Sonic Slows Down!
It was only a matter of time until Sonic the Hedgehog made his debut on the Bad Game Hall of Fame. But before we get into the whole “this game is terrible” discussion, lemme say a few words about my history with the Sonic franchise.
Now, like many folk out there, I have fond memories of playing the original Genesis trilogy, and even went out of my way to buy a Sega Saturn originally just to get my hands on the “definitive version” of Sonic 3D Blast. It was… underwhelming, to say the least. I will admit to having spent an absurd amount of time in the Sonic Adventure 2 Chao Garden, but outside of that, I was mostly content to let each new entry to the Sonic series post-fifth-gen zoom right on past me. And so, I would say my interest in the property had already begun to dissipate long before Sonic the Hedgehog ‘06 — the point where most folk first seemed to turn on the Blue Blur in a big way.
At the same time though, I wouldn’t say I’m a Sonic the Hedgehog “hater.” Honestly, even if each successive entry in the franchise had continued to be marked improvements over the prior, I probably would’ve eventually stopped following them as my interest in platformer games in general began to wane. But as I continue to observe Sonic from afar, there are certain elements of it that continue to appeal to me: I still think all the character designs are pretty cute, noodle limbs and all. I’m a sucker for the soundtracks, and will continue to tune into those even as I’m not playing the associated games. Tails is a very good boy. No matter what direction the franchise might head or spin off in, these are key things you cannot take away from Sonic.
But what about “going fast?” Is running really an essential ingredient in the Sonic formula? Some would argue that you spend more time standing around, waiting for / on platforms in the original Sonic the Hedgehog than you do speeding through hills and highways. So, what if a Sonic game decided to do away almost completely with Sonic’s ability to run? Sonic Labyrinth is one answer to that question. Let us never ask that question ever again.
Zoom Through the Zones
Dr. Robotnik is sick of having his diabolical plans thwarted by Sonic. He realizes that no matter how many traps he may lay, Sonic will just outrun all of them. Which gets him thinking: “He outruns my traps. He uses his fantastic speed to defeat my minions. What if I took his speed away?” And so, in his most ingenious plan to date, he has one of his lackeys sneak into Sonic’s house while he’s sleeping, and blow his head off with a shotgun. Nah, just kidding: He replaces his regular running shoes with “slow boots,” and counts on Sonic not paying attention as he wakes up in the morning, puts on his shoes, and gets stuck in them. And then he blows Sonic’s head off with a shotgun.
Of course, what Dr. Robotnik actually does is laugh in Sonic’s face, before telling Sonic exactly how to remove the shoes: “The only thing that can deactivate those boots is Chaos Emerald power, and the Chaos Emeralds are mine! The only way to get them is to find your way through my Super Labyrinth.” Sonic quickly realizes though that even though the boots keep his feet from moving fast, they don’t prevent him using his patented Spin Dash. Have we established yet that Dr. Robotnik is the dumbest “evil genius” who has ever existed in games? And so, Sonic makes a mad [spin] dash toward the labyrinth, where our game begins.
There are two game modes and a small handful of options presented to you on the main menu: The “Normal Game” mode gives you sixteen levels in total to tackle, with four zones each consisting of four acts (the fourth of which of each is a boss battle). The “Time Attack” mode consists entirely of one simple stage repurposed from the first zone in the Normal Mode, and challenges you to complete it as quickly as possible.** The only reason this game mode exists is for a brief contest held in Japan, wherein a hundred players with the best times (confirmed via a “password” the game gives you on completion of the stage) were awarded [presumably] Sonic-related prizes. That being said, they could’ve done so much more with this game mode, and it’s a shame they didn’t.
In Normal Game, acts play out as small mazes, where you must collect three keys hidden around the stage in order to unlock the “Goal” door and progress to the next act. Obviously, the mazes are meant to gradually increase in terms of complexity with each successive act, and I’d say the difficulty curve is shaped sensibly enough: The opening “Labyrinth of the Sky” stages are all quite small and basic, but by the time you’ve reached the “Labyrinth of the Castle,” you may have to actually rack your brain while trying to remember which doors lead to where in the multi-layered mazes.
With themed labyrinths including “Sky,” “Sea,” “Factory” and “Castle,” you might expect each zone to be somewhat distinct in terms of aesthetic and gimmickry? However, this isn’t really the case. It feels like the attempt may have been made for each zone to be visually distinct, featuring different color palettes and enemy varieties, but these are often inconsistent even between the three maze acts that make up a given zone. As an example: The Sea zone alternates color palettes between every stage; beginning with purple in act one, transitioning to green in act two, and ending with blues that harken back to the Sky zone by the time you arrive in act three.
Furthermore, it is my belief that every zone should have something like an underlying mechanic / unique set of props and interactive objects to set it apart from the rest. The Factory zone is the most consistent in doing this, featuring three mazes relying heavily on floating platforms and teleport pads, and as such sticks in my mind as the most memorable of the zones. The Sea zone, on the other hand, introduces the mechanic of transportative platform-to-platform cannons in its first act, and then fails to incorporate them in the next two acts.
Why am I making so fine a point of this? Well, I reckon it’s only because Sonic is a franchise known for its memorable, uniquely-themed zones and stages. If I so much as write the words “Green Hill Zone,” you will probably develop mental images of palm trees and waterfalls in a matter of seconds. Or how about “Casino Night Zone,” with it’s pinball and slots-inspired obstacles? Now, how about “Labyrinth of the Castle?” Does that do anything for ya’? I’ll tell you, I played this game through to completion twice in to prepare for this article, and I can’t tell you the first thing about it without having my recorded footage in front of me. For a game featuring so few locations and levels, you’d think the developers would’ve gone out of their way to make them memorable.
In fairness, the core Sonic team had nothing to do with this title, with development duties falling on Minato Giken — a developer whose focus seemed mainly centered on Sega’s Game Gear (they were even responsible for a passable conversion of Dynamite Headdy for the hardware). This was an era in Sonic’s history where Sega were attempting to spin the franchise off in as many directions and spin-offs as possible, and content to let other developers try their hands at developing the property. This decision-making is what lead to the creation of the States-based Sega Technical Institute who would develop Sonic Spinball, to Traveller’s Tales developing Sonic 3D Blast, and to Aspect Co. Ltd’s number of Sonic games across the Game Gear and Master System (including Tails Adventure and Sonic Triple Trouble). Of these developers and their games, Minato Giken’s contribution seems to demonstrate the weakest understanding of “what makes a Sonic game.” Either that, or they were saddled with the game concept by Sega themselves, and given the unenviable task of trying to bring a bad idea to fruition.
It also doesn’t help that Sonic Labyrinth seems to borrow design elements from another one of the weirder / weaker entries in the series. No, I’m not talking about 3D Blast again, as that would actually release a year after Labyrinth: I’m talking about Sonic Team’s own SegaSonic the Hedgehog for the arcades, released in 1993. It’s a game which plays from an isometric perspective, seems to disregard the element of Rings as a health system, and makes use of long hazard-laden downhills as a repeating design element. However, the arcade game is unique in that it is controlled by trackball, features three player co-op, and generally maintains a consistently high speed and pace. The primary takeaway from the arcade game by Minato Giken seemed to consist entirely of “oh, I bet we could get an isometric game to work on the Game Gear.”
There are three issues that would jump out at me straight way in trying to develop an isometric game for the Game Gear, and probably dissuade me from even trying as a member of a development team. The first of which is the screen resolution, boasting a total of 160 by 144 pixels. This does not give you much room to negotiate how large your characters are able to be drawn relative to how much of the level you can see in frame, and so Sonic Labyrinth does feel somewhat boxed-in due to the detail determined to go into Sonic’s larger sprites. Admittedly, the balance here could have been worse, but it’s still not ideal. The second issue is in mapping 3D control onto an eight-way directional pad — a challenge Labyrinth attempts to overcome by providing two different control schemes (“STRGHT” and “SLOPE”). I found the Slope scheme to be basically unplayable in my hands, and the Straight scheme to be just functional enough to avoid a similar rating. Obviously, neither scheme is what I’d call “ideal,” and making micro-adjustments on foot before preparing to charge up your spin dash is a tedious practice.
The third issue is what I’m going to refer to as “acceptable complexity.” Which is to say, the Game Gear could only handle so much happening at any moment in time in-game — specifically, 32 concurrently-occurring colors and 64 sprites on screen. That’s not even mentioning the lack of resolution again. What this effectively adds up to is a game that can technically only do so much, especially as it attempts to run at a consistent frame rate and with a potential for high speed. As a result, levels are largely barren, with the few enemies spread far apart and some distance to cover between “points of interest” on the map. It has a major effect on the way the stages are made to be built, as the developers had to be constantly conscious of hardware limitations as they attempted to design what were meant to feel like large-scale labyrinths. Again: An unenviable task.
And so, Minato Giken employs a devious trick to make the levels seem larger than they actually are: They made Sonic run as slow as molasses, and got rid of his ability to jump while they were at it. When you can only move at a snail’s pace, a tiny room may as well be a mansion. It cannot be overstated just how slowly Sonic moves on his feet in this game — even with the speed powerup, which barely takes him from a leisurely stroll to something like a power walk. But this all somehow makes sense from a stage design standpoint, as having a fully controllable, full speed run would basically render the game totally trivial. It’d be like if the stages in Sonic Spinball controlled like a standard Sonic platformer, y’know? And so, the spin dash comes to save the day.
By charging your spin up to one of four levels of speed, and picking one of eight directions to shoot yourself in, you’re given your means of faster travel. The price you pay is in controllability, as the speed goes from a standing 0 to a speedy 60 as soon as you release your charge button. Not only that, but in this ball-like form, Sonic is prone to bouncing off of walls and obstacles and being sent hurdling in unpredictable directions. You also have skidding to consider, where you can’t immediately come to a complete stop when your momentum is too high. In other words, travelling fast has it’s fair share of trade-offs, and may even end with your untimely demise.
Is this a great mechanic to build your game around? Probably not — especially not when it comes to a character known primarily for their ability to run quickly and respond snappily. On the other hand, these are the sort of risks a property-owner should consider taking from time to time to see exactly how the public reacts to them / how far they can stray away from established formula before backlash arises. That said, in undertaking such an endeavor, you have to recognize which elements are absolutely integral to your franchise, and not write those out entirely. You should also probably make sure that the game you’re creating is, y’know, at least somewhat competently put together or fun to play.
Rather than using rings as a sort of level-to-level health system, they are absent entirely from the maze acts, only appearing in the boss acts to give you a chance at collecting a 1-Up before encountering the boss themselves. In the fights, they serve their purpose of absorbing an attack for you, but you can’t recollect them after they’re knocked out of you. Rather than worry about hoarding rings in the mazes to stay alive, your primary concern is the ticking timer, which will kill Sonic on expiration. Whereas the original Genesis platformers gave you a generous ten minutes before hitting you with a “Time Over,” acts in Sonic Labyrinth give you all of one minute at the beginning of a stage, challenging you to find ways to add to your time. You can do so by killing enemies, collecting keys, or grabbing a Time Bonus from the rotating power-up dispensers. Consequently, taking damage will sap you of some of your precious time and drop your currently-held keys, in lieu of your rings.
With all that explained, I will assert that only two stages in the whole game had me worried I might possibly run out of time: Zones 3-3 and 4-3. The third act of Labyrinth of the Castle (4-3) is a genuine labyrinth of a level, and while I’m no fan of mazes in general, I can at least accept that a game with “Labyrinth” in the title should’ve probably featured more stages on that sort of scale / difficulty. The third act of Labyrinth of the Factory (3-3), on the other hand, features one incredibly well-hidden moving platform that travels to an easy-to-miss corner and which itself is very easy to miss as well. Naturally, taking a ride on this platform is essential to collecting the last key and completing the stage, and so you have to be lucky enough to catch it moving out the corner of your eye or something, and then patiently wait out it’s return trip to the corner of the screen.
I mentioned “rotating power-up dispensers,” and I realize I should probably explain what that means. Rather than the traditional television-screen-lookin’ item boxes or capsules, which would show you what item you’d be receiving, Sonic Labyrinth’s developers decided they didn’t feel like picking which items should specifically go where. And so, you get a set of uhh, color-changing floating triangles I guess, which give you different items depending on their current color and formation. I’m gonna contend that they are all pretty much useless, save maybe for hoarding 1UPs from them: Invincibility doesn’t really do much for you in a game where enemies are so sparse, the speed boost from the sneakers are barely noticeable, I’m never short enough on time to need the hourglass, and there are almost never enemies even on-screen for the screen-clearing “?” item to have any benefit. At this point, they may as well have just given these power-ups the axe entirely. Or maybe they could’ve replaced them with – I dunno – bundles of rings or hit-absorbing shields?
When you do have your hands on some rings, it’s gonna be just prior to one of the boss fights, as mentioned earlier. I should also mention you’re given no running timer for these, since I guess that would be just one variable too many for the game to keep track of? You might very well need that time, too, as most of the fights can become needlessly time-consuming waiting for vulnerabilities to appear. Every boss fight opens with a prolonged period where you’re attacked by simple smaller enemies before the boss makes their appearance, followed shortly thereafter by them launching into a simple pattern of moving, letting their defenses up, attacking, and then repeating. For an impatient player like me who really just wants to beat the game as fast as I can, this results in me constantly / stupidly trying to attack while defenses are up, which caused me to lose more lives than I should care to admit. Luckily, those ring sections that precede the boss allow themselves to repeat every time you restart the fight, basically allowing you to recoup your lost life and suffer no penalty for death. It’s appreciated, but it’s also honestly a bit of bad design.
Sonic Labyrinth just isn’t a very challenging game at the end of the day. In spite of sloppy controls, mazes compressed for small screen, and a few obtuse puzzle solutions, the game was quite easy to finish in just under an hour on my first go. By the second run, I had my time down to 30 minutes, and I’m sure I could improve on that if I had even the slightest interest in doing so. But I don’t, so I won’t. Why did I even bother playing a second time anyway, you may ask? Well, because I didn’t get the “good ending” the first time through, and heaven forbid I write about a game without seeing all there is to see and do.***
So, you see, there are six Chaos Emeralds to collect, and each of the four bosses drop one. And then after beating the last boss, a short cutscene plays where Robotnik drops a fifth. That still leaves one emerald unaccounted for. And with nary a giant ring in sight to whisk you away to a bonus stage, you may be left wondering what you missed. On completion of the game, after being told “Not Perfect! Try Again!!!” and after all the credits have rolled, the game finally shines some light on the situation:
“1 and 2 and Right Key! In Zone 2-3 ‘Fuji 1 Goh’”
Welp, glad they cleared that one up. So, what this is supposed to infer to you is that you need to hold both buttons and right on the D-pad when launching out of a cannon in Zone 2-3, which will take you to a secret platform to flip a secret switch to open a secret door to the secret bonus stage. Though, you may be dismayed to find that the Chaos Emerald is still nowhere to be seen: Only rings to collect and 1-UPs to earn. You see, the game doesn’t tell you or show you that you’ve earned another Chaos Emerald for your troubles, which lead me to believe that I had missed something in the bonus stage. But nope: On second completion, the game kindly told me “It is perfect! Wonderful!!!” That and the code for the stage select will do it for your reward. This was not worth the additional half hour.
As if that wasn’t obtuse enough, the manual doesn’t help by straight-up lying to you about there being “two special doors.” I’ve checked every FAQ, watched 100% longplays, and I can safely say there is only the one… Unless there is some decades-old secret still waiting to be cracked in this goofy little Game Gear game. Though I seriously doubt that, I will contend that Sonic Labyrinth is one of the least-documented Sonic games, and doesn’t seem like it’s been hyper-analyzed on quite the same level as most of the other series entries. Can’t hardly blame the Sonic hacking community for that.
If there’s one saving grace most Sonic games can boast – in spite of how bad or broken they may be – it’s typically that the soundtracks are stellar. Even previous Game Gear Sonic titles in the traditional platformer vein made the most of the hardware’s sound capabilities, delivering at least a handful of bona fide jams. Unfortunately, Sonic Labyrinth lacks even in this department, providing a paltry few songs that did little to excite. Granted, musical taste is all subjective and whatnot, and composer Atsuko Iwanaga is clearly a competent composer (even if I don’t think she quite nailed the “Sonic sound” in this scenario). Alls I’m saying is, you don’t hear any tracks from this title popping up on the Sonic anniversary compilation albums.
At the very least, the game isn’t an eyesore or anything. Sure, the environments are all very samey and the checkerboard floors get a little tiresome, but the pseudo-3D effects render nicely for a Game Gear release and Sonic scales well enough for isometric perspective. The bosses are also lacking a little design-wise, but truth be told, the Sonic franchise has never really been particularly great about coming up with unique boss characters (At least you aren’t fighting Dr. Robotnik four times in a row here). Also, the fact it maintains a consistent and crisp frame rate is certainly appreciated, where previous Sonic Game Gear entries did fall victim to occasional slowdowns and drops.
What does all that leave us with? Something like a disappointingly short maze games with laughably short and simple mazes, starring a character whose entire gimmick is running fast made to move like a tired tortoise. It’s not a game for puzzle fans, and it’s most certainly not a game for Sonic fans. Even if it was better executed, I reckon the idea of a “slow-moving maze game” might scare off most Sonic fans on concept alone — even if it’s not entirely true that you can’t go fast. What’s important here is the perception of what the game is about, and it’s hard to pitch the premise of Sonic Labyrinth in any exciting or enticing way.
** My best time was something like 16 seconds. Good enough is.
*** Please don’t actually hold me to this rule.
Settling the Score
I couldn’t find any sales figures for Sonic Labyrinth. It’s a safe bet that it didn’t stack up against other Sonic Game Gear games, but since numbers for those aren’t readily available either, it’s gonna remain a mystery for the time being. I can say that the game was received poorly critically, with a panel of four Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewers averaging out a score of 4.75/10. Reviewer “Sushi” states “This title overall tried to mix the standard side-scrolling Sonic game with the worthless pinball title and failed,” with all four reviewers seeming to agree that the 3D perspective hampers the controllability. The kindest review seemed to come from GamePro magazine’s “The Unknown Gamer,” who describes the game as a “cross between traditional Sonic action and Marble Madness” and praises the game as a “change-of-pace cart.” Well, it’s certainly a change of pace for Sonic, I will grant him that.
Between this game and Sonic 3D Blast, it’s plain to see that the isometric perspective simply didn’t work for Sonic. But don’t be lead to believe Sega has any shame in this game: It has re-appeared regularly in multiple Sonic compilation games – including Sonic Mega Collection Plus and Sonic PC Collection – as well as being an unlockable in Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut. Granted, it’s easy enough to toss this little game into the same bag as an assortment of the other Sonic Game Gear games, which is the context in these situations. What’s maybe a little less acceptable is trying to sell the game individually as a digital download for $4.99 in the year 2013, which is exactly what they tried to do on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console. Look, I reckon half the games prices on the Virtual Console are highway robbery as it is, but this still seems particularly egregious to me.
It’s interesting to note that there is at least one slight alteration to this 3DS re-release: On picking up power-ups in the original game, a hideous strobing effect is employed on background elements that caused me something of an eyesore (it can be seen here in it’s original speed / presentation). Obviously, there is a more serious potential risk here for folk who are prone to epileptic seizures, which was clearly not a major consideration during development. Luckily, the 3DS version of the game actually omits this effect, which benefits us all.
Sonic has seemed to avoid labyrinths in the years since this excursion, which is probably for the best. Again, the very idea of stripping Sonic of his running and making a lab rat out of him in elaborate mazes is just an all-around awful idea, and it’s a wonder it ever got okayed to begin with. You almost get the feeling it was meant to be a generic maze game that Sonic was slapped onto at the last minute, though I don’t personally believe that to be the case given how many of Minato Giken’s other works were licensed affairs. Still, you have to wonder where the blame lies for the original idea to put slow boots on Sonic, and be thankful that they got it out of their system nice and early in the history of the franchise. There’s no denying that Sonic deserves better nowadays, but this game goes to show that things could always be worse.