What Happened to Sonic’s Roll?
Rolling up and down and all around slopes was core to Sonic’s gameplay, but somewhere along the way, the move went missing.
“Rolling around at the speed of sound” - those seven words shouted at the start of Sonic Adventure 2’s City Escape level are possibly the most fitting descriptor of the Hedgehog over the course of his 31-year existence. When players were introduced to Sonic in 1991, he had few tools in his kit. He ran. He jumped. He rolled. And, those who came to be even halfway decent at playing Sonic the Hedgehog realized that Sonic goes faster when he rolls.
But in the years since, rolling has become a secondary, tertiary, and even situational aspect of Sonic’s moveset. What once came to define him has been relegated to niche appearances or outright even made obsolete. If you’ve played any of Sonic Unleashed, Colors, or Generations, you’d realize that Sonic can’t even roll on the ground on command.
So, what happened to rolling?
He has a somersault!
For all the talk about Sonic's development - how he was conceived as a competitor to Mario, how Eggman’s design is unintentionally reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt - the inclusion of a somersault is possibly the most iconic. From the pages of Yuji Naka's notebook in which he penned ideas for Sonic - at one point he was a rabbit, then an armadillo - there was one constant: Sonic could somersault.
From the character's conception, one of Sonic's defining traits was that he should have a simple control scheme. Jumping on enemies in video games was certainly normalized by the time Sonic the Hedgehog rolled around, but usually, it came with a level of risk. For characters, like Mario, who could jump on enemies, they could do so only with their feet. Hit an enemy with your head from below and you'll take damage.
Sonic's ball form subverts that by giving him a damaging hitbox all around him. That naturally evolved into his ability to roll on the ground, which, when combined with the sloping terrain of Sonic zones, allowed him to gain speed faster than he could on foot.
While some classic Sonic levels (Marble Zone, Labyrinth Zone) limited the usefulness of rolling, the move quickly became a staple in his toolkit. By the time Sonic the Hedgehog 2 came around, players could roll on command thanks to the spin dash, allowing them to generate velocity to clear gaps to reach end goals faster.
Rolling and the spin dash effectively categorized the Sonic series as its own genre of platform game - physics based, or pinball influenced - due to the variation in how Sonic interacted with the terrain. This is maybe best emphasized by the existence of Sonic Spinball, or the numerous Casino and pinball-themed levels in the series. It was never enough to have Sonic simply attack enemies - his momentum was key in carrying him through each action.
Rolling and the Spin Dash was largely intact throughout the classic series. Even Sonic 3D Blast kept the move, though the isometric view, largely flat terrain, and exploration-focused gameplay meant it was less useful than in the sidescrollers.
But with the jump to 3D, rolling quickly took a back seat as Sonic's preferred method of locomotion relied on his two feet.
Retiring the Roll
The worst part about the eventual decline of rolling in Sonic is that for a while, the move was still viable, if largely unnecessary for regular gameplay. In the Sonic Adventure series, the spin dash was mapped to a single action button, simplifying its input scheme even more so than in the classic series.
And while charging up a spin dash and jumping out of it was still useful for clearing swaths of terrain, rolling itself came with trade-offs - level design and traction.
In the two-dimensional planes of the classic games, shuttle loops were tailor-made for rolling. When Sonic Team recreated the loops in 3D, they quickly became littered with artificial speed boosters that benefitted from an upright Sonic.
The second section of Emerald Coast (right when the stage’s music changes) in Sonic Adventure is possibly the clearest example of the shift in physics. Try running on the rock wall and you can easily reach the passage on the top left of the screen. A spin dash on that same wall, however, yields unruly results, as the lack of traction and gravity encourage Sonic’s ball form to careen back to ground level.
The 2D games on the Gameboy Advance ran into a similar level design issue, albeit related to a preference for platforming over speed. Developed in part by Dimps, the Sonic Advance trilogy introduced a penchant for bottomless pits and level design that needed to suit the distinct playstyles of not only Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, but also Amy and eventually Cream, changes which spelled chaos for a game about speed.
While Sonic could largely run unencumbered through the classic games, save for the lowest possible reaches in areas like Starlight Zone, the Advance series gradually sprinkled in pits as obstacles that can quickly trip up someone playing at full speed. Rolling wasn’t only discouraged by infrequent shuttle loops, but also by inconsistent level design that prioritized making careful jumps over horizontal speed.
By the time the boost formula is introduced in Sonic Rush and carried into the 3D games, rolling is near obsolete. The properties of the boost felt scientifically accurate, at least as accurate as a fictional blue hedgehog can be. When Sonic ran at top speed, he’d lose much of his lateral mobility. Outside of using the quick step, a boosting Sonic preferred to travel in a straight path. Making fine turns usually required the use of another new move, drifting, or slowing to a snail's pace to maneuver.
Boosting also replaced the destructive ability of rolling - instead of curling up to blast through walls and passages, Sonic’s boost generated enough force to overcome most breakable objects.
But where boosting never quite met the mark of rolling, was in its disruption of momentum. Rather than having to gain and maintain speed, the boost gave Sonic near-instant speed generation. Thus the core concept of the series, improving the game to reach a level of familiarity to speed through the levels, was lost.
Run it Back
The boost formula certainly wasn't a downgrade for Sonic. With an appropriate level design like that of the main daytime stages of Sonic Unleashed, or the modern levels of Sonic Generations, the boost-based games lived up to creating the supersonic speed for which Sonic was known.
But as it related to the original ability to roll, the boost series, and the eventual delineation between classic and modern gameplay in Sonic Generations and Sonic Forces, served to create a branching series, in which the ability to roll was relegated largely to the 2D side scroller.
In the 2D games, rolling would return to relative form in the Sonic the Hedgehog 4 duology. Part one of that series, released in 2010, however, lacked the same physics engine as the classic games it supposedly built on. Sonic instead had the homing attack to travel horizontal stretches. When he did roll and reached the top of a slope, he'd uncurl, putting him back into a free fall state, without an active hitbox, making things like badnik bouncing a feat of the past.
Even worse was Lost Labyrinth Zone, which, despite having numerous inclines made for rolling, had Sonic spending many of the level's slopes running atop a ball or riding in a minecart akin to the Donkey Kong Country Returns series.
Episode 2 did correct for some of the missed marks - uncurling was done away with, and the inclusion of Tails introduced a team attack in which he and Sonic would jointly curl into a ball to blast through enemies and destructible terrain.
Despite the innovation, rolling in this case was still more situational than its free-form appearances in the classic series. Save for Sonic Mania and the creation of the drop dash alongside the recreated physics of the 1990s games, rolling hasn’t regained prominence in Sonic’s control scheme.
I’d argue, however, that Sonic Lost World’s, and now, Sonic Frontiers’, implementation of a run button reinstates a modicum of the speed and platforming control once afforded by rolling.
Hold 'R' to Run
Sonic Lost World, which was exclusive to Nintendo’s Wii U until its PC release in 2015, was bashed for wearing its Mario influences on its sleeves. The game was segmented into six worlds, each of which followed classic tropes - grassy, tropical, icy, lava, jungle, and desert. And while the Sonic series had covered plenty of ground in zones sharing these themes, grouping them each as separate areas with very little crossover between them was closer to the design philosophy of Nintendo’s cap-wearing plumber.
Coupled with that was the new parkour system, which required players to hold the ZR button to leap over ledges and run on walls. Thus Sonic Lost World was largely received as a disappointment.
That parkour system, however, introduced the concept of a run button to the series that affords players a level of control over their speed not seen in years.
While a run button is counter to Sonic’s traditional, simplistic controls, its inclusion aids in making ground traversal more finely tuned. In the boost games, if Sonic wasn’t boosting, he felt stilted, as levels were designed with the pace-making technique in mind. This was at odds with platforming sections, in which the boost often felt unusable, but Sonic’s regular controls felt stiff and unresponsive.
The run button changed that. Speeding up to wall run or navigating past an obstacle or pit could be done seamlessly while holding ZR, just as releasing the button allowed for more precise platforming. Having two manageable speeds that were situational but viable options for Sonic echoed the game’s original philosophy. Eventually, players would get good enough that they could complete most of the game while running.
Most recently, Sonic Frontiers brought this idea back by incorporating the boost in a way that didn’t hamper the hedgehog’s movement like in previous iterations. Thanks to the open zones providing plenty of space to run, boosting is far from the on-rails affair of Sonic Generations. Instead, it allows players a better option for traversal. Sonic maintains full, 360-degree control while boosting, which makes navigating platforms and grind rails a breeze.
Triggering the boost is also situational - once Sonic begins climbing on specific walls, holding the right trigger only allowed him to run freely on the wall without being locked into a high-speed boost approach. Alternatively, in mid-air, activating the boost will give Sonic an extra bit of aerial speed and height.
Combining these tools makes for some of the most fluid and speedy gameplay to bless the series since the Adventure titles. Gone are the days of having to precisely memorize level layouts because Sonic runs at Mach 5 speeds. The more controllable boost means players can memorize the layouts if they want, but the control scheme also allows for making steady progress simply by reacting in time to obstacles.
If the reworked boost wasn't enough of a feather in Sonic Frontiers' cap, the game also marks the first time the drop dash is usable in 3D. To be fair, the move is entirely optional, as none of the levels or challenges require you to use it. But it does allow Sonic to interact with slopes as physics intended, with declines and inclines speeding up or slowing down the Hedgehog respectively.
I’m a big fan of the Sonic fan game community. Some of the best hacks - Metal Sonic Rebooted, Pana Der Hejhog, or Knuckles’ Emerald Hunt, for example - are ones that iterate on the existing formula without amending the game’s physics engine.
Sonic Frontiers, at least with regards to the physics and controls, feels like the iterative design that Sonic Team has been chasing for the better part of the last decade. Fans laud the Adventure series for its ability to translate classic Sonic speed into a 3D design, and after attempts to prioritize speed over platforming (the boost games), the developers seem to have finally hit on a winning formula. Rolling might not exist as it was originally intended, but the fluid gameplay that helped Sonic disrupt the platform game landscape is finally starting to reform.
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