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Bonus Stages in Classic Sonic the Hedgehog

I’ve been playing a lot of Sonic CD lately. Nobody seems to understand that the entire series is just a ploy by the jewelry industry to sell more shinies, but whatever*.

The earliest Sonic games have an interesting dichotomy that’s apparently been the subject of much controversy – the marketing emphasis is on how fast you can go, but there’s more slow, precise platforming segments than in newer games in the series (my main point of comparison being Sonic Generations). The bonus stages are definitely on the side of the latter, and recently, I’ve begun wonder how appropriately they’re implemented…

Knowing the details, of course, helps a bit. I’m not going to be covering the various 8-bit (Master System/Game Gear) titles, since I’m not exactly familiar with them, but the main entries in the series should be pretty well covered.

Sonic the Hedgehog

To access a bonus stage, collect 50 rings and jump through a larger ring once you reach the goal.

Congratulations! You’re now navigating a constantly rotating realm of gems and animals, with irritatingly soothing music. It takes a great deal of precision and memorization to make your way through these levels, and if you mistakenly hit a goal circle, you’ve lost an opportunity to pick up a Chaos Emerald. With 6 Emeralds and 12 eligible stages, though, you have some room for error.

The same style of bonus stage shows up in Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I, with a few tweaks – in return for being able to rotate the level to your heart’s content, you now have a time limit, although you can extend it by picking some items up.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Somewhat more accessible than the original – you still need 50 rings, but you can enter the bonus stages at any checkpoint. This means that within each stage, you could potentially make multiple attempts at getting a Chaos Emerald, if you’re willing to pore over each stage and look for the checkpoints. You lose all your collected rings when you enter a bonus stage, though, so if you’re trying to be efficient, don’t hoard a ton of rings and then attempt a stage.

Sure, it looks blocky, but Sonic 2 has more comprehensible bonus stages – just collect rings, don’t collect mines. You need about the same skillset, especially once ring paths start wrapping around the tube. You don’t have to worry about instadeaths, but it is regardless possible to screw yourself over and have to try again. Who would’ve guessed? A variant later shows up in Sonic Heroes.

Sonic CD

Sonic CD was developed at least partially contemporaneously with Sonic the Hedgehog 2; but it goes back to the first game’s system of entering bonus stages. That means you’re back to having fewer opportunities to actually attempt the things.

These can vary quite a bit depending on the platform, but whoever designed the original Sega CD one seems to have had some issues with algorithms, since this is rather jerky compared to other vaguely contemporaneous titles using similar graphical effects – PCs with much more powerful CPUs, Super Nintendos with built in 2D transformation acceleration hardware (“Mode 7”), etc. I shouldn’t complain, because I’ve been playing with the 2011 rerelease on Steam which… needless to say, doesn’t have to worry about it.

No mistake about it – this is a nasty and unforgiving bonus stage, at least for someone of my skill level. The UFOs move around semi-randomly, and Sonic’s turning radius isn’t very forgiving. Fall into fluids surrounding the stages, and you’ll rapidly lose time.

Sonic 3 and Knuckles

You no longer need 50 rings to trigger a bonus stage, but they’re harder to find; they’re hidden off in various sections of the level in giant rings, similar to 1 and CD. Alternatively, if you just want to play these, stick any Sega Genesis cartridge into a copy of Sonic and Knuckles, although you’ll possibly get the most playtime out of merging S&K with the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

Compared to the others, Blue Sphere is relatively puzzle oriented, since you’re looking at a small portion of a large, vaguely spherical map. Turn all the spheres red and a wonderous prize is yours, but the high speed, limited field of view, and potential to trap yourself by taking the wrong route through the stages make these challenging, to say the least.  Furthermore, the longer you take to complete these stages, the faster your character will move, and the faster the music in the background will play. It’s a good thing that you have plenty of opportunities to play these stages, especially with judicious use of the save system.

Sonic 3D Blast

The 50 ring requirement’s back! You still need to seek out the entrances to these, but now they’re either Tails or Knuckles themed.

The gameplay here is very similar to the bonus stages of Sonic 2, but from a different graphical perspective. It probably balances out to be a bit easier, since there are fewer hazards, better forward visibility, and even the occasional wall Sonic has to jump over, lest he freeze in place with little consequence.


 

Unless you’ve memorized all the stages or have a map on hand, it’ll probably take you longer to collect 50 rings and reach a bonus stage opportunity than to simply rush through everything. The problem, as I see it, is that this is basically the opposite of what you’d expect to do in a Sonic game, since the entire gimmick of the series is its sense of speed, and here you are sacrificing it to pick up a few shiny gemstones. People tend to counterargue this by citing the occasional slow, precise platforming areas that the Genesis games have, like the Marble Zone in the first game, but my point remains – the key to earning the best ending is playing more slowly than you would otherwise.

The actual bonus stages vary in their relevance. I would say that those in Sonic 2 fit the series most effectively of anything I’ve discussed here, since they do a relatively good job of capturing the main stages’ sense of speed within their technical limitations. Sonic 1 and CD kind of miss the point by not only lacking that speed, but being so hard to control. In the case of the former, you could make a case for Sonic as a pinball based on how often that gameplay element shows up in the series, but you shouldn’t have to resort to shoddy, half-baked rationalizations to accept such a style change.

If you ask me, the solution would be to grant bonus stage access to the fastest players, those who can blast through a stage incredibly fast. A few games in this series have optional time attack gameplay that would be suited towards this. The main problem is that it potentially discourages players from exploring what tend to be fairly large, non-linear levels, but there are a few ways to get around that, like putting a couple of waypoints through the level that players would have to hit in order to qualify their time trials. The odds of Sega reading this and trying it out in an upcoming title are… pretty low, but maybe you, the reader, develop video games. If you can learn to synergize various styles of gameplay in your own titles effectively, it might increase your sales and/or notoriety.

*This statement might not be entirely true.
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