Sonic Mania and Punishing Save Systems

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My expectations were mostly met by Sonic Mania, up to the point when I experienced my first game-over and was reminded of the distinctive ways in which older games dealt with player failure. In this post, we talk about the save mechanism in the game and how it affects every aspect of the experience that you have when playing the game.

When I was a kid, my best friend also happened to own a Sega Genesis, and the two of us would spend hours upon hours playing Sonic games on it. Therefore, when it was announced that Sonic Mania would be released, I was excited to relive this part of my childhood through the medium of a new game that stays true to the original formula.

I was reminded of how differently those older games handled failure when I experienced my first game over in Sonic Mania during a boss fight. The game pretty much lived up to my expectations up until that point.

In Sonic Mania, if you run out of lives, you are kicked out of the game and sent back to the beginning of the level. If you lose the game during the boss fight of the second level, you won’t be able to try again until you’ve completed both levels in the second zone.

Since each zone has two levels, this means that you’ll have to go through four levels in total before you can try again.

As a result of the fact that completing a zone is the only method by which the save system can determine whether or not the player has made progress, the zone is effectively the game’s smallest unit of advancement.

Let’s study the difficulty curve for a typical zone. Because of the damage mechanism, Sonic’s levels are often quite forgiving to players who make mistakes. You are immune to death from sustaining damage so long as you are wearing at least one ring.

Since the bosses at the conclusion of the first level are often on the more manageable end of the spectrum, the difficulty bump at that point is rather mild.

Then there comes the second act, which is often not much more difficult than the first act, and lastly there is the boss in zone 2, who is a kind of gambler’s bet. It’s possible to breeze through it, or it may be a real challenge.

I would want to concentrate on the circumstance when this boss is challenging. We have two items here that are possibly dangerous when paired together:

  1. In terms of modern standards, the zone, the smallest unit of progression in the game, is quite large.
  2. Towards the end of the unit, there’s a spike in difficulty.

During the first eight zones of the game, I did not find this configuration to be difficult to operate. The stages in Sonic Mania were enjoyable to go through a second time, and I did not get stuck for an excessively lengthy period of time on any one specific boss. This is true despite the fact that I sometimes felt disappointed after losing to a second act fight.

My progress has been stagnant in the Oil Ocean zone. The boss towards the conclusion of this area gave the impression of not just being challenging but also being unfair and badly planned. On top of that, this area of the game was my least favourite, so being forced to go through it many times was not my idea of a fun time at all.

Now, I am well aware that as soon as someone begins to whine about dying in a game, someone else will immediately come along and urge that they “become excellent.” My goal is to become skilled in the aspect of the task that presents the most challenge.

I like it when a game makes it clear that in order to proceed, you have to first conquer a difficult obstacle. However, the only way to become an expert at anything is to put in the necessary work, reflect on your performance, and then attempt it again.

My issue was that Sonic Mania would let me practise a few times before sending me back to the beginning of the level.

I was attempting to learn how to defeat the boss, but in order to do so, I had to spend the majority of my game time completing levels that I had already beaten multiple times, and only a small portion of my game time practising the difficult part. I’m just making educated guesses on the proportions, but I think you get my idea.

The difficulty of other games may be approached in a variety of ways. The plague knight in Shovel Knight was one of the bosses that I’ve encountered in more recent games that caused me the greatest difficulty. He completely destroyed me, and in my opinion, he is much more difficult than the boss of the Oil Ocean.

However, since I had a checkpoint just before the encounter, I was able to continue practising against him, and I did not experience any frustration as a result of this. Saving the player’s progress immediately before the boss actually encourages designers to make the boss more tough, since the player is free to rehearse the battle as frequently as he likes.

There is a distinction to be made between being challenged and being punished. Shovel Knight and Sonic Mania may sometimes select to test your skills, but if you fail a Sonic challenge, the consequences will be more severe.

Does this imply that Sonic Mania ought to have backed up my progress before each and every boss it threw at me? At first, that’s how I interpreted it. That felt like the most apparent solution to a problem that was driving me crazy, which was the Oil Ocean predicament.

However, after giving it some more thought, I came to the conclusion that, much like other aspects of game design, it is not as straightforward as it may first seem. After doing some research, I found that this method does have some positive aspects.

Let’s circle back around to the difficulty curve for a moment. Playing through the simpler sections of the game again may be made more gratifying and significant if your success in those areas can aid increase your chances of beating the more challenging parts of the game.

In defence of Sonic Mania, it should be noted that the aforementioned system is included inside the game. You may get more lives by either gathering 100 rings or finding hidden 1 ups, both of which demand expertise. If you merely rush through the stages without paying attention, you can get at the boss with just two lives.

On the other hand, if you are skilled at the level and play effectively, you might arrive at the monster with seven lives, which considerably improves your chances of completing the game. You may also come across a helpful powerup, which, if you are able to hold on to it until you face the game’s final boss, can significantly simplify the fight for you.

This dynamic motivates players to learn the levels, and the levels in Sonic Mania are enormous, giving tonnes of shortcuts and secrets to explore as well as opportunities to gain additional lives and boost the player’s chances of defeating the monster. It is very evident that they were developed with the capability of being played again in mind.

The saving mechanism in Sonic Mania also provides lives with significance in the game. Consider the excellent game Mario Galaxy, which, despite its greatness, included a life system that was largely devoid of significance.

You had a good chance of getting a one-up, but the consequences of losing the game were so little that the value of your life was diminished. In point of fact, Mario Odyssey has completely abandoned this gameplay mechanism, which is both a courageous and astute choice on the developer’s part.

If a game mechanism is not going to have any significance, there is no use in include it in the game.

In Sonic Mania, if you make a mistake and end yourself dying in the middle of a level, it is important since it means you have one less chance to beat the level’s monster. It is also significant if you discover a hidden one-up card, since this improves your chances of completing the game by a little margin.

When you’re coming close to collecting all 100 rings, there’s a certain tension that builds up since you know that even the smallest error might cost you that delicious prize. It’s a unique sensation that you can only get from playing Sonic, and the fact that real people’s lives are at stake in this game is the only reason it’s conceivable.

The topic of punishment is where I want to go on to my next point.

Nobody appreciates being punished, but there are certain negative side effects associated with it that may make the experience much more unpleasant.

When I was younger, my friends and I used to play a ball game in which the person who had the poorest performance in each round had to stand against the wall with his back to it. The other players then took turns kicking the ball at his posterior from a distance of a few metres away.

We might have simply played the game for the fun of it, but by introducing some stakes, we were able to make the experience more exciting and memorable for ourselves and others.

Increasing the severity of the consequences for failing creates risk, which in turn generates stress. That makes each interaction with the monster more significant as a learning experience, and it compels you to pay attention and give it your best effort, as opposed to charging headfirst into it, secure in the knowledge that the checkpoint would shield you from any potential harm.

It is a whole new experience for me, but I can see why some people choose to go that route instead. When you finally prevail against the boss, there is no question that you will feel more rewarded and excited.

It is also important to bear in mind that the development team behind Sonic Mania did not begin with a blank sheet of paper when they set out to create the game.

They wanted to make a traditional Sonic game that was faithful to the series’ roots, so they had to strike a delicate balance between adding new features and improving existing ones without deviating too far from the spirit of the games’ predecessors. When we provide feedback on a game, we need to keep in mind the goals that the game was trying to accomplish.

The original Sonic games, Sonic 1 and 2, did not feature any kind of save system at all. While there are those who believe that this was the best possible solution, the development team came to the conclusion that this was too extreme, even for a game that was trying to stay faithful to the originals.

Back then, it was largely kids who played video games. As kids we had all the time in the world to repeat a level for the 100th time, and because we didn’t receive a new game every week, or even every month – we were a captive audience regardless.

I probably played the first Sonic games for hundreds of hours. Even though I found them to be too challenging for me at the time, I recall that I really liked every minute of participating in them.

Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 29, I no longer have an infinite amount of time on my hands. Sometimes I simply have twenty minutes to play, and I want to make progress, or at least practise the section that’s causing me issues.

And with so many amazing games in my backlog, it’s more tempting than ever to give up on a game when I’m feeling stuck.

With that considered, I believe that enabling players to save immediately before boss bouts would be way too friendly for a Sonic game. While I can’t claim that they discovered the sweet spot for me, I do feel that they gave considerable consideration to this choice.

The balance lies somewhere between not saving at all and saving at every checkpoint, and while I can’t say that they found it, I do believe that they did.

The more I reflected on it, the more sure I grew that the main problem was that the employer I was confronting was unfair and confused.

The more I thought about it, the more persuaded I became. When you confront a well-designed monster, every effort makes you feel like you came closer to discovering the code for conquering it, so even if a game-over puts you back a big bit, you still feel like you made progress.

With the Oil Ocean boss, I didn’t feel like I was becoming any better, and that’s what made me feel trapped. Even after I had defeated the boss, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had simply lucked out on one of my efforts.

The Save System wasn’t the primary reason for my annoyance, but it made the problem much worse and elevated it to the level of a major problem, making it more difficult to play the game.

In conclusion, I believe that this kind of save system has its virtues, and that it has the potential to produce moments that are uncommon in current video games. On the other hand, it calls for a high level of expertise on the part of the game designers in order to pull off correctly.

There is a significant amount of latent potential energy here, and even a little blunder in the game design may cause the whole experience to go horribly wrong.

Not everyone will experience this obstacle. I am aware that some individuals were successful in defeating the Oil Ocean monster on their very first attempt. Some people were stuck in different areas of the game, while others had no problems progressing at all.

I’ve heard of gamers who are so skilled at Sonic that they can complete the game on their very first try, without even having to deal with the game-over screen.

However, it would have been wonderful if the game gave a way out other than just leaving for those players who did become trapped in the game.

I wouldn’t mind if the current save system was the default one, suggested by the developers as the optimal way to play, as long as there was also a more inclusive mode that allowed players to enjoy the game on their own terms and had a more forgiving save system.

In other words, I wouldn’t mind if the current save system was the default one, suggested by the developers as the optimal way to play. Better still, let us earn a pre-boss checkpoint by getting to it with a particular quantity of coins, and make it something that is difficult to reach.

This would make it more fun. That might be a wonderful addition to the game, offering an other objective to accomplish, an additional reason to master the level, and an easy answer to the difficulty that I found myself having to deal with.

In general, I had a great time playing this game, and I can’t wait to watch how 2D Sonic develops in the years to come. I would really appreciate it if you could share your comments in the comment box below.