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Sonic Level Design

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by Sparks, Mar 20, 2012.

  1. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    It's not about loops (you see, my first Sonic game didn't have loops. I couldn't care less about them) or the way gimmicks are - it's just that they don't repeat themselves. It is interesting when there is an unique gimmick in a stage, like, say, the statue in Wacky Workbench. The thing is... really, they don't repeat themselves. Ever. Sonic 2's stages are short, but they use recurring elements.

    And, why, yes, Sonic Adventure feels automated to me. It's not about being linear, though being linear is a precondition. Sonic Unleashed - some might say, I'd disagree - isn't linear. It is heavily automated nevertheless. So is Sonic Rush.

    Sonic Adventure is damn fun. It really is. My complaint, though, is theoretical - it's about the best way to do something among all the possibilities for Sonic. That's what OP is about, no? The thing is - I don't know why criticizing Sonic Adventure's level design imples that I want rehash and classic games and whatnot. That's not it. The thing is about formulae that provides more possibility of fun for more players in a balanced way.

    As for Zelda, I've exposed my view on why people don't mind the change in Zelda, but they did notice Sonic as absurdly different somewhere else. But this is indeed a different issue.
  2. I think that as much as everybody demands true Genesis-style physics, you don't quite need them to pull off a decent level. Sound insane? Well, hear me out...

    Let's take a look at the earliest non-Genesis Sonic games, the games for Game Gear. I was playing through the Triple Trouble SMS rom the other day, and realized that as much as the Sonic games emphasize speed, the Game Gear games don't really have it at all. The running graphics and level design imply the speed is there, but you're not running all that quickly compared to the Genesis areas such as Chemical Plant. I realized that as long as you imply something very similar to what people want, if it's designed well to hide the limitations and what isn't actually there, people will still enjoy it.

    I have an idea to test this theory. (This is what's going to sound insane.)

    I haven't been able to figure out SonED very well, but I'm fairly decent at Lunar Magic, a tool for editing Super Mario World. I've been playing with the idea of using the SMW engine to create a Sonic game. As long as I can simply imply at what needs to be there, it should go over well. For example, if I can find a way to set it up so the game always assumes that the "Y" button is being held down, I can use Mario's different running animations (running, and then transitioning to the "ready to fly" speed and graphics) with Game Gear Sonic graphics to imitate Sonic's different running speeds and acceleration. Rolling momentum could be simulated by an ASM hack to treat the area as an ice level whenever the down button is pressed, possibly including rolling graphics if "Sonic" is ducking but still has X-movement. (If I can make this harm enemies, even better) If I can remove the sound effect for picking up a Mushroom, and make sure that Sonic's "Big Mario" and "Small Mario" graphics are identical, then Rings could be made with an item that acts like a Mushroom and adds 1 to the coin meter. All I would have to do is make it so any time Sonic is in a "Small Mario" state, his coin count reverts to zero to make it look like he lost all his Rings.

    As long as the actual level design and graphics seem Sonic-ish, then the game should work out well as a Game Gear-style Sonic game. What do you think, plausible idea, or too dumb to work? (Besides, if it works well, you can easily make a Sonic game with over 100 Zones to play in.)
  3. Hukos


    I definitely agree that Rush feels automated, but that's in part because I take issue with it's physics and they don't quite feel like they were meant for precision platforming, but that's another argument.

    Due to it's 3D nature, Sonic Adventure's levels don't have exact routes in plain sight. It's not like a 2D game where you can easily see an alternate path in front of you. However, shortcuts and the like are there if you're good enough at manipulating Sonic's physics (Mostly his incredibly useful spin dash). In Emerald Coast in the 2nd area, if you manage to obtain enough momentum you can run alongside a wall that allows Sonic to reach a hidden alcove leading to an extra life and a set of springs that acts as a shortcut. Not long after that, there's a section where Sonic can choose to jump off a high platform over water. If you screw up, Sonic will fall into the abyss but a skillful player can allow Sonic to reach solid ground and quickly reach a nearby spring that acts as another shortcut. Of course, my time spent getting all 130 emblems probably taught me all the tricks I needed to learn every trick in the book when it comes to speedrunning all of Sonic's levels, but these do exist, after all. Again, these shortcuts aren't in plain sight and take a bit of knowing the level and knowing Sonic's entire skillset and what he can do, but they do exist.

    Speed Highway's first section is another good level to point out what I'm talking about. Right from the getgo, you can jump on the automated platform and wait for it to continue with the next segment of the highway. Or the skillful player can jump on the rail and maneuver Sonic carefully but quickly so as to save time and move on with the level. Then the player is given the opportunity to keep up their momentum to run on the side of the building and continue into an upper path, but if they fail to they're forced into the floor below and on the longer, lower path. The upper path also features an opportunity to connect onto a homing attack chain that allows you to get an extra life and allows for a shortcut directly to the rocket that ends the first third of the level.

    And it goes on, there's examples for each level. I don't necessarily find it's design poor, though not nearly as focused on multiple paths as the 2D games (Though it'd be a lie to say that SA1's levels are completely devoid of shortcuts/alternate routes) but I still enjoy the design of the levels and find them rather entertaining to play through.
  4. Espyo


    Portugal, Porto, some street
    A Pikmin fan engine - Pikifen (
    Gah, one of the reasons why I like SA is because of how NON-linear it can be. Sure, if you follow the pretended paths, they're pretty linear. But if you take shortcuts, intended or not, there are several routes to take. But either way, one can notice that the levels in SA sometimes go back and forth; part of that is what allows for some shortcuts, like the very first shortcut in Emerald Coast (in which you jump over the invisible barrier and land on the first checkpoint's part). That's a step in the right direction, and, despite being accidental, it allows the explorers to take shortcuts and alternate paths, and allows the more casual players to hold forward to win. Then there are those parts in some levels that don't lead to alternate paths, but are a genuine part of the level design, that include some goodies. Case in point, the ludicrous amount of rings in Final Egg, some of them hidden in some small platforms that aren't forced.

    Egg Fleet is one of the most non-linear, but... it's still several lines straight forward. It's still linear, just with multiple paths.

    But anyway, shouldn't we add these pics on these strategy guides to the wiki? I mean, they're freaking MAPS. You can't get much more useful or interesting than this.
  5. null1024


    There are some stage rips here:
  6. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    I guess I'll just have to concede. Some fair points you've made there.

    I'd also like to bring some principles that I find valuable. Not regarding level design in itself, but the order between them.

    • Having everything and having nothing is the same. You'll wander, looking for what you want, but never finding it.
    • The line between memorable and displaced is blurry.
    • True balance involves balance between balance and chaos.

    Having everything and having nothing is the same. You'll wander, looking for what you want, but never finding it.

    Long story short, don't make it the Knuckles' Chaotix's way. Don't make every level equally and overly detailed - that just makes the game polluted. There are a few issues that arise when there is too much detail overall. a) Everything looks relevant, so it's much harder to make something stand out if you want so. A reward or a threat, even a gimmick. Everything looks gimmicky. b) If everything looks relevant, everything looks irrelevant. It'll be just as boring and annoying as if there wasn't anything there. How can you distinguish a melody from a song that plays every single instrument at once? Too much detail will also probably make you deviate from your intended essential style.

    Main offenders: Knuckles' Chaotix, sometimes Sonic Colors, sometimes Sonic CD, sometimes Sonic 3

    This also applies to any element, not just art. Rings, for instance. If there are enough rings to make you never fear the lack of them, what's the point? If you give the player so much life that s/he doesn't have to fear death, it's pointless to give him/her life in the first place because it won't be valued or experienced.

    Main offender: Sonic Heroes

    The line between memorable and displaced is blurry.

    You do want to make the player remember of all the levels you've designed. Not all memories have to be fond, though. Marble Zone stands out as a hard stage and maybe a dislikeable one, but the contrast between it and Spring Yard most likely enhances Spring Yard's fluid qualities. It's the same with Wacky Workbench in face of Stardust Speedway, Ice Cap against Launch Base - I could go on. But contrast has a limit. Separated, but beautiful links aren't better than a dull, common chain.

    A way to bring linking in contrast is noticing how contrast has many instances. Ice Cap and Lava Reef Act 1 are two of the most distant levels ever - the fire/ice, blue/red, fast/blocky dichotomies are obvious - but they are linked by the fact that both have a very strong primary color. They aren't as mixed and detailed as, say, Angel Island or - for God's sake - Carnival Night. Here is where you could say they are a perfect match: it would be perfect if one followed the other, wasn't it for Lava Reef Act 2, which is blue all over again. Anyway, both are so memorable also because of their neighbours. Marble Zone is just as firey and reddish and blocky as Lava Reef Act 1, but it lacks a strong primary color (purple, but purble is a little too close to blue anyway). If Marble Zone followed Ice Cap, it would look so displaced no one would like it. It would be awkward. So it's important to keep at least one visual, general reference between two levels. Not like water and alcohol, but not like water and oil either.

    Main offender: Sonic Colors, (Sonic & Knuckles would have offended it hard if there wasn't a Hidden Palace between Lava Reef and Sky Sanctuary)

    True balance involves balance between balance and chaos.

    Balance balance balance balance. All I have to say here is that a designer should let go sometimes. Just let go. Create some bizarre element. It's about being surprising, really. Too much focus on balance will make the game dull and predictable. If you can spot the game's train of thought, you'll kno what to do next and perhaps that wasn't supposed to happen. Of course, you can do this and deliberately subvert everything at the right moment, but this is really hard to do.

    Be a little crazy here, there and everywhere. A relievingly easy level before and after hard ones at the endgame is a cool way to break the train of thought and generally creates fan favourites - Starlight Zone and Stardust Speedway are examples.

    Main offenders: Sonic the Hedgehog for Master System, Sonic Generations
  7. Jayextee


    Unpopular Opinions™ Member
    Atro City
    "The calm before the storm". This kind of concept is an amazing way to make the difficulty of the last level seem like a leap instead of a mere step ahead; after the serenity of Star** in both games, the final zones seem like factories of pure pizza-cutter death.

    Incidentally, I love some of the posts in this thread. I have been so tempted to post; such is my hard-on for level design theory (and Scarred Sun knows it) but I'm afraid it would be a textwall that would take a week to compose. I'm not even joking.
  8. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    Do post! We need more and more level design theory. It's the most interesting aspect in Sonic, and perhaps in platformers in general. I'm looking forward to see what you have to say about it.

    Oh, and about the homing attack: if people are so adamant about implementing it, at least make it work like this:


    Instead of our current this:


    This way you don't lose momentum while using it and chains become something else - you don't need to hit every enemy, but, rather, hit one or two of them right enough.
  9. pablodrago


    BS AS
    well if you ask me, the homing attack should be like this:
    is something like the Snell's law (or refraction actually), when the angle between sonic and the badnik is the same before and after the homing attack, except the 90º, in this case sonic will do the Jump Dash, the same thing happen when the angle is between 180 and 360 (aka. sonic is is under the badnik). There is also a problem when sonic is a 0º/180º because is impossible to follow the chain so it needs an extra angle.
    again, this is my opinion so maybe I'm wrong
  10. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    Oh, your approach is actually much better, thanks for sharing it. It's perfect - the problem when Sonic is perfectly horizontal is very simple to solve: just make it work exactly like a spindash. You just kill the badnik and keep going normally. Since you're on the air, you'll just start falling. No need to make extra effort to keep the chain - it's the player's fault anyway.
  11. Sparks


    Sondro Gomez / Kyle & Lucy
    I think in Advance 2, Sonic can't even HA into something unless it's below him. It also can't home in to springs or item boxes, only badniks. Advance 2 treated it as an attack alone, rather than something level design and object placement took advantage off.
  12. TheInvisibleSun


    Buffalo, NY, USA
    The Water
  13. I want to become a level designer and this is an awesome guide.
  14. Flipside


    This is an awesome guide, but I noticed something you didn't mention. Some of the secrets in Emerald Hill Zone can be accessed 2 different ways.

    Close to the start of the pink route, after the 4 water falls, there's a tiny hill you can spin dash off of and go backward through the secret area with the 10 Ring item box at the top of the water falls.

    Those Sonic games have awesome secrets...

    Oh and the Homing attack, I think they could make it so you don't lose any momentum if you're holding the forward directional button, but lose some momentum if you're not pressing anything. Same thing goes for the jump dash.
  15. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    I will just leave some words on loops here. With stupid jokes and all.

  16. Holy... this place is PARADISE. Whenever I talk about things like this on youtube, a lot of people tell me it's just "stupid shit that doesn't matter and no one should give a crap about".
  17. Putmalk


    I'm not using the rules set by this guide exactly, but here's level design I made quickly looking for critique:
  18. Palas


    Don't lose your temper so quickly. Member
    ...Huh. How come. This only makes me think this is a topic of discussion that only concerns those who won't play anyway. At least, not with the eyes of a player. Much like cooks talking about the perfect measure of seasonings while the clients just want to eat already. But please, do insert your thoughts here. This thread needs all the fuel it can get, since it is, for me, the most important one on the boards.

    EDIT: Wait, why you haven't been approved yet. Come on, guys.

    I'll treat this level as though as it was the first in the game. As such, I have some annotations for you:

    0:26 (or right at the start) - wow, enforcing the use of a specific/secondary ability so soon? I have a grudge against that. It's just as if you were playing as Sonic and the first thing you saw was not a motobug, but a wall of bricks you have to spindash through. Many have disagreed with me in this matter, but I do think this is counter-productive. The unaware ones will be confused about what to do and, once they find out what they DID have to do, they'll set that as their primary action instead of jmping or rolling. Think of it as the inversion of an imaginary proto-learning curve. In my view, it's still harmful. Not unusable, of course, but I'd advise you to place this kid of thing at Act 2, when the player is already more accostumed to the basic controls. I'll give you the relief of praising you for showing the way to the player, though.

    Now, there are some spikes up there, isn't it? Well, the player wasn't going there anyway. So the spikes serve no purpose. It's not a point of interest - if you want to show the player there might be something there and maybe drive him/her to another path, you can show them anything - rings, monitors, even badniks - but not spikes. Spikes are never recognized as something reachable. It's the one element that will always diminish the player's interest in the area.

    0:34 - well... you said it yourself. Stupid spring. This get-back kind of spring serves the only purpose of breaking your momentum or as the warning of a threat (be it before or after the spring, being a tension builder or a self-fulfilling prophecy when the actual threat is right before the spring); Here, it only exists to... break the momentum you hadn't actually built. And about the wall and the baloon... that was clever.

    From 0:40 to 0:55 - I appreciate the breeze, the fast pace that still relies on player input. Glide if you want to keep running. I like that for Knuckles. The sequence get a fire shield -> grab the wall -> get hit by that a badnik that was passing by and lose the shield -> go to a stranght path seems suspiciously convenient. It really, really looks like you did it on purpose. Not while playing, but while designing. You gain a protection against hits, you are sent flying and there is a point of interest in the opposite direction, you try to get it, you get hit, you lose the protection. Sounds like a huge "nope" to the player's face. I don't mind that. That's a resource like any other - but please note that it can look very Megaman-ish if you do it more often than you should, especially if you don't give the player the chance to try again and get those rings.

    At the end - yay! An alternative path that requires you to slow down to go to an upper route! That's what it's all about.

    From 1:12 to 1:20 - SPEEDblockSPEEDblockSPEEDblock. Three times. Take those springs out so that the player can build his own flow across this section or build more flow yourself with slopes and stuff. I'd recommend the former.

    1:46 - WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU ARE NOT GETTING THOSE RINGS. Those delicious rings. I'm not saying you should have gotten them, but it's attracted my curiosity: what happens if you go for them? There are many possibilities. You can make being attracted by the rings lead to an alternative (and actually harder) path. That would be interesting. But you didn't show me. What is there to it?

    2:02 - As I said before, no one is ever going to do that. In the second playthrough, maybe, and the baloons indeed make one wonder why they are there, but I don't think this is enough. Nice to see there is an alternative path right from the start, though.

    2:18 - Hey, is it that section from 0:40-0:55? That's great! I appreciate that you should do this. See, when alternative paths are connected, they form an ambient instead of corridors. It's the same section, but the experience is completely different depending on where you came from. And you can enjoy both depending on your interest at the time! That's great.

    2:49 - Once again, that's exactly what I wanted. Yeah, I love this principle! Alright, you've got your share of free speed, but since you didn't think things through, here's a blocky and difficult section for you. The results are the same, but the flow is different and the way the player interacts and will interact with the scenario is quite the opposite. Good job there.

    3:15 - Good trick, good place for a special ring. But don't make them all like this, please. Some big rings must be found as a matter of course so the player can be interested in exploring the stages and actually wanting to do such tricks in the first place. If this was the first stage of a game, no one would ever find it. However, treating this as the first stage, this might be good. Notice how, in Sonic & Knuckles, there are a fucking lot of big rings in Mushroom Hill and Flying Battery, but they are tricky to find. On the other hand, opportunities are easier to find in Lava Reef, but there are less of them. I'm pretty sure this was purposeful, stimulating second playthroughs. As in "I couldn't get all the Chaos Emeralds, so I'll try to find more of them at the earlier stages so I can guarantee I'll at least have plenty of chances for the last Chaos Emerald at Lava Reef".

    Oh, I'm rambling, aren't I? pardon me. I'll comment on the rest of your level later. Feel free to say I'm nitpicky.
  19. Ell678


    Am I Annoying You? Member
    Barrow, England
    Sonic Incursion
    One aspect I haven't seen mentioned in this topic is the idea of bouncing on top of enemies/monitors to acheive a higher path. When I designed Sonic 1 Alt I tried to make it feel as "Sonic 1 like" as possible with personal twists, with also the difficulty appropriatly higher (as we've all played Sonic lots). One of the first things I did in the first level was place three buzzbombers with distance between them so that when the player hit the first one, provided they held right, hit the next one, then the next, which lead you to a reward and several seconds shaved off your time. It isn't easy to pull this off, so I feel players should be rewarded, by either getting more rings, a powerup, or even a life. There are numerous points in the hack where I did this, there is one in Marble Zone Act 2 where some breakable blocks are placed apart. To hit each one (and avoid hitting the lava below) you would have to be moving before you jumped, but if you got it right you went through the wall, hit invisibility and went through the shortcut. This behaviour is of course best observed in Sonic 2, but in Sonic 1 I recall in GHZ 3 (?) a small area could be bypassed by jumping on a buzzbomber, holding right, hitting the other and keeping your speed.

    While this is just personal preference, I never penciled out my layouts. I went to the starting location and just went from there. Mentally, I'd play the level as I went and think "is now the right time to change things? Maybe provide an alternate route?" and while this route of development may take longer (seriously, there were levels in that hack I torn down completely just because they didn't feel right and wanted to do it again) it worked for me, it may work for you!

    Great topic by the way, when I get more time I'l read through in a more thorough way and provide my two cents :)
  20. theyogwog


    S3K Analysis
    I like this thread. It's very informative and actually it's what made me want to join these forums. I'd like to add the following, just some observations I thought you might find relevant, but keep in mind I'm mostly only familiar with Sonic 3K so the things I say may not apply to Sonic 1 and 2:

    That's true, but one aspect of level design that hasn't been mentioned in detail yet are the optional areas. The keys to these areas is that they're not exactly hidden but not really obvious in either location or "objectives", and they're designed to show off the physics of the game in some unusual way that they couldn't fit into one of the main routes. They're used sparingly and they don't benefit the player in any big way. Not to be confused with the more straight-forward and useful secret areas, such as small, hidden rooms with powerups/special stages inside.


    These are the 2 examples I've noted so far but I expect there are more areas like this. Here you can clearly see a sort of sequence of events that the developers must have had in mind, and it's fun when you notice that and figure out what you're supposed to do, like having a dialog with them in some weird way. Not unlike certain parts of the actual routes, honestly.

    Just as there are multiple routes within a level, there should be multiple ways to overcome obstacles within a route. On that note, and on a semi-related note to what I mentioned above: there are also times when the developers seem to have intended to give the player a clear choice of how to solve a problem. Like the different types of routes, there are different types of solutions, each of which having its own pros and cons and consequences. There's usually the obvious and safe, but most boring and least skillful solution. Opposite of that, there's a solution that's exciting and rewarding but which isn't readily apparent to newbies and also the most difficult to perform and/or risky to attempt. And then there's usually a middle ground somewhere between those two.


    I've always liked that idea, too. I remember as a kid playing that level near the end of Sonic 2 where you're riding on the plane, Sky Chase Zone IIRC, and wishing that I could go through the whole level just bouncing on enemies instead. I'm not sure about Sonic 1 and 2, but I know in 3K if you hold down the jump button until you land on the target, it will bounce you back up a lot higher than if you release the button which is pretty cool. I've never been a fan of the homing attack though, especially in a 2D environment, I'd prefer the Insta-Shield any day and just chain jumps manually.

    :colbert: Hmm, I think that's it for now.