Repurposing Levels: Breathing new life to existing levels in Sonic Adventure – LD Discussion

Introduction

In this bite-size blog, I will be doing a brief discussion on a Level Design technique that I’ve seen in a game that I thoroughly enjoyed as a child but feel like there’s a lot of lessons in level design to be learned from.

In particular, I will be analysing and discussing the first Sonic Adventure game and how it cleverly reused it’s levels to create completely different experiences for the player when playing as one of the six playable characters.

Please note that a lot of this is my opinion on the subject but I feel like there’s some lessons that can be learned from this regardless.

Overview of Reusing Levels

What made the reusing of levels interesting in Sonic Adventure was how the range of environments in the game were repurposed to allow for different objectives based on the six playable characters in the game. For example, the levels for Sonic and Tails’ stories were very similar to each other but for Tails’ versions of the levels, there were additional level elements, such as middair loops that provided a speed boost, that allowed the player to take advantage of Tails’ ability to fly as well as giving him shortcuts to help with the objective of beating a rival to the goal in a race.

A very good example that I like to discuss when it comes to Sonic Adventure’s use of repurposing levels is the sheer difference between Sonic’s version of the Speed Highway level in comparison to Knuckles’ version. While all this is all focussed on a small section of the level that Sonic only explores for a brief moment (the daytime section at the end of the level), Knuckles’ version of the level makes the player do a lot more exploration of the level to complete a different goal, that being to find and collect three emerald shards placed in the level.

While I could go further with this, I will be doing an analysis of two particular levels in Sonic Adventure and how they were repurposed, those being the Windy Valley and Speed Highway levels, focusing on differences between the Sonic, Tails and Knuckles stories.

Windy Valley – Sonic vs. Tails

In this particular level, both Sonic and Tails’s stories use Windy Valley’s sky path section as playable levels, however, a major difference between the two levels as that while both versions of the level contain very bendy, roller-coaster-style paths, Tails’ version of the level has the additional green sky rings that provide a speed boost and encourage the player to use Tails’ ability to fly to take advantage of these skybound shortcuts. The intention of these rings is to ensure that the player can use them as a shortcut and beat an AI-controlled Sonic to the goal.

In Sonic’s version of the level, the rings do not exist and the player must use the roller-coaster style paths but they do not have the pressure of an AI-controlled character that they must beat in a race.

A deeper analysis of this particular level would show that it’s clear that the level was designed primarily for Sonic’s story but to save time and resources, as well as working with the technical limitations at the time of the game’s development, the level was reused and additional elements, like the aerial boost rings, were added to create a different experience for the player when playing through it as Tails.

Speed Highway – Sonic vs. Knuckles

In the Speed Highway level, there was a particular section of the level that both Sonic and Knuckles could explore, more specifically a small city section in the daytime.

In Sonic’s version of the level, there are a handful of speed boosts and paths leading directly onto walls to allow the player the opportunity to run along the walls of the buildings but it’s not an absolute requirement. Ultimately, the player has to reach a bell tower which requires them to jump off a fountain to reach the goal and this whole section of the level can possibly be completed very quickly, especially if the player has experienced the level before.

In Knuckles’ story, this same level is used but instead of trying to get to a certain location in the level, the player is instead searching the level for emerald shards in the urban environment. While the bendy roads that allow the player to run on the walls is present in Knuckles’ version of the level, it’s not the point of the level to use them, instead taking advantage of Knuckles’ ability to climb walls and glide, even reaching the rooftops of buildings that Sonic cannot reach.

With this in mind, it’s arguable that this level was designed to act as a one-size-fits-all environment which takes both the Sonic and Knuckles stories into account but, just like Windy Valley, it seems to have been designed with Sonic’s story primarily in mind but managed to take full advantage of Knuckles’ gameplay style to create a whole new experience.

Conclusion

Putting this together, why did I discuss this in such a brief way? Personally, I think that this was a very clever technique that managed to take advantage of one level and give them a twist from their original design, that being a 3D platformer where the player takes on the role of Sonic the Hedgehog. The reusing of levels to create new content that took advantage of the different gameplay styles of each of the playable characters in Sonic Adventure was a technique that potentially bought more time investment from the player as they got to experience the levels from both different perspectives and with alternative objectives to mix things up, especially for the technical limitations that Sega had to deal with back when the game was originally developed in the late 1990s.

In a modern context, such a technique would likely be used sparingly due to the technical capabilities, both software and hardware-wise, being much more advanced than what was around at the time of Sonic Adventure’s development, however, if the technique is used, it could breathe new life into an existing level.

For instance, Halo 4’s Spartan Ops mode used the technique of reusing levels and managed to transform a small number of larger competitive multiplayer maps into Player vs Enemy levels that play just like campaign missions in addition to taking pre-existing levels from the campaign but providing an alternative objective from the original campaign level. I’ve also played a few quests in Destiny 2 where the player is put into a competitive multiplayer map to defeat waves of enemies just to get an awesome weapon. Even the newly released Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity managed to take a select amount of environments from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and used the technique of reusing content to create a whole new gameplay experience, and took it even further with challenge levels that took parts of existing levels and gave them an alternative objective that transformed the player experience of the level. 

Ultimately, I’d say that the technique of reusing existing levels to create an alternative experience, such as how it was handled in Sonic Adventure, can create a quick and very strong foundation for creative solutions for Level Designers to dramatically alter the player experience, especially when playing the level from a different perspective and I believe that while game levels should be diverse, especially in today’s context, reusing existing levels and environments and breathing new life into them can create a very interesting experience for the player if done very well.