Monday, May 9, 2011

Design & Color: Sonic the Hedgehog (Part 1 of 3 & Knuckles)

Design & Color, this time about the Sonic series! Part 1 of 3 (& Knuckles), unless we decide to go further and do CD or something, but I never did play that very much. Brought to you by myself and the ever-wonderful gsilverfish, and aided by The Sonic Scene's amazing screenshots section.

madamluna24: will you help me select some screenshots and we can talk about them
i think we should start with sonic 1 first. basically i figure we will talk about them as we go along and then our conversation will become the post itself
gsilverfish: certainly
I think yes, we should start with a screen and then talk about it
I think Sonic 1 is a good idea because of a thing I read once
which is that the colors of the stages was one of the first things they established
it was in an interview with the musician, he said even at the early stage, when coming up with music, they were talking a lot about what the palates of each stage would be.
And I think Sonic 1 has great colors. :>
madamluna24: Then we should totally start with either the title screen or the first screen of Green Hill Zone!

gsilverfish: they're basically the same either way, yes
madamluna24: at least in the background
gsilverfish: the logo has yellow in it, but it really hits home that America was in some way the inspiration for the game
they were really trying for that kind of Uncle Sam look
madamluna24: And it's really dynamic too, even the logo itself is moving
panning over the ocean
gsilverfish: it's moving fast too
Sonic 2's moves at a slower pace
madamluna24: Yeah! The entire thing is meant to dazzle the player.
The ocean texture is so busy and that's part of it
gsilverfish: and there's the animation too, it seems more dynamic to me than the other titles, even though they are bigger or fancier in other ways.
I kind of want to "blur" the ocean a bit
but it's really effective
madamluna24: if it were me doing this I would probably try and find a way to get rid of most of the "noise" in the water
but that's part of the intent to give it the impression of motion
gsilverfish: yeah it really is noisy.
I was always fascinated by how blocky the mountains and bushes in the distance are.
madamluna24: yeah! Their pixels seem really big.
gsilverfish: like they have this increased 16-bit reolution and color clarity and "high definition graphics"
and they make these big blobs of square color (and it looks great)
madamluna24: I like how it relates to the shading on the palm trees in the foreground
because the shading on those palm trees is large fields of color
so if you zoomed out enough that's probably what it would look like!
gsilverfish: It's probably important that the water is a different color in-game vs the title screen
Sonic stands out better
but they still use a darker blue on the title
that makes the water noisier, but balances with the sky better too.
madamluna24: also dang, those palm trees are so. impressive. I love how they seem to be 3D
That's a matter of necessity, I think! (making Sonic stand out)
gsilverfish: yes.
it is unusual to have lighter water than sky (I don't think that's natural)
I never thought it looked unnatural before! xD
madamluna24: Speaking of the sky, you know what's kinda strange? How wispy and realistic the clouds are. I never noticed that before.
gsilverfish: that's one of those qualities that always seemed striking about Sonic
it had a real selective realism
I am sure "selective realism" is an existing snooty art tem xD
madamluna24: Yeah. I was looking at the screenshots for 3&K and I was marveling at how realistic it got after a while!
but it turns out they were already doing that in bits and pieces, here in the first screen of the first game
gsilverfish: something I think is really interesting is the intensity of the colors.
I have been trying to dress "biz cas" lately, for interviews
and I have a belt that I really like
it has native american patterns on it, and it's a relatively bold orange-red
it looks awful with all my dress slacks xD
but against the intensity of simple blue jeans it looks great, even though they're clashing colors.  I think the orange-hills in the GHZ against all the blue are doing the same thing.
The GHZ ain't biz-cas, it's party time
madamluna24: biz-cas in the front, party in the back
I think so too. It's really interesting how inoffensive to the eye it is even though there are SO MANY contrasting patterns

madamluna24: Like, here you have the checkerboard pattern, the water, the mountains, and the striped grass (also the bridge but you zoom by the bridge anyway so it doesn't stick around)
but it feels really cohesive! I think it helps that the mountains have the same palette as the land so it feels like a natural extension of it.
gsilverfish: yeah
replicating those textures and patterns really is the toughest part in fan art
the GHZ is hard to portray.
madamluna24: I think people tend to think of the GHZ as blockier than it really is
Like it's blocky when you're running around it, because of how the levels are designed, but in the background it's very organic-looking.
gsilverfish: People get hung up on the checkers
madamluna24: it looks like chocolate and peanut butter. I don't know if that fits in with our conversation anywhere, but.
gsilverfish: but you need that blocky element, even if it is still an organic scene, to really look like the GHZ
madamluna24: Yeah. If you take that away then it's that much harder to recognize.
gsilverfish: If you contrast that even to Emerald Hill in Sonic 2, you see it smoothing out a lot
should we Marble Zone?
madamluna24: I think so!

gsilverfish: what I think is really interesting about Marble Zone is how much less contrast there is.  It's the same green, but against the purples and blues, it's a lot softer
but then you get to the lava
madamluna24: Yeah
it really is jarring!
I like how you can see it lurking
you're like "oh god"
gsilverfish: it really splits the level into distinct areas of color
madamluna24: aw man I love those trees in the background too
gsilverfish: oh yeah
they're so abstract
madamluna24: I should try and find just the backgrounds of these levels
And wow, those mountains in the background seem very arcade game-like!
gsilverfish: I think the look a bit like certain mountains in Altered Beast
well, kind of
there's some similarity
madamluna24: Oh, the art is similar!
The décor of the stage
gsilverfish: something else I think about Marble Zone
is that Greece is thise important piece of Western civilization
I wonder if they were considering that when they designed it.
madamluna24: I think Sonic Team has always really been influenced by Greece. From Sonic 1 all the way up to Unleashed.
gsilverfish: do tell!
madamluna24: Well, I might be biting off a little more than I can chew, anyway. I know the first thing anyone saw from Unleashed was the Greece stage.
gsilverfish: (but I mean, going in as a theme of "American Appeal" when I say "they were thinking about it")
madamluna24: The daytime Greece stage that had us all goggling at it
gsilverfish: Sonic Unleashed at least has a real-world theme, though too
madamluna24: Yeah
gsilverfish: so everyplace is based on a real place
madamluna24: So it's probably less like "they love Greece" than "it fits with the theme"
gsilverfish: Marble Garden (when we get there) always struck me as more exotic.  Not necessarily greek ruins.
madamluna24: I want to hold up Aquatic Ruin Zone as well, but that can be seen as a rehash of Marble, or as a mashup between Marble and Labyrinth
gsilverfish: more like South American
madamluna24: ooh ooh. also also

: can I volunteer this screenshot? because I love that mural in the background
gsilverfish: yes :-D
the murals are really interesting
great use of tiles
madamluna24: Yeah! It looks gorgeous. And I think it's another example of a visual style you wouldn't necessarily think of when you think about Sonic.
gsilverfish: really, there's only three tiles, but it makes this complex image, it looks like more.
Marble Zone in general is "not things we think of with Sonic."
there are those slower sections that you don't see in other Sonic games
madamluna24: Lots of pushing and simple puzzles.
gsilverfish: the other elements, like the bars on the window, are interesting
it suggests that there's something back there, deeper
madamluna24: lurking
gsilverfish: yes xD
and there are pillars that don't support anything
madamluna24: I really want to know what the designers were talking about when they designed these.
gsilverfish: like chotchkies on a bookshelf.
I think a lot of Sonic 1 was designed without worrying about too much reference
like they just needed to fill some space, and said "well, this looks pretty good here.."
so you end up with a lot of surreal elements.
madamluna24: I'd like to know what kind of impression or story they were thinking of telling though, if they had it in mind.
Like "we wanted to make this seem like x y z..." I think Sonic Retro had notes about commentary about some zones, hmm.

Sonic Team Commentary (from the Sonic Jam strategy guide), via Sonic Retro:
"Early in production, Labyrinth Zone was going to be the second stage. But Labyrinth is much harder than the early stages, and it would have been a sudden spike in the difficulty. Sonic is really a different sort of action game compared to anything that had been made at that time, so we really wondered if it was OK to have him running through every stage so quickly, so we wanted there to be a moment for the player to catch his breath."

gsilverfish: so hey, Spring Yard is the most surreal, I think..
madamluna24: I was looking at the color choices earlier today and I was chewing on them
Also, more densely packed patterns! The color scheme makes me think of a pool hall, with the orange of the wood and the green of the felt
gsilverfish: ahh
it does, doesn't it
it does still have that certain "rec center" feel to it
madamluna24: I don't know if that is what they were aiming for specifically, but it works in their favor.
I always imagined Spring Yard as being way more red, but I think I'm confusing that with Casino Night.
gsilverfish: Casino Night is surprisingly yellow
Red is so intense though, they wouldn't want to overdo it :-)

madamluna24: oh my gosh look at these skyscrapers in the background!!!! i AM IN LOVE WITH THESE
This comes at the tail end of act 3 and wowww those purples and blacks are just my thing
gsilverfish: The skyscrapers in Spring Yard are reminiscient of certain structures in the Little Golden Book, The Color Kittens
one of my favorites growing up :-)
madamluna24: Another thing I should look up!
Also, scrolling up and down on the Sonic Scene page for Sonic 1
it's really awesome how you can see the progression from level to level
you go underground in Marble Zone and aboveground to those dense green forests that lead into the green in Spring Yard
gsilverfish: you really know you're in a different place, you can tell they were really thinking about color :-)
Something I like about Spring Yard is the gradiantion as you change vertical height
there's green at the lower half
but as you get up high, you have the buildings, and then a fade into the mountains, and then the sky
madamluna24: Then black, then the purple mountains and then the orange clouds at the top, yeah
It's very sunset
gsilverfish: it's more vertically stretched out than other stages
madamluna24: oh wow, I didn't even think about that--
It's afternoon in Green Hill, sunset in Spring Yard, then you go underground in Labyrinth and it's night when you get to Starlight
gsilverfish: a real sense of progression there :-)
madamluna24: Should we move on to Labyrinth Zone? I am really excited to talk about Labyrinth Zone.
gsilverfish: Yes lets

madamluna24: Or you can pick one since I picked the Spring Yard ones :>
gsilverfish: oh these are fine
what I would actually pick is my fanart versions of Labyrinth Zone ;-)
madamluna24: Hahaha
I'll link them in the post
gsilverfish: the colors are so simple in labyrinth
just green and yellow
but there's a richness to how deep they are
madamluna24: It's a great shade of yellow and a great shade of green. Deep and rich is exactly how I'd describe it.
gsilverfish: and if you extend out that depth just slightly (that's what I did in my versions)
you get a really rich feeling
people react more to those pictures than any of my others
and I think that color is one of the main reason why
madamluna24: I think so too. And the shading is so appealing. I don't think there's a single ugly color in that palette.
gsilverfish: the green isn't really healthy, though xD
it's a kind of "stagnant water" green
madamluna24: It's not as bad as the purple water in Chemical Plant, though!
gsilverfish: the running water in the level is all blue
oh yes
or the purple in Scrap Brain later
madamluna24: Oh yeah
Also, I am digging the tiles in this. Especially the murals
gsilverfish: I was really fascinated by the shapes in the tiles here
the weird bird faces
and the little rectangle one
madamluna24: They resemble the crystal formations a little
gsilverfish: I think it's supposed to be crystals, but I see Eggman's face xD
madamluna24: they get creepier in the background, too! The bird-like face looks more pig-like
and the other type of face looks like a sea serpent!
gsilverfish: yeah.  I always thought "these must mean something" or indicate some kind of history of the island that might be expanded on later
but it never was.  I think Labyrinth is really mysterious.
madamluna24: I agree. I'm left wondering about the story behind these places. Moreso than Marble Zone
Because Marble Zone's mural is an abstract and these are actually figurative
gsilverfish: and they're clearly faces
"who is this?"  You have to wonder!
madamluna24: This is verging on another topic that is so big it's probably not worth discussing, but the entire "tiptoeing around inhabited places" theme of Sonic is so fascinating
like you see all these cities in the background you never go into
and you run around ruins that are never explained
gsilverfish: maybe Star Light Zone is that city
in Spring Yard anyway
but yes, too big xD
the sense of mystery is really interesting
madamluna24: I think so too. And that's a good place to jump into star light


gsilverfish: well here's Star Light Zone
look how boring it is in terms of color xD
It's got some cool structures and it's not like it's empty
madamluna24: yeah
but it always feels really barren to me
gsilverfish: but there are a lot of places that get by on "you are looking at something cool"
madamluna24: for one thing, the really crowded backgrounds drop out almost entirely
there are some backgrounds but most of it seems to be empty space
gsilverfish: like "look, cool buildings!  You are in a cool city!"
it uses the color effectively, I like those buildings
madamluna24: I like it too
I like the implication of the buildings

gsilverfish: down below you get to these older-looking buildings up close
they really end up looking tiled
it's not a high point of the design in my opinion
but they are reddish in color to contrast with the green
madamluna24: It's an interesting point progression-wise I guess
gsilverfish: it's very pretty from a human-city kind of view, but the lush environments are all gone
madamluna24: yeah
It feels equally abandoned too though, as much as the ruins do
gsilverfish: yeah.  The buildings you see up close have a run-down quality
like there might be people far away, but you can't really tell
Spring Yard Zone is similar
the foreground seems to be under construction, perhaps
madamluna24: Yeah, either it's dilapidated or it's still being built
gsilverfish: with residential apartments further back
madamluna24: probably the former, depending on how long eggman's been there, but that's all speculation
gsilverfish: Why would Eggman build a city, though? xD
I think these places were there before
unless Eggman is actually some sort of billionaire industrialist
they play him off as a solo supervillain, though
madamluna24: ....I think that's what I always thought. I thought he bought up these islands and was developing them
I know it's never specifically said anywhere but it's my headcanon ok
gsilverfish: that really fits into the environmental setting that a lot of Sonic's copiers tend to emphasize
Awesome Possom xD
but they really leave it open and vague
madamluna24: yeah
sonic the ecoterrorist
gsilverfish: yep

gsilverfish: but then Scrap Brain, right?
This is one place where reference was obviously used
there actually really are places that look like the horizon here
but the factory that makes up the foreground is more abstract.  Who knows what it is xD
madamluna24: whoa, that background's amazing!
It reminds me a little of Canabalt
And that kind of dystopian society
gsilverfish: yeah
speaking of dystopian societies
the Scrap Brain theme is based on the ending song from Blade Runner
I don't think many picked up on that until people started looking for similarities to things recently
madamluna24: Ooh, is it? I haven't seen Blade Runner in years
it does have that blade runnerey feel to it, in the color choices
gsilverfish: But Blade Runner is all about dystopia, and urban sprawl, but I don't think many would have remembered the ending song, so it's hard for me to imagine they really thought it would evoke anything for people
but whatever it takes to get inspired, I suppose!

madamluna24: I am looking at screenshots like this and trying to think of something to say about them
but I honestly think the foreground is less compelling than the background
(background as in that beautiful factory bg)
gsilverfish: that green again feels really rich
madamluna24: It does, and I like the slate blue
gsilverfish: like the Labyrinth colors
it's very saturated
and that helps with the sense of being closed in
even though those walls are probably quite far away
Scrap Brain is the only level in Sonic 1 that changes up the background like that
I do think the stark whites and greys of the foreground really help give it that man-made quality
or even more bluish, in this case
it's grey compared to the green of the background
there's also a lot of bright red and yellow, for that caution/danger kind of effect
and then you get into this place

: Whoa!
gsilverfish: and it's like, all the "slime" from before is gone
the ruins are bleached clean!
madamluna24: I totally forgot about this
Wow, now I really need to replay Sonic 1
that's a really great reveal!
gsilverfish: hahaha
madamluna24: That's actually really effective and scary. It saps all the gold out of it
it really makes it feel lifeless
gsilverfish: Sonic 1 is great!  You can't underestimate it :-)

madamluna24: Final Zone seems pretty much just like a continuation of Scrap Brain
gsilverfish: yeah
nothing new there
so did we finish Sonic 1?  What did we learn? xD
madamluna24: im hungry
thats what i learned.
actually we learned that the realism that a lot of people attribute to the later games started, in some respects, from the very first screen!
gsilverfish: that's true!
madamluna24: and that even though the colors are highly saturated, they're very thoughtfully chosen



  1. This whole blog is AMAZING! I'm an artist fascinated with the backgrounds of various 8 and 16-bit games and everything you have posted I am just in LOVE with! I, too, did a post on the design/color palette of the Sonic series but not as in depth as yours! Keep it coming!

  2. Thanks so much, Tessa! Really appreciate the kind words!