Sonic 3D Blast is a Very Good Teacher - Game Design Gazette

Friday 29 December 2017

Sonic 3D Blast is a Very Good Teacher

I don't consider myself a Sonic the Hedgehog fan. Save for certain stages in Sonic 2 and Sonic & Knuckles, I don't enjoy most of the games and I'm fairly rubbish at them, too. I'm one of those people that simply doesn't understand how you're meant to "go fast" when the games seeingly do everything in their power to bring you to a screeching halt at every turn.

Now, I get that most Sonic stages feature two "routes" of sorts--one meant for speed and lightning-fast reflexes, and the other for a slower, more exploratory approach. The problem is, Sonic games are designed around the idea of going fast, so if I'm not going fast I tend to feel I'm playing them wrong.

The one Sonic game I do enjoy immensely is one that discards the idea of "going fast" entirely and commits itself completely to exploration and discovery: Sonic 3D Blast.

Movement in Sonic 3D Blast feels controlled and deliberate. Where the 2D games encourage liberal use of the speedy Spin Dashes and running jumps, 3D Blast is designed to let you walk around in a slower, more controlled manner.

Sonic moves just fast enough that you feel you're covering ground quickly, but not at the pace he does in the 2D games where entire chunks of the stage zoom past you without you really getting to take them in. The Spin Dash serves as an attack instead, or is sometimes used to uncover hidden areas.

Stages in Sonic 3D Blast are also designed around the player's control over Sonic. You spend a lot of time finding the right angle to approach enemies from, walking around rotating turrets whilst avoiding their line of fire, and trying to navigate uneven terrain as you uncover more and more of the stage.

That said, because Sonic 3D Blast is so different from the main series it was necessary for the game to properly introduce its sense of design to players—and it does a fantastic job of teaching the player everything they need to know in a single stage.

Here's a quick breakdown of Green Grove Act 1, the first stage in the game. I'm using the PC version of the game, since it's the one I remember and has some nice advantages over the Genesis version.

The stage begins with Sonic standing in front of a bridge. 
You can proceed forward right away, but if you move towards the left...

You find an extra space with Rings in it. There's also a high wall you can't quite jump over. 
As an aside, this little area is where the Genesis version of the stage starts you off at.

Once you've collected the Rings and push forward, you'll notice the bridge creaks and shifts under Sonic's weight as he moves across it, which is a great little detail.

Right after the bridge is a Dash Panel that rollercoasters you into the stage proper.

You arrive here, which is a spot of uneven terrain designed to slow Sonic's movement.
Lesson #1: This game features uneven ground that will affect your movement.

Move a little to the right, and you encounter your first Flicky—the enemies in 3D Blast.

If a player isn't feeling confident enough and chooses to retreat, they walk to the left.
Here, they find a Shield and a sprinboard with an extra life at the very top.

Under the safety of a Shield, you can then attempt attacking that Flicky.

Once you've defeated it, the good Flicky inside joins you. 

Moving along, you find a crossing with a Dash Panel, which takes you up a slope.
However, if you come to the right you find... nothing? Hmmm.

Left with no choice, you take the Dash Panel up the slope.
You arrive next to a springboard and a funny bit of wall.

If you move on, no harm done. 

But if your gamer's instinct encourages you to Spin Dash through it...
You find a secret room! With a bunch of Rings and... a cannon?

Jump into the cannon and it fires you back across the stage... that empty spot from earlier. Only now, Knuckles is here!
Lesson #2: Any time you find a suspiciously empty spot, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Stand next to Knuckles and he... takes all your rings?
Lesson #3: Giving Knuckles rings does something. Maybe you should try again. 
(If you have enough Rings, he warps you to a Bonus Stage)

Once you head back up the slope again, you find a new type of Flicky, with a spiked ball circling it.
Lesson #4: The spiked ball hurts and you need to find a safe angle of attack. We're in 3D!

Defeating this one also makes it join you!
Lesson #5: For some reason, you're collecting Flickies.

Now, there's two ways to proceed. You can either take the Dash Panel up the slope...

...or walk to the left, where you find another Flicky and a springboard up.
Lesson #6: There are multiple paths to the same destination.

Once you're in this area, you get to try your hand at defeating a few more Flickies.

You also find this turret, at the top of a gentle slope. 
Lesson #7: You'll need to carefully navigate 3D space to avoid obstacles.

If you're feeling queasy, there's another Shield nearby. This first stage is rather generous with them

This same area also contains this mysterious portal thing. But what does it do?

Lesson #8: So that's why you were collecting Flickies!

The portal transports you to this new area.

Where you find more obstacles and Flickies, but also this springboard...

...which bounces you up to an extra life you can't quite reach.
Lesson #9: See how the Flickies increase your reach? Collect more and grab this extra life!

The next few minutes of the stage involve more exploration.
Until you begin to make your way down this pathway...

Further down...

Past this nasty bit of trickery here...

And down to... the wall at the very start of the stage earlier?

...where you now find Tales waiting for you!
Lesson #10: The entire stage is a single, connected landmass.

Now that you know that the entire stage is connected and can be freely explored, you'll be able to go back and collect Rings you missed, maybe give a more to Knuckles and see what happens, or even discover the Knuckles secret for the first time if you missed it before.

By the time you complete the first stage of Sonic 3D Blast, the game ensures it has properly introduced you to all of the somewhat-complex skills you'll need to master to survive. It punishes you often, but gives you enough tools in the form of Rings and Shields to ensure you learn the necessary lessons.

Given that the game was released in 1996 and was breaking new ground as far as Sonic was concerned, I find it quite interesting how well thought out it was. All these years later, I still believe Sonic 3D Blast is a more focused and tightly designed game than the 2D Sonics. Blasphemous, I know—but as you can see, the game commits fully to its vision and gets a lot of it right.