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How to Kill a Hedgehog: Level Design and Death in Classic Sonic

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by Palas, Nov 2, 2023.

  1. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    Good news: playing videogames is not, in fact, fun.

    Jesper Juul makes a very compelling argument in The Art of Failure about how our experiences with video games are often negative, and purposefully so: we want to be challenged and we want to fail sometimes, even though we may sometimes not take it lightly as we would like. But then, why do we keep playing them? And why do we keep saying we do it for fun? His pivotal argument is that enjoyment of games has a central component of escaping failure. Beyond satisfactory motion play, secrets to uncover and general pleasantries, which are also important, we seem to enjoy having a personal journey of avoiding the inadequacy that failure brings. Even if we never fail, the idea that we could have failed, but didn’t, seems to be constitutive of the very idea that we are playing a game and not watching it unfold.

    As a matter of fact, there is a proposition to be made here: if fun was so one-dimensional as not to accept failure as an integral component to it, video games would be highly inefficient in providing it. We’re often screaming, cursing or at least clicking our tongues at the games we play, and SEGA would be better off just selling us drugs. Plus, I suspect failure is what gives us a sense of ownership over our experiences: everyone succeeds more or less the same, but each one fails in their own, personal way. And that special way only you could have played can be shared. It’s not a coincidence that amongst the most discussed classic Sonic stages, you won’t find Green Hill or Palmtree Panic, but Marble Zone and Death Egg will surely be there. You don’t even have to look back: Sonic Superstars has just been released, and all we can talk about are the final bosses! It’s not that failing is fun in itself: it’s that sharing our grievances, and what we thought had happened only to us, is a social and subtle component of fun that can’t be ignored.

    Even for a purely personal experience with the game, failure plays an important role: since it is what a player will probably avoid the most, the prospect of failing is the element of a game that is most likely to drive a player to change how they act towards the game itself. That is, avoiding failure is how we are encouraged to explore a game’s mechanics, behaviors and places more deeply. Struggling at a game is how we get familiar with it, and how we remember it.

    There is an informal "Fun Scale" since at least 2014, that has been devised by outdoor activities enthusiasts to explain why we keep doing things that are not exactly fun, or like talking about them even if we would never do it again. This fun scale proposes there are three types of fun:
    • Type I Fun, the kind of activity that is enjoyable while you're doing it. In Sonic, that would be breezing through the slopes in Chemical Plant, hitting that delicious extra hit on a boss that you took a risk for, etc.
    • Type II Fun, the kind of activity that is fun in retrospect. In Sonic, that's beating a hard level, or finally killing that boss that gave you hell;
    • Type III Fun, the kind of activity that is only fun as an exceptional story to share. In Sonic, that's getting a game over in Sonic 2's Death Egg even though you took your time to get more than 30 lives throughout the game (I'm so sorry @raphael_fc);
    This "typology of fun", although informal, is congruent with Hirokazu Yasuhara's own theory of fun, about which he talked back in 2017 in a lecture he gave exactly about how to make games fun. He proposes a cycle, based on desire and execution, in which "fun" is defined as the "release of tension" between desire, plan and the result of an action through practice. The stage of "practice" only exists as long as there is "failure".

    From this cycle, we can more or less define a framework of fun that happens not in spite of failure, but that embraces it. From Carol Yas' theory of fun, we can draw a general roadmap that reads a little like a bait and switch:
    • The player takes interest in reaching a certain point, a decision that is a negotiation between what they want, what they feel they need most immediately and what they know how to do. You can influence that, but you can't determine it;
    • They assesses how they're supposed to do it with the limited time and resources they have, using the stage geometry to gather enough speed or momentum, however little that might be;
    • Stage elements make the player's attention go to back and forth between patterns and individual elements on the screen as they execute their movements;
    • Then, three things may happen:
      • They succeed, leading us to some good Type I Fun and, if they've failed before, some Type II too;
      • They fail! But by failing they get a new perspective on what they could do different, even if it's purely on execution, leaing up to a Type II Fun experience later on;
      • They fail, and they hate every second of it. But, if the story is good and there is some positive connection to the game already (the establishment of which this framework admittedly can't account for), they will at least experience some Type III Fun related to the game.
    In this guide, we're only concerned with Type II and Type III, and how Carol Yas' "stage of Practice" comes to be in Sonic. So if you want to make a truly memorable fangame that will be talked about everywhere, one of the many things you’ll have to do is to kill Sonic. And you must actually want to kill him, leaving the player with that sense of inadequacy on one hand and, on the other, the prerogative of escaping this feeling that they’re lacking somehow. It will always be up to the player if they want to take up your challenge or not, but that doesn’t mean you should fear making them fear you.

    What I can offer is a guide for everyone who feels the literature on Sonic often ignores enemy and hazard placement on levels. It’s a complementary guide to level design that does not intend to replace the ones we have (Trees' and Sparks'), but to enhance a particular aspect of it that is often overlooked.

    Now, we won’t be talking about life systems or what happens after Sonic dies just yet, although I will say failure is at its best when it offers a new perspective on how to succeed, and that’s what will make us try again. This is a guide focusing on the level design aspects of failure and, while the effects of failure on general game design philosophy are definitely worth the investigation and discussion, it’s a much bigger issue.

    An Anecdote

    It’s important to bear in mind that this isn’t an argument that games should be harder. It’s simply a framework for level design that embraces failure as a dimension of fun, not an antithesis to it. This is best exemplified by my favorite platforming challenge from my childhood: the kitchen in my parents’ old house.

    We had this rule at home: only one chocolate from the box per day, and only after dinner. In order to enforce this rule, she would keep the box of chocolates on the top of the refrigerator and get it for us after we were done with our vegetables. However, there was a huge cupboard beside the refrigerator that my brother and I would climb when she wasn’t looking to get the extra, forbidden chocolate. When she noticed we were getting too skilled at climbing the cupboard, she started hiding the chocolate box at the top of the cupboard itself, which was much, much harder to reach. We would still try, but we would get it much more rarely.

    So one Easter, my mom bought a chocolate egg for us and, knowing we liked a) chocolate b) disobedience, put the egg at the top of the cupboard and said, rather unconvincingly, she would hate it if someone were to steal the chocolate egg from the top of the cupboard. And so we tried, because we had been prompted to do so, and so we failed. We didn’t mind much. We knew it would be hard.

    Ten minutes later, the egg had been magically moved to the spot on the top of the refrigerator, from where we could more easily snatch and eat the chocolate egg.

    Now, the point here is that the difficulty of grabbing chocolate from the top of the cupboard was always the same. However, in regular days, failure and success at doing so belonged to me and my brother. In that particular Easter, it belonged to my mother, and I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t frame the challenge: she did and, for once, she was the one to get frustrated that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted.

    So pretending for a second that you really don’t want Sonic to survive doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a stage harder, but it does mean the player will have full credits for clearing it, and you’ll be better by not trying to control that feeling so much. It’s the subtlest of differences, but what are games without a masquerade and make-believe?

    Typology of the Hedgehogicide

    Classic Sonic traditionally conveys failure in two ways: a) directly setting the player’s progress back (such as in a Game Over), and b) suggesting their progress doesn’t meet a standard (by telling them they need all Chaos Emerald for the true ending, for example). We will only talk about how to set the player’s progress back here, and that relies on dealing directly with danger. We will help you with analytical tools to better understand the challenge you’re making the player face, as well as the challenges that exist in the official classic Sonic titles, so you may better understand why you like some aspects of the challenge there you like, or why you don’t like things you don’t like about it.

    So if you want to kill Sonic the classic way, it can be done with five methods:
    • Crushing: Sonic dies if he would be pushed into a space smaller than his hitbox;
    • Time over: Sonic dies if the timer reaches 10 minutes;
    • Falling: Sonic dies if he touches the bottom of the stage map;
    • Drowning: Sonic dies if he spends more than thirty seconds underwater without touching air;
    • 0-Ring Damage: Sonic dies if he sustains damage while he has zero rings;

    These are the situations a player will most desperately try to avoid, and they are the ones that will make a player take their minds off their main objective: succeeding at the game and going forward within a stage. These major dangers, however, interact with each other and can’t be seen as separate pillars of Sonic-killing. A player is constantly evaluating what’s most dangerous to them at any given time, adjusting their desires and behaviors accordingly. They are less likely to look for the exact timing on a spindash to avoid being crushed if the timer counts over nine minutes than they would if it showed only three minutes. Likewise, a player with zero rings is more likely to expose themselves to damage, even if they’re underwater.

    This constant motion of where the attention of the player is directed is a key component in excitement, so you should always be aware of to what major dangers you’re exposing the player, and actively choosing to frame them as more or less important in each stage. It helps that the skills needed to avoid each of these are distinct and are, sometimes, mutually exclusive:
    • In order to avoid being crushed, a player often needs a keen sense of timing and the ability to execute movements with precision;
    • In order to avoid time overs, one needs spatial and time awareness to evaluate if they’re close to the end of a stage. If they feel they’re close to getting a time over, they then need quick decision-making and focus on going forward a fast as possible;
    • In order to avoid falling to the bottom limit of the stage map, a player needs spatial awareness of where the limit is and, if they feel it’s close, precision and timing are once again needed.
    • In order to avoid drowning, a player needs to heighten their spatial and time awareness to gauge whether the time they have left is enough, and where to go if it’s not.
      • Unlike the danger of a time over, which make a player have to quickly understand what will get them closer to a mostly abstract forward direction, the space between an air bubble spot and the next is a self-contained challenge that forces a player to look and move around, bringing the player’s attention closer to Sonic himself.
    • In order to avoid taking damage, a player may need a wide range of skills, from quick reactions to a sense of rhythm. In fact, the relationship between avoiding damage and common platforming skills is the bread and butter of the skill enhancement loop in Sonic. There will be a whole section about this, because you can’t adequately explain this in a single bullet point.
    Creating situations in which the player must choose how they absolutely don’t want to die creates a healthy discretionary space for the player, because they will find the situation they’re in is multifactorial and can try many different approaches to avoid that failure, even as Sonic dies. Speeding up in a section a player found to be easy buys them time to be more patient with harder platforming sections further in the stage, so as not to get a Time Over or sustain a 0-ring damage; upon dying by crushing, a player may wish to improve their timing to run past whatever crushed them, or they may wish to exercise their spatial awareness by looking for paths that completely avoid the hazard. Sometimes, the timing skills a player gets by working to avoid a certain hazard make it possible for them to overcome that very challenge!

    However, you will notice it’s extremely uncommon, if not unheard of, for any stage to try to employ all five hedgehog murdering methods at once. The reason for this is that, if we follow Juul’s train of thought, inadequacy can only be properly parsed if a player can identify what they did that was inadequate — that is, a glimpse of the adequate must be envisioned. And that’s impossible, or at least overwhelming, if all skills are being tested and demanded at all times. Failure is a negotiation between the player and the game, but it’s the latter that is able to show elements that will make overcoming failure seem worth it. If the player can’t establish a hierarchy of skills or hazards that they were able to surpass, avoiding failure becomes meaningless. There is no story to tell, and as we said, being able to tell a story is crucial to the art of failure.

    It follows that carefully choosing, for each level, the major threats that will be prevalent or even present at all is very important. If anything, it should be noted that the only stages in which more than one major hazards (except damage) are even present in the classic tetralogy are:

    • Labyrinth Zone (Sonic 1): Crushing and drowning;
    • Scrap Brain Zone, Act 1 and 2 (Sonic 1): Crushing and falling;
    • Scrap Brain Zone, Act 3 (Sonic 1): Crushing and drowning;
    • Chemical Plant, Act 2 (Sonic 2): Crushing, falling and drowning;
    • Aquatic Ruin, Act 1 and Act 2 (Sonic 2): Drowning and crushing;
    • Hill Top, Act 1 (Sonic 2): Crushing and falling;
    • Mystic Cave, Act 2 (Sonic 2) Crushing and (for all that matters) falling;
    • Oil Ocean, Act 1 and Act 2 (Sonic 2): Crushing and falling;
    • Metropolis, Act 3 (Sonic 2): Crushing and falling;
    • Tidal Tempest, Act 1 and Act 2 (Sonic CD): Crushing and drowning;
    • Metallic Madness, Act 2 (Sonic CD): Crushing and time over;
    • Metallic Madness, Act 3 (Sonic CD): Crushing and falling;
    • Hydrocity, Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing and drowning;
    • Marble Garden, Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing and time over;
    • Carnival Night, Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing, drowning and time over (thanks @SyntaxTsu!);
    • Flying Battery, Act 1 an Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing and falling (thanks @SyntaxTsu!);
    • Sandopolis, Act 1 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing and falling;
    • Sandopolis, Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing and time over;
    • Death Egg, Act 2 (Sonic 3 & Knuckles): Crushing, falling and time over;

    Which is a relatively low number of stages (except in Sonic 2), and even in the stages where they are present at all, they are very rarely employed together. You will notice many of them also belong in the latter half of the games they’re in, so a sense of progression is highly beneficial to the player’s understanding of danger and, ultimately, their own journey around it. This sense of progression can be established with an incremental approach to these major threats (i.e.: don’t crush Sonic in Green Hill), which ties in nicely with the thematic progression of your game, but also with a clear distinction between the way many ways a player can be killed: again, there are only so many ways to succeed, but there are infinite ways to fail.

    Death is a formless entity

    The concept of failure is in a different realm from that of the setback in that failure is not a mechanical phenomenon, but part of a psychological circuit that is originated in desire. A player wants something, but fails to get it and has to either try again or is forced to want something else. It’s a disconnect between what the player wants, what the player needs and what the player is able to pull off. Since it is construed by the player, subjectivity plays the most important role here: what each player values the most when they engage with each element of a stage will determine what they look for and how they approach it, so allowing them the margin of error to reconsider what they should do empowers them even though Sonic may die. If they’re the ones to build the hypothesis for what they should have done, they are more likely to try again and engage with the game on their terms.

    Desire, too, isn't a fixed, objective phenomenon. It changes as the player makes their way through the game, and failure itself can shape what the player wants from a stage. It's swayed by the player's very particular relationship with the information they have about a given stage and Sonic itself, their own general predispsitions as a player and how they perceive their own skill at that moment. In this sense, the concept of "path" in a stage is difficult to conceive: the idea of linear segments and intersections may account for how a player gets from point A to point B, but definitely not why a player does so in the way they do, and isn't really conciliable with a cycle of fun that's so directly tied to what a player can see on the screen and how they organize their priorities.

    Fortunately, a trio of researches have proposed a framework of analyis for 2D levels back in 2008, in which they give us the concept of rhythm groups. These are short, non-overlapping sets of components in a stage with readable beginnings, middles and ends. The authors decided to name these little clusters like that because they saw that there is a cadence to each challenge, as if it was a musical phrase. Their internal rhythm does influence how the player will behave towards them insofar as they can read these sections, and then the idea of a path will arise from the connection of various rhythm groups. This is useful because the perspective of dying, avoiding death and changing desire patterns, as well as the incremental information about a stage map that comes with multiple playthroughs (some of which, too, are brought up by dying), makes it so that the concept of path is a function of the player, not of the stage map. Consider, for example, Marble Zone Act 3:

    Sonic1_MD_Map_Mz3_Rhythm Groups.png

    The information a player can acquire about elements in a stage, and how relevant that information is to the player, makes non-linearity possible even when the structure is normally considered fairly linear. Small moments, such as seeing a desperately sought-for checkpoint right above the player, can make them take the risk of jumping at a single retracting spike. Sometimes, recklessly and haphazardly so, leading up to failure. The rhythm of the player changing according to the rhythm groups, and the reasons why they do it, is more important to understanding how a player evolves in Sonic than the mere existence of separate paths in a map.

    The relationship between pacing and perception of difficult being described here isn't anything new: Nicollet points towards difficulty almost as if it was a function of time and uses may examples from Sonic as he does so. @HEDGESMFG talks about it too in the replies of this very thread, and it only goes to show the importance of cadence, how and why it changes, to the idea of failure.

    So if you consider a sequence of crushing hazards that move in a certain order and at a certain speed, and a sequence of retracting spikes that move in that same order and speed, the theme of the challenge to be perceived by the player is similar, even though the threat isn’t. How a player might deal with that specific kind of challenge, too, will change. For the player to have a satisfactory construction of the skills they want to have in order to clear a stage, it’s important that a stage seeks to highlight a certain vice in gameplay. Amongst the ones that are possible, there are:

    • Mechanical imprecision: the inability to control Sonic adequately and land a jump or a move on the right place, at the right time;
    • Slow reflexes: the inability to move away from incoming danger quickly enough;
    • Bad tempo: The inability to move in the same rhythm as the stage’s elements;
    • Hesitation: The inability to grasp an opportunity to reach a safe position, not exactly due to slow reflexes but to not taking the decision quickly enough;
    • Recklessness: The inability to gauge the risk of an action relative to known or unknown off-screen elements;
    • Reading imprecision: The inability to move according to a single element’s behavior, doing exactly what it wanted you to;

    You will notice, again in Marble Zone Act 3, that some rhythm groups are very similar to each other -- not only in the elements they use, but in their cadence. The fact that a stage will use similar rhythm groups, changing their general direction and sequences, points towards a notion of pacing that belong to the level as a whole. In Marble Zoe Act 3, we pointed out 5 rhyth grups that repeat themselves, with changes in direction, punishment for failure and even some elements. Fundamentally, though, they share certain themes.

    Each stage adopts a specific mechanical theme to threaten Sonic with, primarily, even though it can and will, of course, probably have all of them even if you don’t design is a such. This is on the player, after all, and your focus is on the skill you would like them not to have, not on the ones you would like them to have. Thus, it’s this theme that will make the danger in your level unique and memorable. The nature of each specific threat is less important than the skill (or the lack thereof) that they, in conjunction, kill Sonic for. And all elements in a stage, not just the hazardous ones, tend to one side or the other by behaving in different dispositions regarding their relationship with Sonic’s presence.
    • Autonomous: The behavior of the object or geometry doesn’t change when Sonic is near, even if it only happens once;
    • Reactive: The behavior of the object changes when Sonic touches or approaches it;
    The periodicity of their behavior:
    • Once: They will move and act only once, then either self-destruct, stop or return to their original state;
    • Periodic: The object will move and act in a perceivable period that the player can adjust to;
    • Random: The object will move and act in a random pattern, or a pattern that is way too complex for the player to quickly understand;
    And the target of their behavior:
    • Path-oriented: The object acts oriented by a predetermined path that can be inferred and read by the player;
    • Sonic-oriented: The object locks onto Sonic and acts using that position as a target, specifically;
    Mixing and matching these traits can give you very interesting objects, such as this asshole:
    Hidrocity's Turbo Spiker is a reactive badnik that only acts once: if it sees you, it shoots its spiked shell and runs in the opposite direction. However, the spiked shell is fired off not in Sonic's direction, but at a fixed angle. So if it sees you, the one thing you can't do is to jump to kill it. It's the one thing that can get you hurt when around him, yet it's the thing most people might try for the first time.

    The amalgam of objects with different traits, plus the way Sonic can interact with them and the major threats present, makes up the mechanical theme of the stage, that is, the specific flavor of failure it will probably deliver, and the kinds of actions that will most likely result in deaths. Looking for a common theme among them helps a play parse their failures and hone ne particular way to use Sonic's speed. So when designing death in a Sonic stage, you should work to deliver a sense of danger even in the elements that aren’t dangerous. For example: when designing a stage full of traps, that focuses on quick reflexes and despises hesitation above all, having even normal floating platforms behave reactively to the player — needing to be triggered to start working the intended way, for example, especially if the player has to move backwards just a bit to catch the platform — helps the sense of danger to feel palpable even if the triggered platform leads directly to an item they’d love to have, like a shield.

    As a general rule, periodic elements with a predetermined path make up a stage or a section’s internal rhythm and force the player to look at the big picture to escape unscathed, as Sonic must match the general beat with his jumps or dashes of speed — and that is a challenge in itself. In turn, elements that act once, randomly or in Sonic's specific directin force the player to look at the area immediately surrounding Sonic. So, building a tempo-based section and adding a reactive element in the middle of it can disrupt this tempo, putting Sonic in danger and demanding quick reflexes and decision-making to keep him alive. Much in the same way, losing rings in a tempo-based section usually ends up killing Sonic, because as rings scatter, the player tends to disrupt their own pace to go after the lot ring, prompting Sonic to be hit again. The frequency and quickness with which you try to change the player’s focus from patterns to singular elements makes up an important element of difficulty and the mechanical theme you’re proposing too, so keep this in mind when playtesting instead of littering a stage with moving platforms and static hazards (or the other way around). The way you do it will have an effect on the player’s attention span and flow. After all, one element can have many functions:

    In this hypthetical example, the Orbinaut about to shoot its spikes as it sees Sonic tests different skills from the player depending on the direction he's coming from:

    • The Sonic coming from the left is the only one that can safely an surely jump over the Orbinaut and completely ignore it, but, for that, he needs to not hesitate and have quick reflexes;
    • The Sonic coming from above is the most likely to have their reflexes tested, as they will have the least time to react to the Orbinaut shooting its spikes at him;
    • The Sonic coming from below is the least likely to be able to ignore the Orbinaut, but they also will probably have the most time to assess the timing between each spike;
    Deciding the stage’s mechanical theme beforehand also informs your choice of elements and movement options for the stage, making each one kill Sonic in its own way and giving the mechanics of the game a tangible counterpart to visual theming. For example, casino stages usually deal in imprecision first and foremost, as they make Sonic bounce around; underwater sections, on the other hand, make controlling Sonic with precision easier, but anything but careful reading on hazardous objects will kill Sonic, as well as hesitating to jump to the next safe position when needed, because you may not have a second chance. Above all, maintaining an eagle’s eye approach to what threatens Sonic allows for emergent play and emergent deaths, which is incredibly important. After all, the same element can be harmful in different ways according to the context, and it’s up to the player to read the stage and the mystery of the off-screen. By knowing this, you can make conscious use of the various elements you can use to actually kill Sonic.

    The Rodent Killer’s Toolkit

    Like we said before, the trick to killing Sonic effectively is to use malicious elements and still make it look like it’s the player’s fault for having them killed. There are two sides to doing this: failure being a byproduct of desire, giving benefits with one hand and hazards with the other is great for leveraging Sonic’s successes against himself. This is simply a way to frame the simple principle of risk and reward, and make it actionable. Making a player have to constantly reconsider whether it’s worth it to go after shiny objects at all, or think up different strategies at different times, keeps the game engaging! Your toolkit consists of:

    Malicious stage objects
    The bread and butter of the afterlife ticket service for hedgehogs, these are objects whose only purpose is to damage Sonic. They’re the primary source for the feeling of danger because they are, or they should be, immediately readable to the player as hazards. Spike balls, spike nests in a pit (more about these later), lava, badniks, projectiles and all objects that can kill Sonic if he has no rings fall in this category. They can be further divided according to these traits:

    • Countable or uncountable: a player can either always measure where the danger ends and estimate its relationship with the realm of the off-screen or not; lava or electrified surfaces tend to be uncountable. But not always! The fireblasts in Scrap Brain, for example, are countable;
    • Vulnerable or invulnerable: whether the player can neutralize the threat or not defines its vulnerability. Green Hill’s Chopper (the piranha that jumps from waterfalls) doesn’t behave much differently from the fireballs that shoot up and fall back down in Marble Zone; however, the fact that one is vulnerable while the other is not makes the player behave much differently around them.
    They are more suitable for “guarding” valuable objects, making verticality visibly worth the hassle of platforming and killing the player when they act reckless while dealing with another major danger, such as moving around aimlessly to avoid drowning. In Sonic, you are much more likely to see more invulnerable and/or uncountable malicious objects in later stages, because they adopt a state of nondepletable danger that is useful for maintaining tensions high — which, in turn, makes it so that every skill the player has acquired throughout the game is tested twice as intensely.


    In principle, objects that can hurt Sonic, but can also be destroyed, tend to draw the player’s attention towards them, unlike invulnerable malicious objects. People like killing badniks to neutralize the threat, and we suppose the noise they make when they explode is pretty satisfying too. By being a depletable source of danger, they can change even a room that doesn’t move: as Sonic first enters an area, he may kill all badniks before engaging with the other elements, and this makes that area able to basically be experienced twice. They are also the most flexible source of danger due to the many ways Sonic can interact with them.

    And, because they can be destroyed and Sonic can bounce off them, they are also part of the stage’s life: a skilled player can use them as platforms that can only be used once to reach somewhere else, or kill them to use the whole area as a running ground. Their presence or absence, and how threatened the player feels by them, change their whole approach towards the stage. This dynamism adds depth to a stage, and must be applied consciously. They can freely either set or disrupt the tempo of Sonic’s actions, greatly conveying the mechanical theme you’d like your stage to have.

    (In which the yellow underline means an autonomous badnik and the red underline indicates the badnik is reactive)

    Technically and as far as I know, there is no completely autonomous badnik in Classic Sonic, insofar as they load at all when Sonic is sufficiently near them instead of obeying a global or stage timer. This is less important than whether they change their behavior when you can see they saw you. You can see Sonic 1, Sonic CD and Sonic 3 have an about 50/50 ratio of (semi-)autonomous and truly reactive badniks, while Sonic 2 and Sonic & Knuckles have a much bigger proportion of reactive badniks. This merely changes how danger is delivered and isn’t in any way relate to how hard each game is, but you should be mindful of these numbers nevertheless. After all, they make up an important component of rhythmic-and-disruptive motion we talked about, and how the attention shifts from movement patterns to each discrete move.

    Sonic games are also peculiar in that, typically, malicious objects do not interact with each other. Badniks don’t get killed if they fall in spike pits or touch spike balls, or their movement doesn’t overlap at all. Fire-shooting enemies don’t rush to bodies of fire to recharge, and you (generally) can’t trick badniks that chase you into getting crushed in your place. I would say that this is because enemy encounters, in Sonic, are rarely cerebral puzzles to be solved — if ever. There’s little figuring out to them, except at the intuitive level of understanding their movement pattern or action timing. You have no option to use the stage’s elements against themselves. Rather, you can only use Sonic and his speed directly — what changes is how.

    Malicious stage geometry
    Objects or structures that can actively kill Sonic regardless of his ring count, such as crushing hazards or bottomless pits, are particular cases of the general rules of how you can kill Sonic. They automatically draw the player’s attention and must be properly telegraphed. One trick to make them worth the player’s attention is to associate them with otherwise easier or bountiful zones or routes in the stage map. For a stage with bottomless pits, it’s a good idea to keep most rewards in the bottom areas of the stage, and limit the number of hazards that can throw Sonic in them as he takes damage. You generally want 0-Ring Damage to be an incremental process, not a one-two asshole combo.

    Spike nests on vertical walls are different from the spike pits we described in the last section because they are another example of malicious stage geometry and what they can convey: in general, malicious geometry is more interesting when it doubles as a useful platforming tool: If Sonic can stand on a spike nest on a wall and, from there, jump on a higher platform to access a different path, it’s on the player to avoid danger or successfully skirt around it to get what they want. This applies to crushing hazards as well and, perhaps more importantly, to regular stage structures: malicious geometry makes it so that the player has to read the level appropriately in order not to die and, more than that, get something nice in the way. For example:

    There is a pattern to the electrical wires in Wacky Workbench that make it so that the floating platforms are either safe to stay on or almost hazards in their own right. And, again, there is a rhythm to them: the periodic behavior of the floating platforms and the periodic behavior of the wires makes up an internal rhythm to them that makes it so that the player who can gauge the timing of the section as a whole is more likely to stay safe. However, the Poh-Bees here can shoot at Sonic and disrupt the player’s attempt at matching the section’s beat. What’s more, the bouncing floor makes it very hard to be precise about it.

    So the relationship between regular stage geometry and malicious objects makes it so that the player has to get a feel of the stage as a whole before proceeding. This adds depth to the gameplay and provides many steps for a player to master this particular section.

    Malicious stage map structure

    A stage that is long or less straightforward in its structure (with a looping Y axis, for example) makes the stage itself a time over hazard or can facilitate hazards in it. However, this is best paired with multiple secret rooms and paths, special stage opportunities or time-consuming platforming challenges that lead to useful, visible items such as 1-Ups (if a life system is present) or shields. If the player feels like they opted into wasting their time, it’s their fault, and they will leave the stage feeling like exploration is its own challenge. They might even want to play it again just to get everything!


    Another example of malicious structure is one that has a pervasive element that changes the game’s rules somehow. Water, besides being able to kill Sonic itself, changes how fast Sonic can go, which also enhances ordinary hazards. Gravity-reversing or a different orientation (a player has to go left or up to complete the stage, for example), while not being able to kill the despised rat outright, may make it easier for other hazards to kill him.

    Another good principle to have is that, since gravity can only bring Sonic down, but the main way for Sonic to gain speed is by using downward slopes, the paths at the bottom of the stage should be more dangerous, in general. No free speed should remain unpunished, and since Sonic being faster means he’s more powerful relative to the stage, maintaining it should require active work on the player’s part.

    This brings us to one of the most important points about the stage map structure and geometry: blocks are your friend and Sonic's enemy, by nature. Curved surfaces help Sonic keep his movement, so their prevalence also changes how the player acts towards the objects you place. It's not by coincidence that stage progression in Classic Sonic starts with lots of curves and opportunities to be launched to the air curled, and ends with more blocky platforms and situations in which Sonic'll be in the air uncurled. This helps building tension and bringing new life to elements you've used before!

    (A note: although a Time Over is technically a threat in every single stage in the games, the ones in which it is a threat in practice are very few and far between, and it’s the player that will put themselves in a situation that would warrant a death by time over for wasting time going after secrets and extras.)

    Let’s Make a New Badnik!

    (coming soon!)​

    What About Bosses?
    (coming soon!)​

    • Think of failure and frustration as a step towards fun, not as its enemy!
    • Failure comes desire and desire is manipulated by failure. If, by killing Sonic, you make the player see their skills or the stage differently, you did it!
    • Tie the thematic progression of your game to an increase and to a mix of the ways a player can die, as well as in a variety of mechanical themes;
    • The mechanical theme is the particuar way each stage intends kills Sonic, making the player use Sonic’s speed differently;
    • In order to achieve that, you have to be varied in the elements you use, dangerous or not, and in the way they behave, according to a single theme as much as possible;
    • The roadmap to failure goes like this: player is interested in reaching a certain point → they assess how they're supposed to do it with the limited time they have → the player's attention has go to back and forth between patterns and individual elements on the screen → this messes up their execution somehow → they fail;
    • It’s okay, important even, for the player to hate some stages. Trust them;
    • Badniks give life to a stage. The way they’ll pose a threat is also dependent on the stage geometry and structure around them, a well as the reason why the player is engaging with them;
    • Instead of asking “what is this element doing here?”, try to ask “what is Sonic doing here?” and try to change that. Focus on the player’s possible desires and make them work to achieve what they want;

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Nov 13, 2023
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  2. Kinda surprised you didn’t mention that Carnival Night 2 has the trilogy of Crushing, Drowning and Time Over as its hazards if you are Sonic, or the Crushing and Falling hazards in Flying Battery (combined with Time Over in Mania)
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  3. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    Thanks! I completely missed CNZ2! I deliberately put off including Mania as an example for now though. The main reason being that since it was done in a completely different time with the original classics in mind, this can lead to distortions such as being "hyper-classic" in some areas while being a total outlier in others. I need to investigate it further!
  4. Yea, Mania is kinda its own thing, afterall. Best to list that elsewhere.

    Crushing and Falling still applies for vanilla FBZ though.
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  5. Souplike


    Get with free and inferior console! (No batteries) Member
    In Angel Island Act 1 of Sonic 3 (& Knuckles), once Fire Breath burns down Angel Island, there's this section of spikes that you cannot pass under if you're Sonic (& Knuckles). If you're Tails or Amy, you can manage to slip under there because their hit-box is smaller, due to their smaller sprites.

    Screenshot 2023-11-03 084115.png
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  6. Starduster


    Sonic Retro's resident IDW slut Member
    Art...always art...
    Interesting thesis. I don't necessarily agree with it all, particularly the idea that frustration is needed in order for the player's fun to mean something (I'm a big lover of Kirby games, despite being able to breeze through them), though I can get behind the idea that the contextualisation of that fun can be found in the possibility that they could fail rather than that they have or will, and I agree that this really isn't something that gets much attention in level design guides.

    I think the idea of throwing several things at the player at once also doesn't totally account for bad enemy design and placement in Sonic. In Metropolis, for example, Slicers in particular are placed in such a way where they'll hit players who are just going with the flow, and I frankly this is pretty bad design because it's then telling the player they need to play in a manner that is counterintuitive to everything they've learned so far because enemies in that Zone aren't really separated from the traversal in the way they should be (i.e., a section with Slicers should probably ease the player into it by using level geometry to slow Sonic down first, rather than having them be announced by Sonic ramming into them face first and losing all his rings as a result). Otherwise, I do think the broad point illuminates when and how Sonic's level design fails in this regard, and I'll be sure to apply such a lens to Superstars if I ever go back and play that again to see how well it matches up with my frustrations involving that game.
  7. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    (I do like Slicers in Metropolis, but) you raise a good point about them being counterintuitive but that not being totally accounted for. You could say if you simply don't hesitate to roll, you won't get hit -- but absolutely everything else in the stage forces you to hesitate and look around carefully, even the clunky corkscrew that will always throw you directly on them. And they typically sit in tight tunnels that won't let you jump over them even if you react quickly and you know exactly what they're going to do, so in practice they demand a specific movement and the margin of error is really small. I don't really enjoy it when the game demands specific movements rather than specific skills, so this should be accounted for in the text.
  8. Starduster


    Sonic Retro's resident IDW slut Member
    Art...always art...
    In fairness, there is also an element of throwing too much at once with some of the placements of enemies in Metropolis, not necessarily in the testing too many skills sense but just volume of challenge. I’m actually doing a write up of Sonic 2 for another, non-Sonic forum so I played through Metropolis last night and there’s a bit in (iirc) Act 3 where there are two Slicers, the first on the ceiling and the next on the floor, and even if you can avoid them you land on a screw behind them with Asterons ready to fire at you and the whole thing requires pretty much perfect level knowledge and reaction to get through unscathed.
  9. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    I've just added something extremely important: the idea of a "cycle of fun" isn't mine at all. I took it from the man himself, Hirokazu Yasuhara, who gave a lecture in 2017 about how to make a game fun. I'm just giving more insight into the negative part of it, and refining the idea that the "stage of practice" isn't antithetical to fun.

    In the same year, he posted a more complete version of his presentation in Japanese, and said he'd post the English version later on, but never did. I'm looking into translating that¹ because it'd be extremely useful for us.

    ¹ hiring a translator to do it, that is;
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  10. charcoal


    Be Cool, Be Wild, and Be Groovy Member
    Dr. Eggman will be taking notes.

    (Seriously though, great post. Definitely one of the most informative I've seen on this forum in a while)


    There's a baseline rule about how many miliseconds a player should have to respond to a threat they observe (with how they observe the existence of that threat being more a matter of debate) that's the hidden truth about all of these problems in Sonic games. Dimps made the reaction time for a lot of threats way too narrow, a fact that was made worse because of the narrow field of vision on the portable game hardware they often developed stages on. If you look at their map layouts, they still follow many similar ideas that the other 2D games shared, but poorly telegraphed large pits and enemy placement became extremely disruptive to the flow of gameplay. This was epsecially a challenge to design for when Sonic Advance 2 switched to a high speed map design philosophy over the somewhat slower exploration and speed blend that advance 1 used.

    Often, these issues could be fixed with minor adjustments, though. Moving an enemy over by as little as a few pixels could make the difference between a highly experienced player learning to dodge it, and a less experienced player falling for the trick. In the end, their enemy and obstacle placement was probably not tested as throughout as it should have been. This is why I wish we had HD ports of these titles, as you'd be surprised on what just some minor tweaks could do to rebalance these games.

    If you speedrun, it becomes very obvious which obstacles are easily avoidable and which ones are not. While threats to Sonic's safety can and should be ever present, there's a fine line where obstacles are not telegraphed correctly to match the flow of speed and gameplay we encounter. All Sonic games struggle with this to some extent, even the "best" titles (Mania/3K), but some struggle much more than others.

    Trip's campaign in superstars goes back to the Dimps philosophy of putting obstacles in "unexpected" places to fool more experienced players, but it too fails to take into account how much time a player should get to actually react to a threat, and as a result a great many obstacles are far too difficult to avoid without extreme levels of rote learning and reptition. They often betray the instincts of not only what older versions of the stage taught the player (deliberately, might I add), but they leave very narrow windows and reaction times. It's a cheap and easy form of difficulty that makes sense when they game is trying to act clever and to fool the player, but it loses sight of what actually makes these games rewarding (gaining speed through skill) by making the reaction times to avoid obstacles again too frustratingly narrow.

    I strongly believe highly skilled Sonic players should almost never die in these games, and if they do? It becomes very obvious why they did, and it's because of a mistake that's very correctable. The deaths should be reserved for players who are still learning the formula, the momentum, and the physics. Higher difficulties with "cheaper" deaths can exist, but it's a big problem when they're being turned into mandatory requirements for progression even without the lives system. This idea can exist in both 2D and 3D games too, and often has. Anybody who worked hard to get A rankings in SA2, for example, quickly learned how to avoid deadly hazards and maximize both their speed and score, and the progression of skill produced fairly reliable results with practice. Good gameplay should eventually be easy to reproduce, with little to no RNG factors involved that cannot be accounted for.

    As I've said elsewhere though, cheap difficulty strikes me as the result of a game that's designed not to test the player, but to increase the play time artificially. Or at best, a game that was not throughly tested across all spectrums of skill. I say this as someone who still regularly tests and dabbles in 2D design in the RSDK engine, and knows how many hours it can take to really understand how a level works and how people react to it.
  12. Starduster


    Sonic Retro's resident IDW slut Member
    Art...always art...
    I think this hits the nail on the head, frankly. I've been replaying Sonic 2 the past week and I think that game is fantastic demonstration of this, for good and bad reasons. The major pain points with the game are the trial-and-error special stages which lean far more heavily into rote learning rather than genuine reaction, given how mines can be obfuscated, not to mention Metropolis Zone, which basically tears up the rulebook on good level design in favour of placing Slicers on straightways and Shellcrackers at the top of shafts where you can't reasonably expect to avoid them unless you already know they're there. These demonstrate how important that ability to react is in showing how frustrating it can be when that time isn't afforded to players.

    Meanwhile, Death Egg Zone presents a daunting challenge in having to clear two new bosses with no safety nets, but actually provides a pretty good space to do so, with plenty of room available between Sonic and those bosses, allowing players to really study them to determine the best approach. Granted, this kind of only works when lives are turned off because fuck getting to the Death Egg and being punted back to the start of the game because it's the first time you've encountered these bosses, but without that constraint, you get a very good environment to experiment and really practice these bosses, as opposed to the the one-and-done cheap shots in the previous example, where the only way to get good at those is through replaying those entire levels rather than honing in on what you're actually struggling with, which I think brings the "focus" of content into the conversation and why Superstars' final bosses lacking checkpoints is so awful.


    Bingo. Death Egg was technically cheap at the time of release due to the lives system (if you were bad at collecting them, anyway), but is a much more fair kind of difficulty without it. This wasn't lost on Sonic Team either, as the first thing they did in the game's "normal" mode was add rings to the Sonic Jam version just a few years later in 1997. The 2013 retro ports removed these again once a standard save system was in place.

    But the boss itself is very fair once you do learn the pattern and becomes much easier to beat with practice, offering at least 3 different weak points that one can attack with, and numerous points that are "safe" attacking areas if the player is just patient. It's just daunting at first due to the high risk of game overs.

    The difficulty Knuckles has with this same boss is even more proof of the problem, as his lower jump was not considered when they first designed the boss, making it needlessly artificially difficult because of it. Mind you, I didn't expect them to change the boss for him, but it goes to show the difference between fair and unfair difficulty right there. Even a skilled player suddenly has less options to win, and that becomes more frustrating. It's not broken difficulty, but it's a lot closer than the rest of the game's challenges were, and it's a mistake S3&K never made when designing Knuckles' campaign.
  14. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    I'm not of the mind that cheap difficulty is always off-limits, or that memorization isn't a valid skill to have -- especially in a game in which you can sometimes completely change course and avoid what you memorized altogether. I can see a stage in which a player that ignores warnings and environmental cues could "deserve" being hit by a cheap challenge at some point, especially if the visual theme conveys that too. But even then, it'd be an extreme case, and I understand I'm in the minority.

    I should mention, though, RNG definitely has a place in building difficulty, possibly even i Sonic. I'd definitely reject the idea that good gameplay should be easily reproducible, at least because my idea of good gameplay has much more to do with self-expression than with mechanical excellence. After all, risk management is a skill one can have too, and randomness instantiates challenge in a way easily reproducible good gameplay can't, and it's pretty unique as a method.

    Though I haven't written anything about bosses yet, the one thing I'm certain of is that Death Egg Act 2's boss (the first one, at least) is like one of the best classic bosses. Prbably one of the better boses in the series. It uses the stage's gimmick to hit you, but you can use that same gimmick to hit it. There's a lot of danger, but there's a lot of space for a player to figure their own way out of it too. I've taken a newfound appreciation for the entirety of Death Egg too while replaying S3&K too. I think it does the whole "final stage vibe but not completely stifling s you can still go pretty fast if you knw how" masterfully. Truly the climax of the classic series!
  15. Superstars, honest to god, has massive design issues that are made far worse in Trip's campaign. Mostly with the bosses, though.
    Last edited: Nov 8, 2023
  16. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    Detailed the relationship between failure and rhythm, improving the section that leads up the idea of each stage killing Sonic differently. By the way, changed the term "challenge mode" for "mechanical theme", which describes the idea much more accurately.

    Also brought the idea of "rhythm groups", as proposed by Smith, Cha and Whitehead (not Christian), being a better framework for analyzing and making platformer levels than the idea of "paths". As an example (also in OP), see how Marble Zone Act 3 looks like when divided in rhythm groups:

    Sonic1_MD_Map_Mz3_Rhythm Groups.png

    EDIT: Forgot to point out that some rhythm groups are structurally similar to each other, and that's what will give a level a sense of theme cohesion! Silly me.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2023
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  17. The Joebro64

    The Joebro64

    The best way to kill a hedgehog is with a Bitch Slap of Death. More games should have that.

    (in all seriousness this is great analysis. I love it.)