Sonic vs Mario – the enduring battle to tame hot, nasty, bad-ass speed


“I am a passenger,
And I ride and I ride,
I ride through the city’s backside,
I see the stars come out of the sky,
Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight”

The Passenger by Iggy Pop

Sonic the Hedgehog – released on Sega Megadrive in 1991, developed by Sega/ Super Mario Bros – released on the NES in 1985, developed by Nintendo

Videogames, mercifully, are not real things.

The experience of playing is certainly real, not least from an emotional perspective. Ego-sating triumph, humbling defeat, terror and joy, these are all things an average gamer can take from the myriad and ever growing genre of titles out there.

But everything else about videogames is simulation. A means of providing a theoretically safe environment to play out your violent, heroic or sporting fantasies – free from the ridicule and judgement of the outside world – at least when your Wi-Fi isn’t working.

One of the most popular forms of simulation offered by games is the concept and recreation of the sheer joy of speed, whether via real world experiences such as Formula One games, or more fantastical means that include hovering go karts or sentient stunt unicycles.

Just as it can be in the real world, velocity is a drug, more formerly known as hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.

Traditionally, speed has more popularly leant itself to racing games, or rollercoaster-like experiences such as Sonic the Hedgehog that seeks to make you feel like the fastest thing alive.

First released on the Sega Megadrive in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog was launched on the fledgling console as a relative technical marvel.  The game was built around the relatively unique idea of a trainer wearing hedgehog with the capacity for immense speed that could allow the player to smash through walls and do literal loop de loops.

Levels could, in some cases, be cleared in under a minute, as if sacrificing challenge within the game to give the player a sense of superhuman velocity if they so choose.

Wonderful to look at for its time and a unique experience to play, a number of sequels followed.  These added the option of collectibles that could be found hidden through the later games’ levels in order to unlock the chance to play an even more powerful and flashy super yellow hedgehog in order  to bring depth to the series and encourage you to slow down.

But for mainstream audiences as more and more Sonic games were released, cracks began to appear in the series, which sought to build on the appeal of its superspeed and being in control of your character at high velocity. This became much more complex and difficult to navigate when sonic moved to three dimensional worlds.  Some argue that the quality of the games never recovered.

Though Sonic’s iconic status among gamers remains unchanged, critical opinion has began to question the quality of even the original game beyond the thrill of running really fast. There are so many times you can blast through a level ignoring the world around you, so what then is the point in having new levels to explore.

When not moving, dodging or rolling around like a pinball of death, what is so unique about a Sonic game beyond the novelty of speed?

Sega’s highly regarded Sonic Team, which led on development of the main Sonic titles during the company’s mid to late 90’s heyday, had an incredible and perhaps unfair challenge in ensuring that the character developed with the commercial and critical success of Nintendo’s Super Mario.

In the 2D era of the Super Nintendo and the Megadrive consoles, technical limitations saw the two characters effectively as equals, versatile enough in a confined number of genres to be used in a huge number of games. But by the time Nintendo effectively redefined world building with the expansive 3D exploration of Mario 64, the hedgehog was left adrift.

Three dimensions was largely unkind to Sonic, at least for an entire console cycle’s worth of games.

Allowing the player to feel in charge and a master of speed when they have an huge number of directions and choices to make can expose a game’s limits when trying to make us feel in control. Developers had to maintain strict limits on movement with a roller coaster-like track structure to the 3D Sonic games in order to try and maintain the character’s claim to being the definitive speeding experience. Yet there was also a consumer expectation to have a wide and open world to explore at the same time.

In reality, blasting beyond the speed of sound would see us smashed and pulped into a wall, falling to our deaths or any number of similar catastrophes.  The value and excitement of speed is the danger and thrill of maintaining control  when pushed to limits. Travelling at high speeds needs incredible precision and rigid protection to overcome the limitations of a human mind to react to the perils of super fast travel.

Sonic the Hedgehog as a character is designed as a heroic individual who reacts to, and overcomes peril in micro-seconds.

A human being is not designed this way! We are legally mandated to go no more than 60 miles per hour in most circumstances for fear of causing catastrophic harm and damage to ourselves and others, while the average human is largely incapable of dealing with the stresses of high speed reactions without the comforts and protections of modern science.

For the last two decades, Sonic games have largely failed to find a way to address this cognitive dissonance between reality and simulation, other than sticking a player on to a limited track like environment.

It is perhaps no surprise that the most iconic bit of design in the history of 3D sonic games is a stylistic, on-rails skateboard simulation being chased down a bustling city street, offering the simple choice of left, right or to jump.

Even in the early sonic games, without knowing each level instinctively, it was often likely a player would find themselves speeding into lava pits or facing a spiky death due to their own mental faculties to avoid harm.

Beyond a great look and a technically impressive engine, was Sonic ever really well designed to give a sense of the joy and terrible consequences of ludicrous speed. The character was after all not the only attempt at death defying free running.

The precision platforming of Super Mario Bros, where the player could choose to accelerate and risk falling into vast chasms of lava by employing a satisfying sense of speed offered a much more satisfying sense of risk and reward. Yet, travelling at fast speeds was not the sole purpose of the game.

Running in Mario games is laced with peril, tempting you to give into your instincts to get past a series of perils as quickly as possible rather than giving into those all important cautious survival instincts our species has to be patient and take its time.

In Super Mario Bros, holding down the B button and barreling full throttle into jumps and traps offers player potential benefit and excitement or penance, depending on one’s incredible reactions, outright luck or knowledge of what lies ahead. Do you use caution and risk failing to reach the end of a level before time runs out and destroys you, or instead throw caution to the wind and attempt to blast through the unknown perils ahead?

Both approaches can work, or fail spectacularly – an important life lesson for the average gamer.

Sonic games, which have continued to thrive and remain popular in their most well remembered 2D format, continue to use speed in their design as a gameplay and visual novelty, where the player is often removed from the consequences and challenge of sating a need for speed.

With games increasingly seeking to create vivid worlds that give the player a sense of connection to their surroundings and a sense of mastery or control of these fantastic digital worlds, players don’t just want to feel a sensation of speed, they want to tame it.

In that sense, a portly Italian stereotype beat out the stylistic Sonic a long time ago and he’s never stopped running since.

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