Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) - Thoughts

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The undying fervor for the Sonic franchise is perhaps gaming's greatest enigma. Rare few properties receive the same unbreakable support that the blue hedgehog is showered with, a fact which becomes considerably more perplexing when you account for the series' poor track record. It's a franchise with a prolific resume wherein every title feels like a second chance, and every step forward finds itself countered by a baffling step backwards. Sonic's legacy is one of clarifications and conjunctions—it's difficult to talk about its games without needing to address a bevy of complaints, all of which will be defended by someone somewhere. It almost prides itself on how often it can let down its fans, a bullish sentiment which suffers no consequences because the goodwill garnered by the kinda fun titles will always outweigh the sloppy, unrefined, and often painful design of its numerous lesser entries.

The Sonic franchise is a Lovecraftian abomination for kids—it is one that is simultaneously steeped in boundless optimism and multifaceted madness. To that end, I'd argue that its most ardent fans aren't merely just supporters of the series, but thralls of nostalgia to the community and culture that surrounds it. The blood sacrifices from their wallets keep its decrepit blue heart beating while the world looks on in awe, wondering why their own beloved 90s anthropomorphic icon died—and yet Sonic somehow continues to shuffle on. But none should yearn for Sonic's fate, for he is eternally doomed to wander a limbo of ambivalent feelings, perilous platforming, and troubled fanart.

As you may have guessed, my relationship with the Sonic series is one that's been dominated by disappointment. I want to clarify beforehand that I actually liked a lot of the games growing up, and always held a special sort of reverence for the speedy scamp. Despite being a Nintendo-consoles-only kid, there was a magical quality to the Sega Genesis that always made me savor the brief occasions I got to play it at a BJs kiosk or friend's house. I was envious of Genesis owners, having to make do with PC ports that frequently crashed (Sonic CD) or were downright subpar entries (Sonic 3D Blast). But my prayers were answered in 2002 thanks to the Sonic Mega Collection for Gamecube, which allowed me to finally sit down and play through the series' revered roots for the first time at my own pace. So know that my disdain doesn't stem from a fanboy vendetta or aversion to gloved mammals—it's the unyielding death spiral of quality that continues to vex me.

[preamble ends]

There's no hyperbole in claiming that the 3.5 Sonic platformers on Genesis remain the best in the series. After all, this was when Sonic was at his simplest and most formative, exposing a number of young minds to the inchoate concept of speedrunning. The first entry in the series is the roughest of the 16-bit era, as evidenced by its slower levels and lack of a spin dash. But at its core, Sonic the Hedgehog is a solid game that leaves plenty of room to build off of its noteworthy blueprint.

What's kind of interesting about Sonic the Hedgehog—and is also a trait that will almost entirely define Sonic CD—is the focus on platforming. Nowadays we rightfully correlate Sonic with speed, but the hedgehog's inception was a decidedly more cautious outing, where "going fast" was only viable roughly half of the time. The way the game breaks up its pacing by zone works adequately well in isolation, but compared to what the series would eventually become, it's hard to deny that Sonic the Hedgehog is... kind of obnoxious. The sweet satisfaction that comes from blazing through a level can only be found in Green Hill Zone; a considerable portion of Sonic's first adventure is designed to impede your momentum as much as possible.

The amount of speed bumps Sonic the Hedgehog uses weren't really apparently to me until I replayed through it looking for them—and there's a lot. Marble Zone is full of spike lifts and slow block riding sections, enemies like Orbinaut and Bomb are nettlesome time-wasters meant to punish you for rolling, and Scrap Brain Zone is chock-full of rude pitfalls thanks to the strict timing of its bridges and platforms. This isn't even touching the molasses-like mess of Labyrinth Zone, where the notorious oxygen timer is a lesser threat compared to wading past spike traps while your acceleration is hamstrung. To safely reach the credits you have to constantly play the game at a snail's pace, tapping the right button in one second bursts just to make sure you can spot an upcoming enemy or hazard. Often when it looks like you can go fast, it's a trap; in Star Light Zone Act 1, if you take the lower path and roll into a ball, the road will maliciously fling you off into a pit.

This isn't to say that constant obstacles are an atrocious design choice—it's just that they don't play to Sonic's strengths. I think there's a time and place for momentum-based platforming challenges (I kind of like Labyrinth Zone in a masochistic way) but there's no comfortable balance between the mindless gratification of holding right and nervously inching your way forward. Placing Green Hill Zone first was a smart move because of how smooth, fun, and friendly it plays compared to the rest of the game; the verdant introduction gives the impression that Sonic has always been about speed and not strictly platforming. Yet if you jump ahead to the latter half of the game, it'll suddenly feel like every act is doing all it can to rob you of rings.

Brushing aside the lack of speed, the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog is alright. The colorful visuals and hip music are its best assets and would continue to be the only two features that remained consistent across most of the series. The bonus stage is uh... wonky and awkward, but the Sonic games rarely have good bonus stages anyway, and at least this one isn't too frustrating. I like the idea of requiring the player to be holding 50 rings to access it, but I'm less keen on how 'continues' are gated behind the bonus stage. A lot of 1-up/Continue systems can make or break platformers, and had Sonic's system been a little more lenient, perhaps I could more easily forgive it for its impenetrable rudeness.

Thankfully, countering the Continue drought is the hilariously generous ring system—which is kinda crazy to consider that it's still around. I've never been a fan of the ring system myself: it's both too punishing and too lenient. Losing all of your rings for taking a single hit when you're hoping to get to the special stages or gather 1-Ups is severely disheartening, while on the flip-side it's super easy to scoop up at least one ring afterwards. This also makes boss fights oscillate wildly in difficulty, since attacks on the sides of the screen are way more dangerous than those in the center. Sonic the Hedgehog at least accounts for this fact in its boss fights by either letting you only hit Robotnik at the edges or threatening you by routinely denying space, which is surprising given that the series completely abandons trying to adjust for this later on.

Kind of like the franchise itself, I have a lot of conflicting feelings for Sonic the Hedgehog. There are times where I find myself thinking "oh man this is kinda neat"—like with some of the alternate routes through slower zones—and then I find myself ducking underwater for an Orbinaut's tortoiselike projectiles to pass by, wondering, "Was Sonic doomed to mediocrity from the very beginning?" The answer, of course, is no: there's a lot of novel ideas present in Sonic that hadn't been done until the blue blur sprinted onto the scene, and unlike a lot of other Sonic games down the line, the first entry is a must-play for people seeking to understand Sonic. It might be kind of clunky in retrospect, but Sonic nevertheless owes its legacy to the strength of its Genesis debut.

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