If you need to know one thing about Sega in 2017, let it be the following truth: The house of Sega is a house divided. The Sonic community, one of the most infamous fanbases on the web, divides themselves into what could ostensibly be viewed as political parties — On one side we have the classic Sonic fanbase in favor of the 2D platforming experience, on the other we have the modern Sonic fanbase who tend to be focus on the the speed, characters, and story. Each side takes bold, immutable stances on how the blue blur’s framework should be interpreted. While Mario’s career path has been focused and cohesive from the jump, Sega’s main mascot found himself in a labyrinth of experimentation.
Ever since the Sega Dreamcast, Sonic’s direction was embraced by one subset of the community, loathed by rest. Nothing short of a civil war among goofballs, both sides do their best to deconstruct the ether known as the Secret Sonic Sauce™. Down to the hedgehog ‘s very eye color, every microscopic detail about the franchise has been inspected, analysed, and overanalyzed. It’s a discussion I often find myself at the fringes of, but as the heat in my fingertips reach for the keyboard, I catch myself… Catch myself the split second before I fall into the void… The endless abyss of that thankless, fruitless war.
So what do I think the Secret Sonic Sauce consists of? Difficult question! In regards to Sonic, I’m a #bothsides type of guy. Both styles of game have their merits and each, when done well, can lead to very memorable experiences. Marketing would have you believe that Sonic is about two things: speed and attitude. With the revolutionary Blast Processing* of the Genesis at his control, the blue blur was able to run circles around the plump, friendly Italian
plumber. This Sonic enthusiast says otherwise. Sonic is about exploration. Sonic is about rhythm. And most importantly, Sonic is about flow. From its inception, Zones, aka a group of similar levels in Sonic games, were designed with momentum and verticality in mind. In the classic trilogy, a majority of Acts, the stages within a Zone, sport a high, middle, and low path. The high path is generally faster and easier to fall off of, whereas the lower path is safe and slow. An increase in player skill increase leads to new paths and encourages exploration. Exploration encourages replayability. Replayability promotes an increase in skill. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the gameplay loop that defines Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic should be viewed as an anthropomorphic tank. It might take him a while to get off the starting line, but BOY, when he’s in motion? When he actually gets going?! Run for the hills! Speed is not the norm. It’s the payoff.
*Blast Processing was (and still is) 100% marketing bull****
After decades of failed attempts of capturing the original trilogy’s lightning in a bottle, Sega deferred the development of the Sonic title to a particularly dedicated group of fans. This team consisted of individuals who were there from the very beginning — A group of people who actually get it. They understand the sauce. When these minds got the greenlight to develop a game, Sonic Mania became the Hedgehog’s latest quest for redemption. So how does Mania jive with Sonic’s flow?
Sonic Mania claims itself as a true return to form for the blue blur. With the 16-bit Genesis aesthetic, it’s easy to forget the game wasn’t developed alongside the original trilogy back in the early ’90s. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all look analogous to their original designs. The noises of Sonic revving up for a spindash, or Knuckles attaching himself to a wall sound exactly as I remember. While this game would surely make a Genesis explode, the art style remains true to what Sega provided back in the ’90s. Sonic Mania remains bright and cheerful — Colors run rampant on each tile and texture. Taking a look at the animation, the amount of love poured into it is nothing short of insane. Even a majority of the Zones come lifted from previous titles in the franchise. Well, that’s not an entirely fair statement.
While Mania borrows stages and foes from previous games, it contorts the designs and scenarios to its liking. Green Hill, Chemical Plant, and Flying Battery Zones all return for a sweet, sweet revisit, but play nothing like their 20 year old predecessors. A vast majority of levels combine two or more concepts from Zones in the original trilogy and meld them into a new, cohesive package. For example, in the second Act of Oil Ocean, a world about the oil industry and pollution, appropriates the switches from Sandopolis — Back then turned on lights to fend away ghosts; here, they stop smog from taking control of the screen. Music for the old zones has been retuned and revised, tugging at nostalgia while keeping it fresh. The tracks for new stages meshes right in with the 16-bit tunes, at times surpassing it. I’ll be honest… I could listen to Studiopolis on repeat for hours. The gameplay loop is in full effect, possibly better than ever. Levels promote platforming, but allow for speed. Jumping feels tight and momentum brings Sonic to speed, as it should be. Verticality and physics make for very interesting solutions when navigating platform to platform.
To be perfectly honest, Mania plays closest to Sonic CD, a lesser known gem released alongside the original trilogy. There are A MYRIAD of platforming gimmicks hosted in each level. Fortunately, unlike CD, Sonic Mania manages to rarely feel messy with its design. Rarely does it feel like you’re fighting against the stage itself. Level size has escalated immensely; certain Acts have huge swaths of landscape that remains unseen to the player until five or six runs through. Each of the three characters, while similar, play differently enough to justify their own playthrough. The game, while challenging, remains forgiving. There aren’t many insta-death scenarios, and as long as you have one ring stashed away, an enemy can’t kill you. Mania also errs on the side of being generous with checkpoints. Hit one with 25 rings pocketed and you’ll find yourself playing Blue Sphere, the special stage from Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. (Pro tip: Get the outer blue spheres in a pattern to turn the spheres into rings!) Frustrating at first, Blue Sphere becomes intensely cathartic once you attain an affinity for it. Unlike its predecessors, Sonic Mania features a boss per every Act in a Zone. Each of these big bad encounters offers a unique experience, teaching the player something new about how Sonic and the others can use their abilities. Above all else, Mania makes sure that there’s always something interesting for the player to try and explore.
Despite being developed by fans, Sonic Mania is the blue wonder’s best outing in ages. I’m not entirely unconvinced that it may be his best outing period… The aesthetics, the level design, the sound composition, and the sheer creativity has left me enamored, coming back to the game more than I ever imagined. Over the course of ONE WEEK, I’ve already gone through the entire game three times, twice in single sittings. That doesn’t happen. That’s not how I play games. The more I play, the more I’m left head over heels with it. And my highest praise is that statement is the exact same way I felt about the original Sonic trilogy. The only thing I want to be done differently in the inevitable sequel is for there to be more original content. The Sonic Mania team has gained my trust — There’s no point in them being bound to the past any longer. Godspeed.