There comes a point where being a Sonic fan is also to be a Sonic apologist. I’ll put my hands up and say that most Sonic games that have been released in the past 15, maybe 20, years have been bad. There have been some good ones. But you could argue that they’re good by my terrible standards and aren’t actually worth anything out of nostalgic context.
One thing that people who aren’t ingrained into this suffering/series tend to agree on is that the original games, the old 16-Bit releases, were actually pretty decent. So it amazes me that it took Sega so long to come out with a game like Sonic Mania.
It took Sega pulling together a group of modders and fan game creators to create what long suffering fans of the series have wanted for so long. They made a game that doesn’t just return to the series roots in the way people actually wanted, but also breathes some life into old tropes and makes an entirely fresh and fun game that is still made up of 75% pre-existing art assets.
The plot of the game is told through brief in game cut scenes, like those from Sonic 3 & Knuckles, that pop up between zones. It keeps things moving at a simple clip and doesn’t distract from the gameplay, which is the real focus here. In a nutshell: “Eggman” finds a red gemstone that distorts time and uses it to hurtle Sonic/Tails/Knuckles through time.
Like Sonic Generations before it, Sonic revisiting his old adventures is a big focus of Mania. It’s one of the criticisms some have been aiming at the game. Of the 12 Zones in the game, only four of them are original. The rest are a selection pulled from Sonics 1, 2, 3&K and CD. The thing is, despite having the same music, design pallet and enemies, they’re completely original levels. Green Hill Zone starts off somewhat familiarly, before diverging widely from what you’d expect, adding tropes and themes from other zones that first appeared in other games and even original mechanics altogether.
Mixing and mashing what you’d expect from these zones is half of what makes this game so great. The level design is stellar as each zone feels huge with some many different ways to traverse them. Deeper referenshal cuts that the more knowledgeable of the series pop up all over the place. While the first act of a zone may seem rather faithful to the original, the second can take heavy inspiration from zones from totally different games. The second stage of Oil Ocean takes a lot of ideas from Sandopolis Zone for example.
One I almost missed was one of the game’s original stages: Mirage Saloon. Which shares several visual similarities to Dust Hill Zone, a planned but ultimately canceled Stage from Sonic 2 in 92. The game kept surprising me at every turn, throwing in something new when I half expected I knew where it was going.
It’s not just the level design either, the sound design does so much for the game too. Despite the game’s very 16-Bit era look. It never restricts itself to functioning at that level of power and that becomes very evident through the game’s soundtrack, which is amazing. I want to say a good soundtrack is par the course for Sonic games, but the sound designer obviously knew what they were doing when they updated the older tunes for this new game, and then made them better for the act two remix version.
It’s very obvious that the people who made this game care very deeply for the source material, which is why I feel like I enjoyed the game so much more than I would have if this were a more cynical product.
It’s packed with references and nods to not only other Sonic games, but other Sega properties too. There’s a Revenge of Shinobi reference in one of the boss fights (another reason the game’s sound design should be applauded). Hell, One of the bosses is just Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine. A number of references to Rad Mobile appear in Studiopolis Zone, which was the very first game the Sonic character appeared in (as a car air freshener).
There is an obvious passion and love for the source metrical that most Sonic games of he past decade have lacked. It’s why people get excited by fan game projects in the first place. It’s because they’re made by fans; people who dedicate their time and resources to make something for themselves and other fan out of nothing more than a love for the medium.
There is a joy to Sonic Mania. I don’t want to seem like I’m going to get all misty eyed over a nostalgia piece, but there something that makes me feel so fuzzy when I play something I grew up with. When I see others who cared about it as much as I did go on to actually make something. Something that really seems like a labour of love. It begs the question to how Sonic Forces can follow this come November. What once might have been a decent Sonic Generations followup might really suffer from having to follow Sonic Mania; a game which distilled what I loved about the series into one release. Something Sega haven’t been able to do on their own for a good long time.