Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Many Supers of Sonic

at 10:22 AM
Games typically end with one of three approaches: a denouement, a final exam or a climax. Take Super Metroid for instance, which closes with a denouement. When you defeat Ridley, you satisfy the incomplete battle that starts the game. From there, your only task is to trash Tourian as the overpowered tank-of-a-person Samus. Something like Mega Man ends with a final exam, reviewing every key lesson that you've learned over the course of the game. Finally, Super Mario Bros. tops off in a climax, with the loopiest dungeon maze and most fearsome Bowser fight of them all.

Over the years, Sonic games have used Super Sonic fights to fill all three roles. These portions await the player at the end of many Sonic games, oftentimes beyond the normal ending. Here are three notable examples.

Denouement: Sonic & Knuckles

After clearing the Death Egg, you stand far from the Earth on shaky girders suspended in space. Robotnik chases after you with a giant laser cannon not much smaller than the height of your jump, ripping apart your footing as he goes. What's more, in order to hit Robotnik's mech suit, you've got to hit his cannon and bounce off onto safe ground; miss, and you fall into the abyss of space. Die, and you'll restart the fight without any chance to collect rings.

It's a brutal, strict fight by 2D Sonic standards, and clearing it is cause for celebration. This fight sets the stage for a denouement, the Doomsday Zone.

You're a super star, soldier.

If you're playing as Sonic and you've collected at least the seven Chaos Emeralds, defeating Robotnik's mech will lead you to the Doomsday Zone. Here, you're instantly upgraded to Super Sonic (normally, the transformation requires scrounging for 50 rings). Better than that, you can fly about the screen at will. Robotnik will fire missiles at you, but their sluggish pace is no match for you; you'll have no problem luring them into hitting Robotnik's mech. After that phase, Robotnik will try to escape, but this is just your opportunity to wail on him. Ram into him by hammering the jump button, and eventually his mech will explode.

Sonic & Knuckles follows a punishing fight with the opportunity to let loose. By beating Robotnik's mech as normal Sonic, you've shown mastery over the game. That mastery is matched by the Doomsday Zone sequence, in which Sonic's own powers reflect your skill; he's not bogged down by gravity, he's invincible, and in Robotnik's final phase, Robotnik has no means of retaliation.

In terms of story, this serves as a denouement because you finally catch Robotnik. In terms of gameplay, it resolves the game's test of platforming. If the game as a whole is about testing your ability to jump around or into things, Doomsday Zone is recognition that you have cleared the test.

Final Exam: Sonic Heroes

Which isn't to say that denouements and climaxes can't be final exams, but some sequences lend themselves more to one reading than another.

Sonic Heroes loves paint-by-numbers gameplay. That is to say, the solution to any given situation is labelled. See a fan? switch to Knuckles so you can ride its drafts. See a pole? Switch to Sonic so you can swing off of it. See a flying enemy? Switch to Tails so you can ground it and put it within reach of your power character.

These situations are placed in a variety of platforming contexts, such as the rising lava portion of Power Plant, the fleet of battleships in Egg Fleet, and others. These contexts color each skirmish differently. Can you chain Sonic's homing attacks over the rising lava bed? Can you clear out enemies with Knuckles while dodging cannonfire from battleships? At the gameplay's core, you're always painting by numbers. To perform that homing attack, you need to recognize the call for Sonic. To clear out those enemies, you need to recognize the call for Knuckles.

And on your way to the Super Sonic scenario of Sonic Heroes, you'll have this idea drilled into your head. It'll be so far drilled that the drill will come out the other end, and your head will just be leaking this idea all over the place. First, you need to clear the main story four times, once with each team playing through more or less the same stages. Then, you'll need to get good enough at the stages to earn all seven Chaos Emeralds. Just to earn a shot at a Chaos Emerald, you'll need to find a key in the appropriate stage and then clear that stage without taking one hit.

Sonic Heroes: come for the deep
combat, stay for the rich dialogue.
So yeah, you'll do a lot of painting. Once you finally get to the Super Sonic sequence, you'll face Metal Overlord. Here, all platforming context is stripped away. There are no bottomless pits, and heck, there's not even a reason to press the jump button. He's got three attacks, one for each character you control. This fight revolves solely around recognizing Metal Overlord's attack, switching to the proper character, and matching his attack with yours. Oh, and using your screen-clearing special attack when your special meter is ready.

It's what you've been doing all along, and if you made it this far, you must enjoy it, so have some more. It also gets to the heart of Sonic Heroes; Metal Overlord lays down straight talk and discusses the one thing running throughout the whole game.

"Final exam" might not be the best term, since it suggests reviewing everything in the game. Rather, Sonic Heroes' final fight serves as a final exam by testing the one thing you should've learned by now.

Climax: Sonic Unleashed

Not since I-Ninja have I played a
platformer with a boxing boss.
You've boosted, drifted, grinded (ground?), punched, tiptoed and died through Eggmanland, a massive stage which can take more than an hour depending on your skill. You'll switch between Hedgehog and Werehog several times throughout the journey in one final sendoff that tries to pack everything in. But that's not the final sendoff; from there, you've got to throw down with Eggman's final mech atop a crumbling rock platform, box with an Eldritch abomination named Dark Gaia, and hurl Sonic into the abomination's eyes a few times over.

Ready for the final boss?

Sonic Unleashed doesn't know when to quit. Its Werehog stages employ trick pacing, regularly preparing you for the end only to yank it away and put you through 10 more minutes of bland brawling. Eggmanland is the king of such pacing, wearing you thin before you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don't game over!

So, when Sonic finally goes Super, it's a relief--kind of. On one hand, you know the end is near. On the other hand, it brings new gameplay to learn, piling more tests upon a player already tired.

In Sonic & Knuckles, flying is a relief because it empowers you; in Sonic Unleashed, it's a burden. Sonic must fly around the edge of Dark Gaia's shield, narrowly avoiding just-out-of-sight boulders. Your job is to destroy worms that produce the shield, but you've got to find them first, and even then, they poke in and out of the shield; they're vulnerable while out, invulnerable while in. This would be fine, except that Chip, your best bud, is quickly losing health at the same time. Let him die, and you need to start the Super Sonic fight over. Seeing Chip retire while I waited for a worm to rear its head was enough for me to give up on clearing this game.

I think this incomprehensible screencap
gives a good sense of how bewildered
I felt when I encountered this sequence.
That said, it is a proper climax. Super Sonic's flying and Dark Gaia's worms combine Hedgehog Sonic's speedy dashes with Werehog Sonic's bouts against batches of hearty, tough enemies. And, unlike Eggmanland, you won't be applying knowledge of specific platforming or action elements that you've already seen in the game; instead, you'll be tested for your understanding of more abstract concepts, such as adapting to high speed and and handling giant enemy health bars. Throwing you into a new situation creates the ultimate test of Sonic Unleashed's underlying themes.

So, does this article end with a denouement, final exam or climax? None of the above, I guess.

1 comment:

  1. I like where this discussion's head is at. Not enough has been said about the significance of games' opening and closing moments, especially these days when they get lost in interminable 20+ hour slogs. The playable denouement is particularly interesting - it provides a far different experience from a wrap-up cutscene and allows the player a gameic (!) catharsis. The more emotional beats you play out while the player is in control, the more affected they will be.

    nitpick - it's important to note that while a game can only *end* on one of these notes, they aren't otherwise mutually exclusive. That is, just because Sonic & Knuckles ends with a denouement doesn't mean it didn't have a climax. Not that you suggested otherwise.