt Sonic placed over them, there's also the chunks labeled C, D, and E. Fireballs (from C) and lavafalls (D and E) come out from these tiles, as seen in the previous stage. Even then, given how much the level tries to make a strong physical sense, placing anything other than solid ground under lava chunks would be a bad idea.

MZ Acts 1 and 2 were also a bit larger than Green Hill Zone, because they almost loop backward on themselves with the leftward passages. GHZ Acts 1 and 2 also had simpler layouts than Act 3 in order to be friendlier to inexperienced players, and aside from being slightly longer it also introduced the spinning spiked logs. MZ3 has neither a significant advantage in length, nor does it have one in any unique elements. It is simply a harder challenge than either of the previous acts, providing a remixed take on the challenges seen in the previous levels.

Anyway, that's why I never got around to writing about MZ3 until now. That's not to say that the level is devoid of any interesting features, merely that most of them are ones I've already explained. So I won't be going as in-depth into the structure of the layout as I did in the previous entries (which is probably for the best, since I don't think these entries are as compelling when the majority of the content is just screenshots with a one- or two-sentence blurb after them).


After a very short above-ground segment, the path in MZ3 splits up, which is unexpected given that the previous acts were both entirely linear affairs with no alternate routes or shortcuts. The path to the left appears more rewarding because this setup was only used in the previous stages as a location for extra power-ups, but here it is an alternate path that doesn't offer many benefits. While the obstacles in this path are easier to avoid, there also aren't any additional rings on it except for a super ring powerup at the end; the other path has more rings but also requires careful jumps over a larger lava pit with only a few falling blocks and piston counterweights to cross. Even in the course of taking damage, though, the path on the right is probably a few seconds faster if the shield powerup after the lava pit is ignored. It's nice to have some variety in this stage, but it doesn't feel very necessary since the one route is more direct and Marble has had a tendency to reward situational awareness and jumping control over navigational skills. It serves to make the stage a bit larger and slightly more complex, but aside from being a bit easier offers little in the way of reward over what would appear to be the main path.


The path split feels like a particularly missed opportunity in consideration of the fact that right after it is the only mandatory block ride in the entire level. The block needs to be active in order to trigger the two lava updrafts, which push Sonic up to the next part of the stage. This segement is probably the most questionable point in Marble's design, even more than the previous path split, because of the fact that immediately after the first updraft (which takes Sonic to a ledge on the left) there is a second one that puts Sonic a little farther along in the level: taking the first updraft means waiting for a block to come out of the wall, and it's on a slow cycle; the second updraft is visible onscreen while waiting for it to show up. If the cycle for the block coming out of the wall were just a little bit faster, it would make getting off at the first updraft a valid choice for speedrunning at the cost of a slightly more hazardous series of jumps over the lava pit; as it stands, the path is both slower and more hazardous, since a missed jump is almost certainly going to land Sonic in the lava, and from there he has to backtrack to the block again and push it to get back up; it's hard to get back there safely, though, since it's impossible to avoid touching the lava on the way back and the platforms blocking the way make it harder to collect scattered rings.

When I say this all feels like a missed opportunity, here's a bit more precisely what I mean. The left branch near the start had no rings, but also didn't have as demanding a series of obstacles as the right branch; because of the relative lack of space in that route, placing a few more enemies in that section could be an easy way to make it more challenging. Then, instead of the super ring at the end, leaving an invincilibity would make the harder route reward the player with another skippable block ride; if the lava flows could be triggered by Sonic running over them (instead of when the block reaches them -- Sonic has to ride the block to get to the next part of the level), it would make taking the left path more rewarding and offer an additional challenge that's in the spirit of the previous stages while still requiring the player to be careful and aware of their surroundings.


After this, however, is another path split, albeit one that isn't as obvious except to players who are desperate or found the secrets in the previous acts. Once again, rather than submit to death between the crusher and the ceiling, there is indeed a hidden passage to the right in the wall, where the number 6 is. Aside from giving a 1-up, this time there's also a path out of this room in the other direction, and it cuts out roughly a third of the stage, including a couple otherwise-unskippable block rides. The other hidden rooms in the previous stages did have holes on each side, but they didn't lead anywhere since they were right next to solid blocks anyway; it's also possible a desperate player might as easily find this room from the other side, though, since there's another crusher that falls right at the part of the level where it leads.

Now, the third of the level that's skipped doesn't really do anything you haven't seen before, only in slightly more lethal combinations: the chained platforms have fireballs moving between them (though, again, the cycles on these fireballs are slow enough that you may not even see them if you keep a good pace across them), the pistons are timed slightly differently than their counterparts in Act 1 due to their different spacing (but there's plenty of time for Sonic to get past each one; the greater risk is being knocked back from the spikes into where these crushers are), and the moving bricks after this start moving as soon as Sonic lands on them -- like the one in Act 2 move faster than the ones Sonic pushes across the lava (though once again it's possible to skip the blocks and carefully jump across the small platforms). There is a checkpoint here, the only one in the level aside from the one before the boss, but otherwise it's safer (and more rewarding!) to take the shortcut with the 1-up. The final block ride, just like the one in Act 2, can be skipped by careful jumps across the platforms at speed; even if the shortcut isn't taken, that first block ride is the only one that's mandatory.


Sonic loops back around one more time past the fourth instance of wall-mounted fireball spitters in the stage (again, you've seen just about everything in this level a few times already), to what is probably the most interesting obstacle in this act, arguably this zone, and maybe even most of this game. It's especially reminiscent of Castlevania, crossing a series of the narrow counterweights above the lava pit which have small bits of ground between them that spikes pop out of. There are also bats flying around, but they pose no direct threat since Sonic can't reach them without jumping, which destroys the bats -- the only risks are getting knocked back from hitting the spikes or from missing a jump onto the narrow platforms, which isn't very easy to do even with Sonic's good aerial mobility.

It's the last real challenge before the boss, so it's appropriately hard, and, as before, Act 3 doesn't have strict ring requirements due to the lack of a special stage. The counterweights are also almost directly above the safe platforms over the lava, so moving a little to the left from a missed jump usually keeps Sonic safe for an easy second chance at the trap -- it's hard, but there's still been some forgiveness baked into it. Fitting for the end of the second zone -- challenging, but not a make-or-break moment for an inexperienced player like we'll see in the end of later zones.

After this the level leads back outside. Another set of lava pits with fireballs and moving platforms is there, and past that is a checkpoint, the one right before the boss. Once again, there are no convenient rings placed near it, and so dying at the boss still carries a risk of needing to avoid any hit -- doubling back to get those free rings leaves Sonic very vulnerable to those fireballs.


Thankfully the boss's gimmick is pretty simple. Eggman's ship is outfitted with a fireball spitter on its bottom, and he drops fireballs onto the two platforms on either side of the lava pit in the middle of the arena (the arena boundary is marked by the black box in the Zone0 map). He first drops a fireball on the left side of the arena. Since Sonic needs to reach the right side of the arena in order to trigger the encounter, this gives a free chance to observe the boss's behavior without taking damage. The flames he drop spread out to the entirety of that side of the platform (there's a subtle hint to this in the fact that these are the only tiles used above-ground that don't have any grass on them, presumably because they've been burnt off by Eggman testing his new contraption), so in order to avoid taking damage, Sonic needs to stay on the other platform while this happens. After dropping the fireball, Eggman moves over to the right side to drop a fireball where Sonic is presumably standing. His approach can be delayed by hitting him, and it's easy to get in 3 hits on the machine before it reaches the other side -- giving the fire time to spread off the platform so Sonic has a bit more room to land safely on the other side. There are a couple fireballs that hop out of the lava pit, though they are easy to avoid.

Compared to most of the bosses we'll see in this game, I think Marble's here is the one whose immediate level design provides the fewest hints of what to expect. The fireballs certainly tend to come out of the pits, but it might be nice to have one of the sinking platforms we saw in act 1 show up right before the boss, just to drive the point home that the main attack Sonic will have to worry about is the ground being set on fire.

This concludes Marble Zone, at long last. But wait! There's one other thing to point out about this level, and it's unique to the recent iOS/Android ports of the game. Because these ports include Tails and Knuckles as playable characters with their signature moves, this act has been changed around slightly to adapt to their movesets. It's a good thing too, since in previous implementations of Tails and Knuckles in the game the level has been mostly trivialized, as you'll see by Tails flying over the entirety of Act 1's underground here:


I have not played the mobile port (I'm quite satisfied with the 3DS port, thank you very much) so I don't know if this shortcut is still there, but I've gotten the impression that it is. Similar skips are available in act 2, but it's only in mobile act 3 that I've been able to find any indication of a modified layout, likely because of its increased size. There are a lot of blocks in the middle of the stage that are just solid wall and easily could be replaced with yet another alternate route; neither of the previous acts have as much space in them to make this modification.

Unfortunately the redesigned area doesn't feel like it's had the care put into it that the rest of Marble has, since it mixes up the above- and below-ground tiles without keeping the background consistent to match (it's quite a shame that the background doesn't change to the underground one in this area, especially considering that the mobile ports aren't restricted by the limitations the Genesis has on backgrounds, or even the number of tiles; you'll notice that there are a few extra chunks here that don't show up in the original).


Surpsingly, there aren't a lot of videos of this segment. This one, that shows Tails in his two-player assist mechanic first introduced to the series in Sonic 3, also reveals that the hidden area isn't well-tuned when Sonic is playing with him as an assistant, due to how easy it is to get hit in the sections that require airlifts, bringing Sonic back down to where they start. Doing something like this isn't a bad idea given the inclusion of Tails and Knuckles, but wouldn't even be necessary if neither character was included in the game; it certainly wasn't designed with either of them in mind, and they feel superfluous here. Ah well, at least it's something to put on the product description -- "Now with Tails and Knuckles!".


Marble Zone is a level that gets a bad rap since it's not in keeping with the style that we associate as Sonic, but I think it's an important part of this game. It's heavily based on ideas from some of the most carefully-constructed NES games; for players who have played these games, this zone is an excellent way to see how Sonic's control makes these sections different (and thus is a very gentle increase in difficulty from GHZ), while giving inexperienced players an indication of some of what they missed out on in the previous console generation. It's done in a manner respectful of the previous games' design, despite the way Sega's offerings tended to be marketed as antithetical to them (see, for example, the infamous "Genesis does!" ad campaign). It's fair to say that Marble doesn't feel like Sonic is, at least not for someone who's played several games in the series, especially since it rewards thinking about its inspirations -- once Sonic hits the game's speed cap, his jump trajectories stay fixed if he doesn't slow down, and suddenly Marble Zone is not an inconvenience, but a mix between a reflex game like Canabalt and a traditional Castlevania (a "Canabaltslevania" perhaps??).

03-01-2015, 05:12 PM
That's the anatomy of a game, all right. Now I can't help but notice those chunks when I look at the full map—especially that corridor with the three fireball shooters, which always has a bit of lava in the top-left, whether it makes sense or not.

In that video from the mobile port, aside from the new route, I noticed they put a solid block in the middle of the lava pit right before Eggman and covered the rest of it with crumble blocks. I wonder what else they did.

03-01-2015, 05:46 PM
Part 9: Secret Zone 3, Or, Look But Don't Touch

Hands off. Do you need persuading?
- Rory Gallagher, Hands Off

Zone0 map. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-specialstage-maze3map.png) You know the drill.

Secret Zone 3 is different from the last two. There aren't a lot of goal spheres and the ones that are here are blocked off, but the stage is the most open one we've seen so far (in fact, this is the only stage so far that doesn't block off Sonic into a smaller chamber where the emerald is). It's also probably the hardest.

One of the dirty little secrets of most of these stages is that Sonic can actually get really close to the emerald if you keep your hands off the controller. The first stage funnels Sonic directly into the emerald room. The second stage brings Sonic right by where the emerald is held, though a jump is necessary to reach the closed-off chamber where the emerald is. In each case Sonic is led very close to where the emerald is -- and if control isn't taken at that point, the layout funnels him back into an exit sphere violently.

Since the screenshots of these stages all tend to look a little samey, here's a video of what happens in each of the first three stages if you don't touch the controller:


That said, this may be the hardest stage but it is also one of the most lucrative. Without control, you'll see that Sonic gets not only a continue, but at 73 rings is most of the way to an extra life. Since the stage is open, it's possible for Sonic to get almost all of the rings in the stage at any time, and if there's one level that it's probably a good idea to intentionally lose, it's this one, since a continue can be guaranteed from the level structure! Go ahead and get yourself a glass of milk while the game gets you three extra lives for nothing!

What makes this level so hard is that since there isn't anything keeping Sonic from flying back through the whole stage, it's nearly impossible to keep Sonic near where the emerald is. There aren't a lot of blocks to rest Sonic against while the stage rotates, and trying to jump to a safe place can just as easily get Sonic to fall away toward the goal spheres due to the way jump heights are fixed in these stages. Between that and the many spaced-out bumpers here, losing control of Sonic is pretty easy to do in this stage, and all the progress you've made in uncovering the emerald can quickly be lost as the stage turns around to dump Sonic out back where he came from.

Coming at it from the sides or the bottom as pictured in the Zone0 link is risky because of how easily Sonic can fall into one of the exits. Coming from the top is easily the least risky because of the huge clearance between it and the exit spheres (in fact, there is no exit sphere directly underneath it when that section of the map has rotated to the top of the stage), but it's also the hardest point to come back to due to all those bumpers and the great distance back to stable ground.

It's good that special stages don't have a timer, because in this one especially it is very easy to waste a lot of time trying to chip away at the emerald. It's still worth writing about, because it serves as a good interlude to our next stage, which is all about trollish bumpers and confounding physics!

03-01-2015, 07:56 PM
The romhack I just let's played aslo includes those weird skips. I used them to skip basically the entire level.

I'm not sure if they're there in sonic 1 classic. I've never bothered to go into the debug mode and find out.

03-01-2015, 08:26 PM
Zone0 map. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-specialstage-maze3map.png)

Ah, "the turtle."

03-01-2015, 08:28 PM
Beat: Oh yeah, I fiddled around in debug mode a lot with Sonic 1 and it's how I found out that skipping the levels as Tails and Knuckles would be feasible. I assume the reason the stage has the gap at the top is to make sure the background works correctly, though I'm surprised they just didn't re-code how the background scrolling worked for this stage -- then again, the background coding in the initial US release of the game is pretty paltry, neglecting to include the parallax effects later added to the Japanese release which became a staple of Sonic backgrounds.

Kishi: OH! Yeah, one of the funny things about each of these special stage maps is that they almost look like physical things. One of the upcoming stages looks a little like a dragon and the sixth one definitely looks like an urchin (or at least Treasure's idea of an urchin vis-a-vis Seven Force)

03-02-2015, 07:38 AM
Huh! They maybe we're not talking about the same thing! In the Hack there's a straight up hidden passage at the top of the stage, complete with hazards item boxes and even a spring!


03-02-2015, 09:31 AM
This isn't strictly on-topic, but I'd like to see a breakdown of the rings-as-health mechanic. It's always struck me as really odd that you can stay alive nigh-indefinitely as long as you're sort of okay at picking up rings after you're hit.

03-02-2015, 11:03 PM
OK. So I went to take a look at what BEAT was talking about, and the areas in Classic Heroes are definitely added to the game (there's a hidden 1-up at the top of act 1 and a couple secret areas in acts 2 and 3; one of the ones in act 2 has a 1-up, invincibility, and speed shoes). The act 3 extra area is also different from the one the mobile port uses.

I went ahead and got the mobile port just because I wanted to check the differences between versions. Marble Act 1 has an invincibility power-up in an alcove accessible only by Tails and Knuckles, while Act 2 has had its upper paths completely blocked off (a good idea, in my opinion) so Tails and Knuckles have to go underground just like Sonic must.

This isn't strictly on-topic, but I'd like to see a breakdown of the rings-as-health mechanic. It's always struck me as really odd that you can stay alive nigh-indefinitely as long as you're sort of okay at picking up rings after you're hit.

Well, so far into the game we haven't really come into too many sneaky traps. Hazards have been telegraphed well and Sonic usually doesn't go so fast as to make it impossible to read the surroundings. We'll be seeing levels in the next few updates that focus a lot on spring gimmicks that make Sonic difficult to control, and past there are levels with obstacles that are more hidden or harder to react to either because Sonic is going faster or slower than normal.

In later games, Sonic gets more consistently faster, obstacles tend to push him into danger more frequently, and level layouts are a lot denser than we're seeing here. Since Sonic can avoid death easily by regrabbing lost rings, the game rewards bravado and pushing Sonic's limits. Some of the jumps across the pushblock routes that we've seen in Marble Zone aren't made obvious, but a player wanting to see if they can get through that area faster on their own will find they have a chance -- and if they mess up and fall in the lava they still have a hope of getting back to the start of that section without dying.

People who don't have a lot of experience playing Sonic games take the implication that they're losing rings as a sign that they're playing the game wrong. I don't think that's quite correct -- taking a hit is a bad thing, but it always leads to a chance to learn what Sonic is and isn't capable of, and the game is a lot more interesting when you're willing to take risks or push your impatience just a little bit. Embrace taking damage a little bit! You don't need to get a good rank or bring 50 rings to the end of a stage on your first attempt at the game, but you should definitely take a chance to see if you can clear those spikes in a single leap. It might kill the flow of your first playthrough, but it will probably help you when you come back the next time and need to find an easy way across a set of obstacles. Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy! Don't ride in a school bus that shrinks you down to the size of an oxygen molecule because what the hell do you think you're gonna breathe at that size?

It's certainly true the developers knew that even only one or two rings are hard to grab, and I think that's why most pre-boss checkpoints don't have convenient rings: it would trivialize most of the game's bosses. While they're hardly the focus of the game (and most of them aren't particularly challenging on their own), they still serve as a sort of quick reminder of some of the lessons of each stage and definitely gate player progress (and we'll be coming up to a really dramatic gate of this sort in a few stages).

Now, in the more recent games, especially the ones by Dimps? Your rings go flying ever farther away the more damage you take, meaning that you can't take hits indefinitely -- eventually those rings will fly across the screen before you can reach them. Combined with more aggressive boss behavior, I can definitely see why people have mixed opinions on the later games' bosses (and even I am pretty thankful they have an "easy" option for them, yes, even me), since it's easy to take a bunch of hits and be left with nothing unless you do a lot of rote memorization of boss patterns.

Beta Metroid
03-10-2015, 02:13 PM
Amazing work! I've been eagerly savoring every update of this, and I love how in-depth you go. You've given me new appreciation for Sonic 1.

I just wanted to say that it may make me a heathen, but I like getting to play as Tails and Knuckles. It may wreak havoc on the game's design, but I'm always fond of having different movesets, and I enjoy the feeling of getting away with something. Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed that Super Mario Crossover hack as well. They may be superfluous, but I think they're fun, and that justifies their inclusion for me.

04-23-2015, 08:34 PM
Sorry for the still-glacial pace of updates. Spring Yard 1 should be up by this weekend.

04-25-2015, 07:26 PM
Part 10: Spring Yard Zone Act 1, Or, One of Those Things That's Hard to Write about before April

- Kelis and Calvin Harris, Bounce

The strategy guide for Sonic Jam, a compilation of all the main Genesis games for the system, features small commentary blurbs from the developers about each stage. Here's Naoto "Bigisland" Ohshima has to say about Spring Yard Zone:

This map was the first one to be drawn and finalized. Wanting to bounce around on the pinball-like bumpers in this stage really can't be helped! Because the star-patterned bumpers make a "Bo-bin!" sound when you bounce on them, in Sonic Team lexicon we call them bobins (laughs).

Spring Yard was the first level to be designed, and it shows. The level feels built out of setpieces used in a possible test level -- the setpieces in the stage don't always flow together well, and a lot of the stage seems to be built around trying to show off progressively more elaborate moving-platform and spring traps. Obstacles tend to work against against Sonic's momentum as much as they do with it, and there are several large U-shaped ramps that seem to exist almost exclusively to test Sonic's rolling momentum. Compared to the thoughtful design of the previous stages which tended to be about specific concepts of how Sonic plays, Spring Yard tends toward synthesis; it's not too hard to push your way through Marble if you're willing to take a few hits, but the hazards of Spring Yard are less telegraphed and require a deeper understanding of Sonic's control in order to get through. While Spring Yard might represent a low point in the game, as it's not willing to fully commit to being focused on speed or proficiency the way most other stages are, that's not to say it's an outright bad level, just one that loves to troll unsuspecting players -- and is greatly outclassed by direct successors in a way the other levels of this game aren't.

That's an inevitable part of Spring Yard's design. While Marble wants to look back at popular NES games for its inspiration, Spring Yard is looking almost entirely forward, for the ideas that will come to define Sonic over the years. While I like Marble Zone a lot and think it's got a lot to say from the standpoints of this analysis, later games tend to copy the purpose of Marble without getting too close to its design. In comparison, the design of Spring Yard is fundamental to what they wanted Sonic to be, though later games have the advantage of hindsight and seeing what worked, and should be improving on the game. Most of Sonic 1's other levels retain their identity even when future games use them as inspiration, but -- if I ever get that far into writing about the other games -- future variants of Spring Yard retain most of its setpieces with less variation and still have more stable controls and fewer cheap hazards. What separates Spring Yard from its descendants tends to be what makes it frustrating to play.

It's like playing the original Metroid: sure, it's still better than a lot of other games, but is obviously dated by the standards of Super Metroid, which takes many of the first game's best ideas and wraps them up in a deeper and more player-friendly package. Going back to it is hard when you have the thought of Super Metroid being right there ready to play instead. Such is the price of innovation.

As always, Zone0 map (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-syz-act1map.png).

SYZ1 opens with disappointment. There is a platform above Sonic's starting position that is obvious from the map but barely if at all visible ever on a typical playthrough, on which are a 1-up and super sneakers, both very useful power-ups. Since this level is the last one to cover that's part of the demo roll, you'd think that they might use the opportunity to record a playthrough of Sonic rolling off the ramp to reach it. Instead, that hideaway is ignored, and so there's no indication given that it's there; the only reason someone would find it would be from a guide map like this one, or from seemingly random experimentation. We'll get back to this in a little while, since the super sneakers make a significant difference in how to approach the next part of the level.


There's another oddity at the start: unlike previous stages where three rings are placed in easy jump height relative to Sonic at the level start, there are only two rings that Sonic can't reach without jumping from the green box to his right. (It's not obvious from the map, but there's an animated object in the box meant to resemble a flashing light like you'd see from a lighthouse or a police car.) Jumping up there puts Sonic in range of the shots the Crabmeats fire out, meaning taking a hit before getting any rings, which means death. Since it takes a while for them to fire out their shots and GHZ made attacking them before they could do so pretty easy, this might be the first time the player sees these shots. That's probably why there are three of them placed there. It's still pretty easy to get to the rings before the first one does anything. In more careless moments I've lost the foothold on the platform and landed on that first Crabmeat before I could get the rings. Despite being an incredibly simple hazard, there are a lot of ways it can go wrong for Sonic. Intentional design trying to demonstrate that the game is no longer messing around, or an indication of bad scripting? It's hard to make a case for one over the other given the rest of the stage.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's why they placed three of them: a player who's reached this level for the first time may want to approach this section slowly, giving one of the Crabmeats enough time to launch an attack. On the other hand, attacks on the Crabmeats and two approaching Buzzbombers can all be chained together, leading to 2800 easy points for a more advanced player (but there's no direct incentive for getting a high score). After this is the spring that Sonic can use to get up to that hidden platform, or just go right to the next part of the level.


This next segment, with bumpers, springs, and ramps, is about as close to a thesis statement for this stage as we could get: the ramps, bumpers, and springs all look a lot like a pachinko table, and it's impossible to get all the rings in this segment without expertly controlling Sonic's momentum off the bumpers. Unlike a pachinko table, though, Sonic has nearly full control in the air and can't control how hard the springs launch him; pachinko machines almost never offer control to the player beyond the ability to control a plunger or level that launches the pachinko balls. Since pachinko is a fast-moving game (launching many small balls over the course of a period of time in hopes of hitting a jackpot) and typically designed for gambling, it doesn't translate well into video game mechanics well; pachinko games rarely leave Japan because aside from the cultural cachet that the game has there, there's little going for it. Pachinko is a game of luck and grinding, which doesn't translate well to single-person home entertainment. Sonic, meanwhile, can and does turn these pachinko mechanics into a game mostly of skill. Fine control is required to maneuver around the bumpers, but it's easy to predict where Sonic will go when he hits a spring or a bumper.

The launching springs there provide a good point of comparison between the relative strength of the yellow and red springs. Yellow springs provide a speed boost that is easy to control and doesn't move Sonic much past the height of the screen, but the red spring can push Sonic over the top of the stage. The only thing keeping Sonic from flying away after hitting the red spring is a bumper at the top of the loop; without it, Sonic would fly past the top of the screen.

In fact, if you've kept the super sneakers to this point, holding right gives Sonic enough speed to pass that red spring and soar to the top of the level, landing at super-ring and shield power ups on the other side of a wall. This skips a particularly tedious moving platform sequence and is probably the reason the power-up was part of the level in the first place. This doesn't seem to be an accident but an intentional part of the level design, or at least one that the designers were aware of when it came time to develop sequels -- to the point where, yes, in Sonic CD there are multiple parts of the game where the fastest way to get past some levels is to cruise over top of them much like this.

You don't want to hold right too much, though -- if you keep it held down, Sonic will almost certainly either go completely past the ledge with those two power-ups and either fall down to the bottom of the level or hit one of the rotating spike-balls and get knocked back down anyway, but without any rings. Like with Green Hill Zone, the upper routes of the game are generally less hazardous though not necessarily always faster. With most of Spring Yard, though, the lower route carries with it none of the advantages that the lower routes in GHZ did. There aren't any power-ups tucked away behind hidden walls, and only a few rings to collect despite many more ways to lose them. Not to mention the fact that the lower route requires you to take a ride on another moving platform sequence to get to the end of the level.


These platforms are a real pain. They're even slower than the block rides in Marble Zone, there isn't usually an obvious way to skip them (indeed, in this case the only way to avoid them -- using the super sneakers -- was hidden so well that you'd never find them unless you thought to look there beforehand), and it's possible for Sonic to get crushed between them if he isn't careful. These show up in columns of 3 at a time, where the middle block moves in one direction and then back to its starting position while the side blocks move in the opposite direction. This makes it possible to only move from one row of blocks to another in a single cycle, which is why it takes so long. They feel even slower than they actually are, too, since up until now Sonic's movement through each level has been almost entirely horizontal. This is the first segment of the game where Sonic's movement through it is almost entirely horizontal, and so the usual indicator of level progress isn't changing.

Crueler still are the buzzbombers flying overhead, firing missles into the tiny boxes of space Sonic has to work with. It's damn near impossible to avoid taking a hit here.

This bore of a gimmick leads to a slope that's excellent for rolling on. Hitting the back-facing spring at the end of it knocks Sonic into a new enemy that thankfully doesn't show up in any other levels, because it's quite a pain to deal with. It's an interesting pain, unlike those platforms, but it's still a pain.


This armadillo bot is simply named Roller, and will be the first of many robots that imitate Sonic's behavior and appearance. These robots are some of the toughest that Robotnik's designed, and in almost all other cases they appear very near the end of the game, as bosses. But here in Spring Yard Zone, right in the middle of the game, they just roll through the stage as they please, almost certainly going to win against Sonic in a battle of rolling. They roll up next to Sonic, uncurl, and then curl up again and roll away. After they curl up, they are completely invulnerable; any touch to Sonic, even if he's rolling, is fatal, and they move erratically, rolling away and then jumping, making them difficult to dodge. Plus, if they're not taken out the first time, they have a tendency to show up again right by where they landed before if Sonic doesn't keep moving forward. They're a pain.

The one saving grace is that when they roll in, they're still able to be hit, so Sonic's roll backward from the spring takes out the first one. That spring isn't accidental; it's another instance where the game seems to be using sloped ground (with its invitation to roll) and Sonic's mostly-fixed rolling behavior as a way to teach something without completely locking Sonic's control, or at least giving the option to cede it gracefully. Keeping in mind that Sonic's only way to gain much speed in this game (aside from hitting one of the rare power-ups) is to roll, it's not too far off from . Since effectively all the later games give Sonic a chance to gain speed like this rolling but from a standstill, these opportunities to teach aren't as strict, because slopes wind up being less important to the idea of going fast. As a result, even if I think this level is a pain, I still strongly advise people who haven't played a Sonic game to start with this game first. The game's rough around the edges (and just looking at this stage's design so far I've already complained about the lack of indication of the hidden platform at the start, the boring vertically-moving platforms, and these roller enemies, so maybe "rough around the edges" is being generous for this stage so far), but because of the way it limits Sonic's speed and takes care to mete out places to encourage rolling, it's also a lot clearer of how it expects to be played.

Meanwhile, the first game in the series that I'd played was Sonic 2, and in the process of making this guide have had to re-learn the association between slopes and rolling, just because of how easy it is to get into a speedy rolling state in that game, just about anywhere. It's only in hitting that backward spring just now, as I'm writing this, that I learned that an early hit on a roller can take it out before it uncurls. The design of the stage is slipshod, but it's not thoughtless -- though it definitely makes less sense if your instincts came from a later game with more complex move sets.


Right after that is a simple but interesting little reflex challenge. There's a stationary platform and a switch. Hitting the switch does nothing, or so it seems for about a second. The only other thing on screen that can be affected by the switch, the platform, then begins to rise. It's the only way back up to the top section of the stage for someone who wouldn't know about the super sneakers -- and the rest of the bottom path is very obviously a penalty route, with lots of spikey obstacles to avoid and only a few rings to collect. There's also another moving block sequence at the end of that route. Unlike with any of the times in Green Hill Zone, there are no special power-ups or especially interesting secrets.


These staircase groupings shown in these screenshots both look cool in motion and are probably the most mechanically interesting obstacle we've seen so far. Except for the block in the middle of the set, each one moves left and right together, with the blocks at the top and bottom moving out farther in the same period of time than the ones nearer to the middle (in more mathematical terms, each block has the same period, but the amplitude of the oscillation is proportional to the distance from the center). Traversing them requires Sonic to get to the top before the blocks start moving in the opposite direction, taking away a foothold and sending Sonic back down to the bottom of the stage, but since there's nothing blocking Sonic once he gets to the top, he can stay there safely and easily move from one set of these platforms to another. Unlike the other moving blocks, which were a matter of waiting, these actually require active planning and control of Sonic to get across, which is why I like them much more.

Variants on these sorts of blocks show up in all the other Sonic games on the system, but usually with slightly more elaborate behavior, another example of an idea in this game that's not terrible on its own, but obviously outclassed by later entries in the series. Unlike most of the rest of the stage so far, they're also not very exclusive to Sonic or his abilities; one contemporary precedent would be the Yoshi's Island 3 stage from Super Mario World.


The previously mentioned punishment route at the bottom of the stage starts off with another slope, but one that's not conducive to rolling. The first spike ball is visible from the start of the ramp, so the idea that you for once shouldn't roll down the slope is telegraphed well in advance, though there'd be no reason not to if the second spike ball wasn't there; it's telegraphed in advance, and good jumping can get Sonic over it, but it's also the only thing that makes rolling down it unsafe -- there's even another lamp at the end of the slope to stop Sonic after rolling downward. That said, unless your timing is impeccable, jumping over the spikeballs is the only way to avoid taking a hit while rolling, so there isn't a lot of room to speed up. The ramp only seems to be there in order to make room for this path at the bottom of the stage, since the upper route has a large pit at the end of it that drops to about the same height as the entrance to this section.


After that is a small segment where the ceiling narrows, and a spikeball chain rotates around a platform that Sonic must jump across. There's not a lot of space to work in, and the platform in the center that the spikeball rotates is too tall for Sonic to just run across. Because of the rotating chain and the narrow space, there isn't must time or room to move back through once entering this area, so while those rings at the top are tempting, it's better to try to push through the segment without getting hit, which requires jumping over the block in the middle -- and the low ceiling prevents Sonic from moving forward during the jump. It's cramped and narrow and prevents Sonic from approaching or exiting it too quickly. Sonic can't get up to speed here, so in a situation like the picture above, it would be nearly impossible to avoid taking a hit from the spikeballs.

This challenge would be excellent if it wasn't so easily avoidable. Sonic can't go barrelling right into it at high speed so there's time to wait and observe, and good timing and aerial control are necessary to get to the other side without taking a hit, but it's also a trap that can be gotten out of in a single jump while grabbing all the rings. It's been reused, and of all the gimmicks in this stage that have been, it's also the one that was copied while making the fewest changes, and for good reason. Usually, though, if a variant on this setpiece isn't skippable, it's done in such a way that there's a lot more room to maneuver in, or at least a way to maintain momentum through. Despite being a zone that is all about playing to Sonic's character-defining abilities, it's still a pretty slow stage in the series as a whole.

After this is another narrow passage with more moving spikeballs blocking the entrance and exit; easily avoided but requiring Sonic to move slowly through the section, and another one of these rotating spikeball traps. Since there's no room to move quickly through this segment, it definitely feels punishing. It's possible to get through the traps in Marble Zone without stopping too much, but here the lack of space requires Sonic to go slowly to avoid getting hit; there is no way to cruise quickly without stopping other than to avoid the route entirely.


So the end of the segment is still pretty slow. It's the vertical boxes again, bringing Sonic back to the faster path that I've mostly skipped over so far. There's a hidden passage on the right side here; holding right when trying to jump onto the spring can get Sonic into the passage at the height of his jump, so it's the sort of secret passage that's not visually indicated but easy to stumble into through the normal gameplay mechanics. The problem is there really isn't much to say about the passage itself here. There are only 10 loose rings, which is pretty boring compared to the expectation from previous stages, where hidden passages had 1-ups or multiple super ring power ups.

On the other hand, I've been pointing out segments of the game that seem like they could be locations for chaos emeralds. This is definitely a plausible place for one, since it's at the end of a tricky segment that otherwise provides no real material benefit to the player; if this path was necessary for the good ending, it would justify taking this path. Once again, the fact that the path isn't very interesting on its own (as with the floating platforms at the top of GHZ1), it's hard to argue that moving the emeralds to the secret zones was a bad idea.


The upper route is a lot simpler. Rings lead the player across a set of elevated platforms, a couple of which are slanted. There are some crabmeats below these platforms, but otherwise this area is pretty hazard-free. It spans almost the length of the lower section, and due to the lack of hazards is much faster to go across. However, falling off these platforms requires backtracking to a vertical yellow spring; it is simple and forgiving, but requires precision to succeed with. If you fall off, the slope upware with a red spring at the end makes it impossible to get back up, and the upward-sloping platform is at a grade high enough that Sonic can only barely gain momentum to move up it if he tries to jump to it from the bottom -- only the end of the platform is within Sonic's jump range, making falling off likely. There are a few crabmeats below these platforms, but, especially with the momentum from the red spring, it's easy to roll into all of them. There's little to worry about up here.

Past this is the first of 3 large pits in the level, each of which has multiple red springs at the bottom. There's another sliding-staircase platform set above the pit; getting across this leads to the other side without having to fall into it, which is definitely an easier path, but it's worth falling into for another invincibility power up. It's advisable to jump into the pit (which needs to be done to get past the lantern right in front of it) and keep the jump button held down, since landing on the power-up while holding it will give Sonic enough upward momentum to get across the pit without needing to hit a spring. Of course, the springs can get Sonic back up to the top without much issue, so there's no significant penalty for missing the jump.


Here the two paths meet up again. Once again, there's a red spring at the top of the curve, ready to send Sonic back the way he came if he doesn't stop short, a platform in his reach, and a new enemy. Getting up to the top of this section requires Sonic to jump onto the platform as shown, and then above the spring here. It's not a particularly significant challenge to someone who's gotten this far (especially in context of the running speed cap, as I've discussed in GHZ2), but it does force Sonic to slow down enough to check out the badnik here, a hermit crab robot known as, appropriately enough, Spikes. Those spikes are not just for show; the robot here is deadly from the top, making it impossible to safely jump on it Mario-style (at least not without this invincibility). The solution for how to beat this guy is pretty clear, especially in the context of how to get past most of the obstacles in this stage -- roll into it!


After this is more rolling. Two half-pipes with single fast-moving spikeballs show up, and while the safer option is to jump past the spikeball and land on the platform in the middle, it's easier (and more fun!) to roll through the half-pipe. Though the spikeballs are fast, Sonic is even faster, and so rolling through here is safe enough with good timing.

After the second half-pipe is another spring pit, with crabmeats on the other side. Since Sonic is vulnerable when springing up, it's important to take care here, but the badniks are more deadly for their projectiles rather than from a direct hit, since they stay far enough away from the edge for Sonic to land on it. There's another pit on the opposite side, though, where that isn't the case.


The Spike enemies here do go all the way to the edge of the platform. Trying to get to the other side on the top isn't advised, since it's very easy to spring right up into them and take a hit. Furthermore, there's yet another series of those slow vertical boxes past them. This is a very cheap trap because at this point there's no convenient way to regain most of the rings you've lost. The springs in the pit make trying to re-grab the ones you just lost difficult, and there aren't a lot of rings lying around from earlier for you to grab to make up for these. It's effectively a blind trap if you go down into the pit, though it can be cleared with enough speed from the ledge on the other side, though that still carries the risk of hitting one of the badniks from the top, which is still damaging!


Falling into the middle of the pit is safe, and there's a super ring power-up for the taking there, and safe ground below it. From there, jumping over the springs gets Sonic to an unmissable switch that raises a block on the other side. The spring there can boost Sonic forward, to what is the end of the level. Definitely the better option of the two paths from that spot.

That's Spring Yard 1. It's wildly inconsistent, and while it stresses use of the abilities that make Sonic unique -- in particular, his ability to roll into a ball -- it stays away from the other signature feature that defines most of the Sonic series, its speed. It's not without clever combination of simpler elements like the platforms and springs, but it has lots of cheap hits and less room to explore or experiment than the previous stages. If there's one reason this stage shows its age more than the rest of the game, it's that: the design team had a lot of freedom to experiment with structures, but a player has only so much they can do at any point without winding up taking an badly-communicated hit. Since there are two special stages yet to be visited by even a skilled player, taking damage here only tends to compound that frustration; especially since 2 of the 4 levels with a special stage chance outside of this zone are even more difficult than this one.

Still, there's plenty to talk about with this stage, and it contrasts well with Marble. While the old canard that a delayed game is eventually good and a rushed game is terrible forever has its merits, there is definitely a corollary here: a finalized design is one that gets built, rather than lost in development for decades and possibly turned into vaporware. While I opened with the commentary on this stage from the Sonic Jam strategy guide, let's compare that to what Yuji Naka had to say about Green Hill Zone in the same book:

This is the stage that took the designers the longest to get properly arranged, and from the beginning of development the graphics were probably redone 4 or five times. The art and maps for this zone alone took half a year to produce! At the time, we were aware of computer graphics, but we tried to get that look by hand (laugh)

The added development time in Green Hill Zone is quite obvious. Each of the stages has a very clearly-defined concept, and have put a lot more thought into introducing what Sonic is to an inexperienced player. Spring Yard explores what Sonic can be, but leaves it up to the player to figure out what that actually is. The design team hadn't thought out everything about Sonic yet, and it shows, but it gave them room to define enough ideas to explore both in the rest of this game, and also, even more so, in the sequels.

07-16-2015, 12:37 AM
Part 11: Spring Yard Zone Act 2, Or, Round Things In Your Face and You Get Sprung

Bump Bump Bump
The way you throwing that thing at me (uh-huh)
I can take it - B2K and P. Diddy, "Bump, Bump, Bump"

Spring Yard Zone Act 2 is an astoundingly silly stage. It is, perhaps, a little more interesting than the preceding act, though I struggle to find myself having anything nicer to say beyond that, and my review of that act was fairly negative, so this position isn't one that says very much. If anything, though, the elements of act 1 that made that level cheap have been amplified here, to the point that very little in this stage actually seems to work. The strange gimmicks in Act 1 that broke with the established strucure of the previous levels felt like regions for testing various enemy and ; most of this stage's setpieces feel built out of that same sort of testing environment as the spring pits and emergent platform behavior of the previous act. Furthermore, most of the form of this stage is poorly communicated, hard to understand without prior familiarity or a visual guide like the Zone 0 map.

Speaking of which, that's here. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-syz-act2map.png)

Before I excoriate this level for being filled with bad (or, at the least, prematurely-conceived) ideas and haphazard design, I should discuss the things about this stage that I like, or at least Spring Yard in general. Aside from having bits that show up again in later games, there's nothing in this level that feels stand-out on its own or particularly good, so they describe Spring Yard Zone as a whole and not any individual act. It also provides me with a good opportunity to discuss the aesthetics of the stage, since that's where the stage excels.

The visual design of the stage is wonderful. The colors of the stage continue the focus on secondary colors that we've seen in previous stages. This time the primary color for the foreground is a reddish-orange with a complementary teal for highlights. The background consists of green grass with relatively high pixel details, as well as black buildings and purple mountains with lower details conveying a greater distance away from the player than the grass detail; parallax scrolling effects found in the Japanese version of this game augment the distance effect. I particularly appreciate that the gradient effect on the mountains and clouds in the stage, which go from purple to fade into a yellowish color by way of orange; this gradient is more evocative of a sunset than a straight fade-out from purple to white would be and more visually appealing as a result. Plus, it gives us a good location in space and time for this level -- the purple mountains in the background seem reminiscent of those in Marble Zone, as though we had tunneled through the ruins to reach the other sides, and the sunset conveys the time passing since we first started traveling through the game. It is subtle, especially since the game doesn't actively portray time and location passing between levels (no cutscenes or map screens), but a nice touch worth noting.


It's also worth noting that the appearance of the zone was nowhere near as pleasing in pre-release art. It is eye-searing and much harder to read the background detail of. While the stripes across the background call to mind lit floors of downtown skyscrapers after-hours, they're much bolder and tend toward primary colors which clash against Sonic and read as much brighter than the final level's color choices. Text in the foreground is hard to read over the gradient boxes they sit on, and the font's lines are so thin that a typical RF output probably wouldn't display it cleanly at all. The "UP" "ON" "CPU" text from the final version is blocky and simplistic, but it is also very easy to read and not obstructed by any gradients.

Another thing I like about the stage's art is that it really conveys to me the feeling of an industrial park late in the evening. Typically these sorts of regions are made of tall buildings that have lots of eye-grabbing landscaping features. Since most cities in games tend to be more toward metropolitan sections (much in the way that Gotham and Metropolis are the two most notable comic book cities, to say nothing of how Spider-Man lives in New York), it's an unusual and interesting change. Still, Eggman is certainly a captain of industry and so it stands to reason that the recently-constructed parks here are his doing, and his interest in machines and energy leads to a city whose outskirts stay away from a suburban aesthetic. Thus we get our first signs of coming close to where Eggman is, coming ever closer to the part of the game world where he resides, preparing to kick him out and liberate the planet from his (literally) polluting influence. Given how well the final layout of the game fits together visually, hinting at details of the layout of the world, it's a wonder they had ever considered having it be any other way, but then, as I just noted, the visual design of this stage took a few revisions to pin down.

As with the stage itself focusing on more modern game design mechanics, the music has some particularly cutting-edge elements as well, though it's about as slow as the pace of the stage itself is. Considering that Masato Nakamura has mentioned having only simple concept art or stage design to work with when designing the soundtracks to some of the game (http://info.sonicretro.org/Masato_Nakamura_interview_by_Sonic_City), it's a wonder that some of the music fits the pace of the stages as well as it does. Then again, since SYZ was the first to be finalized, it's not out of the question that Nakamura had enough of the stage to play through to understand what the pace of this zone would be like.


I mentioned that the sound in the music Spring Yard is pretty modern, and there's a definite New Jack Swing influence here, which had only been popular for a couple years before showing up in a game like this. I've seen people compare it to Bobby Brown's Every Little Step, which had peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 in 1989. The verse of the song has a very striking similarity to it, and this genre's identity had only really been pinned down since 1988, though musicians like Janet Jackson in particular had been working in it as early as 1986. The synthesized (and heavy) percussion, funk rhythms and instrumentation (in particular, aggressive basslines) and R&B vocal styling that define the genre all show up in this song.

The song has an A-B structure that is, like the level design, something the series has built itself around for years afterward. This structure dates back at least to as early as Herbie Hancock, and other examples of songs in the series with this structure hew to Herbie Hancock's work even more strongly than this tune. It's typified with an a structure or verse that takes its notes from funk and blues structures -- for example, the bass fills at the end of each phrase in this section of the song are very clearly funk-inspired, going a little outside of the key of the song to move toward the root of each of the upcoming phrase, though funk basslines tend toward chromatic movement which this song doesn't have as much. There's a hornlike instrument in the background that keeps holding onto tones, even if they clash a little with the chord structure of the song (which can sound a little dissonant to the uninitiated). This portion of the song tends to be a little less hummable, though it's an oddity that makes it ear-catching.

The B section contrasts with this, being more melodic, in a major key. The melody of the song, placed on the bell instrument, is much more hummable, staying on notes in the scale, those notes also tending to be a lot closer to each other; along with the A-section being more chromatic and obviously funk-inspired, the more melodic B-section is an equally important component in the typical Sonic song, and I can point at examples of songs with a very similar structure in just about every Sonic game through the Dreamcast. It's a formula that works very well, and just about any song you could make in that style will feel at home amongst other Sonic songs.

Wow, that's a lot of words to positively describe aspects of a stage that I've mostly been ragging on so far! But I'd be remiss in not noting these aspects of the stage, even if the general focus of these videos is to comment on the structure of each level from a mechanical perspective. Yes, act 2 fails in this regard in much the same way as Act 1, and for very similar reasons.


Spring Yard Zone 2's opening is the most boring one we've seen so far. It consists of flat ground for 3 ground tiles with a lone red spring on the far left. In just about every level before this, something shows up by the third ground tile, and usually a few things. That's where the first rings show up in Green Hill 1, for example. Marble 2 had moving platforms and enemies moving on screen (in particular, a caterkiller). Both levels had intros that weren't completely flat, either; there were a few small dips in the ground that affected Sonic's handling. The fact that there is nothing here of note is worth noting, especially because the previous level's intro was packed with enemies and had a secret area above it. I struggle to explain it except from the assumption that this was built out of a physics and object test level. It's space to safely gain an intuition for how Sonic handles without risk of injury or death. The only reason the red spring seems to be there is as a sort of duct tape over the previous level. Since the stage layout (which, as you'll recall, is built out of the tiles as I showed in the Marble 3 writeup) is read in left-to-right and then top-to-bottom, so cutting out a column isn't removing a contiguous piece of data. Plus, this would require shifting over all the enemy locations by a tile's length; that's a fixed amount, but another example of a thing that could go wrong in trying to fix this. A red spring is inelegant, but is greatly preferable for workflow reasons.

That said, this segment serves a level of dramatic tension, because what comes next is one of the most attention-grabbing setpieces in the game.


At the end of this stretch is a bumper that knocks Sonic into a drop that's as tall as the intro was wide. Gaining momentum to the right is basically impossible due to the spring, which will push Sonic back unless he drops nearly straight down. There's a curve at the bottom; Sonic moves quickly by the time the screen makes it visible, giving only a little time to react if the player isn't already holding down the button. Rolling here feels physical in a way most games at the time didn't. Programming collision in games isn't trivial, and most games tend to go for flat or fixed-angle solid ground for that reason. Trying to make a curve like this work like a curve isn't easy. The change in grade has to be read as a slope, and there are some interesting programming techniques used to maintain Sonic's momentum through the curve, rather than plop him down where he lands like if he fell onto flat ground. I won't get into them now, since this update is already pretty long, but they'll definitely be worth discussing in the next update.

Even if Sonic doesn't start rolling until partway through the curve (or even as he is coming back down from the other side), staying in his rolling state allows him to gain more and more momentum, so that he can get back up to the start of the slide. This isn't something that should be possible in real life (Sonic would have to be expending energy, but rolling is always portrayed as a passive action and Sonic can only gain speed from his surroundings; in real life, some of the energy from his speed would be lost from friction into heat, thus causing him to slow down over time and fall to the center rather than speed up and go back to the top), but this situation is one of the few so designed to make it obvious that rolling isn't immediately analogous to a physical system such as a marble and series of ramps.


The path of least resistance leads up to another red spring ready to push an over-eager Sonic backwards, with a platform above to jump onto instead. You've seen this before. After it is a pit with some spikeballs, not too different from the ones we saw in the previous act, but unlike most of those, these have two spikeballs in them. Though the curve itself looks just as nice to run through as the one at the start (indeed, it's built out of the same set of tiles), it's not possible to do that without taking a hit, since Sonic is much faster than they are when he rolls. Instead, it's necessary to jump on the platform in the center of the curve, which is inviting enough anyway with its 4 free rings. The next jump, onto a small ledge between the two curves with some rings to help guide Sonic downward to it without falling, is trickier, but making that landing means the final jump onto a second platform is just as easy. After that is a couple easily-dispatched Crabmeats and some ignorable platforms; though they move up and down, there's a red spring that get Sonic to the top of the stage without the hassle of waiting for them to cycle.


After that is some more of the swinging accordion blocks as we saw previously, directing Sonic leftward to a platform with some more rings and an invincibility monitor. While it's never unhelpful, the power-up also isn't very useful here, as there are only a few crabmeats and spikes (urchin) enemies in the stretch of level between here and where the invinciblity will wear off for a normal player. As far as rewards for going out of your way go, it's a pretty paltry bonus, and disappointing when the previous act put more useful ones in these high spaces, like speed shoes and super rings. This level is devoid of both of these types of power-up, and in fact is the only stage in the game without the latter. Going right from the red spring leads us past more crabmeats, some of the vertically moving boxes we saw a few times in the previous level, and some more of the spike robots.


If you're invincible, you can clear those enemies and maintain your speed, meaning you can jump across the next gap cleanly and save a little time. If you had to roll into them you'll have to double back to get enough speed to not fall in. If you fail to clear it but get close, staying up against the right wall will show some rings hiding in space behind it. There's an alcove shown in the picture above that you'll land in if you're still moving to the right on your way down, and from there you can take the spring up to grab those rings and go back on the main path. The rollable hill after this leads directly into my least favorite part of the game.


This pit of springs and bumpers is a nearly-uncontrollable mess. The springs launch Sonic straight up, and there's so little space between them and most of the bumpers that Sonic can only move left or right a very small amount at a time. Due to being pushed around so strongly and quickly, it's possible Sonic will wind up getting stuck "inside" a spring as in one of the pictures above. Sonic isn't trapped inside the spring, but when he winds up in that position he's lost all horizontal momentum and so it will be difficult to get him back in control again. Despite the spring-filled bottom of this pit being nearly uncontrollable, it's still recommended to go down here to pick up a shield power-up, and if you've come in from the lower route, you'll wind up right next to that shield anyway. Note that if you're invincible here, the star effect overloads the sprite handler (too many on screen at once), and so the springs to the right of Sonic don't get drawn.


I should probably discuss that lower route, then. If you don't roll through the curve at the start of the stage, you'll have an easier time of sneaking into the opening right after it, which leads into a caved section. This first part of this route is almost exactly the same as the lower route from the previous level. The large spikeballs lining a narrow walkway and the spike-chain chamber trap are here, and getting past them leads to the buggy lightbox you see here. Despite being almost exactly the same as the underground region in the previous stage, they forgot to add the flashing light sprite here, so it just looks empty. It's bits like these that really highlight the care they put into the construction of Spring Yard Zone, and while it's not mechanically relevant the way springs and bumpers and those nasty roller enemies are, it's an obvious flaw that wasn't fixed even in later revisions of the ROM that include other (mostly minor) bugfixes or cosmetic changes.


Right after that is another pit, but this one only has two red springs. The first one pushes Sonic high enough to see a giant arrow of rings pointing up to where those moving boxes were from before, and the second spring gives Sonic enough height to get up there. It's almost embarrassingly unsubtle, and not particularly necessary; replacing the spring on the ground with a yellow one would have been fine; since the only other object in the area is the elevated red spring, it's pretty clear what the game expects to happen -- and since this is already near the middle of the game, it's odd that such direct signaling would need to be made; by now most players have seen and used springs and know how they work, and Labyrinth regularly required changing direction to make progress: more signs that this was one of the first stages to be done.


The arrow shape isn't even accurate, either, since holding right while trying to jump onto the lower spring can get Sonic into another hidden alcove here, leading to a more intersting passage. Here, some of those same moving boxes in the previous area become deadly crushers in a narrow space. They're not more complex than the pistons in Marble Zone, but since each crusher goes in and out of a slightly dug-out space, it's easier to get trapped in by a moving box and die. At the end is a 1-up. In general, I've been operating under the assumption that more technically-demanding routes and hidden passages like this are probably where the chaos emeralds were originally supposed to appear. This is my best guess at where the emerald would have been placed in this zone: it's hard-to-reach and requires careful play to escape correctly. As with my suspected location for the emerald in Marble, they would have replaced the emerald with a 1-up box as a reward for taking a dangerous route once they changed the design to use the special stages for emerald-collecting.

After that is the spring that takes Sonic right next to the shield power-up we discussed earlier. The route is about as fast as the upper route is; in fact, since there's less of a reliance on springs and moving platforms to get Sonic where he needs to be as well as fewer enemies, the route may be a pinch easier to get past than the upper one. It's certainly a less-common route to take, given the encouragement to roll and rolling's push toward more fixed trajectories for Sonic.


The moving platform on the right and just above the pit trap leads Sonic to the next part of the level: there's another spring-platform trap like at the top of the upper route, and a descent with spikeballs like in the lower one. Past that is a red spring with a spike ball hovering above it. Timing is important. Unlike most similar challenges, the spikeball actually ends its rightward path above the spring (rather than crossing over it in the middle of the path), while its leftmost position is where it's shown in the full stage map. Because of that placement, it's actually fairly challenging to dodge, and you're likely to lose that newly-acquired shield in getting over it; in doing testing and screenshot-gathering for this stage, I hit it probably four times in trying to get around the level.

The spring rockets Sonic upward into a trail of rings, and it's here that the path splits again. Oddly, for once, the lower path is the one that's easier to get around just because there's more room to react to things and fewer ways to screw up, but skilled players can take the platforming challenge on the upper route to avoid all the harmful objstacles on the lower one; your only enemy is gravity there, along with a higher likelihood of getting hit from an obstacle on the way down.


These accordion blocks are safe to idle on. The center block is fixed, and the outer parts collapse to the center and then push back outward. If Sonic is standing on the outer parts, they will pull him in with them, so he won't fall off. They only show up here (no return appearance in act 3), and aren't as challenging to cross as the other accordion blocks, so their existence is confusing. There are four of them, and they're the easy part of getting across here; the hardest part is landing on the accordion block that moves side-to-side (like all the other ones in the rest of Spring Yard), since it's low in the frame and thus harder to plan a trajectory toward; that is, jumping moves it off-screen so it's a blind jump, though you can see where it is before you take the leap. From there it's just waiting for the other two moving platforms, which leads to the end of that section.


Failure to make that series of jumps (or just deciding not to take the spring at all) leads to the lower route, which has two of those annoying roller enemies and another spikeball pit. Since it's only a single (faster) spikeball, it's safe to roll through, but trying to take this section too quickly just makes you bait for the rollers. It's better to go a little slower and destroy the rollers as they pop-up; once both are gone, it's safe to go at speed.


This challenge at the end is interesting. It's a lot like the curve at the start of the stage, but it leads to a jump that splits the path yet again. Taking the harder-to-reach upper path is the preferable one here, as it is a veritable treasure trove of easy rings at the end of the stage; starting at the descent to the slope, it's a full 50 rings and thus enough for a special stage even if you've gotten hit and lost them all before here (though the rings at the end of the slope are hard to grab and shouldn't be relied on). Making the jump is counter-intuitive, though, because rolling through the slope in the previous section is a bad idea, due to the fixed jumping trajectory -- it's easy to overshoot the upper route, and then it's impossible for Sonic to push right enough to land there. Certainly, it's still possible with a well-timed tap of the jump button, but holding it down will doom Sonic to the lower route instead. Holding right will put Sonic at the mercy of the speed caps, and so one of the best options is to just leave the direction buttons alone and hold the jump button near the ramp, only pressing right when Sonic gets close to the wall, which will move him far enough that he should be able to make it to the upper section. That's the reason Sonic is facing leftward in the middle pic -- straightening him out to get him to fall correctly means a small tap to the left, but the layout is moving him rightward very quickly.

That's the end of Spring Yard 2. The level has a lot more distinctiveness to it than the first act, though the placement of the rollers at the end of the stage leaves a lot to be desired, and the arguable best strategy for finishing the stage directly contradicts the most recent intuition the game has given about its mechanics. There's a stronger concept in this act (much of which seems to be just testing the interactions and behavior of various objects), but there's still a lot of unused potential.

Act 3 will be better, mainly because they won't pull their punches.

07-23-2015, 12:43 PM
I keep forgetting about this subforum because I'm dumb, but I just wanted to pass along some encouragement - I'm still greatly enjoying your Sonic analysis. Thank you for doing these!

07-24-2015, 11:49 PM
Yeah, seriously, keep it up. They are great and thorough looks into one of the most untraditional platformers out there that also has a really big fanbase. Super interesting and very useful.

Glass Knuckle
07-29-2015, 07:02 AM
Same here. These huge, multi-path levels are tough to screenshot and describe, and the amount of work you're putting into these beyond what's necessary is downright tiring. Thank you for posting them.

07-29-2015, 04:41 PM
Thanks for the kind words. Y'all are right that it's definitely not easy, which is why you've tended to see one update every few months rather than weeks. I'm hoping to start SYZ3 within the next few days, but I have other obligations that will be taking up my free time.

08-03-2015, 04:26 AM
I've been playing Sonic 1 since release and never knew about the Sneakers and 1-up at the beginning of Spring Yard. How on earth do you even get them

08-03-2015, 04:19 PM
The only way I know of is to roll after hitting that first spring, and pulling left. It's something I'd only recently learned about (most tips books had no idea) and it would have been really nice if they had some more direct hint that it was there rather than something you'd only reach by dicking around at the starting area.

08-03-2015, 06:54 PM
These are great, muteKi. I never really thought about the broadness of Sonic levels before, and this certainly has been an eye-opener.

09-16-2015, 10:51 PM
House hunting and Mario Maker have combined to delay this update a little longer than I wanted, but I really want to get this next post up sometime tomorrow. Sorry this isn't what you've been waiting for, but it's already nearly done (turns out SYZ3 is actually pretty short, and as before the third act tends not to require as much explanation).

09-17-2015, 09:55 PM
Part 12: Spring Yard Zone 3, Or, If You Wish to Build a Platform Game from Scratch, You Must First Develop Physics

"Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical" - Olivia Newton-John, Let's Get Physical

Before I get into the details of the upcoming stage, I should fulfill my promise of describing how Sonic's physics system works. Now, if you've ever made a video game or done computational physics work before, you're probably familiar with how to implement Newtonian mechanics in a video game. It's relatively straightforward in general, consisting of techniques from trigonometry and what is technically calculus. Even if you're the sort to find math terms scary and confusing, it's easy to build in practice, as long as you have scientific calculator functions handy. We'll start from the simplest parts and keep building on.

I made these drawings with a free app on the Windows store called "Bamboo Paper" which is a pretty decent note-taking app that you might want to get if you have a touchscreen laptop or Windows tablet handy. Being able to draw freehand, without a mouse, was necessary to get halfway decent images here.

The simplest case is ignoring the idea of physics altogether and thinking of really basic movement. Consider, for example, Pong: the only movement needed to be implemented is along a single axis. In its earliest implementations, a primitive analog knob was used to control the pong paddle, which when read as a digital signal is an absolute positioning for the paddle. Every game tick the signal produced by the knob is checked and the paddle is placed according to that position, and so speed of movement is based on sliding the paddle around -- it's a pointing device. But Pong is a simple-enough game, and fun even without the paddle control. Shareware sites back in the day were full of Pong clones because they were easy enough to build, even though computers didn't have as nice a set of options for absolute pointing devices, especially in the early days when mice were uncommon. So you'd have to read input from key presses, which can't be used as absolute pointing (otherwise there'd only be a few places to move your paddle and your pong game will be boring or frustrating -- ever played a Tiger LCD game?) if you wanted to recreate Pong. So, instead, for every tick the key is held down, you set the speed of the paddle to something and move according to that. So in addition to memory keeping track of where your paddle is, you also need to have some speed value to set the paddle to when the key is pressed, and at every frame you'd either add or subtract from the speed depending on key is pressed. So holding it down you might move a pixel or less per frame (i.e., you could say that every 4 ticks you move the paddle a pixel, which is what people mean by 'subpixel calculations' since each tick involves moving the object only a fraction of a pixel). Of course, since you want the paddle to stay in bounds of the screen, you also have checks for max and min values of the paddle position -- if adding the velocity to current position would put it past the min or max, set it to that value instead. Again, building code to do all of this is very simple (especially since we haven't had to deal with a camera/windowing) and it's all stuff that computers are good at, especially if you keep your precision fixed.

Movement is simple. If the pong paddle moves at 5 pixels per frame to the right (obviously fast but easy to illustrate), simply draw it starting at a location 5 pixels from where it is.

Now, for a game where the character is just moving left and right on a flat surface, doing something like that is usually enough to have a working control system, if one that feels jerking. But especially for a standard platforming game in the style of Mario (or nearly any game with a platforming component), you'll want to treat jumping differently from the way we treated moving left and right, which is where acceleration comes in: gravity is just a form of (near-enough to constant) acceleration downward, which affects speed in the same way that speed affects position. Again, this is easy to do on a computer -- given some value for our gravity, every tick we add that to the velocity, and then add the new velocity to our current position. Pressing the jump button makes our upward speed nonzero, which changes over time from gravity, and gives us a nice arc to our jump, especially if we're moving left or right at the time. (Parabolic, dude!) Note that our jump speed is in the direction opposite gravity (i.e., up) which gets lower over time, reaches 0 at the peak of the jump, and then is in the same direction as gravity -- intuitive, certainly, but something worth being explicit about if you've never really thought about physics modelling before. Using acceleration and deceleration constants like this to the X and Y velocity when starting and stopping moving (or trying to move in the opposite direction, which would presumably call for a larger deceleration constant) work the same way, allowing us to have smoother movement rather than immediate stopping and starting; we might not want this in Pong where our position requires lots of precision, but for a platformer this control can feel much more natural.

Here, we have an initial jump velocity of 6 pixels (upward) and a constant downward acceleration of 2 pixels, that is, a change in the velocity between frames by 2 in a downward direction. Technically the signs should be reversed because games count '0' height as the top of the screen by convention, but it's easier to think of positive directions as up, especially if you were, like me, a physics major in college. Note that the x-axis is time; even if Sonic were stationary, that would be his height per frame given our acceleration and initial jump speed. However, if Sonic were moving at a constant speed to the right during the jump, though, his trajectory would look like this.

If we want control over our platforming character in air, that's easy to do, since it's just checking the inputs to move left and right as before. If we want to make our movement left and right feel less jerking, we can have an acceleration and deceleration value for movement in those directions similar to gravity -- which, again, just means that we're adding a steadily-increasing value to our position instead of a fixed one, stopping after we reach some maximum value. If we want a variable jump height, the way Sonic does this is to check when the jump button is no longer held down, and lower the upward speed to some minumum value when the button is let go. As an example, let's say our initial speed is 10 pixels upward per tick with gravitational acceleration of 2 pixels per tick downward per tick (speed is measured in pixels per second, so changes in speed are measured in pixels per second per second, or 'pixels per second squared' when you group the units together -- and yes, variable acceleration would be measured in a rate of pixels per second cubed). If jump height is fixed, then the next tick we'll be 8 pixels per tick upward, then 6, then 4, then 2, then 0, then 2 downward, then 4 downward, then 6 downward, etc. Objects in the real world have a maximum falling speed (the technical term being "terminal velocity") and so we might want to set our downward speed to not increase more than that (which will save us some headaches down the line), so we might say to stop increasing once we've hit 20 pixels downward. (Note that these are numbers that are easy to work with, and not reflective of the actual values used in Sonic.) Now if we want to cut Sonic's jump height short, what the game does is fix the upward speed to a lower value once the button is released; let's say in our example we set it to 2 pixels upward. Then releasing the button after a couple ticks makes the trajectory go 8 pixels upward, 6 pixels, 2 pixels, then 0, then 2 downward, etc. Naturally we have to check to make sure that our upward speed is greater than 2 in order to make the change -- otherwise we wind up with an inconsistent double-jump effect when we release the button. (Note that 'upward speed' is the same thing as 'negative downward speed', so we just use a sign change to represent one or the other.)

Now, if we want to have our left-right controls be different on the ground and in the air, we need to have some sort of check to see if we're standing on the ground or not. If our ground height is always fixed (the case of an endless runner with no pits), then we can just see if our position is at or lower than the floor height, set the character's position to the floor height, and then treat the character as though he is on the ground, and use our left-right acceleration as described. When we're not at floor-height, then we must be in the air, and should be using different values for our acceleration (in the case of a game like Castlevania with fixed jump trajectories, we would fix the left-right trajectory irrespective of what buttons are pressed).

The change to see if a character is in the air or not is to loop over every pixel in the collision box and see if any are in the same location as a ground tile, which is defined from Sonic's location. The collision box is more of a theoretical entity than a data structure, since all we need to know is if Sonic's collision intersects the ground at any point. Since collision in Sonic is tied to 8x8 tiles, we have to do a few lookups in-between to find which 8x8 tile is at a certain point in the level map; this takes time, so the game doesn't have a full box for Sonic's collision -- instead it's closer to a couple pixel-length wires underneath Sonic. More on that later.

Now, we wouldn't have a very interesting platform game if our platforms were all at the same level, so our naive "Are we below the floor?" check is not going to work, otherwise we'd never be able to register other platforms as solid. So instead what we'll do is have a little collision object underneath our character, and if that intersects ground tiles, then that's like being under the ground in our previous example; this sensor is implemented as a routine that checks if the pixels underneath the character's feet are solid or not -- so we need some sort of data structure to say whether or not a specific part of the level layout is solid; in Mario or Castlevania, for example this would be on a per-tile basis; there is no sloping ground in those games.

An example of a solid bar. If Sonic is moving too quickly, he could pass right through it. Collision is difficult, and we could see if there are solid tiles between Sonic's two frames, but that's difficult to do, and so especially in later games as Sonic gets faster, the likelihood of phasing into the wall is more likely. We have to define our range of collision carefully, because the CPU only checks in regions we tell it to check, and the more we ask of the CPU the less time we have to other things. If the CPU can't do enough, then we can wind up with lag. Physics is hard.

However, if falling would push Sonic into solid ground, we can correct for that and immediately push Sonic up until he's back above ground. Since Sonic should still be travelling to the right when he lands (deceleration shouldn't be instantaneous if he's still going the same direction when he lands), we can just push him straight up and that's where he should be based on his speed, especially with solid ground like this. This is what the collision box is supposed to do.

Slopes complicate things! A slope doesn't have a single binary collision value (solid or not-solid), it has a collision value for each pixel in the tile (this is used to make sure Sonic doesn't push himself into the wall while running and instead stays above it as necessary). Checking solidity with a slope isn't harder than with flat ground -- is the sensor intersecting with solid pixels? You're on the ground if so -- but it complicates motion. Let's fix our movement from left to right for the purposes of discussion; the procedure is the same going the other direction, it just makes it easier to follow the logic process to discuss it this way. So, we have a second set of level tiles that define the collision for each tile in our game. Remember when I showed the individual chunks of Marble Zone? Those were all built from a set of 8x8 tiles, each of which has a corresponding collision mask that defines which parts of the tile Sonic can't pass through. These are lists of 8 values ranging from 0 to 8 of which pixels in the tile are solid at that x-value.

So how do we define a slope from this? We need trigonometry now, because gravity points straight downward, Sonic moves along the direction of the slope, and if he jumps, he jumps perpendicular to whatever surface he's standing on. Since per-pixel collision is difficult -- we need to go through multiple tables to look up the 8x8 tiles' collision data, which takes time, and do that for every object on screen -- we define slopes per-tile. This is done using some trigonometry. Given a slope's length and the angle between it, we can find how far it extends in the x-direction with the cosine function on the angle between the slope and the horizon; since this gives us a value between 0 and 1 -- this is a ratio, ranging between "entirely horizontal" and "entirely vertical" -- we scale it by the length of the slope. We can find the height from the sine function of the angle scaled by slope length.

But we have the collision data and need to find the slope and angle. The tangent function gives us the ratio between the x- and y-components, but the inverse tangent function gives us the angle from those components which is what we need. The angle must be pre-calculated, because inverse tangents are difficult things to do and the Genesis is a system from 1988 not specialized enough to do it quickly. So we pre-program those values when we define the collision boxes and store them in a value, a byte matching each 8x8 tile in the level. Unlike typical angles, which range from 0 to 360 in degrees, we use a range from 0 to 256 (the number of different configurations a byte can have). It's not as precise, but, again, efficiency is important here. Similarly, we pre-calculate tables for finding the cosine and sine values for looking up later, to speed calculation; these are lists where the xth entry in the list is a representation of the value between 0 and 1 you get when you evaluate sine(x) or cosine(x). The term of art is, appropriately enough, a look-up table.

Illustration of the way slopes are calculated. The two tiles stacked on each other on the left side have the same collision with different collision data; one curves upward and one curves downward. Inverse tangent is calculated based on the change in x and y, shown with the two tiles on the bottom. As these two tiles also have the same change in x and y each, they get the same slope angle.

While we use the collision to make sure Sonic isn't in a wall, it's not useful for calculating the direction Sonic should move, since that is at an angle. We can't move Sonic straight right on an upward slope: the ground gets in the way and should be pushing Sonic up, and we also need to account for the fact that Sonic should be going more slowly on the slope due to friction forces. So we move Sonic in the x-direction based on his current total speed multiplied by the cosine of the tile angle, and in the y-direction the same way with the sine. That gets translated into movement on the screen and in the level as described previously. Note that all of this means a tile has to go in one direction for all of its solidity; we can't have a collision tile that looks like a mountain under the Sonic rules, because that's more than one angle. How do hills exist in Sonic, then? It's simple: since we can have tiles that slope upward and tiles that slope downward, we just put them next to each other to make hills.

If the angle of the next tile over tile is too steep (like if the tile is completely vertical), when if we're moving left-right we shouldn't be moving at all, but pushing up against that wall. That's easy to implement using a couple more collision checkers on Sonic's left and right side. Their implementation is about the same as the ground checker, but we don't have to worry about using it nearly as much for collisions with the level -- but they're also essential for checking against enemies or obstacles. Since the games can have a lot of things on screen at once and they're not fixed in their position, collision with those obstacles and Sonic is checked a lot less thoroughly, which can occasionally lead to odd glitches -- it's easy in later games to get stuck in a wall because these checkers don't make sure certain objects can push Sonic into walls.

We implement friction (slowing Sonic down in these directions) as a constant as well, and it's along the direction of the slope. If the slope is nearly vertical, the force of friction might be a lot less than the strength of gravity, and so we'd have to start moving Sonic down the slope (as in the previous paragraph). The force of gravity along the slope is the gravity value we discussed in the context of jumping, multiplied by the sine of the angle.

Jumping off a slope is along the slope itself, which means we don't point Sonic straight up. His y-speed is the default jump velocity multiplied by the cosine of the slope angle, and the x-speed the same with the sine. On a slope curving upward to the right, this means Sonic jumps a little bit backward, and forward for one downward to the right.

This is almost everything you need to know to pass a Physics 101 class. This drawing shows a slope tile and a box that represents Sonic standing on the slope. Friction keeps Sonic from being pulled down by gravity; the component along the slope is negated by the force of friction, and you can see both of these drawn as vectors on the image. Similarly, the jump direction is shown. Note the repeated presence of the angle (theta), which is consistent throughout the drawing because we rotate everything consistently. It might look a little convenient, but it's a valid representation of slope physics.

So, congratulations: we've now built everything we need to replicate the physics engine of a game like Super Mario Bros. 3, which had slopes and walls and varied platform heights but unlike Sonic did not have loops or curves. Sonic needs to be able to move straight along the right or left wall of a curve up and down, and so there need to be different sensors around that. So there's a different mode where Sonic's feet sensor point to the left or right that happens if he passes along a tile with an angle above a certain threshold. Then the Sonic sensors for 'pushing' and 'standing/moving' are rotated 90 degrees, so Sonic stays up against the wall without pressing into it (i.e., if the curve moves Sonic counter-clockwise we don't want his movement to the right to push him into the wall, or to trigger his pushing animation from being blocked by a wall). A similar calculation occurs to transition from this mode to the ceiling. Note that we need another set of collision tiles to define solidity when moving up and down along a right-facing wall -- and we can get collision for upside-down and left-wall settings by mirroring the down and rightward collision tiles respectively. Similar angle-transition calculations occur if Sonic was in the air and brushes against a curved wall, though the specific range of angles checked against changes.

So what does the process of encountering a curve like the one at the start of the previous act? Sonic is close or pushing against the left wall and falling (and the collision checkers keep him from moving into the wall), attaches to the ground after reaching a tile with a certain angle (and so now the collision checkers push him out of the floor), and then goes into the right-wall mode pushing him upward. Gravity and the slope constant allow him to pick up speed while moving through the curve, and as he moves upward on exiting the curve gravity causes his deceleration back downward much like if he was jumping.

Rough outline of the transitions. Wall mode works like regular mode with the collision checkers in the same places, but now gravity is in a different direction. There is a second set of collision masks for tiles when moving in these directions that, again, works the same way. Along a half-pipe of this sort, though, the wall is mostly flat-angled.

That transition isn't perfect, however. If Sonic's velocity is greater than the floor collision checker then he can still fall through the floor and at similar speeds it's possible to pass between slope tiles (including the slope transition tile, which could cause Sonic to just push up against the wall and not move according to these physics), which could get Sonic stuck in a wall. If you've seen a glitched speedrun of a Sonic game where they "zip" through a wall -- a screen ejection routine that pushes Sonic at high speeds as long as enough of his sprite overlaps solid tiles -- you've seen this in action if you've watched some of the speedruns of this game, and even real-time players can trigger it in specific parts of the games. It almost always has to happen at high speeds due to how the collision detection works. If you'd like to see it for yourself without years of practice manipulating the Sonic engine to force glitches, you can crank up Sonic's speed using a data editor like the Pro Action Replay or a Game Genie, and you'll probably see the same effect happen.

These sorts of issues go back well beyond Sonic though: here's an example of a similar collision glitch in Pac-Man (http://home.comcast.net/~jpittman2/pacman/pacmandossier.html#CH3_Just_Passing_Through). See also the picture above where Sonic just "passes" through solid ground due to falling too quickly.

There's another bug in the physics system that shows up in the game, and in this specific stage, and can be frustrating. While I talk about Sonic's collision as being a box, that's wrong. It's not a full box. It's two pixel-wide line (20 pixels long) at either side of Sonic. Collision checking is just seeing if any of the pixels in either line is inside something solid, and if it is, move Sonic up so he isn't. The structure of these means we only have to check 40 pixels total to make sure Sonic isn't inside the floor, and we can tell also if Sonic is close to the edge of a tile or not (in which case he does a balancing animation). We consider collision based on which sensor returns the higher height, which is a quick comparison check.

The glitch comes from checking to make sure that both sensors are on solid ground when on a slope. If a slope ends abruptly (like the ramping platforms in Spring Yard), then near the end Sonic will fall back down a bit. The picture below illustrates how the glitch works: the leftmost pair of sensors return a height that's lower than the others, correctly; the middle pair of sensors is also correct and returns a higher height; but because the last sensor pair has the rightmost sensor off the ground, Sonic's height reads from a location left of where the middle sensors' height was taken, meaning Sonic sinks into the ground slightly.

Rough illustration of how the sensor wires work and their corresponding glitch. Checking collision over more horizontal area would be slower, but it would keep this from happening.

So that's your whirwind tour of the Sonic physics engine. I might go back over in detail specific components in later level explanations in order to clarify some specific behavior or common glitches, but I think this suffices in terms of understanding how this (and several other) games are built. If you'd like to read more, there's plenty of further detail (including the specific values you'd want to use in order to make a more accurate replica of these games' physics) here (https://info.sonicretro.org/Sonic_Physics_Guide). It was very helpful as a reference for this post.

Now, it's time to talk about Spring Yard Zone Act 3, which has a lot of these components in it, including another big curve like the kind we saw in the previous act, smack dab in the middle of stage.

Zone0 Map. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-syz-act3map.png)

One common complaint that Sonic games receive is that many of their flashier levels tend to play themselves. While I don't think that's quite correct, there's a level of truth in it, that in being so fast and flashy it's hard to put fair challenges in the player's way. Spring Yard 3 is some of the fastest we've seen in this game so far (and it features the return of super shoes for players who are willing to take a little care) and certainly the flashiest, but it also calls for skilled play for its optimal routes, and balances speed with challenging slower sections more fairly than the previous two acts. While part of this increase in fairness can be attributed to way each third act works in general, this stage has also had more thought done into where everything goes. The haphazard spring pits are much more carefully placed without as many bumpers, the moving platforms aren't quite as trivial to cross, and the last section of the act has a route that splits depending on how fast you can move Sonic through the spike-filled basement areas. If the first two acts were the first levels to be made, at least the third was made once they had a good idea of how all these components worked together.


It's a simple enough start. The level curves downward, and rolling is more than enough protection from the several buzzbombers overhead. After that is a spring pit lined with only a few bumpers, easy to escape from and not a particular hassle. The tilt in the slope before it provides indication to a player who's seen the level before that the springs are incoming, and it can be jumped over completely right above it. You'll miss a shield, but there's a 10 ring monitor on the other side and rings count for little in Act 3 anyway, so it's of little consequence. After another underground segment that, yes, appears to have been almost fully copy-pasted from the previous acts, the only forced vertical-scrolling box encounter in the stage is here. There are rings hidden underneath on the left side (visible on approach) but a similar secret passage under the boxes on the left contains absolutely nothing.


After two crabmeats and a spring, there's a ledge on the right with another lantern, with a jump up to a switch just past it. Moving left from that platform at speed and jumping onto the lantern is necessary for what is probably the hardest optional platforming challenge in the game -- a series of moving platforms otherwise just barely out of Sonic's reach. Even I have trouble with them.

The other route has Sonic hit a switch to release a barrier, much like at the end of Act 1. A couple crabmeats await Sonic, after which a series of spikeball pits and more crabmeats lead into another elevator of boxes. But this slower, more irritating route is skippable with platforming care, taking us back to those incredibly difficult-to-reach platforms.


These lead up to a slope above the solid ground to the right. Keeping speed up this slope and making a good jump near the end get Sonic past the block and spring on the side there, which skips over a set of spikeball pits and another block crossing. This is incredibly difficult to do if you're not playing a version of the game where the spindash has been hacked into the game, though TAS gameplay shows it is physically possible to reach the upper ledge (I can't do it reliably, and had to check to make sure it was even possible because it's so hard to pull off). The previously mentioned slope glitch doesn't help (from where I'm standing, you can see Sonic has incorrectly sunk into the platform).


Past that tricky climb, the accordion blocks we've seen in act 2 return, another perilous crossing, and we have to jump all the way up the second one in the set in order to not fall, which will waste all our effort and possibly toss us into those spikeball pits.

The boxes on the lower path exit to where the two paths meet back up, though the crabmeats waiting for you at the top of the ride can be annoying, getting ready to fire at about the same time you can jump from the shaft.


After another flat ledge with an urchin and a lamppost checkpoint, we get into the centerpiece of the act, yet another giant curve. This one is very obviously taller than the ones in the previous act, and there are a lot more rings to collect. Rolling through while holding right pushes Sonic into a secret area with two excellent items -- invincibility and speed shoes. The next area, which is mostly underground, has good use for both. They can also be used to run back around the half-pipe and collect eight more rings on this side of the half pipe, but it's better to save the power-up for the next section.


After rolling down yet another hallway with two spikeballs, there's this switch and wall object. Hitting the switch causes it to move to the right, following the path of the green arrow in the zone0 map. It doesn't move quickly, but the spikeballs in the pits just past it have to be navigated around -- which is why the invincibility is handy, as it trivializes this challenge. Taking the spring is not recommended, since it is full of hazards and slower, ending in another horizontal box-platform descent. It's a good final summation of the zone's ideas, but isn't a great challenge. Unlike most Sonic intuition, though, it's a case where the lower path is the safer, faster, and more rewarding one, all at once. Beating the wall to the end leads to twenty rings, a shield, and a single spikeball chain that's still easily avoided if you're still invincible.


The routes meet back up again with a spring that takes Sonic along a curving wall. Bumpers make up the penultimate challenge in the level -- skilled hands can land Sonic from the bumper onto the platforms to the right, which lead up to a bridge with a shield and a 1-up, ending the zone much like it began.


A checkpoint leads to a series of accordion blocks, which are precariously placed over a pit. Two safety platforms allow the player a chance of safety as they start and right when they get to the end, something that this level does very well, and newer Sonic games should have heeded: both an extra chance to take a moment to prepare, and to let close enough count as done. It's easy enough to take slowly -- Sonic isn't funneled into this section at high speed, so there's time to read the surroundings -- and isn't harder than the other accordion block challenges in the stage, just less forgiving of mistakes. After this is the boss.


Eggman's ship arrives without any obvious gadgets or enhancements, by far the simplest encounter. Flat ground with no obvious hazards and him flying overhead, ready to take hits from Sonic's spin attack. He patrols the area passively for a moment, and then a spike protrudes from the bottom of the craft, damaging to touch. He drops down, and picks up the block Sonic had been standing on, and destroys it. Clearly we must work quickly or we'll run out of space to hit him from -- these blocks are the only floor in the boss arena!

Since he only drops down once he's directly above Sonic, thoough, it's easy to get several hits in from the corner of his craft before he can make the first move, and the nearby 1-up means we have theoretically unlimited chances to destroy him. It's unforgiving, but it's easier to avoid taking a hit than the encounter at the end of Marble, where we had to switch sides of the screen quickly to avoid being covered in lava. As long as he keeps taking damage, there's nothing to worry about and he can be quickly dispatched; the greater risk is in making sure there are enough tiles to make it across to the other side of the arena to reach the end.


The end of Spring Yard brings with us the end of the first half of Sonic. It's been nearly equal parts thoughtful reflection on its forebears and ambitious innovation, sometimes taken too far for its own good. Here in Act 3, we really start to see the designers coming to terms with what to do to design fair challenges -- give the player room to work with momentum, think about their surroundings, and increase challenge by asking the same question with less room for error. It still isn't perfect, though: those box elevators are unpleasant to deal with.

Marble was an excellent reflection on level design, since it mostly used what worked from previous games and restrained challenge by giving Sonic more control than the games whose design it mirrored. While it didn't play to Sonic's strengths, it showed thoughtful restraint and consideration of the history of action video games to that point. Restraint is important -- Laura Hudson has a lovely article about this with regards to Mario Maker (http://boingboing.net/2015/09/14/super-mario-maker-levels.html) -- but a tech demo is about stress-testing code more than a player. By showing off the neat physics that Sonic's game engine is capable of, it engages in too much novelty. Since the previous acts demand care for Special Stage access, the stage becomes even more hostile to players. Act 3 works not only because it takes away that additional demand for precision, but also by keeping the challenges discrete and working on a level of familiarity on both developer (in understanding how all the moving parts of the level fit together) and player (because like with Marble, Act 3 repeats much of the previous level's setpieces). And there are no fucking roller badniks anywhere in it.

Next is of course another Secret Zone writeup -- but after that, we begin the hard half of Sonic 1.

09-18-2015, 10:19 AM
Clipping through terrain due to excessive speed is a problem easily solved: process the player's movement multiple times per frame. On good hardware, you can do it for all actors, but in many games (especially from this era), the player is the only one capable of attaining that kind of speed.

Then again, there's a good chance that the Sonic games were already pushing the limits of the Genesis processor, but collision-checking a single actor one or two extra times per frame should be a very light performance hit -- the display logic is eating the bulk of the CPU time unless there's just a whole ton of stuff on-screen.

Also, your images are enormous.

09-18-2015, 01:47 PM
Wow. Incredible post.

You really need to make a book out of this when you're done, muteKi.

09-27-2015, 11:06 PM
Clipping through terrain due to excessive speed is a problem easily solved: process the player's movement multiple times per frame. On good hardware, you can do it for all actors, but in many games (especially from this era), the player is the only one capable of attaining that kind of speed.

Then again, there's a good chance that the Sonic games were already pushing the limits of the Genesis processor, but collision-checking a single actor one or two extra times per frame should be a very light performance hit -- the display logic is eating the bulk of the CPU time unless there's just a whole ton of stuff on-screen.

Yeah there are a few things that make Sonic's collision checking difficult:

1. There isn't a map in RAM of each pixel's collision in the level. It's looked up at the 8x8 tile level, which means looking up the 256x256 tile at a position on the level, and then going into the 16x16 tile at that point, and then examining the 8x8 tile (or, if Sonic's between two of them, tiles). You can do that with integer division (ignoring remainders) but that still means there's multiple looking-up actions to do before you can iterate through collision indices. The actual collision check isn't a loop so much as it is comparing if the collision index (since it's stored as a certain distance up from the base of the tile) plus some offset is less than the bottom of Sonic plus 8 or so tiles -- for the purpose of seeing if Sonic's stuck in the ground or not. Some subtraction could get you the proper height to place Sonic, assuming the tile isn't solid for all 8 pixels at that point. Now, this still represents, as you point out, a small portion of the Genesis's CPU's time, but it's not the only collision it checks.

2. Objects obviously don't have the thorough sort of physics applied to them that you'd see for Sonic; they don't go through loops or around curves, and some of them (buzzbombers, for example) ignore collision altogether. But a lot of them still need to read the environment to derive their behavior. Crabmeats and Urchins can't fall off ledges, and need to check the ground to make sure of that. Those missile chameleons from Green Hill follow curves in the ground (so do the crabmeats!). This is in addition to any other sprite-handling code the CPU needs to process like graphics priority, location, etc. It adds up, and really is the bulk of what you'd call the "display logic" since scrolling the level field is mostly offloaded by the video chip -- in terms of more modern graphics programming, think of it as a single giant texture that moves across the screen. Setting priorities for sprites and their structure, though, is something the CPU has to communicate with the video chip to get right.

3. Sonic's still more about going fast than about being precise physically, or at least that was the way he was always marketed. I want this series to be about Sonic aside from the marketing machine that created his pop-culture image, but when better-optimized code came along in later games, it wasn't to make a game with a similar physics system that ran with fewer errors, it was to make a faster game whose physics still had these flaws. The tops of ramps notwithstanding, there aren't a lot of ways to get screwed over by collision glitches in Sonic 1 -- it rarely gets that fast to begin with -- so the simple collision checking is a good design. Having to remake the game on a more modern system, you'd be able to check a full box instead of just two sensor lines (removing these glitches at the ends of slopes) and check multiple times a frame (which means you'd have to plug in different numbers for max speed, acceleration, etc. for tuning), and you could probably even store the full collision for a stage in memory meaning there'd be no need for the multiple table lookups, not that it's much of a bottleneck at all these days.

01-04-2016, 02:20 PM
Part 13: Secret Zone 4, Or, Easy Does It

"And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning around" - The Beatles, "The Fool on the Hill"

Obligatory Zone0 map link. (http://soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-specialstage-maze4map.png)


My long and frustrating delay on these posts isn't just due to writers block; it's because I want to do these in order and the special stages are always just frustrating enough to load up that I take forever to get footage and to play them. It also doesn't help that they're the part of the game that I'm worst at, due, again, to the fixed jumping which combines with the changing rotation of the stage which makes Sonic's motion difficult to plan. You wouldn't know that from Special Stage 4, which is oddly easy compared to the very last one we faced, and even the other two before it.

In just about every Sonic game after this, the fourth stage is where the shoe drops. Here, though, they're oddly merciful. In fact, this might be the easiest stage to get a continue in (besides the one given in the previous stage to those who ignore the controller in their hands), and it's also easy to reach the emerald chamber. Having said that, the game no longer does most of the work for you. Leaving the controller unattended keeps the game in an infinite loop -- Sonic is stuck in the blue region of the stage, which is before the first set of goal spheres, and so there's no way for him to be ejected from the stage. But correspondingly, there are no goal spheres for the first quarter of the stage: there's plenty of room to collect rings and move around the stage mostly free of consequence. The lack of penalty for just playing around makes this stage an odd choice as fourth of six, since it would be a much better option for, say, the second stage. The first stage is short and hands you its emerald almost automatically, but the second one is just a bit longer -- and there's a set of goal spheres right below the starting point of the stage from its initial rotation. Since that stage rotates clockwise, it takes a full rotation of the stage to reach them, but it's still a much more immediate threat than anything in this stage.


There are more rings in this stage than in any of those before it, specifically, 187. That's nearly enough for two lives, and only about a quarter of all the rings in the stage need to be collected for a continue. There are about 48 rings before the first set of goal spheres are even around -- just playing around in the safe first part of the stage is practically enough to get the continue. In the first two stages, most of the rings were placed around bumpers with goal spheres underneath (at least once the stage rotates around enough), meaning that continue collection is fraught with peril. But this level's rings are mostly away from bumpers. In fact, there aren't many bumpers and most of the ones that are there line the narrow passages around the goal spheres, which can be used to knock Sonic back out. Most of the objects interrupting the ring patterns are the safe-to-touch peppermint-stripe spheres, which just function like the walls do, as solid platforms that can get in Sonic's way -- and keep him from falling onto goal spheres.


Another overly generous act? The long twisty passages of the stage contain two ring-patterns in the shape of arrows, pointing along the path to the emerald chamber. This sort of direction is overly unsubtle, especially for the fourth stage of the game. You could argue that the special stages don't need a strict difficulty curve, because the special stage rotation is independent of stage completion -- if you lose at a special stage, your next entry is into the stage after it, so you don't get to retry the stage you failed at until you've played all the remaining stages. I still think putting this stage at 4th place is a bad idea, though. Sure, you could reach this stage as early as Marble 2 if you're good at the main game, but it's weird that the level with a built-in practice area arrives when there are only 2 other special stages to still play, and only the 10 chances to play them all. Relative to how far we are through the game in this analysis, having gotten past Spring Yard Zone in its entirety, we could have already gotten all the emeralds. I think it's either too early for a breather level -- showing up to a good player at just under 1/3 through the game -- or else too late for a tutorial. Nothing about the stage's placement makes much sense, and if I had to redesign the game I probably would have made it the second stage.


Plus, the emerald in this stage is green. Why even call them emeralds if most of the ones we collect aren't even green? They're not even emerald cut! (And, yes, I see you there in the back. Sure, you could blame this on misguided translators -- but this is a game designed specifically for American audiences, and so it ought to get the English about right. Besides, Sega tended not to be quite as susceptible to the English-mangling typical of their contemporary games developers. For example, the ending to Space Harrier (http://www.vgmuseum.com/end/mastersystem/a/space.htm), or the ending to Enduro Racer (http://www.vgmuseum.com/end/mastersystem/a/enduro.htm). What about the intro to The Ninja (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dRFbw3Jndc)? I can't find a convenient link to its intro, but the ending of Cyber Shinobi (http://www.vgmuseum.com/end/mastersystem/a/cybchi.htm) has plenty of text, too. So the odd word choice seems like more than just misguided translation, but hell if I know why they chose the term.)

01-06-2016, 06:03 AM
It just sounds better than "Chaos Gems".

One of my favorite stream moments, when I was just fucking around with Sonic Classic heroes and someone on the call commented that the SOL emerald was blue or some shit but shouldn't it be yellow like the sun or something?

"Emeralds are green, dude".


04-23-2016, 11:12 PM
It's funny, I was going to say "Chaos crystals is not only pretty catchy by way of the alliteration, but there's also that huge anime-in-America reference by way of Sailor Moon" but I realized immediately after the fact that Sailor Moon actually post-dates Sonic by a few years, so the magical girl anime tradition of magic crystals as an energy source could be argued to originate with Sonic as much as anything -- which is obviously a spurious connection! And so as much as I'd like to say "no, they should have done this!" it is, as with any of my critiques, one done with roughly 25 years worth of after-the-fact analysis behind the game. It is important, but given how much this game spent looking to the past I doubt it so clearly predicted the future.

Anyway I'm posting in here to say I am finally, finally getting off my ass to write up Labyrinth Zone 1, and while I can't guarantee tomorrow, I can definitely say by Thursday. Stay tuned.

12-14-2016, 09:49 PM
Part 14: Labyrinth Zone Act 1, Or, S is for Sonic, Who Needed Some Air

"The water is wide
And I can't cross over"
- "O Waly, Waly", a Scottish folk song c. 1600

The title for this entry comes by way of Brentalfloss's ABC of video game deaths.
The best source for the text that I can find right now is http://www.pleated-jeans.com/2013/02/25/the-a-to-z-of-video-game-deaths/.

The start of Labyrinth Zone marks the halfway point for this game, and correspondingly marks a significant increase in skill demand asked by the game. No longer is Sonic 1 willing to let players by with accidental progress; no, Labyrinth demands extensive knowledge of how Sonic as a character behaves, and introduces new, even more hostile mechanics into the mix.

If you, as someone with limited knowledge of the series, were to ask me which Sonic game to start with, I will say Sonic 1 without hestiation. Even if many aspects of the design are dated, it still does a good job of pacing the introduction of new ideas while still maintaining continuity with an older videogame tradition before it. As I wrote about in the entries of Marble Zone, it does feel at times like a variation on Parish's Anatomy of Games series, expressed in the form of another game rather than a long series of articles. The staff working on this game were aware of the way that games had developed up until this point -- and of course were interested in pushing it a little bit further, or at least to a wider audience. For the experienced player, Sonic 1 represents continuity betwee the past generations of videogame design and a thought at what the future might look like; for the inexperienced player, Sonic 1 is a way to come to understand that previous design in a more forgiving or engaging manner.

One of my justifications for Marble Zone representing the pinnacle of NES design is that it intentionally courted a visual design that was dated: ruins. While we can argue the implications of cultural hegemony posed by making them Greco-Roman ruins, it reinforces a theme implied by the visual design of the stage that the level's ideas, while important, are old. So old, in fact, that some of the stage is outright buried, as is the nature of ancient civilizations: raze the previous society to the ground, build over-top, and let the rubble sink further into the ground. Hence, we have Labyrinth Zone.

Compared to Marble, Labyrinth is fully underground. Whatever culture might have existed here is truly ancient -- dare I say, so old as likely to be misunderstood by anthropologists and historians. I, too, struggled to make sense of the purpose of this stage beyond a sense of challenge posed by being the introduction to the second half of the game. (This is one of the reasons it has been nearly half a year since the previous update in this thread, no joke!) However, I do think there is sense to be made of this stage, and I think yet again it helps if we look further past in the history of video games.

If Marble Zone seemed to be a commentary on NES game design from at least the inception of Mario Bros., what was there before? There was the arcade, a sometimes borderline unfair collection of games, typically engaged with -- and lost -- in matters of minutes. The motivation for a game simple enough to understand within a few minutes' worth of play finds itself in neat company with a game designed around a single "action" button, and Sega themselves, by the 90s, understood very well what value there was in designing games for an arcade market and how to do so successfully. Of course Sonic would tap into the history of the arcade for another of its more conservative level designs.

When I think about the arcade in general, I think of games that explain their rules well but very quickly become a combination of unforgiving and obtuse. Games like Donkey Kong certainly don't exist in the context of a health meter, and Tower of Druaga was notable for its obtuse systme of hiding upgrades behind specific actions which were never explicitly stated (at least before the modern re-releases, which included hints and tips on how to collect said upgrades).

While I'd rather discuss Labyrinth's secrets when I get to discussing the specific level design components, let's get into the ways that Labyrinth taps into old arcade games' unforgiving design. It seems antithetical to Sonic, doesn't it? Sonic can take hits from most obstacles safely as long as he's carrying even one ring, and it's almost always easy to collect a ring, especially given the way the scatter after taking a hit. But we've discussed a few ways that guarantee death for Sonic instantaneously, ones that we've known about since nearly the beginning of the game: crushing, dropping past the lower boundary of the stage (i.e., pits), and spikes. Spikes are a little odd, granted, as the mercy invincibility of spikes isn't granted when being launched onto them after having already taken damage, though it's possible to land from spikes onto solid ground safely. The only one of these to not show up in Labyrinth is the pits, while the other two have multiple prominent occasions in the stage. Beyond that, though, Labyrinth introduces a new mechanic that has, as I understand it, brought about mild trauma amongst an entire generation of youth: drowning.

Now that the major nuances of the game's controls have been introduced, Labyrinth brings about a changeup, by placing signficnat amounts of the stage underwater. Unlike most other platformers, which use water as a way to completely alter the standard platforming mechanics by introducing swiming, Sonic's controls are basically the same above and below water, but with added drag imeding his motion while submerged. Certainly he moves slower and doesn't jump as high, but the narrow corridors of Labyrinth keep that from being a significant mechanical hindrance. What makes Labyrinth deadly is the threat of drowning.

While it's not a particularly deadly threat on its own, the threat of drowning pressures movement any time Sonic is underwater. Once submerged, Sonic needs to find air again within 30 seconds or will die instantly. Chimes occur every 5 seconds as a reminder of the timer, and when only 10 seconds remain a countown starts, along with one of the more notable tunes in all of gaming.


Given that it's an underwater threat, the resemblance to the theme from Jaws is not so much forgivable as laudable; certainly an excellent example of an inspired work. Dramatic and rising to a crescendo very quickly, the song is very expressive of the tension of the looming death by drowning. While drowning is easy enough to keep at bay -- air bubbles which reset the drowning timer come out of vents in the ground in predictable intervals -- the precise timing of most of the underwater obstacles, combined with Sonic's looser control underwater, provides a strong counterbalance. Acting too quickly while underwater is likely to wind up with Sonic meeting the business end of numerous pointy obstacles, while acting too slowly dooms Sonic to Davy Jones' locker. Rings are also harder to come by in most of this stage, and while backtracing for rings is usually feasible outside of this zone, needing to keep pace between air bubble vents makes it riskier to do so now. Taken all together, Labyrinth Zone's mechanics make the level a punishing realm of death. If this is your first time getting this far, I sure hope you've gathered as many continues as you can.


Drowning is fairly unusual for water levels in games. Mario, for example, could hold his breath effectively forever, and platformers have tended to take their cues from that, producing levels that focus on avoiding hazards and playing defensively. The drowning mechanic, however, feels like a cue taken directly from arcade game philosophy going back almost as long as there have been arcade games. While Sonic has had a 10 minute time limit in any stage, actually reaching that limit is extremely unlikely except for the most anal-retentive ring and item collectors since the stages aren't very long. Very generous time-limits are antithetical to arcade philosophy, where time is, in a way, not money: anyone who is already playing a game, and playing it well, isn't putting quarters into the machine, and furthermore are keeping other players from using it. Arcade operators can't really afford to have games that simply let players wait around and refuse to do anything, which is why so many of them have countdown timers for character selection, name entry, level/mode select, etc. Similarly, the sooner a player ends the game, either through completion, death, or time over, the sooner a new quarter can get into the machine. The drowning mechanic here absolutely prevents idling. The time limit is very short, and it's very punishing if carelessly ignored.

While a lot of games have anti-idling measures like this (Sonic didn't invent the in-game timer by any means; the first Mario game not to have one was Yoshi's Island, for example), Sonic is one of the few games not originating in arcades where such measures are so drastic, or at least in tension with the other design aspects of the stage. Where the first Super Mario's ratchet scrolling, short levels, and focus on stage hazards combine to make the timer one of the least likely sources of deaths, drowning here in Sonic is, again, a risk enhanced by the slower pace and obstacles that demand careful timing and control.

With that preamble out of the way, let's get to talking about the level a bit more concretely. The Map. (http://www.soniczone0.com/games/sonic1/downloads/s1-lz-act1map.png)


Act 1 starts out fairly straightforwardly. A small gap in the ceiling isn't quite continuity between Spring Yard and this level, but with the gaps that made up the pit hazards at the end of the previous level, it's easy to figure such a gap led Sonic down to this part of the stage, that opening being where he came from. A stretch, though the game is more explict about this sort of relationship later on.


After the usual 3 safe rings, there is a pool of water that is otherwise empty. The water is deep enough here for Sonic to drown in, but of course also so shallow that any jump gets Sonic right back out of it. It's a good way to get a feel for how Sonic's mechanics change underwater without exposing him to significant danger, since it is such a passive hazard. As the first instance of water in the entire series, it's not suprising that it's a safe introduction; later games' introductions to water are rarely so generous. While this clashes a bit with the unforgiving design of the rest of Labyrinth, since the game doesn't need to conform to the economics of arcade games, it's free to operate under the sort of introductory/antechamber design favored by classic NES games.


The generosity doesn't last long, however. Right after the pool of water is a badnik sabotage. This guy, called burrowbot, is distinguishable by the dril just barely sticking out of the ground. As Sonic approaches one, it leaps out of the ground in an ambush attack. There's only one here, and there are 3 rings right after it, so it's still not a huge threat, but a couple more come right after, the second from an underwater vantage point. Unlike Sonic, their movement isn't hampered by the water, and the low ceiling makes these two harder to dodge or hit with a jumping attack. They're easier to destroy by rolling, but Labyrinth's flat ground makes it hard to maintain enough speed to keep a roll going, and the underwater drag makes it even worse. Complicating potential attacks against them is their placement below Sonic. The first burrowbot is placed such that holding the jump button and right to exit the pool places Sonic in just the right place to hit it as it comes out of the ground, but it's easy to run forward off the high ground right into the second without jumping. The third is a little easier to deal ith, though, since being underwater slows Sonic enough that running straight into it is less likely.


Immediately after the burrowbot, the counter-clockwise motion of this spikeball directs Sonic downward, but successfully jumping over it leads Sonic to a shield, the only one in the stage. Avoiding hits in this stage is extremely difficult, meaning the shield is easily lost, but for someone looking for yet another chance at the special stage, collecting it is vital. The idea of jumping against the natural direction of stage obstacles is a pretty crucial idea for understanding Labyrinth Zone. It typically leads to bonus rewards, though sometimes it's necessary in order to progress through the stage safely. Dropping down from here is the first time the water poses anything like a threat, since there's a larger section to escape from here.


Two more burrowbots, easily dispatched, guard a super ring monitor on the left. Going right from here leads to a blocked passage and a switch. The boundary rises as the switch is pressed, leading to the next area. Besides technically re-introducing the idea of switches, which showed up in Marble Zone a few times, needing to wait for the passage to open gives the vent on the other side enough time to spawn an air bubble or two. There's an upward climb right after the bubble, making it more likely that Sonic will wind up hitting an air bubble as he jumps, so it actually takes a bit of work (or at least a lot of luck with timing) to avoid an air bubble.


While it's not immediately obviously that the air bubbles reset the drowning timer unless the countdown music is playing (at which point the stage's normal music is restored) this animation of Sonic gasping for air, accompanied by a sound effect reminiscent of a hiccup, makes sense in context as a way to forestall a watery grave. While it's possible to get through this segment without having the countdown timer trigger, encountering it helps make it clear that, yes, Sonic should take advantage of them in order to survive while submerged; they do not exist as decoration or to get in Sonic's way.

A second switch opens up a panel that leads back above water. A super ring monitor and 3 burrowbots mark the end of the tutorial areas. Now, the real Labyrinth Zone begins, starting with a significantly larger pool of water and a path leading downward.


Immediately Labyrinth Zone spikes in difficulty, or at least lack of forgiveness. A long jump from the edge of last bit of dry land is fatal, as Sonic lands directly onto a large bed of spikes. Recall that damage knockback from spikes does not respect the rules of temporary invulnerability: unless Sonic hits only the very edge of the spikes, he will be knocked back onto more spikes and die. Trying to jump across the water is clearly a bad idea, though not immediately visually obvious. It's one of the few times the difficulty in Labyrinth goes from "crushing" directly into "unfair", though the row of spikes serves a subtle purpose that will be a little clearer as we go through this section of the stage.


Dropping down leads Sonic to the first of the Jawz badniks, which are especially passive threats. Mostly floating around slowly and harmlessly in the water, they're less threatening than the burrowbots and are typically easy to avoid or defeat. A player would have to be especially hasty or careless for them to pose a threat, and are easy to dispatch by using jumps to travel farther down into the water. At the bottom are our first crushing deaths of the stage: platforms that rise up once disturbed by Sonic, and which will eventually rise up into some hanging spikes, squishing Sonic if he doesn't move away. There are also two switches here.

The switch on the right is in the air a bit. Since the switch is slightly elevated, on a ledge, Sonic has to leap for it. The best place to do that is from where the farther-right rising platform is. While the risk of being crushed by the spikes is minimal since there's enough time to react, reaching this area from falling on the left side of that spiked-bottom platform makes it very difficult to get to the button without triggering it. This switch opens the gate underneath it, which causes a current to form in the area around the switch. Going through that current forces Sonic into the next part of the level, which we'll get to in a little while.


But what about that other switch? Well, I mentioned The Tower of Druaga and its incredibly challenging puzzles earlier for a reason, and this part of the stage is exactly why. While the expected way to continue is to go down and to the right, taken through a current that leads into the second half of the level, there is an especially unusual shortcut here that you might not have ever been aware existed in this stage unless you've seen a map, and it involves the use of that switch.

The switch on the left opens up a door to a room with a power-up and another bubble vent. There are vents right by the switches so that one isn't particularly useful, and the 10 rings is only of use for people who still need to go to the special stage -- and, frankly, this is a difficult level to collect that 50 rings in, due to how easy it is to take hits in this stage. If there's a hint that something weird is going on, it's that the switch doesn't hide any particularly useful or lucrative treasure. The next few levels will have more useful switches, so it's frustrating that we don't have that precedent to work from just yet, but, then again, the game doesn't lend itself to revealing all its secrets on a single playthrough.

While it's possible to get to the left switch after having hit the right one -- holding left and the jump button from the switch will get you to small ledge just past the reach of the current -- it's not actually necessary, which is something I have regularly seen misreported when discussing this secret. Very few people know about it, and even fewer seem to know the specifics of how it actually works. I spent probably an hour and a half doing various testing of this area of the game to be absolutely certain of what the requirements are. Only the left switch is necessary to reach this secret.

So, if you notice from the map, the left platform can go up a little higher before it reaches spikes. There's just enough room, it turns out, to jump and reach the lower spiked-bottom ledge, and from there it's possible to start backtracking to the previous part of the map. Doing so leads to a small platform that wasn't there before. Landing on it causes it to start moving to the right.


This secret is incredibly well-hidden, and the only reason to even come to suspect that it's real so far is that what the switch is protecting is so paltry. Given that there have been very few times in the game where backtracking has truly been prevented by the game, and the focus on maintaining speed encouraging constant forward progress, the idea that it makes sense to backtrack here is a little unprecedented. Plus, a lot can go wrong, and there's only once chance per life to make the jump: the state of the platform persists even when it goes offscreen, such as by going to the end the room it guards. The current produced by hitting the other switch prevents coming back to this area, and so the only way to reset the platform's state is to have already ridden it up. And what can go wrong? Jumping into an air bubble negates Sonic's upward momentum, so he falls back down. Being pushed into the jawz badniks patrolling the area knocks Sonic back and almost certainly guarantees a crushing death. Being too early in the jump causes Sonic to miss the ledge, obviously, while being too late means death. Taken together, it's easy to see why almost nobody seems to know about this one, and why even fewer really seem to be clear on how to activate it.


This platform actually cuts out most of the level, and leads to a pretty relaxed path to the goal, and perhaps the biggest smoking gun I can think in the game itself that points to the idea that they were originally planning to hide the chaos emeralds inside normal acts.


After hopping over some spikes, you'll see this ledge. In the original (American and European) version of the game, there's nothing there, but in the later Japanese version, there is: a single ring on the ledge, the only time that you see a solitary ring in one place. What's it doing there? I believe it was almost certainly the location of a chaos emerald, early in development. There are no other solitary rings like this anywhere else in this game (in the few cases where single rings are placed in parts of the level, they are always near other rings, outlining a trail, like along the rim of some of the half-pipes in Spring Yard Zone), and the other games in the series maintain this tradition. There is never just one ring.

The only reason I hestitate to declare this for certain is that the ring isn't there in the earlier release. There is a long-standing tradition of doing quick removal of objects by replacing them with rings, noticeable even in Sonic Adventure 2's GameCube port, where occurrences of Big the Cat were replaced with rings. It's easy to explain why they do this: rings can't hurt the player, they remain stationary and thus don't have negative interference with other objects, they exist in every level already and so won't lead to a graphic corruption issue by being loaded on a level without proper graphics in memory, and changing the object type usually requires a quick change of a couple bytes in-place making it easier than removing the entry entirely or defining an empty object specifically for this purpose. Especially in Sonic 1, having an extra ring around the stage somewhere inaccessible doesn't affect the game in any way, and having an accessible one almost always works out in favor of the player. While not true for the later games, the rings are part of the complete list of all objects in the game (later games would separate them into their own lists), so there's nothing particularly untoward about doing this. If rings were supposed to be defined in a separate list, however, that would be even more of a clear sign that there was a hasty object replacement of that sort here. Either way, there's no doubt about it: this single ring is strange.

(As an aside, while there are occasional differences between object layouts of other stages, this is notable because it appears to be the only instancewhere an object appears to have been created out of whole cloth rather than simply moved from one place to another -- object placement differences in other stages don't usually amount to much besides the occasional repositioning of a monitor, so they're usually extremely subtle and not worth commenting on. To my knowledge there is no instance of an object being deleted in the Japanese version either.)


Past that isn't anything very complicated. The path then feeds Sonic onto a waterslide that leads into another current, dropping him in an area with a few more burrowbots and a switch that opens up a nearby ceiling leading to the goal. After such a difficult task to get to this point, the end of the level comes in gently. The last section is a fairly open chamber that also crosses over the end of the path we just skipped over. The only other indication that this path even exists comes from going back to the left after taking this exit. (Again, the clearest sign that this path exists is only shown to those interested in backtracking a bit, as the lack of a wall on the left side of the main exit does provide encouragement to explore to see what, if anything, is to the left; it's one of the few times in the entire zone that player progress isn't gated by extremely narrow passages leading in one direction.)

12-14-2016, 09:50 PM

Going back to that path, though, the level is a lot longer and there are still several tricky obstacles to endure. Sonic lands by another bubble vent and a couple more platforms that will eventually crush him against spikes if he stays on them -- the spikes are visible on exiting the tunnel with the current. There is another spikeball below these platforms. It is not quite as telegraphed as the first, though waiting for an air bubble places Sonic far enough above it to see it spin around. Waiting for an air bubble is a good idea, too, since Sonic has been underwater for a while at this point and is about halfway back to surfacing again. After this is a small chamber with some rings and a couple more of the jawz badniks. They're not a threat, and there are also a couple more vents for ambitious hedgehogs who find they need air now.


If you remember Super Mario Bros. 3, there's a section in the very last level where Mario must climb up ledges while energy balls orbit some corners, requiring timing to pass through without taking a hit. This is almost exactly the same challenge, but with Sonic's controls hampered so he's not as maneuverable. Timing and caution is even more important here, since going too fast will cause Sonic to eat a delicious spikeball dinner. Once again the hazards of this stage would be fairly mundane and easy to deal with, if not for the looming threat of instant death underwater encouraging reckless behavior and the hampered mobility helping punish it.

After a level chunk of ground there's another spikeball in the same relative placement up some ascending ledges, leading to the surface of the water.

You'll notice if you look on the map that we're now in a region of the map that is orange surrounded by green. No, Sonic won't be walking forward into an entrance to the water that starts to the right -- the way the water effect works that wouldn't be feasible anyway, but more on that in a later update. What's happening is that by the time Sonic reaches that area with the spikeballs, the water level has actually dropped down. While it's basically constant if you take the upper route, the lower route raises and lowers the water level in a few areas to present its challenge in a different way. The change in water level is gradual even if it happens offscreen (there's a little variable holding the current water level that ticks up/down until it reaches the level it should be at the point in the level where Sonic is), but there are places throughout Labyrinth where the water's rising and falling is, in fact, visible.


These conveyor belt traps are especially what I have in mind when I think of Labyrinth as a revival of single-screen arcade challenges like Donkey Kong. Aside from the mechanical similarity to the traps in that game's 50m and 75m levels, they tend to lead the player to crushing deaths on spikes. Riding the platforms around the belt they loop through crushes Sonic against the left set of them on the ceiling. These spikes aren't on-screen when Sonic walks into the area, so they're not obvious. For someone who's reaction might be to ride the ridable platforms to see where they might lead, the spike death here seems overly cruel, especially since this is their first appearance in the stage.

This is one of those situations where behavior encouraged in later Sonic games gets punished here, which is one of the major reasons why I recommend people play Sonic 1 before they play other games in the series. Sonic 1's camera is a bit different from other games, after all: holding up or down immediately moves the camera, which means that holding up on one of the platforms gives Sonic a bit more time to react, since the spikes become visible sooner. If you don't do so, it's easy to be too slow to react to spikes coming up on screen if you're not already aware they exist. Even going back to the game now I sometimes forget about the camera differences and specific spike locations and wind up with Sonic-kabobs on my hands. Here the camera is a significant aid and should not be ignored, while in later games the camera switch is too slow to be useful, and the levels tend to favor horizontal scrolling which reduces the need for it anyway. (Furthermore, the later games tend not to rely as much on obstacles like this, where the hazards aren't as immediately obvious.)


Diving into the water rather than riding the platforms reveals a retracting bridge of the same sort that ended the first water segment in this level, and a red spring. Taking the spring is safe: it launches Sonic underneath a switch. It's not hard to guess that the switch there controls the platform, which is the next area in through the level, even if they're not both on the screen at the same time. Since the direction go in a clockwise direction, they lead away from the switch toward the left-side ceiling spikes, so reaching the switch involves not riding but jumping against the motion of the platforms, to get up to the switch. There are spikes above it, making timing jumps important.


Below the retracting bridge, there's a ledge with a burrowbot and some more air, just above a checkpoint. After the checkpoint is the first real underwater control trial: retracting spears ready to skewer Sonic at a moment's notice. A couple rings mark out the end of the spike when it extends fully, but jumping over it without taking damage is impossible. The wall stops Sonic's forward momentum, causing him to fall right onto the spear once he hits it, assuming the spear is extended. Again, timing and precise movement (as we are underwater again) are key. The ceiling is, however, high enough to grant some forgiveness: if Sonic is early, there's room enough above the spear that Sonic can just barely stay floating above it before it descends; if Sonic is late, the ceiling can keep enough of Sonic's jump trajectory to stay above it before it extends.

The second spear, right after it, is in otherwise the same configuration but the ground between the ceiling and Sonic's point on the ground is narrower, so the timing is much stricter.


After that is another air vent and a switch. The switch opens a door just to its right; the only purpose to this door from a mechanics perspective is to block access to the air source. It's not advised to pass through the doorway without collecting air, as the door closes back up as soon as Sonic goes past it. A bit mean, but still reasonable: most air bubbles in the stage are unnecessary, but, well, I've made quite clear by now what the risk of avoiding them is.


Plus, the game isn't completely hateful here: there are several more spears, but the first one that points up can be jumped over fairly safely. The ones pointing down must be retracted to cross by safely (they go low enough to hit Sonic even through a roll), but since the timing for them is relative to when their spawn time (rather than a global timer), it's possible to get past them all without waiting to much. Plus, partway through this section the water level drops to about Sonic's height, at which point air is only a jump away.


Hitting the red spring boosts Sonic up a narrow stair-stepped passageway. The spring is fast, and Sonic will probably wind up knocking into the ceiling at some point. In the meantime the water level will rise. It's a pretty minor obstacle here, since there's nothing else to worry about (no spikes or enemies here), though later passages like this will offer many more hazards.


Almost all the way up, there's a platform on the ground with holes in it. This spongy ledge floats in the water, so it rises up as the water level does. Faster players can jump on it before the water gets to its height, riding it up to the next part of the stage, though otherwise jumping back to it from the ledge on its right is necessary. The water level stops rising just below the next ledge.


Dropping down into the water, and going past some spikes and a jawz that is actually in our way for once, we see another new enemy: the orbinaut. This guy stays in one place, and when Sonic gets close to it, its body changes color and it fires out the spikeballs it has swinging around it. Our introduction to this guy is a fairly safe one. Approaching it from a ledge underneath, only a very hasty hedgehog would have a chance to get hit by them, and the conveyor belt above the ledge is too high up to expose Sonic to the spikeballs as he rides it.


While most of this stage's hazards have had a nice sense of escalation so far, this conveyor belt is a disappointment in that respect -- it's safe to ride for nearly all of its loop, with the only hazard in the way being the statue head poking out from the wall, which (in classic video game style) tosses out a projectile. The projectile is small and moves slow, so it's overall easy to avoid, but means Sonic has to jump over it to stay safe. Sonic should jump over it anyway, since the next ledge is right above it; the only real risk is jumping too soon and missing the ledge, requiring a restart. Given that the last conveyor section had an instakill with spike crushing, this feels out-of-place. In fact, it's the only time where the conveyor belt doesn't have lots of spikes around it. If this had somehow been the first instance of the platfors, then it would have been a lovely introduction to them. As it stands, it makes the one that did come first feel like more of a cheap shot. A shame, since outside of this the level does a lovely job of introducing and then elaborating on obstacles.


Hold that thought, though, as Act 1 does have one final trick up it's sleeve, and it's a pretty clever one. The end of the stage is past a narrow passage leading to the left, and as Sonic goes through it the water level rises. What makes this area challenging is that those spongy platforms are back, and the water level makes them a crushing hazard. Thus the challenge becomes trying to either get through the level faster and jump over the platforms before the water can lift them up, or waiting and going underneath once the water has already risen. Waiting is a bit easier, if antithetical to the game's talk of speed, since there's another air vent past a switch right after this section (for some reason the vent doesn't show up on the map, but it's there; I checked). Note that the water isn't the only thing Sonic has to fight against in this section: more burrowbots. They're placed far enough away from the sponges that even if Sonic knocks into one as it jumps out of the ground, the knockback will keep him to the side of the sponge. That is, there's no risk of knockback leading to crushing, just time loss, though trying to make up for that lost time could wind up with a crushing death from the next sponge.

After that switch and air vent are a couple horizontally-placed spears. Both are pretty easy to jump over. Past that is a switch unblocking the route to the goal, ending the act.


Labyrinth gets a lot of criticism for being slow and penalizing. That's fair, certainly, but it's also what I like about the stage. It presents most of its ideas in a neat and orderly way, and then quickly ratchets up the difficulty on them, while hiding a few weird twists along the way here and there. And when you've played the games as long as I have, the added challenge is definitely welcome -- its nice to have a level that isn't incredibly easy to blow past. Plus, I think all the ideas of the stage work together to be more than the sum of their parts; its main flaw merely being that it's in a game that people expect to be fast. One of my hopes in doing this series is that people will appreciate these less-liked levels a bit more, levels that give even me some trouble.

That's all I have to say for Labyrinth Act 1. Next time, Act 2!

01-08-2017, 12:44 AM
I was hoping to have Act 2 done by now but I was pretty sick the week before this and this week I spent the sort of time I'd use for the write-up on streaming Sonic Adventure. So if you want to hear me mocking conservative memes in Big the Cat's voice, well, that's on my YouTube channel