The massive, rich and decaying gardens of the island are surrounded by thick forests, growing around the ruins of the lost civilisation that once inhabited it. Many multiple routes, shortcuts and hidden secrets, some only open to particular characters, make this one of the largest and most complex levels ever constructed, with a mix of speedy paths from its hilly inclines and tricky, trap-filled labyrinthian mazes. Small earthquakes are common and some unusual devices feature, such as floating spinning tops to run on, arrow-spitting statues to dodge and even badniks posing as sets of spikes!
You're based quite high up on the green, rolling hills, where you can see for miles across the thick forest landscape, in which the ruins of an ancient collection of buildings now decay and are being reclaimed by nature. It's a misty blue sky in Act 1 with dreary clouds and rows of small, rocky purple mountains across the horizon. The thick green forests cover the entire area in front of it, with closer regions holding ruins of the ancient pillars and small temples within. Internal rooms carry a simplistic church-like background with little purple and yellow fragments of stain-glass window, between long brownish grey columns. The ground is mostly man-made (or echidna-made, if you're going to split hairs) and consists of big crumbly stone slabs of grey, orange and purple colouring, and perhaps the odd complex pattern thrown in here and there, plus all of the paths are covered in thick grass. You'll also spot huge silvery cylindrical pillars holding the whole place up, with orange patterns and sometimes big chunks missing from the bottom of them, leaving a large patch of broken, orange stone. There are also smaller ones that reach up out of the ground a little way, standing before your character. This being a garden, it is of course highly decorated with plantlife, including thin trees of varying sizes, ripe with bulging fruit, and massive potted plants with straight-edged leaves. The National Trust would love to get their hands on this place.
The only visual difference in Act 2 is an altered background, which seems to be set closer to the floor of the forest. At the bottom of this you can see those ancient temples close up, with moss and leaves growing around them and with long stone patterned pillars and whatnot. Wild, curly bushes are surrounding the area, and there are more ruined pillars reaching up through them. The miles of forest are now more vertically compressed, and if you reach high enough, you can see that the rocky mountains in the distance are larger and more pronounced than in Act 1. The cloudy sky now has a slightly darker, more late-afternoon/early-evening feel to it.
Perhaps one of the most structurally impressive levels ever conceived, this garden is gargantuan, and rich in secret paths and rooms all over the place. Despite its clear, open surroundings, the layout is fairly restrictive, made up of a series of large rooms and narrow corridors, connected up into a complicated network. This maze-like structuring meanders from left to right around the level, with different routes, sub-routes or parts of the same route squeezing close next to each other, usually offering a shortcut between them on only well hidden occasions, but you're completely oblivious as to what other, far away parts of the level may actually be sitting just on the other side of a wall. It's not all slow moving by any means though, as evident when the grassy, bumpy pathways suddenly send Sonic and co hurtling down very steep slopes, uncontrollably tumbling between alternate sides, best witnessed at the very beginning of the level. Numerous brief appearances made by Eggman and his drilling machine in Act 2, or his tunnelling crony in Act 1 are the cause of several rumbling earthquakes to shake the ruins. These cause small portions of slopes to completely restructure and point you toward a lower path, or toward the end of Act 2, even cause a whole long chunk of level to slowly rise up, creating a particularly daring dash for you, underneath the pillared ceiling.
As already mentioned, acts are extremely plentiful in multiple routes, shortcuts and hidden rooms. Your best friends are the wooden signposts with orange arrows on them. Not only will these prevent you from getting lost when you rejoin an unfamiliar route from somewhere else, but they'll also indicate many options (though not necessarily all) that are open to you. You may be able to use them to find hidden entrances inside walls (where many big rings or other power-ups lie), and Tails players should take note of those pointing straight up, as they invariably highlight a flight-only sub-route. Act 1 uses the looping system, whereby if you take a certain path that leads directly to the very bottom of the level, you'll magically reappear at the top where that path resumes. This occurs twice in Act 1, and adds even more complexity to the branching multiple routes. During your first drop down a series of steep slopes at the start, there are two exits - one on the way down, the other at the very bottom, but they lead to two different routes across the entirety of the act. They can mingle together at certain points via sub-routes, but you can also follow them completely separately all the way to the end, thanks to the strict separation of the rooms from each other. Brilliantly designed, and there are loads of shortcuts and secrets to find no matter where you go - you really can't explore even half of this act in just one sitting.
Act 2 is only slightly more linear, certainly for Sonic alone, as if Tails is in your party, you'll be able to access a few neat shortcuts shortly after the start along the top of the stage. Two distinct choices emerge fairly early on for clever players (Point #7) but join up again around halfway through. Later you'll meet a series of loops with long pillars that your character will circle around as he drops down them. He'll always land on one side at the bottom, but on the way down, you can also jump him off to the other side. These appear in Act 1 too, and they always offer a sneaky shortcut on their hidden side, but in Act 2, some of them are particularly time saving (see Point #8). The level ends with Knuckles having to take a separate route to his own boss, via a slightly tougher earthquake segment in Point #10. With such a clever arrangement of paths and features, this, my friends, is Sonic level design at its most impressive.
This level is full of nasty traps and puzzle-solving objects, so if you're treading unfamiliar ground, be very cautious. Huge spikeballs attached to chains swing around small posts, either horizontally on the ground (or occasionally the ceiling), or positioned vertically, above doorways or next to ledges. There are also some particularly evil crushers around, often found in the internal sections. They're lined with spikes on the bottom and retract relatively quickly, and come down like a shot, with a ground-shaking sound. Pass under them very quickly, preferably with a spin dash.
When you find a small spinning top on the ground, jump on it and start running. It'll slowly begin to float upwards and in the direction you're facing, and as long as you maintain your speed, it'll continue to ascend. It will drop a little bit when you slow down, stop, or change to face the opposite direction, which makes it a bit difficult to control but with practise, these allow you to fly up to far or high ledges. Use signposts and collections of rings to tell you which way to go. You can jump off at any time, but if you don't make it to the ledge you're supposed to be going to, there should be a new one waiting for you in the original spot, if you go far enough away so it can re-spawn, and then come back. Bear in mind though that if you land the thing on the ground while still running on it, it'll start to tear across the path with speed. Sometimes this is necessary to knock down otherwise impenetrable barriers or checkered flooring, essential for your progression, and if you find a spinning top mounted on a small block, it'll go straight into this action as soon as you land on it. You can also use them to go up and down large black vertical shafts, as long as you maintain your speed in one direction. It'll circle its way back and forth around the walls as it heads up or down. Just watch out for other obstacles around, because you won't be able to defend yourself without jumping off. While racing along the floor, they will often collide with a badnik or some spikes sooner or later, thus ending your journey. Interestingly if you're still on it when this happens, you'll fall back as if you've been damaged but won't lose rings, however you will lose a shield if you happen to be wearing one. Why? Search me.
Pits of thick brown sludge work much like the oil in Oil Ocean Zone and drag you downwards if you land in it. If you don't jump your way out, you'll die instantly, so don't hang about. Above these, you typically get a group of three small platforms circling each other, attached by a stiff chain of circles, which you can use to cross the pits and get up to a higher ledge. When you spot a large blue wheel in the corner of a step in the ground, stand next to or preferably on it (only because you'll satisfyingly bounce off of it) and hit a spin dash. This will get it spinning, and trigger huge rock platforms that lie nearby to move either up or down. They can form steps up to a ledge in this way, or open up a doorway through a narrow passage. On some walls, you'll encounter a pretty ugly statue face. Get near and its upper eye will turn red and it'll start spitting arrows at you from its mouth. You can't just ignore it though, because in order to open up your next path, you need to jump and hit that red eye three times, in order for it to stop spitting arrows and allow you to continue on your merry way, by opening the ground underneath, or raising a platform, etc.
A rarer trap is a large rotating pillar adorned with prickly spikes on the sides, and made up of several cylindrical blocks. It'll move back and forth over an area, and also bob up and down a bit, but the top is a flat chunk of grass that you can safely land on. You'll find pulleys in Act 2 that will allow you to scale up the steep slopes, just by grabbing hold of the circular handle at the bottom, while another spinning blue wheel at the top pulls you up. Naturally, all the basic stuff is here too, such as crumbling ledges, large moving platforms, springs of all directions, plenty of spikes (not to be confused with the Spiker badnik) and lots of breakable walls that can be spin dashed when using Sonic and Tails, while Knuckles can make them crumble simply by walking into them. They look like pillars that are part of the scenery, but you can always tell the difference if you look closely, as the ones that can be broken have a slight grid pattern to them.
Marble Garden has three badniks to offer up to the plate. Bubbles is similar to Pointdexter from Hydrocity in that it's protected by spikes, which are brought back into its body at regular intervals, allowing you to attack. They hover around in the air and float toward you in an effort to piss you off (at which they are often extremely successful). Mantis are, obviously, praying mantis bots that hang out in Act 2 and simply jump up and down in a stationary place, sometimes jumping right over you, if you run along with speed. They can also be found hidden in the ground, leaping out at you when you get near, so beware of this sneak attack as well. Spikers are interesting. These are the "fake" spike sets that you'll notice fairly quickly, and act just like a regular spike set until you get close, at which point their robotic body underneath rises up and chucks a couple of projectiles either side. The great thing about this badnik though is that its spikes aren't harmful, they're actually bouncy, giving you a little extra boost upwards when you land on them. However, you can't tell whether any set of spikes is a genuine one or this badnik, until you get right up close to it, potentially in harm's way of its projectiles. If you play this level enough times, you'll eventually develop intuitive knowledge over which ones are real and which ones aren't, but until then, treat them all as real ones. Spin dash this badnik to kill it.