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Let's talk Knuckles Chaotix level tropes

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by Cooljerk, Aug 21, 2016.

  1. Cooljerk

    Cooljerk

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    Knuckles Chaotix is a fascinating game to me, mainly because of how odd and half baked it feels. In terms of reoccuring tropes, Knuckles Chaotix tends to veer as far away from the standard types of levels as possible compared to the other 4 classic Sonic games. One thing that is immediately obvious about Knuckles Chaotix is the complete lack of water in the game - it was the first Sonic game (not counting gameplay-deviating spin-offs like Spinball or Labyrinth) without water. Now, I'm fairly certain the lack of water is a technical issue - the sprites in the game are 256-color bitmaps handled by the 32X, while the backgrounds are drawn by the Genesis. The Genesis games achieved the water trick by swapping palettes during h-blank, but I'm guessing that wasn't possible given the 32X sprites. Also immediately noticeable - no loops in any of the stages. The best you get are half-pipes, but the series' iconic loops are entirely missing.

    In terms of level tropes, the introductory level, which doesn't have an official name in the game, takes the place of the typical green hill zone. Except it's odd because A) It's the only level in the game that you play sequentially, all 5 acts back to back, and B) it doesn't contain any enemies or even a boss. This makes it without a doubt the most boring "green" level in all the classic trilogy. The art is fantastic, especially the sunset variant, but what a waste of a zone. Weirdest of all, this introduction zone has the most unique gimmicks of any zone in the game, and they feel wasted on such a barren level. There is, for example, in act 2, a hook bolted onto the background at one point. Your rubber band actually gets caught in the hook if you pass through it with characters on either side, and it flings you all around to catch some rings because of how you tangle in it. This is the only place in the game that hook is used. It also has those weird doors that require certain characters to stand in specific spots - those platforms are revisited later on as floating platforms that move when specific characters are on them, but they are never used like they are used in this zone. There is also an act of this zone that is entirely vertical, which is strange.

    Botanic Base Zone is the level in the game that needs water the most, IMO. The way the level is built evokes an aesthetic similar to Aquatic Ruins Zone, with lots of waterfalls and rivers and pits that never lead to any water. This level probably has the most complex background in the entire game - the background is enormously tall, and changes colors the lower you go. The far background is drawn in a way that makes the image look like it's blurred, which makes the near background plane - which is simply a vertical pole in the middle of the stage, look odd because it's crystal clear. This gives a perspective error when deep below. Over the course of the 5 acts of the day, Botanic Base slowly gets overrun by foliage, which isn't evident if the acts aren't played back to back.

    Techno Tower is a cool zone whose unique twist gets lost thanks to the randomized nature of Knuckles Chaotix. There aren't many levels in Sonic like Techno Tower thematically, with maybe Wacky Workbench being the closest in terms of design. It's a vertically oriented level, that sort of feels like a twist on the construction highway aesthetic ala Star Light Zone. This is because the level is actually twin towers that you run across. Over the course of the 5 time periods in the day, the tower on the left slowly gets built up, topped off by a star on top at the end of the day. But, because of the rather open level design of Knuckles Chaotix, the game doesn't guide you up and down and it's easy to not notice the left tower is being built over the course of the day. It also makes the 5 acts feel very similar because, despite terrain changing slightly, you feel like you retread much of the same ground. The background art is cool, however - taking you from a tropical beach to high up in the sky over the course of the level.

    Marina Madness Zone is a level that is really hard to pin down to a trope. Aesthetically, the level looks like it was dying to be a water level, given the name and the art, which has a sea theme. Life boats and life preservers and other general nautical items litter the level, as does odd looking palm trees. Even more, there are two foreground planes in work during the level - one that is the normal platforms you jump on, and the other being a giant cruise ship that moves along the level. All this points to a water level at heart, but if you take a closer look, you'll notice all the cruise ships are flying. The end boss also takes place in front of a flying cruise ship. I sort of believe this was done to explain why the cruise ship rocks and bounces as it's "stationary" without needing water to be present. That means the level is also sort of a twist on the flying ship trope, ala Flying Batter Zone, albeit merely aesthetically. It doesn't seem to take any level design consideration from other flying ship stages. The background on this level is also the most boring in the entire game - it's a stationary image that doesn't scroll with the screen. There is no upper area or lower area to the background. There is barely any parallax at all, and only during the night when the stars are out. Compared to the crazy complex backgrounds in the rest of the game, this one feels the most incomplete.

    Speed Slider Zone is an easy zone to peg. Aesthetically, it's a carnival zone, and seems to want to be the pinball zone of the game at times. While typical pinball tropes like flippers aren't present, it does have balloons which act like bumpers - the only objects in the game that act like that. In fact, the lack of bumpers in the game is another big difference between this and the other classic sonic games - they all had explicit bumpers except knuckles chaotix. Despite the aesthetic suggesting a carnival or pinball stage, the music and level design is that of a speed highway, sharing the long straight aways of Stardust Speedway or Starlight Zone. This stage has the second craziest background in the game, and during the evening when the background is red, there is a portion that looks quite a bit like Stardust Speedway. All in all, this is my favorite level in the game.

    Amazing Arena is probably the weirdest level in the game. It's the only level that doesn't have a day to night transition - all the acts are the same. Rather, the level transitions between two palettes mid-level, sort of like the trick in Carnival Night Zone in Sonic 3. In fact, you can't really advance to the next act without brightening up the level. In terms of aesthetics, I'd say this level most fits the factory aesthetic of levels like Scrap Brain Zone or metallic madness zone. The music is great - both tracks. I have often thought this level could benefit from some sewery water, like the mega mack from Chemical Plant Zone, or the purple waste water in Scrap Brain Zone act 3.

    And that's it. Those are all the levels in Knuckles Chaotix. You'll note that it was really hard to pin any level down to a single trope outside of the introductory act. That is bizarre to me, because the levels are dripping with style in the game, but functionally they are vapid and not too different from each other. A major problem with Knuckles Chaotix, ignoring the ring system, is that the stages themselves lack unique gimmicks. When I think of Sonic games, I think of lots of small interactive bits exclusive to certain types of levels. Like the poles in underwater levels you can grab as the current pushes you, or blocks to push in marble zone, or the mud in Marble Garden Zone, or the pullies in Mushroom Hill Zone. Things of that sort. Knuckles Chaotix spends most of it's unique level gimmicks on purely aesthetic choices that mainly get missed by players. The most unique level in the game - Amazing Arena - has a gimmick that revolves around the palette of the zone changing and nothing else.

    Of all the classic games, I feel like Knuckles Chaotix is the one with the worst stages for these very reasons.
     
  2. DigitalDuck

    DigitalDuck

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    Isolated Island: Island.
    Botanic Base: Jungle.
    Speed Slider: Carnival/Highway.
    Techno Tower: Factory/Highway.

    Marina Madness and Amazing Arena are unusual, I'll give you that. But no more than Wacky Workbench, Sandopolis, or Sky Sanctuary were.

    Unless you count Sonic & Knuckles, of course.

    [​IMG]


    I agree re: level-specific gimmicks, though. Chaotix really should've done more there, but it seemed as though they spent their gimmick budget on the combi system.
     
  3. Cooljerk

    Cooljerk

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    Botanic Base isn't a jungle, though. It looks more like a marsh or a lagoon, given the type of fauna and the water that is running through it constantly. And, if we're being more techncial, it's actually a biome.

    The rest is precisely what I said, except those levels don't really pull much from their tropes. They are extremely superficial.

    Wacky Workbench is an odd level, but Sandopolis is a bog standard desert trope (like the aborted Desert stage from Sonic 2), and Sky Sanctuary is windy level trope (seen later in stuff like Angel Island Zone in Sonic Advance, or Windy Valley in Sonic Adventure). The trope combinations you see in Knuckles Chaotix are never really explored again.

    Considering I keep mentioning 4 classic sonic games, I clearly consider Sonic 3 & Knuckles one game. Because they are.

    I had no idea that level had a name, I never do the training mode, neat.

    Not really, there are other gimmicks in the game, like the day to night transition that seems sort of like an evolution of the time travel system from Sonic CD. The problem is that it doesn't really add anything to the game.
     
  4. null1024

    null1024

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    I'm eternally disappointed in how bad Chaotix is. Well, Speed Slider is fun, but that's about it.
    The game is visibly unfinished. Sure, most games aren't exactly complete in all the ways the creators intended, but Chaotix as released is more like a late beta than anything.
    It's a damn shame -- the game's very good looking. Out of all the Sonic games released, Chaotix has the most appealing graphics to me, full stop. It's stylish.
    Soundtrack is damn good too.

    The maps are highly copy-pasted between acts (with Techno Tower, that might have been a deliberate design decision, but it still feels lazy as hell), and most of the interesting things about playing involve screwing around with the rubber band because the stages are so damn bland, almost to the point where you can barely feel a difference between whole zones, let alone each act.

    As for the technical side, no loops may or may not be due to the ring bond -- if you're on plane A and your partner is on plane B, something's bound to get mucked up at some point and force you to actually use the call button, as your partner never switches layers and gets stuck away from you.
    Doing the color change for water could have maybe been done on the 32X -- all drawing is in software, you simply could just have a color remapping table activate when plotting pixels below a certain point on the framebuffer that'd shift the colors to underwater tones in the palette.
    You'd need to sync the position and palettes up nicely with those on the Genesis side and it sounds slow in my head, doing that for each pixel, but I'd say it's doable at a glance.
     
  5. Cooljerk

    Cooljerk

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    Early versions of Chaotix had fully functioning loops.

    I'm not quite certain the software drawing works like you imagine it does. I very much doubt 32X draws sprites pixel by pixel, that's highly inefficient.
     
  6. null1024

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    32X doesn't have sprite hardware. Or tile hardware. Or polygon or rotation or scaling hardware. Everything drawn by the 32X is done by writing/calculating what you want to draw to the framebuffer.
    On a fundamental level, the 32X itself is just a framebuffer hooked up to somewhat fast CPUs. There's a little bit more to it, but not much.

    One of the other things to take note of is that very little drawing in Chaotix is done on the 32X side in-game -- the background art is drawn on the Genesis, so it's mostly sprites that get drawn with the 32X for the extra color. You know this.

    As a result, it mightn't even be as slow as I think since there isn't even that much you need to update each frame.
    The only real downside is that you lose color to the underwater palette -- you'd have 127 colors for the dry palette and 127 colors for the underwater palette. The 32X's increased color depth is still nice (the hilariously massive gaps between colors on the Genesis are kind of depressing, making it hard to have subtle gradients), but you're losing a fair chunk of palette.

    and as for loops, I'm too lazy to go fiddle around with them in the betas and see if I can try to get stuck on them right now
     
  7. Cooljerk

    Cooljerk

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    I'm saying your explanation is a nice high level overview of the process but is almost assuredly missing technical limitations that makes what you are suggesting unfeasible. Give an example - the 32X uses 2 softbuffers, correct? one is always being displayed while the other is being written. When, precisely, would one have the ability to change the cram values in this cycle? Surely you can't display a buffer the screen and write to the cram at the same time. It doesn't matter how much is drawn on the 32X side, what matters is whether the 32X can change cram values mid-frame, and I can't remember any 32X games that did so.

    With regards to merely splitting the palette in half and devoting half the palette to an underwater palette - I don't think this is feasible because of the number of sprites that use the 32X to draw. Yeah, you might not have that many in one frame, but plenty of objects rely on the palette - all enemies, all signs, both player characters, rings, the score palette, etc. I don't think you can fit all those colors into half of the available 256 indexes without quite a bit of color reduction.
     
  8. null1024

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    I highlighted the color reduction tradeoff. 127 colors is still a decent bit, even shared amongst the objects. It limits the impact of the 32X though -- sure, it's more colors than you'd have drawing sprites on the MD side, and you can still address more color tones than on the MD side, but the sprites can lose much of the "wow" factor they have.
    A really lazy test of just loading a sheet with all the enemy sprites and then limiting them to 127 colors doesn't really hurt most of them them too bad, and several of them have unnoticeable changes with the color reduction (even without any dithering, just a straight hard cutoff). Even going down to 64 colors is a possibility, although it definitely doesn't look quite as nice when switching back and forth (it's almost passable with dithering), and I'm losing a fair few colors just from other things in the sheet, it's not under optimal conditions.

    All of my posts were going off of the split palette thing, I assumed you couldn't just change 32X CRAM mid scanline like that (otherwise, that'd have been my solution to doing water).

    It'd be amazing to use the 15-bit direct color mode to draw sprites and side step that whole issue, but I doubt that'd be doable for Chaotix (actually, do any 32X games use 15-bit direct color mode during gameplay? It's probably possible, but the doubled space requirements for graphics are an issue and you also have double the data to transfer in general, so no one or nearly no one actually bothered).
     
  9. Chaotix is the start of SEGA thinking that every new Sonic game had to be anything other than a traditional 2D platformer.

    Some of the art is so lush that it makes me wonder how good a traditional platformer would have been instead of this weird rubber band bullshit. Such a shame in my eyes. Hopefully Mania will take some inspiration.

    Botanical Base is especially inspired for me because it gives the impression the whole level takes place in some kind of techno greenhouse, think Eden project but on a massive scale.

    I'd love to see some level concept art if any exists.
     
  10. DigitalDuck

    DigitalDuck

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    Firstly, at what point in the series had there previously been a desert zone? Why is Sonic 3 & Knuckles allowed to introduce a desert zone, but Knuckles Chaotix isn't allowed to introduce a marina zone?

    Secondly, it's far from bog standard. Halfway through you go into a pyramid, which has lights that fade unless you pull levers to keep the lights on, and ghosts (non-badniks!) that appear if you don't. From there, Amazing Arena isn't a massive leap.

    It's not very windy. In fact the only wind you get is during the opening cutscene, and that's presumably to stop people from dying while the cinematic is going on.

    Sonic Retro has it labelled as "ancient ruins/sky" (in fairness, AIZ in Advance and Windy Valley are both labelled this way too). But again, entirely unlike any zone that had been before.

    That's an argument about other games, not about Chaotix. We've already seen other games have been allowed to introduce their own trope combinations, but apparently that same consideration isn't afforded to Chaotix because later games decided not to use them.
     
  11. Clownacy

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    I'm not sure about bottlenecks, but I think the 15-bit colour mode is unable to draw the top/bottom few rows of the screen. I imagine working around that would require somehow limiting how much the Mega Drive's VDP could display, to match it, or just expect the player to ignore that sprites vanish partway down/up the screen.
     
  12. ICEknight

    ICEknight

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    Chaotix was planned to have water, as evidenced by the water splash and bubble sprites found in the ROM.

    Perhaps somebody should ask SEGA for the original design documents and make the game that was once meant to be? (HINT Sonic Mania team HINT)
     
  13. IrnBru

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    Not to detract from the topic but all of this has got me interested to actually play Knuckles Chaotix purely just to experience what it has to offer (or lack there-of), I think it might be the only pre-dreamcast sonic title I haven't played never mind beaten.
     
  14. Sparks

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    Chaotix to me was more of evolutions or expansions of existing tropes.

    Botanic Base was basically the grass zone, but it was more like a greenhouse.
    Speed Slider was the casino/carnival stage, but taking a heavier theme on amusement parks than Carnival Night did.
    Amazing Arena... I'm not sure. Was it meant to be a clock-tower like stage? It feels like a spin off of Wacky Workbench.
    Marina Madness is probably the most unique level of the bunch. It's hard to compare it to any previous levels, though the floating chunks in Sky Sanctuary come to mind.
    Techno Tower feels like a poorly done factory stage that goes vertical.

    I'd like to see the Chaotix levels re-done with proper level design, or maybe just a ROM hack or fan game with them imported in with proper layouts.
     
  15. AfroRyan

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    It's just so vertically oriented throughout its entirety. Rarely are the levels designed in a way that you aren't constantly stopping to climb up to a higher tier, go the opposite direction, and repeat. It's boring, which completely clashes with the visuals, which are crazy vibrant. The music is also pretty exciting, so it just makes my disappointment greater. There's really only 2 characters that make sense in the game given its verticality. You would think one of them would be Knuckles, but his climbing is so slow it makes the whole "boring" thing even worse. Charmy can fly, which really makes the most sense in these tall stages. Espio can run on any surface, so that's also a plus. Even with these seemingly game-breaking mechanics, it still takes a while to get through the random mishmash of vertical shafts even with the best abilities.

    I'd love to see it remade from the ground up. Drop the rubber band gimmick, the random level select gimmick, and crappy level layouts. Keep the stage art, music, and special stages (they were awesome). It'd be a lot of work, but at least the art, character abilities, and music would already be done for that brave, ambitious soul.
     
  16. FollOw

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    I wanted to play this game so bad for years. A few months ago I finally decided to by a Raspberry PI and a USB genesis controller. I ended up playing the entire game that way (lets face it Sega is never going to re-release it). I thought it was a good game for what it was, the graphics are by far the best thing about it. I admit it was surprisingly bare. Very few enemies in the game, does anyone know how long this game was actually in development for?
     
  17. Ritz

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    Can this just be "Let's talk Knuckles Chaotix"? It's the franchise's greatest tragedy. It's like the Jodorowsky's Dune of videogames to me. The classic Sonic aesthetic at its sharpest and most ambitious, and it didn't even feature Sonic, or the majority of the series' tropes beyond the most basic structural underpinnings of the games. It was this cancerous outgrowth of Sega's creativity- they took so many unjustifiable risks, and I love it for that, but how did they ever expect to sell it? Maybe they knew it was doomed to fail. I think the word came from on high that this bastard hardware produced without SoJ's blessing needed Sonic representation ASAP, and they just used an unwinnable situation as an opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and make a statement. Flagship title without the main character, a mandatory physics gimmick, 7 playable characters, tons of useless special effects just for fun (character scaling as a powerup? Why) and art with a level of quality so impractical that they only produced about half the volume of assets needed for a substantial sequel. A whole lot of love went into it, but the time, technology and direction evidently wasn't there, and honestly, the very concept of 2D Sonic was just about exhausted at that point.

    Isn't the 32X totally unique in that respect? It's driving some of the coolest effects in the game, many of which have probably never been implemented elsewhere (outside the PC demoscene, at least). Like those individual pixel dissolves on sprites and crumbling platforms. Or these slick screenwipes:

    [​IMG]

    Or this insane masking effect on the body of Techno Tower's boss that they're using to simulate glass refraction, which has got to be my favorite special effect ever:

    [​IMG]

    Also worth noting is how the later Speed Slider acts have these transitional indoors segments that they're using to buffer a background swap, where they're loading a totally different palette- you can see the colors go screwy if you fly past the boundary in debug mode. Very clever method of subverting the 64 color limitation. A lot of really sophisticated graphical touches that you just don't notice or appreciate when you're slogging through the game.

    Bonus trivia: Techno Tower's boss has a different configuration of lasers and reflectors depending on the time of day. At night, the lasers are turned off, and Eggman just moves faster and swings his arms longer (I think). Only boss with multiple states like that, and nobody ever noticed because 1) The fight is so piss-easy that it's over before you can even figure out the convoluted premise of the fight, and 2) It's a boss you fight once in a game nobody played more than once. The developers didn't second-guess a single decision made for this game. "You want it? Code it, draw it, implement it. Fuck it."

    They didn't- Pagoda West don't seem to have looked any further than Sonic CD for style. Which is fiiine, that representation of Sonic ranks quite high for me, but my impervious nitpicking soul sighs because it's a polished Sonic 2.5 to Chaotix's Sonic 4.

    Gonna art ramble for a bit: Every time I look closely at Chaotix, I feel like I'm learning something new about color and light. The artists' perception is incredibly refined, which I can only imagine was a result of their experimentation with 3D rendering at the time, which would've given the them a handy reference tool for lighting and materials. Most pixel artists only ever see the local color of an object, so a blue ball stays blue, green leaves are certifiably green, etc. But Chaotix understood reflectivity and ambient light, so Botanic Base's purple blocks turn blue, green and orange under different lighting conditions without losing their identity as purple- and they're textured, too! Also during the day, the highlights blow out to white because the scene is overexposed, just as a camera would do.

    That coloring is the "pastel" quality people tend to mention, but it's really just a sublime understanding of reality. I learned how to paint in part by just staring at Chaotix for a few hours. Takumi Miyake is my forever senpai.

    EDIT: Actually, maybe the foreground assets were just more 3D than 2D in some instances? The bosses all feature some prerendered elements anyway, right? Either way, it looks great.
     
  18. null1024

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    The 32X being all CPU driven encourages some really neat effects. Whatever you can program, you can draw.

    I think that screen wipe is done on the Genesis VDP though. Pretty cool still.
    As a straight tech demo, Chaotix succeeds. It offers a small glimpse at all the things the hardware could achieve. There's a lot of love put into making the game look impressive, and I really feel like that when they were working on it, they really did expect it to be something big, a reason if not the reason to go out and get a damn 32X.
    Alas, the game as released feels like its less than 70% done, and it went out the door simply to have another game actually released for the 32X.
    Of all the disappointments in the world, Chaotix not getting pushed over to the Saturn might be one of the biggest.

    The big monitor powerup is probably one of my favorite things ever. It's hilariously good, letting you easily and quickly scale (pun intended) through the stages while also being a kind of obnoxious "look at what we can do now!" effect.

    Mania seems to have noticed that Chaotix exists (there are a few really minor bits in Studiopolis that look like they were lifted out of Marina Madness), but we really haven't seen enough of the game to make any call.
     
  19. 2 weeks I think :ssh:

    @Ritz that reflection effect on the boss is bloody awesome!!

    I wonder what the CD/Chaotix art team are up to now. Are there any interviews floating around? ICEknight? Can you make it happen? :)
     
  20. XCubed

    XCubed

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    Holy crap, that reflectivity is awesome! I played KC on my laptop in GENS back in 2004. I thought it was an empty Sonic CD sequel. I "played" Sonic Crackers before hand and was amazed at how KC was just as empty with a couple exceptions. Sonic Mania will thank fully be the Sonic 5 we knew would come after a disappointing Sonic 4.