Booting up the game I mash the start button trying to skip the intros and get through the main menu so I can actually play the game. After what seems like an eternity I am greeted to a beautiful vista filled with dancing flowers and towering trees. A vast body of water rests next to the hills in the foreground as overgrown forests and a mesmerizing waterfall meet a deep blue sky off in the horizon. Despite the alluring scenery, my attention is drawn to a blue anthropomorphic hedgehog who is oozing “cool” through his pores as he taps his foot anxiously, waiting for my input. I hold right on the d-pad and the strange animal begins a jog that quickly turns into an all out sprint as his feet become a circular blur. The next minute is spent jumping through enemies and over spikes, hitting springs for maximum speed, and zooming through loop de loops. Arriving at the end of the level, Sonic flies past a sign fast enough to make it spin in place until it rests on a candid photo of himself giving a peace sign. As with most people who played Sonic in the early 90’s, these are the memories that are tied to those games. Well I’m here to tell you those memories are wrong.
Sonic Team has had a tough time making games after the industry jumped into the third dimension. Sonic Adventure was received well but nothing made after has garnered much success, with a few titles being outright hated. One of the biggest criticisms made towards the 3D titles is a lack of speed, that Sonic just isn’t as fast. Others are quick to point out that the only time Sonic moves fast are in areas designed for the speed, where player control is usually relinquished from the player. These moments are typically condemned for having the “on rails” feeling. Let’s be honest with ourselves though, the old Sonic titles were no different.
To start with, I spent the previous two weeks playing through all three and a half Sonic games for the Sega Genesis. I also played the two Master System titles but, being limited to the weaker hardware, lacked a few of the core aspects that are commonly attributed to Sonic games through the ruby glasses of nostalgia.
A majority of Sonic’s gameplay can be played fast but it is rarely the optimal way to play the game. Cruising through the levels at top speed often results in cheap hits, traps, and even unavoidable deaths. The only instances where it is safe to traverse at full speed is when there is an environmental speed booster, such as springs, downhill landscapes, or loop de loops. These cues inform the player that high speeds are not only safe but usually necessary. These areas present no danger to Sonic, even go so far that if enemies are present that Sonic is forced into a ball allowing him to defeat them. These instances are no different from the boost pads or loop de loops in the 3D Sonic games, though there is a distinctly different feel between the two styles. The 3D games typically alter the camera during these sequences to add emphasis to the speed or scope of the actions being taken. The modern games also had a stronger focus on Sonic running, opposed to his spin dash, so these fast sequences usually contain no enemies. While the enemies didn’t present any danger in the 2D games, their mere presence creates obstacles that the player feels they have overcome, despite there being a lack of choice. There are clear reasons why these changes needed to be made with the switch to a 3D engine. What originally was a binary choice — move left or right — is now a full range of motion in two axes. The difficulty in controlling a game at this speed is what forced the designers to include aspects such as invisible walls and computer assisted segments. While these aspects are often criticized the harshest, they are what allowed the modern Sonic games to still have a sense of speed.
On the topic of moving fast, the original games did so very rarely. Only the first act of each game could be blindly rushed through as they posed the least amount of puzzles, obstacles, and pits. While these levels are often the ones remembered most, they are not indicative of the “Sonic Experience.” Most levels required Sonic to wait for moving platforms, wait on top of of moving platforms, wait for doors to slowly open, make precise jumps, or navigate underwater. As the games progress, the open paths and hills are gradually replaced with these hurdles that require Sonic to slow down or even stop. The two worst offenders are levels that take place around lethal hazards, like Oil Ocean or Sky Base, and the underwater levels. Both force the player to progress much slower than in other levels due to cheap deaths in the former and, well, being underwater in the latter. These stages give the player the least amount of space to move fast which seems to go against the core idea of a Sonic game. I will reiterate: going fast is not quintessential to a Sonic game.
What has always irritated me has been the profound love for Sonic 2’s Casino Night Zone. The level design is a drastic departure from all other zones in the classic series, minus Sonic 3’s Carnival Night Zone which was obviously inspired by Casino Night. Contrasting the player control and emphasis on speed, Casino Night focuses on loss of control and wasting time. Bumpers, flippers, bounce pads and more are scattered around these levels ricocheting Sonic around like a pinball. Unlike every other level, Casino Night has optional content to keep the player busy if they do not wish to proceed to the exit. Inside the pinball areas are slot machines that can help a player earn rings or extra lives, or take all of their rings away. This zone also has the least amount of areas for the player to experience speed. Due to the emphasis on pinball-esque mechanics, much of the level is built vertically with very little of the space designed to be traversed horizontally. Most of the areas that implement high speeds are in tubes after Sonic has been hit with a pinball machine plunger. The player has no input after launching Sonic. Ironically, so much of this level goes against the very essence of what is expected from a Sonic game despite it being one of the most popular zones.
Sonic CD is a game that frequently appears above Sonic 2 in “best games” lists yet it was the biggest departure from the formula. As Justin Towell states in his “Why Sonic CD Is One Of The Greatest Games Ever Made” article at GamesRadar, “The levels are even more claustrophobic than those of Sonic 1 and speed is used sparingly.” The Sonic game that is held above all others uses speed sparingly. Sonic CD has a much stronger emphasis on exploration and platforming than any of the other titles and was the first time the player had an objective outside of finishing the level and collecting Chaos Emeralds. Robot teleporters and Metal Sonic holograms are littered throughout the past versions of each stage. Getting to these rarely require speed of any sort and are usually hidden away in areas that require precision platforming and jumping to get to. Many have pointed out that this is the first Sonic game to actually use his speed as a game mechanic and they aren’t wrong. Sonic needs to stay at maximum speed for several seconds to time travel. It is often understated that certain areas of each level are designed for keeping the speed up long enough to activate the time travel. It is also rarely mentioned how some of the more difficult to find robot teleporters and Metal Sonic holograms require the player to time travel in very specific spots. These levels are created with platforming in mind and gives players specified spaces to be fast. The fact that players feel clever when they do reach the proper speed is more a testament to the level designers ability to mesh the jumping and running sections so seamlessly.
So, no, the old 2D Sonic titles actually weren’t about speed but actually typical platforming with occasional areas that allowed for safe, fast traversal. Funny enough, these same core ideas bleed into the 3D titles as well. Despite the hate they receive for not being like the old games, they actually are quite similar. The 3D games did garner some well deserved criticisms, such as the non-Sonic portions of the Adventure series, but overall they captured the essence of the classic games and made minimal sacrifices during the dimensional transition. We all know that nostalgia has a way of making our past seem better, but maybe next time a classic franchise is rebooted we will take the time to re-explore the original in an attempt to more objectively compare the two.