The class has been tasked with picking some famous games, or something you’re familiar with and talking about it from a game design perspective. There is so much scope here so I’m going to keep it to things that have meant a lot to me over the years, hopefully this will keep things interesting for you and me. I may even learn something new! Here are the topics that need to be covered:
How available hardware impacted design.
● Intended audiences for the game.
● Critique the game. Talk about game
design, visuals, mechanics & performance.
So onto the first game!
Sonic the Hedgehog
Available Hardware at the Time
While Sega had some limited success in the 80s with their Sega Master System, it was never able to compete with Nintendo’s NES/Famicom and their almost indomitable market share. In order to compete they pushed the development of their next console and the first entry into the 16-bit console war, the Sega Mega Drive. The MD was built around a Motorola 68000 CPU, which had seen success throughout the 80’s in mass market computers such as early Macintosh machines, Amigas and the Atari ST. The console market was about to meet the power of a PC for the first time. Sega even added a secondary CPU to the system to deal exclusively with audio, leaving less workload for the main Motorola chip.
Even with this new hardware in hand it wasn’t enough to topple Nintendo and Sega realised they were missing one major ingredient in the plan. A mascot to rival Mario himself. A team was assembled to develop a Mario killer game using all of the new found hardware at their fingertips. This was how Sonic the Hedgehog came to be. The game was defined by what functionality they could pull out of the new hardware. Programmer and Project Manager Yuji Naka had always been obsessed with fast cars and speed and wanted to bring this love into the game. So much so, the game speed was eventually dialed back during development as the prototype moved so fast it was giving testers motion sickness. It seems like the new hardware was delivering exactly what they wanted in spades.
There was much heated debate between Sega of Japan and Sega US over this very matter, clashing heads over how to appeal to two very different audiences for maximum appeal and profit. Japan originally styled the character in your typical Japanese style of cute features and large expressive eyes but already knew the product had to succeed in Western territories to help sell Mega Drive units. In light of this Sonic was also styled after such classic animation icons as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse.
However the initial submission to Sega US caused quite the stir with the then CEO Michael Katz who immediately wrote a list of ten reasons why the IP would never succeed in the west and had it forwarded to Sega Japan. One of these reasons was that nobody in the US even knew what a hedgehog was, turns out they aren’t native to any of the Americas, I learnt something new today.
Sega US went to work redesigning the character to suit a Western audience which in turn infuriated the original Sonic Team in Japan and this continued for some time. Eventually SOA’s design would be the final design based on the facts that the Master System and Mega Drive up until now had better sales than the West than in Japan, where Nintendo still had the major foot hold. Nearly all of the initial Sonic lore was created by Sega of America.
The other aspect to target audience was a split between Japan’s casual gamer market and the Wests more competitive gamer market. Yuji Naka managed to nail down the appeal to both markets by introducing the speed aspect of the game as a skill based test, hoping gamers would return again and again in an attempt to beat the stages as fast as possible with the worlds speediest hedgehog. Meanwhile casual gamers could take a slower approach as the game had no time limit, merely a time counter.
Meanwhile I find it funny that no thought seems to have gone into the age or gender demographic, or at least I can’t seem to find any information about it. I could say that Sega were lucky that the end product was popular with all ages but I’m sure it was considered somewhere during the development process and simply isn’t documented online.
Game Design & Mechanics
All of the staff working on the original game admit that its core influence for gameplay still originated from Mario, but with that added desire of speed I’ve already mentioned. You could boil Sonic’s mechanics to that or Mario in its simplest form, get from point A to point B in a side scrolling platformer. As for the rest of the mechanics I’ll have to quickly jump back to the character design process.
The original character submission long before the blue hedgehog was a rabbit, who would pick things up with his ears and throw them at enemies. This rabbit created by Naoto Oshima didn’t fit Yuji Naka’s vision and said the item pickup process broke the rhythm of the action, along with his goal to make the game playable with only one button. So the team went back to the drawing board to look for animals that could roll into a ball, their idea for an attack. What would Sonic be if they had never nailed down that core rolling attack at this stage, it wouldn’t be the game we know now.
To now elaborate, the core mechanic is get from point A to point B, while avoiding or destroying enemies using a balled up jump or roll attack, but wait theres more. I previously mentioned the desire to appeal to the Western audiences competitive streak, by encouraging what we’d know now as speed running levels. He had always wondered when playing Mario why the levels could not be cleared more quickly, and this was his foundation for that aspect of Sonic. So for the last time get from point A to B as quickly as possible, while avoiding or destroying enemies using the ball up mechanic. For the most part I think that sums up Sonic pretty well.
“I like fast things and I thought that it would be nice to create a game where the more skilled you become, the faster you can complete a stage. Games back then had no backup or saving system, which meant that you had to play right form the beginning every time…As a result, the very first stage would be played time and time again, making the player very skilled at it. So we thought it would be nice if this would enable the player to complete those stages faster and that’s the basis of Sonic’s speed. We also thought this feature would help differentiate Sonic from Mario.”
—Yuji Naka, Programmer and Project Manager of Sonic the Hedgehog.
From a personal perspective all I can say is it worked. I lovingly played Sonic until the days of the PS1 when the Mega Drive took a back shelf, constantly beating my own times and finding new paths to the end of the level. I still have my MD and occasionally run through all of Sonic for the nostalgia, emulation just isn’t the same.
I’ve already talked at some length about the creation of Sonic himself and where the style came from, so I’ll take this opportunity to briefly discuss the levels themselves.
Level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara worked on all the levels single handedly and was responsible for the theme of each. The games colour scheme was influenced by pop artist Eizin Suzuki and the first level Green Hill Zone was designed to bare some resemblance to California in hopes of appealing to the Western market.
There isn’t much official information outside of this, so from here on in this is purely observation and opinion. Each level has its own style and theme, often being worlds apart from each other but each lavishly detailed to the point its insane to comprehend it all being the work of one man.
The high contrast and vivid colours wash out as the game progresses and the zones get more industrial, until your final conflict with the main antagonist Dr.Robotnik, responsible for all the robots in the other zones. Visually its a nice touch and gives a sense of progression as your surrounding visuals get less natural and more grim. Even though ask any player and we all hate level 4 ‘Labyrinth’ more than any later stage, Sonic constantly drowning was the frustration of gamers for a generation.
Sonic had some performance issues during development but the final game ran absolutely flawless. The initial speed Naka wanted out of the game took some clever programming, early tests resulted in flickering, slow frame rates and glitchy sprite animations. This was solved early in development by Naka writing an algorithm to solve these issues, this was also responsible for smoothly allowing the games loop-de-loops and momentum based physics to work. I take my hat off to one programmer making all of this possible in 1989.
That about wraps up talking about Sonic, however I’m not done with Sega by a long shot. More on that shortly!