I'm new here, but this is a better introduction than I could ever post in the "introduce yourself" topic. :b
And hey, if you hate Dimps, I take a pot shot at them quite a ways down. I'm a fan of Dimps, though, so I try not to dwell on that for too long.
The basis of this theory is that there are two fundamental types of zones in Sonic 1: fast zones and slow zones. Scrap Brain Zone, as I'll cover later, is a mix of the two.
Marble Zone and Labyrinth Zone are the two slowest zones in Sonic the Hedgehog; Sonic can rarely reach his top speed in these zones. On the other hand, Green Hill Zone, Spring Yard Zone, and Star Light Zone are fast zones where Sonic can move faster.
Look at it this way:
Green Hill Zone (fast)
Marble Zone (slow)
Spring Yard Zone (fast)
Labyrinth Zone (slow)
Star Light Zone (fast)
This is pretty neat, isn't it? It goes back and forth—fast, slow, fast, slow, fast. Think about it, then... the player is constantly going back and forth between styles.
What does this mean for gameplay? Well, it means that Sonic 1's gameplay is developed through the tension between fast and slow gameplay. Sonic goes back and forth, from fast to slow to fast; this allows the two gameplay styles to develop alongside each other. Marble (slow) benefits from the developments of Green Hill (fast), and Spring Yard benefits from the developments of both Green Hill (fast) and Marble (slow); so on and so forth.
Green Hill Zone is the simplest zone, so it comes first, before any slow elements have been introduced.
The Spring Yard Zone is the slowest of the fast zones, often requiring Sonic to navigate bumpers or wait for moving platforms. This is because it comes between the two slow zones; the player has just left Marble and is just about to enter Labyrinth.
The notion of context is very important here. You understand something based on what comes before and what comes after. Spring Yard is in the context of two slow zones, one before and one after.
The Star Light Zone is the most dangerous of the fast zones, so it comes fifth. Sonic has finally left the game's slowest zone, the Labyrinth Zone, and as a result is rarely held back in his speed—he's broken free and now nothing can hold him back. However, danger is unrelenting as Sonic approaches Robotnik's lair, meaning this zone is equal parts speed and difficulty.
The Labyrinth Zone is the climax of this five zone sequence. (It's no coincidence that the final act of the game is styled after Labyrinth Zone.) Underwater, Sonic is slower than at any other point in the game. Danger is also prominent, since spikes are frequent, enemies are dangerous, and Sonic is in constant risk of drowning. After this, Sonic is free to move as fast as he likes in the falling action of the Star Light Zone. When in the Star Light Zone, I like to picture Sonic running down the right side of Freytag's pyramid.
One thing to note here is that all the outside zones are fast and all the inside zones are slow. Heck, the outside portions of Marble are fast, and the inside portions of Spring Yard are slow.
Think about Scrap Brain in that light. Sonic is outside in act 1, inside in act 2, and in Scrap Brain's depths in act 3. This matches what we experience, right? The zone starts out with fast gameplay, but as Sonic moves farther inside, he is slowed further and further. Unless you take the godsend of a shortcut, act 3 is perhaps the most sluggish act of the game.
That's, like, the tip of the iceberg.
As it is, fast and slow zones have arbitrary definitions. Sure, a zone may feel fast for you, but it may feel slow to others. Can we have an objective definition so as to clear up any confusion?
The answer, I believe, can be found in alternate paths.
In Sonic 1, fast zones have many paths—often three or more. Slow zones have almost no alternate paths.
However, Marble Zone act 3 contains an alternate path right at the beginning. Why wouldn't that be considered a fast zone?
Okay, fine, then; the answer lies with how paths are used.
Here's an example from Green Hill Zone act 3:
Boxed in red is an easygoing middle path. You'll notice it has no enemies, no spikes, no gaps to jump—just a flat plain ripe for running.
Boxed in yellow is a difficult high path. There are many gaps in the floating platforms here. However, should the player fall, there is a middle path below to catch them—there's a challenge, but there are no negative repercussions.
Boxed in blue is a difficult low path. There are spikes and enemies all over, and even a bottomless pit. This is a challenging platform segment, just like the high path. However, if the player falls from this path, it means certain death.
Fast zones are fast, then, because there is a constant tension toward a safe middle path. A high path provides challenge and is likely to drop a player off on the middle path. And a low path threatens the player with death, so the player wants to go back to the middle path ASAP.
Middle paths are safe and flat, allowing the player to speed through. And high paths have low risk, so the player can take them casually. If the player runs off a cliff on a high path, it's no big deal; they'll just fall on the middle path. Things only get slow when on a bottom path, and it's at those times that the player aches to reach the middle path again.
So, not only do fast zones have multiple paths, but also, those paths interact in a meaningful way. The middle path serves a purpose to both the high path and low path. When fast zones have more or less than three paths, interactions get more complex and interesting.
Note that this is in clear contrast with the Dimps school of design. People often complain that bottomless pits come out of nowhere in Dimps games. Well, Sonic 1 always makes players highly aware that they're on the bottom path and that they are at risk of death. The player knows to take platforming slowly and seriously on Sonic 1's bottom paths. At the same time, the player can feel safe on high and middle paths; there's no immediate risk of death. A player may fall from the middle path to the low path, but rarely from the middle path to immediate death.
From this, there are two important differences to note in slow zones.
Slow zones have no bottomless pits. Note also that Spring Yard Zone only has one bottomless pit—at the end of act 3. I'd still call it a fast zone, but it sure shares a lot in common with slow zones.
Slow zones may have multiple paths, but they don't interact.
Take a look at the two paths at the beginning of Marble Zone act 3. They meet at two locations: when they start, and when they end. There's no meeting point between. However, in the image of Green Hill act 3 above, the player could fall from the high path to the middle path at any time.
This makes sense, right? Slow zones tend to have small, tight corridors for Sonic to move through. Fast zones are characterized by obstacles Sonic can jump over or through; slow zones are characterized by obstacles Sonic must wait behind. For example, in Labyrinth, he is always forced to wait for a bubble to spawn from an air pocket. There's tons of other examples, too. Just off the top of my head, in Marble Zone, there's the chained platforms that fall from the ceiling. He's got to wait for them to drop before he can move on.
So, in that light, it makes sense that alternate paths in slow zones wouldn't meet at any points between the start and end. Movement is constricted in these zones, and freedom of movement is at a minimum.
That's all I've got for now, though. Is what I'm saying old news? Does it make any sense? I'd love to hear any feedback youse guys have. The fewer insults, the better.