Rail grinding: a worthwhile mechanic in 3D Sonic or too limiting?

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by Frostav, Aug 31, 2020.

  1. Frostav

    Frostav

    Member
    285
    53
    28
    Grinding is one of the most constant mechanics in all of 3D Sonic and one of the few that has no equivalent in the 2D games (at least the classic series). So it's probably here to stay. However, I've thought about it and I'm wondering if it's really got any use outside of cinematic moments (which have their place, of course). The chief issue is that grinding is inherently limited: you're at the sole mercy of physics, and can't really stop. Platforming is mostly limited to jumping over straight line gaps because a rail by definition is so thin that having to steer in midair to hit one is an absolute crapshoot. Switching rails is almost always a simple button and QTE. If we imagine a 3D game that tries to take the concepts of the classic games and bring them into 3D, are they necessary? To go over the 3D games which have it:

    SA2: First game with it. Grinding is entirely physics based (cool), and all you can do is crouch to decrease drag and speed up. The player has to tilt the stick to stay balanced on the rail. This is fine enough but it's very twitchy and there's no indication of where you need to hold the stick (unlike the say Tony Hawk games), and it's a pretty one-note mechanic bordering on a QTE. Switching to a different rail requires tilting all the way to the side, pressing A, and praying the game realizes you want to switch and doesn't make you jump or just do the switching animation but throw you off the rail anyway, because Sonic Team is obsessed with shoving critical mechanics that can get you killed on one button (putting the bounce attack and light speed dash* on the same button was a genius idea, guys!).

    Heroes/Shadows: Crouching and maintaining balance were removed. Now you just spam a button to go faster. Okay, so now it's just even less engaging. In Heroes switching rails works like SA2 (bad) but in Shadow they thankfully moved to making it an automatic canning animation that can't fail with its own button. Yay. Now it's literally just a QTE.

    06: Not as familar with this but it seems to just be Heroes/Shadow but the physics are worse and rail switching isn't really a thing anymore. Fun.

    Unleashed Onwards: Sonic can now boost on rails and uses quick-steps to swap between them. These games actually do the most with rails, admittedly, like the final third of Skyscraper Scamper, and rails were widened so they could be used in platforming (but as I said: only jumping over gaps in straight lines). In fact in these games rails are mostly used to bring Sonic to an alternate path, hanging over the "regular" level and diverting away. It's an clever way of getting around the fact that having actual footpaths over the level would look kinda awkward. In Unleashed especially they are also just cinematic flair which does look pretty cool.

    *: Actually the LSP is another good example of a mechanic that has stayed but seems a bit too limited to really be worth it...

    So in basically every 3D Sonic game, rails are borderline QTE's that don't have much depth to them. I'm not sure what could be done to make them more engaging. Do you agree with this? Are you fine with rails just being cinematic flair? Are they essential to Sonic, or could they be abandoned without much problem?
     
  2. BlackHole

    BlackHole

    You're going to need MORE than help. Member
    3,533
    77
    28
    England
    Sprites for Cybernetic Outbreak
    Grind rails are effectively the old "auto scroller" mechanic transposed into 3D, in that they only really let you go in one direction and don't let you stop. If you try and go backwards, you're usually halted by a tall decline you've come off of and forced to progress.

    They're just like other things in this series: they could be done in a way to make them more interesting. For instance, I'm sure we've seen minecarts in games where you pull the minecart in order to tilt it onto the track you want. Bring back the tilt and implement a similar mechanic where the grind rail splits and you have to tilt the character to change their course. If you want to add more action, do what Sonic Rush didfor being airborne and let characters perform tricks as you're grinding along to earn points or boost, depends on the other mechanics.
    Jumping between rails? Press R mid-jump and have Sonic pose as he lands.

    I've got some other ideas, but that's a project in the works.
     
  3. If used sparingly, they can make a level feel a bit more dynamic, I guess. I mean, look at City Escape and Rooftop Run. City Escape had a realistically-placed rail at the center of a long staircase. If you're speedrunning the level, you can use the rail to make it a quick zip down the stairs and only have to deal with jumping over the occasional break in the railing (still a realistic situation, in case pedestrians change their mind and want to go back the way they came) and balancing. If you don't make it onto the rail, you have to manually adjust your direction to the curves in the path, and you're pretty likely to lose speed from hitting the walls. The speedrunning route also looks more interesting when done correctly. That kind of meshes well with Classic Sonic games. In the Classics, a well-performed speedrun that didn't abuse glitches looks much more impressive visually than an average run. The speedrun route in this situation (City Escape) is also made to look more interesting, and in this situation it still requires skill on the user's part to pull off correctly and not lose enough speed that the running route would overtake it.

    Rooftop Run also had sections where grinding was subtly implemented. Some of the major turns have guard rails on the sides much like you'd expect in real-life. If you didn't manage to drift in time, you'd nail that guard rail and you'd automatically grind to complete the turn. It looked nice visually, and was still slightly slower than a successful drift. It was mainly used to prevent the player from crashing into a wall (In this particular case, rocketing off a cliff) during a high-speed segment of the level.

    As far as the grinding mechanic itself as a method of traversal rather than a bit of visual flare, I think that it can be made into more than a 3D auto-scroller equivalent. Look at Kingdom Hearts 3 and the new Crash Bandicoot trailers. In those games, you have the ability to hang below the rails to dodge hazards and enemies. Kingdom Hearts 3 also gives you a projectile method of attack to fight back while on the rails, making them feel more like a rail shooter (no pun intended) in those sections instead of an auto-scroller. You know those play-things at playgrounds where the kid grabs the handle and slides along a rail? If you put those on the occasional rail in a Sonic game, you could also bring back the Enerbeam segments from Sonic Boom and open up a few more possibilities as well, where you can either pull yourself up and ride the rail traditionally, or drop down to the now-hanging handle (because I doubt those things were intended to take such a high-speed impact) and swing around to dodge or collect things.
     
  4. SuperSnoopy

    SuperSnoopy

    I like Sonic Advance Member
    969
    94
    28
    France
    Learning how to draw, studying Japanese
    I think grinding was great in Adventure 2, and I wish they'd bring the physics back the eventually.
    Uh... otherwise it's cool. Can't think of any game were it isn't fun. Great stuff.
     
  5. kyasarintsu

    kyasarintsu

    Member
    81
    8
    8
    They were a fun, satisfying, roller coaster-style mechanic with a bit of a skill ceiling in their original appearance. They haven't been fun or interesting since.
     
  6. Myles_Zadok

    Myles_Zadok

    IDK Member
    7
    0
    1
    Well, if you're going for classic Sonic in 3D (like Sonic Utopia, Sonic Robo Blast 2, or Adventure 1 to some extent), then no, rail grinding isn't necessary or even ideal. It would break too much from how the rest of the game would be designed: a (relatively) open level to explore or run through as you like. Sonic Adventure 2 was going for a spectacle-platformer more than a momentum-based one, and rail grinding fit perfectly in that game (and the boost games that followed). Rail-grinding might not be the most interesting mechanic in itself, but I think they work fine for games where the focus is on blasting through as fast and as spectacularly as you can. However, I do think it is better if the sections are kept on the shorter side, unlike the long rail-grind section of Windmill Isle Act 2 in Unleashed, as rail-grinding works for me as a short breather from the rest of the action, since I know I probably won't make a mistake when grinding rails.
     
  7. Pengi

    Pengi

    Member
    1,021
    99
    28
    The physics based rails of SA2 were more fun and gave the player more autonomy, which feels true to the playground approach of the old games, but jumping from one rail to the next was a complete mess. I can't remember how they handled it in Unleashed, but I appreciated how they rail-switching actually worked right in Colours and Generations.

    Grinding should be less "here's a QTE section" and more just a fun thing in the environment that Sonic can interact with, like Jet Set Radio or Tony Hawk. Ideally, they should be there for little short-cuts and point-scoring tricks the player can discover - "Oh, I can grind on that? Cool!" - rather than, here is a literal rail, you must grind on the rail now to progress.

    It's like how in Sonic Generations' Speed Highway Act 2 you could grab onto the helicopter near the beginning. That was a genuinely cool shortcut for players to discover, that this thing wasn't just a decorative background element, it was something Sonic could interact with, but you had to time your speed and jump just right to pull it off. Grind-able environments should elicit that feeling too, encouraging the player to experiment with the world they're in and have fun with the game's physics.
     
  8. Starduster

    Starduster

    The next stage of evolution for himbos Member
    78
    8
    8
    Britain
    Art...always art...
    I think the optimal approach lies somewhere between Adventure 2 and Unleashed/Colours/Generations. I think having control over grinding speed opens up opportunities where players need to take stock of what’s ahead and adjust accordingly (ie the mine carts in the grinding levels of LW), but I think the balancing mechanic really does not mesh well with the quick pace of rail grinding, especially in stages where the paths feature more twists, such as Sky Rail and Final Rush.

    This is an issue that’s exacerbated by SA2’s propensity towards shitting itself whenever the player attempts to do anything but follow a somewhat scripted path of least resistance. I recall trying to speed run Final Rush for emblems and being completely unable to safely transition between certain rails in a consistent manner that allowed me to keep up my pace, something the developers clearly intended me to do.

    I think the act of changing rails derives its value from being context sensitive rather than a mechanic that requires its own set of controls to master, and as such I view the boost method of switching rails as superior.
     
  9. Dek Rollins

    Dek Rollins

    size of a tangerine Member
    238
    70
    28
    Rail grinding over bottomless pits isn't good, and rail grinding in the 'modern' era has been nothing but boring auto-running. It's an okay mechanic in concept, and it was used decently in it's debut stage, but IMO it's pointless if it isn't being implemented with the right mindset.
     
  10. BlackHole

    BlackHole

    You're going to need MORE than help. Member
    3,533
    77
    28
    England
    Sprites for Cybernetic Outbreak
    I think Rail Canyon was a good example of how interesting the rails can be, despite the implementation of the mechanic in Sonic Heroes. A full level dedicated to dodging around, avoiding the trains and robots being sent to stop you, rails being destroyed before you, switching tracks around to avoid ramming into an oncoming train, etc.
     
  11. Beltway

    Beltway

    Temptive Bongwater, Sealed in Can Member
    1,407
    34
    28
    Sega of Darkest Peru
    college courses / anime trash crusader
    Funny enough I saw a similar topic that cropped up on another forum a while back; so I thankfully have a response on hand for this thread.

    Rail grinding has unfortunately become one of those many, many mechanics added to Sonic's repertoire over the years that are there largely for spectacle and not much else, yet are obsessively baked into nearly every level in every modern Sonic game in spite of that. If rails as they currently stand were pulled from future Sonic games, I don't think we would be missing anything at all. Which sucks because it doesn't have to be that way.

    Going back to Adventure 2 where they did increase your momentum if you were good at balancing on them would definitely be a good start, but there's definitely more that could be done. Rails greatly suffer from a lack of novelty in their implementation, where they are not only in every world/location (regardless of pacing and theme), but also function the same and visually look identical across the board. This also applies in terms of level design, where they're practically never used beyond setpiece bridges from one platforming section to another above bottomless pits. Addressing all of these elements would go a long way towards making them much better for Sonic games.
     
  12. I wish they'd bring back leaning. They were going to in '06, but had to scrap in when that game got rushed.

    Rail grinding, as it is in SA2, is one of the best additions to the 3D series because it's perfectly in line with the momentum/physics-based gameplay of the Genesis games. It's cool in later games, but it still just works best in SA2. (Ironic considering how much I loathe SA2 and think it's one of the most overrated video games on the face of the Earth)
     
  13. Frostav

    Frostav

    Member
    285
    53
    28
    Surprised at how many people like SA2's leaning mechanic--I have played far too much SA2 for my own good and never felt like I had mastered it. It felt too finicky and the "sweetspot" was razor-thin. I do like the idea, I just thought it was too twitchy.
     
  14. Aesculapius Piranha

    Aesculapius Piranha

    つづく Oldbie
    4,284
    29
    28
    Unknown
    Diva
    I think it was an exciting addition in SA2 because THPS was big and Sonic went well with the extreme sports vibe. I believe if thought of as a way to do cool tricks rather than put the player literally on a rail there is a net benefit to the mechanic existing.
     
  15. Blue Blood

    Blue Blood

    Member
    4,804
    63
    28
    Maybe it was a bit too twitchy and the visual indicator of balance was poor, but it was a fun and engaging mechanic that's been totally stripped away. I always appreciated the fact that the faster you were grinding, the less you needed to balance. Start a grinding strong and failing would become less likely. The only issue I had with balancing in SA2 was that the same analogue stick movement was used to switch rails.

    In Heroes, grinding was physics based but the physics were a hot mess and you couldn't actually fall off through a lack of balance. In Shadow and '06, rails lost all physics based movement and became autorun section. And in the boost games, they've doubled down on the autorun idea so they're now just quick-step sections no different to the rest of the 3D gameplay. Rails switching works well in the newer games, but that's it. Additionally, rails were used to add flavour to the level designs much more in SA2 than they are in any other game. SA2 is full off small, optional rails and a couple of levels based all around the idea of grinding. Rooftop Run in Unleashed aside, none of the other games do what SA2 did. The rails are so automatic and brain dead that you basically stop playing whenever you run on to a rail; they're all unavoidable parts of the levels' critical paths and play themselves.

    The solution is, on paper, incredibly simple: bring back grind rail interaction. Shorten the length of long grinding sections, the player should have to jump on to rails instead of walk on to them and re-introduce the use of physics with balancing. I think that when grinding, a balancing meter should show up on the screen. It would simply be a semi-circle dial, and your goal is to keep the hand in the sweet-spot. Maintaining good balance would help you increase speed, and poor balance the opposite. The sweet-spot would be central on flat rails, and around bends would naturally adjust this position (clearly telegraphed on the dual). Crouching would increase your speed and reduce the size of the sweet-spot, but you wouldn't lose and gain speed at binary rates so you could power-through some areas with poor balance if you're fast enough. Add in some bonuses like being able to perform tricks at the ends of rails and the system would be golden. Sonic would animate enough so that the player knows what to do without the on-screen indicator, which like all of the button prompts in recent games could be disabled.

    Rail grinding absolutely sucks in the boost games and it's a detriment to the already highly flawed design of recent instalments in the series. It needs fixing, because right now we're better off without it.
     
  16. Swifthom

    Swifthom

    A Friend Remembers... Member
    25
    3
    3
    Completely agree.
    And also completely glad the original genesis games only briefly, rarely and barely used this technique to goad players, bringing in only when appropriate (lava reef pre battle is so cool - but even more special as its also so unique).

    As for grinding. I like it.
    But...
    I don't like it when it becomes the level. From heroes onwards specifically, although there are moments in SA2, there are entire areas that are grinding focused and I hate it.

    City escape, radical highway, green forest, white jungle and maybe pyramid (??? Forgot name - but its borderline) are the only levels that havd the balance right for me personally where there is grinding but you use it in cool ways not just to stretch a long gap between area a and area b.

    Are they using them instead of loading screens?[/QUOTE][/QUOTE]
     
  17. Starduster

    Starduster

    The next stage of evolution for himbos Member
    78
    8
    8
    Britain
    Art...always art...
    If they’re going to carry on with the boost formula then I’d advocate for bringing back the rail tricks from the Rush games. Trick ramps already exist as a dumbed down version of Rush’s trick system so it’d be nice to see rail tricks implemented in 3D as a risk vs reward feature that would fit nicely into the current rail-switching and spike designs - how many tricks do you think you can pull off before the rail ends or you hit a spike? Of course to make this work properly they’d have to make rail tricks more committal than they were in Rush where you could jump out of them at any time if required.
     
  18. Palas

    Palas

    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    271
    30
    28
    Rails can be great if they aren't the most effective way to cruise through a level. They're cool, in that you're going forward but you can see everything below you. So you know what exactly you're missing.

    Imagine a downward spiral of a rail that allows room for the player to breathe while they're still moving. They are able to see every possible path or element on the level and must choose where to go. If they don't, the rail gets them in a bad path. It'll feel less like a QTE and more like a more interactive timer.
     
  19. Yash

    Yash

    CHOCOLATE! Member
    441
    16
    18
    I actually think it works really well in SA2, though maybe a bit of that is nostalgia goggles. I think it helps that many of the grindable surfaces are congruent with the environment, there's very few spots where it feels like the game is just giving you a rail to grind on because hey, it's a video game, and this video game has rails, now go grind on them. It avoids the Metroid Prime "why are so many of these ancient puzzles built around Samus' abilities specifically" problem that can break immersion very easily (though obviously Sonic is a game where immersion breaking is less important than Metroid).

    City Escape having rails for grinding deliberately is logical, and a very straightforward interpretation of the idea which is helpful seeing as how it's the first level in the game (interestingly, if the player chooses Dark Side first, their first encounter with grind rails would be Shadow's Radical Highway, where the use of rails - grinding up and down Golden Gate Bridge - is logical and makes for very good spectacle). Metal Harbor lets you grind on railways though IIRC none of the grinding in that stage is even necessary, Green Forest lets you grind down vines... I guess it does feel a bit more arbitrary in the latter stages (Final Rush in particular being built around the concept), so... eh.

    I will say grinding feels much better in the boost games, where they're very conducive for the general "gotta go fast" principle. I really don't care much for Heroes, Shadow or 06 as games so I don't have much to add there, lol. I guess I'd chalk up anything that makes grinding less interesting in those games to bad overall game design compared to SA2 or the boost titles.

    Anyway, all that to say I like grinding and think it works well when implemented properly. As with basically everything in 3D Sonic however, it's incredibly easy to screw up an idea that has potential, and I imagine Sonic Team (in its many iterations) has always taken it as a personal challenge to ensure they prove it in every possible case.
     
  20. Overlord

    Overlord

    Aros gartref, diogelu'r GIG, achub bywydau Moderator
    17,864
    151
    43
    Berkshire, England
    Learning Cymraeg
    Rail grinding is in my experience something that makes you touch the controls as little as possible lest you be flung off into the void, assuming you even make it onto it in the first place without missing it. They're to be endured and then moved on from. I can't say I've ever enjoyed them.