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Sonic Mania: The Second Coming of Sonic

The early Sonic the Hedgehog games are not my cup of tea.  I wrote about this last year.  I’m the exception, though. Sonic 1, 2, 3, and CD mean a lot, to a lot of people, and although I think their design is rough and dated, I respect them for how they make people feel.  I never expected Sonic Mania to give me that feeling.

After Sonic Boom, Sega decided to pull out all the stops, and make 2017 Sonic’s year no matter what.  The plan was to hit the gaming world with a double whammy of back-to-basics gameplay and the most popular cutting-edge gameplay in the series.  For the summer they would release Sonic Mania, and for holiday they’d release Sonic Forces.  Forces is meant to be a mixture of Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, while Mania is meant to be a love letter for the longtime fans of the series.

After the reveal at the beginning of the year, I was excited Sonic Forces.  Granted, I still don’t know  at the time of writing this if Forces is any good.  The formula is just what I’m used to.  Mania looked creative and all, but I didn’t trust it.  Sonic 4 was mediocre, and I never really enjoyed any of the Sonic games before the Dreamcast Era.  I figured Mania would just come and go as a nostalgic cash-in by a desperate company.

I was severely wrong.

As soon as it came out, Mania became the best-rated Sonic game in years, even beyond the redemption of the series around 2010.  I took the scores with a grain of salt, since people seem to enjoy the classic formula more than I do.  Then I learned something very interesting.  I learned that Mania is, from a developer perspective, a fan project.  It was developed by Headcannon, PagodaWest Games, and Christian Whitehead, who spearheaded several mobile ports of classic games in the series.  It’s a labor of love and creativity, and its execution is magnificent.

Source: Sonic the Hedgehog via YouTube

The fact that Sonic Mania was developed by experienced but young fans made it fresh, but it also led to some fantastic refinement of an old formula.  Almost every complaint I had about the early games is fixed in Mania.  For example, my favorite addition is the new Drop Dash ability, which allows Sonic to spin dash directly out of a jump.  This makes the pace of each level faster, and makes it easier to gain momentum quickly.  The best part, though, is it eliminates the need to come to a complete standstill before spin dashing.  This especially helps with sloped terrain like the kind you see in Green Hill Zone.

The game just feels like a better fulfillment of the series’s original intention: a sense of thrill and speed.  Instead of using speed like a carrot on a stick (like the originals) or sticking the player with deadly road blocks when they try to go fast, Mania lets you get through a level at a good pace and isn’t harsh about imperfection.  This philosophy reminds me, in concept, of Sonic Generations, where getting through a level was relatively easy, but the fun challenge was being efficient.  It also lets you go back and do levels over again to explore.  Even if you narrowly miss a shortcut, you can go back to it and experiment with different paths.  It just takes longer.  All in all, I find this better than making the rest of the level a pain just because of a failed maneuver.

Mania doesn’t use nostalgia as a crutch.

Every level in Mania is a joy to experience, and the selection is a mixture of old and new stages.  Old stages are laid out in a complex but balanced way, and feel much better with Sonic’s improved mobility and tighter controls.

Meanwhile, the new stages give me faith that there are still ideas the series hasn’t tried yet.  My favorite is probably Press Garden Zone, where you bounce off of zooming newspapers and platform across printing blocks in a giant greenhouse before sliding through a forest of cherry trees in winter.  The new mechanics are different and well-used, while the old ones are given new life.  Ziplines in Green Hill are a surprise, but a welcome one.

Some things still bother me.  The system of lives is still unfair, especially because you can still die instantly by getting caught between two objects.  The 1-up system and Game Overs that send you to the start of a time-consuming zone get tiresome, especially near the end.  Bad apples are bad apples.

But I never imagined myself getting so much enjoyment from this kind of Sonic game.  I have no great love for the games that inspired it, nor do I need it.  Sonic Mania oozes care, effort, talent, and love from every pore, a perfect expression of Sega’s recent change in attitude.  It’s the kind of thing that happens when we trust talented people to create products of genuine merit.

In short, play Sonic Mania.  It’s a joy, and I think it marks the beginning of a new era for this company.