The issues I detailed in part 1 of this series apply to almost all of the 2D side scrolling Sonic games with the exception of the Sonic Rush series for the Nintendo DS. From my experience, I've found Sonic Rush Adventure to feature the best core design of the 2D Sonic games because of how it deals with the design drawbacks that have plagued the series and how it creates counterpoint centered around the RUSH mechanic.
The following are reasons why the core design of Sonic Rush Adventure has refined the roller coaster style level design creating depth and counterpoint out of the essence of Sonic.
The RUSH (SUPER BOOST) mechanic:
RUSH, the mechanic that gave the popular and critically acclaimed series its name, is the primary innovation that saved Sonic by addressing and diminishing many of the issues of Sonic's 2D core design. By hitting the Y button, the RUSH mode is activated. While in this mode, Sonic (or Blaze) instantly accelerates to their maximum speed. While RUSHing, the player is also invulnerable to enemy attacks. While this may seem like a deconstructive mechanic that over simplifies Sonic gameplay, it actually helped focus the core gameplay.
- The RUSH mechanic has limitations. Along the left side of the screen is a Tension gauge that decays when the RUSH mechanic is used. By performing tricks, destroying enemies, passing through check points, and grabbing specific power ups, players can fill the Tension gauge. In this way, in order to continually RUSH ahead through a level, the player must also actively interact with the various enemy and level elements. Filling the RUSH meter creates momentum across all the different facets of a level while providing both abstract and character based (power-up) suspension.
- The RUSH mechanic circumvents the common Sonic design issues such as poor enemy design, surprising/unavoidable hazards, and the clutter/static space of the ring design.
- Enemies are the most threatening in Sonic Rush Adventure when one's RUSH meter is empty. At these times, the gameplay is similar to the classic 2D Sonic games (Sonic 1,2,3). With the RUSH mechanic, players can blast through enemies with ease. It may seem like the RUSH mechanic makes Sonic over powered, but compared to the classic Sonic games, the RUSH mechanic doesn't give the player significantly more defensive security. In the classic games, Sonic could only be hurt from physical contact with another enemy when "un-balled." In other words, only when Sonic was standing/running. It's the same in Sonic Rush Adventure. Barrelling forward with the RUSH mechanic for safety isn't too different from using the spin dash in Sonic 3 to avoid accidentally hitting an off screen enemy.
- Enemies in Sonic Rush Adventure are much more functionally valuable for filling the tension gauge or using as spring boards to propel Sonic forward than posing a threat.
- The overall level design of Sonic Rush Adventure has been cleaned up to remove hidden spikes that protrude suddenly out of the ground, and excessive pits. Despite these changes, the simple enemy waiting along the path can be quite surprising and dangerous to a player running forward at full speed. Players who don't want to take the chance of running into such an enemy are free to use the RUSH mechanic to stay safe. Fortunately, the more one RUSHes, the more meter is consumed. Staying safe from all enemies requires RUSH meter maintenance, which feeds back into the other actions of the core design. In other words, player must play the game more fully to play more safely.
- The more a player uses and maintains the RUSH meter, the less likely they are to get injured. If a player avoids injury, there will be no opportunity for rings to fly out of Sonic's possession. This in turn reduces the amount of static space that emerges from droping and picking up rings repeatedly. Furthermore, when injured players lose a significant amount of the tension gauge. This is far more penalizing than temporarily losing hold of a few rings. Without the ability to RUSH, the gameplay slows down and the enemies become a lot more dangerous.
The Trick System:
- The trick system adds a constant action layer to the core design. When launched into the air from springs or grinding on rails, players can hit buttons repeatedly to do tricks. With each trick the RUSH meter fills some. Players can also extend their jump vertically with a special double jump, mid air trick. While the trick system may seem like it only increases the amount of button mashing in the game, there is a considerable level of finesse involved.
- There are level elements (ropes, loops, bungee cords, etc) that are designed to penalize the player if he/she jumps too early. In these cases, if the player is blindly mashing buttons, they'll be punished. The penalty is usually falling to a lower branched path of the level. Such "non-mashing" level elements are shuffled throughout each level to remind players to calm down, pay attention, and stop hitting so many buttons.
- To score maximum points and fill the RUSH meter by doing tricks, players must stick their landings. The idea is to do as many tricks in the air as possible and hit the "finishing trick" button before landing on the ground (ie. a non springy platform). So instead of blindly mashing the trick button when airborne, players have to be mindful of how high Sonic is and where he will land.
- When performing tricks, players are vulnerable to enemy attacks. This is especially true in the air. After being launched into the air, the RUSH mechanic can't be activated. Players must be careful when freewheeling about to avoid flying enemies or other dangers. Because air tricks are the most efficient and reliable method of building the tension gauge, as players balance RUSHing and doing tricks, the gameplay bounces back and forth between states of vulnerability (vertical motion) and invulnerability (horizontal motion). This dynamic plays into the refined level design of Sonic Rush Adventure.
The Level Design:
- Overall, the level design in Sonic Rush is very open. By "open" I mean that the individual level elements are positioned far apart from each other compared to the classic Sonic games. The primary mechanic of Sonic Rush is the RUSH mechanic. Using this mechanic gives Sonic super speed allowing him to cover great distances very quickly and safely. By spacing out the level elements, the sense of speed is created without having players skip/move through the level too quickly.
- Certain level elements in Sonic Rush Adventure are designed give the player a short break from the fast action even when RUSHing entirely through a level. For example, when traveling through a corkscrew loop (see above) players simply have to hold forward to progress. This simple action gives the player time to rest and prepare themselves to continue through the level. Tunnels, trees, mine carts, water cannons, launch cannons, and anchors also help develop the pacing of the levels in the same way as the corkscrew loop.
- Sonic is known for having branched path level design. In addition to being very cleanly designed, the branched levels in Sonic Rush Adventure follow a simple governing idea: the quicker paths are designed on top, and the slower and often times more dangerous paths, are set below. The genius of this design is that gravity is the determining factor. It's easy to fall, but to get to a high place and stay up there is difficult because gravity if always pulling you down. In other words, the difference between reaching a branched path shortcut and falling short can be a matter of timing a jump correctly. Once you fall short of a jump like this, you are forced to continue on the longer path because the levels are generally designed to prevent the player from simply backtracking and trying again. In this way the game requires precise platforming, yet the punishment for failing isn't death. Rather, it's simply a longer and more dangerous route.
- Furthermore, the beauty of this design comes from how the game displays the branching paths. The general trend of every level is to move from left to right to reach the goal. Because all paths flow to the right, all branched paths are separated/arranged vertically. By utilizing the expanded game view of the DS, players are able to see the branched paths above and/or below their current position. The RUSH mechanic protects players moving forward, and the dual screens allows the player to better understand the branching paths on top and bottom.
- The multiple paths in Sonic Rush Adventure are stacked on top of each other running in parallel. Skills players are able to switch back and forth between paths by strategically falling or using level elements to ascend. Check out this video for a great example of making paths and possibilities between the set paths of a level.
The core design is platforming, racing, action.
- Sonic Rush Adventure is not much a platformer. The core dynamic of the Sonic Rush games isn't gravity. The player is much more concerned with RUSHing forward and using the automatic spring jumps to get around than jumping around manually. Jumping is very underused in Sonic Rush Adventure compare to the classic Sonic games. Because the levels are designed to launch Sonic around using jump pads and other spring level elements and Sonic can simply RUSH right through enemies, the jump mechanic is forced sparingly. In fact, in Act 1 of the Plant Kingdom, I can get through the whole level by only using the JUMP mechanic once.
- Each branch/path of the cleanly designed roller coaster levels in Sonic Rush Adventure are fairly strict: ie the challenges are very simple. Unlike Super Mario Brothers that features deep, dynamic, and concrete level/enemy elements to create contrary motion and develop its counterpoint, Sonic Rush Adventure uses a abstract combo/chaining trick system along with RUSH mechanic to create a very different kind of counterpoint. It breaks down like this...
- Players want to race to the finish. The RUSH mechanic speeds things along.
- Enemies (though simple and shallow) threaten the player creating a type of contrary motion.
- Players can RUSH through these enemies safely.
- To continue RUSHing, the player must maintain the tension gauge. The decaying gauge is another type of contrary motion.
- To fill the gauge, players can do tricks and become vulnerable.
- To get to the end of the level more quickly, players must reach and maneuver between alternate paths.
- Failing to reach an alternate path can result in being forced to take a longer path (the final type of contrary motion). To make up for lost time, players can RUSH thus returning to step 1.
In the end, the core design of Sonic Rush Adventure lends itself to extremely fast paced roller coaster levels where players have to manage the push and pull of every action along the way. Keeping it all together and reacting to changing situations is a rush in and of itself. If you stick to the paths, all the individual, simple elements layer together to create a flexible gameplay experience that's functionally similar to a music rhythm game like Donkey Konga or Rhythm Tengoku. But once you realize that the truest path is however you make it, it's like unbuckling yourself from the roller coaster seat at the top of the incline and flying away.