Sonic Mania is widely considered as one of the blue blur’s best games. Over six years following its 2017 release, that notion persists, even after recent releases like 2022’s Sonic Frontiers and this year’s Sonic Superstars. Published by Sega, a group of long-time Sonic enthusiasts who grew up playing the series, including Christian Whitehead, Hunter Bridges, Dave Padilla, Brad Flick, Tom Fry, and others, spearheaded the game’s development. And without delving too far into the domain of freelance agreements, the five of them established Evening Star following the game’s release to sustain their friendship and create a game of similar quality. Studio CEO and executive producer Padilla, CTO and game director Bridges, creative director and lead engine architect Whitehead, design director Flick, and art director Fry all acknowledged that it would have been easy to follow-up Sonic Mania with a 2D platformer of similar fashion. It’s what fans of Sonic Mania wanted, and to their credit, they worked with Sega on potential sequel ideas before amicably parting ways. But not content with the obvious solution, Evening Star embarked on the creation of a 3D momentum-based platformer inspired by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, an early 20th Century ballet, and 1995’s Jumping Flash on PlayStation.
“We always had this idea of, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a character that could use a yo-yo to do different moves?’” Whitehead says. “Initially, we jotted them down on a 2D playfield, but there were several concurrent themes swirling in the background. At least for me, my perspective as a developer is I’ve spent the last decade working exclusively on 2D pixel art, so I really wanted to expand and demonstrate that I could dabble in a different genre.”
Whitehead says he’s aware Penny’s Big Breakaway is another platformer but says it’s a different flavor in a different dimension. After playing more than two hours of the game myself, experiencing the first three of 11 regions in the world of Macaroon, including three different boss stages and special Star Globe bonus levels, that much is clear. Knowing the development leads of Sonic Mania are responsible for what I play, it’s impossible to deny the momentum-based inspiration that lives in both titles. But Whitehead’s right – even beyond the obvious shift from 2D to 3D, Penny’s Big Breakaway features a different flavor. It is not just a new flavor for these developers but something unique in the long-standing platforming genre.
Revolutionizing the Norms
Revolutionizing The Norms
My skills pale in comparison to Bridges, who effortlessly conquers the initial stages of the game. My struggle to chain Penny’s yo-yo-based moves across ramps, flag poles, gaps, and more builds a strong case for my ineptitude. Penny can fling her yo-yo forward to attack adversaries and break barrels with a button on a controller or, more curiously, by flicking the right stick in a specific direction. This directional input is separate from Penny’s movement, meaning you can flick the yo-yo to her right while she moves left. It’s initially bizarre, not due to its ineffectiveness but because its difference from the standard interaction in a 3D platformer mascot’s moveset.
Similarly, Penny can double jump, but instead of gaining a significant height with the second jump, she gains a barely noticeable amount; the intent of her double jump isn’t height but instead a break in momentum, Bridges informs me. She can dash by tossing her yo-yo forward, performed by flicking the right stick in the same direction twice, and she can swing left and right, forward and backward, on her yo-yo anywhere in the air as well.
Even though it takes me a while to get the hang of it, which I welcome because it’s rare to encounter a new moveset that challenges my preconceptions of a genre, I finish my Penny’s Big Breakaway playtime with the realization that it’s not a 3D platformer akin to something Nintendo might produce, another challenged preconception. It’s a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-inspired platformer with a strong focus on momentum that will appeal predominantly to speedrunners and time trial enthusiasts, with a constant score and Devil May Cry-style combination tracker on the right side of the screen, as well. As a complete package, it’s a nod to the peculiar and sometimes flawed platformers of the 3D genre’s early days.
“The rules [of 3D platformers] at that stage weren’t really established that well,” Whitehead says. “I remember growing up playing a lot of PlayStation games where they were maybe a bit rough around the edges but trying to grapple platforming mechanics in 3D, and I felt really inspired by that era. I experienced that as a kid, but I wanted to experience that as a developer.”
A Group Philosophy
Whitehead, acknowledging his creative selfishness, states that he wanted to attempt making a PlayStation-style 3D platformer that resolves the problems he encountered when he was younger. The small portion I’ve played demonstrates that Evening Star is on the right track. But after speaking to others at Evening Star, such as Bridges, Fry, Flick, and Padilla, it’s clear that everyone is fully on board with the opinion. Even Fry, the art director on paper, on occasions was involved in decisions beyond his traditional role, a philosophy that everyone else also shared. “The collaborative effort is an intrinsic part of the team,” Fry says. “Not one person has an idea and everyone follows them like the Pied Piper with it. It’s something where we believe everyone has something of value to throw into the pot, and with the art, that’s certainly no different. I refer to it as a roundtable philosophy.”
This collective energy even made its way into the game’s outstanding score, which uses a wide array of unconventional synthesizer instruments, instrumentation from genres such as Latin and Calypso, and more to compose a jazz-like symphony of music. Bridges, Whitehead, and others on the team contributed to the score in various ways, even after Evening Star hired Tee Lopes, who worked on Streets of Rage 4 and TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, and the team also worked with Sean Bialo to compose the score.
A Focus on Performance Art
If one element of Penny’s Big Breakaway epitomizes its early PlayStation influence, it’s the art direction. Inspired by the early 20th Century Triadisches Ballett and the Germanic Bauhaus art movement from the same period, blending vibrant abstract concepts with rudimentary geometry, the world of Macaroon feels like one large performance. Your standing in society is determined by the act you can deliver to the world’s inhabitants. Each stage concludes with a “Busker” bonus that involves quick and accurate QTE sequence completion to add additional points to your total score. Within each stage are three denizen challenges, like collecting four missing tax forms for an electric company while riding Penny’s yo-yo like a unicycle, and during the Busker bonus, the denizens you help watch you perform.
Even the premise of the narrative speaks to the idea of performance art being everything – Penny attends a talent show after finding a special yo-yo with an insatiable hunger and, instead of wowing the emperor with a showstopping performance, the yo-yo consumes the emperor’s attire. She spends the rest of the game racing further and further away from the emperor and Macaroon’s capital, pursued to the edges of the world by the emperor’s ever-present penguins, only momentarily delayed by your efforts and never unequivocally vanquished.
“We want the game to keep the flow and dribble going,” Bridges tells me. “We really wanted to have that rhythm […] and never interrupt that. It’s a game where the most skilled players can theoretically make it through a level in an unbroken string of moves. That’s Penny’s masterful performance.”
That’s why Evening Star controls the camera at all times, requiring a shift in my mindset. With three denizen challenges to complete and three Show Pieces to find in each level, I wish to explore every corner thoroughly. But without camera control, I can’t do this, and initially, I dislike it. Only after realizing that if Evening Star isn’t allowing the camera to take me here or there, then there isn’t anything to miss that I begin to play according to the team’s rules. This change is liberating, realizing that Penny’s platforming playground is contingent on my ability to advance forward in the direction led by Evening Star’s design. Through judicious movement and a discerning eye, completing every challenge and uncovering every Show Piece feels inherent to Penny’s “act” in each stage.
The game deviated from every expectation I had of 3D platforming. I wanted to take things slow, explore every corner, and take my time. But Penny’s Big Breakaway is a welcome counterpoint to everything (mostly) Nintendo had taught me about this genre. It’s a daring design choice and one I would have considered risky initially. In speaking with Evening Star, it was evident that they understood that risk going into their initial original game and intellectual property. However, each member I spoke to showed humble confidence in their respective areas of the game’s development.
“There are numerous skills we excel at when making games, and specific peculiarities we bring to the table due to our team dynamic and our tools, and I don’t think it will be a complete shock,” Padilla says. “I believe many people will regard this as something entirely new and original, but in terms of what we’ve done before, what we’re doing now, and hopefully what we will do in the future, people will be able to draw connections.”
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