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Old 04-25-2015, 08:26 PM
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Part 10: Spring Yard Zone Act 1, Or, One of Those Things That's Hard to Write about before April

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- Kelis and Calvin Harris, Bounce

The strategy guide for Sonic Jam, a compilation of all the main Genesis games for the system, features small commentary blurbs from the developers about each stage. Here's Naoto "Bigisland" Ohshima has to say about Spring Yard Zone:

Quote:
This map was the first one to be drawn and finalized. Wanting to bounce around on the pinball-like bumpers in this stage really can't be helped! Because the star-patterned bumpers make a "Bo-bin!" sound when you bounce on them, in Sonic Team lexicon we call them bobins (laughs).
Spring Yard was the first level to be designed, and it shows. The level feels built out of setpieces used in a possible test level -- the setpieces in the stage don't always flow together well, and a lot of the stage seems to be built around trying to show off progressively more elaborate moving-platform and spring traps. Obstacles tend to work against against Sonic's momentum as much as they do with it, and there are several large U-shaped ramps that seem to exist almost exclusively to test Sonic's rolling momentum. Compared to the thoughtful design of the previous stages which tended to be about specific concepts of how Sonic plays, Spring Yard tends toward synthesis; it's not too hard to push your way through Marble if you're willing to take a few hits, but the hazards of Spring Yard are less telegraphed and require a deeper understanding of Sonic's control in order to get through. While Spring Yard might represent a low point in the game, as it's not willing to fully commit to being focused on speed or proficiency the way most other stages are, that's not to say it's an outright bad level, just one that loves to troll unsuspecting players -- and is greatly outclassed by direct successors in a way the other levels of this game aren't.

That's an inevitable part of Spring Yard's design. While Marble wants to look back at popular NES games for its inspiration, Spring Yard is looking almost entirely forward, for the ideas that will come to define Sonic over the years. While I like Marble Zone a lot and think it's got a lot to say from the standpoints of this analysis, later games tend to copy the purpose of Marble without getting too close to its design. In comparison, the design of Spring Yard is fundamental to what they wanted Sonic to be, though later games have the advantage of hindsight and seeing what worked, and should be improving on the game. Most of Sonic 1's other levels retain their identity even when future games use them as inspiration, but -- if I ever get that far into writing about the other games -- future variants of Spring Yard retain most of its setpieces with less variation and still have more stable controls and fewer cheap hazards. What separates Spring Yard from its descendants tends to be what makes it frustrating to play.

It's like playing the original Metroid: sure, it's still better than a lot of other games, but is obviously dated by the standards of Super Metroid, which takes many of the first game's best ideas and wraps them up in a deeper and more player-friendly package. Going back to it is hard when you have the thought of Super Metroid being right there ready to play instead. Such is the price of innovation.

As always, Zone0 map.

SYZ1 opens with disappointment. There is a platform above Sonic's starting position that is obvious from the map but barely if at all visible ever on a typical playthrough, on which are a 1-up and super sneakers, both very useful power-ups. Since this level is the last one to cover that's part of the demo roll, you'd think that they might use the opportunity to record a playthrough of Sonic rolling off the ramp to reach it. Instead, that hideaway is ignored, and so there's no indication given that it's there; the only reason someone would find it would be from a guide map like this one, or from seemingly random experimentation. We'll get back to this in a little while, since the super sneakers make a significant difference in how to approach the next part of the level.



There's another oddity at the start: unlike previous stages where three rings are placed in easy jump height relative to Sonic at the level start, there are only two rings that Sonic can't reach without jumping from the green box to his right. (It's not obvious from the map, but there's an animated object in the box meant to resemble a flashing light like you'd see from a lighthouse or a police car.) Jumping up there puts Sonic in range of the shots the Crabmeats fire out, meaning taking a hit before getting any rings, which means death. Since it takes a while for them to fire out their shots and GHZ made attacking them before they could do so pretty easy, this might be the first time the player sees these shots. That's probably why there are three of them placed there. It's still pretty easy to get to the rings before the first one does anything. In more careless moments I've lost the foothold on the platform and landed on that first Crabmeat before I could get the rings. Despite being an incredibly simple hazard, there are a lot of ways it can go wrong for Sonic. Intentional design trying to demonstrate that the game is no longer messing around, or an indication of bad scripting? It's hard to make a case for one over the other given the rest of the stage.

I wouldn't be surprised if that's why they placed three of them: a player who's reached this level for the first time may want to approach this section slowly, giving one of the Crabmeats enough time to launch an attack. On the other hand, attacks on the Crabmeats and two approaching Buzzbombers can all be chained together, leading to 2800 easy points for a more advanced player (but there's no direct incentive for getting a high score). After this is the spring that Sonic can use to get up to that hidden platform, or just go right to the next part of the level.



This next segment, with bumpers, springs, and ramps, is about as close to a thesis statement for this stage as we could get: the ramps, bumpers, and springs all look a lot like a pachinko table, and it's impossible to get all the rings in this segment without expertly controlling Sonic's momentum off the bumpers. Unlike a pachinko table, though, Sonic has nearly full control in the air and can't control how hard the springs launch him; pachinko machines almost never offer control to the player beyond the ability to control a plunger or level that launches the pachinko balls. Since pachinko is a fast-moving game (launching many small balls over the course of a period of time in hopes of hitting a jackpot) and typically designed for gambling, it doesn't translate well into video game mechanics well; pachinko games rarely leave Japan because aside from the cultural cachet that the game has there, there's little going for it. Pachinko is a game of luck and grinding, which doesn't translate well to single-person home entertainment. Sonic, meanwhile, can and does turn these pachinko mechanics into a game mostly of skill. Fine control is required to maneuver around the bumpers, but it's easy to predict where Sonic will go when he hits a spring or a bumper.

The launching springs there provide a good point of comparison between the relative strength of the yellow and red springs. Yellow springs provide a speed boost that is easy to control and doesn't move Sonic much past the height of the screen, but the red spring can push Sonic over the top of the stage. The only thing keeping Sonic from flying away after hitting the red spring is a bumper at the top of the loop; without it, Sonic would fly past the top of the screen.

In fact, if you've kept the super sneakers to this point, holding right gives Sonic enough speed to pass that red spring and soar to the top of the level, landing at super-ring and shield power ups on the other side of a wall. This skips a particularly tedious moving platform sequence and is probably the reason the power-up was part of the level in the first place. This doesn't seem to be an accident but an intentional part of the level design, or at least one that the designers were aware of when it came time to develop sequels -- to the point where, yes, in Sonic CD there are multiple parts of the game where the fastest way to get past some levels is to cruise over top of them much like this.

You don't want to hold right too much, though -- if you keep it held down, Sonic will almost certainly either go completely past the ledge with those two power-ups and either fall down to the bottom of the level or hit one of the rotating spike-balls and get knocked back down anyway, but without any rings. Like with Green Hill Zone, the upper routes of the game are generally less hazardous though not necessarily always faster. With most of Spring Yard, though, the lower route carries with it none of the advantages that the lower routes in GHZ did. There aren't any power-ups tucked away behind hidden walls, and only a few rings to collect despite many more ways to lose them. Not to mention the fact that the lower route requires you to take a ride on another moving platform sequence to get to the end of the level.



These platforms are a real pain. They're even slower than the block rides in Marble Zone, there isn't usually an obvious way to skip them (indeed, in this case the only way to avoid them -- using the super sneakers -- was hidden so well that you'd never find them unless you thought to look there beforehand), and it's possible for Sonic to get crushed between them if he isn't careful. These show up in columns of 3 at a time, where the middle block moves in one direction and then back to its starting position while the side blocks move in the opposite direction. This makes it possible to only move from one row of blocks to another in a single cycle, which is why it takes so long. They feel even slower than they actually are, too, since up until now Sonic's movement through each level has been almost entirely horizontal. This is the first segment of the game where Sonic's movement through it is almost entirely horizontal, and so the usual indicator of level progress isn't changing.

Crueler still are the buzzbombers flying overhead, firing missles into the tiny boxes of space Sonic has to work with. It's damn near impossible to avoid taking a hit here.

This bore of a gimmick leads to a slope that's excellent for rolling on. Hitting the back-facing spring at the end of it knocks Sonic into a new enemy that thankfully doesn't show up in any other levels, because it's quite a pain to deal with. It's an interesting pain, unlike those platforms, but it's still a pain.



This armadillo bot is simply named Roller, and will be the first of many robots that imitate Sonic's behavior and appearance. These robots are some of the toughest that Robotnik's designed, and in almost all other cases they appear very near the end of the game, as bosses. But here in Spring Yard Zone, right in the middle of the game, they just roll through the stage as they please, almost certainly going to win against Sonic in a battle of rolling. They roll up next to Sonic, uncurl, and then curl up again and roll away. After they curl up, they are completely invulnerable; any touch to Sonic, even if he's rolling, is fatal, and they move erratically, rolling away and then jumping, making them difficult to dodge. Plus, if they're not taken out the first time, they have a tendency to show up again right by where they landed before if Sonic doesn't keep moving forward. They're a pain.

The one saving grace is that when they roll in, they're still able to be hit, so Sonic's roll backward from the spring takes out the first one. That spring isn't accidental; it's another instance where the game seems to be using sloped ground (with its invitation to roll) and Sonic's mostly-fixed rolling behavior as a way to teach something without completely locking Sonic's control, or at least giving the option to cede it gracefully. Keeping in mind that Sonic's only way to gain much speed in this game (aside from hitting one of the rare power-ups) is to roll, it's not too far off from . Since effectively all the later games give Sonic a chance to gain speed like this rolling but from a standstill, these opportunities to teach aren't as strict, because slopes wind up being less important to the idea of going fast. As a result, even if I think this level is a pain, I still strongly advise people who haven't played a Sonic game to start with this game first. The game's rough around the edges (and just looking at this stage's design so far I've already complained about the lack of indication of the hidden platform at the start, the boring vertically-moving platforms, and these roller enemies, so maybe "rough around the edges" is being generous for this stage so far), but because of the way it limits Sonic's speed and takes care to mete out places to encourage rolling, it's also a lot clearer of how it expects to be played.

Meanwhile, the first game in the series that I'd played was Sonic 2, and in the process of making this guide have had to re-learn the association between slopes and rolling, just because of how easy it is to get into a speedy rolling state in that game, just about anywhere. It's only in hitting that backward spring just now, as I'm writing this, that I learned that an early hit on a roller can take it out before it uncurls. The design of the stage is slipshod, but it's not thoughtless -- though it definitely makes less sense if your instincts came from a later game with more complex move sets.



Right after that is a simple but interesting little reflex challenge. There's a stationary platform and a switch. Hitting the switch does nothing, or so it seems for about a second. The only other thing on screen that can be affected by the switch, the platform, then begins to rise. It's the only way back up to the top section of the stage for someone who wouldn't know about the super sneakers -- and the rest of the bottom path is very obviously a penalty route, with lots of spikey obstacles to avoid and only a few rings to collect. There's also another moving block sequence at the end of that route. Unlike with any of the times in Green Hill Zone, there are no special power-ups or especially interesting secrets.



These staircase groupings shown in these screenshots both look cool in motion and are probably the most mechanically interesting obstacle we've seen so far. Except for the block in the middle of the set, each one moves left and right together, with the blocks at the top and bottom moving out farther in the same period of time than the ones nearer to the middle (in more mathematical terms, each block has the same period, but the amplitude of the oscillation is proportional to the distance from the center). Traversing them requires Sonic to get to the top before the blocks start moving in the opposite direction, taking away a foothold and sending Sonic back down to the bottom of the stage, but since there's nothing blocking Sonic once he gets to the top, he can stay there safely and easily move from one set of these platforms to another. Unlike the other moving blocks, which were a matter of waiting, these actually require active planning and control of Sonic to get across, which is why I like them much more.

Variants on these sorts of blocks show up in all the other Sonic games on the system, but usually with slightly more elaborate behavior, another example of an idea in this game that's not terrible on its own, but obviously outclassed by later entries in the series. Unlike most of the rest of the stage so far, they're also not very exclusive to Sonic or his abilities; one contemporary precedent would be the Yoshi's Island 3 stage from Super Mario World.



The previously mentioned punishment route at the bottom of the stage starts off with another slope, but one that's not conducive to rolling. The first spike ball is visible from the start of the ramp, so the idea that you for once shouldn't roll down the slope is telegraphed well in advance, though there'd be no reason not to if the second spike ball wasn't there; it's telegraphed in advance, and good jumping can get Sonic over it, but it's also the only thing that makes rolling down it unsafe -- there's even another lamp at the end of the slope to stop Sonic after rolling downward. That said, unless your timing is impeccable, jumping over the spikeballs is the only way to avoid taking a hit while rolling, so there isn't a lot of room to speed up. The ramp only seems to be there in order to make room for this path at the bottom of the stage, since the upper route has a large pit at the end of it that drops to about the same height as the entrance to this section.



After that is a small segment where the ceiling narrows, and a spikeball chain rotates around a platform that Sonic must jump across. There's not a lot of space to work in, and the platform in the center that the spikeball rotates is too tall for Sonic to just run across. Because of the rotating chain and the narrow space, there isn't must time or room to move back through once entering this area, so while those rings at the top are tempting, it's better to try to push through the segment without getting hit, which requires jumping over the block in the middle -- and the low ceiling prevents Sonic from moving forward during the jump. It's cramped and narrow and prevents Sonic from approaching or exiting it too quickly. Sonic can't get up to speed here, so in a situation like the picture above, it would be nearly impossible to avoid taking a hit from the spikeballs.

This challenge would be excellent if it wasn't so easily avoidable. Sonic can't go barrelling right into it at high speed so there's time to wait and observe, and good timing and aerial control are necessary to get to the other side without taking a hit, but it's also a trap that can be gotten out of in a single jump while grabbing all the rings. It's been reused, and of all the gimmicks in this stage that have been, it's also the one that was copied while making the fewest changes, and for good reason. Usually, though, if a variant on this setpiece isn't skippable, it's done in such a way that there's a lot more room to maneuver in, or at least a way to maintain momentum through. Despite being a zone that is all about playing to Sonic's character-defining abilities, it's still a pretty slow stage in the series as a whole.

After this is another narrow passage with more moving spikeballs blocking the entrance and exit; easily avoided but requiring Sonic to move slowly through the section, and another one of these rotating spikeball traps. Since there's no room to move quickly through this segment, it definitely feels punishing. It's possible to get through the traps in Marble Zone without stopping too much, but here the lack of space requires Sonic to go slowly to avoid getting hit; there is no way to cruise quickly without stopping other than to avoid the route entirely.



So the end of the segment is still pretty slow. It's the vertical boxes again, bringing Sonic back to the faster path that I've mostly skipped over so far. There's a hidden passage on the right side here; holding right when trying to jump onto the spring can get Sonic into the passage at the height of his jump, so it's the sort of secret passage that's not visually indicated but easy to stumble into through the normal gameplay mechanics. The problem is there really isn't much to say about the passage itself here. There are only 10 loose rings, which is pretty boring compared to the expectation from previous stages, where hidden passages had 1-ups or multiple super ring power ups.

On the other hand, I've been pointing out segments of the game that seem like they could be locations for chaos emeralds. This is definitely a plausible place for one, since it's at the end of a tricky segment that otherwise provides no real material benefit to the player; if this path was necessary for the good ending, it would justify taking this path. Once again, the fact that the path isn't very interesting on its own (as with the floating platforms at the top of GHZ1), it's hard to argue that moving the emeralds to the secret zones was a bad idea.



The upper route is a lot simpler. Rings lead the player across a set of elevated platforms, a couple of which are slanted. There are some crabmeats below these platforms, but otherwise this area is pretty hazard-free. It spans almost the length of the lower section, and due to the lack of hazards is much faster to go across. However, falling off these platforms requires backtracking to a vertical yellow spring; it is simple and forgiving, but requires precision to succeed with. If you fall off, the slope upware with a red spring at the end makes it impossible to get back up, and the upward-sloping platform is at a grade high enough that Sonic can only barely gain momentum to move up it if he tries to jump to it from the bottom -- only the end of the platform is within Sonic's jump range, making falling off likely. There are a few crabmeats below these platforms, but, especially with the momentum from the red spring, it's easy to roll into all of them. There's little to worry about up here.

Past this is the first of 3 large pits in the level, each of which has multiple red springs at the bottom. There's another sliding-staircase platform set above the pit; getting across this leads to the other side without having to fall into it, which is definitely an easier path, but it's worth falling into for another invincibility power up. It's advisable to jump into the pit (which needs to be done to get past the lantern right in front of it) and keep the jump button held down, since landing on the power-up while holding it will give Sonic enough upward momentum to get across the pit without needing to hit a spring. Of course, the springs can get Sonic back up to the top without much issue, so there's no significant penalty for missing the jump.



Here the two paths meet up again. Once again, there's a red spring at the top of the curve, ready to send Sonic back the way he came if he doesn't stop short, a platform in his reach, and a new enemy. Getting up to the top of this section requires Sonic to jump onto the platform as shown, and then above the spring here. It's not a particularly significant challenge to someone who's gotten this far (especially in context of the running speed cap, as I've discussed in GHZ2), but it does force Sonic to slow down enough to check out the badnik here, a hermit crab robot known as, appropriately enough, Spikes. Those spikes are not just for show; the robot here is deadly from the top, making it impossible to safely jump on it Mario-style (at least not without this invincibility). The solution for how to beat this guy is pretty clear, especially in the context of how to get past most of the obstacles in this stage -- roll into it!



After this is more rolling. Two half-pipes with single fast-moving spikeballs show up, and while the safer option is to jump past the spikeball and land on the platform in the middle, it's easier (and more fun!) to roll through the half-pipe. Though the spikeballs are fast, Sonic is even faster, and so rolling through here is safe enough with good timing.

After the second half-pipe is another spring pit, with crabmeats on the other side. Since Sonic is vulnerable when springing up, it's important to take care here, but the badniks are more deadly for their projectiles rather than from a direct hit, since they stay far enough away from the edge for Sonic to land on it. There's another pit on the opposite side, though, where that isn't the case.



The Spike enemies here do go all the way to the edge of the platform. Trying to get to the other side on the top isn't advised, since it's very easy to spring right up into them and take a hit. Furthermore, there's yet another series of those slow vertical boxes past them. This is a very cheap trap because at this point there's no convenient way to regain most of the rings you've lost. The springs in the pit make trying to re-grab the ones you just lost difficult, and there aren't a lot of rings lying around from earlier for you to grab to make up for these. It's effectively a blind trap if you go down into the pit, though it can be cleared with enough speed from the ledge on the other side, though that still carries the risk of hitting one of the badniks from the top, which is still damaging!



Falling into the middle of the pit is safe, and there's a super ring power-up for the taking there, and safe ground below it. From there, jumping over the springs gets Sonic to an unmissable switch that raises a block on the other side. The spring there can boost Sonic forward, to what is the end of the level. Definitely the better option of the two paths from that spot.

That's Spring Yard 1. It's wildly inconsistent, and while it stresses use of the abilities that make Sonic unique -- in particular, his ability to roll into a ball -- it stays away from the other signature feature that defines most of the Sonic series, its speed. It's not without clever combination of simpler elements like the platforms and springs, but it has lots of cheap hits and less room to explore or experiment than the previous stages. If there's one reason this stage shows its age more than the rest of the game, it's that: the design team had a lot of freedom to experiment with structures, but a player has only so much they can do at any point without winding up taking an badly-communicated hit. Since there are two special stages yet to be visited by even a skilled player, taking damage here only tends to compound that frustration; especially since 2 of the 4 levels with a special stage chance outside of this zone are even more difficult than this one.

Still, there's plenty to talk about with this stage, and it contrasts well with Marble. While the old canard that a delayed game is eventually good and a rushed game is terrible forever has its merits, there is definitely a corollary here: a finalized design is one that gets built, rather than lost in development for decades and possibly turned into vaporware. While I opened with the commentary on this stage from the Sonic Jam strategy guide, let's compare that to what Yuji Naka had to say about Green Hill Zone in the same book:

Quote:
This is the stage that took the designers the longest to get properly arranged, and from the beginning of development the graphics were probably redone 4 or five times. The art and maps for this zone alone took half a year to produce! At the time, we were aware of computer graphics, but we tried to get that look by hand (laugh)
The added development time in Green Hill Zone is quite obvious. Each of the stages has a very clearly-defined concept, and have put a lot more thought into introducing what Sonic is to an inexperienced player. Spring Yard explores what Sonic can be, but leaves it up to the player to figure out what that actually is. The design team hadn't thought out everything about Sonic yet, and it shows, but it gave them room to define enough ideas to explore both in the rest of this game, and also, even more so, in the sequels.

Last edited by muteKi; 01-04-2016 at 03:23 PM.
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Old 07-16-2015, 01:37 AM
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Part 11: Spring Yard Zone Act 2, Or, Round Things In Your Face and You Get Sprung

Bump Bump Bump
The way you throwing that thing at me (uh-huh)
I can take it
- B2K and P. Diddy, "Bump, Bump, Bump"

Spring Yard Zone Act 2 is an astoundingly silly stage. It is, perhaps, a little more interesting than the preceding act, though I struggle to find myself having anything nicer to say beyond that, and my review of that act was fairly negative, so this position isn't one that says very much. If anything, though, the elements of act 1 that made that level cheap have been amplified here, to the point that very little in this stage actually seems to work. The strange gimmicks in Act 1 that broke with the established strucure of the previous levels felt like regions for testing various enemy and ; most of this stage's setpieces feel built out of that same sort of testing environment as the spring pits and emergent platform behavior of the previous act. Furthermore, most of the form of this stage is poorly communicated, hard to understand without prior familiarity or a visual guide like the Zone 0 map.

Speaking of which, that's here.

Before I excoriate this level for being filled with bad (or, at the least, prematurely-conceived) ideas and haphazard design, I should discuss the things about this stage that I like, or at least Spring Yard in general. Aside from having bits that show up again in later games, there's nothing in this level that feels stand-out on its own or particularly good, so they describe Spring Yard Zone as a whole and not any individual act. It also provides me with a good opportunity to discuss the aesthetics of the stage, since that's where the stage excels.

The visual design of the stage is wonderful. The colors of the stage continue the focus on secondary colors that we've seen in previous stages. This time the primary color for the foreground is a reddish-orange with a complementary teal for highlights. The background consists of green grass with relatively high pixel details, as well as black buildings and purple mountains with lower details conveying a greater distance away from the player than the grass detail; parallax scrolling effects found in the Japanese version of this game augment the distance effect. I particularly appreciate that the gradient effect on the mountains and clouds in the stage, which go from purple to fade into a yellowish color by way of orange; this gradient is more evocative of a sunset than a straight fade-out from purple to white would be and more visually appealing as a result. Plus, it gives us a good location in space and time for this level -- the purple mountains in the background seem reminiscent of those in Marble Zone, as though we had tunneled through the ruins to reach the other sides, and the sunset conveys the time passing since we first started traveling through the game. It is subtle, especially since the game doesn't actively portray time and location passing between levels (no cutscenes or map screens), but a nice touch worth noting.



It's also worth noting that the appearance of the zone was nowhere near as pleasing in pre-release art. It is eye-searing and much harder to read the background detail of. While the stripes across the background call to mind lit floors of downtown skyscrapers after-hours, they're much bolder and tend toward primary colors which clash against Sonic and read as much brighter than the final level's color choices. Text in the foreground is hard to read over the gradient boxes they sit on, and the font's lines are so thin that a typical RF output probably wouldn't display it cleanly at all. The "UP" "ON" "CPU" text from the final version is blocky and simplistic, but it is also very easy to read and not obstructed by any gradients.

Another thing I like about the stage's art is that it really conveys to me the feeling of an industrial park late in the evening. Typically these sorts of regions are made of tall buildings that have lots of eye-grabbing landscaping features. Since most cities in games tend to be more toward metropolitan sections (much in the way that Gotham and Metropolis are the two most notable comic book cities, to say nothing of how Spider-Man lives in New York), it's an unusual and interesting change. Still, Eggman is certainly a captain of industry and so it stands to reason that the recently-constructed parks here are his doing, and his interest in machines and energy leads to a city whose outskirts stay away from a suburban aesthetic. Thus we get our first signs of coming close to where Eggman is, coming ever closer to the part of the game world where he resides, preparing to kick him out and liberate the planet from his (literally) polluting influence. Given how well the final layout of the game fits together visually, hinting at details of the layout of the world, it's a wonder they had ever considered having it be any other way, but then, as I just noted, the visual design of this stage took a few revisions to pin down.

As with the stage itself focusing on more modern game design mechanics, the music has some particularly cutting-edge elements as well, though it's about as slow as the pace of the stage itself is. Considering that Masato Nakamura has mentioned having only simple concept art or stage design to work with when designing the soundtracks to some of the game, it's a wonder that some of the music fits the pace of the stages as well as it does. Then again, since SYZ was the first to be finalized, it's not out of the question that Nakamura had enough of the stage to play through to understand what the pace of this zone would be like.



I mentioned that the sound in the music Spring Yard is pretty modern, and there's a definite New Jack Swing influence here, which had only been popular for a couple years before showing up in a game like this. I've seen people compare it to Bobby Brown's Every Little Step, which had peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 in 1989. The verse of the song has a very striking similarity to it, and this genre's identity had only really been pinned down since 1988, though musicians like Janet Jackson in particular had been working in it as early as 1986. The synthesized (and heavy) percussion, funk rhythms and instrumentation (in particular, aggressive basslines) and R&B vocal styling that define the genre all show up in this song.

The song has an A-B structure that is, like the level design, something the series has built itself around for years afterward. This structure dates back at least to as early as Herbie Hancock, and other examples of songs in the series with this structure hew to Herbie Hancock's work even more strongly than this tune. It's typified with an a structure or verse that takes its notes from funk and blues structures -- for example, the bass fills at the end of each phrase in this section of the song are very clearly funk-inspired, going a little outside of the key of the song to move toward the root of each of the upcoming phrase, though funk basslines tend toward chromatic movement which this song doesn't have as much. There's a hornlike instrument in the background that keeps holding onto tones, even if they clash a little with the chord structure of the song (which can sound a little dissonant to the uninitiated). This portion of the song tends to be a little less hummable, though it's an oddity that makes it ear-catching.

The B section contrasts with this, being more melodic, in a major key. The melody of the song, placed on the bell instrument, is much more hummable, staying on notes in the scale, those notes also tending to be a lot closer to each other; along with the A-section being more chromatic and obviously funk-inspired, the more melodic B-section is an equally important component in the typical Sonic song, and I can point at examples of songs with a very similar structure in just about every Sonic game through the Dreamcast. It's a formula that works very well, and just about any song you could make in that style will feel at home amongst other Sonic songs.

Wow, that's a lot of words to positively describe aspects of a stage that I've mostly been ragging on so far! But I'd be remiss in not noting these aspects of the stage, even if the general focus of these videos is to comment on the structure of each level from a mechanical perspective. Yes, act 2 fails in this regard in much the same way as Act 1, and for very similar reasons.



Spring Yard Zone 2's opening is the most boring one we've seen so far. It consists of flat ground for 3 ground tiles with a lone red spring on the far left. In just about every level before this, something shows up by the third ground tile, and usually a few things. That's where the first rings show up in Green Hill 1, for example. Marble 2 had moving platforms and enemies moving on screen (in particular, a caterkiller). Both levels had intros that weren't completely flat, either; there were a few small dips in the ground that affected Sonic's handling. The fact that there is nothing here of note is worth noting, especially because the previous level's intro was packed with enemies and had a secret area above it. I struggle to explain it except from the assumption that this was built out of a physics and object test level. It's space to safely gain an intuition for how Sonic handles without risk of injury or death. The only reason the red spring seems to be there is as a sort of duct tape over the previous level. Since the stage layout (which, as you'll recall, is built out of the tiles as I showed in the Marble 3 writeup) is read in left-to-right and then top-to-bottom, so cutting out a column isn't removing a contiguous piece of data. Plus, this would require shifting over all the enemy locations by a tile's length; that's a fixed amount, but another example of a thing that could go wrong in trying to fix this. A red spring is inelegant, but is greatly preferable for workflow reasons.

That said, this segment serves a level of dramatic tension, because what comes next is one of the most attention-grabbing setpieces in the game.



At the end of this stretch is a bumper that knocks Sonic into a drop that's as tall as the intro was wide. Gaining momentum to the right is basically impossible due to the spring, which will push Sonic back unless he drops nearly straight down. There's a curve at the bottom; Sonic moves quickly by the time the screen makes it visible, giving only a little time to react if the player isn't already holding down the button. Rolling here feels physical in a way most games at the time didn't. Programming collision in games isn't trivial, and most games tend to go for flat or fixed-angle solid ground for that reason. Trying to make a curve like this work like a curve isn't easy. The change in grade has to be read as a slope, and there are some interesting programming techniques used to maintain Sonic's momentum through the curve, rather than plop him down where he lands like if he fell onto flat ground. I won't get into them now, since this update is already pretty long, but they'll definitely be worth discussing in the next update.

Even if Sonic doesn't start rolling until partway through the curve (or even as he is coming back down from the other side), staying in his rolling state allows him to gain more and more momentum, so that he can get back up to the start of the slide. This isn't something that should be possible in real life (Sonic would have to be expending energy, but rolling is always portrayed as a passive action and Sonic can only gain speed from his surroundings; in real life, some of the energy from his speed would be lost from friction into heat, thus causing him to slow down over time and fall to the center rather than speed up and go back to the top), but this situation is one of the few so designed to make it obvious that rolling isn't immediately analogous to a physical system such as a marble and series of ramps.



The path of least resistance leads up to another red spring ready to push an over-eager Sonic backwards, with a platform above to jump onto instead. You've seen this before. After it is a pit with some spikeballs, not too different from the ones we saw in the previous act, but unlike most of those, these have two spikeballs in them. Though the curve itself looks just as nice to run through as the one at the start (indeed, it's built out of the same set of tiles), it's not possible to do that without taking a hit, since Sonic is much faster than they are when he rolls. Instead, it's necessary to jump on the platform in the center of the curve, which is inviting enough anyway with its 4 free rings. The next jump, onto a small ledge between the two curves with some rings to help guide Sonic downward to it without falling, is trickier, but making that landing means the final jump onto a second platform is just as easy. After that is a couple easily-dispatched Crabmeats and some ignorable platforms; though they move up and down, there's a red spring that get Sonic to the top of the stage without the hassle of waiting for them to cycle.



After that is some more of the swinging accordion blocks as we saw previously, directing Sonic leftward to a platform with some more rings and an invincibility monitor. While it's never unhelpful, the power-up also isn't very useful here, as there are only a few crabmeats and spikes (urchin) enemies in the stretch of level between here and where the invinciblity will wear off for a normal player. As far as rewards for going out of your way go, it's a pretty paltry bonus, and disappointing when the previous act put more useful ones in these high spaces, like speed shoes and super rings. This level is devoid of both of these types of power-up, and in fact is the only stage in the game without the latter. Going right from the red spring leads us past more crabmeats, some of the vertically moving boxes we saw a few times in the previous level, and some more of the spike robots.



If you're invincible, you can clear those enemies and maintain your speed, meaning you can jump across the next gap cleanly and save a little time. If you had to roll into them you'll have to double back to get enough speed to not fall in. If you fail to clear it but get close, staying up against the right wall will show some rings hiding in space behind it. There's an alcove shown in the picture above that you'll land in if you're still moving to the right on your way down, and from there you can take the spring up to grab those rings and go back on the main path. The rollable hill after this leads directly into my least favorite part of the game.



This pit of springs and bumpers is a nearly-uncontrollable mess. The springs launch Sonic straight up, and there's so little space between them and most of the bumpers that Sonic can only move left or right a very small amount at a time. Due to being pushed around so strongly and quickly, it's possible Sonic will wind up getting stuck "inside" a spring as in one of the pictures above. Sonic isn't trapped inside the spring, but when he winds up in that position he's lost all horizontal momentum and so it will be difficult to get him back in control again. Despite the spring-filled bottom of this pit being nearly uncontrollable, it's still recommended to go down here to pick up a shield power-up, and if you've come in from the lower route, you'll wind up right next to that shield anyway. Note that if you're invincible here, the star effect overloads the sprite handler (too many on screen at once), and so the springs to the right of Sonic don't get drawn.



I should probably discuss that lower route, then. If you don't roll through the curve at the start of the stage, you'll have an easier time of sneaking into the opening right after it, which leads into a caved section. This first part of this route is almost exactly the same as the lower route from the previous level. The large spikeballs lining a narrow walkway and the spike-chain chamber trap are here, and getting past them leads to the buggy lightbox you see here. Despite being almost exactly the same as the underground region in the previous stage, they forgot to add the flashing light sprite here, so it just looks empty. It's bits like these that really highlight the care they put into the construction of Spring Yard Zone, and while it's not mechanically relevant the way springs and bumpers and those nasty roller enemies are, it's an obvious flaw that wasn't fixed even in later revisions of the ROM that include other (mostly minor) bugfixes or cosmetic changes.



Right after that is another pit, but this one only has two red springs. The first one pushes Sonic high enough to see a giant arrow of rings pointing up to where those moving boxes were from before, and the second spring gives Sonic enough height to get up there. It's almost embarrassingly unsubtle, and not particularly necessary; replacing the spring on the ground with a yellow one would have been fine; since the only other object in the area is the elevated red spring, it's pretty clear what the game expects to happen -- and since this is already near the middle of the game, it's odd that such direct signaling would need to be made; by now most players have seen and used springs and know how they work, and Labyrinth regularly required changing direction to make progress: more signs that this was one of the first stages to be done.



The arrow shape isn't even accurate, either, since holding right while trying to jump onto the lower spring can get Sonic into another hidden alcove here, leading to a more intersting passage. Here, some of those same moving boxes in the previous area become deadly crushers in a narrow space. They're not more complex than the pistons in Marble Zone, but since each crusher goes in and out of a slightly dug-out space, it's easier to get trapped in by a moving box and die. At the end is a 1-up. In general, I've been operating under the assumption that more technically-demanding routes and hidden passages like this are probably where the chaos emeralds were originally supposed to appear. This is my best guess at where the emerald would have been placed in this zone: it's hard-to-reach and requires careful play to escape correctly. As with my suspected location for the emerald in Marble, they would have replaced the emerald with a 1-up box as a reward for taking a dangerous route once they changed the design to use the special stages for emerald-collecting.

After that is the spring that takes Sonic right next to the shield power-up we discussed earlier. The route is about as fast as the upper route is; in fact, since there's less of a reliance on springs and moving platforms to get Sonic where he needs to be as well as fewer enemies, the route may be a pinch easier to get past than the upper one. It's certainly a less-common route to take, given the encouragement to roll and rolling's push toward more fixed trajectories for Sonic.



The moving platform on the right and just above the pit trap leads Sonic to the next part of the level: there's another spring-platform trap like at the top of the upper route, and a descent with spikeballs like in the lower one. Past that is a red spring with a spike ball hovering above it. Timing is important. Unlike most similar challenges, the spikeball actually ends its rightward path above the spring (rather than crossing over it in the middle of the path), while its leftmost position is where it's shown in the full stage map. Because of that placement, it's actually fairly challenging to dodge, and you're likely to lose that newly-acquired shield in getting over it; in doing testing and screenshot-gathering for this stage, I hit it probably four times in trying to get around the level.

The spring rockets Sonic upward into a trail of rings, and it's here that the path splits again. Oddly, for once, the lower path is the one that's easier to get around just because there's more room to react to things and fewer ways to screw up, but skilled players can take the platforming challenge on the upper route to avoid all the harmful objstacles on the lower one; your only enemy is gravity there, along with a higher likelihood of getting hit from an obstacle on the way down.



These accordion blocks are safe to idle on. The center block is fixed, and the outer parts collapse to the center and then push back outward. If Sonic is standing on the outer parts, they will pull him in with them, so he won't fall off. They only show up here (no return appearance in act 3), and aren't as challenging to cross as the other accordion blocks, so their existence is confusing. There are four of them, and they're the easy part of getting across here; the hardest part is landing on the accordion block that moves side-to-side (like all the other ones in the rest of Spring Yard), since it's low in the frame and thus harder to plan a trajectory toward; that is, jumping moves it off-screen so it's a blind jump, though you can see where it is before you take the leap. From there it's just waiting for the other two moving platforms, which leads to the end of that section.



Failure to make that series of jumps (or just deciding not to take the spring at all) leads to the lower route, which has two of those annoying roller enemies and another spikeball pit. Since it's only a single (faster) spikeball, it's safe to roll through, but trying to take this section too quickly just makes you bait for the rollers. It's better to go a little slower and destroy the rollers as they pop-up; once both are gone, it's safe to go at speed.



This challenge at the end is interesting. It's a lot like the curve at the start of the stage, but it leads to a jump that splits the path yet again. Taking the harder-to-reach upper path is the preferable one here, as it is a veritable treasure trove of easy rings at the end of the stage; starting at the descent to the slope, it's a full 50 rings and thus enough for a special stage even if you've gotten hit and lost them all before here (though the rings at the end of the slope are hard to grab and shouldn't be relied on). Making the jump is counter-intuitive, though, because rolling through the slope in the previous section is a bad idea, due to the fixed jumping trajectory -- it's easy to overshoot the upper route, and then it's impossible for Sonic to push right enough to land there. Certainly, it's still possible with a well-timed tap of the jump button, but holding it down will doom Sonic to the lower route instead. Holding right will put Sonic at the mercy of the speed caps, and so one of the best options is to just leave the direction buttons alone and hold the jump button near the ramp, only pressing right when Sonic gets close to the wall, which will move him far enough that he should be able to make it to the upper section. That's the reason Sonic is facing leftward in the middle pic -- straightening him out to get him to fall correctly means a small tap to the left, but the layout is moving him rightward very quickly.

That's the end of Spring Yard 2. The level has a lot more distinctiveness to it than the first act, though the placement of the rollers at the end of the stage leaves a lot to be desired, and the arguable best strategy for finishing the stage directly contradicts the most recent intuition the game has given about its mechanics. There's a stronger concept in this act (much of which seems to be just testing the interactions and behavior of various objects), but there's still a lot of unused potential.

Act 3 will be better, mainly because they won't pull their punches.

Last edited by muteKi; 01-04-2016 at 03:23 PM.
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  #63  
Old 07-23-2015, 01:43 PM
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I keep forgetting about this subforum because I'm dumb, but I just wanted to pass along some encouragement - I'm still greatly enjoying your Sonic analysis. Thank you for doing these!
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Old 07-25-2015, 12:49 AM
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Yeah, seriously, keep it up. They are great and thorough looks into one of the most untraditional platformers out there that also has a really big fanbase. Super interesting and very useful.
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Old 07-29-2015, 08:02 AM
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Same here. These huge, multi-path levels are tough to screenshot and describe, and the amount of work you're putting into these beyond what's necessary is downright tiring. Thank you for posting them.
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Old 07-29-2015, 05:41 PM
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Thanks for the kind words. Y'all are right that it's definitely not easy, which is why you've tended to see one update every few months rather than weeks. I'm hoping to start SYZ3 within the next few days, but I have other obligations that will be taking up my free time.
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Old 08-03-2015, 05:26 AM
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I've been playing Sonic 1 since release and never knew about the Sneakers and 1-up at the beginning of Spring Yard. How on earth do you even get them
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Old 08-03-2015, 05:19 PM
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The only way I know of is to roll after hitting that first spring, and pulling left. It's something I'd only recently learned about (most tips books had no idea) and it would have been really nice if they had some more direct hint that it was there rather than something you'd only reach by dicking around at the starting area.
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Old 08-03-2015, 07:54 PM
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These are great, muteKi. I never really thought about the broadness of Sonic levels before, and this certainly has been an eye-opener.
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Old 09-16-2015, 11:51 PM
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House hunting and Mario Maker have combined to delay this update a little longer than I wanted, but I really want to get this next post up sometime tomorrow. Sorry this isn't what you've been waiting for, but it's already nearly done (turns out SYZ3 is actually pretty short, and as before the third act tends not to require as much explanation).
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Old 09-17-2015, 10:55 PM
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Part 12: Spring Yard Zone 3, Or, If You Wish to Build a Platform Game from Scratch, You Must First Develop Physics

"Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical" - Olivia Newton-John, Let's Get Physical

Before I get into the details of the upcoming stage, I should fulfill my promise of describing how Sonic's physics system works. Now, if you've ever made a video game or done computational physics work before, you're probably familiar with how to implement Newtonian mechanics in a video game. It's relatively straightforward in general, consisting of techniques from trigonometry and what is technically calculus. Even if you're the sort to find math terms scary and confusing, it's easy to build in practice, as long as you have scientific calculator functions handy. We'll start from the simplest parts and keep building on.

I made these drawings with a free app on the Windows store called "Bamboo Paper" which is a pretty decent note-taking app that you might want to get if you have a touchscreen laptop or Windows tablet handy. Being able to draw freehand, without a mouse, was necessary to get halfway decent images here.

The simplest case is ignoring the idea of physics altogether and thinking of really basic movement. Consider, for example, Pong: the only movement needed to be implemented is along a single axis. In its earliest implementations, a primitive analog knob was used to control the pong paddle, which when read as a digital signal is an absolute positioning for the paddle. Every game tick the signal produced by the knob is checked and the paddle is placed according to that position, and so speed of movement is based on sliding the paddle around -- it's a pointing device. But Pong is a simple-enough game, and fun even without the paddle control. Shareware sites back in the day were full of Pong clones because they were easy enough to build, even though computers didn't have as nice a set of options for absolute pointing devices, especially in the early days when mice were uncommon. So you'd have to read input from key presses, which can't be used as absolute pointing (otherwise there'd only be a few places to move your paddle and your pong game will be boring or frustrating -- ever played a Tiger LCD game?) if you wanted to recreate Pong. So, instead, for every tick the key is held down, you set the speed of the paddle to something and move according to that. So in addition to memory keeping track of where your paddle is, you also need to have some speed value to set the paddle to when the key is pressed, and at every frame you'd either add or subtract from the speed depending on key is pressed. So holding it down you might move a pixel or less per frame (i.e., you could say that every 4 ticks you move the paddle a pixel, which is what people mean by 'subpixel calculations' since each tick involves moving the object only a fraction of a pixel). Of course, since you want the paddle to stay in bounds of the screen, you also have checks for max and min values of the paddle position -- if adding the velocity to current position would put it past the min or max, set it to that value instead. Again, building code to do all of this is very simple (especially since we haven't had to deal with a camera/windowing) and it's all stuff that computers are good at, especially if you keep your precision fixed.


Movement is simple. If the pong paddle moves at 5 pixels per frame to the right (obviously fast but easy to illustrate), simply draw it starting at a location 5 pixels from where it is.

Now, for a game where the character is just moving left and right on a flat surface, doing something like that is usually enough to have a working control system, if one that feels jerking. But especially for a standard platforming game in the style of Mario (or nearly any game with a platforming component), you'll want to treat jumping differently from the way we treated moving left and right, which is where acceleration comes in: gravity is just a form of (near-enough to constant) acceleration downward, which affects speed in the same way that speed affects position. Again, this is easy to do on a computer -- given some value for our gravity, every tick we add that to the velocity, and then add the new velocity to our current position. Pressing the jump button makes our upward speed nonzero, which changes over time from gravity, and gives us a nice arc to our jump, especially if we're moving left or right at the time. (Parabolic, dude!) Note that our jump speed is in the direction opposite gravity (i.e., up) which gets lower over time, reaches 0 at the peak of the jump, and then is in the same direction as gravity -- intuitive, certainly, but something worth being explicit about if you've never really thought about physics modelling before. Using acceleration and deceleration constants like this to the X and Y velocity when starting and stopping moving (or trying to move in the opposite direction, which would presumably call for a larger deceleration constant) work the same way, allowing us to have smoother movement rather than immediate stopping and starting; we might not want this in Pong where our position requires lots of precision, but for a platformer this control can feel much more natural.


Here, we have an initial jump velocity of 6 pixels (upward) and a constant downward acceleration of 2 pixels, that is, a change in the velocity between frames by 2 in a downward direction. Technically the signs should be reversed because games count '0' height as the top of the screen by convention, but it's easier to think of positive directions as up, especially if you were, like me, a physics major in college. Note that the x-axis is time; even if Sonic were stationary, that would be his height per frame given our acceleration and initial jump speed. However, if Sonic were moving at a constant speed to the right during the jump, though, his trajectory would look like this.

If we want control over our platforming character in air, that's easy to do, since it's just checking the inputs to move left and right as before. If we want to make our movement left and right feel less jerking, we can have an acceleration and deceleration value for movement in those directions similar to gravity -- which, again, just means that we're adding a steadily-increasing value to our position instead of a fixed one, stopping after we reach some maximum value. If we want a variable jump height, the way Sonic does this is to check when the jump button is no longer held down, and lower the upward speed to some minumum value when the button is let go. As an example, let's say our initial speed is 10 pixels upward per tick with gravitational acceleration of 2 pixels per tick downward per tick (speed is measured in pixels per second, so changes in speed are measured in pixels per second per second, or 'pixels per second squared' when you group the units together -- and yes, variable acceleration would be measured in a rate of pixels per second cubed). If jump height is fixed, then the next tick we'll be 8 pixels per tick upward, then 6, then 4, then 2, then 0, then 2 downward, then 4 downward, then 6 downward, etc. Objects in the real world have a maximum falling speed (the technical term being "terminal velocity") and so we might want to set our downward speed to not increase more than that (which will save us some headaches down the line), so we might say to stop increasing once we've hit 20 pixels downward. (Note that these are numbers that are easy to work with, and not reflective of the actual values used in Sonic.) Now if we want to cut Sonic's jump height short, what the game does is fix the upward speed to a lower value once the button is released; let's say in our example we set it to 2 pixels upward. Then releasing the button after a couple ticks makes the trajectory go 8 pixels upward, 6 pixels, 2 pixels, then 0, then 2 downward, etc. Naturally we have to check to make sure that our upward speed is greater than 2 in order to make the change -- otherwise we wind up with an inconsistent double-jump effect when we release the button. (Note that 'upward speed' is the same thing as 'negative downward speed', so we just use a sign change to represent one or the other.)

Now, if we want to have our left-right controls be different on the ground and in the air, we need to have some sort of check to see if we're standing on the ground or not. If our ground height is always fixed (the case of an endless runner with no pits), then we can just see if our position is at or lower than the floor height, set the character's position to the floor height, and then treat the character as though he is on the ground, and use our left-right acceleration as described. When we're not at floor-height, then we must be in the air, and should be using different values for our acceleration (in the case of a game like Castlevania with fixed jump trajectories, we would fix the left-right trajectory irrespective of what buttons are pressed).


The change to see if a character is in the air or not is to loop over every pixel in the collision box and see if any are in the same location as a ground tile, which is defined from Sonic's location. The collision box is more of a theoretical entity than a data structure, since all we need to know is if Sonic's collision intersects the ground at any point. Since collision in Sonic is tied to 8x8 tiles, we have to do a few lookups in-between to find which 8x8 tile is at a certain point in the level map; this takes time, so the game doesn't have a full box for Sonic's collision -- instead it's closer to a couple pixel-length wires underneath Sonic. More on that later.

Now, we wouldn't have a very interesting platform game if our platforms were all at the same level, so our naive "Are we below the floor?" check is not going to work, otherwise we'd never be able to register other platforms as solid. So instead what we'll do is have a little collision object underneath our character, and if that intersects ground tiles, then that's like being under the ground in our previous example; this sensor is implemented as a routine that checks if the pixels underneath the character's feet are solid or not -- so we need some sort of data structure to say whether or not a specific part of the level layout is solid; in Mario or Castlevania, for example this would be on a per-tile basis; there is no sloping ground in those games.


An example of a solid bar. If Sonic is moving too quickly, he could pass right through it. Collision is difficult, and we could see if there are solid tiles between Sonic's two frames, but that's difficult to do, and so especially in later games as Sonic gets faster, the likelihood of phasing into the wall is more likely. We have to define our range of collision carefully, because the CPU only checks in regions we tell it to check, and the more we ask of the CPU the less time we have to other things. If the CPU can't do enough, then we can wind up with lag. Physics is hard.


However, if falling would push Sonic into solid ground, we can correct for that and immediately push Sonic up until he's back above ground. Since Sonic should still be travelling to the right when he lands (deceleration shouldn't be instantaneous if he's still going the same direction when he lands), we can just push him straight up and that's where he should be based on his speed, especially with solid ground like this. This is what the collision box is supposed to do.

Slopes complicate things! A slope doesn't have a single binary collision value (solid or not-solid), it has a collision value for each pixel in the tile (this is used to make sure Sonic doesn't push himself into the wall while running and instead stays above it as necessary). Checking solidity with a slope isn't harder than with flat ground -- is the sensor intersecting with solid pixels? You're on the ground if so -- but it complicates motion. Let's fix our movement from left to right for the purposes of discussion; the procedure is the same going the other direction, it just makes it easier to follow the logic process to discuss it this way. So, we have a second set of level tiles that define the collision for each tile in our game. Remember when I showed the individual chunks of Marble Zone? Those were all built from a set of 8x8 tiles, each of which has a corresponding collision mask that defines which parts of the tile Sonic can't pass through. These are lists of 8 values ranging from 0 to 8 of which pixels in the tile are solid at that x-value.

So how do we define a slope from this? We need trigonometry now, because gravity points straight downward, Sonic moves along the direction of the slope, and if he jumps, he jumps perpendicular to whatever surface he's standing on. Since per-pixel collision is difficult -- we need to go through multiple tables to look up the 8x8 tiles' collision data, which takes time, and do that for every object on screen -- we define slopes per-tile. This is done using some trigonometry. Given a slope's length and the angle between it, we can find how far it extends in the x-direction with the cosine function on the angle between the slope and the horizon; since this gives us a value between 0 and 1 -- this is a ratio, ranging between "entirely horizontal" and "entirely vertical" -- we scale it by the length of the slope. We can find the height from the sine function of the angle scaled by slope length.

But we have the collision data and need to find the slope and angle. The tangent function gives us the ratio between the x- and y-components, but the inverse tangent function gives us the angle from those components which is what we need. The angle must be pre-calculated, because inverse tangents are difficult things to do and the Genesis is a system from 1988 not specialized enough to do it quickly. So we pre-program those values when we define the collision boxes and store them in a value, a byte matching each 8x8 tile in the level. Unlike typical angles, which range from 0 to 360 in degrees, we use a range from 0 to 256 (the number of different configurations a byte can have). It's not as precise, but, again, efficiency is important here. Similarly, we pre-calculate tables for finding the cosine and sine values for looking up later, to speed calculation; these are lists where the xth entry in the list is a representation of the value between 0 and 1 you get when you evaluate sine(x) or cosine(x). The term of art is, appropriately enough, a look-up table.


Illustration of the way slopes are calculated. The two tiles stacked on each other on the left side have the same collision with different collision data; one curves upward and one curves downward. Inverse tangent is calculated based on the change in x and y, shown with the two tiles on the bottom. As these two tiles also have the same change in x and y each, they get the same slope angle.

While we use the collision to make sure Sonic isn't in a wall, it's not useful for calculating the direction Sonic should move, since that is at an angle. We can't move Sonic straight right on an upward slope: the ground gets in the way and should be pushing Sonic up, and we also need to account for the fact that Sonic should be going more slowly on the slope due to friction forces. So we move Sonic in the x-direction based on his current total speed multiplied by the cosine of the tile angle, and in the y-direction the same way with the sine. That gets translated into movement on the screen and in the level as described previously. Note that all of this means a tile has to go in one direction for all of its solidity; we can't have a collision tile that looks like a mountain under the Sonic rules, because that's more than one angle. How do hills exist in Sonic, then? It's simple: since we can have tiles that slope upward and tiles that slope downward, we just put them next to each other to make hills.

If the angle of the next tile over tile is too steep (like if the tile is completely vertical), when if we're moving left-right we shouldn't be moving at all, but pushing up against that wall. That's easy to implement using a couple more collision checkers on Sonic's left and right side. Their implementation is about the same as the ground checker, but we don't have to worry about using it nearly as much for collisions with the level -- but they're also essential for checking against enemies or obstacles. Since the games can have a lot of things on screen at once and they're not fixed in their position, collision with those obstacles and Sonic is checked a lot less thoroughly, which can occasionally lead to odd glitches -- it's easy in later games to get stuck in a wall because these checkers don't make sure certain objects can push Sonic into walls.

We implement friction (slowing Sonic down in these directions) as a constant as well, and it's along the direction of the slope. If the slope is nearly vertical, the force of friction might be a lot less than the strength of gravity, and so we'd have to start moving Sonic down the slope (as in the previous paragraph). The force of gravity along the slope is the gravity value we discussed in the context of jumping, multiplied by the sine of the angle.

Jumping off a slope is along the slope itself, which means we don't point Sonic straight up. His y-speed is the default jump velocity multiplied by the cosine of the slope angle, and the x-speed the same with the sine. On a slope curving upward to the right, this means Sonic jumps a little bit backward, and forward for one downward to the right.


This is almost everything you need to know to pass a Physics 101 class. This drawing shows a slope tile and a box that represents Sonic standing on the slope. Friction keeps Sonic from being pulled down by gravity; the component along the slope is negated by the force of friction, and you can see both of these drawn as vectors on the image. Similarly, the jump direction is shown. Note the repeated presence of the angle (theta), which is consistent throughout the drawing because we rotate everything consistently. It might look a little convenient, but it's a valid representation of slope physics.

So, congratulations: we've now built everything we need to replicate the physics engine of a game like Super Mario Bros. 3, which had slopes and walls and varied platform heights but unlike Sonic did not have loops or curves. Sonic needs to be able to move straight along the right or left wall of a curve up and down, and so there need to be different sensors around that. So there's a different mode where Sonic's feet sensor point to the left or right that happens if he passes along a tile with an angle above a certain threshold. Then the Sonic sensors for 'pushing' and 'standing/moving' are rotated 90 degrees, so Sonic stays up against the wall without pressing into it (i.e., if the curve moves Sonic counter-clockwise we don't want his movement to the right to push him into the wall, or to trigger his pushing animation from being blocked by a wall). A similar calculation occurs to transition from this mode to the ceiling. Note that we need another set of collision tiles to define solidity when moving up and down along a right-facing wall -- and we can get collision for upside-down and left-wall settings by mirroring the down and rightward collision tiles respectively. Similar angle-transition calculations occur if Sonic was in the air and brushes against a curved wall, though the specific range of angles checked against changes.

So what does the process of encountering a curve like the one at the start of the previous act? Sonic is close or pushing against the left wall and falling (and the collision checkers keep him from moving into the wall), attaches to the ground after reaching a tile with a certain angle (and so now the collision checkers push him out of the floor), and then goes into the right-wall mode pushing him upward. Gravity and the slope constant allow him to pick up speed while moving through the curve, and as he moves upward on exiting the curve gravity causes his deceleration back downward much like if he was jumping.


Rough outline of the transitions. Wall mode works like regular mode with the collision checkers in the same places, but now gravity is in a different direction. There is a second set of collision masks for tiles when moving in these directions that, again, works the same way. Along a half-pipe of this sort, though, the wall is mostly flat-angled.

That transition isn't perfect, however. If Sonic's velocity is greater than the floor collision checker then he can still fall through the floor and at similar speeds it's possible to pass between slope tiles (including the slope transition tile, which could cause Sonic to just push up against the wall and not move according to these physics), which could get Sonic stuck in a wall. If you've seen a glitched speedrun of a Sonic game where they "zip" through a wall -- a screen ejection routine that pushes Sonic at high speeds as long as enough of his sprite overlaps solid tiles -- you've seen this in action if you've watched some of the speedruns of this game, and even real-time players can trigger it in specific parts of the games. It almost always has to happen at high speeds due to how the collision detection works. If you'd like to see it for yourself without years of practice manipulating the Sonic engine to force glitches, you can crank up Sonic's speed using a data editor like the Pro Action Replay or a Game Genie, and you'll probably see the same effect happen.

These sorts of issues go back well beyond Sonic though: here's an example of a similar collision glitch in Pac-Man. See also the picture above where Sonic just "passes" through solid ground due to falling too quickly.

There's another bug in the physics system that shows up in the game, and in this specific stage, and can be frustrating. While I talk about Sonic's collision as being a box, that's wrong. It's not a full box. It's two pixel-wide line (20 pixels long) at either side of Sonic. Collision checking is just seeing if any of the pixels in either line is inside something solid, and if it is, move Sonic up so he isn't. The structure of these means we only have to check 40 pixels total to make sure Sonic isn't inside the floor, and we can tell also if Sonic is close to the edge of a tile or not (in which case he does a balancing animation). We consider collision based on which sensor returns the higher height, which is a quick comparison check.

The glitch comes from checking to make sure that both sensors are on solid ground when on a slope. If a slope ends abruptly (like the ramping platforms in Spring Yard), then near the end Sonic will fall back down a bit. The picture below illustrates how the glitch works: the leftmost pair of sensors return a height that's lower than the others, correctly; the middle pair of sensors is also correct and returns a higher height; but because the last sensor pair has the rightmost sensor off the ground, Sonic's height reads from a location left of where the middle sensors' height was taken, meaning Sonic sinks into the ground slightly.


Rough illustration of how the sensor wires work and their corresponding glitch. Checking collision over more horizontal area would be slower, but it would keep this from happening.

So that's your whirwind tour of the Sonic physics engine. I might go back over in detail specific components in later level explanations in order to clarify some specific behavior or common glitches, but I think this suffices in terms of understanding how this (and several other) games are built. If you'd like to read more, there's plenty of further detail (including the specific values you'd want to use in order to make a more accurate replica of these games' physics) here. It was very helpful as a reference for this post.

Now, it's time to talk about Spring Yard Zone Act 3, which has a lot of these components in it, including another big curve like the kind we saw in the previous act, smack dab in the middle of stage.

Zone0 Map.

One common complaint that Sonic games receive is that many of their flashier levels tend to play themselves. While I don't think that's quite correct, there's a level of truth in it, that in being so fast and flashy it's hard to put fair challenges in the player's way. Spring Yard 3 is some of the fastest we've seen in this game so far (and it features the return of super shoes for players who are willing to take a little care) and certainly the flashiest, but it also calls for skilled play for its optimal routes, and balances speed with challenging slower sections more fairly than the previous two acts. While part of this increase in fairness can be attributed to way each third act works in general, this stage has also had more thought done into where everything goes. The haphazard spring pits are much more carefully placed without as many bumpers, the moving platforms aren't quite as trivial to cross, and the last section of the act has a route that splits depending on how fast you can move Sonic through the spike-filled basement areas. If the first two acts were the first levels to be made, at least the third was made once they had a good idea of how all these components worked together.



It's a simple enough start. The level curves downward, and rolling is more than enough protection from the several buzzbombers overhead. After that is a spring pit lined with only a few bumpers, easy to escape from and not a particular hassle. The tilt in the slope before it provides indication to a player who's seen the level before that the springs are incoming, and it can be jumped over completely right above it. You'll miss a shield, but there's a 10 ring monitor on the other side and rings count for little in Act 3 anyway, so it's of little consequence. After another underground segment that, yes, appears to have been almost fully copy-pasted from the previous acts, the only forced vertical-scrolling box encounter in the stage is here. There are rings hidden underneath on the left side (visible on approach) but a similar secret passage under the boxes on the left contains absolutely nothing.



After two crabmeats and a spring, there's a ledge on the right with another lantern, with a jump up to a switch just past it. Moving left from that platform at speed and jumping onto the lantern is necessary for what is probably the hardest optional platforming challenge in the game -- a series of moving platforms otherwise just barely out of Sonic's reach. Even I have trouble with them.

The other route has Sonic hit a switch to release a barrier, much like at the end of Act 1. A couple crabmeats await Sonic, after which a series of spikeball pits and more crabmeats lead into another elevator of boxes. But this slower, more irritating route is skippable with platforming care, taking us back to those incredibly difficult-to-reach platforms.



These lead up to a slope above the solid ground to the right. Keeping speed up this slope and making a good jump near the end get Sonic past the block and spring on the side there, which skips over a set of spikeball pits and another block crossing. This is incredibly difficult to do if you're not playing a version of the game where the spindash has been hacked into the game, though TAS gameplay shows it is physically possible to reach the upper ledge (I can't do it reliably, and had to check to make sure it was even possible because it's so hard to pull off). The previously mentioned slope glitch doesn't help (from where I'm standing, you can see Sonic has incorrectly sunk into the platform).



Past that tricky climb, the accordion blocks we've seen in act 2 return, another perilous crossing, and we have to jump all the way up the second one in the set in order to not fall, which will waste all our effort and possibly toss us into those spikeball pits.

The boxes on the lower path exit to where the two paths meet back up, though the crabmeats waiting for you at the top of the ride can be annoying, getting ready to fire at about the same time you can jump from the shaft.



After another flat ledge with an urchin and a lamppost checkpoint, we get into the centerpiece of the act, yet another giant curve. This one is very obviously taller than the ones in the previous act, and there are a lot more rings to collect. Rolling through while holding right pushes Sonic into a secret area with two excellent items -- invincibility and speed shoes. The next area, which is mostly underground, has good use for both. They can also be used to run back around the half-pipe and collect eight more rings on this side of the half pipe, but it's better to save the power-up for the next section.



After rolling down yet another hallway with two spikeballs, there's this switch and wall object. Hitting the switch causes it to move to the right, following the path of the green arrow in the zone0 map. It doesn't move quickly, but the spikeballs in the pits just past it have to be navigated around -- which is why the invincibility is handy, as it trivializes this challenge. Taking the spring is not recommended, since it is full of hazards and slower, ending in another horizontal box-platform descent. It's a good final summation of the zone's ideas, but isn't a great challenge. Unlike most Sonic intuition, though, it's a case where the lower path is the safer, faster, and more rewarding one, all at once. Beating the wall to the end leads to twenty rings, a shield, and a single spikeball chain that's still easily avoided if you're still invincible.



The routes meet back up again with a spring that takes Sonic along a curving wall. Bumpers make up the penultimate challenge in the level -- skilled hands can land Sonic from the bumper onto the platforms to the right, which lead up to a bridge with a shield and a 1-up, ending the zone much like it began.



A checkpoint leads to a series of accordion blocks, which are precariously placed over a pit. Two safety platforms allow the player a chance of safety as they start and right when they get to the end, something that this level does very well, and newer Sonic games should have heeded: both an extra chance to take a moment to prepare, and to let close enough count as done. It's easy enough to take slowly -- Sonic isn't funneled into this section at high speed, so there's time to read the surroundings -- and isn't harder than the other accordion block challenges in the stage, just less forgiving of mistakes. After this is the boss.



Eggman's ship arrives without any obvious gadgets or enhancements, by far the simplest encounter. Flat ground with no obvious hazards and him flying overhead, ready to take hits from Sonic's spin attack. He patrols the area passively for a moment, and then a spike protrudes from the bottom of the craft, damaging to touch. He drops down, and picks up the block Sonic had been standing on, and destroys it. Clearly we must work quickly or we'll run out of space to hit him from -- these blocks are the only floor in the boss arena!

Since he only drops down once he's directly above Sonic, thoough, it's easy to get several hits in from the corner of his craft before he can make the first move, and the nearby 1-up means we have theoretically unlimited chances to destroy him. It's unforgiving, but it's easier to avoid taking a hit than the encounter at the end of Marble, where we had to switch sides of the screen quickly to avoid being covered in lava. As long as he keeps taking damage, there's nothing to worry about and he can be quickly dispatched; the greater risk is in making sure there are enough tiles to make it across to the other side of the arena to reach the end.



The end of Spring Yard brings with us the end of the first half of Sonic. It's been nearly equal parts thoughtful reflection on its forebears and ambitious innovation, sometimes taken too far for its own good. Here in Act 3, we really start to see the designers coming to terms with what to do to design fair challenges -- give the player room to work with momentum, think about their surroundings, and increase challenge by asking the same question with less room for error. It still isn't perfect, though: those box elevators are unpleasant to deal with.

Marble was an excellent reflection on level design, since it mostly used what worked from previous games and restrained challenge by giving Sonic more control than the games whose design it mirrored. While it didn't play to Sonic's strengths, it showed thoughtful restraint and consideration of the history of action video games to that point. Restraint is important -- Laura Hudson has a lovely article about this with regards to Mario Maker -- but a tech demo is about stress-testing code more than a player. By showing off the neat physics that Sonic's game engine is capable of, it engages in too much novelty. Since the previous acts demand care for Special Stage access, the stage becomes even more hostile to players. Act 3 works not only because it takes away that additional demand for precision, but also by keeping the challenges discrete and working on a level of familiarity on both developer (in understanding how all the moving parts of the level fit together) and player (because like with Marble, Act 3 repeats much of the previous level's setpieces). And there are no fucking roller badniks anywhere in it.

Next is of course another Secret Zone writeup -- but after that, we begin the hard half of Sonic 1.

Last edited by muteKi; 01-04-2016 at 03:24 PM.
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  #72  
Old 09-18-2015, 11:19 AM
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Clipping through terrain due to excessive speed is a problem easily solved: process the player's movement multiple times per frame. On good hardware, you can do it for all actors, but in many games (especially from this era), the player is the only one capable of attaining that kind of speed.

Then again, there's a good chance that the Sonic games were already pushing the limits of the Genesis processor, but collision-checking a single actor one or two extra times per frame should be a very light performance hit -- the display logic is eating the bulk of the CPU time unless there's just a whole ton of stuff on-screen.

Also, your images are enormous.
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  #73  
Old 09-18-2015, 02:47 PM
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Wow. Incredible post.

You really need to make a book out of this when you're done, muteKi.
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Old 09-28-2015, 12:06 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mogri View Post
Clipping through terrain due to excessive speed is a problem easily solved: process the player's movement multiple times per frame. On good hardware, you can do it for all actors, but in many games (especially from this era), the player is the only one capable of attaining that kind of speed.

Then again, there's a good chance that the Sonic games were already pushing the limits of the Genesis processor, but collision-checking a single actor one or two extra times per frame should be a very light performance hit -- the display logic is eating the bulk of the CPU time unless there's just a whole ton of stuff on-screen.
Yeah there are a few things that make Sonic's collision checking difficult:

1. There isn't a map in RAM of each pixel's collision in the level. It's looked up at the 8x8 tile level, which means looking up the 256x256 tile at a position on the level, and then going into the 16x16 tile at that point, and then examining the 8x8 tile (or, if Sonic's between two of them, tiles). You can do that with integer division (ignoring remainders) but that still means there's multiple looking-up actions to do before you can iterate through collision indices. The actual collision check isn't a loop so much as it is comparing if the collision index (since it's stored as a certain distance up from the base of the tile) plus some offset is less than the bottom of Sonic plus 8 or so tiles -- for the purpose of seeing if Sonic's stuck in the ground or not. Some subtraction could get you the proper height to place Sonic, assuming the tile isn't solid for all 8 pixels at that point. Now, this still represents, as you point out, a small portion of the Genesis's CPU's time, but it's not the only collision it checks.

2. Objects obviously don't have the thorough sort of physics applied to them that you'd see for Sonic; they don't go through loops or around curves, and some of them (buzzbombers, for example) ignore collision altogether. But a lot of them still need to read the environment to derive their behavior. Crabmeats and Urchins can't fall off ledges, and need to check the ground to make sure of that. Those missile chameleons from Green Hill follow curves in the ground (so do the crabmeats!). This is in addition to any other sprite-handling code the CPU needs to process like graphics priority, location, etc. It adds up, and really is the bulk of what you'd call the "display logic" since scrolling the level field is mostly offloaded by the video chip -- in terms of more modern graphics programming, think of it as a single giant texture that moves across the screen. Setting priorities for sprites and their structure, though, is something the CPU has to communicate with the video chip to get right.

3. Sonic's still more about going fast than about being precise physically, or at least that was the way he was always marketed. I want this series to be about Sonic aside from the marketing machine that created his pop-culture image, but when better-optimized code came along in later games, it wasn't to make a game with a similar physics system that ran with fewer errors, it was to make a faster game whose physics still had these flaws. The tops of ramps notwithstanding, there aren't a lot of ways to get screwed over by collision glitches in Sonic 1 -- it rarely gets that fast to begin with -- so the simple collision checking is a good design. Having to remake the game on a more modern system, you'd be able to check a full box instead of just two sensor lines (removing these glitches at the ends of slopes) and check multiple times a frame (which means you'd have to plug in different numbers for max speed, acceleration, etc. for tuning), and you could probably even store the full collision for a stage in memory meaning there'd be no need for the multiple table lookups, not that it's much of a bottleneck at all these days.
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Old 01-04-2016, 03:20 PM
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Part 13: Secret Zone 4, Or, Easy Does It

"And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning around" - The Beatles, "The Fool on the Hill"

Obligatory Zone0 map link.




My long and frustrating delay on these posts isn't just due to writers block; it's because I want to do these in order and the special stages are always just frustrating enough to load up that I take forever to get footage and to play them. It also doesn't help that they're the part of the game that I'm worst at, due, again, to the fixed jumping which combines with the changing rotation of the stage which makes Sonic's motion difficult to plan. You wouldn't know that from Special Stage 4, which is oddly easy compared to the very last one we faced, and even the other two before it.

In just about every Sonic game after this, the fourth stage is where the shoe drops. Here, though, they're oddly merciful. In fact, this might be the easiest stage to get a continue in (besides the one given in the previous stage to those who ignore the controller in their hands), and it's also easy to reach the emerald chamber. Having said that, the game no longer does most of the work for you. Leaving the controller unattended keeps the game in an infinite loop -- Sonic is stuck in the blue region of the stage, which is before the first set of goal spheres, and so there's no way for him to be ejected from the stage. But correspondingly, there are no goal spheres for the first quarter of the stage: there's plenty of room to collect rings and move around the stage mostly free of consequence. The lack of penalty for just playing around makes this stage an odd choice as fourth of six, since it would be a much better option for, say, the second stage. The first stage is short and hands you its emerald almost automatically, but the second one is just a bit longer -- and there's a set of goal spheres right below the starting point of the stage from its initial rotation. Since that stage rotates clockwise, it takes a full rotation of the stage to reach them, but it's still a much more immediate threat than anything in this stage.



There are more rings in this stage than in any of those before it, specifically, 187. That's nearly enough for two lives, and only about a quarter of all the rings in the stage need to be collected for a continue. There are about 48 rings before the first set of goal spheres are even around -- just playing around in the safe first part of the stage is practically enough to get the continue. In the first two stages, most of the rings were placed around bumpers with goal spheres underneath (at least once the stage rotates around enough), meaning that continue collection is fraught with peril. But this level's rings are mostly away from bumpers. In fact, there aren't many bumpers and most of the ones that are there line the narrow passages around the goal spheres, which can be used to knock Sonic back out. Most of the objects interrupting the ring patterns are the safe-to-touch peppermint-stripe spheres, which just function like the walls do, as solid platforms that can get in Sonic's way -- and keep him from falling onto goal spheres.



Another overly generous act? The long twisty passages of the stage contain two ring-patterns in the shape of arrows, pointing along the path to the emerald chamber. This sort of direction is overly unsubtle, especially for the fourth stage of the game. You could argue that the special stages don't need a strict difficulty curve, because the special stage rotation is independent of stage completion -- if you lose at a special stage, your next entry is into the stage after it, so you don't get to retry the stage you failed at until you've played all the remaining stages. I still think putting this stage at 4th place is a bad idea, though. Sure, you could reach this stage as early as Marble 2 if you're good at the main game, but it's weird that the level with a built-in practice area arrives when there are only 2 other special stages to still play, and only the 10 chances to play them all. Relative to how far we are through the game in this analysis, having gotten past Spring Yard Zone in its entirety, we could have already gotten all the emeralds. I think it's either too early for a breather level -- showing up to a good player at just under 1/3 through the game -- or else too late for a tutorial. Nothing about the stage's placement makes much sense, and if I had to redesign the game I probably would have made it the second stage.



Plus, the emerald in this stage is green. Why even call them emeralds if most of the ones we collect aren't even green? They're not even emerald cut! (And, yes, I see you there in the back. Sure, you could blame this on misguided translators -- but this is a game designed specifically for American audiences, and so it ought to get the English about right. Besides, Sega tended not to be quite as susceptible to the English-mangling typical of their contemporary games developers. For example, the ending to Space Harrier, or the ending to Enduro Racer. What about the intro to The Ninja? I can't find a convenient link to its intro, but the ending of Cyber Shinobi has plenty of text, too. So the odd word choice seems like more than just misguided translation, but hell if I know why they chose the term.)
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Old 01-06-2016, 07:03 AM
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It just sounds better than "Chaos Gems".

One of my favorite stream moments, when I was just fucking around with Sonic Classic heroes and someone on the call commented that the SOL emerald was blue or some shit but shouldn't it be yellow like the sun or something?

"Emeralds are green, dude".

"Fuck."
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Old 04-24-2016, 12:12 AM
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It's funny, I was going to say "Chaos crystals is not only pretty catchy by way of the alliteration, but there's also that huge anime-in-America reference by way of Sailor Moon" but I realized immediately after the fact that Sailor Moon actually post-dates Sonic by a few years, so the magical girl anime tradition of magic crystals as an energy source could be argued to originate with Sonic as much as anything -- which is obviously a spurious connection! And so as much as I'd like to say "no, they should have done this!" it is, as with any of my critiques, one done with roughly 25 years worth of after-the-fact analysis behind the game. It is important, but given how much this game spent looking to the past I doubt it so clearly predicted the future.

Anyway I'm posting in here to say I am finally, finally getting off my ass to write up Labyrinth Zone 1, and while I can't guarantee tomorrow, I can definitely say by Thursday. Stay tuned.
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Old 12-14-2016, 10:49 PM
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Part 14: Labyrinth Zone Act 1, Or, S is for Sonic, Who Needed Some Air

"The water is wide
And I can't cross over"
- "O Waly, Waly", a Scottish folk song c. 1600

The title for this entry comes by way of Brentalfloss's ABC of video game deaths.
The best source for the text that I can find right now is http://www.pleated-jeans.com/2013/02...o-game-deaths/.

The start of Labyrinth Zone marks the halfway point for this game, and correspondingly marks a significant increase in skill demand asked by the game. No longer is Sonic 1 willing to let players by with accidental progress; no, Labyrinth demands extensive knowledge of how Sonic as a character behaves, and introduces new, even more hostile mechanics into the mix.

If you, as someone with limited knowledge of the series, were to ask me which Sonic game to start with, I will say Sonic 1 without hestiation. Even if many aspects of the design are dated, it still does a good job of pacing the introduction of new ideas while still maintaining continuity with an older videogame tradition before it. As I wrote about in the entries of Marble Zone, it does feel at times like a variation on Parish's Anatomy of Games series, expressed in the form of another game rather than a long series of articles. The staff working on this game were aware of the way that games had developed up until this point -- and of course were interested in pushing it a little bit further, or at least to a wider audience. For the experienced player, Sonic 1 represents continuity betwee the past generations of videogame design and a thought at what the future might look like; for the inexperienced player, Sonic 1 is a way to come to understand that previous design in a more forgiving or engaging manner.

One of my justifications for Marble Zone representing the pinnacle of NES design is that it intentionally courted a visual design that was dated: ruins. While we can argue the implications of cultural hegemony posed by making them Greco-Roman ruins, it reinforces a theme implied by the visual design of the stage that the level's ideas, while important, are old. So old, in fact, that some of the stage is outright buried, as is the nature of ancient civilizations: raze the previous society to the ground, build over-top, and let the rubble sink further into the ground. Hence, we have Labyrinth Zone.

Compared to Marble, Labyrinth is fully underground. Whatever culture might have existed here is truly ancient -- dare I say, so old as likely to be misunderstood by anthropologists and historians. I, too, struggled to make sense of the purpose of this stage beyond a sense of challenge posed by being the introduction to the second half of the game. (This is one of the reasons it has been nearly half a year since the previous update in this thread, no joke!) However, I do think there is sense to be made of this stage, and I think yet again it helps if we look further past in the history of video games.

If Marble Zone seemed to be a commentary on NES game design from at least the inception of Mario Bros., what was there before? There was the arcade, a sometimes borderline unfair collection of games, typically engaged with -- and lost -- in matters of minutes. The motivation for a game simple enough to understand within a few minutes' worth of play finds itself in neat company with a game designed around a single "action" button, and Sega themselves, by the 90s, understood very well what value there was in designing games for an arcade market and how to do so successfully. Of course Sonic would tap into the history of the arcade for another of its more conservative level designs.

When I think about the arcade in general, I think of games that explain their rules well but very quickly become a combination of unforgiving and obtuse. Games like Donkey Kong certainly don't exist in the context of a health meter, and Tower of Druaga was notable for its obtuse systme of hiding upgrades behind specific actions which were never explicitly stated (at least before the modern re-releases, which included hints and tips on how to collect said upgrades).

While I'd rather discuss Labyrinth's secrets when I get to discussing the specific level design components, let's get into the ways that Labyrinth taps into old arcade games' unforgiving design. It seems antithetical to Sonic, doesn't it? Sonic can take hits from most obstacles safely as long as he's carrying even one ring, and it's almost always easy to collect a ring, especially given the way the scatter after taking a hit. But we've discussed a few ways that guarantee death for Sonic instantaneously, ones that we've known about since nearly the beginning of the game: crushing, dropping past the lower boundary of the stage (i.e., pits), and spikes. Spikes are a little odd, granted, as the mercy invincibility of spikes isn't granted when being launched onto them after having already taken damage, though it's possible to land from spikes onto solid ground safely. The only one of these to not show up in Labyrinth is the pits, while the other two have multiple prominent occasions in the stage. Beyond that, though, Labyrinth introduces a new mechanic that has, as I understand it, brought about mild trauma amongst an entire generation of youth: drowning.

Now that the major nuances of the game's controls have been introduced, Labyrinth brings about a changeup, by placing signficnat amounts of the stage underwater. Unlike most other platformers, which use water as a way to completely alter the standard platforming mechanics by introducing swiming, Sonic's controls are basically the same above and below water, but with added drag imeding his motion while submerged. Certainly he moves slower and doesn't jump as high, but the narrow corridors of Labyrinth keep that from being a significant mechanical hindrance. What makes Labyrinth deadly is the threat of drowning.

While it's not a particularly deadly threat on its own, the threat of drowning pressures movement any time Sonic is underwater. Once submerged, Sonic needs to find air again within 30 seconds or will die instantly. Chimes occur every 5 seconds as a reminder of the timer, and when only 10 seconds remain a countown starts, along with one of the more notable tunes in all of gaming.



Given that it's an underwater threat, the resemblance to the theme from Jaws is not so much forgivable as laudable; certainly an excellent example of an inspired work. Dramatic and rising to a crescendo very quickly, the song is very expressive of the tension of the looming death by drowning. While drowning is easy enough to keep at bay -- air bubbles which reset the drowning timer come out of vents in the ground in predictable intervals -- the precise timing of most of the underwater obstacles, combined with Sonic's looser control underwater, provides a strong counterbalance. Acting too quickly while underwater is likely to wind up with Sonic meeting the business end of numerous pointy obstacles, while acting too slowly dooms Sonic to Davy Jones' locker. Rings are also harder to come by in most of this stage, and while backtracing for rings is usually feasible outside of this zone, needing to keep pace between air bubble vents makes it riskier to do so now. Taken all together, Labyrinth Zone's mechanics make the level a punishing realm of death. If this is your first time getting this far, I sure hope you've gathered as many continues as you can.



Drowning is fairly unusual for water levels in games. Mario, for example, could hold his breath effectively forever, and platformers have tended to take their cues from that, producing levels that focus on avoiding hazards and playing defensively. The drowning mechanic, however, feels like a cue taken directly from arcade game philosophy going back almost as long as there have been arcade games. While Sonic has had a 10 minute time limit in any stage, actually reaching that limit is extremely unlikely except for the most anal-retentive ring and item collectors since the stages aren't very long. Very generous time-limits are antithetical to arcade philosophy, where time is, in a way, not money: anyone who is already playing a game, and playing it well, isn't putting quarters into the machine, and furthermore are keeping other players from using it. Arcade operators can't really afford to have games that simply let players wait around and refuse to do anything, which is why so many of them have countdown timers for character selection, name entry, level/mode select, etc. Similarly, the sooner a player ends the game, either through completion, death, or time over, the sooner a new quarter can get into the machine. The drowning mechanic here absolutely prevents idling. The time limit is very short, and it's very punishing if carelessly ignored.

While a lot of games have anti-idling measures like this (Sonic didn't invent the in-game timer by any means; the first Mario game not to have one was Yoshi's Island, for example), Sonic is one of the few games not originating in arcades where such measures are so drastic, or at least in tension with the other design aspects of the stage. Where the first Super Mario's ratchet scrolling, short levels, and focus on stage hazards combine to make the timer one of the least likely sources of deaths, drowning here in Sonic is, again, a risk enhanced by the slower pace and obstacles that demand careful timing and control.

With that preamble out of the way, let's get to talking about the level a bit more concretely. The Map.



Act 1 starts out fairly straightforwardly. A small gap in the ceiling isn't quite continuity between Spring Yard and this level, but with the gaps that made up the pit hazards at the end of the previous level, it's easy to figure such a gap led Sonic down to this part of the stage, that opening being where he came from. A stretch, though the game is more explict about this sort of relationship later on.



After the usual 3 safe rings, there is a pool of water that is otherwise empty. The water is deep enough here for Sonic to drown in, but of course also so shallow that any jump gets Sonic right back out of it. It's a good way to get a feel for how Sonic's mechanics change underwater without exposing him to significant danger, since it is such a passive hazard. As the first instance of water in the entire series, it's not suprising that it's a safe introduction; later games' introductions to water are rarely so generous. While this clashes a bit with the unforgiving design of the rest of Labyrinth, since the game doesn't need to conform to the economics of arcade games, it's free to operate under the sort of introductory/antechamber design favored by classic NES games.



The generosity doesn't last long, however. Right after the pool of water is a badnik sabotage. This guy, called burrowbot, is distinguishable by the dril just barely sticking out of the ground. As Sonic approaches one, it leaps out of the ground in an ambush attack. There's only one here, and there are 3 rings right after it, so it's still not a huge threat, but a couple more come right after, the second from an underwater vantage point. Unlike Sonic, their movement isn't hampered by the water, and the low ceiling makes these two harder to dodge or hit with a jumping attack. They're easier to destroy by rolling, but Labyrinth's flat ground makes it hard to maintain enough speed to keep a roll going, and the underwater drag makes it even worse. Complicating potential attacks against them is their placement below Sonic. The first burrowbot is placed such that holding the jump button and right to exit the pool places Sonic in just the right place to hit it as it comes out of the ground, but it's easy to run forward off the high ground right into the second without jumping. The third is a little easier to deal ith, though, since being underwater slows Sonic enough that running straight into it is less likely.



Immediately after the burrowbot, the counter-clockwise motion of this spikeball directs Sonic downward, but successfully jumping over it leads Sonic to a shield, the only one in the stage. Avoiding hits in this stage is extremely difficult, meaning the shield is easily lost, but for someone looking for yet another chance at the special stage, collecting it is vital. The idea of jumping against the natural direction of stage obstacles is a pretty crucial idea for understanding Labyrinth Zone. It typically leads to bonus rewards, though sometimes it's necessary in order to progress through the stage safely. Dropping down from here is the first time the water poses anything like a threat, since there's a larger section to escape from here.



Two more burrowbots, easily dispatched, guard a super ring monitor on the left. Going right from here leads to a blocked passage and a switch. The boundary rises as the switch is pressed, leading to the next area. Besides technically re-introducing the idea of switches, which showed up in Marble Zone a few times, needing to wait for the passage to open gives the vent on the other side enough time to spawn an air bubble or two. There's an upward climb right after the bubble, making it more likely that Sonic will wind up hitting an air bubble as he jumps, so it actually takes a bit of work (or at least a lot of luck with timing) to avoid an air bubble.



While it's not immediately obviously that the air bubbles reset the drowning timer unless the countdown music is playing (at which point the stage's normal music is restored) this animation of Sonic gasping for air, accompanied by a sound effect reminiscent of a hiccup, makes sense in context as a way to forestall a watery grave. While it's possible to get through this segment without having the countdown timer trigger, encountering it helps make it clear that, yes, Sonic should take advantage of them in order to survive while submerged; they do not exist as decoration or to get in Sonic's way.

A second switch opens up a panel that leads back above water. A super ring monitor and 3 burrowbots mark the end of the tutorial areas. Now, the real Labyrinth Zone begins, starting with a significantly larger pool of water and a path leading downward.



Immediately Labyrinth Zone spikes in difficulty, or at least lack of forgiveness. A long jump from the edge of last bit of dry land is fatal, as Sonic lands directly onto a large bed of spikes. Recall that damage knockback from spikes does not respect the rules of temporary invulnerability: unless Sonic hits only the very edge of the spikes, he will be knocked back onto more spikes and die. Trying to jump across the water is clearly a bad idea, though not immediately visually obvious. It's one of the few times the difficulty in Labyrinth goes from "crushing" directly into "unfair", though the row of spikes serves a subtle purpose that will be a little clearer as we go through this section of the stage.



Dropping down leads Sonic to the first of the Jawz badniks, which are especially passive threats. Mostly floating around slowly and harmlessly in the water, they're less threatening than the burrowbots and are typically easy to avoid or defeat. A player would have to be especially hasty or careless for them to pose a threat, and are easy to dispatch by using jumps to travel farther down into the water. At the bottom are our first crushing deaths of the stage: platforms that rise up once disturbed by Sonic, and which will eventually rise up into some hanging spikes, squishing Sonic if he doesn't move away. There are also two switches here.

The switch on the right is in the air a bit. Since the switch is slightly elevated, on a ledge, Sonic has to leap for it. The best place to do that is from where the farther-right rising platform is. While the risk of being crushed by the spikes is minimal since there's enough time to react, reaching this area from falling on the left side of that spiked-bottom platform makes it very difficult to get to the button without triggering it. This switch opens the gate underneath it, which causes a current to form in the area around the switch. Going through that current forces Sonic into the next part of the level, which we'll get to in a little while.



But what about that other switch? Well, I mentioned The Tower of Druaga and its incredibly challenging puzzles earlier for a reason, and this part of the stage is exactly why. While the expected way to continue is to go down and to the right, taken through a current that leads into the second half of the level, there is an especially unusual shortcut here that you might not have ever been aware existed in this stage unless you've seen a map, and it involves the use of that switch.

The switch on the left opens up a door to a room with a power-up and another bubble vent. There are vents right by the switches so that one isn't particularly useful, and the 10 rings is only of use for people who still need to go to the special stage -- and, frankly, this is a difficult level to collect that 50 rings in, due to how easy it is to take hits in this stage. If there's a hint that something weird is going on, it's that the switch doesn't hide any particularly useful or lucrative treasure. The next few levels will have more useful switches, so it's frustrating that we don't have that precedent to work from just yet, but, then again, the game doesn't lend itself to revealing all its secrets on a single playthrough.

While it's possible to get to the left switch after having hit the right one -- holding left and the jump button from the switch will get you to small ledge just past the reach of the current -- it's not actually necessary, which is something I have regularly seen misreported when discussing this secret. Very few people know about it, and even fewer seem to know the specifics of how it actually works. I spent probably an hour and a half doing various testing of this area of the game to be absolutely certain of what the requirements are. Only the left switch is necessary to reach this secret.

So, if you notice from the map, the left platform can go up a little higher before it reaches spikes. There's just enough room, it turns out, to jump and reach the lower spiked-bottom ledge, and from there it's possible to start backtracking to the previous part of the map. Doing so leads to a small platform that wasn't there before. Landing on it causes it to start moving to the right.



This secret is incredibly well-hidden, and the only reason to even come to suspect that it's real so far is that what the switch is protecting is so paltry. Given that there have been very few times in the game where backtracking has truly been prevented by the game, and the focus on maintaining speed encouraging constant forward progress, the idea that it makes sense to backtrack here is a little unprecedented. Plus, a lot can go wrong, and there's only once chance per life to make the jump: the state of the platform persists even when it goes offscreen, such as by going to the end the room it guards. The current produced by hitting the other switch prevents coming back to this area, and so the only way to reset the platform's state is to have already ridden it up. And what can go wrong? Jumping into an air bubble negates Sonic's upward momentum, so he falls back down. Being pushed into the jawz badniks patrolling the area knocks Sonic back and almost certainly guarantees a crushing death. Being too early in the jump causes Sonic to miss the ledge, obviously, while being too late means death. Taken together, it's easy to see why almost nobody seems to know about this one, and why even fewer really seem to be clear on how to activate it.



This platform actually cuts out most of the level, and leads to a pretty relaxed path to the goal, and perhaps the biggest smoking gun I can think in the game itself that points to the idea that they were originally planning to hide the chaos emeralds inside normal acts.



After hopping over some spikes, you'll see this ledge. In the original (American and European) version of the game, there's nothing there, but in the later Japanese version, there is: a single ring on the ledge, the only time that you see a solitary ring in one place. What's it doing there? I believe it was almost certainly the location of a chaos emerald, early in development. There are no other solitary rings like this anywhere else in this game (in the few cases where single rings are placed in parts of the level, they are always near other rings, outlining a trail, like along the rim of some of the half-pipes in Spring Yard Zone), and the other games in the series maintain this tradition. There is never just one ring.

The only reason I hestitate to declare this for certain is that the ring isn't there in the earlier release. There is a long-standing tradition of doing quick removal of objects by replacing them with rings, noticeable even in Sonic Adventure 2's GameCube port, where occurrences of Big the Cat were replaced with rings. It's easy to explain why they do this: rings can't hurt the player, they remain stationary and thus don't have negative interference with other objects, they exist in every level already and so won't lead to a graphic corruption issue by being loaded on a level without proper graphics in memory, and changing the object type usually requires a quick change of a couple bytes in-place making it easier than removing the entry entirely or defining an empty object specifically for this purpose. Especially in Sonic 1, having an extra ring around the stage somewhere inaccessible doesn't affect the game in any way, and having an accessible one almost always works out in favor of the player. While not true for the later games, the rings are part of the complete list of all objects in the game (later games would separate them into their own lists), so there's nothing particularly untoward about doing this. If rings were supposed to be defined in a separate list, however, that would be even more of a clear sign that there was a hasty object replacement of that sort here. Either way, there's no doubt about it: this single ring is strange.

(As an aside, while there are occasional differences between object layouts of other stages, this is notable because it appears to be the only instancewhere an object appears to have been created out of whole cloth rather than simply moved from one place to another -- object placement differences in other stages don't usually amount to much besides the occasional repositioning of a monitor, so they're usually extremely subtle and not worth commenting on. To my knowledge there is no instance of an object being deleted in the Japanese version either.)



Past that isn't anything very complicated. The path then feeds Sonic onto a waterslide that leads into another current, dropping him in an area with a few more burrowbots and a switch that opens up a nearby ceiling leading to the goal. After such a difficult task to get to this point, the end of the level comes in gently. The last section is a fairly open chamber that also crosses over the end of the path we just skipped over. The only other indication that this path even exists comes from going back to the left after taking this exit. (Again, the clearest sign that this path exists is only shown to those interested in backtracking a bit, as the lack of a wall on the left side of the main exit does provide encouragement to explore to see what, if anything, is to the left; it's one of the few times in the entire zone that player progress isn't gated by extremely narrow passages leading in one direction.)
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Old 12-14-2016, 10:50 PM
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muteKi muteKi is offline
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Going back to that path, though, the level is a lot longer and there are still several tricky obstacles to endure. Sonic lands by another bubble vent and a couple more platforms that will eventually crush him against spikes if he stays on them -- the spikes are visible on exiting the tunnel with the current. There is another spikeball below these platforms. It is not quite as telegraphed as the first, though waiting for an air bubble places Sonic far enough above it to see it spin around. Waiting for an air bubble is a good idea, too, since Sonic has been underwater for a while at this point and is about halfway back to surfacing again. After this is a small chamber with some rings and a couple more of the jawz badniks. They're not a threat, and there are also a couple more vents for ambitious hedgehogs who find they need air now.



If you remember Super Mario Bros. 3, there's a section in the very last level where Mario must climb up ledges while energy balls orbit some corners, requiring timing to pass through without taking a hit. This is almost exactly the same challenge, but with Sonic's controls hampered so he's not as maneuverable. Timing and caution is even more important here, since going too fast will cause Sonic to eat a delicious spikeball dinner. Once again the hazards of this stage would be fairly mundane and easy to deal with, if not for the looming threat of instant death underwater encouraging reckless behavior and the hampered mobility helping punish it.

After a level chunk of ground there's another spikeball in the same relative placement up some ascending ledges, leading to the surface of the water.

You'll notice if you look on the map that we're now in a region of the map that is orange surrounded by green. No, Sonic won't be walking forward into an entrance to the water that starts to the right -- the way the water effect works that wouldn't be feasible anyway, but more on that in a later update. What's happening is that by the time Sonic reaches that area with the spikeballs, the water level has actually dropped down. While it's basically constant if you take the upper route, the lower route raises and lowers the water level in a few areas to present its challenge in a different way. The change in water level is gradual even if it happens offscreen (there's a little variable holding the current water level that ticks up/down until it reaches the level it should be at the point in the level where Sonic is), but there are places throughout Labyrinth where the water's rising and falling is, in fact, visible.



These conveyor belt traps are especially what I have in mind when I think of Labyrinth as a revival of single-screen arcade challenges like Donkey Kong. Aside from the mechanical similarity to the traps in that game's 50m and 75m levels, they tend to lead the player to crushing deaths on spikes. Riding the platforms around the belt they loop through crushes Sonic against the left set of them on the ceiling. These spikes aren't on-screen when Sonic walks into the area, so they're not obvious. For someone who's reaction might be to ride the ridable platforms to see where they might lead, the spike death here seems overly cruel, especially since this is their first appearance in the stage.

This is one of those situations where behavior encouraged in later Sonic games gets punished here, which is one of the major reasons why I recommend people play Sonic 1 before they play other games in the series. Sonic 1's camera is a bit different from other games, after all: holding up or down immediately moves the camera, which means that holding up on one of the platforms gives Sonic a bit more time to react, since the spikes become visible sooner. If you don't do so, it's easy to be too slow to react to spikes coming up on screen if you're not already aware they exist. Even going back to the game now I sometimes forget about the camera differences and specific spike locations and wind up with Sonic-kabobs on my hands. Here the camera is a significant aid and should not be ignored, while in later games the camera switch is too slow to be useful, and the levels tend to favor horizontal scrolling which reduces the need for it anyway. (Furthermore, the later games tend not to rely as much on obstacles like this, where the hazards aren't as immediately obvious.)



Diving into the water rather than riding the platforms reveals a retracting bridge of the same sort that ended the first water segment in this level, and a red spring. Taking the spring is safe: it launches Sonic underneath a switch. It's not hard to guess that the switch there controls the platform, which is the next area in through the level, even if they're not both on the screen at the same time. Since the direction go in a clockwise direction, they lead away from the switch toward the left-side ceiling spikes, so reaching the switch involves not riding but jumping against the motion of the platforms, to get up to the switch. There are spikes above it, making timing jumps important.



Below the retracting bridge, there's a ledge with a burrowbot and some more air, just above a checkpoint. After the checkpoint is the first real underwater control trial: retracting spears ready to skewer Sonic at a moment's notice. A couple rings mark out the end of the spike when it extends fully, but jumping over it without taking damage is impossible. The wall stops Sonic's forward momentum, causing him to fall right onto the spear once he hits it, assuming the spear is extended. Again, timing and precise movement (as we are underwater again) are key. The ceiling is, however, high enough to grant some forgiveness: if Sonic is early, there's room enough above the spear that Sonic can just barely stay floating above it before it descends; if Sonic is late, the ceiling can keep enough of Sonic's jump trajectory to stay above it before it extends.

The second spear, right after it, is in otherwise the same configuration but the ground between the ceiling and Sonic's point on the ground is narrower, so the timing is much stricter.



After that is another air vent and a switch. The switch opens a door just to its right; the only purpose to this door from a mechanics perspective is to block access to the air source. It's not advised to pass through the doorway without collecting air, as the door closes back up as soon as Sonic goes past it. A bit mean, but still reasonable: most air bubbles in the stage are unnecessary, but, well, I've made quite clear by now what the risk of avoiding them is.



Plus, the game isn't completely hateful here: there are several more spears, but the first one that points up can be jumped over fairly safely. The ones pointing down must be retracted to cross by safely (they go low enough to hit Sonic even through a roll), but since the timing for them is relative to when their spawn time (rather than a global timer), it's possible to get past them all without waiting to much. Plus, partway through this section the water level drops to about Sonic's height, at which point air is only a jump away.



Hitting the red spring boosts Sonic up a narrow stair-stepped passageway. The spring is fast, and Sonic will probably wind up knocking into the ceiling at some point. In the meantime the water level will rise. It's a pretty minor obstacle here, since there's nothing else to worry about (no spikes or enemies here), though later passages like this will offer many more hazards.



Almost all the way up, there's a platform on the ground with holes in it. This spongy ledge floats in the water, so it rises up as the water level does. Faster players can jump on it before the water gets to its height, riding it up to the next part of the stage, though otherwise jumping back to it from the ledge on its right is necessary. The water level stops rising just below the next ledge.



Dropping down into the water, and going past some spikes and a jawz that is actually in our way for once, we see another new enemy: the orbinaut. This guy stays in one place, and when Sonic gets close to it, its body changes color and it fires out the spikeballs it has swinging around it. Our introduction to this guy is a fairly safe one. Approaching it from a ledge underneath, only a very hasty hedgehog would have a chance to get hit by them, and the conveyor belt above the ledge is too high up to expose Sonic to the spikeballs as he rides it.



While most of this stage's hazards have had a nice sense of escalation so far, this conveyor belt is a disappointment in that respect -- it's safe to ride for nearly all of its loop, with the only hazard in the way being the statue head poking out from the wall, which (in classic video game style) tosses out a projectile. The projectile is small and moves slow, so it's overall easy to avoid, but means Sonic has to jump over it to stay safe. Sonic should jump over it anyway, since the next ledge is right above it; the only real risk is jumping too soon and missing the ledge, requiring a restart. Given that the last conveyor section had an instakill with spike crushing, this feels out-of-place. In fact, it's the only time where the conveyor belt doesn't have lots of spikes around it. If this had somehow been the first instance of the platfors, then it would have been a lovely introduction to them. As it stands, it makes the one that did come first feel like more of a cheap shot. A shame, since outside of this the level does a lovely job of introducing and then elaborating on obstacles.



Hold that thought, though, as Act 1 does have one final trick up it's sleeve, and it's a pretty clever one. The end of the stage is past a narrow passage leading to the left, and as Sonic goes through it the water level rises. What makes this area challenging is that those spongy platforms are back, and the water level makes them a crushing hazard. Thus the challenge becomes trying to either get through the level faster and jump over the platforms before the water can lift them up, or waiting and going underneath once the water has already risen. Waiting is a bit easier, if antithetical to the game's talk of speed, since there's another air vent past a switch right after this section (for some reason the vent doesn't show up on the map, but it's there; I checked). Note that the water isn't the only thing Sonic has to fight against in this section: more burrowbots. They're placed far enough away from the sponges that even if Sonic knocks into one as it jumps out of the ground, the knockback will keep him to the side of the sponge. That is, there's no risk of knockback leading to crushing, just time loss, though trying to make up for that lost time could wind up with a crushing death from the next sponge.

After that switch and air vent are a couple horizontally-placed spears. Both are pretty easy to jump over. Past that is a switch unblocking the route to the goal, ending the act.



Labyrinth gets a lot of criticism for being slow and penalizing. That's fair, certainly, but it's also what I like about the stage. It presents most of its ideas in a neat and orderly way, and then quickly ratchets up the difficulty on them, while hiding a few weird twists along the way here and there. And when you've played the games as long as I have, the added challenge is definitely welcome -- its nice to have a level that isn't incredibly easy to blow past. Plus, I think all the ideas of the stage work together to be more than the sum of their parts; its main flaw merely being that it's in a game that people expect to be fast. One of my hopes in doing this series is that people will appreciate these less-liked levels a bit more, levels that give even me some trouble.

That's all I have to say for Labyrinth Act 1. Next time, Act 2!
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Old 01-08-2017, 01:44 AM
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I was hoping to have Act 2 done by now but I was pretty sick the week before this and this week I spent the sort of time I'd use for the write-up on streaming Sonic Adventure. So if you want to hear me mocking conservative memes in Big the Cat's voice, well, that's on my YouTube channel
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