Genre: side-scrolling nostalgia trip
Developer: Christian Whitehead, Headcannon, Pagoda West
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch [reviewed], PC (Aug 29th)
Number of Players: one or two, local only
I've never had a huge amount of nostalgia for the classic Sonic games. I didn't have a Genesis (or Super Nintendo) growing up, and the most I ever played of those Sonic games was at the waiting room of the dentist. The first Sonic game that I owned was Sonic CD on my family's old Gateway computer. I liked it well enough, I guess, but I think the main attraction for me was that opening animation. Later, I got into the 3D games with Adventure 2 and the 2D games with the Advance series.
I used to be in the camp that believed Sonic games were never good, but now that I've really thought about it, I don't think that's true. It's not that Sonic games have always been bad, it's that they've always been bullshit. The very design of Sonic is at odds with itself. It's both about running at breakneck speeds and barely moving at all. It's Schrodinger's video game. See, Sonic is all about speed and the games were built with a physics engine to support that. It's great when Sonic is goin' fast, but the game constantly makes you stop to do precise platforming with physics that weren't built for that, making it frustrating. And when you're blasting through levels at top speed, there's always some unavoidable obstacle you can't see coming, be it a spring that shoots you in the wrong direction or an enemy that you run strait into and lose all your rings.
But you know what? That jankiness is not a flaw of the Sonic series, it is the Sonic series. The design is stupid bullshit and that's what people love about it. It's supposed to be weird and awkward and frustrating, but also imaginative and exciting and fun. Sonic Mania is a classic Sonic game, for better or worse.
Returning zones, like Chemical Plant, feature all-new mechanics in their second act, like this bouncy jelly.
Mania was designed as if it were a long-lost Sonic & Knuckles sequel on the Saturn. As such, I find many of the design choices extremely frustrating. For example, when you get a game over, you have to start all the way from the first act of a zone. So if game over on the boss of act 2, you have to play through all of act 1, defeat that boss, and play through all of act 2 again just to be able to attempt to beat the boss with whatever pathetic number of lives you have left. The game also, for some reason, has a ten minute timer that counts up so you can't even tell it's there. Imagine making it to the final boss only to have the time run out in the middle of the fight. That happened to me! I wish that there was an option available to toggle "old school" mode on or off. I want infinite lives and tons of checkpoints and no timer because I like Sonic as a concept but don't want to deal with all the bullshit. But Sonic Mania is not that game. It's designed to be old on purpose, and fans are going to love it.
Speaking of old things, in a move I'm sure had everything to do with Sega, three fourths of the stages consist of zones returning from old games. This lack of originality is not, overall, a fatal flaw, but I do believe that this game relies on nostalgia to the point that it's a detriment because a lot of these returning zones are the game's lowlights. Act 1 is almost always a mashup of mechanics from the all the acts of the original game's zone. Act 2, however, incorporates completely new ideas into these settings to the point where they almost feel like entirely new zones with remixes of classic tunes. I don't think any zone encapsulates this design paradigm as well as Chemical Plant. Only the third level of the game, Chemical Plant act 1 already made me want to throw my controller out the window, and then jump out that window myself. It was absolutely infuriating and not fun for me at all. Act 2, however, was one of my favorite stages in the game with one of the most memorable bosses in Sonic history.
This improvement in design is the most obvious in the game's original zones, which are without a doubt the best ones in the game. I don't recall ever being frustrated with these stages, as they demonstrate improved design and just generally less bullshit. Even the music, dare I say it, is better. Sonic Mania is at its best when the development team was unshackled and let loose to create whatever they wanted. These new zones are so full of personality and creativity that it's frustrating the whole game couldn't be like that. One stage, Mirage Saloon act 1, is even entirely different if you play as Knuckles, with it being designed around his unique abilities. This was one of the biggest surprises in the game for me, and I honestly wish there was more of it.
Beautiful new zones like Mirage Saloon are the highlight of the game.
I have to give a special shoutout to the bosses in this game for being simultaneously some of the best and worst in the series. I'd say the majority of them are fun and creative, but the rest made me want to die. These terrible bosses are usually situated at the end of act 2, and feature frustrating mechanics with multiple stages. It's easy to die on them, which sends you all the way back to the start of act 1. This is some serious 1990s bullshit difficulty we're talking about here.
The main appeal of Sonic has always been the creativity in the levels when compared to other platformers like Mario. The memorable music, combined with the lively stages and crazy gimmicks make them fun to experience. Although I may sound hard on the game, I did have fun with it. And when I had fun, it was a lot of it. Mania is a game of high highs and low lows for me. Fans who have always liked Sonic and the bullshit he stands for will love this game. It accomplishes what it set out to do marvelously. It's full of nostalgia and just the right amount of fresh ideas to make it feel like it really could have existed on the Saturn. For little scrub babies like me? Well, there's a secret level select with debug mode that lets you skip to any act you want and spawn in any items you want so you can experience all of the fun parts without all of the bullshit!
The push and pull of one foot in the past and one in the present really permeates through the entirety of Sonic Mania. Remixing elements from the old games turned out well here, but hopefully Sega sees Mania's success and lets the team create something wholly original next time. I'd like to see something like what Sonic 4 was supposed to be - a Sonic game in the classic style built for the modern day, instead of 1995. More that that, though, I hope Mania's success sets a new prescient. Sega had the balls to do something no one has done before and hired fans to make an official game. The end result was clearly full of love and passion that so many big developers just don't seem to have any more. I hope this isn't a one-off occurrence, but the start of a shift within the industry, and maybe one day we can get a new Mega Man made with as much love. Sonic Mania may not be my cup of tea, but even I can appreciate the care put into this game. It's the classic Sonic game fans have wanted for over 20 years. And, hell, even I've replayed my favorite stages multiple times already!