As an essentially interactive medium, videogames possess the capability of striking up the most feral, instinctive emotions and reactions in their players. There’s a reason so many gamers still mention that damn dog jumping through the window in the first Resident Evil. There’s a reason Amnesia: Dark Descent has spouted a sea of hilarious youtube videos where people are literally sobbing all over their keyboards as they try to escape impending death.
As any Sega fan will tell you, this type of crippling terror is no invention of 3D games, either. That fear of death is a constantly driving force with just about every major genre, and has been with us since the beginning of gaming.
That being said, there are few instances out there that are as egregious, aggravating, and soul-crushingly panic inducing as this week’s Sound of Sega. Heed this warning – the mere mention of this moment is liable to render you a useless, wobbling pile of tears and urine on your living room floor, crippled under the weight of your PTSD and shattered trust in the unfettered happiness that gaming once promised.
What else could I be talking about? Yep, it’s the underwater countdown in Sonic the Hedgehog.
It’s kind of common knowledge that an underwater stage in any game usually comes packaged with a free migraine. The hindered physics of swimming, the tauntingly blank stares of slow moving and criminally unavoidable enemies, and the constant threat of drowning are just some of the elements we have all come to expect from these unforgiving environments. Added in to diversify the game’s gameplay, these stages usually only deliver a sea of extra complexity without a single drop of extra fun.
Sonic was a fattie chubby waddle-waddle in his early days, and thus would sink to the bottom of any body of water like a spiky blue rock. The benefit of this was that gamers were spared the headache of having deal with swimming physics in a Sonic game. Even so, the thrilling speed and excitement that Sonic is known for were all but stripped away in these moments, leaving the players to grit their teeth as they lean into the directional pad to get Sonic to move…just…a…little…bit…faster…Come…OOOOONNNNNN….
As any mammal will tell you (if they’re the kind that is capable of speech), an underwater hedgehog is going to need some oxygen. Like, NOW. The sweethearts at Sega were kind enough to pepper the floors of the stages with little air vents, but vents were few and far between, and any time Sonic needed to breathe he had to stand at one of these life-giving bubble machines until a bubble that was juuuust the right size pumped out. You see, Sonic was a picky little bastard back then. He couldn’t lap up any of those insufficient, tiny bubbles. Nope, he only wanted to gorge himself on mounds of air so gargantuan that he had to unhinge his jaw to consume them. He was sort of like a Goldie Locks, but instead of porridge it was his F**KING SURVIVAL.
But we’re not talking about the bubbles here. We’re talking about what comes next. After a brief, fruitless search for air…. It begins. Onscreen, an ominous and cruel countdown initiates. Flashing numbers invade the center of your screen as a tune akin to the shower scene in Psycho slowly begins its unapologetic assault.
5…4…”Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun….”
Your movement onscreen becomes more jerky. You run back and forth, desperately grasping for your bearings as your mind races. The music taunts you like a sinister big brother who shouts in your ear that you’ll never make it. Behind you, Tails is crushed by a falling pillar. F**k that idiot.
3… “DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN…”
You notice a pile of bubbles on the top of a hill. With the urgency of a mother fighting to pull her baby from a fire, you jump over and over, just barely brushing the edge of its grassy surface. Fighting the molasses water’s physics, you finally manage to climb out of the chasm. The music reaches a fever pitch.
You jump at the bubbles over and over again, waiting for one of the appropriate size to reach your shaking, suffocating lips. Behind you, Tails approaches, climbing out of the ashes like a retarded, two-tailed phoenix for the 50th time today. He joins you in jumping for air. Usually, his attempts to be just like you would come off as cute. Now, he just seems to be mocking your barest need for sweet oxygen.
Finally, the right bubble is expunged from the annals of the earth below. Oh, it’s so beautiful as it catches the digital glint of the sun. You jab at your jump button one last time… But you are too late. Behind you, Tails, who is still mimicking your last ill-fated jump, grasps that last bubble and lands, full of fresh air. He smiles at you with a blank stare. A stare of feigned stupidity that you could swear shields an unparalleled derision for his so-called “hero” Sonic. That stare burns into your mind in your final moments of life.
Sonic throws his hands up in the air and stares out at you, lost in the agony of death.
Now, there’s a reason this scene is so vivid to me. I have Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone forever etched into my mind. The pink water, the moving blocks, the flipping floorboards… *Shudder*… Never have a seen a game with a death theme so immediate, so gut wrenching, so traumatic and panic stricken as this. While so many other games give you an oxygen meter, or at least give you a few moments of depleting life, Sonic presented us with an actual countdown to the moment of our demise. Instead of feeling like you need to get some air, this feels more akin to a supervillain suspending his finger over a the shiny red button to a Doomsday Device. You are to meet Sonic’s demands for oxygen by the count of five. Otherwise, your beloved hero dies in the most horrible of ways. Sure, time limits will always be a mainstay in the platforming genre, but no 16 bit platformer comes close to inducing the same kind of fear and anger that Sonic 2 and 3 do in this underwater countdown.
People still talk about it today as one of the defining features of the old Sonic games, and I too hold onto it as a pained but beloved memory. Still, I have yet to meet a single person who actually remembers it with a smile. This is why I am absolutely baffled that Sega decided to bring it back in Sonic 4. Sure, when I first heard it, I chuckled to myself in amusement and acknowledgement. After a few moments, however, the memories came flooding back, and the wound that had finally healed managed to reopen itself, creating more pain and anguish than ever before. Yeah, it’s a defining feature in the Sonic series, but I’m pretty sure that people aren’t remembering it out of nostalgia. I’m almost certain that we whisper its tones to one another as a reminder of what games are capable of doing to even the most placated gamer.
That’s not to say that Sonic’s Death Countdown ™ doesn’t have its place in the series, though. That theme is a defining piece of Sonic’s history. Its immediacy seems to borrow something from Sonic himself, bringing that sense of speed and urgency found in Sonic’s standard gameplay into an area of the game that is otherwise slowed down or sluggish. Sure, you couldn’t move fast, but your adrenaline was pumping just as fast as it was during any other part of the game. It’s as intense as Sonic has ever gotten.
That being said, I never want to hear it again, Sega. Please. My heart can’t take it.