Some Thoughts On Sonic Mania

So Sonic Mania has finally landed, and it's every bit as good as we hoped it would be. The last time I bought a Sonic game for a contemporary console was probably when I got Sonic Adventure 2 for the Dreamcast way back when, and since then I've pretty much given the franchise a bit of a wide berth; the negative press subsequent releases have garnered always putting me off investigating them.

For some weird reason, the post-Adventure 3D games (with the exception of Sonic Generations and - reportedly - Sonic Colours) have been...misguided in their attempts to keep the spiky blue one in the public eye. Or rather, they've kept him in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. But this most definitely isn't a review; and it isn't meant to be one of those 'Sonic is crap' think pieces usually written by games journalists too young to even remember Sonic's first game on the Mega Drive. No, these are my random and meandering thoughts on the awesomeness of Sonic Mania and why it is such an important release for Sega's flagship series.
I remember when Sonic 2 came out and my brother asked for it for his birthday. As we're twins, it was my birthday too. That would have been March 1993, so my 11th birthday. Do you know what I asked for? A toy coach. A fucking coach. A die cast toy coach with luggage compartments that opened and a door that opened and little rubber tires that you could peel off the metal wheels. I still have no idea why I asked for - and got - a toy coach. Meanwhile, my brother had Sonic 2. One of the greatest platform games of all time.

The reason I bring this up is that I vividly remember the differing levels of enjoyment we gleaned from our respective gifts. My coach was all but redundant after a few minutes pushing it around the carpet and smashing it against a wall simulating an horrific road traffic accident. Sonic 2 though...well that cartridge stayed firmly implanted in our Mega Drive for weeks (in between sessions of European Club Soccer), and I still hold the game in the highest regard now, 20-odd years later. Why? because it's a masterclass in platforming and added just enough to the original Sonic template to be considered a completely new, yet wholly familiar experience.
That's kind of how I feel about Sonic Mania. The familiar levels and visual style, and the outrageously good music that harks back to the original 2D side scrollers. It all just reeks of old-skool Sonic yet somehow manages to be brand new, shoehorning in new visual effects and graphics techniques that wouldn't have been possible on the 16-bit system the Sonic series was born on. If you haven't already, I recommend watching Digital Foundry's video on Sonic Mania because it goes into detail on how the game came about and the tricks employed in the visuals that you probably wouldn't notice unless they were pointed out.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that Sonic Mania captures the feel and magic of the original Sonic games on the Mega Drive and Mega CD, as the talent behind it is none other than Christian Whitehead. Whitehead is well known in the Sonic community as a guy who has created some fantastic fan hacks of the Sonic engine and even created his own Sonic game - Retro Sonic - for the Dreamcast. I actually asked Christian on Twitter whether he thought Sonic Mania could run on the Dreamcast hardware, and his reply was unexpectedly optimistic:
But this isn't about starting a campaign to get Sonic Mania ported to the Dreamcast, even if it is technically possible for the hardware to run the game. This is just me waxing lyrical about the game and how I've found playing it. First, I think it looks great. The retro aesthetic is used perfectly and the aforementioned extra abilities of the newer gaming hardware on which it is running has allowed Whitehead and his team to produce some really cool visual effects. The way the rings fly towards the screen when Sonic gets hit is such a minor thing, but once you notice it, it'll make you smile every time - even if you do want to throw your controller at a wall. The bosses too are inspired, and clearly do things both unexpected and clearly not possible on the Mega Drive hardware of yore. The reason I'm being fairly vague here, by the way, is that I'm trying to avoid spoilers for those who are yet to pull the trigger and buy Sonic Mania.

I think the best and most impressive thing for me though is the new 3D special stage where Chaos Emeralds are won. It takes the visual elements of both Sonic CD's special stages with its flat, rotating floor and melds them with the 3D character models of Sonic R or Sonic Jam's hub world. It takes a bit of time to get used to the controls, but the trippy polygonal background elements and the brilliant music make it feel like a true trip down memory lane, a memory lane where Sonic '06 doesn't exist.
I guess that's the overall reason for the appeal of Sonic Mania for gamers of a certain age. It's a massive nostalgia hit and brings back those memories of playing Sonic, Sonic 2, Sonic 3, Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD in the years of my youth. A small portable TV in our bedroom, hours of Sonic and the constant threat of losing all your lives and being thrown back to the start screen. Tails is still as thick as a submarine door and will die over and over again when being controlled by the AI; and Knuckle's adventure is different again from Sonic's because he can reach places the others simply can't. Sonic Mania literally takes the best and the worst of the old games and spits out something that is endearingly faithful, warts and all. The long and short of it is, if you remember Sonic of old with a particular fondness, then you really should pick up Sonic Mania. Conversely, even if you've never played a Sonic game in your life this is well worth playing and a perfect introduction to the series. Some of the subtle references to earlier games may be lost on those unfamiliar with Sonic, but that's cool. There's something for everyone in Sonic Mania and personally I think it's a corker of a game.

The next Sonic game, Sonic Forces, is looking like it'll be a return to form for the mainline 3D titles in the series - that is, it looks a bit crap. However, with the critical and commercial success of this new 2D offering I would be very surprised if a sequel to Sonic Mania with totally new levels, characters and music didn't happen. Oh, and a port to the Dreamcast while they're at it. Cheers lads.

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DCGX said...

I was split on getting Mania either for PS4 or PC, but Amazon kept gradually lowering the price of the PS4 collectors edition (it settled around $42 with Prime shipping), so I got the PS4 version. There's only one problem: I don't have a PS4 yet.

But with all this positive talk of Mania, I may do something I've never done: buy the same game on two different, current systems. At $20, it'll hardly break the bank, but I'm frugal like that.

Tom Charnock said...

Yeah, I have it on PS4 but when I eventually get a Switch I'll most likely re-buy it on their too so I can play it on the go.

blondejon said...

Kids these days don't know how lucky they are. I mean, Sonic (1) didn't have a save game facility. Once you started your game you were committed

hoogafanter said...

It took awhile for this game to grow on me. I was never a huge fan of sonic 3 and knuckles, I was always a sonic 2 kinda guy, so the differences were jarring at first. Now that I'm deep into the game, I'm loving it and it's quickly becoming my GOTY. This game revives some hope for the gaming industry to me...