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#1 - What Is "Sonic The Hedgehog 5"?
#1 - What Is "Sonic The Hedgehog 5"?
Sonic The Hedgehog 5 is a fan made, unofficial game which is intended to be a sequel to SEGA's official Sonic The Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles game, originally released for the SEGA Mega Drive and SEGA Genesis consoles all the way back in the year of 1994.
Before I dive right in to Sonic 5's project details proper, it is paramount to initially present a brief on why this project of mine is even a thing to begin with.
As my game is aiming to be a successor to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, it is therefore key that I first give an overview of what made that game so good, so you can not only get a firm idea of the reasons behind Sonic 5's existence, but also to reassure you that my project has a focused goal and is sure of what it sets out to accomplish.
I will also be covering problems I find with the approaches of some other Sonic games, partially for comparison purposes but mainly to illustrate to you that I am fully aware of such counter-productive design choices, and why I will certainly avoid them having anything to do with Sonic 5.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles is a game regarded by many fans of the series to be one of the I.P.'s strongest games, and is widely recognised as having stood the test of time incredibly well, even still to present day. It took what had previously been established with the franchise's debut game Sonic The Hedgehog (Commonly referred to as Sonic 1.), as well as its successor game Sonic The Hedgehog 2, and developed significantly further upon their framework, gameplay style and mechanics to craft a brilliantly balanced and very polished two dimensional platformer which truly shines above other games in this genre, particularly for those released around the same era.
It sports carefully thought out level designs encompassing a wide array of distinctly different tropes, creative and varied gimmicks and bosses, as well as multiple playable characters with natural and responsive physics, to name but a few points. All of that and so much more is tied together with a great subtle, expression driven and dialogue-free story, wonderfully detailed visuals and a stellar soundtrack. There is more to this than just individual elements done well in a video game, though...
Every different game element in Sonic 3 & Knuckles would not be even nearly as successful as they are if they were separated from one another. This is one of the most appealing factors to me about the game - it intertwines practically all of its physics, level designs, shield abilities and character move-sets smoothly and consistently. No one gameplay item or 'category' feels jarring or incongruent with another, they all blend comfortably with each other and what you're left with is an impressively fluent and very enjoyable gameplay experience.
Sometimes design choices which are seemingly small at a surface level or from an 'outsider' glance can in fact contribute massively to the feel of something. This is absolutely the case with Sonic 3 & Knuckles, a prime example being its handling of level to level transitions. See, in Sonic 1 and Sonic 2, almost every Act ended with only a black fade-out to the next level. Now, in the grand scheme of game development priorities, this isn't anything even remotely detrimental to the overall package, and such a level transition is traditional video game fare, especially during the time of which these games were made.
In Sonic 3 & Knuckles, however, this convention was broken in favour of Acts within a Zone starting and ending without any interruptions barring the victory tally sequence and title card graphics. Gone are the blackouts between Acts, and in ditching those, the feel of the game world being connected and one in the same is much stronger, and as a result this visual connection is likely to immerse the player more into the experience.
This change is complimented significantly by Zones having their own unique transitional exit and entrance cutscenes, as opposed to most Zones just fading out in Sonic 1 and Sonic 2. Furthermore, some Zones' transitions in Sonic 3 & Knuckles are not simply cutscenes but are actually interactive. When playing as Sonic and/or Tails at the end of Carnival Night Zone Act 2, for example, you are not thrown into an automatic sequence. Rather, you are required to have the character(s) jump into a cannon which then proceeds to literally launch them into IceCap Zone Act 1. This adds another layer of depth to the adventure and gives the player greater involvement, giving them the satisfying feeling that their interaction is directly affecting the game's progression.
In general, all of this helps to detract from the sometimes typical 'this is just a video game' vibe and simultaneously increases the player's probability to reflect on the game's setting and plot as both relatable and believable.
This is only one instance among many, of where a supposed little alteration, can actually end up notably affecting the game's general presentation.
As great as some of Sonic 3 & Knuckles' smaller improvements are, the true bread and butter of the game are the physics, level designs, and their interaction together.
One way to think about this is by comparing it to this analogy (It's an admittedly subject-different and perhaps somewhat poor analogy, but I feel that it gives a good idea of what I'm generally trying to convey nonetheless.): Imagine that you splash out millions of cash on a brand new luxury house and tonnes of furnishings, decorations, appliances and general housewares. It seems awesome, right? You have all manner of fancy looking and high quality products coupled with a high-life house to enjoy it all in!
... Except, it's not quite as easy as that. All of these belongings and the building itself may be fantastic in their own rights, but you can't just plonk them all together arbitrarily simply because they are all of similar individual quality. The fridge-freezer is white, but the microwave and dishwasher are both silver. The dining table is a minimalist modern glass and metal style, yet the accompanying chairs are intricately detailed and retro wood style. Sure, they're all still perfectly serviceable separately, but together, it's an incoherent identity crisis - they simply don't 'go' with one another. To top it all off, some of the furniture doesn't even fit comfortably in the rooms.
Now, imagine the analogy above but in video game form, what a disaster that would be! The core strength of Sonic 3 & Knuckles is how carefully the level designs have been crafted to work synonymously with the physics, and vice versa. They are fully in tandem with one another and have been designed with each other in mind at all times. What good would the momentum be if every Zone felt like that of Marble Zone's and Labyrinth Zone's blocky level designs? Likewise, platforms spaced high above half pipe ramps would be a complete chore to reach, if the characters could not reasonably build up enough extra speed to use said ramps to launch them high into the air.
Not only is it vital to have the basic physics and level designs being compatible together, it's also important to give the player gameplay interaction variety. Having the same kind of tasks to accomplish time after time can get and does get boring. This is another area that Sonic 3 & Knuckles excels in, by each Zone having a more-or-less equal variety of different things to encounter and interact with, including badniks, gimmicks, momentum-maintaining, speed-building sections, exploration and hidden path discovery, platforming, item monitors and more. Sonic 3 & Knuckles incorporates all of these elements together without any of them breaking the flow of another, meaning that the overall level designs can be elegantly and satisfyingly traversed, without the presence of many off-pacing or start-stop-start-stop issues.
When it comes to "interaction" specifically, this is an area that I think majorly separates Sonic 3 & Knuckles (And its predecessors.) to many newer Sonic games.
The very concept of a video game is that of an art form which does not play back from start to finish with very minimal interaction. That's what movies are typically for. A video game is an art form which is all about frequent input, thus making the person not just a watcher, but a player too. That much is obvious, of course.
However, the issue with newer Sonic games is that they sometimes seem to lose focus a fair bit of that core video game value. There are numerous examples of such games containing level designs filled with an alarmingly high quantity of ramps, hoops, launch panels and speed boosters that are all programmed to thrust the characters forward at speed without any requirement to build said speed up using momentum. Insult is added to injury when these level designs are in place and, in addition to that, gaining speed through momentum is flat out omitted from the game's engine. This wrestles control away from the supposed 'player' and replaces it with flashy setpieces to watch in the supposed 'video game'.
The appeal of replayability is hampered with the Sonic games which also have mostly linear level designs with very few alternate paths in each level. This drastically makes the levels feel more like 'just levels', as opposed to expansive environments with varying landscapes and hidden trinkets to be found. Rolling around a loop-de-loop to build up speed, giving the ability to soar high into the air off an incline to reach a high up alternate pathway, is ten times more interactive and enjoyable compared to being automatically forced through a loop-de-loop with a speed booster, and then having a guaranteed landing on a high path, due to hitting the specific-trajectory coded ramp the character was forced into by the previous speed booster. The former scenario is more satisfying for the player because their active input meant they accomplished the task of reaching a high alternate path, compared to reaching said path in a mandatory-coded and input-minimal fashion.
Pre-programmed flashy movement is made all the more frustrating when the desire to explore is met with extreme 'anti-backtracking' level design, and moreso still with the inclusion of bottomless pits/other instant death areas abound, should you attempt to explore outside of the ridiculously strictly laid out one and only intended path.
The main point here, is that a video game ought to be an experience where you are primarily playing, and where your inputs are constantly affecting how the game plays out, rather than the game being structured in such a way where more or most of the time is spent watching things move along by themselves.
One of the most appealing aspects of the classic 2D. Sonic games is how easy they are to pick up and play, while at the same time presenting quite a good challenge in mastering. The controls encompass responsive and fluid physics which are a relative breeze to get a grasp of, however, the usually gradual slope in difficulty from one Zone to another, as well as the general level design, typically rewards skilled players with even smoother level traversal, less damage taken, and more rewards for successfully holding onto rings and shields.
In Sonic 1 for example, becoming familiar with the various different badniks and hazards over repeat playthroughs increases your chances of dodging damage infliction. By doing so, you can frequently hold on to lots of rings, potentially giving you more opportunities to bag the Chaos Emeralds through the end-of-level giant rings, which require at least 50 normal rings being collected.
Another example is notably prevalent in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Many of its Zones include numerous sections where good familiarity with the level design, combined with incline rolling and well-timed jumps, can reward you with access to alternate higher paths and power ups. Your general knowledge of the game can allow you to utilise and maintain momentum effectively, which is as satisfying in terms of control accomplishment as much as it is with the associated rewards themselves.
Overall, by replaying the classic 2D. Sonic games multiple times, you get more of a 'feel' for their roster of mechanics. From gimmick interaction to knowing when is best to jump and roll, constant informed input results in increasingly enjoyable gameplay experiences.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles handles playable characters in a nice 'similar yet different' fashion. Rather than a fair amount of other games, where each character moves around and generally controls vastly differently from one another, Sonic, Tails and Knuckles control almost identically when it comes to moves they all share. Running, rolling and jumping feel consistent between them, and their unique abilities tie in seamlessly with these shared abilities.
Tails has the ability to fly and swim, making him a good character choice for backtracking from missing a jump, or recovering from an accidental drop into water. Some of the level design is also built around his flight ability, allowing easy traversal through certain passageways and also access to shortcuts that other characters can't access as easily, or at all. While Tails can ascend at almost any time, that give comes with some take, as he will get tired and descend after around 10 seconds of flying or swimming.
Knuckles has the ability to glide and climb. He can glide at almost any time, and allows for easy clearance of gaps between land and platforms. If Knuckles glides towards walls, he can usually climb up and down them. While Knuckles can cling to walls indefinitely, he is at the mercy of the level design to provide walls to climb on in the first place. Knuckles has a number of paths which specifically cater to consecutive back and forth switching between climbing and gliding, and some of these areas add hazard dodging into the mix, challenging player reflexes.
Knuckles is visually the strongest looking character, and this matches with him in gameplay: he can smash through various breakable barriers by simply contacting them, whereas Sonic and Tails (Outside of Super and Hyper forms.) require a speedy roll to smash through them. Knuckles also has many routes which only he can gain access to, as they are blocked off by stronger breakable barriers that only he can shatter. To further give the sense of Knuckles' strength, his maximum jump height is slightly lower than that of Sonic and Tails. This also blocks him off from accessing pathways that Sonic and Tails can jump up to, and combined with his exclusive level areas being typically mandatory and more dangerous, gameplay as Knuckles is a significant step up in difficulty from the other two.
Sonic has an insta-shield ability, a split second move that can be activated during a jump. It momentarily expands Sonic's attack radius and also allows him to pass through otherwise harmful elements, such Orbinaut's spike balls in Launch Base Zone and numerous boss machine hazards. Due to the ability's very short active period, this is a great way to build up the player's reaction time skills, while also rewarding them with faster boss defeating and satisfying badnik destroying moments.
Sonic can also utilise extra functionality of the elemental shields. The fire shield provides a mid-jump air dash, the water shield provides a mid-jump bouncy stomp, and the electric shield provides a mid-jump double jump. This gives Sonic a trio of aerial capabilities which contrast well to the inherent capabilities of Tails and Knuckles.
Speaking of the elemental shields, this is a great example of Sonic 3 & Knuckles expanding upon Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 effectively. Rather than just having the one standard shield, Sonic 3 & Knuckles does away with that and introduces three element-specific shields, which all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Rather than just protecting from a hit, they also have unique additional protective properties.
There are a variety of fire-based dangers around the Zones, especially prevalent on many of the boss mechs. Holding on to a fire shield gives you the ability to attack select bosses notably easier, as many of them sport flaming jet boosters and the like. Furthermore, while the fire shield makes the various lava dangers in Lava Reef Zone totally harmless, it also amps up the tension in not losing the shield to other still-harmful threats, resulting in a nice risk versus reward challenge. The fire shield is also instantly extinguished upon landing in water.
By holding onto the water shield, it protects indefinitely underwater while inside the shield's protective bubble. This allows skilled players to progress more fluidly through underwater areas, without the worry of drowning or needing to slow down and catch more air bubbles.
The electric shield attracts nearby rings, which also helps to collect rings more seamlessly and is another way to increase fluidity in level traversal. It also means that all rings in clusters placed above springs, ramps and other launch areas can be grabbed with ease, without the player requiring accurate manoeuvring in the air. Furthermore, it protects from certain electricity hazards in Death Egg Zone, and can disintegrate Star Pointer's spiky ice balls in IceCap Zone. However, similarly to the fire shield, the electric shield is immediately destroyed upon landing in water, going out with a brief white spark flash.
On top of each shield's element-specific pros and cons, they also bounce off certain badniks' projectiles and deflect away some other small hazards. This is a nice additional bonus, which only further strengthens the desire to avoid taking damage to keep the shields for longer.
The classic 2D. games Sonic 1, Sonic 2 and Sonic 3 & Knuckles are regularly praised for their fantastic music tracks, with each game after the last improving upon the amount of awesomeness being squeezed out of the SEGA Mega Drive and SEGA Genesis hardware limitations present at the time.
Points to add:
Music specifics, bonus gameplay features, anything else? Yes, a whole lot else.
Why Is This Game Titled "Sonic 5" And Not "Sonic 4"?
Is A Same Quality Sequel To Sonic 3 & Knuckles Actually Possible?
How Will Sonic 5 Develop Upon Sonic 3 & Knuckles?
What Stage Is Sonic 5 Currently At In Development?
How Does/Will The Community Survey Feedback Affect Sonic 5?
Who Are The People Developing Sonic 5?