If you're reading this guide, you probably want to know how to make a Sonic level. I think the best way to get ones mindset ready to do so, is to view a Sonic level like this: There's a point A, the beginning, and a point B, the end of the act. The player must get from point A to point B. The player can get to point B by taking numerous possible routes. Sonic levels are no linear equation. There is always forks, alternate routes, hidden routes, and usually there is not a single main route at all.
It's hard to simply 'categorize' the way a level can be set up, since there can be so many varying ways. You can't really say a Sonic level is made up of one route, when there's almost always more than one way to get to the goal. No single route is the “right” route, but each route provides a different experience for the player to blast through the level at various speeds. There are three main types of routes, however, that tend to exist in Sonic levels:
- High route: This is the highest route on the map. It's more often than not the fastest route, but it's also the most tedious to stay on. Often there will be rewards on this route, such as invincibility, speed sneakers, or 1-ups.
- Low route: This is the lowest route on the map. This is usually the least speed based route, and most platform based route. Depending on the zone trope, it may be the safest route or the most dangerous place to be (see: water zone).
- Average route: This is any main route(s) that lie within the middle of the level, and connect to other routes, including the high and low routes in various ways depending on the level.
It's not as black and white as this though. Each game has handled these kinds of routes, and how they interact with each other in their own way. To add, these choices are also influenced by how the level itself is designed. I think it'd be easiest to go through each of the main three games and elaborate.
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic 1 is the best game to study if you want to get the basics down. Sonic 1 differentiates from Sonic 2 and 3, in that there's more direct routes, rather than constantly branching and switching layouts. However, both of these scenarios exist in Sonic 1, but by Sonic 2 the reverse was more common.
Green Hill Zone Act 1 is the first zone a lot of people probably played Sonic through, so it's no surprise that all the basics of Sonic level design are found here.
- Red Line: This is Green Hill Act 1s most iconic route, aka the one most players will venture through.
- Pink Line: This is the lower route, where less seasoned players of Sonic games are likely to end up. Take note of how a careless player is likely to end up here if they dabble around on the crumbling platforms. There's more traps here too, but they're not unforgiving.
- Yellow Line: This is the higher routes, where explorers are likely to end up. Notice how it's a lot harder to stay up on this route.
Take note of how no single route is a straight line. Sonic levels are always going up and down, in a way like a roller coaster. Even the alternate routes follow this pattern.
Sonic 1 also has the two exceptions to the entire "route" system. Marble Zone Act 1 and Labyrinth Zone Act 2 are completely linear. Hydrocity Act 2 and Hill Top Act 1 kind of lean in this direction, but it's not as extreme.
- Red Line: The only route. I don't think I need to elaborate any further.
- Yellow Line: These are small branches you can check out. Nothing more than making the level a bit less straightforward, and having a place for the levels goodies.
I wouldn't advise using these kinds of levels in a Sonic hack or fan game, mainly because Sonic 1 was in many ways the developers discovering how Sonic worked, as they went along. Compare MZ 1 and LZ 2 to the likes of SLZ 3 and SBZ 2.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sonics famous sequel brought a lot of improvement to the level design in Sonics formula. Lets take a look at Emerald Hill Zone Act 1.
- Red Line: This is the main route most people go through. Of course, after the 3rd loop, there tends to be no difference between what's the -main- route, since any curious player may end up in the 1-up tunnel, or hit the spring and end up on the higher route. This is what I mean by how flexible routes are. There's a lot of freedom for the player to explore.
- Pink Line: This is the lower route, where less seasoned players of Sonic games are likely to end up (once again). The amount of traps is more evident, and like in Green Hill, the player is more likely to end up here if they goof around and then mess up by falling into a pit.
- Yellow Line: These are branches and forks in the one route that lead to another route, so basically, mini-routes.
- Orange Line: This is the high route. Part of the red line was in a way the high route too, but since this is a route you can climb higher to after starting on the main route, I'll consider it the high route. Notice that nice run you get at the end through a loop and two corkscrews (followed by a devious spring to keep speed runners on their toes).
Now lets move on to Chemical Pla-
Chemical Plant Zone is probably one of the reigning kings of Sonic level design. The zone is abundantly rich in alternate routes, high speed non-linear coasters, with minimal confusion. I left out that looping pipe by the two rings and shield monitor, but since it's a dead end anyway it's not a big deal.
- Red Line: This is the main route most people go through (once again).
- Orange Line: This is your first high route, though considering how easy it is to stay on, and it's only a small length longer than the red line, it's hard to say. The zone in general is focused on speed. It eventually becomes the main route for the rest of the act.
- Yellow Line: These are branches and forks in the one route that lead to another route, so basically, mini-routes.
- Light Blue Line: This is another shot at a "high" route within the first normal route. It's hard to notice if you let the spring there force you to the left, continuing on the initial route.
- Light Green Line: The only real notable "low" route that you end up in for not being careful.
Overall, take note that there's less of a "main" route, and instead just several possible roads that are constantly intersecting and joining together. This doesn't start becoming evident in Sonic 1 until around Star Light Zone.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles
Sonic 3K expands majorly on the groundwork that Sonic 2 set up, so much that it eliminates some of it in the process. Gimmicks are now much more abundant than they were in Sonic 2, and the level design is pretty much twice as large as it was in Sonic 2. Routes are also significantly different.
Types of Routes
Remember all that stuff I mentioned about High Routes, Low Routes, and Average Routes? Because Sonic 3Ks levels are much bigger than those of Sonic 1 and 2, these are much less obvious than before. Instead, the massive levels allow every single route to be big, expansive, and have lots of areas where you're going left as well as right. Every single route shares pretty much the same difficulty as any other one you could end up on, and this adds to the experience of Sonic 3K. It makes the levels feel bigger, as if there's no real "ceiling" or "bottom of" the levels. Every single route is rich in gimmicks, huge, and never fails to keep the player going in a mix of speed and platforming.
Character Specific Routes
Sonic 3K was the first time characters had their own unique abilities. Sonic had the insta-shield and ability to harness the power of the element shields. Tails has his flying and swimming, and Knuckles has his gliding and climbing. This is nothing new to you obviously, but these factors influence level layout majorly. The intensity their abilities influence the level design however, is up to you. Even Sonic Rush has a few spots that only Blaze can reach with her rocket heels.
Here's a cheeky example from Marble Garden Act 1.
- Blue Line: Sonic/Knuckles' route. There's of course an alternate route at the beginning of MGZ1 to where you avoid this section entirely, but that's not the point. Tails could also go this way if the player wanted to.
- Orange Line: Tails' smug little shortcut.
A level designer could choose to make a character specific route as simple as this. The most famous example of an expansive route for a specific character is Angel Island Act 2.
The entire lowest route is specific to Knuckles only.
Mushroom Hill Act 1 also has another Knuckles section. It's the beginning lowest section, and doesn't meet up with Sonic/Tails' route until the loop after the first pulley gimmick. It's another fun section that lets the player use Knuckles' climbing and gliding abilities to get through a few tight spots. If you're wondering why I didn't line out all of the paths the player can take on each route, it's because I'm just trying to illustrate the point of how the character specific routes work.
Paths like these are really popular among classic fans, but are rarely attempted in fan games and hacks. The reason is likely because they take a lot of effort (you're basically doing two levels at once, or just adding more routes to a layout). Levels like this are unique, and I can't really get into specifics about how the level should be designed around a characters abilities, because those could vary from fan project to fan project. Some could have Knuckles digging, Wisp-specific routes, or Tails in his Sea Fox.
A few main points I consider:
- Don't overload the gimmick: By gimmick here, I mean the character specific gimmick. Let there be moments where the player will have to say, fly through a maze of spikes, or climb up a wall, but don't make your whole level focused around that. Look at Knuckles' route in Angel Island 2. There's only a few instances that force the player to use his abilities that deviate from the usual Sonic-y game play.
- Cleverly disguise their special path: By this I mean don't make it blatantly obvious it's a character specific path. Invisible barriers with Knuckles' logo flashing on them, or some similar garbage is just lazy. In Marble Garden 1 if you reach Tails' route as Sonic, all you think is "Hmm, how can I get up there?.. Oh. Tails can fly!" With Knuckles' entrance to Angel Island 2, some players might not even see it behind the rocks. Also note that if Knuckles tries to go into Sonics route, he'll climb onto the rock and end up smashing it (said rock, Sonic can't smash). His jump height isn't high enough to reach the cliff to reach the upper level mid-boss. That whole area is cleverly designed to force Knuckles onto his new route.
- Don't let 'rules' be broken: This a simple one. If a route is meant to be character specific, make sure the likes of Sonic, Tails, or whoevers route it isn't, can't get onto the route through a glitch or hidden tunnel. It ruins the fun of it being character specific.
Sonic the Hedgehog CD
CD follows the same basic groundwork, but is a bit of an oddity since its level design is influenced by the time traveling gimmick, so I'll come back to this later.
Know Your Level
No single level is exactly the same, and neither should your levels. Lets start with loops.
Look at all these loops. Each one from a different type of zone, and each one with its own design. Some designs are similar to others (Green Hill to Palmtree Panic, Emerald Hill to Angel Island), but there's ultimately enough differences to make each loop unique. Loops shouldn't randomly be slapped into levels. They should at least give -some- contribution to the level design, which means the top of the loop will be part of the level design. Obviously Hill Top and Casino Night are a bit of odd cases, so they tend to lean around this. Hill Tops is for the sake of getting Sonic to break the ground, so it's top isn't as necessary. Casino Nights is more for giving a flashy exit to the pinball charger. Don't overdo the inclusion of loops. Plenty of zones don't need to have loops at all (mainly caverns, industrial sites, space ships, and a few other levels fall into this).
Level Theme and How it Affects the Layout
(This is probably a point I should be emphasizing much more) You should always be aware of the kind of zone you're making. Just the theme of the zone will make the layout of the zone.
Look at how the terrain is handled in each of these grass zones. It isn't just a sudden slope. It goes up like a real hill, be it a steep hill or a small, steady rise. It looks like realistic terrain but at the same time still smoothly curved for the most part. In these kinds of zones, even the straight paths have a bit of bumps in them, much like real earth. Now lets look at zones with man-made floors.
Entirely different scenario here. Floors are at direct angles or straightaways. Ruins are also man made, but depending on how ruined they are, they might follow the hill type mentioned above (Aquatic Ruin, Marble Garden), or the more obvious man-made pattern here (Sky Sanctuary, Hidden Palace), or in some cases, a mixture of both (Marble, Sandopolis).
It's your zone though, this is where you start making the calls for your designs. How will your loops loop? How will your slopes be designed? Try to look at other Sonic zones, and expand on those ideas, or even do all new ones. Make crazy loop designs we've never seen before! Make a tally-whacker loop next to adderall pill shaped slopes for all I care.
Ultimately though, each zone should look unique. Oil Ocean and Metropolis have the same kind of small slopes, but their theme and scenery makes each one stand out from the other. Emerald Hill has slopes at a similar angle as those too, but they're much more bumpy and slope-y, like real grass. If you keep these things in mind when making the tiles for the level, or drawing it out, then the level will practically form itself.
Never Too Many Gimmicks
Corkscrews, Pinball Machines, Bouncy Mushrooms, Pulleys, Sloped Elevators, Flame Throwers, just to show a few
Every level should have gimmicks, and there should be a lot of them. Without gimmicks, you have flat dull level. Imagine Chemical Plant without the tubes, mega mack, blue balls, stair platforms, etc. It's not so interesting, is it? Again with matching the level theme; a gimmick usually matches the theme of a zone, at least somewhat. A high amount of them is essential though. A lot of fan games and hacks have fallen short by not introducing anything new to the table. Lets say you have a water zone. What would be something cool to make it fresh and original?
Here's a quick example I came up with. The player is walking around in a water ruin. They come up to a ledge, but don't notice the ground crumbling. Suddenly they fall into the pool of water, which has a whirlpool in it. The whirlpool sucks the player into the lower water levels. If the player is quick on their feet though, they can avoid the whirlpool by jumping. Neat little gimmick, and it teaches the player.
Spreading out Gimmicks
With gimmicks though, there's a reason you need a lot of gimmicks. Without a large amount of gimmicks per act, you get a limited amount, and it can make the zone bland. For example, lets look at the new Sylvania Castle Zone.
Each act has a varied amount of gimmicks, but it doesn't get excessive.
Act 1 is pretty basic, as it's an introductory stage, which recent Sonic games tend to have the first level rather simple.
- Marble Garden spin dash gears.
- Water running
- Wall Crusher (ala Eggmanland and Asteroid Coaster)
- Wall that breaks when you run through it
Act 2 is more focused around water.
- Wall that breaks when you run through it
- Arrow heads (combo of MGZ heads and ARZ arrow traps)
- Current heads (a lot like the current pipes from Mario games)
- Platform that has a spring under it, which can be flipped
- Rising/lowering water
Act 3 has a lot of platforms and smashable stuff.
- Homing Attack Platforms (moving type and rotating type)
- Tilting platforms
- Domino pillars
- Team Tag Destructable Walls
- Rotating crushing pillar things (end of level)
Unique gimmicks per act isn't bad, but the issue here lies is that there's a shortage. Sonic 3Ks levels had a wide variety of gimmicks per act, while Sonic 1 and 2 would spread out all the gimmicks throughout the whole zone. CD on some occasions had a gimmick here and there unique to a certain act, or even a certain time frame. Sylvania Castle has a good set of gimmicks altogether, which if done in the Sonic 2 style of gimmick placement, could make each act less repetitive by spreading out the gimmicks through the whole zone.
Know Your Engine
This is something I see missed quite often in fan games. People will make level designs in their fan games unaware (or don't care) that said level design isn't flowing so well with their game engines limitations. After Sonic Zero got some people playing the demo, I was made aware that a player could easily stick to the ceiling of pipe tiles if they hit it at just the right angle. That's not a favorable outcome. The pipe collision has since been redone to where there's no curves underneath a pipe for a player to get caught on. It's all part of the learning process. Know what your engine is capable of, know how it handles even the basic of slopes, and work your level design around that. If you don't, you're gonna start making some goofy level design that your engine won't be able to comprehend the way a player would expect it to.
P.S.: Don't be afraid of path swappers. They can take some difficulty in figuring out, but once you get the hang of it, there's a lot that you'll be able to do in level design, and can result in some very crazy and fun levels!
With that, I think I've covered most of the ground work on level design. I'd love to hear some opinions on each point, if I missed anything, or if something isn't making sense. I wouldn't be surprised since I'm half awake right now. Heck, if someone wants to write their own interpretation or guide I could just add it to this post.
Anyway, I'll close with a few miscellaneous acknowledgements.
This Stupid Thing
If there's a pit, it should be obvious there's a pit, and thus something you won't jump down to. If it isn't obviously a pit, then there shouldn't be a pit there at all. If the level is a sky, space zone, whatever thing floating over an abyss zone, then these signs definitely don't need to be there. Just the trope of the level should signify if the player needs to be aware of pits. Hill Top? You're up in the mountains, best better watch your step. Sky Sanctuary? You're in crumbling ruins in the sky. Don't fall. Have fun. These signs just warn the player of death without the learning experience. It's holding your hand through the game for you.
I'm kind of on the fence about them. It's all about if you can execute them right, and if they belong in the respective level. For example, these kinds of slopes don't really belong in a tropical level (Splash Hill), but it could work if said tropical level was like a seaside bluff or something. It's all about execution and if such a slope fits the level theme. These were rare in the older 2D games, but in more recent 2D games, they function to curve a wall to a straight path as well as potential high jumps or quick thinking to avoid lower routes.
Here's a zone Gamernerd Advance and I have been working on called Tidal Tubes. A lot of tiles are placeholders, but the levels appearance isn't the point. Here we have the player on a high route, but come up to an elbow ramp. Two things can happen here; the player jumps up at the ramp, and hits the fountain coming from the ugly temporary pipe tiles. This will rocket the player up, and they will continue on the faster, favorable route. If they choose note to jump, or don't notice the opportunity, they'll run down the elbow ramp onto a lower path.
Let these things expand the level layout. Don't make it to where they carry Sonic through the level with no interaction on your part other than hitting the first one. This means your use of diagonal springs probably won't be too high.
I've talked to people that like these, and I've talked to people that are less fond of these. They add a bit of replay value, but if you make it stupid easy and have a short amount of levels, that replay value won't last long. Also, giving them a purpose is probably a good idea.
Looping Y Axis
Levels like this have existed as early as Labyrinth Zone, but levels of this type are Scrap Brain Act 2, Metropolis Zone, Marble Garden Act 1, Ice Cap Act 1, Sandopolis Act 2, and Sky Sanctuary Zone. Sonic 3K just loves its Y Axis. There's a lot of benefits to this type of level design.
- No Boundaries: There's no limit to how far levels can go vertically in this scenario. Water zones love abusing this by having endless Y Axis "sections" to simulate a water slide. Other zones may use this because they're a vertical climbing based level (Marble Garden, Sky Sanctuary). This type of level design is also good for maze labyrinths (Scrap Brain 2, Metropolis, Sandopolis 2), as the mazes can become ridiculously complex and difficult.
- High Routes, Low Routes, Average Route, How about None: Instead you get every route being the same degree of fun level design no matter where you end up. As said before, Sonic 3 already chunked that concept out the window.
- Only one real complication: Which is your problem, not the players problem. The issue lies that the bottom of the levels map must be able to perfectly align with the very top of the level map on the Y axis. This requires some careful planning on your part. I would advise if you're drawing out the layout on paper first, to draw a bit of how the level will flow on the top of the map, at the bottom of the map as well, and vice versa at the top. So basically you're redrawing part of a level twice on the top, and the bottom of the map, so you can know what part connects where. If this isn't giving you a good mental image, just look at how it's done in Metropolis Zone Act 1.
- Actually there's another: I have yet to see levels like this in fan games. I'm not sure if there's technical difficulties behind this, but if you're a fan gamer rather than a hacker, you might be out of luck here.
Homing Attack Chains
Homing attack chains are something that began in Sonic Adventure. The whole purpose of the homing attack is to give Sonic an easier way to hit small enemies in a 3D environment. These weren't very commonplace in 2D Sonic games, if at all, until Sonic 4 and Colors DS. Remember what I said about Character Specific routes? This is pretty much a door opener for Sonic specific routes (unless Tails just flies over them, but a character like Knuckles or Amy would have a harder time). These things have potential, but like I said about character specific abilities (and how they work in the level design), don't overdo it. If you can substitute a level gimmick over a homing chain, please do so. If you have a sky zone, and you have to navigate over a gorge, a bunch of fans or bouncy clouds gimmick would be more true to the zones theme than a homing attack chain would. Gimmicks should always be priority. Also, since you're destroying a badnik in the process, should a player fail, have a Plan B route designed for those failures.
Lets go back to Tidal Tubes, its fountain gimmick, and its many placeholder tiles (bear with me here).
In this scenario, a speed runner would have to jump onto two fountains, and hit them right, in order to stay on the path they're on. Just a matter of a timed jump, since the fountains shoot the player up. This is a water zone, water fountains are fitting to the theme, so it all works.
Same scenario, but the fountains are replaced with a homing attack chain. Which one seems more interesting to you?
And with that I'm done, for now.
Edit 1: Updated with "Know your Engine."
Edit 2: Updated witn "Sonic 3 and Knuckles," "Homing Attack Chains," and "Looping Y Axis." Elbow ramps section also updated.