Last Christmas (2009), I was playing Madden with my mom and she commented on how the players’ eyes didn’t look quite right, like they were separate from the rest of the face. The fact of the matter is, they probably were since it’s hard to put motion-capture dots on eyeballs. Until we get to check out Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, which professes to really nail the eyes, it’s probably going to continue to be a difficult issue even for games produced by top-tier publishers.
Our annual Madden tournament between the Colts and the Redskins, which I won (7 games to 6. Shutup. Donovan McNabb doesn’t have cardiovascular fitness issues in Madden) got me to thinking about the things that we complain about in this generation of games. When you consider the tools that designers have available to them which allow them to do things that would have been unthinkable not that long ago, it’s sobering to consider what the programmers and engineers at Team Sonic accomplished in the early 1990’s. (Try watching the end of Fight Club sometime when they blow up all of the skyscrapers and check out the particle physics. There’s an entire mini-documentary discussing the CGI issues they had to deal with to create something that looks jagged and out of place today). I’m going somewhere retro with this, I promise, so stay with me. That particular train of thought led to how some earlier games’ designers got some really impressive effects with extremely limited storage space and processing power, i.e., Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Your iPod Dock Has More ROM
The first Sonic the Hedgehog was entertaining and the digitized choir singing “Se-ga!” as the game booted was so novel at the time that my brother and I hit the reset button several times just to listen to it…but it was the sequel that sticks out in my mind as having best exhibited the careful inclusion of optical illusions that created the appearance of depth and added to the feeling that Sonic was actually…well, Sonic.
On top of the loop-the-loops and corkscrews (a new addition from the first edition), Sonic 2 did away with the irritating and hit-or-miss rotating bonus-level maze that contained the chaos emeralds in the first game and replaced it with a half-pipe race of grabbing rings and avoiding bombs. Although the imagery is badly dated, you’ve got to remember that this was released about the same time as Mortal Kombat‘s arcade release. Even with the early motion capture, I don’t remember being particularly enthralled by the illusion of depth in Mortal Kombat despite the fact that it was in a (assumedly) much more powerful cabinet machine rather than my Genesis.
While the gameplay in Sonic 2 was generally smooth with a very limited amount of frame-rate stutter, looking back on it, I’d say it’s a pretty generic platformer. There weren’t any significant advances in platformer gameplay save maybe the drop-in co-op ability with Tails and his ability to rapidly ignite fist fights between my brother and me when one of us ruined the other’s ring-collection goals. Although the music was catchy, what the designers accomplished with a ROM cartridge that was so pressed for space that any extraneous level art from levels that didn’t make the cut in Beta development had to be deleted to open up space is nothing short of miraculous.
Appreciate Your Forefathers
If looking back at this (relatively) ancient game doesn’t blow your mind in comparison with what you’re playing now, here are some things to put the achievements in perspective:
The point of all of this, spurred on by an innocent comment made by GiffTor’s mom, is that when you consider what the game designers of 1992 were working with in terms of development tools and coming up with new ways of displaying/interacting/playing games that had never been done before, the incremental improvements that we see today (and, relatedly, the really minuscule shit we bitch about) are not impressive in the least. The massive leaps taken by early developers in designing games like Sonic 2, which not only created an illusion of speed that hadn’t been seen before, but may have been the pioneer that blazed one of the first trails into the simulated depth that wasn’t commonly executed until the release of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, makes the progress of today’s developers pale, weak things that should be looked upon with the same faint praise Alan Turing would give Steve Jobs (“An iPad, huh? That’s cute. I invented the computer, a good chunk of math theory, real-time voice encryption/decryption and defeated the Nazis, you putz!”)
Giant Bomb (images)