By HistoryInRust 14 Comments
Hey all. This is my first blog for the site in a long while. I doubt there were any expectations, but if there were, then allow me to do my damndest to undershoot them entirely.
"Challenge Pissing", ideally, will be a series of opinion pieces on (not at all) relevant issues/topics/sexual innuendos in gaming. As we all know, opinions are sort of, well, everywhere. So offensive, not offensive, completely agreeable; whatever the case, you should take solace in knowing Challenge Pissing shouldn't amount to more than piss in the wind.
Sonic the Hedgehog has been a staple of my gaming life since the early 90's. Gaming life in general, I ought to say. But really, for me, Sonic has been my platforming mascot of choice for the last decade and a half. It's probably worthwhile to preface this with: I haven't played a lick of the Sonic games post 3D-Blast, and, on that note, worthwhile to say "gaming icon" of choice in the stead of "platforming mascot."
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 stands, to this day, as one of my favorite 2D games on any platform, much less the Genesis. And I hold it as the crowning achievement of the Sonic legacy. Simply put, the game plays to Sonic's strengths. The level design is, for the most part, superb; the sense of speed is both blinding and controllable; the game has a blistering pace, and aside from the occasional dread of being underwater or that godforsaken Metropolis stage, Sonic 2 rarely feels stagnant. Always fluid.
Shifting gears a bit--I have only vague memories of Sonic & Knuckles, the "sequel" and/or second half of the Sonic 3 two-act narrative. If you can call the game's progressions "narratives," that is. I remember the mechanics of Sonic 3. The flash strike Sonic can unleash with a second tap of the jump button and Knuckle's ability to glide and sink his gauntlets into sheer cliffs. I remember the Bonus Stages wherein your one goal was to collect blue spheres. Red spheres be damned. Even if they are Knuckles's color (he's clearly aware of his place as second-billing, because he didn't complain about collecting Sonic-hued spheres). I remember Knuckles toying with Sonic along the whole path. And Chickens. I remember Chickens that blew gale-force winds.
Seeing Sonic & Knuckles for its Xbox Live Marketplace price (400 Microsoft Points) led to curiosity, and curiosity led to me caving entirely. 400 points is relatively painless. Relatively.
So, after having played Sonic & Knuckles, I realized why I had only fleeting impressions of my childhood experience with the game. I had repressed the knowledge I bore of even playing the fucking thing. Because, now that I look at it, I realize that Sonic & Knuckles is a filthy aberration of everything 2D Sonic represented. If Sonic & Knuckles were a rapper, it'd be Vanilla Ice. A soda, Pepsi Blue. A notable sexual criminal, Brian Peppers.
I maintain that Sonic & Knuckles is the weakest, lowest-quality marquee Sonic the Hedgehog title on the Sega Genesis. And don't you dare say Sonic Spinball was worse. Because Sonic Spinball fucking rocked.
First off, let's explicate Sonic the Hedgehog a bit. Sonic is fast, that's his gimmick. He's the animal kingdom's Usain Bolt. One of the coolest moments in The Matrix Reloaded--the scene where Keanu Reeves flies (fully clothed) through the city fast enough to tear the Matrix apart at its very seams--was based on a real event perpetrated by Sonic the Hedgehog.
Given Sonic's one undeniable, unforgettable, totally distinguishable trait (aside from his being a hedgehog), the design philosophy around the games is admittedly simple: allow the players to completely exploit his speed. Not all the time, of course, because then they will grow complacent, and the game will cease to be engaging. But ultimately, make Sonic fast. Give him environments where he can outrun a Corvette often enough, make the aforementioned environments aesthetically appealing, write catchy music that fits the tone of land-speed-record-breaking, and the game will basically produce itself.
So begat Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and to a lesser extent, Sonic the Hedgehog 3. In another sense, especially Sonic 3. In fact, there's a sense in which Sonic the Hedgehog 3 just tells the player to set the controller down once Sonic gets enough momentum. The ensuing wave of colors is so oppressive, you'd swear you were watching Speed Racer.
But then there's Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic & Knuckles is the child who got neither the brains of Sonic 2 nor the looks of Sonic 3. And, Sonic 1 is the eldest child, so it gets everything it wants anyway.
Near the tail end of Sonic 2, at the Metropolis stage mentioned some paragraphs above, the Sonic Team decides it'd be cute if they put not one, but two enemies, both of whom are impervious to direct assaults, in obscure places the player cannot see until they are running full fucking blast down the corridor. Cue ring spray, cue cursing, cue a complete and utter shattering of Sonic's sense of speed.
Moreover, when the stage doesn't want to hurl Sonic headlong into an adversary, it takes away Sonic's lateral movement altogether. The majority of the level is spent bouncing vertically off yellow pinball flippers and carefully dodging spike-shooting Staryus.
Metropolis is, far and away, the most tedious and unenjoyable of the Sonic 2 stages because it forces Sonic into a realm of verticality, which happens to be Sonic's least favorite realm. That is, unless he's running up a goddamned wall. And it compounds this claustrophobia by preventing Sonic to gain any lateral momentum whatsoever, as the enemies are too deftly placed for the player to feel comfortable exploiting his sneakers. And did I mention (or did you remember) that Metropolis had three Acts? Totaling in at an average ten-to-twelve minutes. Ten to twelve minutes to complete a stage in a game completely contingent on speed.
Take the time, then, to imagine an entire game designed with the Metropolis motifs--enemies planted in wholly inconvenient locations, overtly vertical, complex, overwrought stage design. If you've imagined it correctly, then you've imagined Sonic & Knuckles.
From the outset, the game's philosophical issues are clear. Clear and present. Mushroom Hill Zone has several types of baddies, but only one can be killed with a direct assault. One. And it's a goddamned butterfly that zips nimbly around without a real pattern, making it a testament to a player's accuracy if they can hit the thing. Compounding the issue are chickens that spout gusts of wind, withholding Sonic (or Knuckles, I suppose) back for a number of seconds.
Let's just get something clear. Metropolis in Sonic 2 skirts away from any real criticism because it was, basically, the last "real" stage in the game. Mushroom Hill Zone is the first level of Sonic & Knuckles. The first level. Traditionally, Sonic games let the players go all out in the first stage because, well, hell, it's the first stage. Let them get hooked on the game's significant qualities. Right? Right?!
Abound in Mushroom Hill Zone are a number of vine-traps that ensnare Sonic and hold him in place until a spin dash is performed. Which, okay, keep the spin dash relevant, that's fine. But it further reinforces the notion that--for Sonic & Knuckles--the direction in which the Sonic Team delved was not at all coherent in the philosophy of Sonic the Hedgehog. A slow Sonic the Hedgehog is like a walking Stephen Hawking. Established status quo be damned.
But that's just the design of the first level. I haven't enumerated the problems with the second level (which smacks uncannily of Metropolis, go figure) or the third (a completely uninteresting sand-stage whose second Act relishes in being an infinite loop), or any of the levels past that. Kudos, I suppose, for writing Robotnik--not sure if he's Eggman at this point--in character. Of course he'd put Sonic in a claustrophobic space to take away his one advantage, but these are 2D plaformers. Story and character need not be relevant past the point of appearance. Hell, there are triple-A games released today whose stories make as much sense as a soup sandwich, yet they're still highly praised because the gameplay holds true.
The biggest insult atop the mountainous injury, however, is the lazy production. The game's music is a significant step down from the compositions in Sonic 3 (and, of course, an even greater discrepancy when compared to Sonic 2's immaculate 16-bit score). And the environments are just bland. Unengaging. They all keep too closely to a singular color, where the earlier Sonic entires thrived with an abundance of contrasting hues. Even Metropolis was interesting to look at, with its brick reds against industrial greens and browns.
The Sonic legacy, obviously, is in a sort of miry place in modern gaming. 3D has been ungenerous to Sonic, the transition has been difficult and clunky. This argument has been made before, that Sonic's strength is in fluency, not in complexity. And there has been no truer argument for the hedgehog's cause. If Mario is about precision platforming, then Sonic is duly about sheer adrenaline and inertia. Not cheap enemy placements or convoluted level design or, God forbid, bad music.
But I don't believe the problems began when Sonic jumped to 3D. I feel the problems manifested earlier, at the height of his power. In the way all memorable icons orchestrate their fall.