Sonic 3 & Knuckles: Design Lessons in Transition, Travel and Pantomime
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
By Adrian Bauer
peer-editing by Justin Wong
May 16th, Cleaned up my prose, a few more thoughts in the conclusions, finally had a chance to clean it up and republish.
Mar 17th, Currently rewriting the prose
Feb 28th, Updates to the conclusion
A Little Bit of History and Consideration:
Sega's focus in past games always prioritized action, and as a company with arcade roots, stories were told in ways to compliment this genre. Even in their most RPG-like games (Wonderboy / Monsterworld) were designed as arcade games with RPG elements to increase accessibility. (Sega Ages Translation). Stringing together storytelling through actions without relying on an overt narrator is a good lesson to learn for game designers. By doing so, the designer can compress the game and get more information out to the player naturally. Storytelling becomes an intimate interactive experience. So considering this, I decided to write about only the theatrical glue in Sonic games and the silent narrative that Sega was so good at until the Dreamcast died.
Something related I’d like to add is found in Scott McLeod’s Understanding Comics. Transitions are not only found in what we see on the page but the spaces in between. The blank bits of page between panels are for our imaginations. Like in comics, our games have blank spaces between the actions. Usually it’s a loading screen but sometimes it’s intentional for cinematic effect. In these blanks spaces we connect the unvoiced ideas of the story or fill in the details of movement. Older games didn’t have these long waits between stages and that has an interesting effect. If a game jumped between ideas without warning it caused mental whiplash to outsiders. Those inside the accepted notions of a videogame just being a mosaic of stage themes learned to just take it without question. Some games take the time to show how the levels all interconnect while many of the sloppy unpolished games did not. Ghouls and Ghosts gave you a map of the whole game and Mario used warp pipe scenes then later added maps. Sonic went from no transitions to a streamlined adventure around a colossal floating island. It took 2 games to completely figure this out but the development team did an amazing job in the end.
Before we start, I want to be clear, I won’t cite outside sources for any of my following interpreting Sonic the Hedgehog canon. While the comics and cartoons were great fun, they were mostly a creative interpretation that served to expand a narrative that the actual Genesis games did not have space and time for. The games alone deliver a solid story experience.
Sonic 1 and 2:
If we are going to talk about Sonic3&K’s theatrics we should briefly examine earlier games in the series. These did not have nearly the same cohesive level design based narrative that Sonic 3& Knuckles did, but the kind of narrative approach I’ll be talking about was born late in Sonic 2. For the most part all levels were all independent of each other, divided into acts to help with pacing and difficulty. The first act is as simple as racing to cross the finish line. The second act was not much more than a new set of challenges but with the expectation of a boss fight. Ultimately it's a simple formula to let you know what you will be doing until the end-game. Sonic 1 has a single transition in the 3rd act of Labyrinth Zone; you spring you through a hole into Dr. Robonik’s secret base.
Sonic 2 changed as the hunt for Dr. Robotnik (also known as Dr. Eggman for anyone who wants it another way) turned somewhat theatrical around Sky Chase Zone near the end of the game. Suddenly the levels were inter-related and built up to a climax. In Sky Chase Zone you stood on a bi-plane as it traversed the clouds. Following this is Wing Fortress Zone; your plane is shot down by lasers and you have to jump off or die. Sonic is now onboard so you work your way around the exterior until you fight Dr. Robotnik again in the control room. He escapes the fortress on a space shuttle and the newly repaired bi-plane tries to catch up. Sonic jumps desperately onto the shuttle riding into space. The ship docks in the Death Egg and you regain control in a corridor. After the fights with metal-sonic and the mech-egg, Sonic leaps from the exploding space station and is caught by Tails in the plane. The game ends with Sonic posing in the sky. It’s too bad the earlier stages didn’t get this attention, but it was a solid start for the series.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles:
If you need a refresher, watch a speedrun of the game here
By delivering a solid experience with an easily reasoned succession of levels to sum the world, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is able to express more complex ideas without ruining the pace of game play. By weaving story into the environment and level design and transitions between them it could properly engage and immerse players. The game’s strength is to always let you know what is going on and why without disturbing your focus on the action. Now that we know where the hedgehog is coming from we can start with the opening of Sonic 3.
This scene is immediately recognizable to players of the previous game; it picks up right after Sonic's rescue. Sonic and Tails are again in pursuit of Dr. Robotnik once more. If I remember correctly they’re following the falling Death Egg debris here. This era of games had to make room for text or more sprite art, so it's easy to lose track of the details, I think this information came from the manual or box (North America). If I’m wrong let me know.
Your super powered travel is interrupted without warning by Knuckles, our pantomime ruffian who is out to stop you because Dr. Robotnik tricked him. We don't actually know this until much later but the confusing act perks your interest. The intro is a reflection of Sonic’s character and Knuckles presents himself as a great rival. Sonic may be fast and powerful, but in each encounter we see how the echidna is able to completely halt his progress. Stopping Sonic is interfering with his defining characteristic and your experience. For those who have played before this is a personal conflict as all the work you know goes into obtaining the chaos emeralds is ruined instantly. For the newcomer however it is a loss for the protagonist. It is a dramatic change in Sonic’s abilities and your own as you are denied the power and speed this golden form offers. This introduction is very simple but it has a great impact when establishing the setting and characters.
Venturing further into Angel Island, we realize not only has the graphical fidelity improved but the way in which the game visually articulates your progress has changed as well.
Angel Island Act 1 displays a deep lush jungle and a distant shoreline if you climb high enough to see it. We know that Sonic has come a long way inland yet hasn't actually gotten into the thick of it until he encounters the mini boss in a teaser fight.
Before the second act we come across a flying mortar launching machine (several duplicates pass by in the distance). The playing field is high above the horizon and we can only see the ocean but that view suddenly changes to scorched foliage. Your only option in the meantime is to just hammer at this single machine while it unloads and escapes. You continue on after the wall of fire subsides. The jungle continues to burn and the landscape crumbles beneath your feet regularly. The background has changed subtly; notice that you can no longer see the ocean. The previous scene is takes you to the top of a high hill and then down into the jungle where the horizon line is absent. Without an ocean line in view we’re lost. This also adds to the intensity of the jungle fire that surrounds you. The game will continue to use transitions like this in later stages. Its effect to you feels as if you are always moving further in to the island, not simply scrolling across a level. It makes the game feel less like a succession of interesting stage ideas and more of a cohesive narrative within each of the levels.
The mini boss of this zone is interesting to me because as a kid my friend and I took it as a chance to get some revenge. Thinking about it now I realize that this was only 1 of the dozens of copies. I realize that it doesn’t have the same emotional impact on closer inspection but it is a way to vent frustration.
Water is apart of the scenery of Angle Island Zone but only in act 2 does it begin to dominate the landscape. The second act leads up to a waterfall boss-fight followed by another encounter with Knuckles. While you stand on the bridge below he destroys it with a switch and that sends you falling into Hydrocity Zone. Robotnik destroyed the bridge on the way in so there really is nowhere to go. This did not however stop my friend and I. The second player is not restricted from moving so by quickly snatching up Sonic you can fly back up to Knuckles. Only problem is an invisible shield of chuckling bullshit protects him. Luckily for him in our next encounter he will be behind a wall so I can’t complain there.
Introducing water and the waterfall transition between zones is a good design and continues the momentum of the game undisturbed. It’s an unbroken directional line between these two zones.
Hydrocity Zone Act 1 has a good measure of depth to its scenery. The parallax effects here make the soon to be visible architecture seem much grander in scale from further away. The shadows under the water line only make the environment feel all that much larger. Like the first zone, this one serves to push us further into the island and take in the environment.
The mini boss of this zone is like a washing machine with an evil Oxyclean laundry bomb, and while it has no emotional weight or beard behind it, it fits well into the theme of water regardless. The hardware limitations prevent too much content from being added so brevity is understandable. If I could change anything I might show this machine doing something in the level to affect my progress. An unavoidable encounter would have it dragging you around the deep water.
Act 2 has interesting lighting from below, it gives us a direction. The further up you move the darker the arches become as some are further in behind the lit areas. The area just feels larger because of it. I still to this day wonder where exactly the bottom is.
Chuckles interrupts you with the graceful conversational wit and charm of Youtube comments before the boss fight. He Ruins the bridge under your feet again while laughing like a prick. He sets up this small space, waiting for the moment to serve you up to Dr. Robotnik's latest death trap. His presence is unnecessary here. The bridge goes nowhere too. But it says something about his character, he wants you to know that he can predict your movements and will be there to snare you. I'd be reading too much into it if I were to imply anything further, although really the game doesn’t support a sadistic interpretation. If you are to play as Knuckles you get to see these locations from other angles, his alternate paths give us a look into his knowledge about the island and not much else.
After you crush Dr. Robotnik again and free the animals, the ground begins to rumble and a column of water propels you into the sky! We come back down into Marble Garden Zone onto slanted platforms. Sonic hits the ground running into a dizzying almost uncontrollable ride. If you’re particularly quick there’s a chance to nab a few secrets. The mountains are small and numerous in the distance, separated from you by a lush carpet of green forests and overgrowth. Ruins pop out of the growth and are possibly related to Hydrocity Zone.
A theme in this level’s design is land instability, and a cool way to introduce this is through the quaking earth at the end of the last zone. All this instability is caused by Dr. Robotnik’s tinkering, but what's really well done is the next mini boss who drills away with cold robotic cruelty towards nature. It exists to disturb the land and present more dynamic obstacles. You meet it several times and take pot shots before it escapes. Dr. Robotnik takes matters into his own hands after you destroy the mini boss, causing the entire stage to change completely and almost crush us in the process. I usually hate moving walls of death but this one seems so right. Walls of death left permanent scars on me by Sonic’s awful peers of the era. Just make a child play Kid Chameleon and watch their lights fizzle out in despair.
Act 2 moves further in and lower to sea level. We can't see over the mountains like we could before and it helps to develop a mental map of a valley. The plants and ruins are now in greater resolution and it becomes an unguided tour through a historic site. With no sign of buddy Knuckles we continue after the moustache-meatball uninterrupted.
Dr. Robotnik is now in a flying drill; he dismantles the whole mountain you're standing on as tails swoops in to carry you back into battle. This is such a cool sudden co-op experience to take on. Playing as Tails is fun but the experience warbles between messing with your friend and helping get him/her to a secret area. This boss’s altitude is nice touch, hovering above the horizon. I may be over exaggerating things but many of Sonic's more interesting fights are in high places. There's just something about a fight on a mountain top that's dramatic.
The transition from Marble Garden Zone to Carnival Night Zone is probably one of my favourites in this whole game. The animals you've freed set off in the opposite direction, the sun sets and you airlift in. The mountains are nearly invisible except for a midnight blue sky and the sparse speckles of light. The ground is a city-wide festival of colours and shapes and it feels as if you’re just dropping right into the centre of a crazy party. For those of you who are only playing this game, the fact sinks in that an entire day has gone by, but for those coming off Sonic 2 you realize the death egg went down in a fireball over the planet before lunch. This has been one heck of a day and we’re still not through this valley we began into.
Act 1 is a dense level. The background is littered with neon towers and signs; it’s active and distracting. However I don’t have anything to really say about this zone and to be honest I've felt this to be a weaker part of the game despite the festivity. The carnival doesn’t have a reason to exist, it just does. There is nothing to really say that Robotnik needed a party town or that it exists over something important and it pumping out eco-terror. The mini boss is also thematically uninvolving. It really has little to do with anything but be different. Survive and avoid is all you do. It isn't introduced at all, and just comes out of nowhere and changes nothing after. Between this and those damn cylinders I don’t think this zone is remembered too fondly.
Act 2 isn't much better; water is brought back into the design but only briefly to slow you down. Knuckles turns off the mess of lights and signs in the distance with a single switch. Everything goes quiet and we stumble through the dark and somewhat spooky carnival. You do eventually find a switch to turn the power back on but it doesn't make things begin to move again or affect much more than the aesthetics. The blackout would have been perfect to kill all the motion of the stage elements. To be honest I thought it should have been Sonic’s job to shut down the robot city, not to turn it back on. I never said this game was perfect but this zone just slips in little ways.
Knuckles shows up with his latest invention, a wall of sub-pixels sustained by his inaudible laughter. At this point I wanted to feed him his hair. His character becomes clear with repetition; he is slowing you down or redirecting you to a more scenic route. He is just putting the breaks on Sonic against your will to exercise his power.
After the boss fight you jump into a cannon and fire off at a 45 degree angle into the sky. A plot of snow on the ground would make a small yet wonderful hint as to the next theme but maybe we’re just too far away. This transition may not be visually stimulating but instead relies on motion and direction between zones much like the blank space between comic panels spark imagination. He comes crashing down onto the top of the mountain and picks up a well placed snowboard in the bounce.
Sonic has always been a radical 90's kind of dude, that's why he snowboards for a portion of act 1. The transition here is a high-speed parabola of movement. It starts from the bottom of the mountain and carries over to the other side. I remember Icecap Zone mostly for its music, but it still has some nice design ideas. Something I remember clearly in relation is the day one of the older kids brought a Game Pro magazine to the bus stop. In it were a whole slew of Sonic 3 prototype screen shots. There were plans to merge the mini boss into the snowboarding section, but then the game came out and it wasn't there, and it was not most triumphant at all. I still wonder where it would have fit into the scheme of things. Possibly the first act would have been traversing the mountain tops with a snowboard battle down the hill to the edge of the glacial lake. That would have been awesome!
Act 1 spends most of its time under the mountain. The ice cave leads down to the drifting ice bergs of act 2. While it could have been more interesting to go down the hill on the outside, we’re still traveling back down to sea level. Reserving the outside artwork for the second act just helps to re-iterate the themes of motion and progress.
Act 2 opens up and lets you travel above or below ground. Going above just gives you a better view of the lake while going below dunks you in it. Knuckles is absent from this zone. Being bothered twice in the last zone is enough for now. Like I said before, Icecap Zone is a parabola, we come down to the shore on the other side and in a way it mirrors the first stage, coming back to a body of water. It’s as if Robotnik made a b-line across the island in his escape. The point of Icecap Zone is to show off the extreme cases of Sonic chasing Dr. Robotnik down. Determination is definitely something that comes through in characterization.
If I were to improve the transition out of Icecap Zone, Dr. Robotnik's oil rigs and other equipment would be at sea. His spindash into a snow-packed hole seems unnecessary to me as opposed to just running or anything else. Ultimately this act does set up Launch Egg well enough with a common a body of water in the distance but it's still kind of vague.
Launch Base Zone introduces the mini boss early on, and it builds up to an endgame for Sonic 3. The Death Egg’s activation is a real struggle. Disregarding the obvious name, it becomes a symbol for pending destruction. Dr. Robotnik has nearly infinite resources to rebuild it over and over. Also, who is to say his machines won’t continue his plans after he is gone.
Launch Base Zone makes its purpose clear in the horizon from the start. No longer is Sonic just chasing the vast horizon but he is given a summit to locate. We can see the new Death Egg under construction in the background of act 1 from afar and we only need to get there and stop it. This level shows us what we were travelling for all this time, a now visible final destination.
Act 1 begins with the duo leaping out of the snow in front of the Death Egg. Your path is on a high hill circling down to the lake. Part way through act 1 Dr. Robotnik is spotted carrying around an ominously marked square. You can try to stop him but since it's impossible we will assume it’s a part for the mini boss to be. We aren't given any clues but it's enough to just know of it.
Knuckles shows up in your way, chuckles and raises the building to the ground with a bomb while you're in it. Nothing substantial becomes of this. I wish it had more to say about him but again he is just stepping in to bother us and isn't expanding our understanding. He has established that he's a dickhead and is only keeping his prick quota up. What's sad about this demolition is that you can stay in the spinning cup and it just floats. If he demolished a path leading over the upcoming mini boss or something it would have had something, anything. Knuckles is silly when he can’t actually stop Sonic from taking the intended route. It undermines the established character.
Act 2 takes place up close to the Death Egg in the lake. Dr. Robotnik makes a feeble attempt to stop you at the dock but you defeat him and commandeer his hover-pod. Knuckles lags behind to be an idiot and stall you. He stands on some scaffolding and waits for you to hover by so he can box the craft you've stolen. The punch bounces you a little and he strikes a cocky pose. The giant rockets behind you begin to roar without warning and the commotion drops his stupid ass into the lake. I bet he wished he had taken a hover pod now! Serves him right, I hope those engines make echidna soup out of him!
You know what, when I was a kid my friend and I cringed and twisted at the thought of jumping into that egg-pod. We figured the controls were crusted in old sweat. The seat must have stunk of carpet creepers. Food-like relics would be scattered about the cockpit. This was just the combined image in our heads since between Sonic Sat-am and that other crazy cartoon; Dr. Robotnik was always portrayed as a corpulent sack of wet beef wearing the same clothes all the time. Eeugghhhhhh I still get the shivers thinking about it when I make that leap. This really has nothing to do with what actually happens in the game. Sonic jumps in nonchalant and continues on his adventure.
So you fight the mayonnaise king himself on a lower platform that breaks off as the Death Egg plummets back to Moebius post-victory. If you did not have Sonic & Knuckles attached the game ended in the Death Egg’s explosion. The intro title animation to just Sonic & Knuckles makes it clear that the egg has landed face first into Lava Reef Zone but it's unfortunately not shown in-game. The location is more of a mystery to on a complete play through.
Mushroom Hill Zone opens Sonic & Knuckles by air lift. We come across that soup surviving rat shortly after a hop and a skip from landing. I really like his body language in this scene because you understand that he is hiding something without it being hammy. We finally see something more to the echidna. Since characters show their intentions through a pantomime, these obvious actions don’t come across as insipid or silly. He looks around, closes the door and runs away. Upon investigating it's clear that these new big rings are a portal to the master emerald in some unknown temple. The size and secrecy make it an important part of the events to come. Reflecting back on the start of Sonic 3 we remember that he stole your little emeralds. You had to reclaim them but now you have the chance to unlock emeralds that come from the source. But how do you know this?
Well that emerald is really big, it must be important, and when you do the next special stages the new little emeralds are still relatively big. Size matters when concerning glittering rocks! Anyway, Knuckles makes one more appearance in this zone after the first act. He has found himself a solid visible wall to hide behind for once. He cranks that lever to increase the power of whatever is blowing you, but you just can’t hold on and eventually release into the next act. Notice that this zone does not have a destination in the scenery; instead the colours change to signal your progress. While it may not give any sense of distance it still livens up an otherwise static world. It's a decent way to change things up while not eating too many resources, those old cartridges were limited! The colour change inspires a mystery and pushes us on to figure things out.
Of course it was Dr. Robotnik messing with nature again; disturbing him restores the environment and moves us along to a very cool looking boss fight with a faux 3D effect to it. There isn't too much to say about Mushroom Hill Zone, but the developers have used Knuckles properly again.
You stow away on this flying behemoth as it lowers into Mushroom Hill to pick up a defeated Dr. Robotnik. The ship acts as transportation between parts of the island. It also says something about Dr. Robotnik’s operations. The background details tell us that this is a production facility for egg-pods at the end of each zone. We can see them lined up in the distance. This might imply that the ship is doing rounds on the island to drop his machinery off in each zone. It sure does explain how he is able to set up shop so soon.
Flying Battery Zone is static area with little change between Acts 1 and 2. There are lots of moving parts but really it's a classic stage design like Sonic 2 and the design reminds me of Wing Fortress Zone in purple yet is on the interior.
The mini boss of act 1 is an activated egg-pod with spiked limbs and eyes. We get hints before this boss by use of other trap & reward egg-pods throughout the stage. These have always symbolically meant the end of a boss so to come across one in the open is strange and yet inviting, and to be tricked is extremely surprising! So by the time we do get to the mini boss we’re suspicious of there being nothing but an egg-pod out in the open.
After you defeat Dr. Robotnik on a scaffold in his exercise machine you leg it over to the right. Sonic kicks an emergency hatch open and jumps to his potential death. What an extreme way to go catch up as Robotnik escapes into the desert below. You don’t even start the next area in a terror-fall, not even in an airlift, just plummeting straight down as if it were a regular jump.
I wonder then how high the ship was when it dropped. It must not have been a threatening height at that point. I bet Sonic is going insane from sleep deprivation, I hear a lack of sleep increases thoughts of suicidal depression. Maybe Sonic suffers brain damage from the drop into Marble Garden; that poor fox is being dragged unknowingly to his doom.
This ship in the flow of levels allows the game to go from a lush forest to a desert with no objection. You're only in the desert because this is where the ship ended up after defeating Dr. Robotnik. You also get a sense of understanding that Dr. Robotnik's creations are stale and in mass production. He has them cast and pressed into shape in complete automation. This is like parenting with Baby Einstein videos. It is a horrible look into his sterile world. You should also remember that these games were steeped in the eco-fighters taking on big industry trend of the 80's and 90's.
Sandopolis begins with more falling, but it's no good because those two aren't falling in terror. How am I supposed to cook without fresh tears for stew? The two land safely in a sand pit that requires you to jump out for the level to start. Right away we notice a goal in the distance. While the pyramid isn’t as important as one might think, the stop in motion does make you look around while waiting for Sonic to dig himself out.
By the end of Act 1 we will be fighting a stone golem at that pyramid's doorstep. Nothing else really happens here. I admit that this was probably my least favourite level period. I just shrug this zone with indifference and slog through every time. Knuckles remains absent in this zone like the last and I’m glad to have a break from him. This zone does have a lot of grand architecture to it despite my mood about it. The sandstone ruins are plentiful and complex mixed building materials and intricate designs make it a long gone civilization. The golem never came across as anything Dr. Robotnik made, the texture was too unrefined. The same goes for the ghosts he trapped in an egg-pod. The golem signals supernatural elements and ancient surprises ahead. The fact that there are still some automated systems and ghosts implies that there was indeed an advanced civilization on this island but the mystery is underdeveloped inside the game. The Archie Sonic comics delivered an answer to this but that’s an external source.
Act 2 acts on these new facts by ramping up the tension; it moves deeper underground in a darkening tomb while ghosts chase you. After playing pull the light switch for a good 5-8 minutes and then fighting Robotnik, you fall down another hole. Falling is overused but it’s quick and works. At least this hole is constructed like it has a purpose, like say joining a mine where special glittering rocks may be.
Lava Reef Zone is a huge; it spans 4 acts and changes regularly. Lava Reef Zone oscillates between hot and cold twice and I'm still not sure why it does so the first time. A giant robotic mini boss hand tries to crush you and after you break it the lava cools off. Then the tepid path ahead leads into a crystal cave. It's really strange and act 1 just doesn't make much sense as it leads into the 2nd. Running on the cold lava is a neat effect but any correlation between lava and the robot would be stretching it. What we might notice is the change from warm standard rocks to amethyst formations underneath the Death Egg. This to me signals the upcoming master emerald. I could see this expansive cave as the birthplace of the chaos emeralds in general. There is much about the mythology that is just missing but this is definitely fertile ground for something.
Act 2 inches closer to the Death Egg but Knuckles is waiting in place of a boss fight. The flow of the level has you climbing up at the end, gaining ground on the Death Egg. The high repeating staircase is a nice place to introduce Knuckles. The repetition tricks us into feeling the long arduous climb. He waits for us to get close enough then pushes a crystal boulder down. It carries us screaming into act 3. You just know that jackass was blocking us from the shortcut out of this place. Ugh, this happens every single time! The path Knuckles guards is just another road to the same later temple, but it’s for his boss fight in an abridged Sky Sanctuary Zone.
Act 3 positions the Death Egg up and close when suddenly it gives you the hot flashes. Perhaps the Death Egg is actually a symbolical, psycho-sexual metaphor for a woman who can't get pregnant; no amount of science will stop nature from halting its development? No, wait, that can't be right at all...
...but this mini boss is great. It feels personal because Dr. Robotnik is dealing with us directly for once. Oh why won't he ever notice me! The boss is an endurance test with Robotnik in the background launching missiles your way. Eventually the heat dies off in Lava Reef again as you escape into a tunnel away from all this noise. The path to the temple is a coincidence while you take shelter. It’s all about the exploration of a strange world and the phenomenon you trip over along the way. The point of this act is that the Death Egg is always too dangerous to approach, so Sonic and Tails retreat for now until they figure something out.
Transitioning into act 4 is a cool down effect from dangerous red to soothing blue, this might be Dr. Robotnik giving up for the time being or the Death Egg’s weaponry losing effect and power. I’m not sure but it works either way. Also, unlike the transition in act 1, this one makes sense. Sega did a really good job balancing technical limitations and art with this zone, reusing the same cave art, simply changing the Death Egg picture and the colour pallet; this goes a long way to give the stage some vastness. Overall it says a lot about the scale of both the island and Dr. Robotnik's ultimate weapon.
Act 4 is unlike the others in Lava Reef Zone. Many refer to it as Hidden Palace (citing Sonic 2's beta and other media) but I'm just going by the stage select menu for my names here. The design choices for this act are great for characterizing another side of Knuckles. Normally we might call him a brute and a jerk but every bad boy has a soft side. The environment is calming and gentle, a temple, a place for meditation and solitude. Even the Death Egg glows a gentle blue, creating a white halo. We understand that it is not in operation and not threatening us anymore and by its size we are out of range for now. I draw this connection to Knuckles because he is its (maybe last) guardian and maintainer (or retainer, we don’t know); the whole of this site is kept immaculate unlike all the other ruins on the island.
What might be of interest is that we have been here several times already. Through the special stages we have made regular trips without even knowing what it is! To suddenly have a geographical reference only adds to the excitement once you’re free to explore it. You almost forget that this place is not to be trespassed on with the impact of its discovery.
In the fight with Knuckles you’ll notice the mural that depicts the final boss of the game. I have seen many games try these prophecies before and sadly they give away too much or are drowned out in information overload. In a pantomime setting it makes sense, it isn't intrusive or out of place at all. It shows that Knuckles is entrenched in an old belief system centred around the powerful chaos emeralds, so we can only assume he has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.
The drama between Knuckles and Dr. Robotnik is straight forward. He signals for the fat man to drop the master emerald and it met with no chance of persuasion. Knuckles jumps onto the glittering rock and is electrocuted by mechanical tendrils until he lets go. I know this part is supposed to be dramatic and it is. We finally understand Knuckles’ true motivations, but Dr. Robotnik's face steals this entire scene.
He does not animate, at all, doesn't even flinch or look over his shoulder, he just stares ahead without a care in the world. That cold disinterest in Knuckles once he has what he needs is awesome. Poor simple naive Knuckles, he grew up in isolation and knows nothing of theatrics and trickery. Boss encounters in Knuckle’s story always show Dr. Robotnik wearing a mask (or is making a machine copy do his work for him), it only makes sense that Dr. Robotnik has been using the 3 protagonists to show him the way to the master emerald. It’s a classic bad guy plot. If Dr. Robotnik could speak he would monologue and then leave the room confidently.
So at this point Knuckles doesn't have much more to contemplate after the floor gives out and Robotnick has escaped. He signals the two to follow him up a transporter device; the game sends us straight up through the clouds into Sky Sanctuary Zone.
The use of transporters to reach the sanctuary is interesting because the only other way here would have been either the bi-plane or a ride on the Flying Battery. It’s too bad because obscuring the sanctuary in clouds might have been enough in the days of the ancient civilization. Knuckles helps you by activating a bridge to the Sanctuary, but other than that, he stays behinds and looks like he's going to pass out.
Robotnick’s Death Egg lifts through the clouds in the distance, the master emerald powering it completely. Robotnik-like jet-pack troopers deploy to signal the gauntlet ahead. It also vaguely introduces the new metal-sonic with the use of metal copies. The moustached-sphere rises out of view providing a nice variation on the usual 2 act background goal. Sonic needs to climb and get up onto it before it gets into orbit. As pleasant as this zone looks it still has that feeling of urgency to it. It also feels dangerous with nothing but sky. Both acts repeat the same in feel and layout to elongating your struggle to catch up.
A new metal-Sonic appears in this area to bother you as a call back to the one in Sonic 2. I have to say, Dr. Robotnik must have a lot of respect for Sonic if he keeps making these copies. I’m sure the reasoning is to take what nature does and improve on it. Destroying Sonic with a copy would only prove his superiority of mind and technology while using the powerful form of Sonic. It’s both egotistical and respectful in a sick way. It would be like your best friend showing up at your door wearing your mom’s clothes then proceeding to beat the crap out of you with a rolled up Oprah magazine to make you a better adult. Or maybe it wouldn’t be. I’m sure there is a better comparison somewhere, but it would be dry and scientific.
When I was a kid my friend and I just tilted our heads back in anticipation as sonic jumped off the top of the spiralling tower. We assumed that tails flew him the rest of the way but it didn’t matter because we understood the size and distance of the Death Egg and he was no where close! Such a ballsy move, but I guess that's why he was the dude with attitude. We made it, all aboard the Death Egg!
Death Egg act 1 uses a tower at its core to house the mini boss, a kind of tame Contra-inspired eyeball computer. The similarity with shapes is a good choice. It doesn’t tell you what but at least where you will fight. The background never scrolls so it gives a sense of how colossal this ultimate weapon is. After the rough and tumble, Sonic falls through the broken floor (seriously why does this keep happening to him?) to an extending platform and is hurled upward into act 2 on the exterior of the ship. No one asked why he didn't implode in the 2nd game and we're not going to ask now. Other than that this act has a similar feeling to Flying Battery Zone, a very stale place with lots of repetition, difference being there is no manufacturing equipment in view. The transitions between act 1 and 2 are somewhat abrupt but maybe this is to evoke a particular response. Upon actually getting a good a look outside the ship, you realize that you're in orbit; there is no going back now. It’s a shock to realize that while we were busy this ship has been moving into position to pick a fight with everything. This transition could also be done with an air-lock out the side, but coming to what might be the bottom of the sphere feels more dangerous as there is no more ship to grasp on your way down.
The exterior boss fight leads into the Doomsday final boss as Sonic and Dr. Robotnik play out the earlier prophesy in high orbit, and that’s the end. Super Sonic flies after a ship that transforms into the final boss egg-mech from Sonic 2. After the scuffle the master emerald is flown back and the floating island is restored to its proper altitude.
Sonic’s heart then explodes from running non-stop for about 4 days. He has never shown up again in videogames, ever, never ever again. Naw I'm just kidding, don't be haters if you grew up on the newer games.
What have we learned from the classic Sonic games?
- Sonic is in constant movement, levels always begin and end with some kind of understandable action. This adds to his characterization greatly. Game design choices say a lot about a character.
- All zones end and open in an unbroken line following the same direction of motion.
- Not all boss fights can make sense in terms of story but that doesn't make them bad, they can still be apart of the environment but they should be introduced properly. Boss fights that fit the themes and challenges of a level are important above all else but it only adds to make them integrated and emotionally weighted with introduction.
- The choices made for the variety of level themes can be expansive but they should be arranged and transitioned properly to avoid distracting the player. Sometimes when there is no reasonable way to connect themes, an idea like Flying Battery can be produced. By doing this we can give the player a measure and shape of the world. In comparison, Mario clearly divides the worlds up with a common transition element (pipes) and allows almost any arrangement of themes at the (possible) expense of narrative. With a lack of text we can't tell the player where they will be going so we need to narrate the experience with the correct actions.
- Each level should introduce ideas that will carry over into primary use in the next level. This is basic story telling as the conflict rises and as it nears completion, elements of a new conflict are introduced. This perks our curiosity and makes us wait in anticipation for the next challenge instead of feeling downtime.
- The lack of dialogue creates a vacuum in the story telling experience. People make up their own story based on what they can interpret in the absence of a direct story. This is exactly the problem fans faced when moving into Metroid Other M. This leads to gossip and external discussion filling in the void so a designer must acknowledge the ambiguity and what part it plays in the greater scheme of things. Interpretation is great but one person’s reading of a story should be consistent and never require mental gymnastics to bend an explanation. Invoke the use of Occam’s razor.
- Use your background’s subtleties to foreshadow events or direct a player. A background might have set an obvious marker, but change in other details can make a game with simple visuals stand out as a much more complex piece.
- When in doubt of what transition to use, fall down somewhere in terror.
Despite it being a 2D platformer, this game can be described in the form of a winding, dipping, climbing line in 3D space. The game has a subtle, yet surprisingly strong narrative to push forward and I find it interesting that this has not been duplicated more often. I find that when a game uses a hub world it disrupts the game’s momentum, often it makes a game longer because they must reset and go back all the time. I have no qualms about this method. Games like Mario do it so well. The focus of these games is to provide new unique challenges through a variety of level design. Mario is an exercise in using a small pool of resources as creatively as possible with combinations in short iterations. Sonic requires level design to flow at length, levels need to be larger and more complex or else the sense of speed is lost on the rollercoaster. This is why these transitions compliment the design so well. We take short breaks for the goalposts but the game just begins again from where you stand. We never have to get in line for another ride.
Application in Other Games:
In Donkey Kong Country the map visualizes the change in geography and it's easy for the player to follow. DKC also focuses on getting back all Donkey’s his stolen bananas so it's clear why the player should be moving into every single nook and cranny; it's somewhat methodical and makes the player understand Donkey Kong's mission.
In Kirby (Adventure, NES) the map is a giant room similar to the game's levels in control and mechanics. This lets the player jump around to feel the landscape in a wider scope. The airship level is indeed an airship on the map, the player kind of knows what to expect and how Kirby gets there. This also sets an atmosphere for the player to feel before entering any rooms. Also, when entering new worlds the player is treated to a cute cinematic. These served to characterize Kirby and the world through pantomime and keep the light hearted tone. This was further expanded on in Dreamland 3 for the SNES as it used interactions between the helper animals. I will do a similar article about the cutscenes in these Kirby games in the future!
For a different genre example, Chrono Trigger for SNES invoked this feeling to change RPGs as its battle system did not disrupt and transport you for every little battle. Leaving your characters in the established world removed the need for re-establishing you transparently. This helped the battle system feel light and snappy. It uses the level itself to funnel movement and determine party formations. Often the monsters would drop in from hidden locations too adding to the unseen complexity of the world. In comparison the traditional battle screen of a RPG often left you wondering about your place in the world as it could depict the same forest by a stream over and over yet your place on the map includes details that conflict with this rendition. Final Fantasy 6 tried to alter this by motioning the characters and monsters into the fight instead of having them just appear, this helped, but it also had the effect of making the battle engine feel as if it were a stage. Ironically enough, Paper Mario openly uses a theatre stage, exposing the feeling of other RPGs. The point of these battle scenes are to show a higher level of detail where the map could not, but that's an issue of hardware and software limitations, the effect grows tired quickly with flashes and warnings to tell you of an incoming fight.
A True Final Conclusion!
Ultimately, if your game needs to stop the action, consider a way to use it to your advantage. Ask yourself how does the player get to a new area and what does it have to do with the previous one. Take all of your levels and try to put them on a map. It might help you understand the bigger picture.
Thanks for reading! I hope this inspires you to think about how your game flows.