Monday, February 19, 2018

More levels of Sonic Mania

at 12:00 PM
I finished the game over the weekend at the same time as doing Sonic 3 & Knuckles Chaos Emeralds, so some stuff blurs together. Probably anything good I say has been misattributed from the latter. I believe I left off after Flying Battery.

Press Garden is certainly the strangest of the new zones, whirling together snowy European architecture and the internal machinery of a printing press. It's a bit of fantastic surrealism more akin to Castle of Illusion than Sonic's typical Indiana Jones / circuit board dichotomy, colorfully realized all the same. Doesn't hurt that it sets the scene for some traditional gears-and-conveyors concrete design without resorting to the factory cliche. Act 1 is corridor-based (putting it in the Marble Zone genre) with the first really fresh-feeling gimmick, the bouncy conveyors - which I could've used a whole lot more of - along with an own goal-style boss battle set in a dynamic arena full of destructible environments!!. I like the idea of the crabbot enemies playing catch with saw blades, a rare enemy-enemy interaction, but in practice they're meaninglessly simple to defeat. Act 2 has a great breakable block theme that slows things down and adds new consequences to careless jumps. There's a nice inverse relationship between ice springs and ice spikes, fleshing out the concept into one of the best levels in the game.

Onto Stardust Speedway, where prospects continue to look sunnier. Unless I'm misremembering my Sonic CD, Act 1 is far remixier than those preceding, incorporating gimmicks far and wide (e.g. pull-strings from Marble Garden Zone). The use of spring cannons couldn't be a clearer ripoff of Donkey Kong Country, but hey, it's new to Sonic. Regardless of context, reviving material from CD is far more palatable than giving a ninth life to every blade of grass from Sonic 2, which left me imagining how much cooler it'd be to have a Gems-style remix drawn entirely from lesser-played adaptations like Advance and Rush. CD has been largely reclaimed as series canon, not least thanks to Whitehead's own 2011 widescreen port, and it would be nice to see the treatment spread further. This is where, for all that Mania presents itself as a love letter, it's very strictly fenced into the Totally Uncontroversial Popular Narrative (that Sonic == Genesis) and shows no interest in exploring the darker corners of the franchise beyond a wiki search for "polerbear". Mania wants to forget Sonic Heroes as badly as does MadHistoricalYoutubeFriend. This isn't the Sonic sequel that could've happened in 1995 - it's the Sonic tribute game that could've happened in 1995. The only reasonable points of comparison are the other reboots, leaving Mania looking terribly unambitious. Consider that Sonic Generations' best stage comes from Sonic the Hedgehog '06 - that's an impressive achievement. That's something new. Taking the best source material and making a good game of it is fine. It's safe. Taking the worst material and making a good game of it is inspiring.

Alright I'm getting sidetracked again. Back to... Hydrocity Zone? Really? Hydrocity? What's the rationale behind the selections here? Even as the self-appointed patron saint of the water level, the only justification I could conjure here is that water levels are a part of Sonic games, and here is the least bad selection. That's not a great reason to include something in your game. That the top path plays itself can't be blamed on dumbing down, as it's equally boring (though infinitely gracious) in Sonic 3. The new submarine boss here is great, another variation on the why-are-you-hitting-yourself formula, and the other Eggman encounter is cute, but characteristically forgettable. Surplus charm astride a void of substance.

This is the point at which Mania's overarching structure becomes distressing: we were doing one zone per game, roughly chronologically, and now we're starting to meander in the opposite direction. Optimally, here is where the old zones would exeunt, leaving Mania free to define its own personality, bursting forth from the remains of its ancestors. Unfortunately, here is where it instead decides to retrench.

One last glimmer of hope before the implosion, Mirage Saloon brings out a bright new aesthetic that deserves better gameplay pairing. We've had deserts before, but not this kind of American West ecosystem, and it's immediately a natural fit with the cartoon flavor of the characters. It's a shame Act 1 is spent rehashing the biplane variety stage, one of the series' least flexible recurring gimmicks that was only just resurrected (and also terrible) in Sonic 4: Episode II. The big handguns in Act 2 aren't notably different from the spring cannons in StarSpeed and the water spritzers are yet another non-interactive cutscene gimmick.

Here follow three old zones in a row, seemingly chosen at random, and the experience completely decoheres. I'm just playing a romhack at this point. I can't be bothered to discuss them individually, though Oil Ocean does bring the neat juxtaposition of Sonic 3's fire barrier with Sonic 2's most flammable terrain. Again, it would be even neater if S4E2 hadn't just done the exact same thing. Lava Reef I couldn't tell apart from & Knuckles, but I may've been half asleep by that point. Metallic Madness scores points with a funny joke where Sonic is thrown into the background layer to 'simulate' tininess, but where are the raps? And, though this has no effect on the quality of the game, I noticed around this point that Tails' path-finding seems to have taken a major hit in the Retro Engine. He frequently gets stuck behind a corner and incessantly jumps. Brain damage from all the near-death drownings?

Finishing it off is Titanic Monarch, certainly the highlight of the game and really the only part that's even remotely challenging. I like the use of the catapult spheres from the S&K bonus stages - they're loosely free-form yet present enough technical space to rehearse precise approaches, and they pause the action without sacrificing momentum. The warp labyrinth takes the familiar structure of the looping maze and tweaks the presentation with discrete endpoints - as someone who has always hated the falling loops of e.g. Sandopolis Zone, I found this to be a major success of spatial grounding. Does Robotnik have KEK banners tho? Wtf?

I died a couple times on the final boss; once in Oil Ocean 2 thanks to poison gas; and a bunch of times due to cheap crush collisions in Chemical Plant 1. This is an easy game which can mostly be conquered on first attempt. The special stages are surprisingly strategic, the kind of design that improves on what was accomplished in 1994 while restraining itself to the same vocabulary, though I don't know if I have the enthusiasm to repeatedly find them. I ended up with four Emeralds. I didn't mention the return of the E-102s, but in context it's hard to care. They're lost in the noise of all the other boss fights.

Sonic Mania doesn't really illustrate to me that you can still make a good classic Sonic - nor the converse. What it does illustrate is that you can repackage content from classic Sonic and successfully sell it, and maybe this should've been expected from a team whose resume consists entirely of fangames and ports. Predictable or not, this strikes me as a bad lesson, and if the inevitable Mania 2 includes any recycled content at all ("hey, how come they never remade Press Garden Zone? that's a classic!"), I'll be leaving it on the shelf. If it's entirely new material I'll probably bite - about half the original stuff here was solid. For longtime fans, Generations and Sonic 4 are more challenging, more original, and more respecting tributes. For new fans, just play Sonic 1-3&K, they're on virtually everything for a combined price near Mania's and hold up extremely well. Just remember that it's okay to die and start over; this is not an "old-school flaw", and the second time is often even more fun than the first. If you've played those to death, then you've already played Mania. Maybe try Socket.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Then I started Mania, and yeah, this is only after Green Hill Zone, but it is hard to escape the profound feeling of *what is the point?*

at 12:00 PM
And yeah, this is only after Chemical Plant Zone, but it is hard to escape the profound feeling of what is the point?. CPZ:A2 is God's gift to anyone wanting to demonstrate that popular Sonic is pure hold-rightism. It introduces new gimmicks left and right but never fucking stops for a second to let me interact with any of them. It's like a caricature of the boring cutscene pipes first introduced in... Chemical Plant Zone Act 2 Version 1.0! And come on, are all the Act 1s going to be 90% cloned from the originals? Why not jump straight into the new stuff? Two zones in, they already feel like filler.

Finally with Studiopopolis Zone we enter fresh territory. I don't want to judge the new material too seriously on first pass, though I think it's fair to say Studio P. is essentially a reflection on Carnival Night. Both have the floating bumper formations, and the sproingy things feel like a less interesting version of Carnival Night's balloons, all globbed together without any suspension. The falling stage lights aren't really threaded throughout the level either, though they at least provide some self-sustaining challenges. Hold-righting is still in excess but not nearly as bad as CPZ2, and certain layouts like the revolving bumper crescent seem to be used repeatedly without development. I had no sense of an overarching structure of the level, but that's exactly the kind of conclusion I don't expect to be able to draw after a single run.

I don't think I can construct a paragraph about Flying Battery. It was... there. Was the only new gimmick the trash chutes? That's not really an idea. It really cannot be overstated how boring these re:Act 1s are. The Sonic franchise reuses settings a lot - too much, in fact, and this trend was set as early as Emerald Hill Zone - but that can be interesting in its own way. New aesthetics and audiovisual styles can be reinvigorating, fresh mechanics can recontextualize old challenges, and elements can be rearranged in novel or ironic ways. Even at their most derivative, sequels like Sonic 4 and Generations get some juice from the former two principles. Mania, locked into its traditional pixel art and player mechanics, needs to rely entirely on the third, innovating in the stage design. Not only does it fail to do so, it happily chooses not to try. Old layouts and challenges are copy-pasted exactly from their source material.

Looks the same, plays the same, is the same. It's a surreal experience, like Gus van Sant's notorious shot-for-shot Psycho remake, to be playing something that's exactly the same but cost fresh money. It's insulting too, and I'd prefer to believe The CW made this call to meet restraints on the schedule or budget, because otherwise it's extremely cynical as a comment on just how brainless gamers are. While critics and audiences joined voices in a collective Fuck You to Psycho '98, Sonic Mania has been greedily consumed and enthusiastically praised, leaving one to wonder if such cynicism on the developer's part would indeed be ill-placed. I'm being pretty harsh, but keep in mind that these duplicated levels constitute an entire third of the game, and the Act 2's aren't terribly impressive themselves.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Revisiting lost Sonics: 4E2 & Triple Trouble

at 12:00 PM
I finally got a run at the legendary Sonic 4: Episode II. My main response is wow, that really is the worst fucking title. Not only is it awkward and generic, it's extremely misleading - I'd have played the game five years ago had I not foolishly read into the subtitle the implication that there would be any relationship whatsoever to Sonic 4: Episode I. Seriously, even after hearing Golem's praise, my reaction was always "yeah but it's still Sonic 4, how much better could it be?". But it's still Sonic 4 insofar as Mega Man X8 is still Mega Man. It has the same map screen, and the same rebootish relationship to Sonic 2 as Episode I has to Sonic the Hedgehog, but that's about it. Not even the graphics are in the same style. How is this not Sonic 5?

Who would play Episode I with its Dimps-brakes and unflinching fixation on homing attack and say, "yes, obviously Episode II will completely throw out the physics engine and quadruple the player mechanics, and oh, it'll also be a direct sequel to Sonic CD"? The gameplay additions make perfect sense as reflection and growth - the physics were weird and everyone complained about them, the new mechanics are Tails-based, and homing attack was a fun but flat way of interacting with things - they just feel buried in an "Episode II". Especially considering that in between 4.1 and 4.2 was a totally different 2D reboot (Generations), and after 4.2 is yet another (Mania). It's actually kinda disappointing; I'd be more interested in Sonic 4: Episode II: Episode 2 than with more Maniac Sonic or Classic Sonic. How 'bout a Chaotix spinoff?

Anyway I thought it was quite good, enough so to do Chaos Emeralds and Red Rings (another thing grabbed from somewhere in the series not called "Sonic 4"). The partner actions are a solid expansion of the design space without feeling too contrived or gimmicky: flight is grounded in the long history of Tails-only runs, cartwheel is a neat spindash variant, and swimTails is itself a flight variant. There are segments that foreground the abilities, but plenty of places to improvise too, so they make for a nice harmony - not always in the spotlight, but always present. And the level concepts often bounce off them directly (e.g. Windy Desert Land). It took about 15 straight deaths on the final boss to realize I was actually supposed to be using Tails for everything - playing without still feels do-able and natural, yet playing with instantly makes sense. It's the best way for mechanics to co-exist. I feel like this is exactly what Colors should've been, and it's odd to see in an iteration that has no business being so experimental. Apparently reviewers hated this, because the abilities weren't activated by holding right. "Slows down too much to make you think" was an actual review.

I liked the bosses as well. They feel out of sync with the rest of the series (the idea of tweaking an old boss is right there in 4.1, but 4.2's versions are "tweaks" the same way Ninja Gaiden '04 is a "tweak" on Ninja Gaiden '88), but in a way that draws from the added complexity of the mechanics. There's an unusual degree of dynamism in the settings and counterpoint in the attack patterns (in fact, counterpoint is a very foreign idea to the Sonic boss). They feel inspired by Contra and Rocket Knight more than anything in Sonic history.

The visuals are a mixed bag. Definitely the oddest element to change, though I gather it was done to take advantage of the relaxed constraints of non-WiiWare platformers. As far as I can tell, 4.1 had pre-rendered sprite backgrounds based on polygonal models which are now lighted and rendered real-time in 4.2. Personally I find the new style to lack the personality and vibrancy of its precursor, but I'll admit an irrational bias toward pre-rendered 3D models. Up for no debate is that Sonic's animations look far more fluid and natural this time.

The Chaos Emeralds were scary easy, and the first set I've ever done (I like that both 4.1 and 4.2 say "let's take the old minigames and remove the random bullshit" and that's perfectly effective), and along with Red Rings are a good excuse to see some of the non-scrub routes. Metal Attack isn't much, just a hard mode for a handful of 4.1 stages, but as a free bonus it's hard to complain. Metal Sonic has a great PSHHHHH jumping sound effect.

Before moving on to Mania I figured I'd give Triple Trouble a go. Even if no one likes it, I expected to gain valuable insight into the origins and motivations of Knack the ? which could be pivotal to appreciating his contemporary rebirth. I'm guessing the main criticisms are that it's too easy and there's slowdown, because I beat Eggman with 5 lives and 4 continues to spare on my very first attempt, and the water stages in particular feel like that time we learned what it's like to play Bonk 3 while being sucked into a black hole. Those issues aside, it is rather refreshing to play a Sonic game that has its own levels and ideas (Gemini Man fish eggs!), even if they lean toward the one-dimensional, and it's equally interesting to see reliance on self-propulsion (rather than constant springs and spinners) that brings the pace and exploration closer to the original than any of the sequels. It reminds me of Super Mario Land 2 in that sense - single-minded design that prioritizes going outside the box over depth, and mechanics that function as a solid simulacrum of the parent games, but still ultimately a simulacrum. For someone looking for a handheld or 8-bit platformer, it's not a bad pick, but it isn't much more than a curiosity within the franchise at large.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The racing line, F-Zero X, and Super Meat Boy

at 7:00 PM
I was thinking - if you designed a platformer around a racing line, would the result be Super Meat Boy? This was a spinoff of trying to apply the concept to platformers and quickly coming to the conclusion that I like it even less as an analytical tool. Dustforce is another obvious one, but anything from that hardcorer genre or whatever they call it. Crungeformers?

Basically, when you're looking solely for route optimization you're asking the player to minimize dynamism, and Super Meat Boy et al. just come straight out and say anything that isn't exactly right is death. I mean, if the player is always trying to avoid walls and ice and pits, why even assign them different dynamics, right? It's like Gamasutra's approach treating all hazards as "off course". A traditional racing game compensates by ramping up the mechanical complexity (or, to look at it the other way around, the mechanical complexity of traditional racing games requires restraining dynamism in order to present a coherent game space), which drives greater suspension, which multiplies the effect of any dynamics, even at a very simple level. Boosting makes F-Zero X seem incredibly dynamic, but increasing acceleration for a fixed time isn't really that complex.

I guess that accounts for the unique design space the meatformer occupies. High speed, high reflex route pruning with immediate payoff. It's stripped of all the suspension and context that nonlinear car mechanics create and makes it such that you actually can define, and quickly test, a meaningful racing line.

Also, I realize I'm not exactly sure what "dynamics" means in the Critical Design model (since it's any word at all in the English language, I'm assuming it's in there). I'm just thinking of it as second order effects. As in, accelerating/braking/steering are mechanics because they are static input/output mappings; machines can always accelerate/brake/steer. Boosting, drifting, ice, etc. are dynamics because they change how the mechanics work (acceleration higher under boost, steering less responsive under drift, etc.). I haven't put a lot of thought into applying this definition outside F-Zero.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Vectorman revisited

at 7:00 PM
Hm beating Vectorman really just came down to getting a 5x1Up. That was enough to ride the wave to a few 2Ups and 3Ups and ultimately the end credits, even though I'd never seen the final four stages. I guess it was neat how the penultimate stage was set in the first stage of Pulseman, in the context that I was debating which to beat first. Now Pulseman will feel like a fun spinoff! Which incidentally has the same problem of a too-close camera.

Question I'm surprised I don't hear more often: how come V-man is yellow during cutscenes and green during gameplay? Paint shortages? Where's Super Mario Color Splash when you need him?