Note: The following article contains spoilers for Sonic Mania. For those interested in Sonic Mania, I highly recommend waiting until you complete zone 2, act 2 before reading further.
Sonic Mania is amazing. But you probably already know that, either from experiencing it first-hand or from the mounds of praise heaped upon it by the general public. It quickly became my favorite entry into the franchise when I picked it up for myself a few months ago. It’s the “back to basics” game Sega has been promising—but ultimately failing—to deliver for nearly a decade now. Heck, this game is so good, it can even include one of the most egregiously wrong design choices I’ve ever seen and make it one of the most charming set-pieces of the entire game.
And no, that’s not hyperbole, one of the game’s most memorable moments is flat out stupid by conventional game design standards. What moment am I referring to? The Chemical Plant Zone Robotnik fight.
Why It Should be Horrible
The boss of Zone 2 isn’t a boss in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a game of Puyo-Puyo Pop. That’s right, instead of fighting some wacky contraption, Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles faces Dr. Robotnik in a lethal game of Puyo-Puyo. No instructions, no fore-shadowing, just dropped into a game and expected to win.
From a design standpoint, this looks like a bad idea on paper. As mentioned before, the player is given no instructions. Puyo Pop isn’t exactly the hardest game to understand, but the game assumes the player already knows how to play. There’s no pop-up for controls, no instructions on how to clear Puyos from the screen, nothing. If the player is familiar with drop-puzzles like Tetris or Dr. Mario, they may be able to intuit some objectives from the conventions of the format: namely matching colors.
That leads into the more pressing issue: genre shift. While switching between gameplay styles isn’t uncommon in video games, especially more recent Sonic titles, typically levels that dip into different gameplay formats only switch to genres of a similar nature. For instance, many side-scrolling platformer games include one or two levels that switch over to being a side-scrolling shoot-em-up. This is typically considered acceptable because the two gameplay styles have many similarities. Most notably, both are action games, meaning the skills needed to master them are almost identical. These skills include things like quick-reflexes, spacial awareness to assess threats and their proximity to the player, and prioritization of risks and rewards (such as power-ups).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style. A pertinent example of such a gameplay switch is the fishing segments of Sonic Adventure. While many people speak fondly of the game those segments’ mechanics were based off of, Sega Bass Fishing, most people object to the inclusion of such mechanics in an action platformer. That’s not to say juxtaposed gameplay styles can’t be paired successfully, but that contrast typically has to be one of the game’s core principles with everything else designed around it (e.g. DS cult classic Henry Hatsworth).
Where switching gameplay styles gets frustrating is when the new style has little or nothing to do with the concepts of the core gameplay style.
Now compare that to Puyo-Puyo Pop. Being good at Puyo-Puyo requires players to plan on the fly. The player has to decide how to stack and group puyos in real-time to set up combos and react to his opponent’s attempts to interfere. I don’t have the background in Puyo-Puyo to know what exactly goes into high level play, but I can tell you it’s a very different game than Sonic the Hedgehog. This means that the player is expected to use an entirely different skill-set from what the game has been training him to use up until this point. Moreover, this is the only place in the game—outside of an unlockable bonus Puyo-Puyo mode, that is—that the player is asked to exercise these skills.
Why It’s Awesome
So why does this moment work? There’s several factors at play here. First is the design of Puyo-Puyo Pop itself. First of all, Puyo Pop is a fairly easy game to learn: the computer is playing it along-side the player. If the player doesn’t understand how color matching works, he can just observe the computer match groups of four or more puyos of a single color.
Secondly, this battle is pretty easy. So long as the player keeps the board mostly clear, Dr. Robotnik’s incompetence will do the rest of the work sooner or later. Putting the battle so early in the game was actually a smart move: the encounter’s low difficulty allows the player to get used to the new gameplay style while still fitting the game’s expected difficulty curve.
Third, Puyo Pop is good. Many times when a game dips into a different style, the auxiliary gameplay style is under-developed. The majority of the developers’ time and effort (hopefully) goes toward the core gameplay, meaning mini-games don’t get the time and polish needed to fully flesh-out the concept. The Puyo-Puyo battle gets around this by implementing an already established idea. This way the Mania team didn’t have to haphazardly slap together a new gameplay concept, instead they just had to copy something they knew works.
Many times when a game dips into a different style, the peripheral gameplay style is under-developed.
Now that I’ve gotten the minor stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the two biggest reasons this works. I’m sure many of you are grinding your teeth by now with how I keep referring to this moment as “Puyo Pop”. Chemical Plant Zone’s Robotnik fight is actually a callback to the Sega Geneisis/Mega Drive classic Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (which was technically just a reskin of a Puyo-Pop game, but whatever). This attention to detail and acknowledgment of the Sonic series’ history is a huge part of what makes this bizarre set-piece work. Who in their right mind would anticipate such an obscure reference?
Companies like Sega and Nintendo often reference their past works, but they tend to stick to callbacks that are easy for fans to recognize. Even when a reference is to something more obscure, it’s out of the way and can be easily ignored. Most designers would stick some puyos/beans in the background and call it good. The Mania team, however, decided to put that callback front and center by making it a part of gameplay. If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half. The element of surprise and the obscene amount of creative whimsy this moment embodies is more than enough to make up for any of its “bad” game design.
If the reference is half of the reason this moment works, the sheer audacity that the designers would even attempt it is the other half.
The combination of good implementation, recognizability, and surprise factor all come together to make this one of my favorite game set-pieces in recent memory. While I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t work in games, it’s important not to get too entrenched in sticking to “good” game design. There’s a delight in encountering the unexpected that is all too often ignored in favor of “safe” design practices. Formula is good, but too much results in a game being formulaic.