Videogame Art: Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

By Alex Kierkegaard / December 29, 2016

Videogame Art: Volume I

Sonic, as a series, is not particularly well regarded in hardcore 2D gaming circles: in 2009 Josh wrote a scathing review of Sonic 2 which Recap endorsed, before going even further, by saying that, in his view, Josh's criticisms apply more or less to the entire series.
   And I understand where they are coming from, I really do. Every complaint Josh elaborates in his review seems perfectly valid to me, and I can easily see how someone with Recap's experience and impeccable taste can view the Sonic games as mediocre fare. None of this changes, however, how I feel about the games — or at least the first two of them that I have played — and how I feel about them is that I adore them. So either my taste sucks compared to theirs, or theirs does compared to mine, or else something more complicated is going on here
   It could be the fact that I played both games on release, when I was very young, and nowhere near as good at games as I am now. But I was pretty good even back then, and neither of them took me much longer than a few days to complete, and without much trouble. (I even finished the second one in a single evening on Christmas Day, locked away upstairs in my father's study with a 32-inch TV — a huge screen size for the time — while the rest of the family and relatives were downstairs socializing after Christmas dinner.) So even back then I could see that they were very easy games and yet I wasn't bothered by it, and when this happens there's only possible explanation for it: the game must be aesthetically outstanding. And Sonic definitely was.
   The Mega Drive had blown me away with its large sprites and perfectly smooth scrolling right from the opening of that Alex Kidd game (which I saw running at the store but somehow never ended up buying), and the Jyuuouki and Golden Axe ports and, above all, The Super Shinobi kept upping the ante in terms of technical exhibitionism; but Sonic, when it appeared three years later, was in a league of its own. Technically, aesthetically — even mechanically, to an extent —: the game was unprecedented. What you must understand is that when the Mega Drive came out — a full two years before the Super Famicom — its only competition in the consumer space were the 16-bit computers: the Amiga and the Atari ST (PCs hadn't got VGA graphics yet, or at least no significant games utilizing the technology, so they weren't in the running), and these were struggling to scroll smoothly games at regular speeds, let alone the speeds that Sonic could reach, which hadn't even been seen in the arcades. The fact that all that speed was by no means gratuitous but the game's main mechanic — and, what's more, a very cool, exhilarating mechanic that hadn't been tried before in a platformer and therefore felt incredibly fresh and exciting despite the shortcomings of its implementation (which we'll get to shortly) — and that the setting and the characters and the environments and the music had been designed, in Josh's words, with "a charisma not often seen outside the Mario series" meant that Sonic really was the complete package, to the point where, not only was I not bothered by its lacking difficulty (which I hadn't even consciously noted before Josh came out in 2009 and complained about it), but, after some thought, and a decade of experience at thinking very hard about games and carefully analyzing them, I can honestly claim that it helps the game. For, first of all, despite what you may think or may have heard about me, I by no means require every game I play to be extremely challenging, or to even be challenging at all, in order to be entertained by it. Rez was even easier than the Sonics, for example, and yet it gave me one of the more enjoyable evenings I've ever had with a Dreamcast. Shenmue wasn't difficult either, nor Phantasmagoria or MGS1 or 2, really, and these are some of my most treasured videogame experiences ever. And, second of all, I already had enough games where I was struggling for days and weeks to pass a single stage — every other game back then was like that! — so a cartoonish technicolor extravaganza of, really, unprecedented vividness and charm that you could swallow in one or two swigs like a cool glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on a hot summer's day was very gratefully welcome. It is as part of videogame culture as a whole, of the lifestyle of playing games, that Sonic should be evaluated, if my verdict on it and its impact in the industry (if not its massive commercial success) are to be understood, otherwise my enthusiastic endorsement of it, at least, and of games like Rez and OutRun and so on will seem uncharacteristic. So think in terms of a well-planned five-course meal: not every dish will be of equal size and complexity, and smaller, simpler dishes will need to be placed between the more substantial ones to allow the latter to have their full effect. Josh leans anyway too much on the side of mechanics to be influenced in his views by considerations such as this, and Recap can sometimes be too demanding, or just plain weird — and both of them seem to be basing their arguments on what the games play like for them today, after they've already finished them several times over the course of many years, and/or played hundreds of other similar games and experienced yet more hundreds of more modern, more technically impressive ones — whereas I haven't touched the Sonics even once since I finished them, nor do I plan to. "But icy, wouldn't it be better to play the games again to refresh your memory of them and form a more mature opinion?" No, it wouldn't. For how could the second time you finish a linear action game such as this be better than the first? And the third time would be even worse, and eventually I'd get downright sick of it if I kept autistically replaying it for no reason, as if there were no other games to play. As for the refresher argument, I know there are people who need to have their memories freshened up in the manner you suggest, but that's because their memory doesn't work as well as mine! Believe it or not, but my 25-year-old memories are more vivid than yours would have been if you had played the game yesterday. Our capacity for recollection and the depth of the impression that works of art make in us aren't equal, and that's why I am the critic here and you are the reader, instead of the other way around.

Schopenhauer: "How different a painting looks when seen in a good light, as compared with some dark corner! Just in the same way, the impression made by a masterpiece varies with the capacity of the mind to understand it."

   But, to cut straight to the chase, and Josh's and Recap's main objection — the games' lacking difficulty — the thing is that, if Sonic's designers had wanted to make the game tougher, I don't see how they could have done so without slowing it down, which would have turned the game into yet another "jump-on-their-heads" platformer and robbed it of its main attraction and selling point. It's easy to be unimpressed by Sonic's speed 25 years later, when you can pop in something like F-Zero GX and play it until your eyeballs pop out, but when it was released Sonic seemed like a Saturday-morning cartoon had become real and invited you to jump into its world and enjoy it: it was so large and loud and colorful and beautiful and unbelievably fast, and merely speeding through its heavenly environments was an experience to be relished, and treasured. And what would have been the upshot of slowing it down and making it more technical and methodical, to please guys like Josh and Recap? We would have had one more Mario-style platformer in the world, and no Sonic, really, and it would have been a shame.
   Bottom line is that the game doesn't work mechanically for the reason Josh pointed out: because you can't see far enough ahead of you to react in time when you are running at top speed, so the cheap and brainless one-ring-invincibility technique was brought in to avoid forcing you to go through the whole game at walking speed or commit entire stages to memory, both of which options would have been just stupid. As a result, all the other mechanical aspects of the game are pretty basic: moveset, enemy patterns, environment interaction and layout, even boss fights (which, unlike everything else, didn't have to be simple, strictly speaking, since the screen doesn't scroll much in them; but partly due to the one-ring invincibility that's carried over from the regular stages, and partly due to Sonic's unusually great inertia for a platformer character — which I suppose was introduced to make top speed a little more challenging to reach, and hence a little bit more balanced, as a mechanic — they were). So it's all quite simple and straightforward, and the only parts of the game that make you feel a greater sense of depth and like you've accomplished something special are the "secret areas" you can reach — alternate routes, essentially, of which there are a few — and the special rotating stages in which you collect the Chaos Emeralds, which, together with the bonus life you can win by finishing a stage with at least 100 rings, suffice between them to spice up the few hours I spent with the game and imbue my breezy journey through it with a little extra substance.
   Does all this mean there's something wrong with my creed of "complexity above all"? No, because "complexity" here refers to mechanical and aesthetic complexity combined, and Sonic delivered on the second part of the equation in spades in 1991. Note that Josh didn't say a single good word about the speed in his review (which in the absence of sufficient difficulty to balance it ends up as largely an aesthetic aspect), so we can surmise that he didn't really appreciate it and that's why it didn't figure in his evaluation. Recap says nothing good about it either. So where does this leave their opinions on the game? I believe Josh's is a perfectly valid review, and that's why it's still in my review archive. The only thing I disagree with is how much fun the games can be if you come into them with the right mindset, despite the criticisms (part of which mindset is the capacity to be floored by 16-bit aesthetics, which came easy in 1991, and that's why the game was so critically and commercially successful at the time, but which is a very hard requirement that very few can fulfill in 2009 or 2016, for obvious reasons).
   The problem is that neither Josh nor Recap offer any constructive criticism. The flaws they point out are there, but they say nothing about how to correct them, which really is the ultimate objective of criticism. Let's think about that then.
   So I remember when the 360 and PS3 came out, and introduced high-res widescreen graphics to console gaming, thinking that that would have been the perfect screen setup for a Sonic game, with the higher resolution resulting in a smaller Sonic and comparatively larger viewable area, and the widescreen aspect ratio meaning that most of the extra area would be in front of you — exactly where it's needed in a Sonic game. But the years passed and the 2D Sonics were relegated to the GBA, which from what little I've played of one of those games (don't ask me which: probably the first one, but I am not sure) not only didn't solve any problems (as they could have, to an extent, since the GBA's resolution, though lower than the Mega Drive's, is at least a little wider) but it even introduced a brand-new one in the form of even greater inertia, which makes the game excruciating to play. Josh seems to prefer those games, to Sonic 2 at least, but from what I've seen of that one of them I played I can't fucking stand them. That they are on that tiny 3-inch screen, thus killing entirely Sonic's wow factor, is the final nail in their coffin for me, so don't expect to see me properly play these games any time soon and write about them.
   And then came Sonic 4, which moved the series to 2.5D graphics, thus finally killing even the charm that everyone could at least agree on, and without properly exploiting the 720p screen format to noticeably improve the mechanics. You could see a little more ahead of you, I suppose, than in the 4:3 games, but mostly they just made everything bigger, which meant that they were forced to move to 3D graphics for cost reasons, instead of sticking with the old, smaller sizes for the sprites and environments, which would have allowed them to stay with bitmap graphics, and possibly even reuse assets, on top of solving the mechanical problems without having to raise a finger to change anything. Just double the original 320x240 resolution and add scanlines, the same way Recap does the screenshots for his site, and you'd get to 640x480, which when extended to the right by another screen's worth of real estate — and after cropping 120 pixels from the top and bottom — would give you exactly 1280x720. And then you could have removed the one-ring-invincibility mechanic, and made the environments more complex and demanding, and the enemies more aggressive and so on. But Sonic 4 did none of those things. It's not a bad game by any means, but it's definitely less enjoyable than the 16-bit installments if for no other reason than because I've already played those, and had that experience, and had my fill of it, and with much of the charm gone due to the lifeless 3D graphics, and all the wow factor, since it's no longer 1991, there's just no reason to play it if you've already played the classics.
   And classics they were, whatever Josh or Recap might try to tell you — even mechanically. Just consider that they were so far ahead of their time that, even today, over 25 years later, no one has yet managed to fix their implementation problems and give us a speed-based 2D platformer that simply works, with no caveats. So we have Sega, on the one hand, which doesn't know how to make 2D games anymore — and which failed to solve the problem (or even to notice it, for all we know) even when it knew how — and the "indies" on the other, who "experiment" with one retarded 2D platformer gimmick on Game Maker after another for years and decades on end, but who utterly lack the inspiration to think of something as simple and thrilling as Sonic, even now that the idea already exists and is even one of the most well-known ideas in all of 2D gaming! They did make Dustforce fairly recently, but, predictably enough, they "filled" it with empty copy-pasted landscapes and a theme which was literally rubbish lol, and all the ugliness and lack of charm and anti-charm that is the hallmark of the "indie" scene, and added even autism on top of it to boot. A sad state of affairs, then, but that's only because of how exuberant and joyful and inspired the original games were — anything but sad — and so superior that — like true masterpieces, which they are despite their issues — 25 years later we are still waiting for someone to do them better.