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Zone construction in Sonic 1

Discussion in 'General Sonic Discussion' started by PsuitablePseudonym, Nov 27, 2010.

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  1. I've been thinking about zone sequence and act structure in Sonic 1. I don't know if I'm late to the party here or what—I'm rather out of touch with Sonic fandom. I came to Sonic Retro to seek your opinions on the matter; youse guys seem smart. I hope you're not afraid of long posts, because this is one.

    I'm new here, but this is a better introduction than I could ever post in the "introduce yourself" topic. :b

    And hey, if you hate Dimps, I take a pot shot at them quite a ways down. I'm a fan of Dimps, though, so I try not to dwell on that for too long.

    The basis of this theory is that there are two fundamental types of zones in Sonic 1: fast zones and slow zones. Scrap Brain Zone, as I'll cover later, is a mix of the two.

    Marble Zone and Labyrinth Zone are the two slowest zones in Sonic the Hedgehog; Sonic can rarely reach his top speed in these zones. On the other hand, Green Hill Zone, Spring Yard Zone, and Star Light Zone are fast zones where Sonic can move faster.

    Look at it this way:
    Green Hill Zone (fast)
    Marble Zone (slow)
    Spring Yard Zone (fast)
    Labyrinth Zone (slow)
    Star Light Zone (fast)

    This is pretty neat, isn't it? It goes back and forth—fast, slow, fast, slow, fast. Think about it, then... the player is constantly going back and forth between styles.

    What does this mean for gameplay? Well, it means that Sonic 1's gameplay is developed through the tension between fast and slow gameplay. Sonic goes back and forth, from fast to slow to fast; this allows the two gameplay styles to develop alongside each other. Marble (slow) benefits from the developments of Green Hill (fast), and Spring Yard benefits from the developments of both Green Hill (fast) and Marble (slow); so on and so forth.

    Green Hill Zone is the simplest zone, so it comes first, before any slow elements have been introduced.

    The Spring Yard Zone is the slowest of the fast zones, often requiring Sonic to navigate bumpers or wait for moving platforms. This is because it comes between the two slow zones; the player has just left Marble and is just about to enter Labyrinth.

    The notion of context is very important here. You understand something based on what comes before and what comes after. Spring Yard is in the context of two slow zones, one before and one after.

    The Star Light Zone is the most dangerous of the fast zones, so it comes fifth. Sonic has finally left the game's slowest zone, the Labyrinth Zone, and as a result is rarely held back in his speed—he's broken free and now nothing can hold him back. However, danger is unrelenting as Sonic approaches Robotnik's lair, meaning this zone is equal parts speed and difficulty.

    The Labyrinth Zone is the climax of this five zone sequence. (It's no coincidence that the final act of the game is styled after Labyrinth Zone.) Underwater, Sonic is slower than at any other point in the game. Danger is also prominent, since spikes are frequent, enemies are dangerous, and Sonic is in constant risk of drowning. After this, Sonic is free to move as fast as he likes in the falling action of the Star Light Zone. When in the Star Light Zone, I like to picture Sonic running down the right side of Freytag's pyramid.

    One thing to note here is that all the outside zones are fast and all the inside zones are slow. Heck, the outside portions of Marble are fast, and the inside portions of Spring Yard are slow.

    Think about Scrap Brain in that light. Sonic is outside in act 1, inside in act 2, and in Scrap Brain's depths in act 3. This matches what we experience, right? The zone starts out with fast gameplay, but as Sonic moves farther inside, he is slowed further and further. Unless you take the godsend of a shortcut, act 3 is perhaps the most sluggish act of the game.

    That's, like, the tip of the iceberg.

    As it is, fast and slow zones have arbitrary definitions. Sure, a zone may feel fast for you, but it may feel slow to others. Can we have an objective definition so as to clear up any confusion?

    The answer, I believe, can be found in alternate paths.

    In Sonic 1, fast zones have many paths—often three or more. Slow zones have almost no alternate paths.

    However, Marble Zone act 3 contains an alternate path right at the beginning. Why wouldn't that be considered a fast zone?

    Okay, fine, then; the answer lies with how paths are used.

    Here's an example from Green Hill Zone act 3:

    Boxed in red is an easygoing middle path. You'll notice it has no enemies, no spikes, no gaps to jump—just a flat plain ripe for running.

    Boxed in yellow is a difficult high path. There are many gaps in the floating platforms here. However, should the player fall, there is a middle path below to catch them—there's a challenge, but there are no negative repercussions.

    Boxed in blue is a difficult low path. There are spikes and enemies all over, and even a bottomless pit. This is a challenging platform segment, just like the high path. However, if the player falls from this path, it means certain death.

    Fast zones are fast, then, because there is a constant tension toward a safe middle path. A high path provides challenge and is likely to drop a player off on the middle path. And a low path threatens the player with death, so the player wants to go back to the middle path ASAP.

    Middle paths are safe and flat, allowing the player to speed through. And high paths have low risk, so the player can take them casually. If the player runs off a cliff on a high path, it's no big deal; they'll just fall on the middle path. Things only get slow when on a bottom path, and it's at those times that the player aches to reach the middle path again.

    So, not only do fast zones have multiple paths, but also, those paths interact in a meaningful way. The middle path serves a purpose to both the high path and low path. When fast zones have more or less than three paths, interactions get more complex and interesting.

    Note that this is in clear contrast with the Dimps school of design. People often complain that bottomless pits come out of nowhere in Dimps games. Well, Sonic 1 always makes players highly aware that they're on the bottom path and that they are at risk of death. The player knows to take platforming slowly and seriously on Sonic 1's bottom paths. At the same time, the player can feel safe on high and middle paths; there's no immediate risk of death. A player may fall from the middle path to the low path, but rarely from the middle path to immediate death.

    From this, there are two important differences to note in slow zones.

    Slow zones have no bottomless pits. Note also that Spring Yard Zone only has one bottomless pit—at the end of act 3. I'd still call it a fast zone, but it sure shares a lot in common with slow zones.

    Slow zones may have multiple paths, but they don't interact.

    Take a look at the two paths at the beginning of Marble Zone act 3. They meet at two locations: when they start, and when they end. There's no meeting point between. However, in the image of Green Hill act 3 above, the player could fall from the high path to the middle path at any time.

    This makes sense, right? Slow zones tend to have small, tight corridors for Sonic to move through. Fast zones are characterized by obstacles Sonic can jump over or through; slow zones are characterized by obstacles Sonic must wait behind. For example, in Labyrinth, he is always forced to wait for a bubble to spawn from an air pocket. There's tons of other examples, too. Just off the top of my head, in Marble Zone, there's the chained platforms that fall from the ceiling. He's got to wait for them to drop before he can move on.

    So, in that light, it makes sense that alternate paths in slow zones wouldn't meet at any points between the start and end. Movement is constricted in these zones, and freedom of movement is at a minimum.

    That's all I've got for now, though. Is what I'm saying old news? Does it make any sense? I'd love to hear any feedback youse guys have. The fewer insults, the better. ;)
  2. Jaseman


    The programmer has a nap! Hold out! Programmer! Member
    That's very well thought out, and I never would've thought about that! However, why would SEGA of America drop that steady balance in Sonic 2?

    The whole slow/fast thing and the bottomless pits things all make sense now. How long did it take you to come up with that theory?

    I think this lack of balance is one of the things that makes Sonic 4 feel off; there's no balance at all, just speed.

    I hope you get approved and become a full member :)
  3. Aerosol


    Not here. Moderator
    Not where I want to be.
    Sonic (?): Coming summer of 2055...?
    I always thought this was somewhat common knowledge. Nice write-up, though.
  4. Endri


    Officer I don't have my drivers license with me. C Tech Member
    As far as I know, only the zones patterns are common knowledge, like, fast-slow-fast-slow.

    Good job on your analysis. It was certainly a very interesting reading. It shed me some light on how to proceed with level designing in Sonic games, even though I'm not very fond of Sonic 1's approach. I preffer the Sonic 2 structure, and, ultimately, the Sonic 3 and Knuckles one. You basically did a entire evaluation of the game's level desing just like Dude did, except he went as far as analysing the purpose of each slope in a zone, every zones, and the importance of the curves, object and enemies placement for added gameplay experience.

    As far as the level patterns and orders are concerned, while the indicated patterns do exist, it has long been stabilished that they are nothing more than just mere coincidence, since the actuall level order of the game was completly different. The level order was changed due to the difficulty curve, and we, in the proccess, ended up with this nice pattern. I belive it was not the intention of the developers. It just-so-happened.
  5. DigitalDuck


    Arriving four years late. Member
    Lincs, UK
    TurBoa, S1RL
    Although I think S3K's level order and structure is (almost) perfect, I actually detest the Sonic 2 structure.

    Firstly, the levels themselves. Emerald Hill is a fairly linear (as in, only a few branching paths, and they all head right) speed level. Followed by Chemical Plant, which is another speed level, albeit less linear, and with slower sections. Followed by Aquatic Ruin, which, for the most part, is another speed level, but less linear again, and with more slower sections. And so on.

    Basically, what Sonic 2 does is give you speed to begin with, and then slowly take that away as the game progresses. I don't like that. It makes it feel as though the game is just getting more and more tedious to play through, while getting less and less reward for playing.

    Secondly, the level themes. Hey! I'm in the grassy outdoors... and now I'm in a chemical plant... outside again... casino... outside again... in a cave... oil ocean... factory... there's no coherence. Sonic 1 and S3K gave you some kind of progression. Sonic 1 started natural, and then became more and more mechanical as you progressed. S3K does a similar thing to Sonic 2, but applies some coherence through the use of cutscenes.
  6. MegaDash


    Pinpricks Member
    It's very good food for thought; a nice top-down analysis of the level design. I wouldn't mind reading what you have to say about the sequels, if you have anything more to say of them. Endri too.

    That's kinda the main line of contrast between how DIMPs designs Sonic levels and how Sonic Team used to design them, other than the use of object placement, automated acceleration mechanisms, and slopes: most of the emphasis in a DIMPs-designed 2D Sonic game is gaining speed and maintaining it indefinitely. There are often times when you simply can't go back to an earlier location in an act unless you go through a lot of effort manipulating up-slopes and spindashing. The games mostly wanted you to just keep going, and the Special Stages were often so far out of the way of that goal that you seldom ever even get the Emeralds by the time you beat the game. It got easier with the Rush games, and there was some improvement to that in Advance 3, but for the most part DIMPs level design is somewhat haphazard and fragmented in construction. A lot of floating platforms and pieces of terrain, a lot of bottomless pits, and too many precarious leaps of faith.
  7. Ell678


    Am I Annoying You? Member
    Barrow, England
    Sonic Incursion
    I love Sonic 2's level design more than in S3K. In S3K, I always find myself taking the same route over and over again, even when I try not to, but in Sonic 2, I take a different route everytime. I love the idea of 'upper, middle, lower' route and the clarity of this idea in practice, and sometimes mix in a couple of sub levels, if only partially.

    An interesting read anyway!
  8. Quarterman


    Just another day in paradise. Member
    A most interesting analysis. I learned a thing or two from that. I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on the sequels.
  9. EDIT: ogod this post is long.

    Wow, I wasn't expecting such an overwhelmingly positive response. 8) Thanks all.

    This reply was so satisfying to read. I've spent time amongst a fair number of fandoms, but none of them—Metroid fandom aside—have been like, "Level design analysis? Yeah, this is a thing we've been doing."

    On that note: Endri, where could I find Dude's level design analyses? I've looked around but I can't spot it. (On a related note, block-by-block analysis of stage design is something I've been doing with Super Mario World, a game I find much easier to understand. Sonic's multiple paths throw me for a loop.)


    To be honest, I just played Sonic 1 one day and noticed that I didn't like every other zone. :b It wasn't hard to make the jump from "zone I don't like" to "slow zone," and from there the observations snowballed.

    Because of my previous sentence—I don't like Marble Zone and Labyrinth Zone, I want to play more zones like Green Hill and Star Light. That's essentially what Sonic 2 is. Though, it should be noted, Sonic 2 definitely doesn't follow the high-middle-low path theory here. All of the paths are pretty flat and dangerless in Sonic 2.

    That's fair—even the level select screen suggests as much.

    However, I'm a reader response theory kinda guy. That is to say, I find that the developers' intention doesn't matter so much as the player's response. They're both valid lines of inquiry, but I'll always have a bias for reader response.

    This is something I've felt, too, but I've never fully realized the idea. However, Sonic 2 is probably my favorite Sonic game—even with the super long Metropolis Zone, I don't think the gameplay becomes too slow or tedious. Metropolis will give you some difficult, precise platforming (by Sonic 2 standards, anyways), but it's never so slow as Marble or Labyrinth. Also, Wing Fortress strikes me as a great climax of the game's platforming—a stage that looks and feels hard, but is never actually all that difficult.

    Funny you should say that. I spent a year banging my head on Sonic 2, hoping to crack open its level design with sheer willpower. I'm not a fan of Sonic 1, but I wasn't getting anywhere with Sonic 2, so I figured, what the hey, let's see what happens. Sonic 1 is a much more obvious and blatant game than Sonic 2.

    Sonic 1 has slow zones, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles (which I'm just going to call Sonic 3 because I hate typing the ampersand) has lots of gimmicks, but Sonic 2—from what I can tell—doesn't have any big changes between levels. I tend to like games like Sonic 2, since (in a best-case scenario) it shows that the developers were being really subtle and masterful with their level design. For example, Super Mario World isn't as memorable as Super Mario Bros. 3, but that's part of what makes it better—Super Mario World explores its game mechanics in a deeper, subtler way.
  10. JaxTH


    Pudding Deity Oldbie
    Los Angeles
    Jack shit.
    Super Mario World doesn't have any alternate paths (I'm not counting ways to get into secrets) unless you are talking Ghost Houses (and some castles I guess).
  11. MegaDash


    Pinpricks Member
    Hmm, yeah. I grew up with Super Mario World instead of Super Mario Bros 3, and I ended up loving the former. It was a lot of fun, and there were some clever shortcuts through continents that nowadays I've yet to recreate, like unlocking green blocks and stuff. As for Sonic, Sonic 2 is a thrill ride through and through, and especially in the case of the half-pipe special stages, it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Sonic 1 & 3 were a little more easygoing in comparison. They seem to be more friendly with exploring for things like Special Rings, 1ups, and the power shields. While I think I prefer the extended adventure of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, that's not to say that a game like Sonic 2, had it been as long or longer than the former, would probably have been the much better game. It was most skillfully made.

    Now that we're on the subject, what do you think of Sonic CD? It was one of the first Sonic games I'd ever played, and I enjoyed the Metroidvania-esque emphasis on exploration and platforming while using time travel as a meaningful application for Sonic's speed.
  12. Mr Lange

    Mr Lange

    A wise guy eh. I know how to DEAL with wise guys. Member
    The Land of Waldos
    Sonic Utopia, Sonic Overture
    I loved reading this thread. Very awesome theory breakdown.
    Now this is what I call a disassembly.
  13. MarkoMan


    In memory of Dreds... Member
    Queens, NY
    Sonic 2 Turbo
    So being outside in a grassy field to a Marble Ruins to a city to a random Labyrinth is more coherent to you?

    I can agree about Sonic 2's speed slowly diminishing though.
  14. I always just assumed in Sonic 2 that the two were searching through the likely areas on the island that Eggman would be hiding out. Though I can agree about it getting more tedious, but only for Metropolis Zone, and that probably has something to do with the sheer length and dick badniks it has. Thing about Sonic 2 is it most of it's levels have heavy features of both gameplay styles. ARZ can be fast in those loopy areas on the land, but below water is a lot slower.
  15. I recently spoke with a friend about this thread (I think he's registered here, but not validated?), and he had an interesting point:
    The multiple paths in Sonic 3 tend to rely on different characters. Of course, it's easy for Tails to explore upward while Sonic takes the relatively flat path below. For Knuckles, however, there are breakable walls that allow him to go deeper. Angel Island act 2 and Launch Base act 2 are perfect examples.

    The thing is, though, those bottom paths are completely cut off to Sonic; they don't function in quite the same way as low paths in Sonic 1 or 2.

    That's exactly why I'm studying it. :) I find Super Mario World much easier to understand because it's all one straight shot to the end. You might think that secret exits present alternate routes, but no, it's really just "go in this pipe and you're at the secret exit immediately." With Super Mario World, it's easy to get down to details and say, "why is this enemy here? why is this platform here?"

    It's an interesting concept, right? I really don't care for the execution, though. For one, after three playthroughs over the years, I still have trouble planning out a time warp—unless I have two springs facing each other, I'm likely to hit an enemy or a wall and my FUTURE or PAST thingy is gone.

    I'm also not entirely sure why the future exists. Are there tons of rings there? Then the future would make sense, since it'd be easier to reach the special stages from there. The past already has a reason for being: the holographic Metal Sonic thingamajig.

    I don't feel comfortable exploring in Sonic games. I'll take alternate paths, sure, but I don't want to have to explore a level Metroid-style; in a Sonic game, it's always easy to go to some place you can't return from. To that end, I hate searching for the holographic Metal Sonics in the past. (that is what they are, right? I'm not mixing them up with some other object?) Sometimes I find it, sometimes I find the end of the act, and then I'm screwed.

    I do like the puzzle presented by the time traveling mechanic. Can you find enough space to build up enough speed to go into a time warp? In practice, though, I think the level design makes it too frustrating.

    Sonic CD is definitely working on a different paradigm than the Genesis trilogy, and I'd love to read some analysis of it. Even if I don't enjoy playing a game, I do enjoy understanding it—case in point, Sonic 1. (Well, no, I enjoy most of Sonic 1... but you get the point.)

    This is something I hadn't noticed, outside of Aquatic Ruin. There is some conspicuously slow platforming in the zones, like in Chemical Plant when you have to jump on those square blocks as the water rises, but typically you can't avoid the slow bits. On the other hand, you can avoid the water in Aquatic Ruin.

    Maybe, then, the zones in Sonic 2 are two-fold: fast zones with aspects of slow zones? And as the game progresses, the slow aspects play larger and larger roles in the zones, slowing them down?
  16. MarkoMan


    In memory of Dreds... Member
    Queens, NY
    Sonic 2 Turbo
    In terms of Sonic 3 & Knuckles, you have to remember that even though Sonic may have not had access to certain paths that Tails and Knuckles had, his paths still had alternate routes. This is probably why the game is so huge (and why debug mode is so much fun when it comes to exploring different paths with different characters, I.e. Knuckles' routes with Sonic)

    In terms of Super Mario World, that game (and 2D Mario games in general, if I'm not mistaken) did exploration a little differently. At first glance, it's always "go from the left to the right" in terms of level completion; there are few, if any, branching paths. However, Super Mario World is filled with tons of little secrets... a pipe that you need a little skill to reach, a secret block that's kinda sorta hinted at that will reveal a vine to climb up and get some goodies, flight that could lead to another area, etc. And that's what made Super Mario World so great, trying to find all the little secrets and one up tricks and everything else that makes Mario Mario.

    As far as Chemical Plant goes, you can definitely avoid the water completely if 1) you take this pretty badass shortcut (I know its TAS, but you don't need tools to make it)or 2) you take this alternate path that no one seems to know about.
  17. Spatula


    too cool for old school Member
    Another thing worth mentioning: compared to other platformers, Sonic games have very few autoscrolling sections. This is a good thing.

    Ideally outside of boss fights, there should be no autoscrolling. The games should be exploratory, and players should be encouraged to go at their own speed.
  18. Tiberious


    Yeah, I'm furry. Got a problem? Oldbie
    I'm gonna take some heat for this, but I kinda think Sonic CD was just a bit too slow. Very rarely did you ever really get any stretches where you can run fast long enough to travel; you instead had to find exploits or planned areas where you just set the controller down until it kicked in. Second, every act until you finally get the special stages completed is the same thing: Hit Past marker, find canned travel point (see first gripe), track down generator, exit.

    Now, I'm not saying it's a bad game... it's certainly better than most of what current Sonic Team has plopped out. I just feel it's undeserving of the title 'Greatest Sonic Game Ever', and that it's a little overhyped.
  19. Brilliant stuff. And I've always said that. Yes I love the speed of Sonic but there's a reason why its called a platform game. Some of the game needs to be puzzle solving. So along with the speed should be things like the ledges in Ice Cap in SADX. Or Team Chaotix's game in Heroes.
  20. Jan Abaza

    Jan Abaza

    But Labyrinth has a ton of alternate paths - there are sinking blocks scattered about which will bring you to its "lower path". Try finding one of those in Scrap Brain act 3 to access the hardest bit in the game. I agree Marble's too one-dimensional though; that's what makes it boring in my opinion...not the fact that it's a "slow level" or anything.

    Indoor bits in Sonic 1 are also a bit harder since you've got ceiling above you for additional nasty objects to be positioned against; that's why they could seem slower by default.

    It's not as much as a different paradigm than taking the existing one to a new level - instead of just grabbing the past sign and going for it, the objective is to use your Sonic 1 skills to think ahead and clear the road of any obstacles, evaluate your path, then go back and pull off the time warp (clear case in point: Wacky Workbench 2).

    Sonic 2 is the real paradigm re-inventer here, what with all its spin shots and speedy bits.
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