By Jake Arant
The more limited your artistic toolbox, the more creative you have to be when it comes to painting a picture. Something that has interested me for a long time is the clever way 8- and 16-bit video games conveyed audio and visual information within the limits of the technology available at the time.
The series that has always interested me the most in this regard is Sonic the Hedgehog, specifically the original trilogy for the Sega Genesis. The progression of presentation and art style between each of the games is actually pretty cool/fascinating, because it’s a great series of snapshots of the evolution of classic video game tropes.
The easiest way to illustrate the evolution between the first three games is to compare the first level of each, since they all loosely adhere to the same jungle/beach trope.
1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog opens with the Green Hill Zone, a cartoony seaside sprawl that features a whopping four colors. The level quickly opens up to reveal that the checkered platforms you’re haul-assing across are suspended in front of a gigantic waterfall, which the boys in the lab have told me is “cool as hell.”
There’s a fair amount going on with the visual component of this level, but it simultaneously feels oddly sparse. The physical element of the terrain is fun to run through, but many of the visuals feel sort of arbitrarily placed to take up negative space. The background of the level is layered lightly, enough to give the impression that the darker colored mountains are further away than the waterfalls at the edge of the water. It’s simple, but it works well enough to avoid making you feel as if you’re looking at static 2D plane.
The Zone is split into three acts, each separated by a goal post, a score tally, and a very brief black loading screen. All three acts are visually identical, sporting the (awesome) piece of music, heck-of-cool checkerboard dirt, circle log bridges, huge sunflowers, and unexplained totem poles. I think the totem poles are a cool touch that suggest some element of intelligent civilization perhaps once occupying the area. (Also, I am a terrible dork.) At the end of the third act, there’s a boss fight, and then a black screen, and the next zone loads, mired in a completely different video game level trope.
The classic platformer setup does not do much to foster the sense of topographical progress. Each Sonic game is set on a different island, but the levels of Sonic 1 don’t really feel connected in any sense. This isn’t a bad thing in any way, but when compared to Sonic 3 & Knuckles, it’s sort of underwhelming. Green Hill Zone doesn’t really feel much like a place as much as it does some setpieces glued together.
Compare it, for example, to level one of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, imaginatively titled Emerald Hill Zone.
The visual complexity is quite a bit higher, and the color palette is subtler and more coherent. This is a game for the same system, and likely the result of a more refined and thought-out approach to artwork than it is more advanced technology. The biggest advancement in Sonic 2’s sense of a world is the layering that makes up the backgrounds. There’s a super strong push for exercise of vertical movement, something Sonic 1 only touched on, meaning that the background of the level changes depending on your elevation and viewpoint! Emerald Hill Zone begins in a visual scenario very similar to Green Hill Zone, featuring a sparkling ocean and puffy white clouds. As you progress and explore different elevations, the view below the distant ocean opens up, showing what looks like a field of flowers heading into a greenery-covered range of mountains. Though it doesn’t change much beyond that, the layering is done expertly, giving the world a sense of physical depth that Sonic 1 largely lacked. As you move through, you’ll also notice an island of a very different topographical nature sitting far in the background, which appears much later as Zone Five, the Hill Top Zone!
These little touches that unfold naturally as you explore the different paths the zone has to offer, help reinforce the feeling that you’re in a real place. The visual continuity with the Hill Top Zone helps makes the world itself feel connected, and less like a series of tropey setpieces. This information is all provided to you strictly visually and unintrusively, and through the very limiting filter of 1992’s videotronic game technology. I think it’s cool as hell.
Sonic 2 is structurally very similar to Sonic 1 in most ways, still featuring visually identical acts in each zone with the same piece of music for each, although it omits the third act and just sticks the boss onto the end of Act 2. Beat the boss, black screen, new zone. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but you get very little idea of how the world is put together, and how you go straight from lush greenery to a toxic chemical plant. There are touches of smooth or logical transition here and there, such as the transition between Sky Chase Zone and Wing Fortress Zone, but oftentimes it’s still rather jarring.
Okay, we’re screaming into the home stretch here, bear with me. Sonic 3 & Knuckles was the first of the original Genesis trilogy I played, and for my soggy fanny-pack money, it’s the indisputable best of the three. The first level of Sonic 3 is Angel Island Zone, a visually dense and fully-realized combo of all the touches of cool continuity and complexity in the first two games. It even opens with a cutscene of Super Sonic flying onto the beach using the Chaos Emeralds you collected at the end of Sonic 2!
Anyway, the level is much larger than those of previous games, and changes as you progress up through it, leaping off of the green jungle floor and onto higher ground, where you get glimpses of what is presumably the same big-ass ocean from all the other Sonic games. The presentation is very slick, a natural step-up from the very pretty background layering of Sonic 2. Its midway through Act 1 where things change big time.
1: You have to fight a miniboss! It looks sort of like a floating hot tub with a camper shell that shoots bombs.
2: After you defeat the miniboss, it rains a shitload of bombs all over the level, setting everything on fire and completely changing the look and feel of the zone.
In the blink of an eye, Angel Island goes from a thriving seaside jungle to a nightmarish inferno. The background is a shimmering smear of reds and oranges, offering glimpses of the foliage going up in smoke. It’s like Sonic and Tails wandered the way onto the set of Apocalypse Now.
At the end of Act 1, you have to fight the hot tub monster robot again, and this time you actually blow it to smithereens. You spin the sign and end the act, like normal. BUT, after your score tallies up, the screen doesn’t go black. You start Act 2 from the very same spot you ended Act 1 totally seamlessly, with a remixed version of the Zone’s theme to accompany you.
This is huge. The seamless transition helps create a feel of immersion and progression, further aided by the remixed song that plays during Act 2. It’s familiar and yet different, changing as you push forward into new territory. The Zone’s structure changes as you go, and never feels repetitive. Angel Island Zone feels like a real, living place, a place that makes physical sense in a way Green Hill Zone never did. This is a theme that continues throughout the game. The second act of every Zone has a different riff on the original idea, some of them big, some of them small, making you feel like you’re making physical progress across the island.
The levels of Sonic 3 feature a lot of very cinematic moments that are in some ways a precursor to the cutscenes that started appearing as games became more advanced. As Angel Island Zone Act 2 reaches its conclusion, Robotnik chases you through the burning jungle with a massive ship, attempting to eradicate you with bombs. This leads straight into the final boss fight of the zone, on a small platform in between two waterfalls that will send you to your death if you aren’t careful. After defeating Robotnik, your score tallies up, and Knuckles suddenly destroys the bridge under you, sending you plummeting into the sunken Hydro City Zone hidden under the island.
True to the platformer formula, you’re entering a wildly different environment, but unlike previous Sonic games, you’re seeing exactly how it happens through mini-cutscenes. Sonic is blasted out of Hydro City Zone and into the mountains of Marble Garden Zone via a massive geyser, and flown from there through the sunset into the Carnival Night Zone by Tails. At the conclusion of Carnival Night, he’s blasted from a cannon into the mountains of Ice Cap Zone, where he lands on a perfectly placed snowboard and shreds down the mountain like a more interesting Shaun White! There is no sense of choppiness to it, and the cutscenes feel like exposition instead of loading time.
It doesn’t seem like much on a surface level, but it’s that stuff that made Sonic 3 & Knuckles feel like an adventure with a story, and it’s something that found its way into many aspects of the later 3D titles. That sense of flow really appealed to me when I was younger, and I think it’s what made the game so magnetic to me in comparison to the first two.
I started playing Sonic with Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast when I was eight, and quickly made an attempt to get involved with the earlier games too. But at eight years old, 2D games largely weren’t capable of matching the visceral sensation and visual impact of 3D games, and I spent little time with the first two Sonic titles. The graphically advanced Sonic CD held my attention for quite some time, and yet it was the plain-jane Genesis Sonic 3 & Knuckles that often dominated entire days of my life. Even as a kid, those places felt real to me, and I often wondered what it would be like to inhabit such a place.
I think that’s what still draws me to the third Sonic title over the rest. I’ve always played video games as a form of escapism, to inhabit strange and exotic worlds, much in the way that normal people read books. The attention to detail in Sonic 3 & Knuckles transported me from my gross bedroom to a world where anything was possible and everything was a mystery. If you ask me, that wasn’t just my bizarre child’s mind at work; It was good design.