Friday, August 19, 2011

Retro Sonic Week! Day Five: Bastardy Badniks

Today's edition of Retro Sonic Week lists the most dangerous badniks Sonic faces in his adventures.  While most badniks fall on the scale from harmless - situational, these menaces can knock out your rings at any given moment.  Pictures from Sonic News Network, as well as the names.

10) Coconuts
Hiding in the trees of Emerald Hill Zone, Coconuts is a coconut-throwing monkey.  He throws in an arc and at differing heights, making his projectiles hard to predict.  He is best approached from directly below, but beware--no matter how careful you are, you are still liable to get whacked!

 9) Dragonfly 
Hailing from Mushroom Hill Zone, Dragonfly flies up and down.  His head is vulnerable, his tail is not (look at those spikes!)  His primary threat comes from the small amount of time his head is exposed, leading to many failed chances at bopping this badnik.  He is particularly dangerous when approached at high speeds.

8) Toxomister
This peculiar enemy, native to Lava Reef Zone, emits a toxic gas cloud: when it affixes to Sonic, he is slowed down and loses rings at a rate of one per-second.  To get rid of the cloud, Sonic must spindash or destroy the Toxomister.  While a relatively easy problem to fix, a mistimed attack on a Toxomister can lose Sonic rings while engulfing him in the cloud, leading to instant death.

7) Ballhog
He only makes a handful of appearances in Scrap Brain Zone, but don't underestimate him.  Ballhog rolls bombs down large ramps, reaching Sonic long before the hedgehog has a chance to see the robot.  Undoubtedly, Ballhog's range is superior to any other Badnik in the series.

6) Aquis
 Here's a real pain in the butt if there ever was one.  Aquis floats freely along Oil Ocean Zone's various platforms, shooting projectiles from its snout.  While not particularly dangerous per se, this seahorse has a trick up his non-existent sleeve.  Most badniks can easily be bypassed by running forward, however, Aquis follows Sonic throughout the level, even up to entirely different floors.  Couple that with a traumatic experience from my childhood with one of these and you've got a real crippling badnik.

5) Mantis
 Beginning the top half of this list is the most annoying bot of all: Mantis.  Hiding in the grass of Marble Garden Zone, Mantis jumps straight up.  Mostly appearing in speed-based areas, he usually jumps over Sonic harmlessly (making him particularly hard to destroy.)  However, occassionally he will not clear our hedgehog hero, stealthily sapping Sonic's rings.  He's surprisingly evasive when you turn around to kill him out of spite.  Mantis really makes the blood boil.

4) Roller
An armadillo-bot with Sonic's power of rolling.  Roller does exactly what you expect, he chases after Sonic by quickly rolling down the steep hills of Spring Yard Zone, coming in from behind at high speeds.  While his locations are predictable, he is much too quick to consistently avoid.  Makes you wonder why Eggman didn't use him in more than one Zone.

3) Burrobot/Grounder

Burrobot (left) appears en masse in the Labyrinth Zone as a surprise enemy.  He jumps out of the floor, leaping at Sonic, then continues on foot--er...tread.  Grounder (right, the logical follow-up to Burrobot in Aquatic Ruin Zone) prefers to come out of walls to surprise Sonic.  Both are more dangerous than they seem, even when the player is adequately prepared for their rushed entrance.    

2) Skorp
A menacing-looking fellow, Skorp patrols all areas of Sandopolis Zone.  With his quick, long-range (and oddly-angled) tail attack, he is a worthy adversary indeed.  Compounding things are his reload time--quite fast--and his favorite hangout--on the higher ground, making him difficult to even approach.  He can be very frustrating; bring a shield!

And for number about...?

1) The Whole Metropolis Crew!?

For the love of all that is good and innocent, do not mess with these guys!  How bad is this trio?  Even arranging their pictures for this blog was a colossal headache!  Metropolis Zone gets a fair bit of notoriety for being home to the most consistently dangerous set of badniks this side of the Death Egg.  Asteron (the starfish) hides inside walls, self-destructing to shoot its spikes in all directions.  They are particularly annoying as they stay inside walls, unable to be hit prematurely, they appear in large clusters and they love to strike while Sonic is stuck riding a platform with limited mobility.  Shellcracker (the crab) is the least dangerous of the trio.  His positioning is what makes him realize his full potential: like Skorp, he likes to hang out on the high ground, limiting Sonic's approach to getting around that giant extending claw.
 Some of you may be upset that I did not pick a definitive number one for this list.  Fear not!  Should I have separated this 'dream team,' all still would have appeared on this list, but one stands out the most dangerous badnik: Slicer (the mantis) is a deadly ninja.  He wanders the floors (and ceilings!) of Metropolis, tossing his claws the second Sonic gets near.  While the claw-tossing leaves him helpless, avoid these angling projectiles is far from easy.  To have a realistic chance of surviving, Sonic must literally predict his appearance, stop and slowly approach the mantis to lure him into throwing the claws at a safe distance.  Approaching this badnik at even a jog spells certain doom for our hero!   


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Retro Sonic Week! Day Four: Bonus Bosses (And Some Boners)

Yesterday I gave you Eggman's eight most dangerous works; today, I want to share with you a few bosses that weren't necessarily difficult or well-designed, but were still interesting.  These are the 'honorable mentions' of the games that made for an entertaining fight.  The second half of this list is devoted to Eggman's most ridiculous blunders, the kind of idea that makes you say "what the hell was he thinking!?"  Pictures are once again found on Sonic News Network.

Honorable Mentions

4) The Wrecking Ball
I feel entirely obligated to include this boss on the list, not because it was the most interesting, but because of its significance to the series.  The first of anything  is usually remembered, and Eggman's wrecking ball is no exception.  The most well-known and continuously-referenced boss in the whole series, this simple adaptation remains immortal in Sonic's history.

3) Vortexer
The villainous Dr. Eggman hovers well above our heroes in this water-stirring appearance.  While a simple design, this boss fight is certainly entertaining.  Swirling the water to create a large tornado-like column of water, Eggman attempts to suck Sonic into his propeller.  Failing that, the evil genius drops depth charges into the water to blow Sonic away.  Staying high in the air, Eggman is not accessible at all times: Sonic's only chances come by using the water column as a platform or riding the explosions of the charges high into the sky.  The only time Eggman physically exposes himself to danger is when he necessarily dips to prepare the vortex.

2) Mines & the Catapults
As you may recall, I'm a big fan of the underrated Star Light Zone and this is the climax: a puzzling boss fight where Sonic teaches us applied physics.  Dropping mines onto see-saws, Eggman hopes to blow up the hedgehog (or at least send him flying away,) however, Sonic is prepared to either launch the mines back at his nemesis or use their momentum to launch himself directly at the doctor.  This is a fun fight that (like the Zone itself) is too-often ignored.

1) Gravity Armor
This gem of a boss fight comes at the conclusion of Act 2 from Sonic & Knuckles' Death Egg Zone.  After a long level running and floating through gravity-bending nonsense, Eggman tries to finish our hero off from a distance.  He lures Sonic into an arena to fight his armored mine-dropping robot.  This time, Eggman has wised up, putting a shield on his creation that Sonic can't penetrate.  The only hope?  Sonic must reverse gravity to make this robot's mines fall upwards to damage it themselves.  Another puzzle-type boss that requires patience and timing: this is a big hit and one of these most interesting ones that Sonic Team ever put together.

The Boners

4) Runaway!
In Mushroom Hill Zone, Eggman takes flight...backwards.  Running away from Sonic, Eggman attempts to have Sonic hurt himself on dangerous spikes placed between the trees.  However, his plans prove futile, as Sonic's strongest traits are running and jumping.  Sealing this forever on the boner list is the fact that Eggman equips no weapons with which to foil the hedgehog.  Just some rocket-boosters that may incidentally damage Sonic.  Observant fans will recall that Eggman did the same thing in Labyrinth Zone.  I assure you that his original plan was much better: he left Sonic in a tall pit filled with traps and surging water.  He took away Sonic's biggest strength in running and replaced it with his greatest weakness: being underwater.  What takes the cake in Mushroom Hill Zone is the fact that Eggman drives backwards, a sure sign of his ultimate fate: crashing into a giant tree.

3) Drill-Car
Let's say your opponent is blessed with extreme speed and generally great athletic ability.  You have a million ideas on how to stop him, but driving a slowly moving  car with a drill on the end is not one of them.  Sonic must have run all the way through Emerald Hill Zone, possibly gaining all 7 Chaos Emeralds (it's possible!) got to this machine and shook his head.  But wait!  Eggman has one more trick up his sleeve.  When critically damaged, the car shoots its drill out as a projectile.  But, unlike other inventions (like the Eggbot's arms,) this projectile does not return, leaving our villain completely defenseless in his time of need.

2) Lasertrap II
"Now wait," I hear you saying.  "Didn't the other Lasertrap score high on the 'most dangerous' list?"  Yes, it did.  While this version has lost the spiked platforms, it's got an improvement: the walls slowly close in on Sonic, leaving him less and less space to avoid the giant laser.  Not too shabby, right?  This version of the Lasertrap is so powerful, it shoots straight into the ship, destroying a large section of Eggman's flying fortress!  It's almost literally shooting himself in the foot.  D'oh!

1) Chemical Dumper
Another visualization exercise.  Let's say you have an enemy.  Any enemy, not even Sonic.  Just some guy.  When you prepare for a battle, you would grab about anything to make into a weapon: gun, sword, stick, club, etc.  What you wouldn't pour chemicals slowly into a mason jar and attempt to dump them on your foe.  Not even throw them at him, dump them onto his head.  There's really not much else to say.  Some people have trouble with this boss, but it's most assuredly due to the disappearing floor--you can die even after destroying this pathetic excuse for a strategy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Retro Sonic Week! Day Three: Bad-Ass Bosses (Eggman's Best)

Today's segment focuses on the most brutal machines Eggman has ever unveiled against our brave hero.  I have listed the top 8, counting down from the bottom.  Pictures are from Sonic News Network; the names are not official, I made them up as I see fit.

8) Blizzard Blaster
From Sonic 3's Ice Cap Zone comes the Blizzard Blaster add-on.  Eggman flies high above the ground, extending a spiked platform that shoots freezing gas at Sonic.  The bottom of the Eggcar also shoots gas as Sonic has to hit Eggman from the bottom by jumping on the platform.

One of Eggman's best as his attacks are unpredictable and hard to avoid in close quarters.  It also takes two jumps to get one hit on Eggman at the risk of being frozen.  When damaged the platform drops off, leaving just the Eggcar leaking gas in its last gasp.

7) Sphinx Armor
Pulling no punches at the end of the ever-long Sandopolis Zone, Eggman has fully armored his egg car with pyramid-type stones.  It is tall, featuring spikes, claws and a laser gun at on the head.  To hit Eggman, Sonic must peel away the armor by hitting the face of the armor.  Again, this is often a two-jump affair, leaving Sonic vulnerable to the spikes and the laser.  Eggman slowly advances to pin Sonic against the far wall.  Its size is intimidating, but it has the weakness of being quite slow, leaving Sonic enough time to destroy it.

6) Piston Puncher
The final boss of Sonic the Hedgehog is quite a doozy.  Hiding between four pistons, Eggman attempts to crush Sonic with two at a time.  As Sonic must correctly guess Eggman's location as well as avoid getting crushed, this boss is half-fight, half-puzzle.  After Eggman has retreated, he attempts to shoot Sonic with energy balls coming from the walls.

The Piston Puncher is unique in that it attempts to instantly kill Sonic for its main attack rather than simply hit him.  However, with no rings in Final Zone, the difference is negligible.

5) Shielded Eggcar
The second most well-known boss in the series is from Sonic 2's Metropolis Zone.  In this dangerous machine, Eggman rapid spins egg-shields as a defense while rushing at Sonic. When Eggman is hit, a shield is depleted, attacking Sonic in bubble form (for some reason!) while Eggman retreats.  Knuckles' shorter jump makes this fight difficult with the Sonic 2 & Knuckles expansion.  When critically damaged, Eggman reveals a large laser gun that he shoots rapidly in his last-ditch effort.

4) Lasertrap I
Catching Sonic off-guard, Eggman lures him into a force-field protected trap in Sonic 2 aboard the villain's Winged Fortress.  Three rotating spiked platforms emerge and float around while a large laser attempts to fry Sonic from the ceiling.  A very dangerous contraption as Sonic music use the spikes as platforms to gain access to the laser.  In such a compressed area, it becomes difficult for Sonic to use his speed to his advantage, instead requiring his jumping/dodging prowess.

3) Invincible Lava Armor
Eggman created this spiked monstrosity for swimming around at the bottom of a volcano.  It is well-protected and completely impervious to Sonic's attacks.  It launches mines into the distance, the tilts the flow of lava--including Sonic and the mines--towards Eggman.  The only way for Sonic to emerge victorous is to survive while Eggman hits himself with his own mines.  With only a few small platforms that continuously get crushed by the armor, Sonic must be quick and accurate with his jumps as everything in the area--aside from the platforms--will hurt him.  Notably, this machine takes more than 8 hits to destroy.

2) Deathgripper
Sonic 3's final boss comes in this well-designed form.  Sporting spiked protection and rocket-boosted movements, Eggman equips a pair of large, powerful arms.  The suit is designed so Sonic may only approach it from a narrow angle without getting spiked or slammed.  His main attacks are grabbing and slamming the hedgehog and "swimming" at the bottom of the screen, displaying only his spikes that Sonic must avoid.  Already a behemoth, the Deathgripper has one other notable characteristic: it is one of the only things that can even stun Super Sonic!


1) Eggbot I
Aboard the Death Egg (in Sonic 2) Sonic faces off with a giant Eggman robot.  While Eggman recreates the robot to be even larger in Sonic & Knuckles, this version steals the show.  It is a shocking boss, the first of the series to be so much larger than Sonic and immediately following a dangerous fight against Silver Sonic.  His only weak point is his chest, which  is at about the peak of Sonic's jumping ability.  Sporting rocket-deployed spiked arms, bombs and flying capabilities, Eggman attempts to stomp on Sonic, first by walking, then by flying high into the air and falling.  Upon his descent, Eggman shoots his arms like boomerangs at our hero.  The worst part?  You have no rings.  Oh wait, it gets worse!  You hit him 8 times?  The Eggbot I withstands up to 12 attacks from Sonic, making him the most powerful boss in the series when he debuted.

Retro Sonic Week! Day Two: Best-in-Class Levels (Part II)

Sorry about yesterday's missed update; I had a personal issue that needed my full attention.  Today, I'll bring you two updates to catch us back up.  As for now, I continue where I left off: the second half of the level themes.

5) Miscellaneous Environments 

Competing Zones: Star Light, Hilltop, Mystic Cave, Ice Cap, Sandopolis, Lava Reef
  In Part I, we covered the basic zone types in Sonic.  This category contains various environmental territory that doesn't fall into other categories.

Star Light Zone is an oft-forgotten zone from the original game that is highly underrated.  This zone showcased some serious speed, with plenty of loops and straightaways all within a city-at-night environment.  There were more bottomless pits in this stage than anywhere else in the original game, as many of the platforming sections were suspended over nothing, making this both fun and treacherous.  The music gives you a laid back feeling that is much deserved coming out of Labyrinth and into Scrap Brain.

Hilltop is reminiscent of Green Hill and Emerald Hill zone with the same kind of stylization, but featured high above the clouds on top of a mountain.  Oh yeah, and there's caves, lava, earthquakes and robotic dinosaurs!?  A fun level with plenty moments of panic for when Sonic gets stuck in a cave-in.  Aside from those parts where you feel rushed, this was a pretty slow stage, with most of the puzzles being vertical.  Overall, not too shabby, but it could have been improved.

Mystic Cave was a dazzling stage with plenty of danger: dark backgrounds and hidden enemies, not to mention spikes galore.  Add a funky bassline and you've got the makings of a good stage.  It does lose points for having the "Super Sonic pit" filled with spikes and no way of escape, leaving you to wait till the rings run out before you have another shot.  This one sort of reminded me of Labyrinth: difficult and cramped, but Mystic Cave didn't have those #&^$ Grounders!

Ice Cap was an interesting level, the first one featuring ice at all.  It certainly had its moments, but it was far too short compared to the three stages that came before it.  It certainly started out with a bang as Sonic began his snowboarding career, something he would continue in both Sonic Adventure games.  Getting frozen was pretty annoying, though.

Sandopolis was looooooong and dreary.  It really felt like a desert and I've got to give Sonic Team credit for that, but it certainly isn't the most fun stage to play.  It featured an interesting mini-boss in that Rock Golem thing.  Then the scene switches to the pyramid.  And you though the desert part was bad?  How about a quickly dimming burial chamber with unfriendly ghosts?  More timer puzzles and don't even get me started on the sand.  The sooner you get out of this one, the better.

Lava Reef was a welcome relief (rhyme, anyone?)  Quite dangerous featuring lava everywhere (and giant spiked balls) and those weird gas-releasing pole badniks.  A very dynamic level that features speed, falling, rock crushing and a few high-flying sections.  Not to mention all the giant rings you can get your grubby little hands on, seeing as it was your last chance for Chaos Emeralds.  A sharp dynamic change in the second Act when the volcano cools off, leaving you in the crystallized center that now features metal platforms, flamethrowers and rotating columns of spikes.  That's not even counting the thrilling conclusion leading up to the boss fight!

I think Lava Reef is probably the best zone of this group, but I'm going to give it to the underdog in hopes that you'll go back and reevaluate it yourself.

Miscellaneous Environments: Star Light Zone (Sonic the Hedgehog)

6) Eggman Holdings, Inc.
Competing Zones: Chemical Plant, Oil Ocean, Wing Fortress, Flying Battery

This category contains Eggman's facilities that are not his immediate base for the game (coming up soon!)  Mechanical wastelands these are.

Chemical Plant gets a bad reputation.  The second Act is surprisingly difficult for how early it is in the game.  Honestly, it's really just that one part where you might drown, but it's a real testament to the franchise that once part of a level becomes so memorable.  What baffles me though is why Mega Mack was introduced in Sonic 2 before the water level.  At least you can breath underwater if you find the bubbles!  Nevertheless, Chemical Plant was a little too short, but featured some incredibly fast sections with giant loops and hills.  It's a good follow-up to Emerald Hill, but as mentioned, forever lives in infamy.

Oil Ocean is a real pain in the butt.  Quicksand-like oil under breaking platforms and weird balloon-launching sections.  Entirely too slow and the orange sky makes sick.  However, I can't look away from the screen lest one of those seahorses sneaks up on me!

Wing Fortress is a killer stage.  Suspended high above the world, Sonic runs through, over and even under a giant war-craft.  Finesse and an iron stomach are needed to successful complete this interesting level filled with turrets, conveyors and break-away panels (Knuckles can just glide over that part.)  Fortunately, the game gives you a break by only populating this stage with one not-too-difficult badnik: a chicken in a tank?

Flying Battery is pretty much a revamped version of Wing Fortress, but with a whole lot more indoor monotony.  How big can this thing be!?  I guess it was only a matter of time before Eggman rigged those Egg prisons with traps instead of furry animals... .  While it was stylistic different from Wing Fortress, Flying Battery could not emulate the feeling that the former gave you.

Eggman Holdings, Inc.: Wing Fortress (Sonic 2)

7) Interludes

Competing Zones: Sky Chase, Hidden Palace (Sonic)Hidden Palace (Knuckles)

The little levels that tell more story than provide action.  You'll notice I counted both versions of Hidden Palace as separate entities.  Knuckles' five-second zone had its appeal, too!

Sky Chase Zone is unique.  Sonic's floating lazily on a bi-plane with nothing but a huge force of badniks coming at him.  Oh, and he can't spindash or he'll fall 30,000 feet to his death.  Oops!  It's about a minute and a half long, and previews Wing Fortress Zone in a cool cinematic event.

Sonic's Hidden Palace did a lot for video games.  It showed that you don't need characters to talk (or even emote a whole lot) to tell a story.  Some sweet backgrounds (even an ancient prophecy?) relieve the eye as you fight Knuckles, watch Eggman hijack the Master Emerald and make a new friend!  The fight with Knuckles isn't that great, but it was such a relief after spending the whole Sonic 3 & Knuckles game getting duped, tricked and misguided by the echidna bastard.  The cinematics were great considering when this game came out and left a lasting imprint in my mind.

Knuckles' Hidden Palace was five seconds and you're out.  What's the big deal?  It's the mystery!  Why did they include this?  I want to see more!  It's so appealing, but you're immediately whisked away into the boss fight.  Oh well.

Interlude: Hidden Palace Zone (Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic's version)

8) Eggman's Base

Competing Zones: Scrap Brain, Metropolis, Launch Base, Death Egg (Sonic & Knuckles)
  What we've all been waiting for, right?  These end-game levels offer the most difficulty you're going to get out a regular zone.  Eggman hides away here with some of his best badniks.

Scrap Brain was excellently done.  To say it was perilous is an understatement.  Flames, suddenly-dropping floors, more opportunities to get crushed than you can shake a stick at and pigs are bombing you from above.  Surprisingly dynamic for the original game, this zone changes for each act, including a short cinematic as Sonic gets dropped into a suspicious palette-swap of Labyrinth Zone, featuring Mega Mack's first appearance.  This may well be the crown jewel of  the original game.

It's hard to beat Metropolis Zone.  Excellent level-design featuring a mechanical theme filled with gears, screws, pipes and steam.  And, oh yeah, lava.  A bad-ass team of badniks patrol the area, firing at Sonic like mad.  The longest stage in Sonic 2, coming in at three Acts full of original material, including a signature boss fight, perhaps the second-most referenced in the series.

Launch Base zone wasn't as thrilling as it could've been.  It was dangerous, sure, but there wasn't much that was particularly memorable about it.  Seeing as Sonic 3 & Knuckles is supposed to be one full game, this felt too much like a hasty semi-climax rather than a full finish.

The Death Egg Zone from Sonic & Knuckles was a thing of beauty: gravity-defying antics, laser-guided travel and some serious lightning.  This level was difficult, but sincerely rewarding.  After Sonic 2, it was nice to finally explore the Death Egg rather than just exchange blows in it.  A very deep and detailed level, Sonic Team wasted no effort on this one.

Death Egg Zone was brilliant, but I'm giving second place by a hair.

Eggman's Base: Metropolis Zone (Sonic 2)

9) Boss Zones
Competing Zones: Final, Death Egg (Sonic 2), Doomsday

...and that's the end, right?  Hooooooold on a second, slim!  There's some serious fighting left to be done!  There's not much to say about these zones as I'll be discussing Eggman's machines in the next installment, so this is more of a psychological thing.

Final Zone was the expected climax of the original game.  You spring out of Scrap Brain, leaving you with one boss to fight.  Appropriately named, but not particularly thrilling.

Sonic 2's Death Egg was brutal.  Two very hard bosses back-to-back with no rings.  Incredibly daunting and features some excellent music, though most of us never got passed the first 10 seconds before the boss themes kicked in, right?

Doomsday Zone had a certain kick to it.  It was hidden and a total surprise.  It looks like everything's wrapped up nicely, you destroy Eggman's robot and he takes heavy damage trying to escape as the Death Egg crumbles around you.  Does Sonic tumble down from space with the emerald?  No!  He blasts off after a fleeing Eggman as Super Sonic, hurtling through space at ridiculous speeds, risking every fiber of his being to secure the Floating Island's future!  An incredible finish to the Genesis generation Sonic games.  Did you expect anything less?

Boss Zones:  The Doomsday Zone (Sonic & Knuckles)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Retro Sonic Week! Day One: Best-in-Class Levels (Part I)

Retro Sonic Week

 For this week, I'll be debuting a new "top" list for the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games.  This is somewhat of a stretch for the focus of my blog, but I've got a few reasons:

1) I've wanted to do this for a long time.
2) I'm a total Sonic fanboy.  See above.  

Each day will be the best of the original four Sonic games with a new topic each day.  Sonic CD was not included in my lists: although it was very good, it is relatively unknown and I've only played it a few times, so I won't claim expert status on it.  Without further ado, today's topic:

Best-in-Class Levels

After playing the Genesis Sonic games, it becomes quite easy to see that the levels of each game repeat certain themes.  Rather than arbitrarily picking the best levels overall, I have decided to group them into themed groups and pick the best of each.  I have narrowed them down into nine themes, which will cover every single level from the Genesis games.  

1) First Level/Paradise
Competing Zones: Green Hill, Emerald Hill, Angel Island, Mushroom Hill

I would've called this the "Tropical" category had Mushroom Hill not kicked off Sonic & Knuckles in a forest setting.  Each of these zones made breakthroughs in Sonic level design.  

Green Hill was obviously the first and set the tone for the whole series: fast action, non-angular hills, physics, loops and multiple paths.  Green Hill has been an icon for the generation that first played it, featuring the most remembered music in the franchise and several future adaptations, including a revisit in the upcoming Sonic Generations.  It feels a little dated compared to other zones, however, due to the lack of spin-dashing obstacles and it's extreme brevity.  It does feature a diverse set of badniks and some sweet airtime at the climax of the first Act (you know what I'm talking about.)  

Emerald Hill is a direct sequel of Green Hill, featuring the same style of badniks, terrain and obstacles.  While I personally loved Emerald Hill, it did not significantly add to level design like its competitors.  

Angel Island took a new tropical setting: the heart of the jungle.  Throwing in some small bits of water and ziplines, this zone created a more dynamic tone that would soon be followed by its followers in final Genesis games.  The whole thing catches fire in the middle of the first act, due to the first appearance of a mini-boss in the series.  

Mushroom Hill was a sort of departure for this first-level spot.  Moving it to the heart of the forest, Mushroom Hill added several interactive features including floating mushrooms and a spinning rope to swing from.  It featured a creative set of badniks, including a rooster, a mole that throws mushrooms at you and a springy-mushroom robot.  

I know some purists would hate me for snubbing Green Hill Zone, I'm naming a different winner.

First Level/Paradise: Mushroom Hill Zone (Sonic & Knuckles)

2) Ruins
Competing Zones: Marble, Aquatic Ruin, Marble Gardens, Sky Sanctuary (Sonic's version)

Many stages could be argued to be ruins, including Hydrocity, Labyrinth and Hidden Palace, but I've chosen ones that reflect the category the best, having it be the central feature.  Of note, Aquatic Ruin is the only zone competing in two categories as it captures both water elements and ruin elements so well (it's right in the name!)

Marble was not a good follow-up to Green Hill Zone.  Marble took a very slow pace filled with waiting and pushing.  Its narrow corridors didn't make for very much diversity: you take the same main path most every time you play.  All-in-all, one of the worst Sonic stages.  

Aquatic Ruin, on the other hand, mixed two elements very well.  There was a lower, underwater path and a higher, ruinous path in each Act of the Zone.  The visuals were done very well on the ruin side and included columns that broke away (and some that had to be broken to progress!  While it wasn't the quickest Zone, it's upper path created challenges of its own, with crumbling platforms waiting to dump you underwater. 

Marble Garden was long, beautiful and dangerous.  Another level with diverse badniks (even fake spikes!) and plenty of ridiculous hazards.  It mixed flying with falling and climbing surprisingly well.  Instead of just having some structures fall apart like the other ruin zones, the whole earth began falling apart at certain points of this level, leaving Sonic nothing to stand on to fight Eggman.  

Sky Sanctuary was much too short.  It had some bold, new ideas with a bouncing clouds, and a completely wavering level set high above the ground.  Unfortunately, it didn't last very long with one Act and three short interludes between mini-bosses.  

Ruins: Marble Garden Zone (Sonic 3) 

3) Bumpers!
 Competing Zones: Spring Yard, Casino Night, Carnival Night

Sonic games also introduced lots of bouncing, out-of-control pinball action in the heart of a platformer.  

Spring Yard was one of the better zones from the first Sonic game.  It featured long drops, both straight down  and at an angel, hidden passages and a lot of springs.  It's main drawback is that it is repetitive throughout the three Acts.  I suppose they just didn't have enough ideas.  

Casino Night was stunning.  And it featured an addictive slot game that could get you Time Over'd if you weren't watching the clock.  With only one relatively harmless badnik, this stage let you have a lot of fun, bouncing and zipping around the steep hills.  

Carnival Night was an interesting adaptation featuring balloons and cannons, but it was an overall disappointing sequel to Casino Night.  It sported some interesting dynamics in the second Act as the lights go out and Sonic spends some serious time underwater.  While the other two stages in this class were also very colorful, Carnival Night took it to a new level, making you almost want to puke.  

While I would love to champion Spring Yard as the underdog in this class, there is absolutely no beating Casino Night Zone.  The latter is perhaps the best Sonic level on the Genesis. 

Bumpers!: Casino Night (Sonic 2)

4) Water
Competing Zones: Labyrinth, Aquatic Ruin, Hydrocity

The final category for the day is comprised of Sonic's worst nightmare: lots and lots of water.  While Sonic 3 featured a more organic implementation of water into other levels (there was a little in several levels,) Sonic & Knuckles actually featured none at all.  It makes more sense when you realize that the two games were supposed to be combined into Sonic 3, presumably with deadlines to blame for their separation.  

Labyrinth was difficult.  While not as tough as Scrap Brain, it is no walk in the park.  There's plenty of variety in Labyrinth and plenty of below-water action to go around.  Though it was challenging and the first of its kind, I recall it being a lackluster level, something that the future water levels would not repeat.  

Aquatic Ruin was unique in the fact that it was a water-based level where you didn't have to enter the water at all.  Not once.  The water sequences were shorter than its competitors; as I recall, one spindash could take you through the whole first Act's underwater route, leaving much of the level in a blur.

Hydrocity Zone was much larger than the other two water zones and featured much more interesting features: a crushing wall, loops and corkscrews, and a lot of speed.  Hydrocity decided to make some aggressive steps for the water level, including many high-speed sections (Sonic runs on the water!)  Contrast that with many paths, hidden passages and many water-land transitions and you get a great water zone.  Its biggest downfall is that it is the second level of the game, meaning it isn't too difficult, which I feel a water level should be.  

4) Water: Hydrocity Zone (Sonic 3)   

Come back tomorrow for five more level themes and, of course, plenty of excitement! 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What Makes Something Funny?

Tripping the 'funny bone' can be a hard thing to do: it's often difficult to predict what will be amusing and to know what is appropriate and inappropriate at a particular time.  Some of us 'have it'; others don't.  I've heard that "you can't teach funny."  I believe this is true to a certain extent: it just doesn't click with everyone.  However, almost everyone can make a good joke every now and then, and learning to refine their humor is the challenge.  While it is almost impossible to say what is funny and what isn't without live feedback, we can start to see some patterns behind the art form.

Lying at the crux of humor is expectation.  Humor (read: successful humor) defies the expectations of the audience: there is a twist.  Whether the twist defies large-scale cultural notions or just contradicts the immediate situation, this is where humor lives and dies.  For example, a particularly deadpan comedian was telling a story about picking up milk from a local convenience store.  He puts the carton on the counter; the cashier asks him "is that it?"  The comedian responds "no, I want to buy this."  Is it funny?  It's hard to say.  Part of the experience is the performer himself: his demeanor, the timing, the execution.  The humor in this comes from a misinterpretation.  We've all heard that cashier's response, referring to whether we want to purchase anything else.  It's so mundane that it's difficult to give it a second thought.  Think of how unfunny this joke would be should the cashier have said "are you content with putting the milk on the counter?"  In this case, the cashier calls attention to what's about to come next, ruining the surprise and making the comedian's reaction the expected response.

Anyone who has studied any form of art knows that expectations change over time, which drastically alters what is successful and in good taste.  Notably, the same jokes are perceived in different ways, e.g. the chicken joke.  You know, "why did the chicken cross the road?  To get to the other side."  Chances are, you've never found this funny.  How could anyone even consider this a joke?  The answer: it was shocking when it was first being told.  It is set up like a joke: a strange question is being asked.  The audience asks why, expecting a punchline.  The answer is a mundane, obvious answer: this causes that dissonance of expectations and reality that makes something funny; the joke was a subversion of other jokes.  So, why isn't it funny now?  Well, give it 100+ years of circulation and the punchline becomes expected as everyone has heard it.  Furthermore, this joke is usually the first one that people learn. Children who first hear it have had little to no previous joke experience.  They don't have a conception of what a joke sounds like, meaning that they don't understand that the chicken joke is undermining other jokes!

So, changing expectations (over time) drastically alter what we find funny and not.  I'd like to share a more successful scenario than the aforementioned 'chicken joke.'  Monty Python's Flying Circus was a '70's sketch show made by 6 English comedians. "Dead Parrot Sketch" was perhaps their most successful (at least, well known) bit from the show.  It centered around a customer (John Cleese) attempting to return a faulty piece of merchandise to an unhelpful clerk (Michael Palin.)  The faulty merchandise?  A 'Norwegian Blue' parrot that the clerk had previously sold the customer, knowing full well it was already dead.  The customer returns and engages in a very long argument.  The clerk continuously contends that the bird is not dead and offers the customer strange exchanges.  Hilarity ensues.  If you haven't seen it, YouTube "Dead Parrot Monty Python," it will more than likely be there.  The sketch was riotous and well-received.  Cut to 20-30 years later, when every Python fan knows it front and back and expects it at every live show.  The Pythons decided that a rewrite was in order to keep the sketch fresh and funny.  The result?  John Cleese walks in, wishing to return the dead parrot.  Michael Palin's response?  "Yeah, it's dead" [paraphrase.]  Scene.  Can you imagine if the original sketch played out like the latter?  It wouldn't have been funny at all: there's no conflict and a perfectly ridiculous situation would've been wasted.  However, when it is so expected that the argument will occur, cutting it short with a perfectly agreeable man becomes absolutely brilliant! 

The key to being funny is breaking expectations.  A preacher in a sermon...who has tourette's?  A romance the middle of a battlefield?  A hero's epic quest to save the world...from an adorable puppy?  Some general advice for all artists is "write (or draw/compose, whatever) what you know."  This is why comedians who become successful always start joking around about the airport: they don't drive themselves anymore.  Seriously, take in the world around you: where is it boring and tired?  Twist it!  A strange reaction to a familiar interaction.  A new setting for a normal person or business.  The material is already out there, it's just looking for someone to make fun of it. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sonic 4!?

In the last five-ten years, I think there has been about three original movies released into theaters.  Nowadays, it's all either crappy sequels (or the yet-more-enraging prequels,) re-makes, "based on a true story, based on a book" or some other nonsense that lends itself to not thinking particularly hard.  It's easy to see that a trend of nostalgia has swept the media: it's only good if it's already been done or reminds us of something.  That's why the Smurfs have their own movie.  I'm pretty sure nobody actually liked The Smurfs when it was originally made; how relevant can it possibly be now?

Sonic 2 was the first video game I ever played.  Needless to say, I've been a lifelong fan of the franchise.  Sonic certainly has seen better days, getting pretty universally panned in many of his recent 3D efforts.  After several flops, ranging from OK to the worst video game ever made (I'm looking at you, Sonic The Hedgehog '06,) the creators decided to listen to their fans.  The results?  Two much-improved games.  Sonic Unleashed was an average game, but it was a sign of an improved ideology on Sonic Team.  Sonic Colors absolutely blew me away: it was brilliant from start to finish, with my only complaints regarding the game's difficulty (or lack thereof) and the Super Sonic mode.  Somewhere between these two titles came the Wii DLC Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode 1--remember how we talked about sequels?  Debuting around 15 years after Sonic & Knuckles (the second half of Sonic 3,) Sonic 4 is a 2D side-scroller featuring only Sonic.

Sonic 4 is pretty shameless in it's use of nostalgia, each of the four stages are a conglomerate of similar stages from the first two games, featuring the visual style of the more popular one and gameplay elements from both.  For example, the beginning tropical stage is a mash-up of Green Hill Zone and Emerald Hill Zone, with the style of Green Hill.  Repeat for the bumper (casino-type,) water and fortress levels.  On the whole, it's a short, easy game that you feel like you've already played.  There are some interesting new features, such as a torch-lit section, boulder-balancing and the presence of playing cards in the casino zone.  However, the game overall is a shameful whoring of the game's origins (and the exact progression from Sonic 2 told over again.)  It was certainly not worth the $15.  I do not intend to bash Sonic, as I love the franchise, but am merely using this as an example of the nostalgic excrement that has been propelled into the mainstream.  You may find similar elements in just about any long-time franchises' recent developments: Super Mario Galaxy's music consisted of several themes from the Mario series remixed (again.)  The Legend of Zelda has had some interesting departures with the gameplay of Majora's Mask and the sea setting of Windwaker, but at it's core, has remained pretty much the same game since it switched to 3D.

I am looking forward to the new sonic game, Sonic Generations, however, I am wary that it is going to be another nostalgia-based mash-up game.  One set of levels is purely classic Sonic gameplay--none of this homing attack in a 2D game crap--and the other half is the same formula that made Colors brilliant.  Now all I have to do is find a PS3 by the time this thing comes out.  I'm now accepting donations of gaming consoles to the Ophiuchus Fund.  The Ophiuchus Fund: it's money...for me!