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! 

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to the Hydrocity post, one of my fav levels.